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.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Room With A View by E.M. Forster

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 7 hours, 9 min
Reader: Elizabeth Klett

The book: "Summer lovin', had me a blast . . ." Well, okay, so this isn't Grease, but it does have a number of similarities. Forster's first novel, A Room with a View is a romantic comedy about meeting people on vacation, then having to deal with different social classes back home. It's a funny and entertaining look at how people act in foreign countries and how they change when they return home.

While travelling in Italy, Lucy and her chaperone Charlotte meet a variety of fellow English tourists at an English-owned boarding house in Florence. Lucy and most of the other tourists dutifully follow their guidebooks' proscriptions of what to see and which artists to appreciate. A few of the tourists, like old Mr. Emerson and his son George, are unconventional in their approach to Italy, not following the standard opinions of the crowd. Lucy's friendship with the Emersons comes back to complicate her life when she returns to England, where conventions are more rigid and class distinctions more distinct. Forster paints a marvelous portrait of the transition of his native country out of the Victorean Era and into the modern age, couching it in a moving romance and witty comedy of manners.

Rating: 8 /10

The reader: Ms. Klett does a superb job reading this book. Her voice is clear and light, with a nondescript American accent for the narration. Her characters are all voiced in appropriate British accents, each distinct enough to distinguish different characters. Her voicing goes a long way toward developing the characters as fully fleshed-out people. I particularly loved her portrayal of the hypocritical but ultimately sympathetic Charlotte. As with Howards End, I would take Ms. Klett's reading of this book over any commercial recording.

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Free Listens Summer

No post this week because it's beautiful outside! I'd much rather be enjoying the weather than writing a blog post. So come back next week and I'll have a great new free audiobook for you - I promise!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"Federalist No. 10" by Publius (James Madison)

Source: American Phonic (mp3)
Length: 19 min
Reader: Michael Scherer

The essay: Although the colonies declared their independence in 1776, the United States as a nation was not born until much later. In 1787, a new Constitution was proposed to take the place of the weak Articles of Confederation.  Under the new constitution, a Federal Republic would have powers that pertained to the welfare of the Union as a whole, while states would retain some of their previous powers.

Some, however, felt that this new system of government would make the nation less democratic by reserving powers in a more distant federal government rather than the more local state governments. In response to these Anti-Federalists, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote what became known as the Federalist Papers, a series of editorials arguing the merits of the new Constitution.

In this essay, "Federalist Number 10", Madison attempts to refute the idea that in the new government special interests ("factions") will gain the upper hand and impose their will against the good of particular states. His key argument is that in national government, the size of the faction would have to be so much larger to influence a larger government, so you would be less likely to be hurt by a minor faction. This argument held up in 1787, but in modern America, we have political parties who choose their candidates through primaries that can be influenced by small number of people, such as in the Iowa corn growers in Presidential primaries. Thus, Madison's ideal of a government beyond the reach of factions has become a government full of special interests.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: Scherer has a deep, stentorian voice that fits well with the formal Enlightenment style of the original. His reading is clear and straightforward; not an easy thing to do with the tongue-tying maze of subordinate clauses in this essay.  The sound quality is excellent. The other portions of the Federalist Papers are available at the link above, including the equally famous Federalist No. 51.

Monday, July 4, 2011

"The Declaration of Independence" by the Continental Congress

Source: The Monticello Classroom (mp3)
Length: 10 min.
Reader: Bill Barker

The document: Happy Independence Day! Even though I've read it before, it's always interesting on the Fourth of July to go back and actually read the document we're celebrating.

The Declaration of Independence is an eloquent piece of writing because it had to be. The signers knew they weren't just protesting bad governance, they were committing treason, which, even in the waning days of the belief in the Divine Right of kings, was considered a sin and a capital crime. Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues crafted an argument that clearly lays out the reasons for dissolving the ties with the British Empire while sounding reluctant to do so.  In making the statement of national independence so audacious yet well-reasoned, they ensured that the Colonies would not only gain important allies, but also sustain their motivation for the years of war.

Rating: N/A

The reader: According to the source of this recording, Bill Barker is an actor who portrays Thomas Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg, an ongoing history re-enactment in a historic town.  As such, he reads with a Southern accent that is charming and genteel.  The Declaration is full of eighteenth century turns of phrase that sound awkward to modern ears, but Barker brings the words alive and gives them the forcefulness they must have had when first written 235 years ago.

Friday, July 1, 2011

"The Tale of Peter Rabbit" by Beatrix Potter

Source: Denver Public Library Podcast (mp3)
Length: 6 min, 40 sec
Reader: Miss Lydia

The story: I'll admit it. Now that I'm older, I identify more with Mr. McGregor than with Peter Rabbit. My backyard garden has been assaulted by rabbits and chipmunks, most of whom eat only a few bites of a nice red tomato, then leave the rest of it mashed and ruined. I've tried fences, nets, and spraying with chili pepper infused water, but to no avail. I guess I'll have to start chasing them around with a rake.

For younger, non-gardening listeners, though, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" has all the wonderful details that have made it a classic of bedtime stories. The description of Peter sneaking into the garden has all the suspense of being where you're not supposed to go as a child. When Mr. McGregor inevitably shows up to chase Peter, there's enough danger to be exciting, but not so much that it's scary. Every child should know this story by heart.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: Miss Lydia has the gift of storytelling, and here she has great material to work with. She modulates her volume, pitch and pace to keep up with the changes in situations in which Peter finds himself.  Lydia has a pleasing middle American voice that lends its warmth to Potter's words. This is the perfect recording to play for short trips in the car or while following along with the book's illustrations.