Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 4 hr, 45 min
Reader: Mike Vendetti

The book: To wrap up my August back-to-school assigned reading month,  I'm reviewing a book that seems to be the bane of every high school American literature student. I really, really, really hated The Red Badge of Courage when I was forced to read it in my junior-year English class. Reading it again, I realize it's not so bad, though still not an especially exciting read.

The book mainly concerns a young soldier in the Civil War. Despite the premise, it's not an exciting adventure book, but instead a mediation on the young man's thoughts and experiences around the time of a battle. The main character flees panics and flees during the first engagement he's in and the book seems to meander along as he encounters various people behind the battlelines. Like the young soldier, the book eventually regroups and produces a fine conclusion, but it's a long journey to get there.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: Mike Vendetti is a professional voice-over actor with an inspiring voice. His deep baritone rumbles like a far-off cannon, making him a perfect pairing with this novel. With Crane's description-heavy text it is easy to fall into a drone, but Vendetti avoids this by giving dramatic emphasis to his reading. The recording is clear and beautifully done.

Friday, August 27, 2010

"Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway

Source: Miette's Bedtime Story Podcast
Length: 11 minutes
Reader: Miette

The story: When I read this story in high school, I hated it. I had no idea what the two characters were talking about or who they were. This is a story about subtlety; it's an overheard conversation where you don't know anything about the speakers, but enough hints are dropped to figure out the outlines of their situation.

The key to the story is the title. Back in high school, I had never heard the expression "white elephant"; we didn't do white elephant Christmas present exchanges back then (if I recall correctly, we called it a "Yankee Swap" as a slur against Northerners).  Nowadays, we call a present that we don't want a "White Elephant", but the original meaning was a gift of an albino elephant: a great honor in Southeast Asia, but one that could potentially bankrupt the recipient with the high cost of its upkeep. In relation to this story, I wonder: what present could a man and his girlfriend give each other that one would see as a financial burden and the other would see as a wonderful gift?

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Miette, as always, does a wonderful job reading this story. Her British accent is beautiful and easy to listen to. There's some background noise and the recording is a little bit quiet, but these issues are easily overlooked.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Source: Wired for Books (Act 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 )
Length: 1 hr 48 min
Readers: Actor's Theater of Columbus, Ohio

The book: Macbeth is a good subject of the Scottish King Duncan until some witches show up to suggest Macbeth will be king. With his wife's heavy persuasion, Macbeth murders Duncan and becomes King of Scotland himself. For a while, everything is fine. But if you've ever seen a Coen brothers film, you know that these kind of criminal enterprises tend to go horribly wrong. Soon, Macbeth is murdering everyone around him and Lady Macbeth has gone insane.

Although I first read Macbeth in high school, it took until I saw the play live at the  Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta until I really enjoyed it. Like many great works of art, I have to see, hear, or read Shakespeare's plays several times before I can really appreciate them. The first time through, I'm just trying to puzzle out the language. It takes until the third or fourth time I encounter the play, usually in different formats, before I can really appreciate the depth of the work. Even if you've already read or seen this play, do yourself a favor and listen to it one more time.

Rating: 8/10

The readers: The reason I rarely review audio plays is because there's just so much going on that it's hard to encompass everything in a short review. I'll be brief by saying the actors here do a fine job of bringing the play to audio. Sometimes it's a bit difficult to follow what they're saying, but that's more because of the complexity of the language than the actors' voices or the recording quality. I'd recommend following along with a printed text rather than trying to listen to this one in your car.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"The Lady or The Tiger?" by Frank R. Stockton

Source: Librivox (mp3)
Length: 17 minutes
Reader: David Federman

The story:  In a faraway kingdom, the king has devised a crowd-pleasing spectacle for executions. The accused in placed in an arena and allowed to open one of two doors. Behind one waits a man-eating tiger and the prisoner's certain death. Behind the other waits a woman who will become his bride. When the princess's paramour is captured and sentenced to the arena, an additional wrinkle is added to the problem.

This story is often included in English literature textbooks to introduce the concept of ambiguity in stories. Children can have low tolerance of unclear endings: "And then what happened?"  But part of developing an appreciation for literature is being able to consider the psychology of characters in a story when not enough information is available to know for certain what the character is really thinking. This story explicitly asks that question, and becomes a more complex story than if the ending was simply stated.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Since this is such a widely-anthologized story, there are several recordings available at LibriVox as well as on other websites. From the sampling I did of these, Federman's recording is the best. He uses inflection and dramatic pauses to create a fairytale-like telling of the story, which complements its "long ago and far away" setting. He speaks in distinct enunciation and varies both the pitch and loudness of his voice like a professional storyteller. The recording is well-produced with almost no background noise.

(Tiger background Creative Commons by attribution licensed from didbygraham)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 10 hours
Reader: John Greenman

The book: When I read this book in high school, I remember it being good for the about the first two-thirds of the book, then interminably boring for the last third. Now that I've read several books by Mark Twain, I can recognize a pattern in his books. Twain often starts his books with a great premise. He strings together some amusing anecdotes with very little overarching plot, but with often hilarious characters. As the book goes along, though, Twain tends to grow bitter towards his own characters and the tone turns from gentle humor to a darker misanthropy.

Huck Finn follows this pattern in that the opening chapters are filled with great episodes, like the formation of Tom Sawyer's gang, Huck dressing up as a girl, and Huck's stay with the Grangerfords. Later, after the Duke and the King join Huck and Jim on the raft, the writing turns more mean-spirited. Instead of innocent pranks, the characters are now involved in more harmful swindles, culminating in the two con-men betraying Jim. The rest of the book portrays Jim more as a racist stereotype and the adventures lose the fun quality that they had at the beginning. These final chapters mar the book's reputation and brought my personal enjoyment of the book down.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: John Greenman is a great narrator of Mark Twain. Greenman has the ability to bring out the Midwestern tone of Twain's writing. He delivers the humor without overselling it and has a light breezy style of speech that reflects the conversational style of the book. For more of Greenman's excellent narration, check out his work in Tom Sawyer.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

"A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor

Source: The Morning Oil (via Black Market Kidneys) (mp3)
Length: 32 minutes
Reader: Flannery O' Connor

The story: A family in Georgia is heading out for a family vacation to Florida. The situation is familiar to anyone who's taken a family road trip this summer: the kids are bratty, the grandmother tells dotty stories, and the father just wants to get there. On this vacation, though, something goes terribly wrong and the story takes a much darker turn.

This is one of my favorite stories ever written. It seems like every time I read it, I find new details that are funny, disturbing, or that give new insight into the complex characters that inhabit this short piece of fiction. The meaning of the story is also complex. Are people generally good or inherently evil? What makes a good person good and and evil person bad? It's a difficult story to interpret, but I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I do.

Rating: 10/10

The reader: This reading comes from a talk that O'Connor gave at the University of Notre Dame shortly before her death. A couple paragraphs near the beginning of the story get cut out due to a recording skip, but the lost section isn't vital to the story. The sound quality isn't that great, but it's a pleasure to hear O'Connor reading her own work in her Deep South drawl. The combination of the poor sound and the heavy accent may make it difficult for some people to understand, but being a Southerner myself, I had little problem.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


The school year is starting this month in the United States. Soon, students will be getting their lists of books for book reports and class-wide reading. Yesterday, I posted a review of Call of the Wild, a popular choice for assigned reading in U.S. schools. For the rest of the month, I'll be continuing this theme by reviewing books and stories that are often read in English literature classes.

For students and parents of student reading this, I hope that by being able to listen as well as read the books that more students would actually complete their assignments. By using audiobooks as a supplement, not a replacement for reading, I think students have a greater chance of actually enjoying the books the read. This after all is one of the goals of literature classes: to instill in students a life-long love of reading that will continue their education long after they've graduated.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Call of the Wild by Jack London

Source: Uvula Audio (Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 )
Length: Approx 4 hours
Reader: J. Campenella

The book: I first read Call of the Wild for my middle school English class. Reading it again, I am struck by two things: 1) it's an better story than I remember and 2) it's way more violent than I remember. Even though I, like many before me, have classified it as a children's book, it is definitely a book for older children, as well as adults.

London, writing from first-hand knowledge, explores the boundary between civilization and the wild. Unlike many writers, he neither extols the progress in taming the wilderness nor does he romanticize the purity of Mother Nature. Nature only cares for survival by any means, he says, and civilization is a luxury that must be abandoned where it is not practical. These are harsh statements, directed at an adult audience, and the way in which London goes about illustrating his view make it worth revisiting Call of the Wild as an adult.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: Campanella is an excellent reader, though he has a tendency in this book to fall into a up-and-down cadence that can lull the inattentive listener away from the words in long descriptive passages. His voices for each character are a delight, however, and enliven the reading. The recording is well-produced, though it includes sound effects. I find these sound effects to be often intrusive, particularly the sounds of the whimpering and growling of the dogs. London's text is descriptive enough without the additions.

(Entered in the Book Review Wednesday contest at Cym Lowell. Follow the link for reviews of other books by various bloggers)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"A Princess of Earth" by Mike Resnick

Source: The Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine (mp3)
Length: 1 hr, 5 min (the story itself is approx 35 min)
Readers: Rish Outfield and Big Anklevich

The story: After On a cold snowy night, an aged widower looks out his window and discovers a naked man wondering around in the blizzard. He brings the stranger in from the cold and when he warms up, the man identifies himself as John Carter, the hero from the Princess of Mars series. Of course, the widower believes the man to be crazy, but engages in conversation with "John Carter" anyway. Soon the topic moves to their respective loves for Deja Thoris and the old man's departed wife.

What makes this story work is the ambiguity of the situation. Like The Turn of the Screw or "The Yellow Wallpaper", the events can be interpreted as being literally true or the result of insanity. Resnick approaches this ambiguity from an unusual perspective: rather than the unreliable narrator being the potentially insane one, the narrator in this story is sane and cannot decide if the other character is sane. The resulting dilemma is a problem that is never fully resolved, making it a stronger story for its lack of resolution.

Rating: 7/10

The readers: The hosts of the Dunesteef podcast do an excellent job voicing this story, since as they point out, it lends itself well to being a play for two voices. The narrator's voice sounds like an old, tired man and is perfect. The voice of John Carter annoyed me a bit, though. Carter's voice sounds something like Ernie from Sesame Street; I suppose he lost his Virginia drawl while living on Mars. The podcast adds sound effects and some music at the beginning and end of the story. This music, in my opinion, distracts from the story. What should have been a poignant ending is rendered saccharine by the addition of a weepy tune.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Source: Librivox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 7 hr, 26 min
Reader: Mark Nelson

The book: While prospecting for gold in the Wild West, John Carter, formerly of the Confederate Army, is attacked by a band of hostile Apaches. He escapes into a cave, but finds himself mysteriously transported to Mars. On Mars, or as the natives call it, "Barsoom", he finds several races of intelligent Martians, including the giant six-limbed Tharks and beautiful Dejah Thoris, a princess of the human-like red-skinned Martians.

John Carter's Barsoom adventures are frankly preposterous, even for Burroughs' day when people thought there might really be canals on Mars. However, the story has a momentum that propels it too fast to allow the reader to reflect on the inconsistencies of the plot or of the world Burroughs created. The constant cliffhangers and mild titillation gave the book great popularity among several generations of readers, including a number of science fiction writers who cited it as an important early influence. This book is a old-fashioned treat.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Mark Nelson has a deep, strong voice that sounds like an old school news announcer. His cadence is slow and repetitive, but he changes his inflection enough to keep the reading interesting. He does some light voices, not straying too far from his natural voice into campiness. The recording setup he uses has very little background noise and is clear. Nelson is a reader worth seeking out in other books.

(cover illustration courtesy of SFFaudio)