Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Merry Christmas

I'll not be posting any new reviews for the next few weeks while I'm on vacation for the Christmas and New Years' holidays. Until then, check out these seasonal free audiobooks and stories from years past:

"The Dead" by James Joyce
"Twas the Night Before Christmas" by Clement C. Moore
"A Kidnapped Santa Claus" by L. Frank Baum
"The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry
"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens

Friday, December 16, 2011

"Markheim" by Robert Louis Stevenson

Source: LibriVox (mp3)
Length: 44 minutes
Reader: William Coon

The story: In desperate need of money on Christmas Day, Markheim approaches a local pawnbroker.  Markheim's evil intentions go beyond just selling stolen goods. His deeds, however secretive, do not go unnoticed. A touch of the supernatural enters into the story, bringing the tale beyond the usual trappings of a dark crime story and into a discussion of the nature of evil and the powers of free will.

This story strongly reminded me of Crime and Punishment (previously reviewed) with both its general outline and its themes. The major difference is  the addition of the supernatural into the story. This addition allows Stevenson to open up the story into the future and past, but also into the soul of Markheim and investigate the essence of his being. With only a fraction of the length of Dostoevsky's novel, Stevenson is able to visit many of the same themes.

Rating: 8 / 10

The Reader: Coon is a superb reader. He builds the tension of this story so that the listener feels the growing psychological horror of the crime. Even though this recording dates to the early days of LibriVox, Coon's recording is clear and well-made.

photo by wallg via flickr. Creative Commons by attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Wondersmith by Fitz-James O'Brien

Source: Maria Lectrix (Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 )
Length: 1 hr, 32 min
Reader: Maureen O'Brien

The story: On a back street of 19th century New York stands an odd shop labeled simply "Wondersmith." No one is quite sure what is sold there, though beautiful toy figures are arranged in the shop window. Deep within the Wondersmith store, a secret meeting is held shortly before Christmas to devise a plan to use children's gifts to advance a nefarious plot.

"The Wondersmith" is the type of racist and formulaic tale that sold lurid dime novels in the mid 1800s. The villains are evil gypsies intent on murdering Christian children. The heroine is perfect and noble as she is beautiful. Yet, despite these tropes, the story is exciting and chilling. It's easy to see why such stories sold so well to a public in search of Christmas entertainment.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: As the host of the Maria Lectrix podcast, Maureen O'Brien has years of experience in telling stories. Her podcast is focused on Catholic religion, but she also reads stories and books only tangentially related to religion. The archive features large number of stories, novels and religious nonfiction. All this experience shows in her reading of this story. She has a warm, expressive voice that she modulates for the different characters. She slightly alters the text of the story to replace a misused word, but otherwise the story is complete and unabridged.

photo by geekygirlnyc via flickr. Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"The Happy Prince" by Oscar Wilde

Source: Spoken Alexandria (mp3)
Length: 25 min
Reader: Alex Wilson

The story: Children's stories are a convenient framework to present a fable about life in the world of adults. This is what Oscar Wilde does in this famous short story. Like Hard Times, "The Happy Prince" presents the despair of poverty and greed of the rich.

The Prince of the title is a statue of a man who was wealthy in life, but now sees the sadness of the poor from the vantage point of his pedestal. His companion is a sparrow who has delayed in flying south with the rest of his flock and decides to help the prince to alleviate the suffering of the people of the city. The story has the melancholy feel of Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree".

Would this be a good story for modern children? Perhaps. Depressing stories seem to have fallen out of favor recently as parents try to shelter their children against a depressing world, but the lessons of empathy for others is one that everyone, both children and adults, need to learn.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: Wilson is an outstanding performer of short stories. He voices the creatures and people of this story with such great characterizations that they almost become real. The voice of the birds is an especially expressive one. The recording is superbly engineered and provided in several formats other than the mp3 directly linked above.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Source: Librivox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 12 hr
Readers: narrated by Bob Neufeild, voiced by many

The book: The lower classes do all the work and have little to show for it, while the rich get richer. Charles Dickens saw the same problems 150 years ago that people are protesting today. Like Upton Sinclair in The Jungle (previously reviewed), Dickens blends fiction and social activism in his attack on industrialization and the plight of the working class.

Unlike Sinclair's muckraking style, Dickens lacks authenticity in his novel. At the time of writing this book, Dickens was already a well-known writer, so it's unlikely that his sources were anything better than second-hand accounts of life in the factories. Instead of realism, Dickens makes his industrialists into blatant cartoons, bluntly criticizing what he did not know. Still, the novel is readable for Dickens' sense of humor and his trademark pathos. I just wish he had taken his approach more seriously and shown the real pathos in the working man's life.

Rating: 6 / 10

The readers: This book is presented as a dramatic reading, somewhere between a play and a narration. None of Dickens' words have been changed (the "he said"s are even still there), but different readers play each part. This can be a great help in keeping track of who is who, but it gets a bit disconcerting to hear all the different voices, especially since they have different accents and recording equipment. The parts are done very well, for the most part, and edited together nicely. Bob Neufield, as the narrator, does most of the speaking. The main parts are all well-acted, but I won't spend time naming names. This is an interesting way to present an audiobook and, for the most part, it works.

(Entered in Cym Lowell's Book Review Wednesday. Follow the link to read reviews of other books)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

"Second Variety" by Phillip K. Dick

Source: Librivox (Part 1 | Part 2)
Length: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Reader: Greg Margarite

The story: In case you haven't noticed, I usually try to pair the stories I review with the book I've reviewed earlier in the week. I like the way that interesting comparisons sometimes result from the juxtaposition of two narratives. This week, the book was a science fiction novel that is no longer plausible because the basis in scientific fact has been overturned. In this science fiction story, the science aspect is still plausible, but the political situation it depicts is history.

In the story, a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the U.N. has turned Earth into a battlefield. American scientists left robots called "claws" to battle the Soviets, then fled Earth to the moonbase. When a U.N. General returns to Earth to negotiate a peace treaty, he discovers what the Russians already know -- that the robots have modified themselves into a human form to better trap unsuspecting soldiers. No one can be trusted - anyone could be a robot in disguise.

If you feel you've heard this before, it's because Dick's story has become hugely influencial in science fiction. The 1995 film Screamer's was directly based off the story. More significantly, both The Terminator and the newer version of Battlestar Galactica have elements of Dick's paranoid thriller.
Rating: 8 /10

The reader: I've reviewed Margarite's readings before on this blog, including his tendency to give a William Shatner-like delivery. The more I listen to him, though, the more I like him. It's a good thing that I 've grown to love his readings, since he has an extensive catalogue of science fiction stories that he's narrated for LibriVox.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

Source: The Drama Pod
Length: about 10 hours
Reader: Winfred Henson

The book: With modern science at our backs, it's hard to take Journey to the Center of the Earth seriously. We know that there's no secret chambers beneath the Earth's surface hiding dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. From the standpoint of modern geology and biology, calling this book science fiction rather than fantasy is only a matter of its place in the history of the genre.

Yet, in the book, Verne himself, through another character, ridicules his own concept of geology. This technique is also used in Conan Doyle's The Lost World (previously reviewed). In both cases, it gives the author the chance to have an exciting, yet improbable, adventure while also wink at his audience to let them know he's not totally taken in by his own fantasies.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: Henson has a deep clear voice. His speech pattern is precise, with distinctly enunciated words. He has a bit of a Southern accent in his narrating voice, but creates accents for the characters. The over-the-top voice he creates for the uncle may strike people as either silly fun or a bit annoying. The recording itself is well-produced with good quality sound.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Internet censorship day

I usually don't post political issues here, but there's currently a pair of bills in the U.S. Congress that directly relate to Free Listens. If you're not in the United States, feel free to skip this post. The SOPA bill in the U.S. House and the Protect IP Piracy bill in the Senate have good intentions, but I'm concerned that they will result in an overreach of censorship upon many to protect the property rights of a few.

The bills, as I understand them, would block websites to users in the U.S. if a property rights holder complains that there is any copyright violation on the website. So, if I link to a legally free audiobook or story on a website and there is another audiobook or story on that website that might violate copyright in the U.S., then access to that website is blocked.

As I read it, there doesn't even need to be any laws broken for this law to censor a website. For example: I link to a free Creative-Commons licensed audio version of the public domain book "Call of the Wild" at an Australian website. The same website has a free version of "Gone With the Wind" that I don't link to. Because of a difference in the length of copyright in the two countries, "Gone with the Wind" is public domain in Australia, so no laws are being broken, but access to the entire website is blocked!

The legislation has even worse consequences for sites that contain user-generated content, since if one user violates copyright, all are blocked. My blog is hosted on Blogger, so when any of the hundreds of thousands of blogs on Blogger posts a copyright violation, it all goes down. This is clearly unworkable.

Google, Yahoo!, Mozilla, Twitter, Wikimedia, Facebook, and eBay all oppose this legislation. Please read more extensively on this subject, educate yourself, then visit to write your Congressperson on this subject.

Friday, November 11, 2011

"The Interior Castle" by Jean Stafford

Source: Miette's bedtime podcast (mp3)
Length: 1 hour, 1 minute
Reader: Miette

The story: In 1938, Stafford was seriously injured in a car accident, an experience which led her to write "The Interior Castle." In the story, Pansy Vanneman is bedridden in the hospital, with a host of injuries and an upcoming reconstructive surgery on her nose. Stafford's description of the pain Pansy experiences both before and during the surgery are some of the most disturbing passages I've ever read.

What's more striking, though, is not the physical pain but the emotional pain. The surgery becomes a violation of Pansy's body as the surgeon probes deeper and causes more pain. The picture of modern medicine is that of impersonal doctors with a veneer of bedside manner, but who see patients as a problem to be solved. This is a story, along with Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Illyich (reviewed previously) that all doctors and medical students should read.

Rating: 8 /10

The reader: Miette has a lovely velvet voice. She has an accent that I just love, with beautiful round vowels. Her phrasing is a bit unconventional at times and she repeats a line at least once, but these imperfections serve to make her reading less professional and more personal. Her reading starts with a little personal anecdote about round food which I initially mistook for the story. The recording cuts off with about 10 minutes to go. None of the story is lost, but there's a considerable bit of silence at the end.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Source: LibriVox
Length: 7 hours, 15 minutes
Reader: Karen Savage

The book: Persuasion was recommended to me as "the man's introduction to Jane Austen."  The book has several qualities that make it good for men interested in Austen: it's short, reducing the time you've wasted if you don't like it, it's one of Austen's later works, showing a more polished style for those unused to her writing, and many of the male characters are naval officers, making it sort of a shoreside version of a Patrick O'Brien novel. Being male and having already listen to (and mildly enjoyed) Pride and Prejudice, I looked forward to reading this one.

As with Pride and Prejudice, I liked the novel, but failed to see why Austen is so hugely admired by her fans. The plot concerns Anne Elliot, a spinster at age 27, who is re-introduced to her old beau, Captain Frederick Wentworth. Anne and Captain Wentworth had been engaged when Anne was younger and Wentworth was much poorer, but the engagement had been broken off at the advice of Anne's guardian. The reconnaissance and rebuilding of their relationship is an interesting story, full of Austen's wry observations on human nature, but I couldn't really get excited about a novel with so obvious a direction. I appreciate Austen's writing, but I still haven't learned to love her.

Rating: 7 /10

The reader: Karen Savage does a marvelous job at bringing Austen's characters to life. She has a bright tone of voice that manages to convey plenty of emotion with great subtlety, as is fitting for this book. The characters are clearly drawn without the performance of drastically different voices. I can't imagine why anyone would want a professionally made recording when this one is just perfect.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"Pigeons from Hell" by Robert E. Howard

Source: Gremlin Radio (mp3)
Length: 1 hr
Reader: various

The story: Robert E. Howard is best known for his Conan the Barbarian stories (previously reviewed here), but he was also a great horror writer. He also wrote the Solomon Kane stories, featuring a roving Puritan hunting monsters, but this is one of his stand-alone stories. This is one of Howard's scariest stories and a favorite of Stephen King.

When two New Englanders visit the South, they make the mistake of camping out in a deserted antebellum mansion. Despite the title, the pigeons play little direct role in the story - this is not The Birds. Rather, this is a creepy nightmare, full of atmosphere and building suspense. Even though Halloween is over, there's still good reasons to scare yourself silly.

Rating: 8 / 10

The readers: Although I love this story, I'm less enthralled by the audio production. Gremlin Radio went with an old-time style audio theater production for this story. The additional sound effects and music are redundant to a well-crafted piece of prose. The asides voiced by the actors are even more intrusive and have the cheesy effect of doubling the narration with dialog (A paraphrased example: "He wondered where he was. 'Where am I?'"). The distracting effect lessens as the story proceeds, but I wish they had just stuck with Howard's words.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 2 hours
Reader: Ethan Rampton

The book: For Halloween, here's a creepy story that influenced generations of horror writers. In the novella, a mysterious woman named Helen moves through London society, attracting those around her and leaving disaster in her wake. Who is she and what secret horrors does her beauty conceal?

Machen cleverly leaves it to the imagination most of the descriptions of what Helen actually does. This not only has the advantage of getting around Victorian censors, but also allows the reader to invent more heinous sins than any graphically presented misdeeds. Just like the threat of pain can be more frightening than pain itself, the phrase "as I expect you can guess" is a invitation to darkness.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: Rampton has a deep, brooding American accent that increases the atmosphere provided by Machen's words. He gives each character his own voice, allowing the fragments in the last chapter to be easily matched to their authors. The recording itself is well-made.

Happy Halloween!

(photo by Brookie via Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons by Attribution Share-Alike)

Friday, October 28, 2011

"The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe

Source: Tell Tale Weekly (mp3)
Length: 8 minutes
Reader: Alex Wilson

The poem: "Nevermore." This poem is probably already familiar to you, but it's worth a listen as we approach Halloween weekend. Read aloud, it has a rhythm that builds its suspense that doesn't show up in print.

This isn't a horror of violence, but the horror of depression. I think it's an experience that is more relevant. Personally, I've often felt the loss of a loved one, but very rarely have I felt physically threatened. This horror is real and ever-present, which gives Poe's poem its lasting impact beyond the memorable refrain.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: I've reviewed Wilson's readings before (see my review of "The Tell Tale Heart"). It's obvious he loves reading Poe's work. This poem, with its strong rhythm and rhyme, can easily become singsong. Wilson avoids this trap and embodies the pathos of the narrator This is a very good recording of a classic poem.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly

Source: Lit2Go (iTunesU download)
Length: 6.4 hours
Reader: Fadi Tavoukdjian

The book: Frankenstein  is one of those books that's more fun to talk about than it is to read. I rarely felt much excitement or suspense except for chapter in which Victor Frankenstein creates his monster and a few other isolated incidents. The first few chapters after the framing story were particularly dull.

In retrospect, however, it's a great book. The symbolism and thought experiments are classic. This is not just a fable about science overreaching itself; it's a examination of humankind's place in the cosmos. How do we live our lives rightly and well when we're left alone on Earth by our Creator? The religions of the world have attempted to answer this question but even with the wisdom of the Bible, I'm often as confused as the monster as to what to do in some particular situations. Shelly makes the monster more human than his creator, giving us  a stand-in for our sometimes bewildering exploration of our lives.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: Fadi (I'm not going to try to spell his last name more than once in this post) is one of the better readers I've heard from Lit2Go. He's got a smooth American accent, but affects his voice for the various narrators. He often speaks too quickly, and this speed sometimes causes him to make minor trips over consonants. There are occasional noises of page turns and bumps, but these may be overlooked.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

"That Damned Thing" by Ambrose Bierce

Source: Naxos Audiobooks (mp3)
Length: 20 minutes
Reader: Johnathan Keeble

The story: "Seeing is believing." Unlike most other mammals, we primates rely on our sense of sight over our hearing or sense of smell. So when we can't see something, we become suspicious.

In this story, an invisible monster is on the loose in a mountain wilderness. Bierce plays with the imagery of sight: characters squint at a dead man's dairy, react when they see his mangled body, and disbelieve the testimony of an eyewitness to his death. Yet, we get the sense that the monster is not actually evil, but simply hated because he cannot be seen.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: Keeble is a professional voice actor in a professional audiobook. He creates distinct voices for each of the characters, making it easy to follow the action. His performance definitely adds to the appeal of this story. This is a free sample of a larger collection of stories. It's only free until the end of October, 2011, so download it soon.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 2 hours, 21 minutes
Reader: Michael Thomas Robinson

The book: Considered one of the greatest stories in horror literature, The Willows lives up to its reputation. Two friends canoeing down the Danube stop for the night on an island in the middle of a huge expanse of willow trees. The place seems mystic, almost otherworldly, and in the night the two interlopers find out why.

Blackwood could have set this story in any exotic river in the world, but he chose the Danube. This river, which runs through the heart of Europe, is the wildness that runs through what was then the epitome of civilization. As the atmosphere of this turns from idyllic to terrifying, Blackwood is showing that the unknown horrors of the world can be anywhere, even where we should be the most safe. This, I think, is the most horrifying realization of all.

Rating: 9 / 10

The reader: At first, I was not impressed by Robinson's voice. He's somewhat nasal, and starts the book with a bored, straightforward style. As the story went on, though, I realized the initial bored tone was probably intentional, contrasting with the building dread of the story. His pace quickens and slows to build the tension, drawing the listener into the horror of what the narrator is experiencing. Despite my early misgivings, I greatly enjoyed this reading.

(entered in Cym Lowell's Book Review Party Wednesday)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

"A & P" by John Updike

Source: The New Yorker Fiction Podcast (mp3)
Length: 29 minutes
Reader: Allegra Goodman

The story: People don't grow up all at once. Sammy, the narrator of this great short story, is a young man crossing the doorstep of adulthood. At the A & P Supermarket where he works, three girls come in dressed in swimsuits. Sammy's response to them is a mixture of teenage objectification mixed with the kernel of a more mature view. He seems to lurch between wondering if girls think at at all and feeling great empathy for them when a manager scolds the girls.

I love the character of this narrator. I never really liked Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye; Sammy's attitude is similar to Holden's, but much more interesting to me in all his flaws. I think that's because Sammy shows more promise of growing into a person I would want to be. In such a short introduction, Updike lets us know the hope and tragedy of being young.

Rating: 8 /10

The reader: As she says in the introduction, Goodman really enjoys this story. Her familiarity and love of the piece comes through in the vibrancy of her reading. Her imitation of the cash register's song made me laugh. One of the things I enjoy the most about the New Yorker fiction podcast is the discussion afterwords. It's always fun to see what they thought about the story and compare their thoughts with my own observations.

(photo by RoadsidePictures via flickr. Creative Commons by attribution non-commercial.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Aspern Papers by Henry James

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 3 hr, 51 min
Reader: Nicholas Clifford

The book: "Why do you have to go around raking in the past?" asks the elderly Mrs. Bordereau to the unnamed narrator. He's trying to obtain letters the (fictional) American poet Jeffery Aspern wrote to Bordereau during their love affair many years ago. Mrs. Bordereau, accompanied by her niece Miss Tita, jealously guards her privacy against the prying eyes of the literary world, from which the narrator is an undercover agent of sorts.

Henry James considered this his best novella, even better than his well-known The Turn of the Screw (audiobook previously reviewed here). James was a great believer in individual privacy, even for those with fame. Knowing the personal details of a great man's life is both fascinating and inspirational. Yet even the most respectful biographers lay bare secret emotions and words of their subjects. Watching James struggle with this conflict through his characters in this book makes for a intriguing read.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: This audiobook places a good reader in a bad recording. Nicholas Clifford has a soft, expressive voice that fits the character of the literary historian who narrates the book. The recording, however, makes it difficult to hear his performance. There is a continual hiss in the background and it seemed to me that the sound volume slowly rose and fell throughout the book, forcing me to turn up or turn down the volume controls constantly. If you're hearing this book in a noisy car or on bad headphones, the recording may be an issue for you, but if you're hearing the book in an otherwise good listening environment, the annoyances will probably be minor.

(Entered in Cym Lowell's Book Review Party Wednesdays)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Meditation 17" by John Donne

Source: LibriVox (mp3)
Length: 5 minutes
Reader: Shawn Craig Smith

The essay: Donne's "Meditation XVII" is full of famous quotes: "All mankind is of one author and is one volume, ""No man is an island," and "Ask not for whom the bell tolls." As I listened, I found myself waiting for these greatest hits and missing the impact of the piece as a whole, ironically enough for an essay about the importance of the whole of mankind.

The meditation itself is surprising for the time it was written. Donne asserts that every human is a part of the larger brotherhood of mankind, and that we should feel the loss whenever any one dies. This death, he goes on to say, should not be seen as a detriment, but as gain since it reminds the one living to live his life well. Coming from someone in a time when a rigid class structure was in place, this brotherhood of man talk seems downright revolutionary. Of course, I'm not sure if Donne's brotherhood extended to non-white, non-Christian, non-European, or non-male humanity, but read as an all-inclusive embrace of mankind, it's an inspirational message.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: Smith is a gifted amateur reader who has the difficult task of breaking the archaic grammar of the 1600s into a speech pattern that is listenable for the modern audience. He largely succeeds at this formidable task, bringing the words of Donne to life. He speaks with a earnest note of pleading that reflects the persuasive tone of the essay. There is a bit of a metallic flatness in the recording, as if the pickup levels were too high, but it's not enough to harm the quality of the reading.

(Photo by Rudy A Giron. Creative Commons by attribution noncommercial share-alike.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Tempest by William Shakespeare

Source: Speak the Speech (Act I | II | III |IV| V )
Length: 2 hours
Readers: Cast directed by Cynthia McGean

The play: Opening in a great storm at sea, The Tempest is a play that's easy enough to enjoy from the beginning, but has the depth and power suggested by its name. The plot is rather simple: Prospero, the former duke of Milan,  has escaped to after his brother led a coup against him with the support of the King of Naples. Years later, Prospero summons a magical storm to ensnare the boat of his enemies. The remainder of the play consists of Prospero using magic to solve all of his own problems and foil the plots of the villains.

Yet underneath the simplistic solutions lie more problems. Is Prospero a hero or is his manipulation of those around him a troubling sign of a dark character? Is his punishment the malformed island native Caliban deserved or is Caliban the victim the oppression? Thought to be the last of Shakespeare's plays, it's apparent that the Bard sees a part of himself in the magician as he says farewell to the stage: "As you from crimes would pardon'd be, / Let your indulgence set me free."

Rating: 8 / 10

The readers: This is a full cast production with attendant sound effects and music. The sound effects are not overdone, but I found the twinkling chimes that signify Prospero's magic to be rather trite. The music is nicely performed and uses processed vocal effects to give an otherworldly feel to the fairy songs. The actors, particularly Prospero, Caliban, and Antonio, give a great performance, but it can sometimes be difficult to discern who is speaking what lines. For this reason and for the understanding of uncommon words, I recommend that listeners follow along with the text of the play. This version of the play is unabridged, Speak the Speech also offers an abridged one-hour version for download as well.

(Entered in Cym Lowell's Book Review Wednesdays)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

No new reviews this week

I'll be skipping a week of reviews due to quarter-term exams in the classes I'm teaching. Next week, I'll be back with another free audiobook and free audio story review.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"A Wagner Matinee" by Willa Cather

Source: McDougal Littell Literature, Grade 11 (mp3)
Length: 20 min
Reader: Unlisted

The story: When I first moved to a city for college, I knew I'd never go back to living in a suburb. All around me were art galleries, coffee shops, neighborhood bars, funky stores that sold things I had never seen and restaurants that didn't serve photocopied meals from corporate headquarters. Best of all was the music, not the recorded stuff that passes out of radios, but real live music played by people I could see and touch. I don't go to concerts as much as I did as a student, but I still try to make it to a few concerts every year, be it rock, blues, classical, or choral.

In this story, Willa Cather takes a break from her usual setting of the plains of Nebraska to tell of an old farm wife who visits her nephew in Boston. Knowing that she was once an accomplished musician in Boston, the nephew takes her to the Boston Opera House for a Wagner performance. Cather's description of the aunt's reaction to the music shows the author's great empathy for her characters and understanding of humanity. This is a great short piece about the power of live music and the pain of choices that change our lives forever.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: This is a professionally produced recording and narrator, though I can't seem to find the reader's name on the website. The source is from McDougal Littell's webpage for users of its high school literature textbooks, but the audio files are available to the public. There's lots of great stories listed on the page, but most are short summaries with only a few being full-length readings of the stories or poems.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3 | M4B file)
Length: Approx. 4 hours
Reader: Kristin Luoma

The book: Conrad's notoriously difficult book is like the jungle it depicts: full of mystery, intimidating, but with great wonders lurking beneath the surface. The surface story tells the tale of Charles Marlow, an ivory trader sent into the wilds of Africa to find and bring back Kurtz, another ivory trader who has gone insane. As Marlow continues his journey up the river, the narrative grows more nightmarish and dense. It's a daunting experience for the reader, but rewards with nesting questions of the nature of good and evil, civilization and wildness, European and colonial.

Like a jungle expedition, this one is made much more enjoyable with a good guide. Fortunately, the first time I read this book in high school, I had a great teacher as a guide. The characters' words and actions are not always in line with what Marlow as narrator or Conrad as author really believe. Readers, even knowledgeable ones, can read different meanings into the book. Though it's interesting to debate the symbols and motivations within the book, I think Conrad's real purpose is to show that we sometimes can't know a jungle (or man or culture) fully, only appreciate the complexity.

Rating: 8 /10

The reader: Kristin is a experienced reader for LibriVox. She doesn't put the emotion and dynamism into the reading that some other readers do, but reads with a clear, steady pace and neutral tone. In such an ambiguous novel as this, that means that it's up to the listener to interpret meaning. There's more work on the listeners' brain, which makes it harder to listen to, but ultimately can be a more free experience.

(entered in Cym Lowell's Book Review Party Wednesday. Follow the link for more reviews of other books)

Monday, September 12, 2011

BBAW: My Blogging Community

Happy Book Blogger Appreciation Week. The theme for this Monday is my blogging community, the bloggers that I read every post and feel a kinship with. I've listed some of my favorite blogs below.

Free Audio Review: Felbrigg started his blog on free audiobooks about the same time I did mine. He's got good tastes in audiobooks, and I always can find a good new candidate for reviews.

Fantasy Literature and SFFaudio are two blogs that I occasionally write columns for, but I was a fan of both long before either asked me to post. Both cover science fiction and fantasy literature, from slightly different perspectives.

The Reading Life: I'm not sure why more book bloggers don't review short stories; they're my favorite part of The Reading Life. Mel u does an excellent job of looking deep into classic fiction, both short and long forms. I've found several great suggestions there.

The Blue Bookcase: I first found the Blue Bookcase through the Literary Book Bloggers Hop, but I've also enjoyed their regular posts as well. One of my favorite features is The Reading List, a introduction to the greatest hits of sub-sub-genres.

I know I'm probably forgetting someone I love to read.  If I left you out, don't feel bad, I may have just had a mental lapse. Let me know what your favorite blogs are and maybe I'll add them to the list.

Friday, September 9, 2011

"The Miller's Tale" by Geoffrey Chaucer

Source: LibriVox (mp3)
Length: 55 minutes
Reader: Gord Mackenzie

The story: On an airplane ride across the country, I once had the misfortune of riding behind a very drunk specimen of what we Southerners call a good ole' boy. This man proceeded to loudly tell unfunny and unwelcome jokes to his fellow passengers until he finally fell asleep. Reading this story, it's nice to know some things haven't changed in the past 600 years.

A group of strangers headed to the cathedral at Canterbury begin telling stories to pass the time. Chaucer's character the Miller is drunk and obnoxious, as fellow travelers sometimes are. He tells a dirty story about student having an affair with his landlord's wife. Unlike my aeronautical Bubba, the Miller's story is actually pretty funny. His story encompasses the hypocrisy of the clergy, sexual infidelity, and lowbrow potty humor. When commentators complain about how dirty modern entertainment is, someone should remind them of the great classics of English literature.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: If you've ever seen a great Shakespearean actor make the Bard's words sound fresh and real, you have some idea of what Gord Mackenzie is able to do with this even older poem. The version he's reading has been slightly updated, but retains much of its Middle English character. Mackenzie breaths life into the difficult words, making their meaning abundantly clear through his suggestive tone of voice. I'm sure that having footnotes would have helped me get more of the definitions of archaic terms, but a great voice actor like this overcomes much.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Literary Book Blog Hop: Must literature be difficult?

Literary Blog Hop
Every month The Blue Bookcase host a Literary Book Blog Hop for blogs that feature classics and literary fiction. This week, the question for discussion is

Must all literary writing be difficult? Can you think of examples of literary writing that was not difficult?

This question ties directly into the book I reviewed this week, Beowulf. I enjoyed the story itself, but the language Grummere used in his translation was so difficult that it took away from the beauty of the work. I've listened to some samples of Seamus Heaney's translation and think I would have gotten more out of the same poem listening to less difficult, but still well-crafted, writing. The confounding effect of translators on a literary work is a difficult problem to avoid, since the translator has the often conflicting tasks of making the writing clear and conveying the style of the original. Therefore, I'll limit the rest of my answer to English-language authors.

Literary writing need not be difficult to be literary. I find the books of E.M. Forster, Willa Cather, and John Steinbeck to be clear and easy-to-read (links go to previous reviews). These writers sometimes slip into a lyrical style, but the images they project are crisp.

I appreciate the work of writers like Virginia Woolf, Herman Melville and William Faulkner, but I'm always reluctant to pick up another one of their novels, since it means I'll have to fight through difficult prose. I'm not opposed to the idea of putting in some work to unravel meaning from a piece of literary fiction, but I more greatly admire writers who can engage my intellect without breaking it first.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Book Blogger Appreciation Week update

I've made the short list for the Best Audiobook Blog niche at Book Blogger Appreciation Week! Thanks to mel u at The Reading Life who nominated me and to everybody who voted for me.

You can vote by visiting BBAW and logging in with your Google or Twitter username at the bottom of the page. While you're voting for the audiobook blog category, be sure to keep going to the Best Speculative Fiction Blog category and vote for Fantasy Literature, where I write an occasional column.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Beowulf trans. by Francis B. Gummere

Source: Lit2Go (iTunes U)
Length: Approx. 2.5 hours
Reader: Rick Kistner

The book: Beowulf has within it exciting battles, tales of classic battles between good and evil, and insight into a way of life that is alien to our modern world. Sadly, these great qualities are buried in this difficult to understand translation. Gummere's work was published in 1910, but he chose to use archaic words apparently to evoke the old-time feel of the King James Bible.  Listening with modern ears, the words throw up a barrier to understanding, rather than making the meaning clear and the story enjoyable.

Yet, underneath the cumbersome translation, the story still shines. Beowulf's insanely brave choice to pursue Grendel to his mother's lair made me shake my head with admiration. A light bulb went off when I recognized the theft of a goblet from the dragon's lair as the inspiration for the same scene in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. If I could only get around the awkward phrasings and archaic words, I think I would have enjoyed this classic. This is the only translation that is available in free audio that I could find, but it may be worth it to pay for a more enjoyable version.

Rating: 6 /10

The reader: Usually, I find Lit2Go's recordings to range from okay to good, but this one falls short. Kistner reads much too fast for such a complex poem. His rhythm lacks the flow of well-read poetry but is too artificial to pass as prose. In the past, I've enjoyed Kistner's readings of The Jungle and Crime and Punishment, but this one ranks below his usual work.

(entered in Cym Lowell's Book Review Party Wednesday. Follow the link for more reviews of other books)

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Middle school reading list

I published a high school reading list of audiobooks and short stories last week. This week I'm finishing the theme with some great middle school reading. Next week, I'll be back with a new audiobook review.

The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgeson Burnett
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Short Stories
"The Empty House" by Algernon Blackwood
"The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell
"The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry
"The Monkey's Paw" by W.W. Jacobs
"The Tale-Tell Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe
"The Lady or the Tiger?" by Frank R. Stockton
"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" by Mark Twain

Book blogger appreciation week nominee

I've been listed on the Long List for an award as Best Audiobook Blog for Book Blogger Appreciation Week. You can see all the nominees here. It's a great list! There are several of my favorite audiobook blogs listed too.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

High School reading list: Short stories

Continuing the post from Tuesday, here's some of the short stories I see most often in high school literature syllabi. There's some overlap with the middle school stories I'll be posting next week, so check back later for more.

"An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce
"The Swimmer" by John Cheever
"The Bet" by Anton Chekhov
"The Open Boat" by Stephen Crane
"A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
"A Jury of her Peers" by Susan Glaspell
"The Outcasts of Poker Flats" by Bret Harte
"Rappaccini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne
"Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving
"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson
"Araby" by James Joyce
"The Rocking-Horse Winner" by D.H. Lawrence
"A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor
"The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield
"The Open Window" by Saki
"Junius Maltby" by John Steinbeck

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

High school reading list

With school starting this week, I'm afraid I won't be able to post a new review. However, since it's the beginning of the school year, I'm posting a list of free audiobooks that are often in assigned reading for literature classes. I'm intending this to be a service for both students and teachers, so they can read and assign some audiobooks without worrying about the ability to pay.

Today, I'll have a list of audiobooks for the high school students; Thursday will be short stories for the high school crowd. If I'm still busy next week, I'll post a list of free audiobooks for the middle school and elementary school classes.

Alphabetical by author's last name:
Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
Silas Marner by George Eliot
Howards End by E.M. Forster
A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Friday, August 19, 2011

Book blogger hop

Book Blogger HopEach week, the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Crazy for Books asks a different book-related question for book bloggers to answer. This week, the question is

What is the LONGEST book you've ever read? (Not including spiritual works)

Since I write an audiobook blog, I've changed the question slightly to

What is the LONGEST book you've listened to?

I'm not going to include The Count of Monte Cristo, since I had read part of it on my smartphone and listened to other chapters. The longest book I've listened to only is A Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. The audiobook is great; it's well-performed, it changes up narrators with changes in points of view, and has an exciting, easy to follow plot. Even so, I found myself having to push through parts and counting down the hours to the end. Listening to a very long book can become difficult, but it's a nice way to get a start on a large, imposing book on your to-read list.

What's your experience with long books? Do you prefer to read, listen or a bit of both?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Rashomon" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Source: peopleTalk (mp3)
Length: 16 min
Reader: Sadao Ueda

The story: If you've heard of this story before, it's probably from the excellent 1950 film of the same name directed by Akira Kurosawa. The movie, however, takes most of its plot from another story by this same author. So, if you've already seen the film, you're not losing anything by reading this classic Japanese story as well.

The setting is the decaying Rashomon gate in Kyoto during a economic depression. A laid-off servant shelters under the gate, trying to decide whether to live an honest life and probably starve or turn to a life of crime in order to survive. As I listened, I couldn't help but think about people in modern society thrust into the same situation. This story would be a great starting place for a discussion on the validity or invalidity of the concept of moral relativity and its application.

Rating: 8 /10

The reader: Ueda is a professional actor who really knows how to use his voice for storytelling. He builds the excitement of the story to the climax through his use of pacing and rhythm. Ueda has a Japanese accent that is not so strong as to interfere with the understanding of the story, but lends some authenticity to the telling. Apart from some muddy sound and confusing language effects in the introduction, this is a well-recorded piece.

(photo of Nanzen-ji Gate, Kyoto by rdvark via flickr. Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial license)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Botchan by Soseki Natsume

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s or M4B)
Length: 5 hrs, 7 min
Reader: Availle

The book: According to WikipediaBotchan is one of the most popular novels in Japan. Natsume is the greatest Japanese novelist of the early twentieth century; until a recent anti-counterfeiting redesign, his face appeared on the 1000 yen note. Now that school is back in session, it's the perfect time to read this humorous book about the experiences of a math teacher.

As a name for the main character, "Botchan" can be appropriately translated as "young master" with both the connotation of a privileged background and of a schoolteacher. The narrator moves from a pampered upbringing in Tokyo to teaching at a middle school (what Americans would call a high school) in a provincial town. He gives the other teachers sarcastic nicknames like "Red Shirt" and "Porcupine" and views himself as superior to them. Much of the humor in this novel comes from the conflict between his airs of superiority and the students' attempts to bring him down through their pranks.

As a former teacher at a small college, I was surprised to see the same small-scale squabbles among teachers playing out in a setting halfway around the world and a century in the past.  I suppose departmental politics are the same at every level of education all across the globe. Anyone who's a teacher or is interested in teaching should listen to this classic.

Rating: 8 /10

The reader: Availle has an accent that is hard to place, sometimes sounding like British received pronunciation and sometimes sounding Asian, possibly Japanese. This accent adds spice to the recording, rather than making it difficult to understand. She pronounces the Japanese words with enough confidence that I assume she's correct. For the different characters, she adopts various tones, matching each voice to the character's personality. This is a good amateur recording of this translation.

(Entered in Cym Lowell's Book Review Wednesday. Visit the link for other book reviews)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Picture Is Worth a 1000 Spoken Words

I usually try to illustrate my reviews with the images provided by the publisher of the audiobook. LibriVox volunteers in particular have done a great job at designing covers for their public domain audiobooks. Sometimes, there is no cover image for the book, especially when I'm reviewing a short story or poem. In these cases, I have to search for a Creative Commons or public domain image to use instead.  These searches often turn up with great images. I've included a few of my favorites below. You can find the license and credits by clicking on the story links.

Friday, August 12, 2011

"Moon Graffiti" by Jonathan Mitchell

Source: The Truth (mp3)
Length: 15 minutes
Readers: Matt Evans and Ed Herpsman

The play: In 1969, William Safire wrote a speech for Richard Nixon entitled "In the Event of Moon Disaster". It was to be read to the nation if the members of the Apollo 16 mission were not able to return to Earth. Jonathan Mitchell, of American Public Media, wrote "Moon Graffiti" as a dramatization of that very possible alternate history.

Having been born after the moon landing, I've always seen the event in terms of history - something that inevitably happened.  This play opened my mind to the danger and uncertainty that the astronauts were facing when they signed up for NASA. Confronted with the worst possible outcome of a space mission, not blowing up on the launchpad but being stranded in space, I have a greater appreciation for the bravery of the astronauts and cosmonauts who have explored our corner of the universe.

Rating: 8 / 10

The readers: Having directed for public radio's Studio 360 and other programs, Mitchell has great talent at creating a setting out of sound.  Here, he recreates the moon landing not as the broadcast audio that we all know, but from inside the landing module. The result is thrilling. In a few places, the audio is garbled, but this is on purpose -- not being able to understand everything that's happening is part of the program. Public radio continues to astound me with its great programs like this one. If you haven't donated to your local station yet, you should.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Salmon of Blackpool by Roger Gregg

Source: Radio Drama Revival (part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 )
Length: Approx. 2 hours
Readers: Crazy Dog Audio Theatre

The play: What is the purpose of art? Is it to reveal universal truths? Is it to help us understand other people? Is it to make us feel good and be able to cope with our lives? Is it to make money for the artists and others? Can it be all of these?

The Salmon of Blackpool asks these questions in a engrossing drama. Irish screenwriter Richie Ryan gets his first big break from a Hollywood studio: to write a biopic of dying action superstar Johnny Gallagher. As Richie gets to know Johnny, he strays from the studio's plans to write a feel-good Oscar bait. Instead he pens a script that more accurately, if pretentiously, reflects Johnny troubled personality. The production of this story teeters on the edge of being a Sunset Boulevard knock-off, but Gregg's skillful writing and the abilities of the actors keep the narrative grounded in reality. This is one of the better original audio dramas I've heard in the last few years of reviewing.

Rating: 8 / 10

The readers: One of the most interesting aspects of The Salmon of Blackpool is how the sound design matches the subject. This audio drama uses the conventions of film-making to capture the feel of a movie.  Sound effects are used not only to provide atmosphere and illustration, but to move the story along. Gregg allows the performances of the actors to tell much of the story that is left unsaid. David Murray, who has appeared in movies like G.I. Joe gets to show his acting chops as the complex character Johnny while Michael Sheehan brings to Richie a mixture of likableness and desperation that make his character's actions creditable. Kudos to Radio Drama Revival and Crazy Dog Theatre for this one.

(picture by Peteforsyth via Wikipedia. Creative Commons Attribution, Share Alike)

Friday, August 5, 2011

"A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum

Source: LibriVox (mp3)
Length: 58 minutes
Reader: Greg Margarite

The book:  In 1970, The Science Fiction Writers of America voted "A Martian Odyssey" as the second best science fiction story of all time, after Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall" (previously reviewed). While I disagree that it's that great of a story, I can appreciate how influential it was on all science fiction that came after it.

The tale is told by astronaut Dick Jarvis to his fellow explorers on the first human mission to Mars. After Jarvis's sidetrip from the expedition ends in a rocket crash, he sets out on foot for the main rocket. Along the way, he meets several alien species including the intelligent bird-like creature who introduces itself as "Tweel."

Tweel and Jarvis's attempts to communicate and understand one another comprises the leap that Weinbaum made over his contemporaries. Weinbaum imagines an intelligent being who is not just odd sounding or funny-looking, but actually alien in its thought patterns. This took the alien in science fiction from being either a bug-eyed antagonist or a green-skinned stand-in for other humans, to being a rational but unknown xenobiology species. Although this isn't among the best science fiction stories you'll ever read, it is a good one that all fans of the genre should know.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: Greg Margarite has read numerous science fiction stories for LibriVox. He has an expressive voice that clearly conveys the printed page. In this story, Jarvis is narrating his adventures to the other members of the crew, so Margarite gives the astronaut a cocky tone that fits well with his character. He emphasizes the international nature of the rest of the crew by giving them accents for their few lines. Margarite narrates other Weinbaum stories in the Collected Public Domain Works of Stanley G. Weinbaum at LibriVox, including the sequel to this story "The Valley of Dreams."

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Green Odyssey by Philip Jose Farmer

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 6 hours, 6 minutes
Reader: Mark Nelson

The book: Philip Jose Farmer is best known for his Riverworld series, in which people from throughout history are reincarnated in a mysterious land with a river running through the center. That mish-mash of people from disparate times results in people like 19th century explorer Richard Burton meeting Nazi leader Herman Goring. In this standalone novel, Farmer does a similar mashup, this time with genres. The Green Odyssey reads like a combination of A Princess of Mars (previously reviewed) with a pirate adventure novel.

Astronaut Alan Green has been living as a harem-slave to a queen on a semi-barbarous planet since his spaceship crashed there two years ago. He manages to escape imprisonment and flee to a merchant ship so he can search for two other astronauts rumored to have recently crashed on another part of the planet. The science-fiction coolness factor is that that on this planet, ships don't travel across the water, but instead roll across giant plains of grass. Although I found the ending a bit disappointing, the rest of the novel was good pulpy adventure in an improbable, but interesting, setting.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: Mark Nelson is a great reader. I've reviewed his readings multiple times here at Free Listens: Right Ho, Jeeves, "The Call of Cthulu," Plague Ship, and the previously-mentioned A Princess of Mars.  I really can't think of anything else to say about him that I haven't already. He has everything you'd want in a LibriVox reader: a clear strong voice, a good sense of pacing, and the ability to do a few voices without going over the top.

Friday, July 29, 2011

"The Friends of Hector Jouvet" by James Powell

Source: SFFaudio podcast (mp3)
Length: 34 minutes
Reader: J. J. Campanella

The story: When a Canadian tourist named Brown climbs to a cliff overlooking a European mini-nation, he notices an old man following him. Confronting the old man, Brown learns about the city and the old man himself. Through this conversation, the hidden agendas of both Brown and the old man peel back layer by layer until they realize a new secret that neither of them know on his own.

In this efficient little piece, Powell puts an interesting twist on the classic mystery story. All the action takes place within a conversation, but the characters are so interesting that my attention was gripped through the ending. Jouvet's character, with its French speech patterns and diffident manner, reminds me of Agatha Christie's Poirot. This is an enjoyable story full of humor and misdirection that packs several "Aha!" moments into a short time.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: Campanella is a familiar voice at Free Listens, having read stories ranging from Ted Chiang's time-travelling novellette "The Merchant and the Alchemist Gate" to P.G. Wodehouse's hilarious Jeeves in the Morning. Campanella's greatest strength is his ability to do interesting and personality-filled voices for different characters. Here, he performs the French accent of Jouvet to perfection. The recording is excellent both in narrator quality and freedom from technical errors.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Source: Maria Lectrix (zipped mp3s)
Length: 8 hours, 8 minutes
Reader: Maureen O'Brien

The book: Agatha Christie gets a bad reputation for writing books full of unlikely circumstances and formulaic plots. Read enough of Christie and her imitators and this reputation starts to feel earned. Still, Christie shouldn't be blamed for the work of knockoffs and the demands of her fans to write "another one like the last one but different."  At her best, Agatha Christie books are entertaining and memorable reads.

Fortunately for Free Listens, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, along with The Secret Adversary (reviewed previously) are in the public domain in the United States. Christie's first mystery featuring the Belgian detective Poirot, the mystery is told from the point of view of Poirot's own Watson, Lt. Arthur Hastings. While Hastings is home on leave from World War I, he visits his friend John Cavendish at Styles manor. A murder occurs, as it tends to do in these stories, and Hastings calls on his acquaintance Poirot, a detective who is living nearby as a war refugee. As Poirot investigates, suspicion falls on each character in turn before the murderer is finally revealed. This basic plot, with some twists, was recycled in later stories, but it's worthwhile to go back and enjoy the first incarnation of a classic devise.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: O'Brien has a lovely voice that conveys the emotions of the characters. She varies her voice slightly for the cast, with a slight Belgian-French pattern of speech for Poirot and accents that approximate English accents for most of the others. The recording is of middling quality; it's good enough to listen to, but has some muddy sound that can be overlooked for a free reading. The book is in the public domain in the U.S., but in many other countries it's still under copyright by the Christie estate, so check your local laws before downloading.

(photo by connerdowney via flickr. Creative Commons Attribution, No derivatives, Non-commercial license.)
(Review entered in Cym Lowell's Book Review Wednesday Party. Follow the link for more book reviews)

Friday, July 22, 2011

"The Swimmer" by John Cheever

Source: The New Yorker Fiction Podcast (mp3)
Length: 43 minutes
Reader: Anne Enright

The story: One lazy summer day, Ned Merril decides to swim across the county by way of swimming pools. His bizarre Odyssey starts out fine with the first few swimming pools, but as he goes along, he dives into less appealing pools. Odd reminders of the past (or present?) pop up and his final few laps are a struggle to return to his home.

As Enright and Treisman point out, this story has a similar feel to the better episodes of The Twilight Zone. Everything starts out normal, so when the plot takes a turn to the strange, our minds try to work for an explanation. I think this desperate effort to explain is why the story has become so widely-discussed in English literature classes. Ned's journey is a microcosm of a life, with many of the most important events happening while our heads are underwater and no way to understand our situation when we come up for air.

The reader: From the first sentence of the story, Anne Enright's sense of humor comes through. As the story goes on, her writer's understanding of the flow and intricacies of the piece bring the depth of the story to light through her narration. Her discussions with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman before and after her reading are entertaining and enlightening. The podcast is nicely produced and recorded well.

(photo by mr. rollers via flickr. Creative Commons Attribution, No derivatives  Noncommercial license.)