What’s Playing in the Studio- Reviews

January 6th, 2007 | Posted in General

As I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, I listen to audiobooks in the studio when I am inking or coloring illustration work. It helps keep me focused for long periods when I might otherwise get distracted. I might spend 50 plus hours inking and coloring on a 6 or 7 page MAD job… enough time to listen to the entire unabridged Lord of the Rings trilogy! As I also have mentioned before, I can only listen to books I have already read, so I don’t have to spend that much of my attention on it and am able to zone in and out if needed.

I just finished a few shorter jobs this week, and had occasion to listen to two audiobooks of much less ambitious length I thought I’d briefly review:

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Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris, read by Thomas Harris- I know I just reviewed the book itself last week, and very negatively at that. Why would I listen to the audiobook then? For the same reason I will probably see the movie… different venues bring different results. I downloaded the audiobook from Audible.com before I’d read it anyway, so I had it and there was no returning it. It is also only a little over 7 hours in length, so not much to endure if it ended up being bad.

Was it bad? Put it this way… I’ll be erasing it from my iTunes library and iPod. One and done.

I went over the story itself in this review last week, so I won’t rehash any of that. Audiobooks are like films and plays… often times a mediocre story can be made entertaining by a standout performance. Likewise, a good story can be ruined by poor acting. Couple a mediocre, unsatisfying story with a mediocre, unsatisfying performance and you have a bad audiobook. You have Hannibal Rising.

I think there is a reason most audiobooks are NOT read by the authors. I understand the argument that an author understands the material like no other, and can bring that to the readings. That does not make them a good dramatic reader, however. I don’t know if Harris insisted on reading his own work here, or if he was convinced to do it by another party. Whoever wanted him to do it made a big mistake. His reading isn’t horrible, but it lends nothing to the story. No sense of menace or creepiness that might have saved the lukewarm storyline. He did great when he had to sing or speak German or French, but beyond that his voice was distracting at times and boring all too often.

I did listen to the entire book. To be fair, I think there is a little more of a glimpse into the making of the criminal Lecter than I first gave him credit for, but it is not handled very convincingly. I still think this piece is a movie first and a book second, and it shows. With the right actor in the Lecter role, perhaps the film will work better.

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From a Buick 8– by Stephen King, read by James Rebhorn, Bruce Davidson, Betty Ann Baker, Peter Gerety, Fred Sanders and Stephen Tobolowsky– King’s earlier best known books, like Salem’s Lot, Pet Semetary, The Stand, etc. always featured clear cut antagonists and (for the most part) neatly tied up plotlines. Mystery solved, things explained… that kind of thing. Later in his writing King seems to have become partly fascinated by the unfinished story… the examination of real life mysteries that are never explained all the way, where the light never reaches into all four corners of the dark room. Later, in the novella The Colorado Kid, King will finally pursue this theme all the way when he tells a story that has no conclusion at all. In From a Buick 8, King also presents us with a story where the explanation… that neat little chapter where all the corners get light, never happens. For many readers (or in this case listeners) that rankles and they dislike the results. While I don’t count this as among the best of King’s works, I do consider it a solid story and very readable. However, as an audiobook, it is one of his best. From a Buick 8 is an example of how a decent story is elevated into something more successful by the performance of the narrators.

Briefly, the story is about Troop D of the Pennsylvania State Police, located in a rural part of Pennsylvania. In the 1970’s, the Troop takes possession of what, at first glance, seems to be a 1954 Buick Roadmaster automobile that was abandoned at a gas station when it’s odd owner walked behind the station and never returned. Upon closer examination, the object looks like a car, but it is ‘wrong’ in many respects. It seems like it might have been made to look like a Buick by someone, or someTHING (you have to add that in any description of a Stephen King novel, don’t you? It’s like a law of some kind) with only a surface knowledge of what a car is and what it’s supposed to do. Dirt won’t stick to it, scratches heal itself, it was never made to actually start or run… it only looks like a car. The Troop store it in Shed B, and over the next 25 years it remains there, looking as new as the day they found it. Occasionally things appear out of it’s trunk, things that are obviously not from this world, and occasionally things disappear from around it… presumably INTO it.

The story centers around Troop D and the troopers who keep the Buick a secret and how it affects their lives. It’s not a very active menace, and the things that come out of it are so alien as to be non-threatening… except one. What comes out, and goes in, isn’t the focus. It’s the way the troopers deal with it and how it worms it’s way into their heads that drives the story. Human reaction to the unknown, and the unknowable, is a fascinating study. The story is also a very interesting peek into the world of a state police force, it’s hierarchy and it’s “family” mentality. King handles the technical aspects of police life easily and deftly, giving us some insight and education into it without resorting to textbook rhetoric or dry explanation.

Mostly, as with all good King books, it’s about people. The bulk of the story itself is told in a round robin format, with a group of troop personnel gathered around the smoker’s bench relating the story of the Buick 8 to the son of a deceased trooper who was one of the closest to the mysterious car. It alternates from present day to “then” with different narrators taking up the reading depending on the character reading it. With almost no music (just the occasional haunting guitar intro) it is all driven by the performances of the readers, and they shine. As a book, the different personalities of the characters don’t have the same impact as they do when read by the excellent narrators of this audiobook… and that’s what makes this one of those unique recordings that brings an extra element to the table that makes a good story great. My favorite parts are Tobolowsy’s readings of the Swedish janitor Arky’s narrative. It made me laugh out loud in a few places… but that might just be that I’ve heard that same accent countless times here in Minnesota where Scandinavia still lives in the voices of neighbors and old guys with long, leathery ears and coffee breath.

This story isn’t classic King and maybe for some the slow burning tale doesn’t have enough flash and bang for their buck. It’s more creepy than terrifying… more of the soft intake of breath from somewhere in your dark room and then nothing more than the sudden crashing in of your window in a snarl of red eyes and fangs. It isn’t a long story, only 13.25 hours, but I count it among the best of King’s books on audio.

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