Thursday, March 31, 2011

Literary Book Blog Hop

Literary Blog HopEach week, the Literary Book Blog Hop asks a question, then encourages participants to answer the questions and read responses on others' book blogs. This week the question is:

Do you find yourself predisposed to like (or dislike) books that are generally accepted as great books and have been incorporated into the literary canon? Discuss the affect you believe a book’s “status” has on your opinion of it.

If I read a book that's considered a classic, then I'm likely to give it the benefit of the doubt. Parts of The Woman in White, for example, were pretty slow, but I kept reading and loved the book as a whole. I don't feel obligated to like every book that has great critical acclaim, but I do try to figure out why literate, intelligent people have held that book up as a classic. Sometimes, I still don't enjoy the book, but have an appreciation of what the author was trying to do, as in Return of the Soldier. Other times, I'll dislike the book at the time I read it, but later pick it up and be able to see it with different eyes, as in The Red Badge of Courage. I realize that there are plenty of great books that aren't in the Western canon for reasons not having to do with their quality, but I feel that the ones that have been inducted into the hall of fame deserve my best effort.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"The Seperate Self" by Robert Arnold

Source: Chatterbox Theater (mp3)
Length: 20 minutes
Reader: Bob Arnold and Lauren Rachel

The play: When Greg is nearly hit by a bus, he claims to have a lifechanging revelation that has revealed an unknown power within himself. His wife is skeptical of his claims, but he is insistant. Greg's experience may be evidence of  supernatural powers or may be just an extraordinary coincidence. How far will he go to find out the truth?

In its short running time, this play packs a number of questions about faith and reason into a suspenseful story.  Without mentioning religion or philosophy, it ponders the implications of belief. Is it better to stay true to a heartfelt faith no matter the consequences or to approach life rationally, even if that means potentially missing out on being part of a grander purpose? "The Separate Self" doesn't offer any clear answers, but presents both sides from different perspectives.

Rating: 8/10

The readers: I'm always concerned when the lead actor is also the writer and director of a play, but Bob Arnold puts those fears to rest with an excellent performance. The sense of worldliness he gives to Greg makes it clear that the character is not a fanatic who will believe anything. Lauren Rachel plays Greg's wife Anne as a sympathetic character; her real acting abilities come through in the climax, which I don't want to give away. The sound effects are kept to a minimum, except in the climax, where the sounds provide this play's equivalent of a ticking time bomb.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 2 hours, 31 minutes
Reader: Various, including Elizabeth Klett and David Muncaster

The play: As part of Women's History Month, I decided to read what is considered a founding piece of feminist literature. In the play, Nora and Torvald Helmer appear to have an ideal marriage, by the middle-class standards of the 19th century. Nora is expected to do nothing more than look pretty and play with the children, while Torvald handles all the serious affairs of the household. Nora, however, has a secret, which without giving away too much, will cause her to question the underlying assumptions of her marriage and threaten the stability of the relationship.

A Doll's House caused a sensation when it was first performed. Reference is made to extramarital sex, congenital venereal disease, the role of women in the workplace, and other touchy subjects in Victorian Age society. As a modern reader, what shocked me were not these old taboos, but things that would seem normal in the time it was written: Torvald constantly referring to his wife as a pet songbird or trained squirrel, the opposition to women solving any problems with money, and most of all, the patronizing attitude towards women in general. I think when I first read this play in high school, I didn't see the subtext of Torvald's oppression of his wife and thought that Nora was merely a shallow, selfish airhead. After having grown up a bit and experienced marriage firsthand, I can now see why Ibsen's play is so important.

Rating: 8 / 10

The readers: Like all LibriVox plays, this one is edited together from actors reading their parts separately. This method can sometimes lead to a disjointed performance, but in this play it works out fine, though it's still apparent that the recordings were cobbled together. Much of the success of the play is due to a marvelous performance by Elizabeth Klett as Nora. As I stated above, Nora can be misinterpreted as a self-centered ditz, but Klett shows that Nora has a natural vivacity that has been channeled into the only paths allowed by her husband. David Muncaster does a decent job as Torvald, though his subdued performance cause some of Torvald's more emotional lines to fall flat, losing an opportunity to broaden the character. The other characters, range from excellent, as in Andy's sly flirtation with Nora as Dr. Rank, to merely adequate, but none have enough stage time to ruin or elevate the play as a whole.

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

Friday, March 25, 2011

"Booktaker" by Bill Pronzini

Source: AudioGo (part 1 | 2)
Length: 1 hour, 40 min
Reader: Nick Sullivan

The story: The "Nameless Detective" is the protagonist of Bill Pronzini's long-running hardboiled crime series. In this short story the anonymous gumshoe is hired by the owner of a used and antique bookstore. Some valuable maps and etchings have been stolen from the store, despite the installation of an antitheft system, and suspicion has fallen upon the bookstore's employees.

This is the first of the Nameless Detective stories I've read, and I really enjoyed it as a light read. Besides providing a interesting setting for the mystery, the bookstore locale gives Pronzini a fun chance to pay homage to his antecedents by namedropping some of the the detective novel pulp magazines.  Pronzini doesn't break any molds with this story, but he does hit all the right genre notes with an intriguing locked-room setup, a cast of equally plausible suspects, and enough clues to figure out the solution a step before the protagonist, though I didn't.

Rating: 7 /10

The reader: Nick Sullivan is a professional narrator with excellent acting chops. At first, I thought his reading pace was too slow and deliberate, but when he started voicing the characters, he really was able to shine. This audiobook is being released by AudioGo, which was formerly BBC America. They also released another Nameless Detective story for free at their website. I'm not sure how long these stories will be kept posted, so go ahead and get them if you're interested. (Thanks to Jesse Willis of for pointing out these stories).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s or M4B file)
Length: 4 hours, 20 minutes
Reader: Adrian Praetzellis

The book: Before Dan Brown or The Bourne Identity, John Buchan got the ball rolling in the man-on-the-run conspiracy novel sub-genre in 1915. The 39 Steps follows Richard Hannay, a South African mining engineer who has moved to London to start a new life. Hannay finds this new life dreadfully boring until he crosses paths with a secret agent who has uncovered a shocking conspiracy. Soon, the shadowy members of the Black Stone are on the trail of Hannay and he must discover the meaning of the phrase "the thirty-nine steps" before time runs out.

This was a fun light read. The plot relies far too much on serendipitous circumstances to be believable, but the story is exciting and fast-paced enough to let the ridiculous coincidences slide. Buchan strikes the right balance between making Hannay competent enough to be interesting without making him a do-everything superman. I can easily see how this novel became a favorite among soldiers in the trenches of World War I: it's great escapist fiction.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: As I mentioned in my review of Treasure Island, Praetzellis is probably the best narrator at LibriVox. In fact, I'd put him in the top 10 of all narrators working in audiobooks, professional or amateur. He does wonderful voices for each of his characters, from a deep Scottish brogue to the received pronunciation of government officials. I've read this book before in print and don't remember enjoying it near as much as I did from Praetzellis's narration.

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

Friday, March 18, 2011

Book blogger hop

Book Blogger HopEach week the Book Blogger Hop asks a question for book bloggers to write about, then asks its participants to visit linked blogs. This week's question is

Do you read more than one book at a time?

I always read several books simultaneously. I usually keep a print book on my bedside table to read at night. I typically listen to two free audiobooks for Free Listens at a time: one on CDs in my car and one on my PDA/phone. I also have an ebook I'm reading on my phone right now for times when I'm waiting in line or at an appointment. Sometimes, I'll have an additional print book to read for school or other discussion. That adds up to four or five books to read at once. I try to read separate genres in each so I don't confuse myself.

What about you? How many books are you reading?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

"My Oedipus Complex" by Frank O'Connor

Source: The Guardian Short Story podcast (mp3)
Length: 35 min
Reader: Helen Dunmore

The story: Happy Saint Patrick's Day! As part of my participation in Irish Short Stories Week, I'm reviewing what is probably Frank O'Connor's most famous story. This story is partially based on O'Connor's own life growing up in Cork, Ireland as an only child with an alcoholic father and a mother who he idolized.

The story is narrated by a young boy, who having lived with only his mother for years, now has a competitor for his mother's affection. His father has returned home after serving in the army for the duration of Word War I, much to his son's disappointment. The childish perspective gives rise to delicious ironies such as the boy, on being displaced from the center of his mother's world, stating that he had never known anyone as self-centered as his father. O'Connor's masterful use of the point-of-view is what keeps this story from becoming overtly sentimental and makes it instead so charming.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: Helen Dunmore, an accomplished author herself, reads this story wonderfully. She mimics a child's voice from confident selfishness to petulant whine without slipping into the kiddie pitfalls of playing a child's part. She's helped by the great rhythms of the text, which echoes the patter of a precocious child. This, for me, is a great pleasure of listening to a work of literature: that the sounds of the words and sentences open up new perspectives on the work that wouldn't be gained by silently reading the text itself.

(photo from the George Eastman House Collection via flickr. No copyright restrictions.)

Monday, March 14, 2011

"The Dead" by James Joyce

Source: (part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 )
Length: Approx 1 hrs, 30 min
Reader: Michael Scott

The story: As part of the week of St. Patrick's Day, I'm celebrating Irish Short Story Week, hosted by The Reading Life. If you don't already subscribe to The Reading Life, hop on over and check out reviews of other Irish writers' short stories. I'll be reviewing two stories by Irish authors, but in keeping with my blog format of reviewing one free audiobook and one free audio story each week, I'll start with a story that could also be considered a novella.

Joyce is the paragon of Irish literature. Whenever I think of his writing, I think of dense, melancholy stories that require the use of a commentary and a dictionary of symbolism to wade through. "The Dead" has all those qualities, but it is also by turns humorous and romantic. In the story, Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta visit his aunts' house for a Christmas party. While there, Gabriel blunders his way through a few conversations with other women, then is struck by the beauty of his wife as she listens to a song that brings back old memories for her.

Joyce explores what it means to belong: to belong to a family, to belong to Irish nationality, and to belong to another person. Gabriel is a man who doesn't quite feel like he belongs. His education has removed him from those around him and his taste in culture tends toward England and Europe rather than Ireland. Catching his wife in a moment of reflection he is overjoyed to belong to her. And of course, her love belongs to him, right?

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: Scott has a radio-announcer's voice that is extremely polished. His American accent is nondescript, and while it does not add the authenticity that an Irish accent would, it does not detract either. The recording is clear and well-made. In fact the only complaint I have about this reading is that it may be a little too polished; I didn't feel a strong sense of character from the reader. Most listeners will probably feel that this recording is perfectly fine, but if you want a second option, the always wonderful Elizabeth Klett has read "The Dead" for Librivox. I haven't listened to her entire recording, but from what I've heard, it's very good.

Friday, March 11, 2011

"Another End of The Empire" by Tim Pratt

Source: Podcastle (mp3)
Length: 35 minutes
Reader: Cheyenne Wright

The story: An evil emperor receives a prophesy that a child from a remote village will be his downfall. This situation, with minor alterations, could be the opening to any number of fantasy epics, including Harry Potter or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Unlike Voldemort, however, the tyrant Mogrash has apparently read the Evil Overlord List and is able to apply his genre savvy to try to avoid making the prophesy come true by doing exactly the opposite of what all of his predecessors had done.

Tim Pratt pulls off this story by not only having a funny premise, but by also paying attention to the details. Little things like the skulls of pixies decorating the hair of the evil emperor give the story a realistic depth that makes the world seem more fully formed. The characters are parodies of stock fantasy tropes, and the plot runs along in a predictable direction, but this is a fun, enjoyable story that made me smile.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Wright has smooth, deep baritone that enhances the telling of the story. His voices, especially the gravelly badguy voice for Mogrash, add a layer of humor to the words on the page. There's something about the incongruity of a deep scary voice whining like a child that makes me laugh. Podcastle is in the Escape Pod family of podcasts and shares their high production values.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Source: Ancient Faith Radio (part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 )
Length: Approx. 4.5 hours
Reader: Dr. Chrissi Hart

The book: One of the classics of children's fantasy literature, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was my favorite book as a child. I loved (and still love) the feel of the world of Narnia as a place both magically impossible and plausable, filled with characters that could never exist, but are true enough to be real. I must have read it a dozen times from second grade up to my adult years. Every time I read it, I gain a new perspective on the book. The same book that is a mind-blowing adventure story for a child is also a profound Christian allegory for an adult.

I have some non-Christian friends who think that slipping an extended metaphor for Jesus Christ's death and resurrection into a children's story is some sort of sneaky trick Lewis uses to brainwash children into becoming Christians. However, I think the presence of the allegory is part of the appeal of the story, even if I didn't recognize it as a child. Great fanasty literature puts the reader in a world that has a history and largeness that exceeds even what is shown in the book. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis's imaginary world works on prophesies and rules that have the feel of existing beyond the scope of the book to eternity. What better way to lend a sense of mythic grandeur to a novel than to base it upon the most powerful and deep story in Western culture?

Rating: 10/10

The reader: I'm absolutely amazed that Ancient Faith was able to get permission from HarperCollins and the Lewis estate to podcast this novel. Hart has a pleasing British accent and the confidence of someone who is comfortable in front of a microphone. She makes a couple of repetition errors, but is otherwise flawless. The recording quality is very good, as is befitting such a professionally produced podcast. The other books in The Chronicles of Narnia series are also available for free through the same website, so head on over to collect all seven books.

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

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Literary Book Blog Hop

Literary Blog HopThe Literary Book Blog Hop features book bloggers who focus on books with literary merit. Every week a prompt is presented and bloggers answer it, leaving a link to their post at The Blue Bookcase. This week's prompt is:

Can literature be funny? What is your favorite humorous literary book?

A book can certainly be both serious literature and hilariously funny. Literary books don't even need to confine their humor to highbrow irony; they can be as slapstick as Catch 22 or as sarcastic as Slaughterhouse 5.  It's hard to pick a favorite, but some of great humorous literature that I've reviewed here include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Diary of a Nobody.  I don't think I'd count the Jeeves books as great literature, since they're a bit too light, but I can't let a post like this go by without mentioning Right Ho, Jeeves and Jeeves in the Morning.

If I were to extend the reach to literary short stories, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is quite funny (up until the end), "The Open Window" is a classic short joke, and "Bullet in the Brain" made me laugh out loud. Some literary stories aren't all-out humor writing, but include important elements of humor. Examples include "The Overcoat" (aka "The Cloak") by Gogol, "The Dinner Party" by Joshua Ferris, and "The Necklace" by Guy de Maupassant. In these stories, humor is used, like in the plays of Shakespeare, to balance out the negative aspects of the stories and make the tragedies that much more tangible.