Friday, May 30, 2008

"The Bet" by Anton Chekhov

Source: Librivox
Length: 18 min
Reader: William Coon

The story: In the heat of a debate over the morality of capital punishment versus life imprisonment, a lawyer and a banker propose a bet: for a stake of 2 million, the lawyer will remain imprisoned in a room of the doctor's estate for 15 years. During this time, he is not allowed any visitors, letters, or newspapers, but may have books, food, wine, and a musical instrument. Over the next 15 years, the lawyer seems to try out different ways to cope with his isolation. Finally, the eve of the prisoner's release arrives and the doctor is restless with worry, not so much for the freed lawyer, but for himself.

This story is an excellent example of Chekhov's ability to blend plot with meaning. The lawyer's reading habits within his jail reflect almost every response not just to imprisonment, but to the loneliness of the human condition: escapism, literature, sensualism, intellectual accomplishment, religion, and science. This search mirrors the plight of the preacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes, right down to the conclusion, "Everything is meaningless!" Combined with the Biblical allusions and profound insight, Chekhov builds a tale that is also suspenseful. The doctor's malevolent intentions not only provide a counterpoint to the lawyer's search for meaning, but bring the story to a thrilling climax.

The reader: William Coon really gets the listener into the story. The deep, resonant voice is perfect for this piece. As the story gathers steam, the pace and tension of the reading increase, moving the action along. This piece is read so well, you might assume that Mr. Coon is not just a dedicated Librivox volunteer, but a professional voice-over artist - and now he is! If you're looking for more pieces read by Mr. Coon, he has started doing professional work for Wonder Audio.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Download problem

A reader has reported an inability to download "The Open Window" from Listen to Genius. I was able to replicate the problem using an old edition of Internet Explorer, but downloading seemed to work fine with my standard browser, Firefox 2.0.

The reader upgraded to Firefox and was able to listen to, but not download, files from the website. Has anyone else experienced this difficulty? Any workarounds or suggestions?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

Source: Librivox
Length: 7 hr, 35 min
Reader: Mark F. Smith

The book: Although Jules Verne is considered one of the fathers of science fiction, Around the World in Eighty Days is not one of that genre. There are no amazing machines like in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea nor improbable landscapes like Journey to the Center of the Earth. Instead, Verne offers a thrilling fictional travelogue that follows English gentleman Philias Fogg and his French manservant Passpartout as they try to satisfy a bet to travel around the world in 80 days.

Not only do they have to contend with catching trains and boarding steamships, but they are also pursued by an English detective, Fix, who believes that Fogg's trip is merely a cover to allow him to escape an enormous bank heist. Along the way, the travelers face dangers in the form of storms, cultists and savages.

Of course, 19th century books that feature cultists and savages are unlikely to be politically correct by 21st century standards. Yet, seeing the many cultures and lands, even through a perhaps distorted view, is a fascinating and funny adventure. The difficulties that Fogg and Passpartout have to face just to travel by ordinary means reflect a time when the world wasn't so small, when not all parts of the world were viewable with the click of a button and travel required bravery rather than simply a matter of having the money and time.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Mark F. Smith is one of Librivox's best readers. He has a pleasant American accent with the confident tone of an insurance commercial voice-over. Yet, in this reading, he lets a playful note spice up the humorous situations that Passpartout gets himself into. The character voices are not heavily accented, but Smith subtly changes his sound for each of the main characters. This recording did have a high pitched whine in the background, but I was able to avoid this by changing the treble setting on my listening device. Some people might not even notice the whine. If you listen to a few chapters and find the noise distracting, you may want to use a free mp3 editor like Audacity to filter it out.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

Source: Librivox
Length: 29 min
Reader: Marlo Dianne

The story: The Velveteen Rabbit tells the story of a toy rabbit who comes to live in the nursery of a young boy. Though the wind-up toys mock the rabbit's simplicity, an older toy tells him that he will become real if he is loved so much that the boy believes he is real. Eventually, the rabbit becomes the boy's favorite toy, lending comfort when the boy comes down with scarlet fever. After the boy recovers, the doctor orders all infected items to be burned, including the stuffed bunny. Will the rabbit be burned on the rubbish heap, or will he become real and go live with the wild rabbits?

The story is enjoyable enough for children on its surface level, but adults will see a deeper parable. The details of the velveteen rabbit wearing out, moving away, and changing irrevocably mirror the bittersweet joy and pain of growing up. Like the bunny, we can't turn things back to the simpler life of childhood, but being real is often worth the difficulties.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Marlo Dianne does a very good job of interpreting this classic story. The sound quality is quite nice. Ms. Dianne reads with a mournful tone that matches the notes of melancholy in the story. When she voices the characters, the tone brightens and her voice reflects the characters' emotions. Her steady rhythm of speech seems perfect for using this as a bedtime story.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Free audiobooks for a road trip

This weekend is Memorial Day Weekend, considered to be the unofficial start of summer in the U.S. Although the price of gas may prevent me from going on one this year, road trips were always part of my summer in past years. Long drives are a great time to take in an audiobook, but also require a specific type of book. The plot has to be exciting enough to hold my interest on boring stretches of the Interstate, but simple enough that I can still pay attention to the cars around me. Thus, I've come up with 5 recommendations for road trip audiobooks:

This last one bears some explaining. The folks at Decoder Ring Theater produce an excellent show in old-time radio style about the adventures of a pair of private investigators. It's PG-rated and full of great sound effects and jazzy background music. I haven't reviewed the shows before since it's not an audiobook, but it's worth downloading a few episodes for your next road trip.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Source: Librivox
Length: 9 hr, 8 min
Reader: Kara Shallenberg

The book: Left an orphan in India after a cholera epidemic, Mary Lennox goes to live with an uncle in the British countryside. Neither the uncle nor his housekeeper show much interest in raising the child, so she wanders about the enormous old house and grounds. Mary is spoiled and rude, but she is also inquisitive. Soon her explorations uncover two secrets. The first is the secret garden of the book's title, which influences a change in her character. The second secret involves mysterious noises in a shut-off wing of the house, which draws her in to further investigations.

Throughout the book, Burnett succeeds better at creating moods rather than weaving a plot. The atmosphere of mystery and oppression, then later joy and light, are the trade-off for a slow-moving story. Much of the novel is blatantly sentimental, with good deeds, fresh air and kindness overcoming all problems in the end. To her credit, Burnett avoids the mistake of making the child characters into either perfect angels or little adults, but places them somewhere in between. Giving Mary a unpleasant disposition, but a bright mind, rescues her from being an unsympathetic character and makes this a children's classic.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Kara Shallenberg is one of Librivox's most prolific readers and is a wonderful example of the enthusiastic amateur spirit of the Librivox project. This is not a professional reading. Don't start listening with that expectation or you'll be disappointed. Instead what you get is Kara's bright voice over a background that can include bumps, passing trucks, and singing birds. Kara's accent is American with a slight sing-song delivery that made me feel as if I was sitting cross-legged at the local library's story time. The overall effect is not that of an actor performing in a sterile sound booth, but of a friend sharing a book that she obviously loves.

Friday, May 16, 2008

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe

Source: Librivox
Length: 1 hr, 34 min
Reader: Reynard T. Fox

The story: Edgar Allan Poe begins his story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" with a long discourse on analysis, holding up the importance of observation as superior to mere intellect alone. After this rambling expostulation, the story actually begins as the narrator introduces us to his freind C. Auguste Dupin. Dupin is a prime example of one possessed of the powers of both intellegence and observation. Dupin soon involves himself in a seemingly demonic crime: an old woman and her daughter have been brutally murdered inside a room in which every entrance was locked. Witnesses reported screams and an inhuman babbling coming from inside the room, yet when they forced the door open, there was no one inside but the two dead women. With the police baffled, Dupin begins to collect clues to solve this apparently impossible crime.

Although this is considered the first detective story, I was surprised at how many of the conventions of the genre are already in place. The detective is eccentric, antisocial, and physically weak. Early on in the story, he demonstrates his skills in a frivolous but amazing display of observation to the admiring narrator who serves as a stand-in for the reader. The police are bumbling, overlook evidence, and arrest an innocent man. The crime is bizarre and incorporates many chance events. Yet despite these tropes-in-retrospect, this is a very good story. You can see its obvious influence in the Sherlock Holmes stories, the TV show Monk, and even in a story nominated for the Hugo Award, one of science fiction's top honors (the link goes to an audio version of "A Small Room In Koboldtown", courtesy of Escape Pod).

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Reynard reads in a marvelous English accent. He varies his voice enough to discern characters and convey a sense of who they are. There are a few minor faults: a whistling sound in the s's and a tendency to read each of Poe's many subordinate clauses separately, though this flaw probably can be more accurately placed at Poe's infatuation with long, rambling sentences like this one. These slight problems were not enough to distract from the story and its overall excellent reading.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


I'd like to clear up a bit of confusion on my rating system. I rate on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest), but since I only select the good books to share on this blog, the lowest you'll see is a 6. Giving a book a 6 is not a bad thing, as shown by the scale below:

  • 10/10 - One of my all-time favorites! Books that get a 10 are ones that I'll read again and push on everyone I know until they tire of me talking about it. Enthusiastically recommended.
  • 9/10 - A favorite, but not to the degree of a 10. I'll refer back to a 9, if only to read favorite passages and refresh myself about what I love about it. Highly recommended.
  • 8/10 - An excellent book that I highly enjoyed. This is a book that I'll recommend, but won't guarantee that anyone else will like it as much.
  • 7/10 - A very good book that I enjoyed, but not got excited over. I'd recommend this book to readers interested in the subject matter, author, or genre, but not to a general reader.
  • 6/10 - A good book that I liked, but had some things about it that I disliked. Perhaps it's a fun read that I'll forget in 6 months. Maybe it's boring but has something important to say. Whatever the faults, I'll outline them in the review, so you can decide if the flaws are something that would make you dislike the book or if they're something you could easily overlook.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Source: Project Gutenberg , courtesy of (zipped high-quality mp3s)
Length: 6 hr, 15 min
Reader: John Telfer

The book: I've reviewed A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes book, previously but I think this book, the first collection of Holmes short stories, is where Holmes emerges as one of the greatest characters of English literature. These stories are not the careful set pieces of an Agatha Christie mystery where all the clues are set out for the reader to decipher on his own. Instead, as the title implies, these are adventure stories in which the reader follows Holmes in solving the mystery, but is not expected to arrive there first.
This collection includes some of the best Sherlock Holmes stories. “A Scandal in Bohemia” offers a tantalizing glimpse into what “Holmes in Love” might look like. “The Red-Headed League” appears in many anthologies and is a great example of an archetypical Sherlock Holmes mystery. While the solution of “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” appears improbable, the suspenseful storytelling and spooky atmosphere make it easy to see why this was one of Doyle’s favorites. Whether your taste in books runs more toward classics or page-turners, this is a book that will satisfy anyone.
Rating: 10/10

The reader: As I mentioned previously, John Telfer is a wonderful reader of the Holmes stories. He is a master of accents, creating different voices for each character. Not only the voices, but also the personalities of Holmes and Watson become distinctly real in this audiobook. The mp3 files for this recording are available in two formats at Project Gutenberg. When you arrive at the catalog page, you'll see a list of 25 files at 11kHz, 16 kbit and 25 files at 22 kHz, 32 kbit. These two groups of files are the same recordings, but at different quality levels and file sizes. So if you want a high-quality recording download all 25 of the 32 kbit files and if memory space or download speed is more important, grab the lower-quality 16 kbit files, but you need not get both sets of files. Both are listenable, but I reccomend the 32 kbit files if you have a fast internet connection and room on your hard drive.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

"Jack Penny's New Identity" by Lee Child

Length: 37 min
Reader: Dick Hill

The story: Brilliance Audio has released several selections from Thriller, a short story collection edited by best-selling author James Patterson. If you’re interested in crime, mystery, or spy stories you may be able something you like. This story, from the fugitive subgenre, follows factory worker James Penny as he is laid off from his job. Penny rather emphatically cuts off his ties to his old life, catching unfavorable attention from the local police in the process.

The direct style of Child’s prose reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men, probably now better known from the movie adaptation. Like that novel, the protagonist is a basically good person who has done something illegal, though without malice. Unlike McCarthy’s book, which chillingly paints the extremes of good and evil, Jack Penny only finds more moral ambiguity in the end. This is the first piece I’ve read by Lee Child, so perhaps my understanding of the final scene is incorrect, but it certainly provides a glimpse of a morally complex character that may hook you into reading more of Child’s work.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: This is a sample from a commercially-produced audiobook, so the production values are predictably very high. The sound quality is impeccable. A short introduction orients you to Child’s crime series, though unlike other stories from this collection, I thought the intro to this story wasn’t absolutely necessary. Dick Hill is a great narrator whose work here breathes life into the story. He puts his professional voice acting to good use, rising and falling in tone and cadence with the action and performing the characters' voices convincingly.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

50 Short books

Last week I linked to 50 Book Challenge, a website about someone trying to read 50 book in a year. If you include audiobooks, I tend to read around 50 books a year without even trying. However, for those who are trying, I thought I'd make up a list of 50 good short books (around 200 pages or less) that could help someone reach the goal of reading one book a week.

  1. One Day in the Life Of Ivan Denisovich - A. Solzhenitzen
  2. The Old Man & the Sea - E. Hemingway
  3. Snow Country - Y. Kawabata
  4. Night - E. Wiesel
  5. Seize the Day - S. Bellow
  6. O Pioneers! - W. Cather
  7. Ethan Frome - E. Wharton
  8. Breakfast at Tiffany's - T. Capote
  9. The Awakening - K. Chopin
  10. Beowulf - Anon.
  11. Fahrenheit 451 - R. Bradbury
  12. War of the Worlds - H.G. Wells
  13. Anthem - A. Rand
  14. A Death In Venice - T. Mann
  15. Candide - Voltaire
  16. Siddhartha - H. Hesse
  17. Nausea - J. Sarte
  18. Death of Ivan Illyich - L. Tolstoy
  19. A Study in Scarlet - A.C. Doyle
  20. Whose Body? - D. Sayers
  21. The Mysterious Affair at Styles - A. Christie
  22. The Crying of Lot 49 - T. Pynchon
  23. Everyman - P. Roth
  24. Call of the Wild - Jack London
  25. Lord of the Flies - W. Golding
  26. The Land that Time Forgot - E.R. Burroughes
  27. The Great Gatsby - F.S. Fitzgerald
  28. Of Mice and Men - J. Stienbeck
  29. Billy Budd - H. Melville
  30. The Red Badge of Courage - S. Crane
  31. Tom Sawyer - M. Twain
  32. Flatland - E. Abbott
  33. A Wizard of Earthsea -U. Le Guin
  34. Alice in Wonderland - L. Carroll
  35. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - L.F. Baum
  36. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis
  37. Fictions - J. Borges
  38. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - R.L. Stevenson
  39. The House on the Borderland - W.H. Hodgeson
  40. At the Mountains of Madness - H.P. Lovecraft
  41. Turn of the Screw - H. James
  42. The Bridge of the San Louis Rey - T. Wilder
  43. The Stranger - A. Camus
  44. Notes from the Underground - F. Dostoyevsky
  45. Silas Marner - G. Elliot
  46. Metamorphisis - F. Kafka
  47. The Heart of Darkness - J. Conrad
  48. Mrs. Dalloway - V. Wolfe
  49. Animal Farm - G. Orwell
  50. A Christmas Carol - C. Dickens

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Source: Librivox
Length: 6 hr, 20 min
Reader: John Gonzalez

The book: As I was listening to this book, I was surprised that The Picture of Dorian Gray could have ever been published in the Victorian Age. Apparently, the book did cause quite a stir when it was first printed (see Wikipedia). The version recorded here, the 13 chapter version, debuted in a London magazine in 1890 but was amended and expanded for the 1891 book version, with much of the alterations going toward downplaying the homosexual overtones.

The plot concerns Dorian Gray, a beautiful young man who is much admired by other young men with whom he associates. Dorian's portrait is painted by his artist friend Basil. Upon viewing the painting he wishes that it rather than he would take on the cares of age. Basil's friend Lord Henry soon entices Dorian into a hedonistic lifestyle, only caring about the pursuit of beauty and pleasure. As Dorian sinks deeper into depravity, his portrait turns uglier and more menacing, but he retains his good looks. What Dorian's depravity exactly entails is not fully disclosed, but one could suspect that it would be enough to outrage any good Victorian gentleman. With a little imagination and reading between the lines, this novel still has the power to shock even for a jaded 21st century reader.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: John Gonzalez has a strong voice with an American accent. He reads as if on stage, with a dramatic affectation that could be overdone, but in my mind is appropriate for a work by Oscar Wilde. Although his different voices are not vastly different, he distinguishes them by acting each part. There are some noises in the recording, such as when Gonzalez takes a breath or swallows. Overall, this is a good amateur reading.

Friday, May 2, 2008

"The Open Window" by Saki

Source: Listen to Genius
Length: 9 minutes
Reader: Beth Richmond

The story: The genius of “The Open Window” lies in its brevity. In a coastal English village, a young man on medical vacation for his nerves visits a house in which a French window (I believe what I would call a French door) is left standing open. While he waits for the lady of the house to come meet him, a conversation begins with the lady’s niece, Vera (the name means “truth”) which forms the basis for a surprising plot. Though the story is short, these two characters are real enough that by the end, we have more insight about them than such a brief acquaintance would suggest.

Faced with such a short work, one would expect most authors to sacrifice some aspect of the story. Many authors would forgo building complex characters, allowing two-dimensional stereotypes to serve as a shorthand. Others would supply only the barest plot, making their story more of a character study or vignette. A more economical writer might provide a generic setting to save having to describe it. Yet, Saki takes none of these shortcuts. Instead in this story, he distills down characters, plot, and setting while leaving their essence intact.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: This is a professional recording featuring Beth Richmond’s reading. The sound quality is very high. Ms. Richmond’s performance brings out the wit and sarcasm of the piece. Especially fine are her character voices – they aren’t just different sounds so you can tell who’s speaking, but a reinforcement of the characters’ attitudes and personalities.

Note: I have recently been informed that the download link is causing problems with at least some versions of Internet Explorer. I used Firefox v2.0 and had no problems. The site requires you to click on the download link rather than right-clicking and saving. Make sure pop-up blockers are turned off and Java is updated. If you still can't get the link to work, download Firefox; it's a great browser.