Monday, January 12, 2009

Listening to Summer

Why Summerland in the middle of winter (winter in my part of the world, anyway!)? Several reasons. I wanted to write about listening to books, and also wanted to explore a bit how I find things to read. It’s also to amuse myself—winter is just beginning as I write this, and when you read this, I’ll be enjoying the heat and humidity of tropical Brazil.

I was aware of Michael Chabon’s Summerland when it arrived at my library in 2002, but mostly because it was a big deal that this adult author had written a teen book (this was before the current craze of seemingly every author writing a teen or children’s book). I was a bit curious, because it seemed to involve baseball, but there was also what looked like a flying car on the cover, and it just didn’t seem like my thing. Fast forward to 2008, when I met my new friend Aarrun. One of the things I ask when meeting new people (particularly guys) is what they like to read, and if I’m not familiar with the author, I take the recommendation as an opportunity to try out a new book and get to know a new person better (I first read Kurt Vonnegut due to recommendations from friends, and thank them for it). Aarrun mentioned Chabon as one of his favorites, and the audiobook version of Summerland happened to pass through my hands shortly thereafter, so I decided to give it a try.

I don’t have a long commute, but find listening to books generally much more satisfying than trying to find something on the radio to hold my interest. I’ve particularly liked listening to books that might be slightly outside of what I normally read. Listening to a book seems to make it a bit easier for me to try something new—maybe it brings in that comforting feeling of being read to as a kid, I don’t know. I don’t read much fantasy (I prefer sf), mainly because I have a hard time keeping what always seems to be the cast of thousands of characters straight, and because the names are, for me, usually hard to pronounce, which jars me out of the reading experience. With an audiobook, at least I know how all the names are said! I figured if I was going to like a fantasy novel, one with baseball as a major component had a good chance. I grew up in Massachusetts, and still consider myself a member of Red Sox Nation, even if I’m deep in Rockies country now. I cried in 1986. I rejoiced in 2005 and 2007. Baseball has a great nostalgia factor for me.

Summerland is basically a fantasy quest novel. Our very reluctant hero is Ethan Feld, who is recruited for his save the world mission by the Farishers, residents of the Summerlands (a parallel world to the Middling, which is where we are, and the Winterlands). Ethan becomes more determined to complete his mission when he finds out that his inventor father is in the clutches of Coyote, who is trying to use his skills to bring about the end of the worlds. Along with his Little League teammates Jennifer T. and Thor, Ethan picks up help along the way from a Sasquatch that they liberate, a werefox, a tiny giant, and other assorted characters–all who make up the baseball team charged with saving the world. Over the course of their journey, they play many games (and meet many American folk heroes) and encounter numerous other challenges, but the final game, the one against Coyote and his team, will determine the fate of the worlds. I loved all the little character things (Ethan’s Little League teammates & competitors call him Dog Boy, because whenever he goes to the plate, he’s hoping for a walk), the detailed descriptions of the worlds, and the rhythm of the book—you can feel the pace pick up as they go from the top of the first inning to the bottom of the ninth. Chabon has his own take on baseball history, including things like the origin of the DH rule. The audio version of the book is read by the author, and he does a great job (alas, not all authors do), and you know you’re getting exactly the meanings and pronunciations that he meant. Even the fun word play comes across well.

If you’ve never tried out an audiobook before, take a chance. The next time you’re going on a trip, check one out from the library, or download one (many libraries are starting to offer this service for free!), load it onto your MP3 player, and experience a book in a whole new way. If you’re having a hard time with an assigned book, try listening to it and see if that helps. I’ve even gone back and listened to books I’ve already read and enjoyed, just to experience the book again. Summerland is a great choice, but there are audiobooks out there for whatever your taste is (I’ve recently enjoyed listening to John Green’s books). Check out the Audie Awards for the names of some of the best ones, and for the names of some of the excellent readers out there. Audiofile magazine also has reviews of various titles as well as interviews with readers and producers that talk about the process of translating a book to the audio format.

Take a break from winter. Visit the Summerlands.


Anonymous said...

I love this book so much that every time I talk about it, I end up sounding like a babbling idiot. I'm definitely going to check out the audiobook now!

Shelf Elf said...

I've got to read some Michael Chabon. Summerland sounds like the place to start. I'm an audiobook fan.