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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 14, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Bad Readers, Hamish Macbeth, Yakima, and iTunes

Twice in a few weeks, we were to drive from Salt Lake City to southern Utah -- first to Cedar City for the Shakespeare Festival and the Wooden "O" Symposium, then to St. George for a conference of writers.

This is a longish drive, and, while my wife and I find each other's conversation endlessly fascinating, we would have others, perhaps less tolerant, in the car with us. We needed a book on tape. So I bought several that looked promising.

We popped in the first CD, a translation of a popular Spanish novel.

After about fifteen minutes, in which nothing had happened, but much witless prose had been written about that nothing, we had run out of hilarious mockery and jettisoned the CD.

Surely the next book, a chick-lit novel that sounded quite promising, would be better.

But in this case, the problem was the reader.

Everyone in the audiobook industry knows that the audience for audiobooks consists mostly of people in cars.

Moving cars have a steady background of road noise. Even in a Town Car or a Lexus, you have a lot of ambient noise, and in cars that regular people drive, it's even worse.

So audiobooks have to be recorded at a steady level of volume. Nothing can be too soft or too loud, because the customer has to be able to set the volume and leave it alone.

That's why audiobooks have directors and producers -- to make sure that the reader delivers a professional product: A recording of the printed text that can be listened to with pleasure in a moving Hyundai. (I would have said Yugo, but I don't think many of those are moving anymore.)

So what do we get in this book on CD? The reader thinks she's bucking for the Oscar, and so whenever a bit of dialogue ends with an exclamation point, she shouts it.

And here we are, her innocent victims, riding along in a closed car, the CD volume set loud enough that we can hear it over the road noise and the air-conditioning, and suddenly she's screaming.

The first time it happened, we jumped, it was so shocking.

And by the time we could turn down the volume, she had stopped shouting and we had to turn it back up so we could hear it at all.

Out goes the CD -- killed by the reader's incompetence -- and we pop in a literary book that was the one I assumed was least promising. If we could stand to listen to it at all, it would by default be at the top of the heap.

No such luck. Again, this recording was supervised by a director and producer who should be fired, if not put in the stocks, for absolute incompetence. Because this reader was a fader.

She'd begin a paragraph with vigor and energy, but at the end, she'd fade out as if she had lost interest in it. I mean she'd fade all the way out. Even when we turned the volume up full blast, we could hardly hear the endings of paragraphs.

You can't drive safely when you're constantly fiddling with the volume control of a book on CD, and why risk your life when even top volume doesn't yield results?

Three books down. Ack.

Fortunately, I had picked up an insurance audiobook: a Hamish Macbeth mystery novel by M.C. Beaton, read by Graeme Malcolm.

Malcolm is a truly brilliant reader. The novel is set in Scotland, where Hamish Macbeth is a police constable in a small Highland town. But characters included visitors from various parts of England, along with locals who had very different accents: educated Glaswegian, ignorant Glaswegian, rough fisherman, Highlands-born schoolteacher -- it's like Beaton set herself the task of writing a series of books that would eventually include every known accent in the English language.

I'm just waiting for Mma Ramotswe from Alexander McCall's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency to pay a visit to the village of Lochdubh.

At least the local storekeeper with Indian name and ancestry is actually second-generation, and so speaks like any native-born Scot. So we miss the Indian accent.

The remarkable thing is that Graeme Malcolm does the accents flawlessly, at least as far as I can tell, making clear the fine distinctions among them.

Need I add that he also keeps his volume fairly level, while his readings are expressive, full of wit and verve when the text requires, and dramatic energy when that's appropriate?

In fact, so good was the reader that I feared the book might not be as good as his performance of it. So when we got home from the second Utah trip, I bought a whole bunch of printed Hamish Macbeth novels from Barnes & Noble -- they had lots of different titles in stock, bless them -- and started reading.

At first, there was one slight irritation: Beaton spelled out many of the elements of the accents, which meant that for a few moments, at least, you had to pause and figure out what was actually being said. What Malcolm's reading had made perfectly clear, I had to work out on my own.

But within relatively few chapters, Beaton had introduced all the orthographic challenges she felt were necessary to convey the accent, and I was reading smoothly, having learned enough "Scottish" to get by.

Here's the good news: Beaton is a delightful writer. She is not writing violent noir mysteries, like Michael Connelly or Robert Crais or Dennis Lehane -- though I enjoy and admire those writers, their books can darken your day.

Instead, Beaton gives us interesting puzzles set among characters of great charm. And it can truly be said that in the Hamish Macbeth mysteries, the story is as much dependent on the local common folk as any novel of Thomas Hardy's.

Now, this could be a dreadful thing: I think of Joan Hess's Maggody books, or Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels, both of which seemed so promising at first, precisely because of the community in which the heroes lived, but too soon degenerated into the same dumb jokes about the same now-boring people, book after book after book.

Beaton has a few recurring characters -- the spinster sisters who echo each other's words, for instance; the doctor's wife who often takes care of Hamish's dog; and his two recurring love interests, Elspeth and Priscilla.

But none of the repeaters is overused, at least to my taste -- and each novel introduces new villagers or townsmen and often takes us to new settings amid the Highlands.

Beaton is one of the few writers I've seen who not only understands but makes explicit the way that small communities can take on quite distinctive personalities that are reflected in the behavior of the citizenry.

Lochdubh is a lovely town with generally friendly people, which is why Hamish refuses promotion so he can stay there. But other nearby towns he is responsible for policing can be hostile to strangers, or depressed, or suspicious and closed, even though individuals within them try to overcome the local trend.

The result is that after reading half a dozen Hamish Macbeth novels (I'm up to seven now), you feel like you remember so much about the Highlands of Scotland that you might as well have grown up there.

Not that Beaton's writing is perfect. She uses a vague point of view that seems like limited third person most of the time and then suddenly becomes omniscient, as we get bits and snatches from random characters' points of view. An amateurish mistake? Or merely an echo of an old-fashioned tradition? Fortunately, the stories and characters are strong enough to pull us through the inevitable jarring that such missteps cause.

There is a progression in the series. Earlier novels tend to feel more slight, as if Beaton were feeling her way into the world she was creating. Later novels are deeper and more complete. None of them will be in contention for the Booker Prize -- thank heaven. What they will do is engage you with good stories and give you memories of time spent with interesting people that you come to care about.

I can't even tell you what the best starting point would be. I have been reading the books in a random order; when I've read them all, I'll make some effort to sort them out, using internal clues like: Which dog does Hamish have? Is this story before or after the conversion of the Tommel Castle to a hotel? Has Elspeth shown up yet? Is Hamish a sergeant or just a police constable?

Just pick up any of them. They're all good entertainment.

Or do as I did, and treat yourself to Graeme Malcolm's brilliant performances. He has read eight of the novels; the one I started with was Death of a Poison Pen, and we have since listened to Death of a Bore. I look forward to hearing more of them; meanwhile, though, I'm going through these books like candy and having a wonderful time doing it.


Don't even ask why I was in Yakima, Washington, for a couple of days this past week.

I had known the name of the town for many years. I was born in Richland, Washington, and had cousins who lived in nearby Benton City. We would often visit them in the summer after a long drive from my family's home in California, and I remember loving the odd-sounding names I heard mentioned on the TV news.

The all-time favorite was Walla Walla Washington, which is simply fun to say. Then there's Puyallup, which looks as though it should be pronounced "poo-YA-lup" but is actually pronounced "pyoo-WALL-up."

By comparison, Yakima is somewhat tame, but still, any town that starts with the word "yak" is bound to be memorable. (By the way, the pronunciation is YAK-i-maw, with a secondary accent on the last syllable, not YAK-i-muh, with a last syllable that rhymes with the last syllable of America.)

Yakima's primary attraction is that it's one of the most centrally located towns of any size in the state of Washington, so statewide organizations sometimes choose it for their meetings in order to equalize transportation costs.

Yakima is east of the Cascade Mountains, which means it's in the dry portion of the state. Nestled in a valley surrounded by steep, high, brown, ugly hills, it is one of the least-inviting settings I've ever spent time in.

But the citizens of a town can't help the natural terrain surrounding their community. And to its credit, the city of Yakima is trying to come up with some character with a "historic downtown" -- even if it is only a couple of blocks long.

(And here's something: They live in a desert, and yet they have plenty of water. I wonder how that happened. Could it have been competent government? Maybe we could hire away their city manager. That is, if Greensboro still exists by the end of the current drought.)

One of the hardest things in traveling to an unfamiliar city is trying to find a place that serves good food.

Well, all right, it's not that hard. As long as there's a Subway, my family won't starve. If there's a Chick-fil-A, so much the better.

But we usually like to eat food prepared with a bit more ambition.

And those hotel "restaurant guides" are usually nothing more than paid advertisements.

Bad news for us: The first place we tried, touted as one of the best "gourmet Mexican" restaurants in the Northwest, was merely average, with rather poor service (the order arrived late, wrong, and the quality was disappointing even on the portions that were on time and correct).

But we made one more attempt on the second night and hit gold. Café Melange, from its modest beginnings as a "hometown pasta deli," has grown up into an Italian restaurant with excellent service, charming decor, an inventive menu, and food that is, quite simply, excellent.

The hummus appetizer would have been good enough for us, but I had to try their crostini with two tapenades, of olives and artichokes, which was even better. And the salmon ravioli in pesto was better yet.

Of course by then we were completely satisfied and ended up leaving a lot of our entrees on the plate. Which was almost criminal, because they were every bit as good as the appetizers.

Look, I can't advise you to go to Yakima unless you have some compelling reason. But if you're ever driving from Boise to Seattle, make sure you pass through Yakima at suppertime and make sure you have a reservation at Melange. When you get to Seattle, you'll find a few restaurants as good -- but not many.


Bought myself one of the new iPod Shuffles, because I loved the size and the way it clips onto your clothing. A really good idea.

But the drawback is that Apple's iTunes software is incredibly lame. Of course, I was used to the old MusicMatch Jukebox software, which was powerful and completely responsive to everything I wanted to do.

That software has now been replaced by Yahoo's crippled Jukebox software, which is like MusicMatch except for the ability to do anything you want.

iTunes suffers from even worse crippling. You can't load anything onto your iPod Shuffle except using their software -- but you can't customize it to do anything.

For instance, I have about 50 gigabytes of MP3s -- all from CDs I bought and paid for, thank you very much -- but when I try to get iTunes to find them, it only gets up to 2,683 songs and stops. It's a weird and tiny subset of my library, and the only way to get it to find any of the other albums -- all stored in the same directory on the same drive -- is to add each album one by one.

I also told the software specifically that I did not want it to waste any of my precious disk space by downloading album cover art. So what do I found? It has downloaded every bit of cover art it could find online! There is no tool in the software for deleting them, either.

In every way I can think of, iTunes is worse than MusicMatch to the point of being absolutely maddening. Of course, why should Apple care? They only want to sell me songs, not make it possible to listen to music I bought from somewhere else.

Apple shows the same contempt for the user that Microsoft shows. Yet because Apple has become absolutely dominant in this field, all the other companies now imitate their stripped down, incompetent, useless, anti-user software -- which is probably why Yahoo's replacement for MusicMatch is so wretched.

Boo. Hiss.

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