Review for Audio edition (narrated by Dane Elcar, published by Fiddleblack)
Listened March 2015 3 Stars - Recommended to already-fans of audio books (AReview for Audio edition (narrated by Dane Elcar, published by Fiddleblack)
Listened March 2015 3 Stars - Recommended to already-fans of audio books (Awesome 5 star story that just doesn't shine as sharply when narrated) Length: approx 8 hours Publisher: Fiddleblack Narrator: Dane Elcar Released: February 2015
Last January, I read Eric Shonkwiler's Above All Men and though it was the first book I'd read that year, and I was barely a quarter of the way through it, I had already named it an early favorite of 2014. The writing was phenomenal. Shonkwiler's sparse prose moved patiently across the page, building tension as it went, as raw and cutting as the dust storms that plagued his characters in this "apocalyptic western" debut. Nothing I read in the following eleven months even came close.
So you can imagine my hesitancy when I heard Fiddleblack was recording an audio version. I remember thinking that this could go very, very badly. Of course, there was an equal chance that it could go very, very well too, but I've always tended to be more of a pessimist with these sort of things. I am, admittedly, an extremely reluctant audio book listener. My weekend work commute, and my desire to "read" more books each year, eventually convinced me to give audio books a try.
Some narrators - like Ron Perlman (City of Thieves), Will Patton (the Dennis Johnson books), and Wil Wheaton (Ready Player One) - blew me away instantly. It was their interpretation of the words they were reading, the way they managed to make those books their own. Their voices were smooth, clear, and easy to listen to. When they read, it no longer felt like words written on a page. To be honest, they could read the phone book out loud and I'd probably be sitting there, listening with bated breath.
More commonly, though, I find quick fault with audio book narrators. I simply can NOT listen to English or British narrators. There's something about the accent, it distracts me and I just can't concentrate. Sometimes the narrator's natural reading voice irks me. Or their "female" voices sound phony and whiny, or flat and nasally. Or the narrator is a deep breather. If I can hear every intake of breath, I'm done.
In the case of Dane Elcar's narration of Above All Men, I immediately struggled with his reading voice. I've recently listened to him conducting a podcast interview ( with Eric Shonkwiler, no shitting!) and I noticed that his speaking voice differs slightly from the one he uses when narrating. When reading, Dane has a very subtle uptick at the end of most of his sentences that I didn't notice when he was just shooting the shit. I quickly picked up on this and once I noticed it, I could not stop noticing it.
In moments of wonder and excitement, and fear and tension, I also picked up on Dane's odd habit of shaking his voice and raising it into a loud whisper. I think that actually bothered me more than the questioning sound of his sentences.
The voices he chose for the characters were different than what I had assigned them in my head when I first read the book, but we all struggle with that, don't we? When we watch our favorite books become movies? We boo the big screen when we see who was cast and think "no! no no no nooooo! They got it all wrong!"
I know how this sounds. It sounds like I'm saying that Dane is a horrible narrator, and he's not. You have to understand that a big part of my overall struggle with the audio book comes from the fact that I had read the book first. I read the book, I had ALL THE FEELS with the book, and no narrator was ever going to do it justice. I had already made up my mind, without really be aware of that.
I almost NEVER listen to a book I've read. I'll listen to the audio, or I'll read it, but I don't make a habit of doing both. Though the words on the page don't change, the feel of it does when the words are being handled by someone else. Somehow, sadly, Shonkwiler's prose lost its luster.
Above All Men is just a book better read than listened to.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Review for the print edition:
Totally calling this right now. my favorite book of 2014.
Read 1/10/14 - 1/13/14 5 Stars - So Fucking Good / The Next Best Book 259 pages Publisher: MG Press Releases: March 2014
When I stop and think about all of the unread books I have stacked in my bookshelves and sitting in my Kindle (currently 674, according to my goodreads shelves), I start to panic at the thought of all the amazing books I'm missing out on and will continue to miss out on, even though they sit right here, right in this house, within a finger's reach.
When I finish my current book, as I reach for the next one, I hesitate a moment and worry that I am not making the right decision. I wonder "what if THIS is not the book I should be reading right now? What if one of the six hundred OTHER books turns out to be THE book and I end up reading THIS book instead?"
But there's really no way to know that, is there? Until you read the book you chose, and then read the next one, and read the one after that, and keep on reading until you finally end up reading one of THE ones. You'll know it's THE one because of the way it grabs you by the throat and slowly starts to choke all of the air out of you... before you reach the end of the first page.
I've only experienced this reaction to a book three other times, that I can remember. First, when I started reading Jose Saramago's Blindness. Then, when I picked up Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Most recently, when I listened to the audio version of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. Interestingly enough, in all three cases, those were the first books I'd read by those authors. (What's even more interesting? Though I've read and enjoyed many of their other titles, none surpassed the visceral reactions I had to those firsts.)
And now I can add Eric Shonkwiler's Above All Men to that list. A book that's been in my e-possession since back in October. Just sitting. Waiting. Silent, as I chose book after book after book over it. Concealing its awesomeness until it finally made its way up to the top of the TBR pile. And as I started to read, every book I'd read before it simply... faded away. I was immediately sucked in. I felt Eric's words like a million little sucker punches. And I knew I was reading THE one.
I don't think it's a coincidence that the intensity (I know that is not the right word, yet my words seem to have left me at the moment) I felt while reading Above All Men matched the intensity I had felt while reading Saramago, McCarthy, and Johnson. You can find elements of them within Shonkwiler's novel - a similar intentionally slow, meandering way of dragging the plot along, sticking to the specifics of the moment and letting the background work itself out without wasting much time or breath on it, keeping the reader on tenterhooks the entire time.
Bathroom breaks? You can hold it, or bring a bucket out there with you. Work in the morning? Who needs sleep, go ahead and read straight through the night. Kindle battery dying? Plug that puppy in and sit against the wall to continue reading as it charges. Because Above All Men is a book you will not find yourself capable of walking away from.
It's a bleak tale of the beginning of the end of the world. Of a family man who feels the weight of everyone's worries on his shoulders. Of this man who, regardless of consequence, is determined to make sure everyone is alright, even if it means hurting the ones he cares about most. It's a tale of survival as much as it is one of destruction. And Shonkwiler pulls it off effortlessly.
It's a killer read. It does all of the things you want it to and some of the things you don't. And that's what makes it so powerful. That's what makes it THE one....more