Book reviews: Star Wars and The Danish Girl, plus a new novel from Tom Drury
A couple of movie tie-ins, plus the latest from the criminally underrated Drury
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
by Alan Dean Foster (read by Marc Thompson)
Random House (audiobook)
A long time ago, in a home entertainment galaxy far, far away, the novelisation was the only way to experience a movie – except for visiting the cinema, that is. Alan Dean Foster is a master of this almost extinct genre that turns screenplays into fiction: he rewrote the Alien movies, among others. The real challenge belongs to audiobook narrator Marc Thompson, who must combine Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, a host of new characters and more Stormtroopers than you can shake a light sabre at. He begins the famous opening “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” like he is starting “To be or not to be”. Adding to the grandeur are sound-effects, reverb and that theme music. Like so many big-name narrators, Thompson sounds like he’s creating a blockbuster trailer. Syllables are stressed with breathy urgency, which lends drama to even the most banal sentence: “No one like her brother. No one else at all.” To be fair, both Foster and Thompson are competing with the movie’s visuals: “Poe saw the sabre come to life, saw it start to describe its lethal arc. Time seemed to slow…” A curiosity but not entirely unwelcome.
The Driftless Area
by Tom Drury
Old Street Publishing (e-book)
When I look back on 2015, I will remember it as the year I first read Tom Drury, a quietly brilliant American novelist whose five deadpan, conversational novels deserve a far wider audience than they currently have. I discovered him when the small independent publisher Old Street reissued his back catalogue, save for The Black Brook. The Driftless Area is the final part of a trilogy set in Grouse Country that stands alongside Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon or John Updike’s Rabbit series. A standalone, it is also a departure for Drury: a strange, existential thriller that turns the meandering stories of Grouse County on their head. Pierre Hunter is an amiably aimless young man who finds himself hunted by a very bad individual called Shane Hall when Hunter calmly lifts US$77,000 from Hall’s wrecked car. What is spooky is the crash – caused by Pierre throwing a small rock – was predicted by a young woman called Stella Rosmarin. In this uncanny way, the story becomes a meditation on chaos and fate, plot and accident. Buried within the nicely wonky mystery are all of Drury’s usual gems: offbeat dialogue and wise observations about life, the universe and drum solos.
The Danish Girl
by David Ebershoff (read by Joe Jameson)
The second movie tie-in this week is the slightly less-hyped The Danish Girl. The “girl” is Lili Elbe, or Elvenes, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery. She was born Einar Wegener, and became a successful artist in Denmark early last century. Einar’s wife Gerda, also a painter, asked him to model as a woman for a portrait after the opera singer Anna Fonsmark failed to show. In David Ebershoff’s account, something is awoken in Einar: “[He] was beginning to enter a shadowy world of dreams where Anna’s dress could belong to anyone, even to him.” Einar renamed herself Lili Elbe, undergoing surgery in Dresden in 1930. Ebershoff eschews the more sensational aspects of the story to examine how those around Lili were affected. This extends from the political and medical establishments to Greta, who in many ways is our heroine, offering generous compassion when many would have headed for the door. Joe Jameson reads eagerly, a little too eagerly at times. This is a story that requires no special pleading.