I love Sherman Alexie. I read many of his short stories and poems in college, and I’ve read both Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian and Ten Little Indians. When I saw my local library had his latest collection of poetry and short stories available as an audio book, I knew I needed to pick it up. Aside from the fact I like his writing, I knew, too, he reads his own work. I knew Alexie had a very distinct voice, and I knew that would make this audio book really stand out.
And it did.
While leery at first of trying to listen to an audio book of short stories — my thought was that the story breaks would be difficult to follow — War Dances changed my mind. And quite frankly, listening to poetry aloud is the way it’s meant to be enjoyed for many, and Alexie writes his in the way that’s meant to be performed.
War Dances, like Alexie’s other books, made me both want to laugh and to cry throughout. The mixture of poetry and prose moves seamlessly, and what really works well in the audio is that Alexie just reads with his own personal reading voice. He doesn’t give any of his characters separate voices, though he does change his intonation slightly to distinguish dialog from description.
A couple of pieces stood out to me distinctly. A short story, actually one of the lengthier ones in the collection, follows the loss of hearing of the main character. In this story, he describes the process of losing his hearing by reflecting on his own father’s life and end-of-life illness. The sound of hearing loss was like that of a colony of cockroaches taking up residence inside him. What I loved about this story was its homage to Kafka and how Alexie turned a well-known tale into something entirely new and refreshing. The allusion’s slight, aside from the introductory quotation, but it is a story enjoyed on so many levels.
Like many of the GoodReads reviews mentioned, the poem “Ode to a Mixtape” was wonderful. That, along with the poem about giving up one’s seat on an airplane were picturesque and such amusing insight into our culture today. All of the poems in War Dances can and would be enjoyed by those who aren’t normally “poetry people” since they are easy to grasp and quite memorable because of the emotion they provoke in the listener.
What this audio book does, though, is give you raw Sherman Alexie. He has an incredibly different and perfect reading voice. Alexie has a tiny bit of a lisp and a bit of an accent. Lucky for you, WHYY Broadcast has an interview with Alexie on their website that gives us a reading of the first poem in War Dances. Listen to the incredible lilt of his voice. Four hours of his story telling could have been forty hours for me, and I would have still listened in. There is something really engaging in his imperfect voice that made me care about what he was saying and want to listen to more. Oh, and please ignore the commentator on this one – it seems clear to me she didn’t read the book before interviewing him.
Don’t believe this will be an easy collection to read or understand. There are some very difficult to grasp scenes, and the language at times is not necessarily what you like listening to. But those moments are what makes Alexie’s points — this is a book of stories about ourselves, the disgusting and the beautiful, the racist and the too-politically-correct, and moreover, the story of art and writing. The man is brilliant and certainly a modern master of writing.
I was sad to finish War Dances. It was short, but it was enough to whet my need to seek out some of Alexie’s backlist on audio — but only if it is read by him.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).