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.