Friday, February 29, 2008

March comes in like a lion

I've finished my February-long run of short novels; next week it'll be back to reviews of one regular-length audiobook per week. I will have one exception, however. As you may have noticed, I've been running bonus reviews of short stories on some holidays. Since Good Friday and the normal date for St. Patrick's Day (though not the actual liturgical feast) fall on the same week, I'll have two short stories reviews that week: one Irish and one . . . let's just say it's Good Friday-related.

I'd like to thank all the blogs that have been sending traffic my way of late: largeheartedboy, venangago-go, Dogberry Patch and the aforementioned Read, Write, Now. has also been reprinting my science fiction audiobook reviews. Thanks, everybody, for spreading the word.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Source: The Spoken Alexandria Project
Length: 2 hr, 15 min
Reader: Alex Wilson

The book:At first read, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka is a bizarre, almost nonsensical story. Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant bug of some sort. No explanation is given for how or why this metamorphosis occurred. Gregor himself seems more concerned with being late to a work assignment than the circumstances of his change.

As the novella progresses, The Metamorphosis becomes more about the unspoken negotiations inside a family as in who does what chores, who makes money for others, and who just gets in the way. When Gregor can no longer provide for the family’s needs, Gregor’s father changes from an invalid to a dedicated worker. Along the way, Greta converts from a loving sister to a young woman looking for suitors. The bizarre transformation of Gregor is not the most important transformation in the family, as evidenced by the final lines.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Alex Wilson, the founder of Spoken Alexandria, provides a understated, but compelling reading. The tone of voice is like someone waked in the middle of dream, lending an appropriate otherworldliness to the story of alienation. The sound quality is top-notch, even when listening over headphones. If you prefer a British accent over an American one, David Barnes does an equally high-quality reading of this novella at Librivox. I featured one of Mr. Barnes' readings last week, however, so I decided to go with Mr. Wilson's version.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Source: Librivox
Length: 3 hr, 8 min
Reader: David Barnes

The story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that has entered into the collective cultural consciousness
goes something like this: a mad scientist drinks a potion that turns him into an evil monster with superhuman abilities. This creature then goes on a murderous crime spree causing terror across London, while the scientist's friends try to change him back.This version of the story owes more to the monster movie adaptations rather than to the original book, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

In Stevenson's novella, the plot unfolds in a very roundabout way. Because of gossip told to him through London society, Jekyll's lawyer and friend Utterson begins investigating Jekyll's unsavory associate, Edward Hyde, on suspicions of blackmail. Jekyll displays some unusual behavior with regards to Hyde, and Utterson grows more uneasy. In the final chapter the truth comes out about Jekyll and Hyde, but for us readers in the 21st century this revelation has lost its shock through frequent repetition of the hyped-up version of story.

I found myself getting impatient with the book, even though it's a fairly short one. I already knew the end, so the mystery of Jekyll and Hyde's relationship held no intrigue. On reflection, however, this is a profound work of philosophical and psychological fiction. Stevenson delves into the duality of the face we present the world and our selfish sinful desires. The lengths that Jekyll goes through to hide, but not wholly expel, his devilish friend form an insightful portrait of the society of Victorian morals and its seedy underbelly. My advice is to forget everything you think you know about the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and try to approach the book with a blank slate.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: David Barnes is one of the best readers at Librivox. His slow, rich British accent would be appropriate for a BBC announcer. I think this may be one of his earlier recordings - the background hum and some harshness in the microphone make it less professional-sounding than more recent releases. The overall effect is very soothing due to the slow pace and deep voice; it would be easy to fall to sleep listening to him, which could be good or bad, depending on what you're looking for.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Is this be reading?


Over at "Read, Write, Now", Peter Kerry Powers comments on whether or not listening to audiobooks is reading. Read his posts here, here and here. In the comments section, Hugh McGuire, the founder of Librivox, takes up a defense of Librivox and audiobooks in general. It's a superb debate, the quality of which you rarely see on the internet, with good points made by intelligent, informed people on both sides.

My own view is that sitting down in your comfy chair and cracking open a new hardback is not the same experience as listening to the same work of literature in an audiobook format. But neither is reading the same book as an ebook on a PDA in ten-minute intervals on the subway. Or skimming a highlighted, underlined, and annotated used paperback while preparing for a college class discussion. Or being ushered into a library's rare books room, being issued white gloves and studying the original manuscript.

We read in many different ways for many different purposes. I'm not sure when exactly the distractions outside the text stop the experience from being reading and when it starts being merely receiving a collection of words. I think that the answer is in the mind of the reader rather than in the medium. I read paper-and-print books at home, but I also listen to audiobooks on the train during my commute to work. If instead I were listening to books in the background while doing something that required a larger portion of my concentration, I wouldn't consider that reading. When the words on the paper or the reader's voice disappears, and I'm completely taken away from where I am, that's what I consider to be reading and that doesn't depend on the medium.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Impossible Dreams by Tim Pratt

Source: Escape Pod, episode 105
Length: 47 min
Reader: Matthew Wayne Selznick

The story: For Valentine's Day, we have a love story."Impossible Dreams" by Tim Pratt tells about a film connoisseur who finds a video store that carries movies that never were. The film buff and the girl who works at the store start talking over movies such as the director's cut of Orson Wells' The Magnificent Ambersons. Eventually, he wants to go to the store to see her just as much as the films.

What I enjoy most about this story is that its fantastical elements are intriguing in themselves, yet they can as be interpreted as a metaphor for how we fall in love. The excitement of the discovery of new movies is akin to that first phase of falling in love when you are discovering all the new things about a person and her life. As the story progresses, it touches on the transition of living in the world of the single life into the world of being a couple.

This is one of the things that a good science fiction or fantasy story can do -- take a much-examined experience such as falling in love and change the environment in which it takes place. The science fiction/fantasy genre is not about breaking the rules of reality - that's surrealism - it's about changing the rules and making old things new.

Rating: 9/10

The recording: Escape Pod is one of my favorite podcasts. Not only are the stories great, but the production values are usually high and Steve Eley is an excellent host. Before and after the story, Eley discusses a previous week's episode, runs promos for other podcasts, or just talks about life, literature, and science fiction. These intros are often as entertaining as the story itself, but if you're unfamiliar with Escape Pod, you may wish to skip ahead to 4:30 when the story actually starts. Selznick, the reader for this episode, does an excellent job. He does have the tendency to whistle his "S"s, but it's an easily ignored fault. I haven't yet checked out his book Brave Men Run over at but it is on my "To Listen" list.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Death of Ivan Illyich by Leo Tolstoy

Source: Learn out Loud, courtesy of Hovel Audio (direct link)
Length: Approx. 2 hr, 20 min
Reader: Simon Vance

The book: Tolstoy starts his novella The Death Of Ivan Illyich with the title character's funeral. Beginning in the middle or at the end of a story has been common since the time of Homer, but here the device is particularly effective because of the intrusive feeling of attending the funeral for someone we don't know. Many outside viewpoints are given about the life and death of Ivan Illyich, few of them positive.

In the second chapter, the viewpoint switches to Ivan Illyich's and quickly follows him through his life. Like those who attend his funeral out of obligation, Ivan lives life as if it is only something expected of him to do. When he falls ill, he becomes annoyed at those who don't behave as he thinks they should. As Illyich's disease progresses, we see illustrated the classic stages of grief, but Tolstoy also gives insight to the details of dying: the inability to have the doctor tell you what you want to know, the indignity of having someone else attend to your personal hygiene, and the boredom of waiting to die.

Ivan Illyich is one of Tolstoy's later works and the influence of his Christian conversion is evident in the climax. The profound insights into the entire process of dying make it no wonder that this book is often assigned reading for ministers, doctors, and hospice workers. Its short length is an excellent introduction to Tolstoy for those who want to avoid the commitment of his doorstop novels Anna Karena and War and Peace.

Rating: 7/10

The recording: Simon Vance is a professional voice-over actor performing a commercial audiobook that just happens to given away for free. In this edition, The Death of Ivan Illyich is paired with the long story "Master and Man" as the collection Tolstoy on Death. Having already read "Master and Man" in print, I did not listen to it and do not intend to review it here except to say that Ivan Illyich is the greatly superior story.

This recording is indeed free, though Learn Out Loud makes you register in order to download. No financial or personal information is required other than an email. I did not see an increase in spam following registration, but you must uncheck "Receive occasional emails". Be careful when giving personal information and never give credit card information for "free" audiobooks

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman

Source: Harper Collins (via BoingBoing)
Reader: Neil Gaiman
Length: 46 minutes

The story: “A Study in Emerald” was originally published for the Holmes-meets-Lovecraft anthology Shadows Over Baker Street and was republished in Gaiman’s short-work collection Fragile Things. The details of the story closely parallel A Study in Scarlet: the a veteran of the Afghanistan war takes up lodging with an odd companion. The police ask the “consulting detective’s” advice on a baffling murder in which the word “RACHE” has been printed in blood upon the wall. Yet, Gaiman’s narrative introduces one major difference: the Great Old Ones, the terrible madness-inducing demon-gods of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, are real and rule the world.

As in Michael Chabon’s Holmes-versus-Nazis novella The Final Solution, Gaiman writes his Sherlock Holmes story without ever overtly mentioning the detective’s name. It’s a simple trick, but here Gaiman uses the device to interesting effect. The other Gaiman hallmarks are here: the killers who work as a pair, the disquieting combination of the banal and the supernatural, and the passing references to fictional, historical and legendary characters. All these devices make the story uniquely Gaiman, but without ripping the characters out of Doyle's hands. In the end, it’s gratifying to watch Holmes and Watson fighting to save the world, even in such a bizarre alternate reality.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: Gaiman reads his own work here and does it with the skill of an actor. His voices are distinct, but not distracting, for the most part. I’m always disturbed when an Englishman adopts an American accent, as Gaiman does for one voice. It’s like when you hear your own voice on a voicemail: Do we really sound that harsh and stupid? My own international issues aside, the recording is a beauty and makes me want to go out and buy the whole collection on iTunes, which is exactly what Harper-Collins probably intended with this freebie.

Monday, February 4, 2008

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

Source: Project Gutenberg, courtesy of (direct link)
Reader: John Telfer
Length: 3 hr, 30 min

The book: Probably my favorite family of short stories and novels is the Sherlock Holmes series. The chronicles of Watson and Holmes start out with the short novel A Study in Scarlet. The novel is divided into two parts. The first part introduces Holmes through the eyes of Watson, then follows him on a case involving a body found with the word "RACHE" on the wall. What follows is a series of false leads and errors. Somehow, we're not immediately told how, Holmes eventually gets his man.

The second part then abruptly intrudes to tell the backstory of the criminal. Finnally, a coda tells of Holmes' lines of deduction and the resolution of the case. This story has many flaws as a mystery: almost no clues are given to the reader, Holmes does not appear in most of the second part, and the climax occurs in the middle of the novel. Yet, the hints of Doyle's talent for fascinating details shine through the faults and presage more interesting stories.

The Reader: Telfer is a wonderful reader for this series. The action is always easy to follow with his clear narration. His voice of Holmes is a clipped hurried London accent, while Watson is the more educated, slow voice. Other characters all have their own distinctive sound that fit them marvelously. The Project Gutenberg version of the recording is very good, but the free low-grade version at is not quite tolerable.