Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

Source: Forgotten Classics (Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10)
Length: about 8 hours (book itself), about 12 hours (book + commentary)
Reader: Julie

The book: Agatha Christie is widely known today for her mysteries such as Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None.  This book, one of her earliest, is not a mystery, but is what we would today call a spy thriller. Although most Agatha Christie books are still in copyright, this one is out of copyright in the United States by virtue of it being published before 1923. Other countries have different copyright regulations, so check the legality where you are before you download.

This exciting novel begins with the sinking of the Lusitania (pictured above) and centers around a post-war conspiracy to overthrow the governments of Europe. The main characters, Tommy and Tuppence, are a pair of  young people who had tasted Independence in the war years, but now in the 1920's don't have the money to support themselves. Through a series of unlikely coincidences, they become entwined into discovering the plot of a shadowy figure named Mr. Brown. As is typical for Christie, the novel runs through a series of twists and adventures that kept me entertained and always guessing.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: The amount of love that Julie has for the books she reads can be felt in her tone. She has a bright, expressive voice with an American accent. For most characters, she changes her voice to reflect the speaker, usually with great success, though as she points out, her foreign accents are amateurish. Each episode is preceded and ended with a lengthy commentary on the book, other podcasts, and Julie's life in general. These commentaries are interesting, but toward the end of the book, I found myself skipping them, although that's due more to the desire to want to know what happens next in the novel than anything to do with Julie.

(This review was entered as part of Cym Lowell's Book Review Wednesday contest. Visit the site for other reviews.)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Ode to Autumn" by John Keats

Source: Classic Poetry Aloud (mp3)
Length:  2 minutes, 13 seconds
Reader: Anonymous (credited as Classic Poetry Aloud)

The poem:  Happy Thanksgiving! I won't have the chance to write much since I'm spending time with my family. I would like to say how thankful I am for my readers; I've enjoyed the comments you have left and the kind words others have written on other sites about my blog.

I chose this poem because it celebrates the beauty and bounty of the season. Keats was certainly not thinking of the holiday of Thanksgiving -- Keats was British and Thanksgiving wasn't even an official holiday in the United States at the time. However, the poem exemplifies the spirit of Thanksgiving, if unintentionally. Where most poets would admire the vibrancy of Spring and relegate Autumn to a metaphor of impending death, Keats sees inspiration in the present, luxuriating in the harvest and taking in the smells, tastes, sights and sounds of the season he is in, rather than wishing for another time.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: With his BBC-quality British accent, the reader of Classic Poetry Aloud is the epitome of fine culture. His deep, mellow voice is soothing and rich, fitting the sensual qualities of the poem. He does an excellent job bringing the listener into the poem by varying his speed and pitch to convey the emotions of the poet, but he doesn't overdo his theatrics. Listening to a few other poems from the website, I find Classic Poetry Aloud to be a go-to resource for older poems.

photo by Per Ola Wiberg, Creative Commons by attribution license.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Cabaret Ludwig" by Rachel Wetzsteon

Source: Poetry Magazine podcast (mp3)
Length: 42 seconds (starts at 2:23)
Reader: Don Share

The poem: As Poetry Magazine editor Don Share points out in this podcast, not many modern poets use rhyme in their poems. Rachel Wetzsteon does, and uses rhyme with such ability that I immediately had to listen to this poem again, then again. The effect is like a hit song where you're drawn in by the sound before you even get a grasp on what the words are saying.

The words hold up to the sound. Wetzsteon starts out confrontational, but shows her playfulness with the last line of the first stanza: "for this is not a duck". The poem becomes flirty: "Let's multiply and twitch our noses", then concludes with a determination to find love despite difficulties and despite what others might say.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: I could have picked any of over a half-dozen top-notch poems from this episode of the Poetry Magazine podcast. Eleanor Ross Taylor's "Vita" is a tiny gem of childhood life. Jane Mead's two poems have a lovely sound and are really enhanced by the podcast's production. The second poem by Bob Hickman, about his dying 17 year old dog was both touching and laugh-out-loud funny. The commentary by Share and associate editor Fred Sasaki point out images and words I missed on the first listen and made me want to revisit these poems. If you're a fan of poetry, this is a monthly podcast you'll want to add to your listening list, and Poetry Magazine may be something you'll want to add to your Christmas list.

Friday, November 19, 2010

"If" by Rudyard Kipling

Source: Librivox (mp3)
Length: 2 minutes, 39 seconds
Reader: Chip

The poem: This poem can be dismissed in modern times as Victorian sentimentality. The poem councils stoicism, moderation, and virtue. At first reading, Kipling presents a series of impossible rules to live by that are contradictory and lengthy.

Yet, aside from the insinuation that only a man can have these qualities, this is actually good advice. Kipling councils a middle road, more of a melding of Eastern and Western thought than the arrogant colonialism that is usually credited to him. He acknowledges the difficulties of life, while asserting that these can be turned, judo-like, to the credit of he who receives those difficulties. Listening with fresh ears breaks away the familiarity around these words and breaks open their depth as a credo to live by rather than a tedious set of standards.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Chip has an American radio announcer's voice. He's somewhat overwrought, but this fits well with the subject and background of this poem. He varies his pitch, tone, and pacing to dramatically present the poem, bringing out the meaning behind the words. This is a interpretation of the poem that would do Kipling proud.

photo by academy of american poets via Flickr. Creative Commons license: attribution, non-commercial, no derivative works 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Books" by Campbell McGrath

Source: Slate Poetry Podcast (mp3)
Length: 1 minute, 40 seconds
Reader: Campbell McGrath

The poem: If you haven't already noticed, I love books. This poem combines books with biology, another great passion of mine. McGrath starts with a simile comparing books to the honey stored in beehives, then goes on to reference trilobites, the inhabitants of benthic vents, and whale evolution.

The imagery here is a kaleidoscope for the senses, but the metaphors are so dense that they overwhelmed me on first listen. I found it better to go where the poem took me than to try to analyze each part. McGrath's flow from one image to the next make the poem a journey through a library of books, with each subject as fascinating as the one before it.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Slate poetry podcast offers poems from living poets, often reading their own work. The webpage provides the text and a discussion by readers, making it easy to follow along. McGrath reads his poem with a voice that has a conversational tone, but with the rhythms of poetry. He speaks clearly in a general American accent and reads at a slow-to-moderate pace that lets the words fill the mind as they go by.

Friday, November 12, 2010

"The Unconquered Dead" by John McCrae

Source: LibriVox (mp3)
Length: 2 minutes, 19 seconds
Reader: Joseph Finkberg

The poem: I know from personal experience how hard it is to write a eulogy. To write a eulogy for several hundred men must be more difficult by a factor of several hundred. On this day after Veterans Day (or Remembrance Day/Armistice Day, depending on where you are), I'll let John McCrae, author of "In Flander's Field" say what I wish I could.

Traditional war eulogies have either honored the dead for fighting to uphold a righteous cause or extolling their bravery in victory or defeat.  In the First World War, with no clear righteous cause and victories measured in the temporary gain of few miles of trench, neither approach seemed appropriate. Instead, McCrae freely admits that the soldiers in his poem may have surrendered or fallen back, had they not been killed. He asserts that, in death, they are victorious, having achieved the goal of staying put. Touchingly, McCrae honors the fallen soldiers for their death alone.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: The LibriVox page linked to above offers several readings of this poem, many of them quite good, but none pack the emotional punch of Finkberg's reading. He reads with a warm, somber voice, dropping to a whisper for emphasis. I think one of the most difficult parts of reading poetry is in placing pauses effectively. Here, Finkberg excels, keeping the rhythms of the poem without sounding unnatural. This is a masterful reading of an effective poem.

Photo of Ypres cemetery by Redvers. Creative Commons attribution license.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"Another Reason Why I Don't Keep A Gun in the House" by Billy Collins

Source: The Best Cigarette on archive.org (mp3)
Length: 1 minute, 12 seconds
Reader: Billy Collins

The poem: I love Billy Collins. He's witty, charming, and, sadly, the only living poet I can name off the top of my head. Collins first came to my attention via an appearance on A Prairie Home Companion where his self-effacing humor stole the show. As a former poet laureate of the United States, he's achieved both popular and critical success.

This poem, from his Creative Commons licensed collection The Best Cigarette, is an example of why he's so well-known. The subject matter is approachable and recognizable: a neighbor's dog that won't stop barking. Collins takes the situation from commonplace to hilarious by trying to drown out the barking with a Beethoven record, but ends up imagining the dog as part of the symphony. He then transform the imagery from silly to profound by commenting on the critical response to his imaginary Barking Dog Solo. Rather than being just a joke, this poem ends up examining what makes art good and how the influence of cultural gatekeepers can make something seen as annoying in one context seem a work of genius in another.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: I always get a kick out of listening to an author reading their own work. Some really put on a performance, others just try to read their work straight, allowing the words they wrote to be the centerpiece rather than their acting. Collins takes this second path, but that doesn't make the recording any less interesting. His staccato reading brings out the rhythms of the barking dog which aren't immediately apparent when the poem is read on the page. The recording is clear and crisp, being originally created for a commercial CD before Collins released it for free.

Photo copyright by fauxpasta. Used by permission

Friday, November 5, 2010

"The Emperor of Ice-Cream" by Wallace Stevens

Source: Librivox (mp3)
Length: 1 minute, 25 sec
Reader: Alan Davis-Drake

The poem: The scene is of a funeral. The corpse, an old woman, is covered by a sheet that doesn't quite fit her body. People come to pay their respects and drop off flowers, but there's an air of dressed-up shabbiness about the whole affair. Unusually for a funeral, a man is serving ice cream.

The poem is about the finality of death ("let be be the finale of seem"), yet the titular ice cream emperor lends a bit of ridiculousness that keeps it from being maudlin. Stevens is able to keep the tone of a potentially depressing poem playful through his alliteration and attention to detail ("flowers in last month's newspapers"). This is the kind of funeral I want to be remembered by some day -- one that does not deny the reality of death, but suggests a metaphor for life as ice cream: sweet while it lasts.

Rating: 8/10

The reader:Alan Davis-Drake, as I've said before, is a professional-sounding reader. He reads the words carefully, with an ear for pauses and emphasis. This poem comes from a Librivox collection of Wallace Stevens poems all read by Davis-Drake. If you like this one, I recommend  the entire collection.

Photo from Flickr by iMaxx. Creative Commons license: attribution, no derivative works.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Poetry month at Free Listens

I was reading a newspaper article the other day and came across an interview with poet laurate of the United States W.S. Merwin:
"Most people you bump into on the street will tell you they never read poetry, and if you ask him why they'll say they don't understand it. I tell them, don't worry about understanding it, listen to it for pleasure. Very often all people have to do is hear it -- if they hear poetry, they'll get it."
Like the people Merwin bumps into on the street, I don't read (or listen to) much poetry.  I like poetry, I just tend to overlook poems when deciding what to read. This month, I'm making a conscious effort to change that by reading and reviewing more poetry. For the rest of November, I'll be reviewing two poems a week.

This focus on shorter works will also give me the chance to get caught up on some listening for books that I'll be reviewing in December and January. So, if you're not interested in audio poems, check out the archives or come back in December - I'll have some really great books to point out to you!