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.