Good friends to have on a commute

May. 01, 2014 @ 01:35 PM

For me, commuting wouldn’t be survivable with audios. For a month, I drove to schools in Raleigh. Feeling a little lonely in still-dark mornings, I relished the company of good friends: clever writer Alexander McCall Smith, talented narrator Lisette Le Cat, and the heroine of their collaboration, Precious Ramotswe, head of the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency. Mma Ramotswe is one again the primary protagonist in “The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon” (Recorded Books, 8CDs, 9.75 hours).
Anyone who has lingered in the small town of Botswana with the sleuth knows that there are generally at least two mysteries in these novels. In this one, Mma Ramotswe is discouraged in both — she can’t seem to uncover who’s slandering the owner of the Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon and why a female attorney acting as executor is acting far more interested than she should be in the recipient of a trust.
Everyone who waits eagerly for these next audios, as I do, knows that the mysteries are the least of these books. It’s really more about the great privilege of getting to spend time with Mma Ramotswe. She’s a “traditionally built” woman who is just as solid in her approach to life and seems even wiser as Lisette Lecat elegantly produces the “r’s” of her speech. When I am spending each day in the magical world of creative children, I am especially appreciative of Mma Ramotswe’s grounding. 
For hours, I sorted students and I sorted out how Dr. Dust, the brilliant scientifically-talented dust bunny from the moon, and his minions can rescue the U.S. from their non-functional government.
Communting home, I found special relaxation in Mma Ramotswe’s gentle philosophy.
Not that Precious Ramotswe feels secure in this newest audio. In fact, in one moment her caring husband, Mr. J.L.B Matekoni, is worried about her unexpected tears.  Happily, this is a situational depression for she is missing her colleague, Grace Makutsi.  The prideful Grace has refused to speak about her pregnancy and when the baby comes early, Mma Ramotswe finds herself surprisingly lonely. As usual, the rich emotional journeys of the characters are at the center of the tale. Precious (and the listeners) make a transformational shift, understanding that the sometimes-silly, shoe-conscious Grace is crucial to the success of the agency, sleuthing and their friendship.   At the same time, Grace’s new motherhood finds her sorting out what parenting means. This strikes another emotional cord for Mma Ramotswe who remembers losing the child she bore, and how much her foster children mean to her. 
In the second phase of my commuting days, I listened to Gary Shteyngart’s “Little Failure” (Recorded Books, 11 CDs, 12.75 hours), a gorgeously written, hysterically funny memoir. After intense days in classrooms, it was the perfect audio restorative. 
Shteyngart, was born in Leningrad in 1972, the sickly child of an overprotective mother and a witty father who teased the “little failure, with a loving, but uncomfortable edginess. As if that combination wasn’t difficult enough, while young Gary (nee Igor)  goes through asthma treatments that seem medieval, and finds his only sanity at 5 with a doting grandmother who pays him with cheese to complete his first novel.
Amid that chaos, the Jewish family flees Stalinist Russia for the United States and the transformations only add to his confusion. His name will no longer be Igor, but Gary. The family now sees Russia thorough American eyes, and as his parents battle about crazy relatives, Gary has to find his way in both public and Hebrew school in Queens.  Just as he’s settling in, puberty strikes with a vengeance. 
Though I believed how this could topple Gary’s already tottering world, I found tales of his desire to have sex went on overlong (for both for Gary and this listener). It was during these bits I realized the gift of hearing little bits during a commute. While Shteyngart perfectly captures that pressing need to get laid with wit of word and idea, a little went a long way. 
Shteyngart’s writing often takes long detours, a fact that might have been distracting if his writing were not so exquisite and witty. He writes for example how viewing an image of Leningrad’s Chechnya church in a coffee table book puts him gives him “dryness and wetness all at once, but in all the wrong places as if the armpits and the mouth have departed on a cultural exchange.” This evocative and unique description carries on for several more sentences and it is imagery he returns to again and again in trying to understanding his life. The way this is expressed by Jonathan Todd Ross, a talented narrator, the repetition of phrasing becomes a refrain. 
Ross does a remarkable of capture both the sounds and sense of the author’s words—from expressing a wealth of accents to the fast-moving sentences Shteyngart stuffs with imagery and punchlines. Ross manages well the confusions of a young boy’s thoughts, his tone ranging from excited to dolorous, self-effacing to eviscerating, sometimes all at the same time. Ross accurately reflects both author’s complicated life and complex emotions increasing the memoir’s engaging quality.