Monday, March 2, 2015

Audiobook Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James

Etta and Otto and Russell and James (2015)
Written by Emma Hooper
Narrated by Robert G. Slade
Run Time: 8 hours and 2 minutes
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio

Some books grab your attention by a plot or the cover. In the case of Etta and Otto and Russell and James, the characters are the headliners.

Etta, an elderly wife, dreams of seeing the ocean, so she leaves her husband and farm on the Canadian plains and walks east to the ocean. Meanwhile, her husband Otto makes due at home, building papier-mache animals and trying to cook, often hilariously. Their neighbor Russell goes after Etta, fearful for her safety, but ends up on an adventure himself. James is a talking coyote that accompanies Etta for portions of her journey.

While on her trip, flashbacks to Etta, Otto and Russell's earlier days occur and as the novel progresses, the line between memory and present-day begins to blur. Like multiple marbles swirling around a funnel, flashbacks and the present-day bounce off each other in the early stages, but as the book ends (the bottom of the funnel in this example), memory and reality collide and meld into a mass that the reader has to sort out. Also, there are sequences involving Etta's memory and a nursing home toward the end that take the book in a darker direction than I was expecting. As such, this is a book that has an undefined ending, leaving it up to each reader's imagination.

The characters are enjoyable, namely James and Otto, though Etta has her moments as well. Every time James was around, I enjoyed his commentary on humans and smells. Otto is hilarious when he tries to tend to his homestead.

The book can best be described as "magical realism" fiction, because there's a lot in it that wouldn't pass muster in the real world. What husband would be okay with his elderly wife walking across Canada alone? Wouldn't authorities be alerted? Since when do coyotes talk? However, I wasn't bothered by them because the characters were so engaging.

The book is also an ode to a time and place long past. Etta and Otto often converse through letters, a forgotten art form in today's texting world. The correspondence and relationship between the two almost reminded me of what I would imagine the elderly couple in Up would have said during their long marriage. The Canadian farmland is dry and dirty, with residents struggling to make ends meet on their farms while the area's men head off to a war overseas. Though the war is never explicitly said by name, I implied that it was World War II and the farmland strain the remnants of the Great Depression. But again, it is left to the reader's imagination.

The stellar audio narration by Slade has a distinct Canadian flair, complete with dialect. The town of Regina, Saskatchewan is pronounced reg-ine-a and again is a-gain. Slade gives each character a distinct voice, especially James, who is delivered in a near growl. The voice work added to the charm of the novel and ended up being one of my favorite aspects of it. Having said that, the audiobook can be a challenging read since much of the novel is written in letters and I found the ending, a twisted knot already, more so because I feared I missed details that I may have picked up on if I were reading it on paper or digital.

Grade: 3/5 stars. The ending threw me for a loop as I was trying to construct what happened, but otherwise, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a book with loads of charm and very likable characters.

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