Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Audiobooks: My Accidental Life-Long Friend

Audiobooks have always been a cross between a happy accident and something that has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. To close out this year's Audiobook Month, I decided to oblige the Audio Publishers Association by writing about what makes them so special - and have others weigh in.

My father, a semi-retired folklore professor, used to read to me as a little girl novels such as Tolkien's The Hobbit and Roald Dahl's The Witches with rising and falling inflections, inhabiting the characters and bringing the books to life for me. As a folklorist, much of what he teaches in his classes is histories of oral traditions in various cultures and the art of storytelling. I remember long car rides down to my grandmother's from Pennsylvania to Virginia, long before smartphones and IPads, armed with the latest collection of Calvin and Hobbes and trusty cassette player, headphones, and recorded stories told by such greats as Laura Simms. My mom is a brilliant writer and storyteller as well; we always say the three of us are a bunch of frustrated actors and our family holidays together are never boring.

Perhaps it is not so strange that in 2010 I literally stumbled into a job as an audiobook proofreader/editor. I hadn't thought about audiobooks very much up until that point - they had only recently recaptured my interest, listening to Steve Martin's The Pleasure of My Company in my car to and from work at my old position as a journalist for the prestigious nationwide publication, Soundings. To listen to audiobooks and fix them up for a living was a career I had never imagined for myself  - but one that has forever shaped me as a person and as a writer.

Around this time, I was struggling for a way to keep my fledgling blog sustainable and relevant. I'd review a few movies here and there, and friends and family would dutifully read it, but I needed a spark - a drive. Since I was listening to audiobooks all the time, it dawned on me I could review a few that were particularly interesting in addition to my movie reviews! I had plenty of material to choose from. Soon, I began to learn more about the people that belonged to the voices I kept hearing in my head all day long and some of the greats like Xe Sands and Tavia Gilbert, whom you'll hear from below, became dear friends. I quickly learned that sometimes the right narrator can elevate even the most mediocre material into something quite fun. When my manager at the time suggested I apply for a chance to be a reviewer for AudioFile Magazine - the premiere publication in the audiobook world - I jumped at it. Three years later and I am still writing away!

Though life has since moved me onto other professional opportunities, audiobooks remain a huge part of my life, love, and livelihood and I will always be grateful for the vibrant and incredible community of professionals they have drawn me into.

Why Audiobooks? Industry Professionals Weigh In 

 Although I absolutely love books, picture books through adult novels and non-fiction, I fell in love with listening to audiobooks while working in libraries. My very first listening experience was Jim Dale in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and I was hooked. I can't go anywhere without listening to a book, because it ignites my wild imagination and paints word pictures across my brain and explodes. Now I work daily listening to audiobooks in quality control and proofreading. I love the stories listening invokes. - Deborah D Fleet MLIS, professional audiobook proofreader 

 Audiobooks have been a lifeline in times of loneliness and despair; partnership throughout hours while caring for my home and body; entertainment during healing from illness and injury; companionship during solitary commutes; a rich shared experience while traveling with loved ones. The best performances elevate and uplift my mind and spirit and connect me all of humanity via the most powerful tool a human has to make sense of the world around them — through story. A great audiobook is a magical and transcendent experience. - Tavia Gilbert, award-winning audiobook narrator, writer, and producer 

Audiobooks are...

That precious time and magical distraction with my daughter when she was young, speeding to places we didn't want to go.

That voice in my ear, telling me stories I might otherwise never have read, about Nabakov's house and finding Bernadette, about sentient zombie children and John (who Dies At the End), about female pilots and fierce wartime friendships, about how video games save the future and how a marriage might be saved by a ruse...and so very many other exceptional stories I might have passed right over in print.

The unbelievable combination of luck and audacity that allows me to do something I could only dream of back in that car, during that precious time with my daughter, wishing so hard I could be that voice in some other mother's car, distracting and inspiring and bringing bits of laughter and joy.
- Xe Sands, award-winning audiobook narrator and poetry aficionado 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

DVD/Streaming Spotlight: Zootopia is a Modern-Day Aesop Fable

Mom and Pops Hopps with Judy. Image courtesy of Disney
Every once in awhile I see a film that is so thoughtful and complex that gives me so much food for thought that my brain keeps turning it over and over until I am forced to write down my thoughts because it is just THAT GOOD. Zootopia is one such example. Its brilliance lies in that "It is an adult movie with a kid-friendly veneer," as my fiance put it. 

 The premise of Zootopia is that in an alternative universe not that different from our own, anthropomorphic animals have evolved to live in relative harmony with one another, predator and prey alike. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore commented that they live off of bugs, vegetables, and fish, which are deemed to be non-sentient beings. Of course, it doesn't mean that everything is zippity-do-dah all day every day. Judy Hopps is an enterprising rabbit from the country town of Bunnyburrow with big city dreams of becoming the first rabbit cop on the Zootopia. Mr. and Mrs. Hopps - who get the award for best parents of the year for being genuinely concerned about her future while concurrently caring for her other 275 siblings - are simultaneously wary and supportive of her life choices. When her dreams come true and is assigned to Zootopia, it is only the beginning of a series of sobering realizations - living in a crappy apartment with terrible neighbors, a boss that underestimates her capabilities, and a world that is much bigger and more complex than one could ever imagine.

This is not so different to what happened after I graduated from college, and I'm sure many can relate to having the real world fall very short of the great expectations often formed by higher education and our own delusions of self-grandeur. And this is only the start of the film. What follows is a film noir detective story tracking down missing residents of Zootopia, all of whom happen to be predators. Hopps is forced to align herself with a fox named Nick Wilde, a fast-talking hustler whose cynicism over life in the big city and initial disdain for Hopps' wide-eyed newcomer enthusiasm is embodied in the voice of Jason Bateman (whose praises I just recently sung in my review of The Family Fang).

"Do we HAVE to take a selfie?" Nick Wilde with Judy Hopps
What I find particularly intriguing is the intricate relationship between Hopps and Wilde. By the end of the movie, there is a suggestion that there is far more than just a friendship built on mutual respect for each other's capabilities. Evidence of this being in the creator's mindsets is shown in a deleted scene where Judy brings Nick home to meet her parents, and her father (for the purposes of the test scene voiced by director Rich Moore) exclaims "Sweet cheese and crackers he's your BOYFRIEND?!"

Much of the dynamic of the film focuses on predator and prey relationships, and of course, there is the undeniable reality that historically, foxes have eaten bunnies for breakfast. Her parents even give her what is akin to a can of pepper spray called "Fox Away" before she starts her new urban life. And all of this got me thinking that while there is the undeniable commentary on minority groups and tolerance, there is also very much a strong message being made to adults regarding predators of the sexual nature.

I don't want to get all Freudian on everyone here - but as I was walking home this evening with my take-out Chinese what has been intriguing me for days about Zootopia is that many of the main characters in the "prey" species are female, including the overworked and underappreciated Bellwether, a sheep an assistant to the Mayor of Zootopia who is - what else? - a lion magnificently voiced by J.K. Simmons.


There is a scene towards the end of the film where Nick reverts back to his predatory nature and turns on Judy. It is a tense, uncomfortable scene, and it dawned on me days later that from an adult audience viewpoint, there were undeniable notes of sexual aggression in that moment. In my days as a full-time audiobook proofreader, I read more romantic fiction than I'd care to admit. Terms like "predator" and "mating" were standard vernacular - I would venture to say that the filmmakers were pushing the envelope here to put in some thoughtful commentary on gender relationships and the importance of those relationships - particularly close, personal ones  - being built on mutual love, respect, and honesty.

There are pop culture references aplenty to lighten the mood and the animation is by nature stunning. It is incredible how far CGI animation has come in creating believable textures, and supporting character Clawhauser, an overstuffed, donut-loving cheetah, is so fluffy one could almost reach out and stroke his fat bespeckled head. And let's face it, going all the way back to Disney's reimagining of Robin Hood with woodland creatures (1973), they have always cornered the market on creating wonderful foxes.

It is in every way a fable addressing serious issues of our current world in an enjoyable and accessible way. With well-rounded starring and supporting characters, an ingenious plot and a solid screenplay to weld it together, Zootopia proves once again that animated movies can be adult-friendly, too. 

Jackaroo sez: Another modern classic to add to Disney's impressive collection, Zootopia is smart and funny in equal measures, purrfectly straddling the line between accessible joy for young ones and thoughtful, accessible commentary on modern society for older children and adults.