The Outlandish Companion, Volume II: A Reading & Listening Guide

OCIIThe Outlandish Companion, volume II, is a reference book. Does it surprise you to hear that it was also one of the most enjoyable reading and listening experiences I’ve had in months?

First, some background: As anyone who even occasionally visits my blog surely knows by now, I’m a pretty dedicated fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. In 1999, Diana published The Outlandish Companion, a reference guide covering the first four books in the Outlander series (Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, and Drums of Autumn). And pretty much ever since, fans have been clamoring for a second volume to cover the rest of the books.

In March 2015, Diana Gabaldon published a new and revised edition of The Outlandish Companion, volume I, updated to include some additional commentary, especially regarding the Starz TV series. [Blogger note: I’m working a bit backwards here, I know. I’ll post a separate piece about volume I in the next week or so.] And in October of 2015, we finally got The Outlandish Companion, Volume II, and what a treat is is!

OC

The 1999 edition

I bought myself a hardcover edition of OCII as soon as it came out, but hadn’t done much with it beyond opening it at random and flipping through. When I saw that the audiobook had been released, it seemed like the perfect way for me to enjoy the contents of OCII in a laid-back, kind of mellow sort of way.

What you get in the audiobook, which you don’t get in the hard copy, is the voice of Herself, our beloved author Diana Gabaldon. I actually can’t stress this enough: Large portions of the audiobook are narrated by Diana, and I’ll explain a bit further on why this really matters… and really, why this alone is worth the price of the audiobook, even if you already own the physical book.

Revised edition of OCI, 2015

Revised edition of OCI, 2015

An added bonus for those who’ve listened to the audiobooks of the Outlander series and the spin-off Lord John books is the participation of the books’ narrators. Davina Porter — marvelous Davina Porter — narrates all of the Outlander book synopses in OCII, and Jeff Woodman, who does such a fantastic job as the honorable and wryly funny Lord John Grey, narrates the synopses for all of the Lord John pieces.

Without further ado, what follows is an overview of what’s in the book, what I especially enjoyed, and a few tips and comments for anyone thinking about listening to the audiobook, either instead of or in addition to getting a copy of the physical book.

 

What’s inside:

Introduction

Yes, this matters! Diana’s introduction is as funny and smart as you’d expect, explaining how the revised OCI and the new OCII came about. It’s also a great intro to her style throughout the book, which is liberally sprinkled with footnotes, often humorous and tongue-in-cheek, and sure to include at least a few nuggets of odd but interesting little known facts.

Part One: Chronology

Identifying and explaining the chronology of all the parts in the story — so if you’re wondering what to read when, and just where all those novellas fit in, this will tell you.

Part Two: Synopses:

This is the longest part of the book — in my hardcover edition, the synopses start on page 15 and end on page 245. On the audiobook, we’re talking hours and hours. (Sorry, I can’t be more specific… but if I had to guess, at last 8 – 10 hours out of the whole.)

The synopses for the four Outlander books — The Fiery Cross, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, An Echo in the Bone, and Written in My Own Heart’s Blood  — are lengthy and incredibly detailed. The books’ plots are thoroughly summarized, start to finish, with plenty of passages directly from the original texts.

Lengths of synopses (hardcover edition):

The Fiery Cross: 30 pages
A Breath of Snow and Ashes: 66 pages
An Echo In the Bone: 30 pages
Written In My Own Heart’s Blood: 80 pages

Reading tip: If you’re midway through the series, or perhaps took a break in between volumes, these synopses are so detailed that you could easily read these as prep before moving on to the next novel. Although, in my humble opinion, it’s never a waste of time to do a re-read of the books themselves!

After the four Outlander books, we come to the synopses of the Lord John books and novellas. These are much less detailed, with simple plot overviews, not much in the way of spoilers, and no details on the mysteries or their solutions. This section is useful as a refresher, but doesn’t provide enough information if you’re looking for a full-blown recap.

Part Three: Cast of Characters

As the introductory paragraph states:

This list includes all the characters from the second four novels and from the Lord John books, with brief notes as to which book each character is introduced in, who they are, their role in the story, and whether they’re fictional or real historical persons.

This is simply invaluable. Arranged alphabetically, this 118-page section is a must-have for series readers, providing instant access to the who’s who necessary to keep straight the huge number of people who come and go in the books.

Part Four: Sex and Violence (subtitle: Spanking, Beating, Flogging, and Other Interesting Topics Involving Physical Interactions of a Non-Consensual Sort)

Now here’s where it gets truly interesting! Up to now, the OCII is largely reference material. Finally, in Part Four, we get Diana’s insight into her characters and their actions, and it is absolutely fascinating.  She spends quite a bit of time on some of the more controversial elements in the books — the spanking scene in Outlander, the occurrence of rape in the plot and whether it’s too much, the historical context of rape in the Highlands, Black Jack Randall’s sadism — and for those with an opinion on any of these, or who’ve read or participated in any of the heated debates that seem to crop up among readers, it’s enlightening to hear the author’s take on the issues and understand the thought processes behind her writing of these elements.

Part Five: History and Historical Fiction: Organizing the Past

If I had to pick one section to recommend above all others as a resource for writers, this would be it. Whether or not you read the Outlander books, I think this marvelous section would be inspiring to anyone who ever dreamed of writing their own novel.

Diana is incredibly generous with her insights and personal revelations here. She discusses the challenges and pleasures of historical research, and just what’s involved in writing historical fiction, using documentary evidence to enhance and ground her fiction. Not only that, but she also shares her own organization and tracking methods for her research — everything from how she organizes her bookshelves to her computer files’ naming systems.

If I were a writer (and I’m not), I think I’d be incredibly uplifted by Diana’s no-nonsense approach to writing. You want to write? Then write. Don’t delay because you haven’t finished your research yet, or because you need a dedicated space, or until your kids are out of the house, or any of a thousand other reasons. She repeatedly stresses that she began writing Outlander for practice, just to see if she could. I’m simplifying things quite a bit here, but the bottom line is that this is a section that should be read and shared and appreciated. (Also, see Part Seven)

Part Six: A Comprehensive Scottish Language Glossary and Pronunciation Guide – by Adhamh O Broin

Comprehensive is right! 77 pages worth of Scottish phrases, with a guide to pronunciation, origin, use in the books, and meaning, written by the esteemed Adhamh O Broin, who is the official Gaelic (Gaidhlig) consultant for the Outlander TV series.

Part Seven: Writing, and Other Games You Play By Yourself

Along with Part Five, this is simply indispensable knowledge and advice for writers. Diana talks about her own writing processes, and digs deeply into “Mind Games” — the many ways that people’s minds get in the way of their writing. If you’re even thinking about maybe someday starting to write, read this section. Not kidding.

But wait, there’s more! A fabulous part of this section of the book is “A Coda in Three-Two Time” (Annotated). “A Coda in Three-Two Time” is an amazing section of Written In My Own Heart’s Blood, showcasing the wedding night experiences of three couples. It’s intimate, sexy, personal, and even funny — and here, Diana’s annotates the scene to explain the linguistic and stylistic elements behind the writing. The thought and craft that go into the creation of “Coda” is beautiful to learn about.

Also in Part Seven is a section called “One Word Speaks Volumes”, in which Diana explains that she has one word that for her sums up the theme of each novel. From Outlander (love) to The Fiery Cross (community) to A Breath of Snow and Ashes (loyalty) and beyond, the meaning behind the theme is explained and supported. As with so much in the OCII, it’s fascinating.

Finally, Part Seven includes Recipes — I’m not sure exactly why this fits in the writing section, but here it is. Diana shares some favorites recipes, with explanations about her family’s experiences with the dishes included and detailed instructions on cooking and serving them.

Part Eight: The Invisible Talent

As Diana states in the introduction to this section:

“Talent” is what publicists, producers, and agents call the people who provide the visible face of entertainment — actors, for the most part. But anyone who is even temporarily appearing in his or own persona is “talent” — even me. But what about the people who give so much to the TV show and the world of Outlander, who normally don’t show their faces and talk about what they do?

I asked a few of the many, many talented people who create the world of the TV show (and other aspects of the ever increasing world of Outlander) to give us a brief glimpse of what they do and how they do it.

Included are essays by four behind-the-scenes, exceptionally talented individuals:

Terry Dresbach, the show’s brilliantly gifted costume designer, writes about just what it takes to design and produce costumes for a production of this magnitude, and includes several of her sketches for outfits for Claire and Jamie.

[Listening note: The narrator for this section (whose name I didn’t catch) does a fine job, except she mispronounces a couple of character names — most notably, Jamie’s last name! It’s FRASER, not FRASIER. Seems like something that should have been corrected during the production.]

Bear McCreary, the show’s composer, talks about his love of Scottish music (especially bagpipes!) and the reasons for the types of music we hear throughout the episodes. While some of his information is rather technical, it’s presented in such a way that even a non-musical person like me could understand and appreciate it.

Dr. Claire MacKay: Dr. MacKay is an herbalist with expertise in the historical use of herbal medicine. She provides a really interesting overview of the history of herbal medicine in the  Highlands, as well as explaining nine herbs from Claire’s medicine kit, their traditional and modern uses, and their use in the Outlander books.

Theresa Carle-Sanders, author of the upcoming cookbook Outlander Kitchen, writes about “The Diet and Cookery of Eighteenth-Century Highlanders”, explaining not just what types of foods were eaten, but what this diet meant in terms of health, mobility, and class distinctions.

Part Nine: Maps and Floor Plans

Oh, what a treat! If you’re like me, you’ve spent a lot of mental energy trying to figure out just what’s where, and now we know! Included are floor plans for Lallybroch and the Big House on Fraser’s Ridge, as well as maps of the Lallybroch estate and the layout of the Fraser’s Ridge houses and cabins. Also included are maps of the American Colonies circa 1775, the British Isles, the city of Philadelphia, and the battlefields of Culloden and Saratoga.

Part Ten: The Methadone List

Diana’s fans are familiar with the concept of “The Methadone List”. Outlander is, after all, an addiction for its devoted readers — yet even the most devoted sometimes need to read something else. Diana shares this list in response to the question she’s always asked about what ELSE to read. “The Methadone List” is a list of some of her favorite books and writers, with brief plot descriptions and in some cases, excerpts from the books themselves.

Part Eleven: Bibliography

No explanation needed, right?

End papers: Several pages of photos conclude the OCII, include pictures of Castle Leod (seat of Clan MacKenzie) and a few behind-the-scenes photos from the TV production. The front and back inside covers are a detailed family tree (which you can download here as a PDF).

Listening tips:

Thanks to the audiobook, I spent much more time on the OCII than I might have if I’d only stuck to the physical copy. The hardcover edition is a beautiful physical specimen, but I don’t think it would have occurred to me to treat it as something to read from start to finish. By listening to the audiobook, I had the opportunity to slow down, pay attention, and really absorb all of the wonderful information contained in the book.

Highlights: What ended up really making this an extraordinary listen for me was the the narration by Diana Gabaldon herself. And I’ll tell you, I was skeptical at the start. Diana is not a professional audiobook narrator. For one thing, she is FAST. (Big tip: Use .75 speed if you can to listen to Diana’s sections — listening at regular speed is the equivalent of listening to any other audiobook at 1.5x!). It was an adjustment to get used to her speed and speech patterns, but once I got into the groove, I loved it! She shares so much of herself here, and hearing her deliver the content makes it an especially personal experience. Plus, in case you’ve never heard Diana Gabaldon give a talk before — she’s really funny. Listening to Diana narrate her own book lets us hear her emphases and inflections, and it becomes clear just what she finds funny about her content and where she’s being ironic or tongue-in-cheek.

As I mentioned earlier, getting another opportunity to listen to Davina Porter and Jeff Woodman is delightful. I’ve listened to the audiobooks of the entire Outlander series and Lord John books, and spending time with the narrators again here is like hanging out with old friends.

What’s missing: It may go without saying, but listeners should be aware that there are some elements of a reference book that just can’t be provided via audio. The OCII audiobook does not include the character guide, Scottish language glossary, maps and floor plans, or bibliography. And obviously, no illustrations.

Further tips:

Recipes and Methadone List — you can listen to these sections with the audiobook, but if you actually want to make use of them, whether to try the recipes or to track down books to read, you’ll need to refer to the hard copy.

Key advice:

The audiobook is a brilliant way to get a rich experience from the OCII — but it’s incomplete without the physical book at hand. My strongest advice for fans: Get them both.

If you’re a true fan of the Outlander series, then this is an essential and worthwhile investment! I know I’ll be referring to this book over and over again, whether it’s to look up a random character, check out a battlefield, or get some inspiration for my non-Outlander reading.

Blogger’s note: As I mentioned, I’m going about this backwards! Having listened to the OCII audiobook, I’m now going back and listening to the OCI audiobook as well. This is the longest piece I’ve ever posted, and I’m exhausted!! — but if I have the energy, I’ll write up a reading and listening guide to OCI once I finish.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Outlandish Companion, Volume II
Author: Diana Gabaldon
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: October 27, 2015
Printed book length: 656 pages
Audiobook length: 21 hours, 17 minutes
Genre: Reference
Source: Purchased

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