Sunday, July 29, 2007

Expectations of Reading Great Expectations

In all matters, it is generally a good idea to follow the advice of one's spouse. So, Great Expectations it is.
I have always loved Dickens, but discovered rather late that he published all his books serially. So, three chapters or so represented a fortnightly subscription. And he wrote them as he went along, reacting to the public's likes and dislikes, and often had a cliff hanger at the end of a section. In fact, one of the characters in David Copperfield was drawn from a real person, and she sued. So Dickens wrote her back into the story in later sections, revealing her to be a lovely person all along.
Therefore, I wondered what it would be like to have the reading match the original fortnightly sections. It would reduce the number of files from 59 to 18, but would make each file quite large.
I will give it a try, and see what happens. Wish me luck!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Review: Room with a View by E M Forster

Get it here
I saw the film based on this book back in 1988, when I was 20 years old. Perhaps you remember it: Julian Sands got to plant the most romantic kiss in history on Helena Bonham-Carter. The fact that Julian's career didn't quite reach the highest of heights may well be put down to the fact that a generation of young men with floppy fringes envy him with all their souls.
So I was quite keen to dive into the book, especially as I had a cast of characters in period costume lined up in my head. And what a treat it is.
Firstly, its very funny. Secondly, its very wise. Thirdly, it is much more to do with snobbery and class divisions than I expected. Everyone in the film looks roughly equal - something the book makes clear is not the case.
The plot is simple enough - a love triangle between the free thinking George Emerson, the priggish aesthete Cecil, and the lovely Lucy, who is torn between the conventional choices of her upbringing, and the incomprehensible yearnings of her soul.
The horror for me is realising that at age 20, when I thought George Emerson was the coolest man alive, I was actually doing a fairly good approximation of Cecil, who can only appreciate virtues in objects, and not in people - except by treating them as objects.
The emancipation of women is an implicit theme, and it is jarring to realise how little some attitudes have changed since 1908, when this book was written. George's wish for his wife to have her own mind will not be shared with every modern bridgegroom. The weaknesses of the book derive from Mr Forsters attempts to layer the story with a Renaissance vs Gothic theme, and a very Cecil-like summary of the competing merits of Beethoven and Schumann.

This is read by Kara Shallenberg, AKA Kayray, who is an unstoppable force of positivity in all her Librivoxian dealings. Her sunny, warm voice brings the whole work to life, and seems especially alive to the many comic episodes. In the years to come, when they sing folk songs about her (and they will), they may well mention this reading as a keeper.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Sonnets Done

Get them here
I have finally finished recording Shakespeare's Sonnets. It took me about four times longer to complete than I expected. It generally took between three quarters of an hour and an hour to get ten usable sonnets. And I mostly gave up trying to improve the reading, rather than feeling that it could not be improved.
I have always loved Shakespeare, but the sonnets (and the plays, now I come to think of it) only really came alive when I heard them read out loud. I hope my attempt will have that effect for someone.
I think I will avoid recording verse for a while, and I think some narrator driven prose is just what the doctor ordered. Perhaps 'The Way of All Flesh' by Samuel Butler, or 'Story of a South African Farm' by Olive Schreiner.
I am hoping a great, obvious idea will present itself, and so I will wait a while for things to percolate. My wife suggests 'Great Expectations'.

PS I can't really count this towards my 52 audiobooks in a year, as I have read them before, so I am still behind by a couple of books.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Review: Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

Get it here.
A very entertaining romp - which starts slowly, and builds up to a great conclusion. I had expected a light, sword-play filled pot-boiler, and was quite surprised when the first few chapters seemed to suggest a philosophical novel, pondering the nature of political power.
This deeper aspect reappears at odd moments in the book, but its mostly romance, swords and intrigue after that. The hero of the novel is a kind of eighteenth century James Bond, capable of tossing off sarcastic jibes whilst duelling like a master, and turning a ragtag group of travelling players into the toast of the town in a few weeks.
And great fun it is too, especially with its great series of twists towards the end, when the pace really hots up.
The author seems to have only learned English rather late in life, and made it the sixth language that he spoke fluently, which makes we wonder if he based the supremely competent hero of this novel on himself.

This is read by Gordon Mackenzie, which means that every ounce of drama and tension is converted into pure audio gold. A real masterpiece and a delight. I would expect the he is the LibriVox reader that all male volunteers secretly wish that they sounded like. Speaking for myself, however, I am pleased that there are readers at the other end of the spectrum - if everyone sounded like Gordon I would never have dared to volunteer. Still, as Gordon reads in his recording of Walden, a man's reach should exceed his grasp.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


In my review of Ulysses I referred to it being a tribal book. By that I meant that one's membership of a certain type of literary tribe is indicated by one's opinion on it.
If you follow this link, it will lead you to page on the BBC, where Ulysses is discussed by all comers, after a brief and humorous summary of the book. The first respondent is Stephen Fry, the well-known polymath, who seems to suggest, in quite shrill prose, that those who criticise the book are 'childish' and 'fear-filled', and that Ulysses will be read 'when all around us has crumbled into dust'.
Other responses declare it to be a pile of pretentious rubbish.
I can't help feeling that the truth is rather more complicated, and the polarity of opinions does no service to the book, literature, or the truth in general.
I now realise how hard it was for me to read the book with an open mind, when sub-consciously, I was trying to decide which tribe I belonged to. I can remember having met so many irritating people, who, finding out that you had not read Ulysses, would feel they could play a conversational ace by spouting vaguely about its wonderfulness. Both Shakespeare and Dickens also suffer from the shrill praise of their champions, which serves to alienate much more than to include. And don't get me started on the Ancient Greeks.
It is only now, some days after finishing Ulysses, that I feel I can start to really think about the book, and not all the hoopla that surrounds it.
This sort of tribalism has leached into so many areas of life. I am sure it varies from place to place, from tribe to tribe. They are these beacons which help others to place us in a social context. What car do you drive? Where do you go on holiday? 'Florida? I'm sure its lovely - of course we ADORE Tuscany...' What music do you listen to, what books do you read. And by adopting a tribal totem for yourself, people assume you adhere to all the other totems of that tribe, and reject the totems of the other tribes.

The price of admission into a tribe is conformity, but the rejection of all of the totems of that tribe is conformity too, because you become an opposite, instead of yourself. And, eventually, just taking things on their own terms takes a great deal of willpower.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Review: Ulysses by James Joyce

Get it here.

Well - has the emperor got new clothes, or no clothes? I don't know. Perhaps its a skintight bodystocking.

Its hard to read this book with an open mind. It has become such a tribal piece of literature that it seems that you can either claim it as the greatest novel in history, or a pretentious pile of rubbish, and nothing in between.

I tried reading it a few times, but always failed. I thought it was because I had insufficient knowledge in the classics, so went away to read Homer - about twenty years ago. I found Homer to be far better than anything else I had ever read - awesome and moving, and, if you read a good translation (Richmond Lattimore), as accessible as you like.

But knowing Homer provides very little insight into Ulysses; that seems to be just another blind alley. In fact, there are far more parallels to be found between Joyce's own life. And that is my reading of the book. There is not a plot, really. Each of the 18 episodes would work as a short story, and could very easily fit into 'Dubliners' if written in a more conventional style. But Joyce mimics a cavalcade of styles, expertly, it must be said, and by the end, as with every schoolboy impersonator, you just wish he would shut up and get on with it.

And ultimately, all it adds up to is Joyce saying: 'I am a genius, but would never be acknowledged as such in Dublin. So I'm going. If I stay, I will end up like Bloom' and a few years later writing a book about what a parochial little place Dublin was, and what a genius he still is. That Dublin only has significance to the world, because he lived there.

A few points. This is not an entertaining book, in places it is downright dull. It is deliberately obscure and arbitrary in (large) places. However, through the curtain of obscurity, deliberate puzzles and misleading themes, there are moments of truly lovely writing. But Joyce was brutal on himself, on his characters, and on his readers, and seems to have no wish to entertain - he is doing far more important things; creating an encyclopedia of Dublin.

So, ultimately a frustrating book, which I am glad that I read. But, as Joyce never returned to Dublin, I will not return to Ulysses.

Next: Scaramouche by Sabatini. Read by the great Gordon Mackenzie. It's like coming home...

Monday, July 9, 2007

Ulysses Nearly Done

Title says it all. Nearly got me, but the end is in sight.