Saturday, November 10, 2007

Daisy Miller by Henry James

Get it here.
This is quite a short work, but really got me thinking about sexual politics. On the face of it, Daisy is a beautiful, free-spirited American girl who falls foul of European standards of propriety, and simultaneously, by means of metaphor, its disease-laden miasma. I say on the face of it, because a little thought left me unconvinced. For a start, the gatekeeper to 'propriety' in the story is an American woman. As with many such people, she feels that she is never acting on her own initiative, but only trying to protect the reputation of an individual against the slanderous accusations of 'others'.
Daisy is the victim of her attentions, but does herself no good by ignoring all suggestions on how to conduct herself. This is portrayed as a great imposition on her natural, innocent freedom, but, to me, seemed to be little more than common-sense advice. If I decided to conduct the rest of my life completely nude, it might be expected to present me with certain problems. Anyone who cared about me would be duty bound to point this out. I would be free to ignore them, but might be considered a little naïve if I was then surprised at the way I was received.
If you want to be accepted by the 'right' people, they are going to make you jump through their silly hoops. So, either jump through their hoops, and compromise your true self, or reject their whole snobbish hierarchical system, and snub those who decide who is 'in' and who is 'out'. It won't kill you, unlike malaria or a broken heart (allegedly).

I am perhaps being unfair on focusing on the aspects of the story that jarred with me: it seems that Henry James had the ability to breathe life into characters as easily as he takes it away. My reaction to Daisy was as that to a real person - it was only afterward that I appreciated the skill that allowed me to consider the case without any of the barriers of fiction.
It made me wonder about the oppression of women in fiction, both here and in other authors, like Jane Austen. Women were indeed oppressed - but why so often by their own sex, the rule-makers, and executors of social excommunication? And why do women today hark back to these times as being so romantic? Surely a modern woman would find such conditions of life, with its hopelessly limited scope, unthinkable?

The Return of the Readear

If anyone is still reading this blog, hello. I have neglected it for the last few weeks, as more pressing adult matters have dominated my time. Needless to say, being adult matters, they are exceedingly dull, and they have not completely gone yet, but the end is in sight.
I therefore return. Huzzah. (Note ironic lack of exclamation mark. Subtle, but telling.)
Anyway, in my absence I have listened to Daisy Miller and the Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and the Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. I will review these in the next couple of days. I am listening to This Side of Paradise by F Scott Fitzgerald at the moment, not The Other Side of Paradise, as I told lots of people, to my great shame and embarrassment.
One thing I have been doing, as it is the perfect thing to dip into in fifteen minutes bursts, is the Librivox Translation Wiki, where we are trying to translate public domain non-English texts into English (or any language), using a combination of machine translations, and teamwork. Do pop by - - I will no doubt go on about this at greater length in the future. Me going on about things at greater length is something my friends have had to learn to tolerate.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Get it here
I recorded a couple of chapters of this, so was quite keen to hear the rest of it when it was finished. I was very impressed with what I had read, and was even more impressed with the whole thing.
This is a novel, in that there are some connecting characters, but really, its a collection of short stories. They all concern themselves with the life or history of one resident of the fictional town in the title, each of whom has his or her internal life revealed in merciless detail.
Each character seems to be trying to say something, striving to find the words to express their experience of life, or their love, or to connect with another person, but is always unable to make him or herself understood. And this isolation makes the words and deeds of the characters seem strange and eccentric. They all live in a small community, the rural sort which is often presented to us as an ideal, and which all the sane ones seem to want to leave.
This is not the point, though. The author himself is telling us that he is one of the people who cannot quite find a way to express exactly what he means. The stories rise up gently and then fall away, unresolved, often with a melancholy air - they seem to be leading somewhere, but ultimately we are left with more questions than answers, with suggestions of the great sadness that lives just below the surface of so many lives that seem to us so unremarkable,
The only false note in the work, for me, is the long central story 'Godliness', where the author seems to be trying too hard to point a moral. But even here, his skill makes every line worth savouring. William Faulkner seems to have borrowed his technique of defining things in terms of what they are not - a wonderful way of suggesting without stating. Anderson's style is much more spare though. At times he reminded me of Samuel Beckett.
I had never heard of Sherwood Anderson before, but am delighted to have found him. I will certainly be reading more. If my review makes you wonder whether he is your cup of tea, may I recommend that you start with the chapter called 'Tandy', which, in its few paragraphs, will tell you all you need to know.

Next: Daisy Miller by Henry James

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Review: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Get it here.
I am a big Jane Austen fan, but have never read this novella for some reason - perhaps I have always regarded it as a piece of juvenilia. It is fair to consider this an immature work, compared with her later novels, but an immature Jane Austen is still worth ten ordinary novelists at the height of their powers.
The 'Lady Susan' of the title is that rarest of creatures in Jane Austen: a completely evil character, whose only redeeming feature is that she is so funny. Elizabeth Bennet could have written this book, before she realised that there are two sides to every story. Also, she seems to have thought that marrying for the greater good of the family was perfectly acceptable, an attitude I have always noted in her later books as well. Hollywood prefers her romances to be all about the heart, but I suspect that Jane's readers took as much satisfaction in the neat financial arrangements, as in the couple being a willing match. Then again, I suppose Hollywood likes its modern heroes to have a healthy degree of financial independence as well, so perhaps nothing has changed.

This audiobook has a big advantage over the original text: it was written as a series of letters, and when I read such a book, I am always having to remind myself who is writing to who. With one voice for each correspondent, however, this recording has real added value, and frees you up to enjoy the story. Great idea!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Review: An International Episode by Henry James

Get it here.
In 'Something New' Wodehouse has Joan Valentine, the female writer,
say of the magazine she works for:

'It's a horrid little paper--all brown-paper patterns and advice to the
lovelorn and puzzles. I do a short story for it every week, under
various names. A duke or an earl goes with each story.'

One week, I suspect she chose the pen name 'Henry James'.

This story features the son of a duke, and seems to want to
justify its existence by reflecting on the difference between
English and American Society.

Really, though, its just a romantic yarn, with a will-they-won't-they
conclusion. Seeing that in Washington Square, Mr James would
not allow his lovers any satisfaction, he denies it them here as well.

And he repeats the idea of having the female lover be sincere but naive
and be advised by a cold cynical type, who treats the romantic
happiness of her younger charge as subsidiary to her own triumphs.

One wonders if a pattern is emerging here. Was Mr James a roaring hit
at parties? Did he have a fine line in comic songs?

Still, he certainly writes fantastic dialogue, but he does make you wait for it.
There are two conversations in this piece that justify the price of admission,
so to speak, but the rest is perhaps best read as a companion piece to Washington

Next: Lady Susan, by Jane Austen

Saturday, August 4, 2007

LibriVox Second Anniversary

I deliberately chose an early recording for this week, as the second anniversary of LibriVox will be celebrated (in some way, I am sure) on the 10th of August. It also almost exactly matches my first anniversary of downloading a Librivox recording. Strange to think that when I started this blog, I was anticipating a limited range of recordings to choose from. And I can remember lurking on the forum, watching people decide on the best way to do things. And wanting to join in, but dreading being encouraged to read! I was never going to do that...

Strange to hear the disclaimer with a 'blogsome' domain name. And some voices that seem unchanged - Kara still sounds like fresh toast, Gordon could still ask the Red Sea to part, and it would. And the PodChef! Does that take me back! He featured in so many of my earliest downloads - his chapter of The Secret Agent was a real favourite. Where is he now, I wonder? I never even thanked him...

Friday, August 3, 2007

Review: Something New by P G Wodehouse

I saw a video of a Rube Goldberg machine the other day, (called a Heath Robinson contraption in this part of the world), and was reminded of the plots of P G Wodehouse. Perhaps it was the other way around. Anyway, bear with me.
The point is, there are number of objects, the behaviour of which is perfectly understood, and is unremarkable. A marble, or a domino, say. And these objects are put together in an absurd and amusing way. A marble rolls, a domino falls over, exactly according to its nature, but the sum of these mundane and predictable acts creates a symphony of movement, leading inevitably to a predictable conclusion. But the destination is the least important part of the process. The journey is what makes it all worthwhile. And the more circuitous and torturous the route, the more wonderful the machine is.

And in this one, P G turns philosopher at the end: "Life is nothing but a mutual aid association." he declares, and I couldn't agree more. So thanks to Debra Lynn for making this recording, and adding to the great mutual aid society that is LibriVox.

Next: An International Episode by Henry James

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.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Week 26, and we had a problem...

Lest we forget, the whole point of this blog is to record my efforts to listen to 52 full length Librivox audiobooks in a year. This is week 26, and I am in the middle of my 26th audiobook. All seemed to be going to plan, until, today, my iPod cut out in the middle of Hugh McGuire's heartfelt reading of section 10 of Ulysses, and gave me a sad face. And refused to reboot. I was torn between annoyance, and delight that I would have a perfect excuse to buy a new one.
I tried everything Apple suggested, but noticed that the hard disk was not spinning. Seemed bad. So I googled it. Led me here. Basically told me to whack it.
Worked like a charm.
I wonder if there is a name for the emotion: 'Yay! it works!' blending seamlessly with 'Aw! No new iPod!'

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Starting Ulysses

I wanted to start Ulysses on Bloomsday, to give me an added incentive to read a book I have attempted so many times before. The whole book was only just ready in time, so I downloaded the first chapter from the forum page, to have something to be getting on with.
I had some chores to do on the Sunday, so I got my iPod, and started listening. It was strange, really. The first chapter is recorded in a pub, it seems, with loads of background noise, and with the book being passed between various people, some of whom take the whole thing more seriously than others.
My first reaction was disappointment, and to turn off the recording, and read it properly: I felt the readers were not showing enough respect to such a complex work, and one with which I needed all the help I could get. So I did turn it off, and read it from my old paperback copy.
When I set off to work the next day, however, I still only had the first chapter on my iPod. So I decided to listen to chapter one again. And this time, I realised one of the biggest problems I had with it in the past was that is was SUCH a rite-of-passage type literary monument, that I gave it TOO MUCH respect. I always wanted to understand every word. Reading the book myself, I was transported back to being nineteen and confused, disappointed with myself for being so baffled. Having it read by a bunch of chuckling rugby players (just a guess, there) made me realise: It's Just A Book. Thats All. Just Read It.
Don't expect to get every reference to the Roman Catholic sacrament, or Irish street songs. Get what you can from it, and move on. This is not a test.
So - thanks, rugby guys, who I am sure would find such soul-searching hilarious.

Review: Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers

Get it here.
A real surprise. I expected Agatha Christie, and got P G Wodehouse with added death. Very funny in places, and written with the touch of an angel. And all the clues are there, if you want to solve the riddle yourself. But there is a lot going on besides the mystery, including a very post-modern series of references to the short-comings of detective fiction. There is some very out-of-date anti-semitism on show from some of the characters, which I hope dates the book, but other than that it is a fresh, interesting piece, with deeper themes which would reward deeper analysis. Sayers was a Dante scholar of renown, and a theologian also, so I doubt she wrote much without a purpose.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Review: Sarrasine by Honore de Balzac

Get it here.
A can't really give a brief outline of the plot without giving it all away - and a great deal of the effect of the story derives from the surprise ending.
I have read some Balzac, but had forgotten how beautifully he writes - he can take a long time to get to the point, and you just don't care.
This solo is read by ChipDoc, a librivox stalwart, who has read many chapters in other works, and he has a wonderful reading voice. Do yourself a favour: download this book and listen to it. It is shocking, funny, thought provoking and read by a man with a voice that conjours up visions of a book lined study, late at night, after a few glasses of fine brandy. He puts down his cigar and tells you a fantastic story, that you only half believe. But I bet you don't forget it.

Next: Whose Body by Dorothy L Sayers, read by my near namesake Kristin Hughes, and the incomparable Kayray. Yay! I plan to finish this by Bloomsday, so that I start another assault on Mt. Ulysses, this time from the South Face.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Review: Washington Square by Henry James

Get it here
At first I was fairly sure I would not enjoy this book. It starts slowly, but I could not work out why - Mr James writes very well, but I felt it lacked something. At the start of chapter four I realised what it was: dialogue. Because when it starts, things really start moving, and such great dialogue it is.
The plot concerns a young women, who is prevented from marrying her lover, due to the opposition of her father. The fact that her father's misgivings are entirely justified is what gives the book its potency: father and daughter are locked in a delicate battle that neither can win. In fact, the conclusion of the plot reveals how similar they both are at core, despite being told the opposite several times: both have had an awful experience of loss, from which neither can ever recover. The lady's aunt supplies the comic relief, and she is great value.
I have seen this novel compared to Jane Austen elsewhere, and there are similarities - at one stage the book felt like Pride and Prejudice with Jane Bennet as the heroine. However, the book overall lacks one of Austen's great virtues: she cares for all the characters in her books, most probably because she was related to them herself, and could see their strengths and weaknesses co-mingled. Henry James sometimes seems to be looking at his creations like a biologist peering down a microscope.

This audiobook was a solo recording by Dawn Murphy, who brings a warm and friendly voice to the novel, and was an absolute pleasure to listen to.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Impatience with Allegory

While listening to Conrad's 'Typhoon', the other day, I found myself getting quite annoyed by the carefully placed 'subtexts' of the story. I used to view all literature as a puzzle to be solved, and gradually worked up to more and more cryptic puzzles. T.S. Eliot's 'Wasteland' was an early favourite, with all of its hints and references. I should be grateful - it got me into the source material that Eliot drew from. The problem was, I started preferring the source material to the 'more compex' works sitting on their shoulders.
Take Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Forget how these works are dressed up in 'culture': they are great romping tales of adventure, love, war, death, tragedy, comedy, the whole rich tapestry of life. All the author was trying to do was tell a story that entertained his readers (or as was most likely the case, his listeners), even though they knew the plot backwards, having heard it since childhood. The fact that these works are still read and loved 25-odd centuries later suggest that he was on to something.
But, to a modern author, it is not enough to let me find my own meaning in a story: he has made a secret meaning for me to tease out, which, with enough background research, I might just arrive at.
I could forgive this, in fact, I enjoyed it, until I read the poetry of Sappho, a contemporary of Homer's, whose fragments of poetry has retained a power like dynamite, and is as easy to read as it is to understand:

"Some say that the fairest thing upon the dark earth
is a host of horsemen, and some say a host of foot soldiers,
and others again a fleet of ships,
but for me, it is the one I love most."

The elitists will try to make stories as difficult and forbidding as befits a desire to keep the best for oneself. The greatest authors wrote for everyone (Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, Homer etc etc), and took pains that they be understood by their audience. To willfully mislead them seems perverse. And, being a human, I consider myself a 'meaning finding machine' - we even find familiar faces in tortillas - and can be trusted to draw my own meanings from what I read.

Reading Shakespeare

Much harder than I thought. One of the many problems (leaving aside the physical difficulty of making it sound natural) is the temptation to try an cram in too many meanings: the guy was obsessed with puns. When he says 'made' he also, on another level (usually a more rude level) meant 'maid'. 'Sun' means 'sun' and 'son'.
The troublesome bit, when reading this, is that you have to choose one meaning for the poem to make any sense. The temptation is the stress the words with double meanings, sort of 'winking' to the listener, but after a few lines you find you've winked half a dozen times.
The only way to leave the ambiguities to the listener is to read in a completely flat way, which I feel would be a wasted opportunity. But it places a big responsibility on the reader to give Will his free will.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Review: Typhoon by Joseph Conrad

Get it here
A short novel I will remember for its epic description of a, well, a typhoon, if you must know.
The story is involves a very Conradian situation - a white man showing more concern for his racial 'inferiors' than is considered seemly by his fellow europeans. And he manages to work in lots of Captain-of-ship-is-God type imagery, and meditates on how men without imagination are more reliable in a crisis, but chiefly on how people are cut off from each other, and how we misinterpret people, and basically don't understand each other at all. Which is all very existential and modernist.
But the real triumph of writing is the description of a storm, seen through the effect it has on a man's mind, and the changes in perception it brings about.

Next: Washington Square by Henry James

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Review: Typee by Herman Melville

Get it here.
I was left a little dissatisfied with this book. I think my frustration was founded on one main problem: Is it fact or fiction? A nagging part of me felt that this shouldn't matter, besides, these things are subjective. But the author protests many times that it's all factual. And if the eventual escape of the hero is a report of a true event, then it's quite thrilling, but if it is fiction - then it's quite poorly thought out.
But - first things first. The story is very simple. The narrator, on board a badly run ship, decides to take his chances on a South Sea island. After much crashing through undergrowth, he and his companion stumble across a tribe of indigenous people, who are reputed to be cannibals. Nonetheless, the villagers treat our heroes with great kindness, being so hospitable, in fact, that they can't seem to bear for their guests to leave. Then the narrator's friend disappears unexpectedly, and escape seems to be his only chance of surviving.
Which is all simple enough, but the real interest comes from the contrast between the westerner's lives and that of the islanders. It seems they have very different ideas on morality, propriety and marriage - and guess what? Everyone seems very happy, healthy and has all of life's wants and needs on hand, without effort. Which seems like paradise - but as the narrator finds out, paradise without liberty is meaningless. Which, as a work of fiction, is what I would expect the book to be getting at. Kind of a 'Herman Melville's Utopia', where the place held up as a satirical mirror to our society is imaginary. But the author does not seem to think it is a work of fiction. Perhaps Herman Melville was so far ahead of his time to have deliberately used an 'unreliable narrator', just to tease out the additional meanings this would create. But what sits uncomfortably with this is an obviously heartfelt rant against the behaviour of the missionaries in the region. (Interestingly, Melville clearly felt that it was right to convert the natives; he just didn't like the way they were going about it.) If the book is factual, these passages have an urgent purpose, if not, they are just rhetorical hot air.
The thing that redeems the book again and again for me, is the voice of the author; sarcastic, funny, friendly and wry, he is a companion it would be a pleasure to share any experience with. And, putting my pedantic quibbling to one side, the book is full of interest and incident, and builds the tension up to a fever pitch.

Michael Scherer reads this with all the skill of a professional, which, I believe, is exactly what he is. All the more reason to add this to your 'to read' list. Ignore my reservations about 'truth'; the story of colliding cultures is highly relevant today.

Next: 'Typhoon' by Joseph Conrad. Which shares the first three letters of its title with 'Typee'. Coincidence? Or Typical?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Volunteering again

Close readers of the LibriVox forum will know that I have volunteered to do a solo recording of Shakespeare's Sonnets. I have always loved these poems, and know several of them by heart. This is a cause of great grief to my friends and family, who object to someone rattling off fourteen line stanzas without due cause.
Volunteering for something does focus the mind, however, and I find myself mouthing lines at the strangest times. 'From FAIREST creatures... no ... From fairest CREATURES... no... FROM fairEST creaTURES...' etc etc.
Wish me luck. I have found a cupboard I can sit in, and will no doubt while away many a balmy evening inside it. 'Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?/Sorry - I can't remember what they're like...'

Friday, May 11, 2007

Review: Anthem by Ayn Rand

Get it here
This is a dystopian science-fiction novel. That's something of a genre nowadays, but I get the feeling that this an original. The problem now is that one is constantly reminded of the many followers who borrowed its ideas. Within no time you get the idea - no names, just numbers, horrid ruling class doling out extreme punishment for crimes of individuality, etc etc.
I was reminded of the first half of Jane Eyre, with its shrill, hysterical self pity: our hero is treated very badly for no good reason.
The novel works better in context with its time: it was published in 1938 when powerful contrasting forces seemed to be competing for the future of mankind, and Rand had experienced Stalinism at first hand. By contrast, western capitalism must have seemed heaven sent.
I expected this to be a change from Tolstoy, but was not prepared for this. In 'Master and Man' Tolstoy theorises that human happiness is only possible by losing the self, and giving oneself entirely to others. Ayn Rand seems to think that happiness can only be possible by forgetting others, and concerning oneself only with one's own happiness.
In my very humble opinion, both views are right, wrong, and out of date. It seems that there is no one answer to the problem of human happiness - who said humans had a right to expect to be happy in the first place? And, speaking personally, I am made happy by different things at different times; sometimes by being selfless, sometimes by being selfish, and following either extreme for any length of time is a recipe for unhappiness.
Chapter 11 is the heart of the philosophy of the book - a hymn to the word 'I', and a hate-filled diatribe against the word 'We'. I am sure I would have agreed with every word as a teenager - when being asked to turn the music down seemed like a huge infringement on my human rights. But as a parent, I know that the greatest joy I ever experience is through the joy of my children. So 'We' is greater than 'I'. To 'Me'.

This is read by Chere Theriot, who has a truly lovely reading style, and voice. She would sound charming, and would command attention, if she just talked about the weather. I hope she records some more, and she is to be thanked for recording such an interesting book, which, although I disagreed with it, provoked a good deal of soul searching.

Next: Typee by Herman Melville

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Review: War and Peace Book 1, by Leo Tolstoy

I just finished this about ten minutes ago, so my impressions are rather unformed. I can, however, say this. It is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Really, I hear you cry, so a historic work of world literature is worth reading in your opinion? Stop the press.
I know, I know. Still - I was expecting something much more stodgy. This is Jane Austen for men, with extra testosterone and a full beard. And his characterisations! Every one a masterpiece, even if only a few lines are spoken, they seem to breathe all by themselves. And there are a lot of characters. At first I thought I was going to lose track of all the princesses and countesses, but each one is so finely drawn that they are unmistakable.
Perhaps things change over the course of the succeeding books, but here the main concern is people and their domestic lives, and how Tolstoy lays their inner lives bare - not by telling you what they are thinking - but by directing you to look at their body language and microscopic facial tics.
So: I look forward to part two.

Next: Haven't decided.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


I am listening to 'War and Peace' Book 1 at the moment. I was surprised that the book was originally divided into fifteen books. Dig a little deeper, and you will find that it was originally published in four volumes. This got me thinking about how sometimes the ghost of old technology can linger, and sometimes it does not.
Take a computer keyboard: the Qwerty layout was designed to prevent typewriter punches from sticking together, something that troubles few people these days, but the layout has survived. A music album downloaded from iTunes is still limited by the fact that an 'album' (spinning at 33 and a third revolutions) had two sides of about forty-five minutes each. Most typefaces still bear the trace of a monk's quill, matching their variations of thickness of line.
Books sometimes lose useful things over time, however. Dickens published almost all of his works in serial form, over many months. In 'David Copperfield' a character appears early on, who so closely resembled a real person (the author drew from life, it seems) that she sued. The character disappeared, only to pop up again, near the end, with a far more moral and decent outlook on life: Dicken's settled the suit, and her character still had time to be reformed.
What I am getting at is: How much more accessible Dickens would be to most people, if you got a few dozen pages to read at a time, instead of a great square block. And its far less intimidating still, when you see the original editions, complete with gaudy advertising for hair ointment.
So - I would take a deep breath before attempting 'War and Peace', but one fifteenth of it is far easier to contemplate. Something Tolstoy probably knew, but subsequent publishers have forgotten.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Review: From Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

Get it here.
What an odd book. Science-fiction, in its original, unalloyed form. Today, science-fiction assumes that our heros stride about in an artificially aged space ship, looking anti-heroic. We are not invited to ask: how does the ship travel from star to star? How is it that they are not floating? If travelling faster than light, how do they transmit live video messages to one another? Instead, we are invited to ask: Oooo! Do you think he finds her attractive?
This book, by contrast, is all involved with the nuts and bolts of how to get to the moon, using nineteenth century technology. A whole chapter is devoted to what material the cannon should be made from. Did I mention they wanted to use a cannon? And, initially, they only wanted to fire a shell at the moon, until a Frenchman appears, offering to travel inside the shell.
If you remember carefully, when the Apollo project was announced, they were careful to include 'bring them safely back home' in the work description. Verne is uncluttered with such twentieth century concerns: you can't make an omlette without breaking eggs, after all. I believe there is a sequel, in which collision with the moon is averted, and a safe return occurs - by spashdown.
So - very foresightful. And scientific, apart from one vital thing: no-one experiments. They all seem to follow the example of Aristotle: if you have a great problem to solve, then go and sit in a quiet room and think it through. On no account actually try out your theories in the real world.
It is unimaginable that such a book would be published today. I believe that engineering was seen as a much more glamorous profession in those days. In fact, I remember the heros of several victorian novels would always be about to go off to America to build railroads. We lack the confidence for such enterprises now. Perhaps this is a good thing. I was reminded of this today when I heard of a plan to seed plankton by pouring iron into the sea, thus reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A very nineteenth century idea. My, more modern, mind, immediately started pondering the equal and opposite reaction to this action. A victorian would not. Hills in the way of the railroad? Pass the dynamite.
And where are all these young men now - who read this book, and were inspired by the limitless possibilities of mans promise? The modern day version probably write the code that powers the internet - engineering by other means. But what is the Web 2.0 equivalent of going to the moon? And would we want to read about it?
"But surely, Monsieur, a Google Maps / Amazon mash-up using only a Palm Pilot with root access is impossible!..."

Monday, April 30, 2007

Review: Youth by Joseph Conrad

Get it here.
I have developed quite a taste for Conrad recently. Many of his works are complex and highly symbolic, but this, by contrast, is a simple story of a young man setting out on his first sea voyage to the East, as remembered and narrated by his older self. Or is it quite so simple?
At the beginning he hints that the story is intended to describe a moral. In my opinion, it is this: The virtue of young men is that they see all problems as on opportunity to be a hero, born from the joy of testing ones strength. The tragedy of older men is that when they are old enough to see real problems to solve, and have the experience to solve them, they lack the strength and resolution to attempt anything heroic. That by the time you realise the virtue of youth, you have lost it.
Speaking as an older(ish) man looking back on a youth of tilting at windmills, I feel this is a wise observation. Now, if I just had the strength and resolution to do something about it...

I recorded this one, so at least I can prove beyond doubt that I have read it.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Review: Love Among the Chickens by P G Wodehouse

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I have a great weakness for P G Wodehouse. I can list all his faults, but they are all out-weighed by his virtues:
• He is funny.
• His plots are complex, but magically resolve on the last page, without apparent effort.
• His phrase making is unique.
• You always know what to expect.
• You find yourself wishing that you spoke like the characters in the books.
• You find yourself wishing that you dressed like the characters in the books.
• You find yourself wishing that you LIVED like the characters in the books. Even their most serious problems seem so trivial...
Need I outline the plot? Passive, helpless man, led astray by comic buffoon, falls in love with girl with grumpy father. Offends father. Devises ridiculous plot to win favour of same. All seems fine, until... I am sure you can imagine the rest.
There is a great essay concerning P G, by George Orwell, which can be found here. It deals with the rather sticky period of his life when he was tricked by the Nazis into handing them a propaganda coup. Proof that Jeeves never existed in real life: he would have come up with a brilliant ruse to solve the whole problem. Involving stealing Hitler's collection of silver salt shakers, no doubt, whilst avoiding the amorous attentions of Eva Braun.

Read with great verve and vigour by Mark Nelson, this solo recording captures all the charm and fun of the story. I was told by a compatriot that only an english voice would do for Wodehouse. He seemed rather surprised to be told that P G, for much of his life, was an American.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Review: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

Get it here.
Laughing out loud in pubic places while listening to an iPod can be embarrassing. I therefore recommend that this book be read (or listened to) in private.
For such an old book, the humour is remarkably fresh; the 'cheese' episode in particular reminded me of Monty Python. And I use the term episode with consideration. There is no plot to speak of, other than the idea of three men having a holiday on a boat, with incidents and episodes thrown together, seemingly at random, with some very strange short passages which were evidently intended to be taken seriously. I was left quite mystified by the description of the signing of the Magna Carta, and wondered why Jerome included the discovery of a dead woman in the river, complete with tragic back story. Perhaps he had aspirations to be Dickens, who could have pulled it off.
These weaknesses are more than made up for by the humour - not a book to analyse, perhaps, but just to laugh at, and pass on. However, I was left dwelling on the books place in the pantheon of English light literature: it presents a mythical past to us now, describing a world that we long for, and which never really existed; when it was possible to hop in a boat with some chums and forget about the humdrum details of life, when all was high jinks and tomfoolery.

In the spirit of the above, I felt the next book should be 'Love Among the Chickens' by P G Wodehouse, whose imagined past is just as seductive, and even more lacking in reality.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Review: The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

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My general rule with understanding hard subjects, like philosophy (hard for me!), is to read the original source matter. I used to read books about, say, Plato, and got nowhere. Then I read Plato himself, and it all seemed rather straightforward. There is a reason that the original works have survived, and that commentaries are replaced every few years.
The reason I mention this, is that I tried this approach with the Tao, and it did not work. A proper understanding of the Tao was denied me by reading the Tao Teh King. So I hoped the Book of Tea would help me to with it. This failed too. I have ignored my other general rule of understanding hard things: take a long time.
Still, the Book of Tea has much more to offer. On one level it is a history of tea drinking in the East. But, more thoroughly, it is a silent attack on westerners who had too little respect for the traditions of Japan, and the East in general. The author is very anxious to present Japanese culture as the equal or superior to its western counterparts. The book lays bare the centuries of tradition that underpin the seemingly mundane activity of drinking tea, and draws parallels between this and the appreciation of art generally, with reference to Zen and Tao philosophy.
Between the lines I got a strong feeling that the author felt himself to be under siege from a foreign culture, and was fighting a losing battle to persuade his own people to preserve their own culture. So the book probably still has lessons to teach the west, and not all about tea.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Review: Tao Teh King by Lao-Tze

This is an ancient work of philosophy, and written in classical chinese. One should not approach such works expecting a ripping yarn, or even for clear advice. 'Always eat your greens' would be unlikely to last 25 centuries, which, on reflection, seems rather a pity. Mankind needs a bit of ambiguity in it core texts, and the Tao delivers, and with a brevity which, (speaking as someone who has hacked through Deuteronomy), could teach other ancient writers a thing or two.
It is, however, very hard to understand. This is a book to ponder and re-read, with the aid of background material, and time to meditate.
I can therefore offer no opinion on why the author, without further explanation, compares ruling a small state to cooking small fish. A quick hunt through wikipedia suggests that translation of this work is an especially difficult problem, and I wonder how much of the ambiguity is down to this.
My few thoughts, such as they are:
1. This seems to be a book aimed at the ruling elite, exhorting temperance, humility and restraint from rulers.
2. It is strongly in favour of allowing nature to take its course, advising against micro-management in rulers.
3. It seems to be pacifist.
4. Many other concepts seems familiar from the Sermon on the Mount, and Plato's Theory of Forms.
5. The book I was reminded of most often was The Prince, by Macchiavelli. Lao-Tze does not seem to have a great respect for democracy.
At the end I was surprised that my reading of a famous religious work should make it seem so worldly. Perhaps that reflects on me. I may have totally missed the point. To try and combat this, my next book will be The Book of Tea, by Okakura Kakuzo, which apparently, among other things, describes Taoism in a more accessible way.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Review: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Get it here
This is an epic book, and one that is much more a part of the American tradition than the European one. I get the feeling that while young Americans are reading (or feeling bad about not having read) Moby-Dick, Europeans are reading (or pretending to have read) The Outsider by Albert Camus. (A much shorter book - we Europeans have it easy!)
Like a good undergraduate, I was on the lookout early on for what the Whale 'symbolised' in the story. And early on, Mr Melville had a good chuckle at me by including a whole chapter on the vast number of things the 'whiteness of the whale' represented, and later poking fun at the whole concept of an allegory.
In fact, the whole work is so full of symbols and meanings, that as a whole it acts like a mirror, showing back to you whatever you want to find. The story could work as a meditation on faith, democracy, fate, subjective truth; whatever you like. It is also a straight story of whale hunting, and a fine history of that trade.
Humour is shot through the work like a seam of silver, and I noted a particular irony reserved for purveyors of absolutes. The prose style is golden - every trick in the book, deployed like a master craftsman, pages and pages of it, seemingly produced without effort or strain. And it all sounds so fresh - not a single cliche in evidence. Some images are so shockingly original, they feel like a splash of salt water: "... where the gaunt pines stand like serried lines of kings in Gothic genealogies; those same woods harboring wild Afric beasts of prey, and silken creatures whose exported furs give robes to Tartar Emperors..."
Towards the end, I was convinced that whether or not the whale was found was irrelevant. Which was when Mr Melville confounded me again by completing some of the most exciting passages imaginable, where all the knowledge gained in the rest of the book combines to allow a full understanding of the enormity of what is happening.
Sometimes it seemed, in my mind, to be a less of a book than a writers workshop, where Melville lays out all of his tools and materials, and proceeds to make a story before your very eyes.
This is a book that will present new meanings and perspectives with each re-reading. Something I will try to do in ten years time, when I expect I will find my review to have missed all the most important points. And in the next ten years, the same thing will happen.

Stewart Wills reads this with all his expected skill - in fact it was his reading of 'Lord Jim' that lead me to this recording in the first place. His characterisations seem effortless, with Stubb being perhaps the pick of the bunch, although as I write that, I feel that Ahab should have the crown. The highest praise I can offer is that some of the later, drama-filled passages actually sent shivers down my spine.

By my count that makes 13 books (and what books!) in 14 weeks, so I have a little catching up to make one a week. But not bad progress on the whole.

Next: Tao Teh King

Tuesday, April 3, 2007


I have seen a lot about twitter recently, and it seems a lot of fun. To save myself time, and to save myself from having to register, I have decided to compose all my twitter entries for the foreseeable future here:

6:30am woken by son
8:15am leave for work (listen to book!)
8:45am work
6:00pm leave for home (listen to book again!)
6:30pm get home - bathtime for kids, stories for kids, attacked by kids
8:15pm both kids asleep
8:45pm eat
9:00pm wash up
10:00pm try not to fall asleep
10:30pm fall asleep

For weekends, replace 'work' with 'attacked by kids'. What a glamorous life I lead.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Disclaimer Thoughts

When reading, one bit I knew by heart was the disclaimer. (aside: how many other words are only negative, and don't work as positives? Uncouth, perhaps?)
Anyway, I signaled my membership of the Gordon Mackenzie Appreciation Society by spelling out the '.org' of the URL, but my accent prevented me from indicating an allegience to the Organisation for the Protection of Sub-Urban Oceanside, by giving the 'public domain' part a rising inflection.
How may other parties and schisms lurk in our disclaimer readings? How many cryptic secrets lurk there? Can I promise exactitude of pronunciation in nautical terms, by eliding 'domain' to 'd'main' as Stewart Wills does? Or support the 'Friends of Trollope' Society, (founded by Andy Minter), by replacing 'more information' for 'further information'?
What does it all mean? That I have been listening to too many audiobooks? Perhaps.


Well - my tiny contribution to the vast Librivox project is complete and catalogued (here), as part of the March Madness drive to complete as many projects as possible.
I found the whole process both harder and easier than I expected. Firstly, one day after volunteering, my three-year-old lad passed on a lousy head cold, the viral nature of which he had specifically brewed up to deprive me of my voice. When, finally, I was capable of recording, I stole up to the bedroom with a laptop and headphones, and did the whole thing in one go. I felt quite pleased with myself and posted on the forum that my contribution could be expected in the next 24 hours, to allow for editing. I even played my wife my masterful first effort. Mistake. Or not, as it turned out.
I was unaware at the time, but I must have been overly conscious of my sleeping children, and was practically whispering the text. Furthermore, the mike had managed to pick up a lovely whistling noise from my bunged up nose. But now I had told everyone it was ready! And Kayray had offered to take the editing off my hands! Could she edit out my nose? Could she edit in some clear diction? Probably not.
So, I recorded it again at the office, after hours. And felt strangely liberated by the ability to chew the scenery, without waking anyone. Editing was a breeze, and the whole thing was over in no time. Then, grey-eyed Kara took the whole thing away, proof listened to it (without even being asked!) and dealt with all the other messy issues. A midwife to the MP3 indeed.
All in all, I was amazed at how much I enjoyed having it done. I must have an exhibitionist side in hiding. Which is paradoxical. And then, when I realised that the LibriVox Conradian cupboard was bare, I volunteered to read 'Youth' - all by myself, as my son would say. Heady times indeed.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Intimidating Volumes

I am listening to Moby Dick at the moment, and am enjoying it thoroughly. I was always a little intimidated of this book in the past, but am finding it to be very accessible and enjoyable. This makes me wonder - what put me off reading it for so long?
It seems there are a list of books in our heads which we feel we 'ought' to have read. I understand this, and how sometimes this can be useful. Also, as reading is such a democratic thing, open to so many, that some readers feel a pecking order is required.
As a young man, 'Ulysses' was the great unexploded bomb on my book shelf. I tried and failed a few times, but the great literary status symbol was denied me. I compensated with Proust, but literary gentlemen seem to feel that Joyce has a more masculine cache. And more importantly - it's very hard to understand. Pushing 120kg on the benchpress is nothing to breezily discussing Joycean idiom - at least in some circles.
As I have got older I have got impatient with all this nonsense. A story either holds my attention, or it does not. It stays with me, or it does not. And as for symbolism - I find I can discover my own meanings in works without having a cryptic 'message' buried in the narrative for me by the author. I have nothing to prove to anyone, at least not by displaying my bookshelf.
The worry is that all this baggage has prevented me from reading a book I am enjoying so much now. Perhaps I needed to grow up first.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Readear turns Reader

Well, the day has finally arrived - I have volunteered to read a chapter for Librivox. I am rather nervous about this, and deliberately offered to read a long overdue chapter, in the half-hope I would be refused. I was, initially, but then I was given the job. Eek.
This is where the all-comers-are-welcome approach really helps: I have heard enough Librivox recordings to feel that I can do at least as well as some of the readers. I will not be as good as many, of course, but I will do my best, and see how it goes.
I am reminded of the first recording I listened to, that of Heart of Darkness, by Kri, and especially of how inspiring I found it. What made it special for me was how natural and unaffected it sounded, like a friend, and not an actor. I suspect it takes a lot of nerve to sound so open.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Review: Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

Get it here.
I was introduced to Trollope by Librivox, last year, when I listened to 'The Warden', the first of the 'Barsetshire' novels. 'Barchester Towers' is the second, and I was following its progress through the recording process with interest, having enjoyed the first so much. This one is a very different book, and is both better and worse.
The thing I liked most about Trollope at first was his understanding that almost all people are trying to do the right thing. They have different priorities, but essentially, no-one actively seeks to do evil. However, from slight differences or outlook, great unhappiness can result. 'The Warden' is a tightly plotted book with a real knot of a moral question at its core. And there is no Bill Sykes or Fagin cackling in the corner - just moral men and women doing what they see as right. He also has a hilarious dig at Dickens, parodying his style and sentimentality.
'Barchester Towers', however, is much more Dickensian, and is, in my opinion, a much more enjoyable (and funny) book as a result. We have the villainous Mr Slope to hate, and his character gives fire and life to the whole work. The characterisation is more exaggerated, and what the book loses as a moral puzzle, it gains as a laugh-out-loud romp.
The most memorable elements are the party scenes, full of colour and incident, and the author's post-modern popping into the flow of the narrative, like a magician explaining how he has just done a card trick.
In comparison with Dickens, Trollope lacks passion and anger. But he makes up for this with a world weary appreciation of his characters, where the good are not all that good, and the bad are not as bad as all that.

Next: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Jane Austen and Money

Of course, another author with a high regard for the value of a unit of currency, was Jane Austen. During her lifetime genteel women could not work, and could only inherit or marry it. And genteel men had very limited ways of earning a living as well: the law, the church, the army (which would cost money, to obtain a commission), or inheritance. Money was too grubby to earn, so your whole life was engineered to acquiring it by accident.
'Good' characters do earn money in Dickens, but they seem to be pitied by the author, and the end of the story usually has them inheriting enough not to have to do so again. And he always emphasises the pitiable state of the employed versus the employer.
So: I think Trollope is the first nineteenth century author I have read who sees earning a living as a sustainable and honourable thing, and that earning it should occupy at least some of the thoughts of decent people.
What he would have thought of an entrepreneur, I don't know.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Trollope and Money

I posted a while ago that Tolstoy seemed to think the profit motive to be an evil one, and that writers generally look down on money making as beneath them, and I have been pleasantly surprised by Trollope's acknowledgment of money, as having a place in the motivations of even (otherwise) decent people.
I was gratified, therefore, to find that the great, liberal, Canadian economist, J. K. Galbraith, had written an introduction to a copy of Barchester Towers I happened to see in my local library. I wondered what economic insights he might bring to the work. It turns out that Trollope lost a great deal of public affection after his death, when his posthumous autobiography revealed that he had a strict writing schedule, at a rate of a thousand words an hour. His readers felt that the muse should not have a wristwatch. But he also reported, to the penny, how much he made from each novel. And I immediately thought less of him.
Why, I wonder? Is it unfair of me to expect someone to do all this work, and not care about the reward? Or would I rather they lied, and pretended they would have done just the same thing for nothing? I don't seem to mind George Clooney getting a fortune in some films, as long as he does the odd low budget picture, to pay his dues.
Am I a hypocrite? Most of us have families to look after, and Trollope had a bankrupt father, so getting and keeping money was a serious business for him. Perhaps it's a hangover from when the aristocracy decided what was polite, when the pursuit of money was seen as vulgar. Because the 'in' crowd was born with it.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Horse Drawn Carriages: A Glossary

One of the great problems for a modern reader of nineteenth century fiction, is that the characters use terms to describe everyday things which we no longer have. I remember reading Jane Austen and being amazed by the number of names they seemed to have for horse drawn carriages. It is a shame that wikipedia did not exist at the time, for a handy list is available here.
I wonder what the equivalent will be in 150 years time: a character who refers to a Blackberry, iPod, mobile, cell-phone, PDA, Laptop? 'Whatever can they be on about?' the future reader will ask, only for his armchair to reply in a very human voice; 'Do you really want me to go into all that?'

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Review: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Get it here
This is just the sort of book I would never have read if it were not free. I wouldn't take the risk on a book that, on the face of it, is not really my cup of tea. The great thing about LibriVox, and project Gutenberg, is that you get introduced to authors outside of your comfort zone. If you have to pay for your media, you tend to play safe.
At first, this book reminded me of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. The same obsession with family history, status, class, and social climbing. I was quite shocked at how American history had one time had an aristocracy, at least in the minds of the characters in this novel. The author has a dry, ironic tone, and at first I was quite jarred by her use of the phrase 'all of New York was agog' or suchlike, when it was obvious that only about 45 people were agog. I was uncomfortable with this until I realised she was being ironic. Well, I think she was being ironic, but I think she meant it at the same time. She is criticising a world she loves.
The problem with the book, for me, is that it is hard to see the romantic disappointments of a wealthy dilettante as a tragedy. Unless you see Newland Archer as a classic existential hero, realising that we are all alone in the the universe, and, at the very end of the book, seeing that his ideal women only ever existed in his imagination. Which is how I chose to read the book, and enjoyed it on these terms. Other people could read it as a straight romance, no doubt, but my overpowering sense of my own masculine pride would never permit me to do that.
Edith Wharton has a great gift for creating seemingly innocuous dialogue which is, in fact, full of subtle meaning. In places, she can spend two paragraphs explaining what a facial expression actually meant, and in other places, she leaves it to the reader to detect the veiled meanings behind the words. I would be terrified to meet such a person, as you feel that all of your inner thoughts would be open to her.
As for the innocence of the title, she no doubt means that the people described in the novel lived with a determined innocence, blocking all unpleasantness out of their lives. At first I thought it also referred to the hero's fiancée, but I realised, long before he did, that she was one of the worldliest characters in the book, and made him look like a schoolboy. Not the first man to have this experience with his significant other, I am sure.

Brenda Dayne's solo reading is flawless. A wonderfully sustained performance, and her voice has a warmth and lightness which accords seamlessly with the material. As I progress through the LibriVox catalogue, I seem to keep finding treasure like this, so I should not be surprised. But I always am - thank you Brenda.

Next: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Another Thought on Walden

Aristotle famously said 'Man is by nature a political animal.' This can also be translated as 'Man is an animal, the nature of which is to live in a city'. The point is that human beings are animals, as much as we like to forget it. At least, that is what I believe. I don't think that we have dominion over the animals, in the biblical phrase, although most of us act as if we do, whether we believe it or not.
Now, Thoreau sometimes seems to believe that humans are just animals, and elsewhere to believe that humans are only animals if they are insufficiently enlightened. Compare these quotes: "Man is an animal who more than any other can adapt himself to all climates and circumstances" sits uneasily alongside these: "We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers." and "He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established."
Desmond Morris, in his book 'The Naked Ape', makes the point that to understand human nature, you do not need to observe so-called 'primitive' human beings - any human beings will do. If you wish to observe a lion, you seek out his habitat, and observe him. So with humans. The bulk of humans live in conglomerations of varying sizes. So that is where you should go to study them. If one lion in a thousand decided to live up a tree, you would not draw conclusions about lion behaviour from that one lion.
Just as it is in my cat's nature to walk in a circle a couple of times before lying down, it is in my nature to worry about my children, put on weight in my thirties, and, eventually, to develop an interest in gardening.
Thoreau sees nature as a well balanced and perfect system. But if HE were acting according to HIS nature, he would not be in the woods at all. He would holding down a job, fretting about his mortgage and trying to get his kids into one of the better schools.
Human nature seems to be killing the planet, so I am not above humanity changing its nature as quickly as it likes. But it is not particularly comforting to think that we have got ourselves into this mess by acting entirely according to a nature bred into us by millennia of evolution. And that the well balanced and perfect system of nature has brought us to this pass.
Perhaps the hardest thing for us to believe is that nature does not care whether we survive as a species, any more than any of the others which are now extinct. Deep down, somewhere, we are sure that we are special, and that our dominion is god-given.
And it seems also to be a part of our nature to think that we have no 'nature' at all, and in fact are acting according to impulses unique to ourselves. It is only by reflection and introspection that we can recognise our natures, and act according to a 'higher nature'. It is Thoreau's paradox that the well-balanced and perfect harmony of nature has to be denied in us in order for it to be preserved in general.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Review: Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy

Get it here
This is another fable-like work from Tolstoy, and one I found more satisfying in the detail than in the overall story. The tale, such as it is, is a simple one: A money grasping businessman goes out to close a deal, taking his servant and horse with him, when the weather suggested that wiser heads would have stayed at home. After losing their way a few times, and meeting various people who are unnecessary for the plot, they become stuck, and are faced with a night in the open, during a blizzard. Without giving the end away, the businessman performs a selfless act, which changes his world view.
The problem for me was that I didn't believe the transfiguration of the man, but instead found the great realism of the background made me want to explore that further. Tolstoy displays a great ability to render a character likeness with his thumb-nail, so to speak, and I completely believed in the reality of all of the characters, which made the conclusion all the more troublesome for me. Surprisingly, I also found the god-like knowledge of the narrator jarring: he records with confidence every half-formed thought of the businessman, and shows great skill in laying bare human thought processes. I just wondered how he got to know all these facts. Of course, every novelist has to solve this problem through some trickery; its just that I wasn't fooled by Tolstoy this time: I knew it was just a man telling a story he had made up, and consequently, I could not react at an emotional level.

One extra thought: Tolstoy really has it in for businessmen, and the pursuit of wealth. Fine if you have it already. Thoreau has a very low opinion of the profit motive as well, so as a professional capitalist myself, I feel rather got at. Writers as a breed seem to take a dim view of money. Unless they inherit it. Or until they get some. So; it seems you can go after it, but you must never make the going after it look like you are trying.

Brooks Jensen reads this for Librivox with the confidence of a seasoned pro, but I had not heard his voice before. I will look out for it in future. I would love to know his views on the work, and his motivations for reading it. Perhaps I have missed something.

Next: 'The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Review: Walden by Henry David Thoreau

I cannot remember having to reassess a book as often, and as radically as Walden. I started thinking that it was a long harangue against the world. Then I thought it was a book about the beauty of nature, which is what I had expected. And then it revealed itself, in the very last few paragraphs, to be a book about individuality, and the need of every human to be him or herself, and not follow the dictates of convention.
As such, I disown my earlier impression, which I prematurely made known. This is a beautiful, but challenging book, which I am very grateful to have read. The prose style is difficult to my ear, but it is like a dialect that is gradually acquired. Certain sentences leap out as worthy of contemplation. Others are very funny, but from a humourist with a wit as dry as dust. The whole book is quite an experience.
The first two (long) chapters were what threw me off. Thoreau seemed so full of contradictions, so angry, so shrill and bitter, that I found him very challenging, which I am sure was exactly the point. I was constantly having to justify my life choices to myself, in fact analyse every precept and principle. I found this experience uncomfortable, as this is not something I am used to doing with such rigour, at least not since I got married and had kids. Surely no-one could criticise MY life choices? I now see Thoreau as being like a sergeant in charge of some new recruits; he has to break them first before he can work with them.
The meat of the book shows the fruits of Thoreau's decision to live alone in the woods, on the banks of Walden pond. He becomes completely in tune with his environment, and develops a familiarity with natural processes which is fascinating to hear. A modern human knows their daily routine backwards, a journey to work, for example or how to work a television remote. Thoreau has that intimacy of knowledge with the bubbles in the ice on the surface of Walden pond, with the insects that live there, the feeding habits of the fish, and so on. No one piece of this knowledge is remarkable in itself, but what is remarkable is the totality of it, and the sacrifices he was willing to make, or felt it was necessary to make, to acquire it. He made me ashamed of myself. As Woody Allen said, I am at two with nature.
But the payoff is at the very end. All the way through, I was asking: "If all this is so wonderful, why did you leave after two years?" His answer, as I understand it, is that the pond is not the point. Even nature is not the point. Life is the point, and you have to drink it to the dregs. And that, whatever your Walden pond happens to be, to make sure that you inhabit it as absolutely as he did his. I intend to, with a renewed determination.

This is a solo recording, by Gordon Mackenzie, who I praised on an earlier post, and, indeed, were it not for his sympathetic reading I would never have got through the 'Boot camp' potion of the book. It is a book I will never forget, that I will recommend to others, and one which I owe the knowledge of completely to him. He has a great voice, he loves great books, and he chooses to make both free to all comers. Thank you, Gordon.

I keep having further thoughts about this book, and perhaps will post here again on some of them. However, my next book will be "Master and Man" by Leo Tolstoy, another fan of Thoreau.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

In Our Time, Radio 4, UK

May I recommend that everyone interested in bookish matters, becomes a podcast-subscriber to 'In Our Time', a BBC Radio 4 programme. The website is here.
The appeal of it lies in the fact that you have three real experts on a given subject, who have a limited time to expound on it. So there is no dumbing down by having an intervening journalist trying to make it exciting for us silly people.
The archive has some great shows, but the latest is 'Heart of Darkness', which I know will be a subject close to many hearts.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Audiobook or Reading?

One of the things about hard copy books, is that they convey a lot of information before you even take them off the shelf. They may be thick, thin, tall, hard cover, paperback, in a fancy slipcase, and so on. All of these things help you make a judgement about how much they are worth, or how well put together they are. By contrast, DVDs are all the same: the printed cover might change, but the box is uniform, and the disc gives no clue (beyond the title!) as to the quality of the contents. There is no bit on the back of the box that tells you how big the budget was, or how much the stars got paid.
It strikes me that Librivox audiobooks have something of the same problem. Once a recording has ended up on your iPod, it is judged in the same way as a commercial audiobook. These recordings have a certain way of being presented, and actors you recognise from the television tend to read them.
Many Librivox audiobooks are indistinguishable from commercial ones. Others sound like a normal person reading a book in their bedroom. And because the recording is right next to Stephen Fry's on your iPod, you compare them. And you forget the vast organisation and staff behind the commercial recording, and the fact that you paid quite a bit for it, and miss the hope, love and courage of the amateur one.
If a friend decided to come to your house and read you a story, what would you expect? Would you be outraged if they cleared their throat? Or coughed? Or mispronounced a word a tiny bit? Would the kindness of the thought be diminished? Perhaps you would tartly remark that Stephen Fry could do a lot better. Probably, you would just sit back and listen to the story.
It seems a pity, to me, that both things carry the same name - audiobook. It invites a comparison that should not arise. This is not to denigrate the efforts of the readers who go to such lengths to produce such professional-sounding recordings. But it is worth remembering, as a listener, that the stated aim of the project is to record all public domain books. With or without sneezes.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Hard Copies

I have about one and a half thousand books by my last count (a couple of years ago), and a whole room is given over to them. However, I have found it quite disturbing to listen to an audiobook, and have no 'hard copy' of the book, to pop on the shelf like a trophy. Part of me wants to buy a copy, just so I know I have read it. But I have a 'one in, one out' policy on my book shelves now, or it will be two rooms before we know it. What to do? Maybe I should have book sized blocks of wood, and I write on the 'spine' as I finish an audiobook, to pop on the shelves. Maybe I should print out a copy, and bind it myself. Maybe I should get over it, buy a digital book reader, download all of the gutenberg project onto it, bin the hard copies, and buy a pool table.

Working through Walden

I am part of the way through Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. I tried to read it a couple of years ago, but ended up throwing it across the room, as I realised I did not have the faintest idea what he was on about. His prose style is most elliptical and confused, and he crashes through several registers of speech in every paragraph. I have also taken a profound dislike to his superior 'I am right, everybody else is wrong' brand of adolescent omniscience. Perhaps because he reminds me of myself as a young man. Or now. Ouch.
Still, I am sticking with it, because
1) It is read by the incomparable Gordon Mackenzie, who could make the telephone book sound like a cliffhanger, and because he obviously 'gets' it enough to record it, so I must have misunderstood it.
2) I understand Americans revere this book, and I wonder if it will give me any insight into the whole American 'self-reliance' thing, being as I am a European 'non-self reliance' type of guy.
Gotta ... keep ... going ...

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Review: The Art of War by Sun Tzu

Get it here
Once, I tried to read Aristotle, and found it absolutely impossible. The language was so dry that it had withered away to bones and dust. An occasional sentence would stand out, but the overall work was impossible to digest, or so I found.
Then, I read a little more ABOUT the works. It seems at Old Ari’, (as he was known in Athens), left no works extant that he had written for pubic consumption. All we have are the lectures notes he had written out for his under-lecturers to use when giving lessons.
This made a lot of sense - what I had been trying to do was read the equivalent of an ancient PowerPoint presentation. If you look at the text in ancient greek, it is obvious - what we have a short sentences, bullet points. It is the translators job to try and make a complete text from this, and you can feel the strain: my copy of Aristotle's book on the soul has an introduction about three times longer than the text.
The reason I am going on about this, is not JUST to sound awfully clever and well read, whilst displaying a charming sense of my own inadequacies, (although, if that's how it comes across, I won't complain); it is because I became convinced that this book was once a set of lecture notes. There is a mathematical structure to parts of the book that suggest it would fit very well into a set of tables. Bullet points abound. I suspect many passages that seem poetic flights of fancy are in fact artifacts of the translation process. (If you translated 'a frog in my throat' into Chinese, what would you get?). As a result, you get a very compact work, with some repetition, followed by short remarks of such opaque profundity, that you cry out for a longer explanation.
The reason I had not read this book before was because I associated it with eighties business men (Michael Douglas in 'Wall Street', say) who would apply the lessons of the book to hostile takeovers. This is a mistake. This book is all about war, pure and simple, and written by a man who was wise enough to have no more relish for the fight than was absolutely necessary. It is his knowledge of human nature under fire that will stay with me, and his cold-blooded pragmatism, which rivals Macchiavelli, and surpasses him in succinctness. I also have the feeling that trying to use his lessons for the purposes of money gathering does a great disservice to the work: his highest praise is given to the generals who manage to achieve their objectives without ever having to fire a shot in anger. It is a shame he does not seem to have written 'The Art of Peace'.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Review: Three Short Works by Gustave Flaubert

Get it here!

I know Gustave Flaubert from Madame Bovary, which I enjoyed very much. However, I had always harboured some resentment towards him, as he seems to imply in this book that reading too many novels has caused his protagonist to get above herself, and, in fact, that this was at the root of her downfall. Since I have read many novels, many of them at quite a tender age, and I have yet to massively overspend on ribbon and bonnets, I considered his hypothesis to be disproven.
The Three Short Works are, in order, the life story of an outwardly unimportant old lady; a dialogue between Satan and Death; and a retelling of the legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller.
The Satanic dialogue is a prose poem, and is not to my taste, suggesting to me the kind of thing Jim Morrison might sing if he was lead singer of The Cure.
I got that one out of the way quickly, to tell you that the other two stories are utterly, utterly brilliant, and no, I am not exaggerating. The basic tale of St Julian is a standard medieval fable, which could be summarised in all its particulars in a paragraph. However, in Flaubert's hands, it is a masterpiece of descriptive power, and at times, quite unsettling. The portrait of Julian as a sadistic young man, whose desire to kill seems almost psychotic, leads, with the inevitability of destiny, to disaster, and eventual redemption.
I save the best till last, however. Entitled 'A Simple Soul' it exemplifies William Blake's claim to be able to see the world in a grain of sand. I will not spoil it for you by describing it here, but within its five chapters it contains an emotional punch that comes from nowhere and takes your breath away.
This is a solo project of David Barnes, and his reading style is the perfect complement to the material. He reads in an absolutely 'straight' manner, allowing the writing to speak for itself. This is especially important, in my opinion, for the conclusion to 'A Simple Soul'. To me, it seems to be highly ambiguous, begging the question of whether the author expects us to laugh or cry. David's reading offers no clues to his own opinion, leaving the delicious uncertainty intact for the listener to ponder, and, thus doing a great service to the text.

Next: 'The Art of War' by Sun Tzu

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Review: A Princess on Mars by E. R. Burroughs

The problem for this book is that it has had so many imitators that its innovations have become cliches. For me, the same fate has befallen 'Citizen Kane', and, unfortunately, while intellectually I realise I am encountering a genuine original, my guts keep spotting the works which built on it. So, instead of thrilling to John Carter's heroic fist-fights, I keep seeing Captain Kirk wrestling gingerly with a man in a green suit, so as not to tear the costume. Instead of being amazed by descriptions of amazing alien life forms, I see the cantina scene in 'Star Wars'. And too often, the cheesy 80's Flash Gordon movie was foremost in my mind, complete with the 'Queen' soundtrack.
None of this is the fault of the book, which is packed with daring-do, and incident. In spite of saying this, one of the features of many of the 'Boys Own' adventure style books I have read recently, is that they start so sedately, with descriptions of boyhoods, and parentage. I suspect these pages would be the first cut by a modern editor, and it presumes a patient reader. I wondered why this was so. Perhaps books had less competition at the end of the 19th Century.
At first I was pleasantly surprised that there were several races on Mars, and each race had its own subdivisions with cultural differences. (A pet dislike of mine in the past was the lazy assumption that any planet would only have one culture across its whole surface, a la George Lucas). And then I wondered: is it the inevitable fate of any populated planet, to become one culture, given enough time? In a few thousand years, will the whole of the earth have one skin tone, one language, one culture? Would that be desirable, given the greatly reduced potential for conflict and hatred? Or are our cultural differences worth preserving? How many hundreds of languages are being lost each year? Could I save myself from hunger on 80% of the earth, knowing only the word 'MacDonalds'? Is a literary masterpiece still a literary masterpiece if no-one can read it?
Obviously, I don't really know the answers to any of these questions. I suspect that if you speak a minority language, you have a strong financial incentive to learn the language of the majority. Which suits us when it is English they learn. I just wonder how we would feel if we are suddenly expected to know Chinese or Hindi.
Here is where Burrough's Martians have it right: they all speak the same language, while retaining their separate cultural identities. Except they spend all their time fighting, so it seems makes no difference. Oh, and their global warming problem makes ours look very small beer.

Next: Gustave Flaubert, "Three Short Works"

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The need to forget

I noticed the other day that a lot of the books I have read in the last few weeks were written on or around 1895. I wondered idly to myself how many books must have been published in 1895, and how many are now completely forgotten, and lost forever. I then wondered how many were published in 1995, and how many of these would also be forgotten and unread, but preserved forever in digital form.
The 1895 books have been through a winnowing process: the best have been reprinted, re-read, republished, filmed, and, in all the cases I am thinking of, recorded for LibriVox. They have had the opportunity to be forgotten, but enough people remembered them to preserve them, and keep them alive.
Modern works, by contrast, if preserved digitally, will be preserved in amber for future generations. Forever. Without going through the winnowing process. Without any democratic process on the part of the public.
At a rough guess, if I read a book a week for the rest of my life, I will manage another 2,500. There are so many great books in the world, in different languages, from different ages, that there is literally a work of genius for every week of the rest of my life. Why would I want to waste my time reading something that had not been road-tested?
Think of past generations modding-up a book, so that it survives a century, or more. The more mods, the higher up the list the book climbs. Shouldn't we start at the top of the list, and work down?
The Library of Alexandra contained many great, now lost works. Of the ninety plays of Sophocles, only eight or so survive. Would the world be any different if we had all ninety? Should not our best guarantee of the superiority of his surviving plays be that they were copied, and stored at other locations, and the others were not? Is it any surprise that so many books from the classical period are works of genius? They are the survivors.
I realise this is all sacrilege. Perhaps I am worried that future generation will have trouble finding our best work, and think that sit coms are the best we had to offer.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Review: What Men Live By and Other Tales by Leo Tolstoy

According to Woody Allen, "Tolstoy is a full meal. Turgenev is a fabulous dessert. Dostoyevsky is a full meal with a vitamin pill and extra wheat germ."
All I had read of Tolstoy in the past was "Childhood", his first work, which I enjoyed (until the very dark and almost throw-away ending), but which did not suggest a main course more weighty than Turgenev. So I approached these four short stories with a light step and a full stomach, expecting, well, a light dessert. This opinion seemed well founded at first: the stories are fables, written in the style of fairy tales, dealing with moral questions. I took these to be religious parables, and the first of these was sentimental enough to lull me into taking it as a straight Christian ethics lesson. The second was, again, well told, but well within the compass of a child.
The third story made me realise that I was dealing with a different man altogether, and made me doubt my smug estimation of the previous two tales. In it, Tolstoy as good as calls all religions equal, in so beautiful and simple a way that it seems utterly obvious. Which is quite a trick. I started wondering why more people hadn't read this, and finally remembered that Tolstoy's religious ideas were an inspiration to Gandhi.
The final tale is the pick of the bunch. "How Much Land Does a Man Need" is suspenseful, funny, exciting, deeply moral, and has a finale that is as dark as, well, a Russian winter.
I was so jolted by this that I was forced to reassess the first half of the book. It seems that Tolstoy's spiritual world is a complex one, and these simple fables, like all good fables, require some meditation and digestion. Like a full meal.

Next: A Princess on Mars by E R Burroughs.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Review: The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

I have never read a book quite like this before, which surprises me: I have read some stream-of-conciousness novels in the past, and generally found them confusing and opaque (COUGH-Virginia Woolf-COUGH). However, what impressed me here was its clarity, even in the midst of highly poetic language, and overall the relentless, painful honesty. This is the quality, which, for me, raises the novel to its greatest heights: its ability to accurately read the passing thoughts and impressions of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. I laughed with recognition more than once: how nature can seem indifferent and heartless one minute, and maternal and lovely the next, depending on a passing emotion. All these changes are recorded by the author without comment, judgement or passion.
The other recognition came in its depiction of the relationships between men, and the motivations of men. How men can bicker and brawl, be always on the lookout for weaknesses to exploit even in close friends, but, when the chips are down, how they are capable of great self-sacrifice. Uncomfortably, this book would remind the reader that these self-sacrifices are not often made for the purest of ideological motives: the hero is driven to heroism because he overhears his regiment being labelled 'mule-drivers'.
The novel is ostensibly about war, but like all great works of art, it is really about being a human being, or at least a male human being. Self-justifying and self-decieving, true, but only because to acknowledge the absolute truth of the situation would be too much for anyone to bear. We need to create fictions about our motives, and about out enemies, because otherwise
the total futility of almost any act would be overwhelming. But if we keep throwing those carrots up in front of our own noses, why, we can charge the enemy with nothing but a flag.

Next: What Men Live By and Other Tales by Leo Tolstoy

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Review: The Invisible Man

H G Wells: Did you know that he invented table-top wargaming?
'The Invisible Man' was a strange book. Another iconic story, but all I had before this was a few scenes from a black and white movie. So I didn't know what to expect, and at first the prose sounded very flat and pedestrian. (Probably a Joseph Conrad hangover) The first third of the novel is frustrating: I grasp the concept of an invisible man easily enough, but have to wait while some comical rustics have humourous adventures discovering the monster in their midst. It is unfair to blame Wells for this, as the first readers needed some coaching, no doubt, but I wanted things to develop more quickly.
I was rewarded from the moment the Invisible Man himself starts to make his confession, so to speak, and Wells is at his best, given a brilliantly thought out description of the experience of being invisible. The delight is in the detail; I never thought, that because his eyelids were transparent, that he would have difficulty sleeping, that he would have to take care after eating, that his undigested food didn't give him away. That he would always be cold and unable to move about in rain or snow.
It is interesting that Wells makes the invisible man an evil sort of chap, even before he was invisible. The recent film (which I have not seen) suggested (I believe) that being invisible would make a person immoral: that without the eyes of the world on us, we would run riot. I was keen to explore this idea in the book, but it is not there: Wells makes him go mad, but he was fairly unstable to begin with.
Would being invisible make us immoral? Would we use the power to spy on loved ones, and steal consumer electronics?
The only thought I had was this: When the internet was young, it seemed like an anonymous sort of place, where your acts were untraceable. So we all started using Napster, proving, to some, the immoral-if-invisible argument. However, for that to have worked, we also all had to have GIVEN AWAY all our music, in order for the system to be populated. A Napster full of thieves would have had no music. Perhaps being invisible makes us altruistic, as long as it's free.

(The two super powers I always hankered after were flight (classic extrovert) and invisibility (classic introvert). What would it mean to have both at once?)

Monday, January 22, 2007

Audiobooks versus Books

What are the competing benefits of audiobooks and normal books?

Book advantages

• Can be read quickly.
• Greater choice. (Too much choice?)
• Are not free, but require no further equipment.
• Can be picked up and read easily anywhere.

Book disadvantages

• Can invite over-analysis. (You know - following up on every footnote, needing reference material nearby, such as Atlas and dictionary. Note taking causing a loss of thread in the story)

LibriVox Audiobook advantages

• Your body is free to do what you will while listening to an audiobook. (suggested by kri)
• You are forced to read a book at half the speed you could read it yourself. You can detect rhythms and aural patterns more easily.
• Choice limited, preselected by people who are prepared to go to great lengths to make sure other people hear them, this being a powerful form of recommendation.
• Free. (presuming access to computer and/or iPod and/or pre-burned CDs. So, not utterly free.)
• Force one to allow confusing (but perhaps ultimately unimportant) detail to wash over you, and be forgotten in the bigger picture. This can be very liberating, and very helpful when approaching the 'Classics', which, coincidentally enough, make up the majority of the LibriVox catalogue.

LibriVox Audiobook Disadvantages

• Need some 'quiet time' to be enjoyed. In iPod form, can be risky to listen to in the bath.
• Can be distracting wondering what the weather is like in Oceanside, Cal-If-Or-Nia.

If anyone has their own suggestions, please comment, and I will add them.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Review: Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

The first thing to say about this book is that it is a work of genius. It is simultaneously a tale of adventure, a masterful display of technique (like a modernist building, the structure is on the outside), and a profound study in human nature. You will notice that I feel it is three novels in one: the author himself seems very taken with the number three.
The book falls naturally into three parts: The first section, with a traditional narrator, a second, which is a verbatim record of a long anecdote given by Conrad's repeated character Marlow (also hero of 'Heart of Darkness' and 'Youth'), and the third, a long letter from Marlow, concluding the tale. Also, Conrad often describes things three times, rising to a crescendo: "This was one of those cases which no solemn deception can palliate, where no man can help; where his very Maker seems to abandon a sinner to his own devices.".
This tendency was the first thing that reminded me of William Faulkner. (For example, from Absalom, Absalom: "...out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust"). After this initial hint, a torrent of connections struck me. Both authors use the technique of breaking up the chronology of the story. Both use unreliable and untrustworthy second-hand reports, rejecting the concept of an objective 'true' story. In fact, in 'Lord Jim', the hero (in my opinion, a kind of 'anti-Kurtz') is always described as being seen through a mist, or a cloud. Both have the ability to write hypnotic prose, which works like a piece of music: taken word by word, it can make no sense, but taken as a whole, it weaves a rich tapestry.
Conrad is ironic when writing about human behaviour, like the far-travelled and world weary man he was. But, although he accuses the hero of Lord Jim of being 'a romantic', he cannot hide his own romantic nature. This is a wise and thought-provoking book, with themes that will stay with me for a long time.
I was put off Conrad as a young man, as I found the prose dense and unrewarding. I am delighted I was so superficial: I have saved him up until such time as I am better able to understand his world view. I also want to listen to 'Heart of Darkness' all over again.

I know I said I would not be reviewing readers, but for solo recordings I feel I must sometimes make an exception. Stewart Wills manages to make his reading sound like he is not reading at all, but rather is just telling an anecdote, in an ironic and sometimes humourous way. His knowledge of the text seems absolute: this can be a complex book, but his reading always makes it seem natural and accessible. If you know someone who has not yet heard a LibriVox recording, and doubts the value of the project, this may well be the recording to prove him or her wrong.

Next: The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells