Thursday, December 25, 2008

"The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry

Source: Literal Systems (MP3)
Length: 20 min
Reader: Jane Aker

The story: Since today is Christmas and I'm spending time with my family, I won't say too much about today's story. I will mention that it is a great favorite of mine. When I listened to this recording, I got a little bit teary at the ending, even though I've read the story dozens of times before. I hope you're having a merry Christmas and wish you a wonderful holiday season!

Rating: 10/10

The reader: Jane Aker is an excellent narrator, as I've previously noted in her reading of A Tale of Two Cities. This story is no exception. Her voice carries the emotion of Della as she makes her fateful decision and the nervous excitement as she waits for her husband Jim to arrive home. The recording is professionally produced and ends with an appropriately mournful Christmas piano piece.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Source: LibriVox
Length: 2 hr, 44 min
Reader: Glen Hallstrom

The book: How can I really review a book so well-loved, widely-read, and continuously-adapted as A Christmas Carol? I first read this book as a school assignment in the sixth grade. Apart from seeing innumerable dramatic performances ranging from a stage musical to a Muppets' movie, this is my first return to the actual book.

The two things I have always disliked about Charles Dickens, in spite of his skills as an author, are (1) his tendency to drag out a story with wordiness and meaningless subplots and (2) his use of blatant sentimentalism to force a reader to think a certain way. The first fault is largely avoided in this novella, since Dickens' inability to find a publisher limited him on how long he could make his story. In thinking about the second fault, I have to admire Dickens' ability to manipulate our emotions, even when we know it's coming. In this book, he deftly induces fear, laughter, sympathy, and disgust. Yes, this is a sentimentalist novel, but it is Christmas after all, and I think that allowing a little sentiment is part of the season.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Hallstrom affects a deep theatrical voice that enhanced my enjoyment of the novel. In his LibriVox disclaimer, he sounds American but he takes on an actor's British accent for the narration and characters. I'm not sure how accurate his accent is, but as a Southerner myself, I found it pleasent to listen to. Hallstrom really performs the novel rather than reading it and this performance brings out the humor and suspense to their fullest potential. By subtly altering his voice he distinguishes the characters admirably; his Scrooge voice is particularly excellent.

Friday, December 19, 2008

"The Fable of the Author Who Was Sorry for What He Did to Willie" by George Ade

Source: Mr. Ron's Basement (MP3)
Length: 11 min
Reader: Ron Evry

The story: George Ade is a now-little-known American humor writer of the turn of the century. Many of his short stories take the form of modern-day "fables" with a ridiculous or incongruent moral tacked onto the end. In this fable, he imagines himself writing a poem so weepy and saccharine that he immediately throws it away. Little does he realize that this pathetic (in both senses of the word) poem would lead him to unexpected places.

I'm surprised that I had never heard of Ade before now. This story is so very funny because it exposes a truth about literature: that sentimentalism gains a broader audience than less facile entertainment. I'm reminded of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's frustration that no one wanted him to write anything but Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Perhaps Ade was expressing a similar frustration that he would never be able to write a serious magnum opus for which later centuries might remember him.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: The more I listen to Mr. Ron's Basement, the more I am enamored with this great podcast. Ron Evry is an excellent storyteller. He reads a little fast for my tastes, but if you're a fan of the Groucho Marx hit-em-with-a-joke-every-5-seconds school of thought, this will be right up your alley. Evry plays every funny line for all it's worth, going appropriately over-the-top with his voices and sarcastic asides. The recording is beautifully produced and bookended by some wonderfully silly banjo music.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith

Source: LibriVox
Length: Approx 4.5 hrs
Reader: Martin Clifton

The book: Charles Pooter is a middle-class clerk in Victorian London. He's tired of seeing published diaries about the great accomplishments of people he's never heard of. So, he starts a diary of his own. In it, he records the great trials and triumphs of his life: his epic battle with the boot scraper, the tiresomeness of his friends, the wittiness of his own puns, and the inability of his servant Sarah to bring him a good breakfast. This, indeed, is the same great time and place that produced Alfred Tennyson and Sir Winston Churchill.

I found this book to be laugh-out-loud funny (that's not actually a good thing when you're listening on headphones at the train stop). I'm sure that as many jokes I laughed at, there were probably just as many that I missed because of my ignorance of Victorian England culture. Even so, the book is a great insight to how people spent their days in the late 19th century. Pooter is one of British comedy's greatest characters: he's self-important, easily offended, insecure, and cheap while wanting to appear wealthy, cultured, and dignified. Yet, he is written so skillfully that even though we know he's a phony, we can't help but love him.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Martin Clifton matches this book perfectly as a narrator. His clipped British accent is the essence of Mr. Pooter's character. Clifton's tone is that of mild exasperation; he does not overplay the humor, which would have ruined the effect. He reads in a short, telegraphic rhythm that echoes the writing style of a journal. The recording is nicely done with a merely a whisper of background hiss.

Friday, December 12, 2008

"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson

Source: The New Yorker Fiction Podcast (MP3)
Length: 32 min
Reader: A. M. Homes

The story: Somewhere in apple pie and general store America, a small town gathers for a yearly ritual: the lottery. Almost everyone, young and old, has assembled with a mixture of excitement and nervous energy. The older townspeople speak about memories of lotteries in the past, comparing the present protocol to how it used to be done. Expectations build as the preliminaries begin, leading up to the drawing.

This is a very famous story, at least in the U.S., and therefore has gathered a number of interpretations, from Christian to Marxist. Without giving away the ending, I cannot discuss these interpretations, but I do believe that, in addition to any other meaning, the story is about tradition. At the time when the story was written just after World War II, America had just been through a time of some of the most radical changes in its history. The lottery that the small town participates in is a constant, a holdover from their grandparents' day. Jackson respects this tradition. She shows the lottery as a source of pride for the town, but at the same time she makes it clear that even though it may bring people together, the objects of a tradition may not always be good.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: Ms. Homes's reading reflects the quality of this piece. Her voice is quiet and calm, but with an underlying tension, just as in the story. The discussion at the end with fiction editor Deborah Treisman is enlightening. Included topics of conversation are one-hit writers, women authors in the 1940s, and the ghettoization of science fiction. As is typical for the NY'er fiction podcast, the production values are high. With all the belt-tightening going on in the media, I hope this podcast won't be one of the casualties.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Anthem by Ayn Rand

Source: Thought Audio
Length: 2 hr, 12 min
Reader: Michael Scott

The book: Set in the future following a catastrophic war, the society portrayed in Anthem is collectivism taken to the extreme. Individuality has been nearly wiped out. The first person singular is outlawed and forgotten, replacing "I" with "we". People do not not have names, but designations containing a societal quality combined with a number. Equality 7-2521 is a man who feels the pull of individualism and is punished for it. When in the course of his duties, he discovers an old tunnel from before the wars, he gains a chance to break free.

Rand's portray of this society has much in common with works produced during the rise of communism, such as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldus Huxley's Brave New World. Unlike these other examples of the sub-genre, I found Rand's dystopia lacking in realism and therefore less compelling. Anthem's society is a city all on its own without any sense of a larger world other than an ill-defined wilderness. Surely other pockets of humanity would have survived even the most horrific war and become a rival society to out-compete the anti-technology society portrayed here.

The other main problem that I have with the book is that the danger it forecasts in collectivism is no longer the pressing spectre it was to Rand, who had lived in Stalinist Russia. In the present, we are more in danger of the opposite, a world of complete individuals with no sense of brotherhood or the collective good. Just as science in Anthem is impossible because no one can become any greater than others, science in a world where every technique or discovery is patented and jealously guarded is equally impossible. Likewise art is equally difficult when the artist or writer is not allowed to be different as when anything mildly derivative runs the danger of a copyright lawsuit. For this reason, I see Anthem not as a story for our time, but as a historical document of the fear that collective society once held.

Rating: 7/10

The Reader: Scott has a deep, announcer-sounding voice that is very pleasant for listening. This stentorian voice, however, is one of the drawbacks as well. Scott speaks with such confidence and power that it is sometimes discordant with the position of the protagonist, who has been trained to see himself as just like everyone else. The steady patterns of his cadence and the radio-quality voice are great assets to make the words very understandable, so only true purists need worry about the incongruity of the voice. Some edits are audible through digital artifacts, but otherwise the audio is professionally produced with very little background noise.

Note: Thought Audio's books have at various times been free and behind a pay wall. If you would like this book, but find you cannot download it, try the always-free LibriVox version.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

No reviews this week.

Due to busy times at work and home, I won't be posting any reviews this week. Check back next week when I'll have, as usual, one free audiobook and one free audio short story review.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Audiobooks for Christmas

According to retailers, today marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Last year, my family put a focus on making a gift to give to everyone rather than buying so much. So, I designed and printed several covers for audiobooks from LibriVox. I burned the CDs and packaged them in some nice cases from Sleeve Town. The total cost was around $2 or $3 per gift, including the blank CDs, the CD cases plus shipping and some quality paper for printing. These were a big hit with my family.

If you'd like to try it yourself, you can get the cover designs at The Internet Archive and find a tutorial on how to create your own covers at the Librivox Wiki. If you don't have a program like PhotoShop, you can use GIMP (a free PhotoShop clone) or even use the limited graphic capabilities of MS Word or Powerpoint. Use the sidebar on this blog if you want to find a particular length of book or genre. This is a great do-it-yourself Christmas gift for anyone looking for cheap Christmas presents.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

"The Boy Who Snared The Sun" by William T. Larned

Source: LibriVox (MP3)
Length: 15 min
Reader: Chip

The story: This story, taken from the larger collection American Indian Fairy Tales, is from the Ojibwa (Chippawa) tradition. The stories of this book were collected in the 1820s by the geologist and ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft while he was Indian Agent assigned to the Ojibwa tribe. About 100 years later, William T. Larned rewrote the stories and placed them in the framework of an old Indian storyteller imparting the tales to a young Indian boy and his sister. This particular story concerns the doormouse and how he came to be so small after having once been the largest of all animals.

This folktale has two opposite examples of a reversal motif. The titular boy who snares the sun is the weak triumphing over the strong, while the giant doormouse becoming small is the strong becoming weak. These motifs reoccur in literature throughout the world, from Horatio Alger stories to Greek tragedy. The repetition of these two opposing trajectories, one up and one down, suggests that change may not always for the better, but at least it's more interesting than staying the same.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Chip has the voice of a natural storyteller; he is well suited to this folktale. His professional-quality baritone squeezes every drop of drama out of the narrative. The recording has a bit of a hiss on the "S" and "K" sounds, but this is easily overlooked because of the quality of the reader. The story and storyteller make me feel as if I had just curled up next to a roaring campfire to hear a great yarn-spinner work his craft.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

Source: LibriVox
Length: 17 hr, 18 min
Reader: Gary Sherwin

The book: The Last of the Mohicans is set in upstate New York during the French and Indian War. Natty Bumppo, known to the British-allied Indians as Hawkeye and to the French and their Indian allies as "Le Longue Carabine," is a scout in the hotly-contested portage between the Hudson River and the Great Lakes. He and his friends Chingachgook and Uncas, the last two members of the dwindling Mohican tribe, pledge to help two young ladies and their escort through the forest to Fort William Henry where their father is in command of the British forces. But the forest is filled with the French-allied Huron Indians, so it will take all of Hawkeye and the Mohicans' skill to get them through alive.

I was expecting this book to be a plodding period drama with long-winded descriptions of the American frontier and boring philosophical speeches on the noble savage. Cooper did throw in a few of these, but I found the descriptions moving and the speeches short and to-the-point. For the most part, this book was much more fun than I expected. Cooper designs some exciting action sequences with interesting devices for the heroes' escape. His villains and heroes alike are well-formed characters, despite borrowing heavily from American Indian stereotypes. The main asset of the book, however, was the setting. The French and Indian War is a short chapter in most American textbooks and little more than a footnote in European history, but Cooper's story is a great example of literature making history come alive.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Sherwin's reading is that of an amateur, but a talented amateur. He stumbles over a word from time to time, and noises like page turns and edits are clearly audible. His tone and pacing, however are near-perfect. Sherwin does voices with varying success. His voicing of the villain is scarily menacing, while the comic choirmaster's voice is hilariously funny. On the other hand, the female characters' voices made me cringe at times. His natural voice is fairly deep, which is liability for the women characters, but for his narration and male voices it's a great asset. Fortunately, most of this book plays to his strengths, so I can highly recommend this reading.

Friday, November 21, 2008

"Fokker Filibuster" by Robert Sidney Bowen

Source: Dial P for Pulp (MP3)
Length: 52 min (story itself is about 20 min long)
Reader: Elisha Sessions

The story:The pulp magazine stories of the early 20th century were often cookie-cutter genre pieces. Despite their cliches and political incorrectness, however, the best of these stories are still entertaining for a modern audience. In fact the pulps have experienced a resurgence as the Internet has made stories long out of print once more available to a wider audience.

In this story, Lt. Joseph Todd is a World War I fighter pilot in the US Army Air Service. Todd is a good pilot, but he has one problem: he can't land on the tiny battlefront air strips without damaging his aircraft. True to the conventions of this type of story, Scott is called up on a suprise mission where he will have one last chance to redeem himself.

I found this story predictable, but still an exciting action-adventure piece. The plot has plenty of bursts of aerial and ground fighting coming one after the other. "Fokker Filibuster" isn't a memorable story, but it is a fun one.

Rating: 6/10

The reader:The Dial P for Pulp podcast combines reviews of pulp fiction, drama, and games with readings of stories from classic magazines or their modern imitators. "Fokker Filibuster" starts at about 29 minutes into this episode. Sessions reads with great liveliness. His character voices are spot-on and his narration conveys the bang-pow attitude of the genre. The story
begins and ends with a plane engine effect at the that flies straight through the headphones from one side to the other, setting the stage for a well-produded recording.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Source: LibriVox
Length: 9 hr, 20 min
Reader: Mark F. Smith

The book: What would happen if a human baby from parents of the best quality was raised by animals of the most barbaric sort? Would the child reflect the attributes of his biological parents or social environment? The nature versus nurture debate has engaged philosophers, then later scientists, for centuries, but neither Hume nor Locke wrote any treatise half as entertaining as Burroughs' pulp novel. Tarzan's animal upbringing gives him the strength and abilities of the jungle, but his "good breeding" affords him the morality and intelligence to make him a super-man.

Although Tarzan's parents were English and his upbringing African, he can be seen to be a metaphor for the United States, which was at the time just becoming a world power. Like Tarzan, the USA boasted a European heritage that had been tempered by the hardships of the frontier. Led by Teddy Roosevelt, himself a blend of aristocracy and outdoorsman, America had subjugated the savages and taken its seat at the table of the Western powers.

Of course, this version of America's place in the world is very colonialist and Tarzan reflects this prejudice. The depiction of black people, both native and Westernized, is racist. Burroughs seems to imply that black people are at worst cannibals and at best comic sidekicks, depending on the environment where they were raised. This viewpoint provides a dark contrast to Tarzan's triumph of heritage over surroundings. Although modern psychology has shown that our physical nature governs many of our basic behaviors, our human qualities are much more influenced by culture than Burroughs supposes.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: As in several other books I have reviewed, Mark F. Smith does an excellent job with this book. He reads with a moderate cadence that allows for easy understanding. His narration is in a slightly nasal American accent, but performs a few decent accents for the characters' voices. The recording is marred by a background whine. Some people will be able to ignore it, but others will find this noise distracting.

Friday, November 14, 2008

"The Absent Minded Coterie" by Robert Barr

Source: Librivox (Part 1) (Part 2)
Length: 1 hr, 27 min
Reader: Czechchris

The story: French detective Eugene Valmont is approached by Spenser Hale of Scotland Yard concerning a case which is frustrating the London police. Because of a decline in the price of silver, a band of counterfeiters have begun producing British silver coins in actual silver, making the phonies difficult to identify (historical note: because Britain at the time was on the gold standard, the value of the silver in a coin did not equal its face value). Suspicion falls on a Mr. Summertree who appears to be the one distributing the false coins, but the police need Valmont, as a Frenchman not under English police procedure, to perform a warrantless search to find out who is actually making the coinage. Valmont agrees to take the case, but finds a much more ingenious conspiracy than counterfeiting.

The mystery presented here is both interesting and surprising, with plenty of plot twists that left me shaking my head and chuckling. The entertainment is magnified by the confident figure of Eugene Valmont as a slyly funny narrator. Although the story is set in 1896, modern readers will recognize some features of the story are current in the news: warrantless searches, the use of foreign operatives to avoid national laws, and the election of a new American President in a time of economic crisis.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: Czechchris, despite his Slavic username, has a British accent that sounds wonderful, though it jars somewhat with the French identity of the narrator of this particular story. I, however, am not of the opinion that a reader's accent must match the character, since it would be a pity to deny such a good reader as this one the chance to perform this story. The reader does not "do voices" but his reading of the different characters lines are true to the emotions that the characters are expressing. The sound quality of this recording is superb.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Red Thumb Mark by R. Austin Freeman

Source: Internet Archive
Length: Approx 8 hr
Reader: Maureen S. O'Brien

The book: The London police are presented with an open-and-shut case. A precious metals dealer had a large value of diamonds stolen from his office safe. The only people with access to the safe were the owner and his two nephews. Inside the safe, the police find a few drops of blood and a damning piece of evidence: the owner's ledger sheet for receipt of the diamonds marked with the bloody thumbprint of one of the nephews - Rubin Hornby.

Dr. John Thorndyke, a medical examiner for legal cases, takes up Rubin's case. Dr. Thorndyke believes he can clear Rubin's name. The most advanced science of Edwardian times will be brought to bear in this turn-of-the-century CSI. But how will Thorndyke and his new associate Christopher Jervis solve the mystery?

The difficulty of a mystery story is that, according to convention, the author should leave enough clues available to the reader to guess the outcome, but obscure the facts enough that most will not. Even so, some readers will see the solution very quickly. With the benefits of history and advancement of science, modern readers have additional advantages over Freeman's contemporaries. Although this story has a number of twists that may have thrilled past readers, I found it to be an entertaining, but predictable, mystery.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: Ms. O'Brien has a lovely American voice for narration. For the characters, she drops into voices that identify each quite well. This reading does not disguise the fact that it is amateur; O'Brien goes back to re-read phrases she flubs and there is some noise of page turning and bumps. However, if you can forgive the lack of polish, it is a very good amateur reading with acceptable sound quality.

Friday, November 7, 2008

"The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield

Source: LibriVox (MP3)
Length: 34 minutes
Reader: iremonger


The story: As the time for their garden party approaches, the Sheridan household is abuzz with activity. Mrs. Sheridan and her daughters, Laura, Josie, and Meg, must supervise the workmen, servants, cooks, and gardeners. It's such hard work getting ready for a party! When a tragedy strikes nearby, the family must decide how they will incorporate these events into their plans.

Katherine Mansfield's story is a great exploration of class distinction. Her words hang with dramatic irony. The banality of the Sheridans' activities contrast with the later events in a twisted kind of foreshadowing. I found the ending a bit of a cop-out, but I think that might be the whole point of the story. Life is either incredibly meaningful or incredibly meaningless, either way, it lies beyond words to describe.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: This is a beautifully read piece by the incongruently named iremonger. The reading has a lyrical quality. Early on, he stumbles a little, but as the narrative goes along, the reader seems to fall into a grove and tells a good story. The sound quality is high with only a few background noises.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Source: Librivox
Length: 3 hr, 12 min
Reader: Elizabeth Klett

The book: The titular character in Ethan Frome is a man living in rural Starkfield, Massachusetts, trapped in a marriage with a woman who is both sickly and demanding. When his wife's beautiful cousin Mattie comes to stay with the couple as a domestic helper, Frome begins to dream of a better life away from Starkfield with Mattie. But Frome is a good man who won't allow himself to wrong his wife. The story is a classic example of the struggle between desire and commitment.

Ethan Frome is one of those stories which ten years ago I would have have not enjoyed. I would have seen Frome as a selfish, weak man, not recognizing his quiet heroism. Since then, my own experiences with difficult moral decisions in a past relationship have changed my perception. I can now sympathize with Frome's wanting to leave but knowing it is right to stay. I think it's amazing how a book can mean nothing at one time, but be so meaningful if read at a different time in life. I'm humbled to realize that these reviews I write are valid for myself alone, only at the time that I write them.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Elizabeth Klett is a wonderful reader. I've already mentioned how much I liked her reading of Howard's End by E.M. Forster. This reading is just as good, with an even better sound quality. Ms. Klett has lovely voice with clear, crisp enunciation. Her reading makes use of variations of tone and volume to create an enjoyable audiobook. I would reccomend her readings to anyone looking for the best readers of LibriVox.

Friday, October 31, 2008

"The Keeper" by Ken Goldman

Source: Pseudopod
Length: 29 minutes
Reader: Alasdair Stuart

The story: For Halloween, I've picked a creepy horror story in the could-be-real vein of The Silence of the Lambs or Cape Fear. In this gruesome story, the mentally retarded keeper of a lighthouse kidnaps a young lady and takes her back to his tower. She fights back with all her wits and wile, but will it be enough to keep her alive?

Normally, I don't read this type of story. Graphic violence turns my stomach, whether it be in the horror, science fiction, or crime genres. Occasionally, however, I allow myself a peek into a darker world (Jack Wakes Up, for example). I think part of this is a morbid curiosity that is widespread among all human beings, as evidenced by the traffic jams caused by people rubbernecking at a wreck on the other side of the freeway. Secondly, and more philosophically, depictions of graphic violence in literature and entertainment allow us to embrace physical suffering and violent death as part of the human condition in sort of a memento mori of pain. Lastly, I think part of the attraction of gruesome horror is an effort to confront the things we fear, like a self-imposed variation on the exposure therapy that psychiatrists use to help people with fear disorders. Of course, there's not really much difference between inhibition of a abnormal over-response to fear and a habituation to gore to the point that things which should scare us no longer do. What's medicine for some can be poison for others, so I try to take care to keep my dosage of violence low.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: Pseudopod generally retains the high production values of its sister podcasts, Escape Pod and PodCastle. This story is no exception in being very well-produced, with low noise and good sound. Alasdair Stuart speaks clearly with a English accent. He gives some voice to the characters, but is sometimes strangely flat when the action is more emotional. This can be a bit disconcerting, but also adds somewhat to the creepy atmosphere of the story.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Source: Lit2Go
Length: Approx 17 hr.
Reader: Rick Kistner

The book: My impressions of Dracula are heavily influenced by my first reading of it when I was in middle school. This was a revelation to me: that an old book could also be good. Dracula certainly deserves its reputation as a classic. Although some parts are a bit slow, others carry a profound spookiness that is untouched by the bombardment of gore and cheap frights of many modern horror movies.

Despite its many adaptations to film and other media, I'm not sure that Dracula the novel is ideally suited to audiobooks. For one thing, it's a long book, an aspect which telescopes in the spoken word where slow parts drag on. Complex action is difficult to re-read. Stoker makes heavy use of letter, diaries, and false documents to tell his story. These lose some of their feeling of veracity then taken off the printed page. There are some stories which are enhanced by the sound and rhythm of voice, while others are documents which take full advantage of the physical medium of the book. To Dracula's great credit, even though it belongs in the class of a primarily physical book, it still works well in the spoken format.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: Kistner has a deep voice that is full of color. He alters his accent and tone for the different characters, making them recognizable. The pace of his reading is not always ideal, but overall this is a decent reading. The main complaint lies with the recording. There is some background noise. Lip smacks and breathing are clearly audible. These issues are excusable to some people, while others may find that they make the book unenjoyable. I'll allow you to decide whether or not the quality of the story and reader make up for some audio noise.

Friday, October 24, 2008

"My Financial Career" by Stephen Leacock

Source: Mr. Ron's Basement MP3
Length: 7 min
Reader: Ron Evry

The story: If Anne of Green Gables is the Canadian Tom Sawyer, then Stephen Leacock is Canada's Mark Twain. Although Leacock is relatively unknown here south of the Friendly Border, he was once quite popular world-wide, and is still well-loved in Canada. I have only in the past year come across his writing. While I don't find all of Leacock's humor side-splittingly funny, he is worthy of a smile and occasional laugh.

This short piece, detailing his dealings with a bank, seems relevant for the current times, even though it was written in 1910. The humor mostly comes from the narrator's unfamiliarity with banking, but a few absent-minded remarks increase the confusion on the bank's part as well. These foot-in-mouth statements capture perfectly the universal nervousness of trying something new and different, so that even if we're quite comfortable banking, we can see ourselves in the narrator's troubles. The ability to laugh at others while secretly laughing at ourselves heightens the humor and allows the reader to identify with what would otherwise simply be a goofy character.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Ron Evry has an expressive baritone that aids tremendously in conveying Leacock's humor. Evry stumbles over a few words and occasionally puts a pause or emphasis in the wrong place, but by-and-large, this is a decent amateur reading. The recording is somewhat noisy and has a slight hiss, although I wasn't distracted by it. I only really noticed the hiss because I had my player turned up to high volume for another recording that was much softer, while this recording is fairly loud. Don't do what I did and hurt your eardrums. Turn it down!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Source: LibriVox
Length: 9 hr, 34 min
Reader: Rachelellen

The book: Anne of Green Gables is like a female version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer set in the Canadian maritime provinces rather than the American Midwest. Like Tom Sawyer, this book doesn't have so much of a plot as a series of interrelated humorous episodes. But while Tom has adventures in getting into fights, faking his own death, and tricking his friends, Anne's adventures consist of making friends, having tea parties, and going to poetry recitals.

While they may express it differently, Anne and Tom have a similar view of the world as a place of adventure to be explored. Tom's adventures get more outrageous as the book goes on until he finally ends up in mortal danger. Anne, on the other hand, channels her sense of adventure into pathways deemed acceptable to society. Yet, even though this may appear to be a capitulation to the pressures of adulthood, Anne still keeps her sense of wonder and vivacity. Montgomery seems to be propounding a philosophy that one can grow up without leaving behind the essential spirit of childhood.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: This is an excellent recording of an amazing reader. Rachelellen voices fill the characters with so much life, I can't imagine reading this book without her. Her voicing of Anne, Marilla, and Matthew, not to mention her hilarious acting of Mrs. Rachel Lynde, made me love the characters and kept me listening. Rachelellen's narrating voice is clear and bright, with wonderful phrasing and diction. I think Anne herself would applaud Rachelellen if she were to go to a recital.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Junius Maltby" by John Steinbeck

Source: Audiolingo.org MP3
Length: 49 min
Reader: Jay King

The story: You may have noticed that I typically pair a story with the same week's book on the basis of genre, theme, or time period. This week, the story and book have a rather tenuous connection: both feature a character named Junius who departs San Francisco for the Pastures of Heaven. "Junius Maltby" was published in the story collection The Pastures of Heaven and in some editions of The Red Pony.

In Steinbeck's story, Junius is a young man who leaves his accountant job to recover from illness in the idyllic-named valley of Pastures of Heaven, where he learns the joys of laziness. Junius would rather read Robert Louis Stevenson than work (it's too bad LibriVox hadn't been invented yet; Junius could've listened to Treasure Island or Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde while he hoed the fields). Steinbeck tells his story with his characteristic Californian style. The story has the simplicity of a fable at the beginning, but adds layers of complexity as it progresses. With some laugh-out loud moments, Steinbeck tells a story about happiness in individuality and society.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Mr. King reads this story with obvious love and familiarity. His delivery brings out Steinbeck's sense of humor, which is sometimes easy to overlook in print. King gives light voicing to the characters and narrates with a calm, masculine American accent. The recording has a bit of hiss and crackle, but is easily understandable.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Jack Wakes Up by Seth Harwood

Source: Podiobooks.com
Length: Approx. 10 hrs
Reader: Seth Harwood

The book: Sometimes you just need to have some fun being bad. This is both the theme and the best reason for reading Jack Wakes Up. Former action-movie star Jack Palms is stuck in a rut on his road to recovery from the nadir of drugs, divorce, and the implosion of his acting career. He has cleaned up and turned his life around, but has no direction and no income until his friend Ralph contacts him. Ralph is coordinating an agreement to supply some Czechs with cocaine to deal. All Jack has to do is help entertain the Czechs and impress them with his minor celebrity status.

Like Jack, the reader will have to check his scruples at the door. The language is harsh, with copious swearing. The plot, while fast paced and cinematic, is concerned with drugs, strippers and plenty of graphic violence. Jack himself is a likable character, but many of the others behave with stupidity, greed, or sadistic cruelty. This is not a pretty world that Harwood has drawn, but if you're a fan of Quentin Tarentino or Elmore Leonard, you'll enjoy this entertaining novel.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Harwood's reading of his novel is good. He provides voice characterizations using patterns of pauses, tone of voice, and accents. His narrating voice is straightforward and honest-sounding, fitting Jack's personality. My biggest problem with the recording comes with everything outside the book. The introduction and exit music is hip-hop, appropriate for the mood. But almost every episode begins and ends with clips from the previous episode and next one. This may have been necessary when the chapters were first podcasted, but now that they're collected, it becomes tedious. Also tedious is the swaggering "homie" attitude that Harwood adopts for announcements and self-promotion. He's trying to sound tough, but ends up sounding ridiculous. If you can skip over everything between the introduction and first chapter of each episode, you won't miss a thing.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

"Beyond Lies the Wub" by Philip K. Dick

Source: Time Traveler Show | MP3
Length: 32 min
Reader: Mac Kelly

The story: Philip K. Dick is probably best know today for the many science fiction movies based on his stories and novels: Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Blade Runner (from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), Total Recall (from "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"), and Screamers (from "Second Variety"). This short story "Beyond Lies the Wub" was Dick's first published piece of fiction. In it, Peterson, a junior member of a space freighter on a distant planet, buys a piglike beast called a wub, intending to use it for food. After blastoff, he discovers the wub is actually very intelligent, but his captian still insists on eating the animal. Peterson is caught between doing what he is told and doing what his conscience tells him.

Even though this was Dick's first short story, much of his trademark style is apparent. Dick has a wry sense of humor that he often used to satarize greedy commercialism, as he does here. Much of his work (or at least what I've read of it) concerns beings which are not what they appear to be at first look. Dick was a big fan of Carl Jung, and so the wub's discourse on The Odyssey sounds an awful lot like the beginning of a Jungian thesis. If this is your first introduction to the work of this science fiction master, you've picked a good place to start.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Mac Kelly accomplishes something with this story rarely seen in audiobook narraration: he actually enhanses the story with his voice. Kelly's voicing of the wub, in particular, brings out its porcine character better than the actual text. The rest of his narration is equally excellent and the recording environment is nicely silent. Surrounding the actual story are several promotions for other podcasts and audiobooks for sale, but since these are directly related to the story itself, they are unobjectionable and may be useful to some listeners.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Plague Ship by Andre Norton

Source: Librivox
Length: 7 hr, 4 min
Reader: Mark Nelson

The book: Plague Ship reads like two separate short books, joined by characters and universe, but with completely different local settings and plots. In the first half, the crew of the independent trading ship Solar Queen have to outwit and outfight the representatives of a rival company to gain trading rights for the planet Sargol. The inhabitants of Sargol are a feline race with a tribal culture and the Solar Queen's crew must gain their trust to make this trading venture a success. In the second half of the book, the crew heads home to Earth. One by one crew members begin to fall ill from a mysterious ailment. The remaining spacemen know that unless they discover the cause of the disease, they will be branded as a plague ship, unable to dock at any port for fear of an outbreak in the general population.

This book was published in 1956, one year before Sputnik was launched. The pre-spaceflight innocence shows in some plot holes. Even though hundreds of rocket ships take off every day from Earth in the book, neither they nor any satellites notice that a presumed desert wasteland is actually a verdant jungle. Other anachronisms make it clear that this is historical science fiction. Taken as such, Plague Ship is an enjoyable light novel with plenty of adventure.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: Mark Nelson is an excellent reader. His voice is clear and masculine with a wholesome sound. The recording is noiselessly clean. Nelson adds in a little laser-beam sound effect after the Librivox disclaimer. It's silly, but it shows that he really cares about the product he's producing and giving away. For more of his readings, check out "Call of Cthulhu" and Right Ho, Jeeves.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Vacation week

I'm going on a late vacation this week, so there won't be any reviews until next week. Until then, check out some other audiobook review blogs:
  • Free Audio Review is one of my favorites. Felbrigg reviews everything from history to old-time radio shows.
  • Trucker Rich tends to favor horror, science fiction, and action.
  • I Like Podcasts is written by science fiction author Cat Rambo and features (what else?) mostly speculative fiction podcasts.
Hope these three will tide you over until next week. If you're searching for more, try the "blogs" tag on the navigation bar at the right.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift

Source: LibriVox
Length: 27 min
Reader: John Gonzales

The story: In 1729, Jonathan Swift published a pamphlet that proposed to solve all the British Empire's problems, particularly the poverty and starvation in Ireland. This solution would decrease the number of poor people, bring income, provide food for many, and alleviate religious conflict all without costing the British Empire a shilling. The proposal was simple, but obvious in hindsight: women of the lower classes would nurse their children until they were one year old, then sell them off as food for the higher classes. The skin of the babies could even be used for a gentleman's fine gloves! What possible objections could be raised to such a beneficial project?

"A Modest Proposal" was the grandfather of our current political satire. Even before the Industrial Revolution had begun, Swift saw that the rise of Britain as a mercantile power was pushing its people into a hyper-capitalist worldview that saw people as just another commodity to be exploited. No one was really wanting to eat the peasants' babies, but more were subscribing to the idea that everything has its price and that price should be maximized, without regard to who it hurt. Swift jumped on this idea and took it to its logical extreme. In a sense, this pamphlet was the first issue of The Onion or the first episode of The Colbert Report.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: This piece could be read aloud in two very different ways. One would be to play it straight, earnestly arguing that babies should be roasted and allow the listener to figure out that the reader is not, in fact, serious. The other would be to adopt Swift's tone of sarcasm, letting the listeners know that the reader is in on the joke. Gonzales chooses the second, but doesn't allow his sarcasm to become so thick that it ruins impact of what is being proposed. He has a snooty British accent that gives a overtone of reality, while at certain points his voice overemphasizes the deliciousness of baby flesh to play up the humor. The balance of straight man and joker is hard to achieve, but Gonzales hits it just right.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Source: Audiobooks.org
Length: Approx 10-11 hrs.
Reader: Dan Lezar

The book: One of the claimants to the title "First English Novel," Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719. Since then, so many adaptations, retellings, and borrowings have appeared that the story is familiar as a fairy tale. Like fairy tales, reading the original can be surprising to those who have only encountered its derivatives.

The novel shows its age in some places. Defoe was not writing with the advantage of centuries of prose fiction tradition. His plot does not flow in the way a modern reader expects, but instead progresses in fits and starts. Defoe cannot seem to end the narrative when it should end, but lets the book drag on after Crusoe's rescue. Defoe also betrays his colonialist attitudes: the natives, even Friday, are inferior and Crusoe has no moral qualms about slavery.

On the other hand, in some places the novel seems quite fresh and vibrant. Crusoe is an engaging character. Although he develops a tendency to moralizing, he can be optimistic and funny; essentially everything one would like in a desert island companion. The plot which lopes along leisurely for most of the book does have a few suspenseful moments, notably Crusoe's discovery of footprints on the supposedly uninhabited island. This episode, though I knew it was coming as well as its eventual outcome, kept me listening when I had nearly given up on the book. I'm glad I finished it, if only for the pride of having read one of the great foundations of Western literature.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: This recording is apparently taken with permission from cassette tapes produced by Random House. As such, the reading is professionally done, but the audio quality suffers from the technology. The reader has an excellent masculine voice that manages to unwrap Defoe's sometimes unwieldy sentences into listenable statements. The sound is full of tape hiss, which I was able to ignore most of the time by turning up the volume.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Source: LibriVox | MP3
Length: 32 minutes
Reader: Michelle Sullivan

The story: The narrator and her husband move to a neglected old estate in the countryside to allow the lady time to recover from her "nervous condition." Confined to her room and forbidden from all activity by her husband, she spends her days following the pattern of the horrible yellow wallpaper of her room. As she whiles away the hours between surreptitiously writing in her journal, she begins to notice something: there is a woman living in the wallpaper!

This story makes a great companion piece to The Turn of the Screw. Both were published around the same time, both are ghost stories set in a country estate and both feature women going slowly insane. The upper-class madwoman seems to have been a staple in Victorian literature. I've encountered her as far back as Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, but a can't recall her appearance in 20th century literature. Perhaps the coming of Freud's theories forced writers to construct a different type of the mentally disordered. This story turns the archetype on its head by suggesting it is not the woman being "the weaker sex" that causes insanity, but condescending treatment of women as weaker that leads to the Victorian madwoman.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: I don't know anything about Ms. Sullivan, but she certainly sounds as if she is a theater-trained actor. Her American voice brings out the character of the narrator as an intelligent, curious woman shackled by her husband's misplaced care. My only complaint is that Ms. Sullivan tends to make her "s" sounds too breathy. The recording has a slight hiss, but not so bad that it interferes with understanding the words.

(photo circa 1890 from Cornell University via flickr. No copyright restrictions)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Source: Librivox
Length: 5 hr, 43 min
Reader: Nikolle Doolin

The book: A young lady, charmed by a young gentleman in London, agrees to take up a job as a governess to his orphaned niece and nephew. After arriving at the country estate where the children live, the governess begins to see figures around the estate that do not seem to fit with any of the servants currently living there. She learns from other servants that the former governess, Miss Jessel, and her lover, Peter Quint, died mysteriously shortly before she was hired. Are the figures she has been seeing the ghosts of this couple or is it all in her mind?

James keeps up this ambiguity throughout the book, constructing dialogues and events that seem diabolical under one viewpoint and another perfectly innocent by another. The book is told from the 1st person perspective of the governess. This narrator is the only one who seems to notice the ghosts and their effects on the children, but we as readers are not sure we can trust this young lady. The degree to which James draws out the governess's decent into horror is a bit frustrating at times, but really, this is a short book and a classic in psychology.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Ms. Doolin sounds like a professional. Her reading is polished, using pauses and inflection to great effect. I found it interesting to compare the voice of the narrator from the first chapters where she is bright and innocent to the later where you can hear the suspicion in her voice. The other characters are not given full-fledged voices, but Ms. Doolin alters her diction and pitch enough to let us know who is talking. The recording is clean and noiseless.

Friday, September 12, 2008

"Iron Bars and the Glass Jaw" by Jeffery R. DeRego

Source: Escape Pod, Episode 27
Length: 35 minutes
Reader: Jonathan Sullivan

The story:Union Dues is a series of linked stories about an alternate version of our own world in which superpowers are real. People with these superpowers are kept separate of the "normals" by the Union, a extra-governmental organization which regulates the "supers." Supers who agree to certain conditions set by the Union become superheroes, with their own costumes and Union-produced comic books.

This particular story is the first in the series. Megaton, one of the Union's superheroes, has been arrested. The small-town sheriff begins to probe Megaton with questions, allowing DeRego a chance to throw in some expository dialogue. Yet, DeRego doesn't spend his entire story in world-building. He also manages to establish some of the themes and moral issues he will develop in later stories: the loneliness of being different, the manipulation of image in the media, and the right of the privileged to make decisions on behalf of the unprivileged. If it sounds like DeRego is trying too much, be assured that this is a a compelling story that introduces a fascinating world.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Jonathan Sullivan does an outstanding job with this piece. The story is told in the 1st person from Megaton's perspective, so it is this character's voice that dominates the story. Sullivan performs Megaton in a gravelly rasp, a more weary version of Batman's voice in Batman: The Animated Series. The other major character, the small town sheriff, is voiced by Sullivan with a Southern accent, but he avoids the Barney Fife caricature. As is typical with Escape Pod episodes, the production values are high.

Note: Jeffery DeRego, the author of this story, recently underwent heart surgery for a bypass surgery. The surgery reportedly went fine, but financial assistance would be welcome. If you listened to this story and liked it, consider donating via Paypal to Mr. DeRego and his family. The donation link is available through this Escape Pod link and will be open through the end of September 2008.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Brave Men Run by Matthew Wayne Selznick

Source: Podiobooks.com
Length: Approx 7 hrs
Reader: Matthew Wayne Selznick

The book: Nathan Charters is weird. Okay, it's the 1980s and everyone looks weird, but Nate is different. He has supersensitive hearing, smell, and nightvision. He has more strength and speed than this frame suggests, and he looks like a freak. So when William Donner makes a declaration on TV that there are other superhumans, "sovereigns" as he calls them, Nate can see his life in high school going from bad to worse.

A superpower novel has to have good action. Selznick delivers in this department with several exciting fights and many more suspenseful moments. But it is his great characters, particularly Nate, who make this an enjoyable novel.

Selznick's novel, at first glance, seems like a standard superhero genre young adult novel. The main internal conflict is the protagonist's struggle with identity. Like all adolescents, Nate is trying to figure out his own body, his sexual feelins for his girlfriend, his future, and most of all, what he is and what to call himself. Later in the story, he has to deal with the issues of parental trust in both directions. Yet, this story does not seem to be aimed at adolescents. Why set it in the 1980s and fill it with references to the culture and music of the time? Instead, I think it's aimed at the children of the 80's, now adults, who are trying to remember what it was like to be a teenager. Even though I was really a preteen in the 80s, the book was effective in bringing back nostalgia, not only for the time period, but for my own youth.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Selznick reads his own book, which is quite a treat. As I've mentioned before, he's an excellent reader. His young-sounding voice seems to fit Nate as the first-person narrator in this book. Selznick doesn't overdo the voices, but gives each character a slightly different sound that fits well. The music at the beginning and end of each episode sets the mood for an 80's story, though toward the end, I found myself fast-forwarding a minute or so to get to the story.

Friday, September 5, 2008

"An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce

Source: Librivox MP3
Length: 22 min
Reader: Matthew Stewart-Fulton

The story: This story, set in Alabama during the Civil War, opens with the preparations for the execution of a Southern saboteur. Bierce fills his description of the immanent hanging with cinematic details, likely drawn from his own military career in the Union Army. The scene is a quiet, still tableau waiting for the action to begin.

As the story progresses, Bierce contrasts the genteel ideals of the Southern gentleman-spy with the brutality of war. Again and again, the civilian asserts that some event is unfair or improper. These expectations of justice are intermixed with minute details of cold reality. In this contrast, Bierce shows how the South's self-image of a genteel aristocracy came at odds with the war that sought to maintain this fantasy.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Matthew Stuart-Fulton has a deep voice that's full of expression. He sets a great balance between the action and the contemplative tones of the story. The biggest fault of his reading is a tendency to breathe into the microphone, causing loud noises on some consonant sounds. If this bothers you a great deal, there are other perfectly decent versions of the same story at Librivox that can be found through a catalog search. I selected this version because I felt it was slightly better than the others, even with the minor annoyance of the breath noise.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

Source: Librivox
Length: 7 hr, 49 min
Reader: Karen Savage

The book: The passions of Revolution have taken hold of France, leading to the bloody purges of the Reign of Terror. Noblemen, even those innocent of the excesses of Louis XVI's court, are being rounded up and executed, along with their wives and children. Amid all this bloodshed, one man is foiling the Jacobeans and helping the nobility escape to England. This mysterious figure, hunted by the Republic's soldiers, is known by his symbol: a small red flower called The Scarlet Pimpernel.

This novel, though entertaining, failed to live up to my expectations. Part of the problem, I think, is that the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel is given away by the short description in the Librivox catalog. The identity may be obvious even without this spoiler, but it's more fun to guess correctly at even an easy mystery than to be told the answer before you've even considered the question. Still, the story has plenty of action and adventure even without the suspense of this intrigue.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: In the hands of an extremely gifted reader, this novel could have been read with great narrative flourishes, enhansing the action and suspense of the plot while giving the characters expressive voices. On the other hand, an unskilled reader could have ruined the book by trying the same thing, but overshooting his mark and burdening the already melodramatic plot with silly voices and overwrought drama. Librivox reader Karen Savage plays it safe by giving a fairly straight reading. Her voice is plesant and slow, allowing the listener to fill in the action from Orczy's prose. After the first few minutes of listening, Savage's voice goes unnoticed as the words of the story take over for the listener.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving

Source: Librivox
Length: 1 hr, 23 min
Reader: Chip

The story: In Sleepy Hollow, a small New York town in the 1790s, village schoolteacher Ichabod Crane is in love. He visits the home of his beloved, Katrina Van Tassel and stays for his other great love, food. While there, he hears the tale of the Headless Horseman, a Hessian mercenary whose head was taken off by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War and supposedly still haunts the region. Brom Bones, Crane's competitor for the hand of Katrina, embellishes the story with his own tale of a midnight race between the spirit and himself. As Crane finally leaves the feast late at night, he hears mysterious sounds all around him and is shadowed by eerie hoof-beats.

Irving writes with all the long-winded embellishments that plague early 19th century writing. It seemed like he wrote an entire book about what was served for dinner at the Van Tassel's house. Beneath this wordiness, though, hides a great writing talent. Irving hilariously praises Crane while all the time making fun of him. The last few minutes of the story, when Crane is pursued by the shadowy figure, are some of the most terrifying in all literature.

Rating: 7/10

The Reader: Chip has a sonorous voice that would work well as professional radio host or announcer. He lends a sense of the melodramatic, which is exactly perfect for the story. He pauses for humorous effect, adds just a hint of sarcasm when needed, and generally makes this an enjoyable story to listen to. His telling of the pursuit of Ichabod Crane left my heart racing.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Ben Franklin

Source: ejunto
Length: Approx 6.2 hrs
Reader: Andrew Julow

The book: Benjamin Franklin was the 18th century's picture of the potential of the New World: a great scientist, inventor, diplomat and writer, he was self-educated, practical, witty, and wise. This autobiography, written intermittently during Franklin's later life, was never finished; the narrative ends shortly after the French and Indian War. Therefore, there's no descriptions of some of Franklin's most famous accomplishments during the Revolutionary War, such as his contributions to the Declaration of Independence, his diplomatic mission to France, or his signing of the peace treaty with Britain. We also don't get any insight into Franklin's experiences during the formation of the U.S. Constitution, an account which have been a great historical document.

Despite these omissions, Franklin's story of his life is fascinating. His civic projects in Philadelphia introduced many of the urban conveniences we take for granted: street lighting, fire departments and lending libraries. Toward the end, he mentions some of his famous scientific experiments on electricity, which made him known throughout Europe.

Franklin writes his memoirs addressing his son, and so a good deal of fatherly advice comes through in the telling. The writing is not always riveting. Franklin tends to ramble about financial transactions and trivial matters. At other times, though, Franklin's famous wit enlivens the story and makes it clear why this is considered one of the greatest American autobiographies.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: Andrew Julow reads with a clear, steady voice that conveys Franklin's homespun wisdom. Unfortunately, he does not make it clear when Franklin is being witty, something that is hard to pick out when the reader voices a sarcastic comment with a straight tone. As I've mentioned before, one of the most difficult things to read is another person's jokes, so I'll cut Julow a large amount of slack in this regard. The recording is beautifully quiet and Julow's voice comes through cleanly.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

"A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner

Source: Miette's Bedtime Story Podcast (mp3)
Length: 37 min
Reader: Miette

The story: This story defines "Southern Gothic" for me. Faulkner introduces us to the life of Emily Grierson, a spinster in a small Southern town. Although Miss Emily becomes more and more reclusive, we gain insights into her character through the details of brief encounters between her and the townspeople. In this way, Faulkner builds up a portrait of a genteel lady of the Confederacy whose pride is so strong it seems the only thing propping up her life.

Miss Emily reminds me of some of the elderly belles I knew when I lived in Middle Tennessee. None of these women I knew were old enough to have lived through The War, as the Civil War is sometimes still familiarly called, but they had the superior sense of entitlement that comes in the Deep South from being female, white, and from an old respectable family. Of course, the South has changed greatly since Faulkner's time - the rigid class structure has declined, racism is less pronounced, and life moves more quickly - but even now, if you're in the right place and know the right people you can still find the echoes of the Old South that are so dark and so fascinating.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: Miette has a lovely British accent that's quite charming. At first, I found it odd that a British accent should be reading a story about the South. Faulkner was from Oxford, Mississippi not that other Oxford. But, if I can enjoy Wodehouse read by an American, I certainly can love a Brit reading a story set in Dixie. The recording quality is amateur, but with no great flaws, it is an enjoyable listen.

(photo "Pink Roses in a Vase." (1915). George Eastman House Collection via flickr. No copyright restrictions.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Source: Librivox
Length: 5 hr, 48 min
Reader: rachelellen

The book: In the 1880s, the plains of Nebraska were a forbidding place to make a home. This book, whose title is taken from a Walt Whitman poem, follows one Swedish immigrant family trying to farm the land in the face of drought, sickness, cold, and insects. Yet, one member of the family, the eldest daughter Alexandra, loves this wild land, and so her father wills the farm to her on his deathbed. Around Alexandra swirl the plots of her brothers Oscar and Lou and the tragedy of her youngest brother Emil.

This is a book following three parallel romances. The first, of Alexandra and her childhood friend Carl Lindstrom, is a romance complicated by the calculations of what is prudent. The second, of Emil and the married Marie Shabata, is complicated by passion and jealousy. I believe that the third romance, that between the pioneers and the land that is the most complex. It's a relationship of brain and heart, comfort and danger, life and death. This is a relationship that we don't often see with our seemingly tamed land, but it's what Cather wanted to document before it disappeared.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Rachelellen reads beautifully. She has a clear American accent that is easy to listen to. Her phrasing and inflection compliments Cather's flowing prose. The recording has a very slight hiss and a breath on the /s/ sounds, but this is only discernible at high volume. As I mention in my review of her reading Silas Marner, rachelellen is a captivating reader for a story that could be considered boring were it not for her skill in bringing it to life.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

"Gawayne and the Green Knight" by Charles Miner Lewis

Source: Librivox
Length: 1 hr, 17 min
Reader: Jerome Lawsen

The story: As King Arthur and his court at Camelot feast on Christmas Day, they hear the haunting sound of a fairy horn. Into their midst rides the Green Knight, an unearthly giant whose skin, beard, armor and horse are all green. He challenges the knights of the Round Table: any of them may hit him once with his green battle-ax, then one year later they will meet again and the Green Knight will deliver the same blow to the Arthurian warrior. Sir Gawayne initially avoids the challenge, but egged on by his potential love, the Lady Elfenheart, he accepts the challenge.

This is a 20th century retelling of an ancient legend. Lewis writes in rhyming couplets, a form of poetry more connected in my mind to playground taunts than to epic poetry. Yet, Lewis doesn't take his epic entirely seriously either. He adds in humorous asides and anachronistic commentary on the events, but he also seems to be quite earnest about the themes of true love and heroism. The tone keeps the story from becoming completely sappy, but the story keeps the tone from becoming overly cynical. It's the tension between the two that keeps this story interesting.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Lawsen is an amazing reader. His narrating voice is an everyman American accent, pleasant and friendly-sounding. When he switches to character voices, he undergoes a magical transformation. His voices for Arthur, the Green Knight, and Gawayne had me wishing there was more dialog. He even has convincing female voices, something that few men can do well. The recording is crisp and allows Lawsen's voices to shine.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Odyssey by Homer

Source: Youngstown State University, English 2610
Length: Approx 11 hrs.
Reader: Thomas Copeland

The book: As one of the oldest narratives in literature, the Odyssey has rightfully gained a place near the top of the Western canon. Having a passing knowledge of mythology, I expected the epic to be about Odysseus's wanderings and adventures across the Mediterranean Sea between leaving Troy and returning home. In actuality, the main focus of the story is Odysseus's homecoming. The story of his journeys, including all the famous episodes about the cyclopes, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, are told in a flashback comprising only a few chapters of the entire tale.

I found the epic to be neither the rousing adventure that I had hoped for nor the boring lists of ancestors that I had feared. There are moments of both excitement and tedium in the story. Reflecting its origins as an oral tale, stories such as Penelope's weaving get repeated multiple times so that by the third or fourth retelling, I wanted to fast-forward the recording. However, the influence of the work is undeniable and having listened to the entire epic rather than the summaries I had read before, I now have a better understanding of other books I have read. I would recommend the Odyssey to others as a book to be appreciated best after one is finished rather than a page-turner for those just looking for entertainment.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: The reader conveys the poetic form of the work, giving the epic a rhythm that is not overstated, but natural as waves on a beach. Professor Copeland apparently knows his Greek, as he pronounces the names and places without difficulty. He seems to favor what is apparently the ancient Greek pronunciations, such as cyclopes with a hard /k/ sound rather than the more familiar /s/. He puts inflection into the conversations, making this sometimes difficult epic easier to understand, since Homer often uses sarcasm which can be easily misinterpreted by the uninitiated. Unfortunately, the audio quality is often quite bad, with plenty of background noise, page turning, and a train whistle in some later chapters. However, Copeland's voice is always understandable and the minor annoyances can be ignored.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury

Source: Freaky Trigger (mp3)
Length: 1 hr
Reader: Elisha Sessions

The story: Time Safari, Incorporated offers trips back in time, allowing those who can afford it the chance to shoot prehistoric animals. Eccles joins a group on an expedition to bag "the biggest game of all time," a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The safari leader, Travis, gives Eccles and the others two orders: 1) don't kill anything you're not told to shoot and 2) don't go off the path.

This story is a classic of the time travel subgenre of science fiction. Ever since Bradbury wrote this in 1952, there have been enough variations of this story's theme that it has passed into the Big Book of Science Fiction Tropes. Yet, Bradbury writes with such lyricism that the story is still entertaining. His foreshadowing makes the ending apparent from the beginning, but the last few lines are still a surprise. More than anything, the appearance of the Tyrannosaurus is so heart-stopping and menacing that it's worth the listen even you have no interest in the rest of the story.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Mr. Sessions reads this story with great skill. His voice for Eccles reflects the character's smug self-interest. When describing the Tyrannosaurus, his voice drops to a whisper that set my heart racing. A few sound effects provide background atmosphere, but without being Mickey Mouse illustrative foley effects. This recording is part of a podcast in which a panel discusses Bradbury's work, including this story. The story is presented first and by itself lasts about 30 minutes.

(photo by verifex via flickr. Creative Commons noncommercial attribution.)

Monday, August 4, 2008

War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s or M4B ipod audiobook)
Length: 6 hr, 35 min
Reader: Rebecca

The book: The basic plot of War of the Worlds was already familiar to me before I read it, though muddled by my hearing a rebroadcast of Orson Welles adaptation. In the book, a giant projectile from Mars lands in south England. Other projectiles follow the first, and soon, Martians in their tripod fighting machines are conquering the human populace. Wells thrusts the reader into the terror and confusion of war by narrating an eyewitness account of battles and the civilian panic. With the hindsight of history, we can recognize that Wells accurately predicted the horror of World War I gas attacks, the ruined landscape of the Blitz, and the dazed fear of 9/11.

The key to understanding War of the Worlds is not in Wells predicting the future, but in his description of his present. In 1898, the British Empire was at the height of its power, with colonies spanning the globe. The Victorians placed great hope in ideals like progress, science, and eugenics to make their lives better. Wells introduces into this world aliens who are more scientifically advanced and more highly evolved for using technology. He then flips the table on the complacent British by having these aliens conquer them, just as they had conquered others. I wonder: If Wells were alive today, what would he make his aliens look like and what would they do to our world?

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: Although the name listed is Rebecca, the voice sounds rather masculine. Whatever the case may be, the refined English accent is well-suited to the character of the book's narrator-protagonist. The other character's voices are equally enjoyable, with my favorite being the artilleryman. The reader makes a few stumbles and there are some faint background sounds, but not anywhere near enough to interfere with this altogether wonderful reading.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

"The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs

Source: Literal Systems
Length: 24 min
Reader: Ray Gere

The story: In a small village, an elderly man, his wife and their son are visited by an old family friend, a major in the British Army just returned from a tour of duty in India. During their conversation, the major mentions the Monkey's Paw, a talisman he owns, that is alleged to grant its possessor three wishes. Although the major tries to destroy the artifact, the old man convinces him to give the Monkey's Paw to the little family. The major agrees, but with the warning that no good will come of it.

Probably among the most famous short stories in the English language, "The Monkey's Paw" is a staple of literature textbooks. It's not hard to understand why. Even though I could still hazily recall the basics of the plot, the telling of the story held me spellbound. Even if you've heard this old gem before, it's worth dusting off to admire its sparkle.

Rating:8/10

The reader: Mr. Gere's reading of this story brings out the suspense of the text. He has a rich, melodious voice that is pleasing to the ear. As the tension of the story builds, the foreboding is reflected in Gere's reading, but without overdoing the spookiness into campiness. The recording is clear and high-quality. Overall, this is the work of a talented storyteller who is working with good material that suits his style.