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)