Thursday, April 28, 2011

"Letter to a Hindu" by Leo Tolstoy

Source: (part 1 | 2 | 3 )
Length: 39 minutes
Reader: Michael Scott

The story: This open letter, also known as "A Letter to a Hindoo" was written by Tolstoy to Tarak Nath Das for publication in Tarak's newspaper Free Hindustan. Tolstoy was writing in support of India's independance from British rule and advocate nonviolent means of gaining independance. The letter so impressed a young Mohandas Ghandi that he wrote Tolstoy to gain permission to translate and republish it in his own journal.

Tolstoy uses quotations from Hindu relgious texts with remarkable similarity to the Bible, to posit that all true religion is based on love. Both religion and science, he argues, have been perverted by those in power to manufacture rationalization for the rule of the few over the many. The solution to this injustice is for the people of India to no longer recognize the political power of the British and resist their rule by nonviolent disobeyal. This strategy, enlarged and acted upon by Ghandi and others, eventually led to the overthrow of British rule in India, while in Tolstoy's Russia, ironically, violent revolution led to the overthrow of the monarchy, only to be replaced by the dictatorship and further bloodshed of Stalin.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: Michael Scott has a classic "voice of God" narration style. If you're used to a more natural or dramatic reading, his style may seem a bit stilted, but it works very well for a non-fiction piece like this one. He has a deep, sonorous voice with a slow, measured rhythm to his speech. The recording is professionally produced and free of background noise.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp

Source: Assistive Media (mp3)
Length: 2 hr 35 minutes
Reader: David Erdody

The book: I first heard about From Dictatorship to Democracy in a New York Times article connecting this book to peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. After putting the free pdf version on my to-read list, I was excited to find this free audiobook version.

Sharp's thesis is that a military overthrow of a dictatorship tends to allow for a new dictatorship, but an overthrow through nonviolent defiance strengthens the ability of the people to replace a dictator with a democracy. He goes on to outline how careful planning and determination can remove a dictator's means of support, cutting off the sources of power rather than trying to directly overcome that power. In order to prevent the military from attacking the public, democratic activists must work from within to take away the military's support for the regime, rather than trying to fight tanks with stones.

Rather than despairing that tyrannical regimes will never be replaced, I now see hope in the events happing in Syria, China, and elsewhere around the world. My respect for those who have pulled off peaceful revolutions has increased, now that I know how much planning and discipline it requires to accomplish such an enormous feat. Although I'm certainly not planning on overthrowing the government any time soon, I found this handbook to be very useful in my understanding of world news.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: The recording of this book has a little background hiss, but I was able to ignore that after the first few minutes of listening. Erdody's reading is good; there's not too much great performance one can do with a non-fiction book. His straightforward narration is clear and understandable. The book is presented in one big mp3 file, which I had to cut down for my own personal listening. This is my first experience with Assistive Media, so I'm not certain how long they will keep the file available on their website.

(Image by Jonathan Rashad via Wikimedia. Creative Commons Attribution licence.)

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

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"St. George and the Dragon" by Jacobus de Voragine

Source: Storynory (mp3)
Length: 7 minutes
Reader: Natasha

The story: Saint George's feast day is April 23rd. When I think of the legend of St. George and the dragon, I think of a medieval knight in Europe, like in the picture to the right. Listening to the story again, I learned that the setting was not Europe, but North Africa, the time period was not the Middle Ages, but the Roman Empire, and the hero was not a knight in shining armor but a Roman soldier.

Whatever the background, the story itself had a great hold on people across the Christian world. St. George appears as the patron saint of a number of different cities and nations, including England and Georgia. I think this is because of the appeal of  classic good versus evil conflict stripped down to its most basic form. The dragon poisons the peoples' water supply, spreads diseases and eats their sheep and people. George, and the princess he defends, represent purity, chastity, honor and Christianity. The idea that goodness will unfailingly and quickly triumph over evil is an appealing one, and this type of story is needed for times when reality seems much darker.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: Natasha tends to tell a story with heavy emphasis on the drama. While this classic storytelling style could get tedious in a longer reading, it really enlivens a short piece like this. Natasha has a soprano British accent that is cheerful and sunny. Her reading is pitched towards children, so she tends to emphasize words with a kindergarten teacher tone and a singsong delivery.

(Painting by Rogier van der Weyden. No copyright restrictions)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 23 hours, 22 minutes
Reader: Mark F. Smith

The book: Nowadays, Ben-Hur is mostly known as the basis for the Oscar-winning film adaptation starring Charlton Heston in the title role, usually shown in reruns in this week before Easter. In its own time, the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was an unprecedented publishing success, spending years atop the best-seller list and sparking an expanded market for novels.

The novel continues to appeal mainly because of its Count of Monte Cristo-like core story of action, romance and revenge in which the title character, a Jew living under Roman rule, is stripped of all his possessions and sentenced to row in the galleys. The subtitle, A Tale of the Christ, refers to the story of Jesus, which intersects Ben-Hur's life. To modern readers, this religious theme seems tacked onto the beginning and the end, but it was an important reason for the novel's success as Victorians dropped their previous views of the immorality of novels and embraced religious fiction.

Part of the appeal of the book was that Wallace applied the best research of his time to put the story of Jesus into historical context. Of course, having done the research, Wallace feels the need to explain it at great length. These long descriptions, along with a tendency to indulge in religious-philosophical debates in King James English tend to drag down the story. Despite these failings, Ben-Hur is still a good book, though not a great one.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: I feel like I'm saying this every few months, but Mark Smith is a solid reader. I'll admit I didn't listen to the entire book; I alternated between reading a few chapters on my phone and listening to some chapters in the car. But when I was reading on my own, it was Mark's voice in my head. He's got a wholesome American accent that he modifies for the different characters, but his voices are not overdone or hammy. The sound quality is perfect and although his pacing is a bit slower than I prefer, that's better than being too fast.

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

Friday, April 15, 2011

Follow Friday

As part of an effort to find new blogs and help others find mine, I'm participating in Follow Friday, hosted by Parajunkee. To those of you new to my blog, I review free audiobooks and audio stories. I usually try to review one book and one story a week, while keeping non-review posts to a minimum.

There are lots of great books and stories being offered in audio format for free. In some cases, this is because the book is out of copyright, and volunteers like or literacy projects like Lit2Go have recorded a classic book. In other cases the audiobook is under copyright, but being given away for free to promote the author's career, to drive traffic to a website selling other audiobooks, or just as a thanks to readers. So browse around my blog, find your favorite genre with the labels to the right, and follow my blog!

"The Library of Babel" by Jorge Louis Borges

Source: (mp3)
Length: 21 minutes
Reader: George Guidall

The story: I've always dreamed of a massive home library, with books lining every wall and shelves reaching up multiple stories. In this story, one of his most famous, Borges extends this book-love into an entire universe of books. Each of these books is different, but where did they come from and what is their meaning?

In a story stripped down to just a setting without plot or characters, Borges still manages to keep my interest and introduce some thought-provoking themes. Throughout his work, Borges is obsessed with religion, perception vs. reality, and the power of the written word. In this story, the books, some of them unintelligible, are thought by some of the residents of this universe to have a hidden meaning, and by others to be completely random, having meaning only by chance.

In our own universe, we likewise have natural feature of great complexity, but also with randomness embedded in them. Are they created by a greater Intelligence or the result of a series of random events, replicated and built up over time to build complexity? I don't think this is a necessary dichotomy. I believe that it is possible, like the people of the Library of Babel, to have things arise from random events, but still contain meaning for an observer with the intelligence to interpret it.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: Guidall is a professional voice actor who reads this story with a calm, scholarly tone that fits this story perfectly. With little of plot or characters, this would be an easy story for a reader to fall into a drone. Instead, Guidall uses pauses and changes in pitch to emphasize his words and changes in thought. This is a great reading of a classic story. Note: This is a commercial recording under copyright. It is unclear whether the hosting website has permission to post it.

(etching by Erik Desmazieres)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

Source: Lit2Go (iTunesU link)
Length: Approx. 4 hours
Reader: Lorraine Montgomery

The book: Have you ever stopped to consider the world from another perspective? I don't just mean looking through the eyes of another culture, gender, or ethnic group, though that certainly is important to being a humane thinking member of society. I mean a perspective so alien and different, it requires travel to another dimension.

In Flatland, Abbott imagines life in two dimensions, where all people are geometric figures. Abbott satirizes his own Victorian class-conscious society by making different geometric shapes correspond to different classes and relegates women to mere line segments. Beyond the social satire, Flatland provides an excellent introduction to the concepts of geometry and multi-dimensional space, as the main character, a square, visits one dimensional Lineland in a dream, then is visited in turn by a sphere from Spaceland.  Considering life in different dimensions is a mind-bending exercise that opened my comprehension of the world and forced me to think about the possibilities of other worlds beyond this one.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: Montgomery proves an excellent tour guide to the world of Flatland. She has a pleasant American accent that is clear and engaging. Since the book is told from the perspective of a male, the voice doesn't quite fit with the narrator, but that's a minor quibble. Like all publications of Lit2Go, these recordings are provided by the University of Central Florida as part of a Florida Department of Education grant. If you'd like an alternate reading of the same book, the LibriVox version of Flatland  (zipped mp3) read by Ruth Golding is equally good.

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

Friday, April 8, 2011

"There is No Frigate Like a Book" by Emily Dickinson

Source: LibriVox (mp3)
Length: 37 seconds
Reader: Becky Miller

The poem: Being a dedicated reader, I've always liked this short, simple poem about the joys of reading. The metaphor liking books and poems to vehicles in which to see the world is especially poignant since Dickinson rarely left her own home. I have an image of Emily sitting by a window in her home, happily reading a book while the world goes past her outside.

The downside of reading is that Emily Dickinson turned all her attention toward writing and reading, rather than experiencing life. It's hard to fault her when her choices allowed her to turn out such influential poetry, but sometimes I feel that spend so much time reading that I may be missing out on doing. I think this is why I appreciate audiobooks so much; I can travel in a book to foreign lands at the same time I'm travelling in a car to my not-so-exotic job.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: There's a number of recordings of Emily Dickenson poems at LibriVox. This one is from "Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson", all read by Becky Miller. It's difficult to make one's mark as a performer in such a short poem, but Miller uses her pauses and emphasis to make the poem alive. She has a pleasant American accent that fits well with Dickinson's lyrical poetry.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"When the Towers Fell" by Galway Kinnell

Source: The Poetic Voice (mp3)
Length: 20 minutes
Reader: Galaway Kinnell

The poem: Galway Kinnell is a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning poet. As he explains in the introduction to the poem, Kinnell was preparing to teach poetry for the first day of classes at NYU when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. He began this poem as a writing exercise to help the students come to terms with their emotions, but the poem grew into its present form over time.

Almost ten years after the September 11th terrorist attacks, I had almost forgotten the sense of doom and melancholy that blanketed the nation. Kinnell captures those feelings and images so well, I feel like I'm back in the moment. The litany of the individual deaths in the collapse as well as the description of the woman looking for her loved one give the poem a personal, up-close quality. This is not a sanitized eulogy or fist-pumping patriotism, but a somber, realistic remembrance of the victims and survivors.

Rating: 9 /10

The reader: Kinnell has a strong, resonant voice that is a joy to listen to. He reads the poem with a strong sense of rhythm, drawing out the emotion of the poem without becoming emotion himself. The discussion with Houghton Mifflin poetry editor Janet Silver is enlightening, putting Kinnell and his poem in context. If you are interested in poetry, this is a good podcast series. Besides this episode, I strongly recommend April's episode, featuring a variety of poets for National Poetry Month (mp3).

(photo by TheMachineStops, edited by upstateNYer via Wikimedia. Creative Commons attribution, share-alike license)

Monday, April 4, 2011

National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month in the United States, when people are encouraged to read poems, write poems, and celebrate poets and poetry. To mark the occasion, I'll be posting two poem reviews later this week. If you'd like to see more reviews of free audio poems, go to the links in the sidebar to find a whole month of poetry reviews I did back in November, plus some other poetry. If you don't read poetry, listen to "How to Pick Up a Poetry Habit" from The Poetry Foundation podcast (mp3). For more information on National Poetry Month, visit