Monday, May 27, 2013

When Words Sing

by: John Schwartz

If you spend a lot of time with audiobooks, you start paying close attention to the people who read them, and probably develop a stable of favorites. Listeners know that the best narrators can make a good book take wing and a merely decent book grow more engaging. They can carry us through the dry parts of nonfiction, and might get us to try something we otherwise might not have. (That’s how I ended up enjoying Elmore Leonard’s “Stick” — I wanted to hear the great Frank Muller.) A mediocre reading? Well, I stop listening, and if it’s a book I really need to read, I switch to paper.

The performer makes all the difference.

Simon Vance, a British actor, accompanied me through most of the sea novels of Patrick O’Brian with his steady versatility. ­AudioFile magazine calls him “the Englishman with the gorgeous voice and remarkable facility for characterization,” and those qualities were on fine display when I listened to his rendition of “David Copperfield” last year. After I finished the Dickens, I downloaded Hilary Mantel’s majestic “Bring Up the Bodies,” and was pleasantly surprised to hear Vance’s gentle and authoritative voice once again. It was like running into an old friend and knowing that we were about to have a long and satisfying visit. Similarly, Grover Gardner made the long weeks of listening to Robert Caro’s “Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson” feel like an adventure.

Occasionally I come across a delightfully unexpected name — as when I saw the audiobook of “My Beloved World,” the memoir by the Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, read by Rita Moreno. Rita Moreno! Anita from “West Side Story”! Running buddy of Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy!

And now, Sonia. Moreno told me that Sotomayor asked her to narrate the audiobook, saying, “You’re the only one I want.” Moreno had followed Sotomayor’s career closely — when she heard that the first justice of Puerto Rican descent had been appointed to the Supreme Court, she burst into tears — and the two women have become friends. “I love her so much,” Moreno says.

“My Beloved World” was Moreno’s first full-length audiobook recording — she’s since read her own book, “Rita Moreno: A Memoir” — and it’s a wonder. She conveys Sotomayor’s moving life story in a performance that seems to flow from common experience, even though the women have had very different lives. The narration is largely unaccented, but whenever the story dips into Spanish, it does so with a confidence and joy that reminded me of the way that a bit of sofrito awakens a pot of stew. When Moreno describes how Sotomayor’s abuelita, or grandmother, transfixed the family with readings of Spanish poetry, she imbues the recitation with holy thunder.

Justice Sotomayor responded via e-mail to my questions, and said Moreno’s talent allowed her “to hear myself” and “to make my words sing and dance.” She added, “Anyone who listens to her rendition of my grandmother Abuelita’s poem knows how I felt listening as a child.”

There was another language Moreno had to master: legal phrases like “voir dire.” Some lawyers use what they imagine is the French pronunciation, dropping the initial “r,” while my Texas law school professors rhymed it with “floor pyre.” Black’s Law Dictionary tells us to pronounce that first “r,” and Moreno gets it right. Such issues made recording certain sections “a beast,” she recalled.

Other great readings come as a surprise. I didn’t know of John Benjamin Hickey when I downloaded “In One Person,” John Irving’s bildungsroman featuring a young bisexual man. His performance is a marvel of understatement. Hickey, who won a Tony for his portrayal of Felix in the Broadway revival of “The Normal Heart,” and has appeared in television shows like Showtime’s “Big C” and in movies like “The Ice Storm” and “Pitch Perfect,” does not invent a thousand voices in the manner of the great Jim Dale in the Harry Potter series. Instead, he changes his tone and accent just enough to make a dozen or so characters instantly identifiable, whether it’s Grandpa Harry’s diffidence and New England accent, the rich bully Kittredge’s snotty insolence or the arch contralto of Miss Frost, the transgender librarian. And is it possible that, with a hint of sass, Hickey is letting us know that one of the most macho characters will turn out to be very different from our first impression?

from: NY Times

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