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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 7, 2011

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


Cowboy Bebop, Reversal, Mystery, Audiobooks

When I first saw the word "anime" on a schedule at a science fiction convention, I thought it was French -- ah-NEEM. It was with utter scorn that a fan (of anime, not of my work) told me it was Japanese, and it was pronounced AH-ni-may.

I didn't even like live-action sci-fi movies in those days. Why would I watch animated fantasy? Especially since all the characters looked alike -- big eyes. And they sounded alike, too -- high-pitched yammering voices that ranged from whiny to screechy.

Then my youngest became an anime fan. Which means she became an anime snob, preferring to watch most series in Japanese, with subtitles, rather than suffer the pain of a bad English dub. I could hardly walk into the room when she was watching one; it hurt my ears.

But times change. The dubs got better. The animes got better, too. The premise of pioneering anime Sailor Moon still makes no sense to me; but more recent animes are first rate.

"Recent" can mean 1998, but that wasn't so long ago. It was a year of good movies like Deep Impact, Shakespeare in Love, Ever After: A Cinderella Story, The Prince of Egypt, and -- best by a mile -- the classic romantic comedy You've Got Mail.

It was also the year of Cowboy Bebop, an anime series that is better than all but a handful of science fiction films, ever.

It's set in a future when an experimental hyperspace gate blew up the moon; debris is still raining down on Earth, making large sections of our planet uninhabitable. (Yep, that's right: The sky is falling.)

So people have moved out into the Solar System, with populations centers on various moons and asteroids and a planet or two. And with hyperspace gates now safe to use, you can get from world to world pretty quickly.

It's a wild place, one big frontier. No government can police the whole Solar System -- so bounty hunters go after criminals, risking their lives for a chance at some big bucks.

But that's the big picture. The story we follow involves a group of bounty hunters on the spaceship Bebop. Our main hero is a dangerous wisp of a man named Spike, who used to be an enforcer for the Syndicate, but moved to the right side of the law. He also has a tragic past, complete with a lost love and an old friend who now is his worst enemy.

The owner of the Bebop is Jet Black, who left official law enforcement because he was sick of the corruption. As a bounty hunter, he can live by his own rules. He and Spike have opposite backgrounds, but they get along fine.

Together, they ride the Bebop from world to world -- then hop into smaller runabout spaceships that allow them to land stealthily where their targets are. Mostly, though, they have to deal with the fact that when you're running out of money, spaceships don't repair themselves and fuel ain't free.

They are joined by an uninvited guest/stowaway, a drop-dead-sexy female bounty hunter named Faye Valentine, who keeps leaving them to go out on her own, only to be forced to return when her addiction to gambling blows all her money.

A couple of other characters join them in the process of the series, but I'm afraid I never found "Ed" (the androgynous hacker genius/annoying free-spirited flower child) terribly interesting, and the "data dog" named Ein never amounted to as much as I had hoped.

Doesn't matter. The stories of Jet, Faye, and Spike are compelling, for though each episode is full of mystery and adventure, in the course of the series they all keep running into their past.

For Faye, that means eventually recovering some of the memories she lost in a traffic accident. For Jet, it means finding out who it was who betrayed him back when he was a cop. And for Spike, it means finding his lost love -- and facing down his nemesis and former partner, named Vicious.

What can I say, except that to my vast surprise, I found this series brilliant. It's often funny, sexy in a mostly chaste kind of way -- these are drawings, after all -- and the action is gripping.

But what held me was a combination of strong relationship-based storytelling, a moody visual style that never got old, and really smart dialogue.

I'd compare this to the great TV series Firefly, except that since Firefly came out in 2002, and resembles Cowboy Bebop in many ways (including quality), I can't guess whether Firefly creator Joss Whedon was influenced by Cowboy Bebop, was deliberately doing an hommage, or created such a similar series by sheer coincidence.

So ... who's going to enjoy Cowboy Bebop? My wife did, and she likes film sci-fi even less than I do. Not everybody is going to be comfortable with the sometimes eye-popping costumes (though there's no nudity and only rare implied sex).

I came to love Yoko Kanno's explorations of every kind of jazz, beatnik, and 50s rock all woven through a delicious new age sensibility; there's more bebop in this series than just the spaceship of that name. In fact, because of the jazz sensibility, the episodes are called "sessions," as if the story were a mere accompaniment to a jazz jam. And maybe it is.

Mostly, though, this series is for people who love good storytelling -- and plenty of surprises in every episode. The glory of animation is that you can show things that otherwise could never exist, and the writers, artists, and voice actors of Cowboy Bebop do an unforgettably good job.

New copies of the complete series aren't cheap, but you can get used DVD sets for 50 to 70 bucks. Up to $400 if you want new.

Parents, listen to your children about art. You'll hate a lot of things they like -- that's why they like them. But by definition, they're cooler than you are, and some of the stuff they find will enrich your life. Culture is at its best when it's a two-way street.

*

I recently read -- well, downloaded from Audible.com and listened to the unabridged recording of -- terrific installments in two of the best ongoing detective series around.

I suppose that technically, Michael Connelly's series of novels about "Lincoln lawyer" Mickey Haller are "legal thrillers," but come on. It's a hard-boiled detective/film noir kind of story that Connelly tells. I'm downloading Connelly's latest novel, The Fifth Witness, as I'm writing this; what I recently listened to was last year's book, a tour-de-force called The Reversal.

Oddly enough, the book is listed as the 16th installment in the Harry Bosch series. And I suppose it is, because author Connelly has brought together the heroes from both series into the same book. After all, they're half-brothers, so it makes sense for them to rely on each other now and then.

Weirdly, though, the Harry Bosch sections of the book are in third person -- like the Harry Bosch novels -- and the Mickey Haller sections are in first person.

You may think you don't care about such things, but it's actually quite jarring. In first person, the character tells his own story. Presumably at some future date he's writing it down.

But when those first person chapters are juxtaposed with third-person chapters focusing on a different character, it's enough to make you wonder if Michael Connelly and the fictional Mickey Haller got together for lunch one day and decided to collaborate.

It doesn't help that reader Peter Giles has kind of a contentious tone when reading the first person sections, as if someone had just contradicted him and he's insisting that yes, this is how it happened. That tone isn't there in the third-person Harry Bosch sections.

I noticed these problem, but they were very slight and were quickly overcome by the quality of the story. Haller is a defense lawyer whose first marriage broke up over the fact that his wife, a prosecutor, worked to get scumbags off the street while Mickey worked just as hard to get them off.

So it's a surprise to everyone when the district attorney hires Haller as an independent prosecutor. It seems that a convicted child rapist/murderer has just had his conviction overturned, based on DNA evidence that wasn't available at his trial back in 1986. But the prosecutor believes (or at least pretends to believe) that even without the DNA evidence, the guy's guilty.

That means a new trial, and Haller is going to be on the other side of the courtroom for the first time in his career. He asks for his ex-wife to be his second chair (but really to lead him through the jungle of the prosecutorial side of a trial), and gets his cop half-brother, Harry Bosch, as the investigator to find old witnesses and gather whatever new evidence might show up.

The trouble is that the bad guy is a jailhouse lawyer who always seems to be one step ahead of them. And some of Haller's cleverest moves turn out not to be half so clever as he thought.

The book kept me, not just guessing, but deeply involved from beginning to end. There's not a lot of deep characterization -- we know these guys and they have a job to do. But there's plenty of angst and self-doubt when it matters to the story, and some witnesses and side characters whose stories are sometimes quite moving. This is one of Connelly's best.

The other mystery novel I just listened to was Mystery, by Jonathan Kellerman. The title isn't a generic name -- the murder victim went by the name "Mystery." It happens that series hero Alex Delaware happened to be in the restaurant where Mystery spent her last evening before she had her face blown out by a shotgun.

That makes him a key to helping his friend, Lieutenant Milo Sturgis, find out who the murder victim actually was. We're led on a tour of a new kind of internet prostitution -- a kind of find-your-own-whore on a social site. But there's a lot more going on than meets the eye. A very rich family seems to be involved somehow, and -- as always -- Kellerman takes us on a theme-park ride through the psyches of the slightly sociopathic.

Meanwhile, we get to see the mostly-retired Dr. Delaware work with a child whose mother hires Delaware to help her son deal with her death -- cancer has a tight grip on her and her days are numbered. It's an intriguing and sometimes moving situation, though the woman is bitter, angry, unfair, funny -- and completely devoted to her child.

One of the best things about Kellerman novels is that actor John Rubinstein has a permanent gig as the reader of the audio versions. Rubinstein originated the title role in Pippin on Broadway back in 1972, and he's been working continuously ever since, on stage, film, television -- and audiobook.

Most people don't understand that just because you're an actor doesn't mean you'll make a good narrator of books. There's an intimacy of style, a clarity of speech; over-acting is a cardinal sin and most actors commit it. Never Rubinstein! On the contrary, when I listen to a Rubinstein recording of a Kellerman novel, I remember it as if I saw a full-cast movie instead of listening to it while exercising or shopping.

I've had the privilege of meeting Rubinstein, and I know some people he's worked with over the years, and it's nice to know that somebody so wonderfully talented is also generous and a joy to work with.

If you want to hear what audiobook narration sounds like at its very best, then listen to an unabridged Kellerman novel, because Rubinstein's performance will be astonishing -- and Kellerman's books deserve the golden treatment.

*

The audiobook industry is going through a strange transformation. For years, this new and compelling art form was never quite profitable -- on top of the price of the book, you had to pay for the production of the recording. It meant that audiobooks -- books on tape, we used to call them -- cost so much that most people couldn't afford them.

Rentals or loan-outs solved the cost problem for some consumers -- but didn't help the publishers a bit.

Then there was the complete changeover, a few years ago, to books on CD. They took up a lot less room than tapes and they never jammed. But there was still that cost factor -- you had to produce the CDs and package them whether anybody ever bought them or not.

In other words, you had to pay for inventory. Thousands of copies just so there could be at least one in every major bookstore. And then you didn't know whether you'd sell all, half, or none of them.

So when you go into the bookstore, you might notice that there are fewer books on CD than there used to be. No sooner did CDs replace tapes than the CDs themselves were replaced by ... what?

Audio is finally getting way more popular. But it's not because of CDs.

In fact, I used to go running with a book on CD in a Walkman, or a book on tape in a portable player. I'd hold the machine in my hand while I ran. And what if I ran longer than the length of the one tape or CD? Horribly inconvenient. A book had to be great to keep me going. (That's one of the reasons I hated John Irving's The Fourth Hand so much -- it wasn't worth the annoyance.)

But a few years back, my brother-in-law told me he was downloading audiobooks from Audible.com and then listening to them on an iPod Shuffle while he ran.

I already used a Shuffle for music, and I knew just how much room it didn't have. So I bought in iPod Nano and experimented until I found a secure way to clip it to my clothes. Now I have two dozen or more complete audiobooks with me almost all the time; if I get tired of one, I have a full menu of alternates waiting for me to pick them. ("Choose me! Choose me!" they all murmur in teeny-tiny Nano-voices.)

I don't just listen while exercising. I keep the Nano clipped to my clothing and listen while I drive (while XM radio's classical stations provide background music). When I get to my destination, I keep on listening without a break as I walk in, shop, and walk out. I only turn it off to pay.

The result is that I go through about eighty to a hundred audiobooks a year. I listen a lot. And because Audible.com has such a large collection, I can almost always find something I want to listen to. And it downloads it automatically into iTunes, which handles transferring it to your iPod painlessly.

And besides, there are all those brilliant lectures from The Great Courses -- I've completed four college-level courses since Christmas, besides the three I completed before. I wish I'd had this electronic equipment and all these great audiobooks and courses since I was a kid. Think of all the books I could have read by now!

Audiobooks are better than ever. But you don't really need to get them in the store anymore. As in-store selection shrinks, online selection expands exponentially. That's where the audiobook industry is moving, because it's the most convenient way to get and read books.


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