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.