Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of friends who are always out experiencing the best of entertainment. Be it plays, films, concerts, exhibits, or games, they’ve learned that the arts are best when experienced together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls rediscovered the magic of LeVar Burton’s voice, returning from his Reading Rainbow days, on a brand new podcast. Let’s listen in on their conversation…
Gwen liked to listen to music while she cooked. Usually, it was slow, casual music, the kind that she could describe as “floating” through the air, complementing the scent of the food. Musicals, she often said, were ideal.
So she was initially dismissive when Eleanor and Dania both, independently, suggested she listen to a podcast instead. Gwen loved podcasts, certainly, but preferred to cook to music that she could acknowledge distantly. Podcasts required your attention to be undivided – or, at least, less divided than she could give while cooking. But both her flatmates insisted that LeVar Burton Reads was still ideal.
“The stories aren’t all action-packed,” Eleanor said. “He’s got a really smooth voice, and the stories he picks are all very interesting and well written. Even if you miss a little bit of them, you’ll be able to pick up.”
Gwen wasn’t sure about this – she didn’t like to miss pieces of a story. What if the crux of the narrative happened as she was blending something?
“I’m sure you can turn it up loud enough,” Eleanor said. “Or even work while wearing headphones, then it’s almost like ASMR with his voice.”
In response to Dania’s insistence about the “Reading Rainbow for adults,” as she and other critics had called it, Gwen struck a compromise: she would try it out while cooking pasta, a dish with no loud components. Each episode featured a different piece of short fiction, read by LeVar Burton. Eleanor had suggested the second episode, “The Lighthouse Keeper,” by Daisy Johnson. At 32 minutes, it was one of the shorter episodes – others went into the 50-minute range, closer to an hour. She rigged up the speaker, and began listening while she cooked.
The pasta took more than a half hour, so she moved on to the first episode, intending to go in order from then on. She was about ten minutes into “Kin,” by Bruce McAllister, and about done with the pasta, when she heard Eleanor come through the front door.
Only a moment passed before Gwen heard: “You’re listening to it!”
Eleanor stuck her head into the kitchen. She listened to LeVar: “‘Why,‘ the alien asked, ‘does a man named James Ortega-Mambay…wish to kill your sister?‘”
“This is the first episode,” Eleanor said. “Just starting?”
“No, I listened to ‘Lighthouse Keeper’ first,” Gwen said. “Decided to start listening to the others.”
“Oh, cool,” Eleanor said. “So you didn’t leave after one episode. Good sign.”
Gwen, smiling, rolled her eyes. “He has a very good voice.”
“Doesn’t he?” Eleanor said. “Yeah, I says in the first episode – I guess you just heard it – he admits that for a lot of millennial, it’s on their bucket list to have LeVar Burton read them a bedtime story. It’s certainly on mine.”
“Have you listened to any of these right before bed?” Gwen asked.
Eleanor considered. “I guess I could.” She walked into the living room. “It’s not the same, though.”
“I guess not.” Gwen stopped the podcast, and began portioning the pasta into a bowl.
“So,” Eleanor said. “Thoughts?”
“Hm,” Gwen thought. “I think…”
Eleanor leaned forward. She had burned through the podcast over a weekend, vegging out on her bed as LeVar’s voice took her from her room – as the podcast promised – to the furthest stars. She had heard about late-night robberies, Native American manhunts, and a two-part adventure through a medieval landscape. It was all such a delight for the mind, as well as the ears.
“I immediately disliked the sound effects,” Gwen said, breaking the mood.
Eleanor, on the verge of responding, stopped. The sound effects? That seemed the least interesting thing to comment on. Was Gwen grasping for straws to critique the podcast?
“I don’t think they help the storytelling,” Gwen continued. “The whole of “Lighthouse Keeper,” they don’t need to have the water splashing back and forth in the background. Or the ticking clock whenever she’s indoors.”
Eleanor tried to remember. “I think the sound effects faded into the background for me,” she said, finally. “I was focused on his voice, mostly.”
“That’s sort of my issue, though,” Gwen said. “Of course, maybe ‘issue’ is the wrong word. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s good.”
“Okay,” Eleanor hesitantly responded. “But?”
“And,” Gwen continued, “my concern with it is that I’m hearing his voice more than I’m hearing the story. Like, he has such a resonant timbre…”
“Wait, back up,” Eleanor said. “The problem with LeVar Burton Reads is that it sounds like LeVar Burton reading?”
“Okay, when you phrase it like that.”
“Well, how do you phrase it?”
“I’m always focused on his performance while reading it,” Gwen said. “And the sound effects telling me how I’m supposed to feel at any given moment. Like, there’s a moment in this one…” She pointed to the speaker. “The first one. Where the boy and alien are talking, and the boy reveals the two hundred dollars for the first time. They add this, shing-sound that changes the structure of the story. Suddenly, that’s a really important moment, even though it doesn’t really seem like one in LeVar’s performance.”
“I mean, that’s an outlier,” Eleanor said. “From what I remember, the music fades into the background most of the time. It’s almost non-existent in ‘The Paper Menagerie.'”
“The music is fine,” Gwen said. “If a bit prescriptive in the same way. It’s just the sound effects that are a little too much.”
“Well,” Eleanor said. “I don’t think it takes too much away from the story to have a door opening sound whenever a door opens.”
“It’s not totally consistent, though,” Gwen said. “Are they going to put in every effect, or just when they need an impactful moment?”
“Whatever,” Eleanor said. “Did you still remember what happened in the story?”
“Well then,” Eleanor said. “I guess it worked.” She stood up, and walked to her room, down the hall.
“I said I enjoyed it!” Gwen called after her. “I just think it could be done without the effects. He certainly has the resonant voice – maybe if the voice and sounds effects weren’t competing to draw my attention away, it’d better suit me.”
“Nothing suits you, Gwen,” Eleanor said. She reappeared in the hall. “It’s Reading Rainbow! How can you hate on Reading Rainbow?”
“I don’t know,” Gwen said. “Never watched it?”
“You’ve ne––” The words were sucked out of Eleanor’s mouth. She sped through the living room and over to Dania’s door. She knocked hard, and soon Dania appeared.
“Gwen’s never seen Reading Rainbow!” Eleanor shouted.
“What?” Dania said, staring at Gwen. “You’ve never – is this about – do you hate LeVar Burton Reads?”
“No!” Gwen exclaimed. “I think it’s good!”
“I didn’t even grow up here and I knew what Reading Rainbow was!” Dania said. “What do you hate about it?”
“I only said,” Gwen began, measuring her words, “that I thought the music and sound effects were a little much.”
“And that his voice distracted from the stories,” Eleanor added.
“You said ‘distracted.'”
“You’ve gotta at least like the stories,” Dania said. “‘Paper Menagerie,’ ‘Second Bakery Attack’ – come on, ‘Chivalry?’ Neil Gaiman!”
“She’s only listened to the first two episodes so far,” Eleanor said.
“Oh,” Dania said. “Well, the sound effects get less prominent as you go on. I don’t think there are really any in ‘Graham Green.’ As long as you like the stories, it’s pretty fun.”
“I like the sci-fi angle of ‘Kin,'” Gwen said.
“He does a lot of sci-fi,” Dania said. “The pain-eater one, with the long title. That one is good. ‘Graham Greene’ is a western, so is the last episode…what’s it called?”
“‘No Man’s Guns,’ the Elmore Leonard one,” Eleanor said. “And ‘Navigators,’ about the video game, that one has a few sound effects, but it’s all complimenting the story. At least, I thought so.”
“I don’t know,” Gwen said. “Like I said, I didn’t hate it. And he does have a very nice reading voice. He seems to have a great taste in short fiction, for sure.”
“I didn’t hate a single story, even if I didn’t know what to expect,” Eleanor said.
“‘Paper Menagerie’ was a little dull,” Dania said. “But I mean, come on. It’s LeVar Burton, reading. He has such a perfect voice for reading.”
“I guess so,” Gwen said.
“Maybe try one when you’re not cooking,” Eleanor shrugged. “You might be right about the focus thing.”
Sure enough, a few days later Gwen tried out the Niel Gaiman episode, “Chivalry.” Dania had been right, the sound effects were less prominent later on. And although she still thought the horse noises could be toned down, she would have gladly admitted to Eleanor and Dania that LeVar’s spirited reading of the story’s final scene did give her a wide rainbow of a smile.
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