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)