Audiobook Archives

April 20, 2005

Sharpe's Escape

Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Escape
Narrated (very well) by Patrick Tull

Richard Sharpe is a highly reliable product.

If the character himself could speak he might well complain, but the truth is that Cornwell has created a good character, a good supporting character, and a rich and powerful milieu to set him in. In addition, Cornwell is particularly strong when writing about that moment half-way between horror and adventure, describing moments of violence and death in a way that both advances his story and produces a gut reaction in his reader. A couple of scenes from his Arthurian trilogy gave me nightmares -- they still come to mind as I write this and I read those books several years ago.

The horrors that Sharpe encounters are the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars during the Penninsular campaign, the horrors of guerilla war and counter-insurgency, and the horrors of what happens when a column of brave men marches forward into a line of brave men firing muskets and cannons as fast as humanly possible.

The first half of the book builds up to one of these battles, described in all of its graphic horror, and in many ways this is the center of the book. The plot itself involves Sharpe, a Portugese officer who admires Sharpe, and a fine villain who is engaged in selling food to the invading French Army.

It made a very good audiobook. I find that when I read Sharpe in book-book format, I tend to stay up at night turning pages like eating popcorn. As an audiobook I simply found myself looking forward to the commute, and turning the book off when the kids were in the car. Horror, you know, is horrifying. Patrick Tull has a good voice for the novel and reads Sharpe marvelously well.

Posted by Red Ted at 11:21 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 13, 2004

Leonard - Tishomingo Blues

Elmore Leonard
Tishomingo blues [sound recording]
Performed by Frank Muller.

Elmore Leonard reminds me of Dick Francis. Both write compelling middlebrow thrillers. Both create interesting characters. Both have a knack for displaying characters and their personalities by dialogue. And both make very good audiobooks.

Tishomingo blues is a nice little story, moving along and with some interesting if slightly thin and slightly grotesque characters. By this last I mean that some trait or personality is drawn out, magnified, and used to stand for the whole. So we have Charley Hoke, who ALWAYS talks about his "18 years in organized baseball" or Newton Hoon, who ALWAYS has tobacco juice staining his beard, and so on. Still, that approach to characters works so long as the words are entertaining and the plot moves along, and this is an entertaining little book.

I liked it. I will look for more Leonard audiobooks.

Oh, and as always the narrator makes or breaks an audiobook. Muller does a wonderful job with his characters, capturing the varieties of Southern accent, putting the cool in the cool character's voice, and creating a world of sound in which the characters go about their appointed rounds, all of them grotesque, but all of them true to their genre.

Posted by Red Ted at 12:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 22, 2004

Loewen - Lies my Teacher Told Me

James W. Loewen
Lies My Teacher Told Me: [everything your American history textbook got wrong] Audiobook.
Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, p2002.
Narrated by Brian Keeler
Orig Pub: New York : New Press, 1994.

This is an important book.

It is also a preachy book.

Loewen makes some powerful arguments about the problems with history textbooks - they tell feel-good stories for affluent white boys while marginalizing and distorting the histories of non-white, poor people, and women. They tell all their readers that everyone can succeed, and never recount the history of the procedures and systems that made it almost impossible for anyone but affluent white men to do well until very recently, and whose impact continues today. He charges his textbooks with making everyone into a hero, telling happy stories about them instead of digging into what they actually did. So, to use his opening examples, the texts tell us that Helen Keller learned to read, write, and speak. They never tell us that she grew up to be a leading socialist. The texts tell us happy stories about Christopher Columbus, they never discuss his second voyage where he conquered Haiti and began a process of forced labor, expropriation, exile into slavery, random murder, and disease that together killed some 4,000,000 Arawak indians within 40-odd years of his arrival.

It is a powerful book - one strong enough that I seriously considered shifting to teaching high school so that I could tackle some of these problems at the source rather than trying to fix them in college students. If I don't find a full time teaching job, that is probably what I will do, because I do love to teach.

Reading this started me thinking about Louie Simmons, the powerlifting guru, and Lynne Cheney, the conservative critic of history education and former head of the NEH (also Mrs. Vice President at the moment.) I want to say something about an odd contrast between the two, but the thought is not even formed up enough to blog about. So, it will go onto the main blog in a couple of days.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:56 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 12, 2004

Forester - Lord Hornblower

Cecil Scott Forester
Lord Hornblower
Bath, [England] : Chivers Audio Books ; Hampton, NH : Chivers North America, p1999.
Read by Christian Rodska.
Novel Orig. pub. Boston, Little, Brown and company, 1946.

Lord Hornblower is my least favorite in Forester's series, but it was one of only two available on audiobook so I started it.

The good: Forester tells some interesting stories, Hornblower is a wonderful male wish-fulfillment character: capable yet self-doubting, inarticulate and clumsy yet women love him, smart and strong and tone-deaf. Forester gives a good simplified view of the Augustan navy - folks who like this sort of thing might want to read N.A.M. Roger The Wooden World for a deeper look at patrons and clients, shipboard routine, and the institutional mechanics of the 18th century navy.

The bad: it is just not a compelling book. I don't like the plot; I don't like what Forester does to several of his continuing characters; I don't find the supporting characters all that compelling; the whole thing feels like a writing exercise and not like a tale that must be told.

So, I turned it off after about 3 tapes.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 15, 2004

Kent Haruf - Plainsong

Kent Haruf.
Plainsong
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Recorded Books Performance by Tom Stechschulte.

This is another book that reads like it wanted to be one of Oprah's picks. There is nothing wrong with that - I finished the book after all - but it is most definitely chick lit despite being written by a guy.

Haruf tells an interwoven story of Tom Guthrie, a high school teacher who is separating from his wife, his two boys, Victoria Rubedoux (spelling - audiobooks you know) a pregnant high school student, and the McFerrin brothers, two old ranchers who are friends of Tom and who take in Victoria to live on their cattle farm.

I liked the book because I did like most of the characters, because I was curious to see what would happen, and because I liked Haruf's little vignettes of rural life. I disliked it for two reasons, one the fault of Haruf and the other the fault of Stechschulte who did the reading.

Haruf jumps and skips across time: each chapter is a brief look at a few hours in the day of one of his focus characters, and we cover most of a year by skipping like a rock over a pond. Towards the end I got quite frustrated because I wanted to see more of the space between rock bounces, and instead Haruf left that space, and the ripples spread by each contact, as an exercise for the reader. Perhaps I have gotten used to non-fiction writing that goes out of its way to spell out why each chapter matters, but I found it frustrating to have to speculate about what happened in and around Haruf's little vignettes.

Stechschulte has a wonderful gravelly bass-baritone. He did a fine job with the laconic Tom Guthrie, with the McFerrin brothers, with the two boys, with Maggie Jones - another teacher and the Fifth Business in the plot - and with scene setting. His other women were all weak, plaintive and passive. And, while Victoria is supposed to be a passive character, he over-emphasized that aspect of her nature. Worse, he used the same voice for Guthrie's estranged and clinically depressed wife. Stechschulte has a similar problem with angry voices. He has one voice for angry, and he used it for the violent high school boy, for the boy's nasty parents, for Victoria's boyfriend when he lost his temper, for a simply testy shopkeeper explaining to Victoria how to do a job, for some minor characters who lose their tempers at various points, in short, every scene that was not flat description or dialogue involving one of the main characters was in just a couple of voices, and the one angry voice Stechschulte uses can not display the varieties and meanings of all the characters who are other than perfectly polite. It distracted me from the book and almost made me halt before finishing - I was listening to the book despite the narrator rather than because of the narrator.

Finally, I discovered that I had to stop the book every time someone got angry, because Haruf has all of his angry characters use potty language. There is nothing wrong with that, people tend to curse when expressing strong emotions, but it meant that if I had the kids with me I had to stop the tape. The toddler is old enough to repeat words, but not old enough to understand the discussion about potty language. I can't insist that the world be made g-rated for my convenience, but just as I lose respect for people who can not express themselves without using potty language, I also have less respect for writers who can only display an angry character by having them speak potty language.

It was an adequate book - good enough that I finished it, not so good that I will be looking for more by the same author.

Posted by Red Ted at 01:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 02, 2004

Francis - Hot Money

Dick Francis
Hot Money
Audiobook performed by Simon Prebble

Dick Francis is the perfect middlebrow author. That might be why I like his stuff so much. His characters are all essentially capable people, a mark of popular fiction, but they are also flawed, aware of their flaws, and working within the realm of human strengths and weaknesses, a mark of literature. He writes like a duck: the prose moves along so smoothly that you don't realize how hard he must have paddled to create the illusion of effortless motion. He is not a swan, it is not elegant prose, but it is clear and at times quite powerful, and that is enough. More than enough at times.

Hot Money is a novel about dysfunctional families and the corrosive and yet healing roles of memory. Our hero is a middle son of a rich, effective father who has had 5 wives and a great pack of kids. Three were divorced, one died in a car crash, the 5th was murdered before the book begins. The book is about our hero's attempts to save his father from a series of murder attempts while deducing which of the people in this great big unhappy family is trying to do in the pater familias for the hunks and hunks of inheritance.

It might be that I am exploring my own midlife crisis, but I found the most compelling parts of the book to be those where Ian, our narrator, speculates on paths taken and not taken, on how easy it is to become a drone, and how rare it is to find something that one really loves to do. His ethos is that of the striving middling class - happiness consists in finding an avocation and working at it. Again, this is part of why he is a comforting novelist for someone like myself who is hopelessly middle class, and who is struggling to achieve an avocation against my own inner drone.

Finally, in this as in his other works, Francis has a pure joy in finding things out and sharing them with his readers. People who comment about what makes a blog fly generally mention that the thing that makes a blog compelling is that the author cares about her subject. The same is true in class, I will come to some aspect of history that I care about and I can feel the intensity in my voice rise, my body language shift, my speech tempo increase, and the kids respond - they sit up, the eyes open, and they perceive that this is something that matters to me. They may ignore me, that happens, but just like the a dance floor will give a collective shimmy when the bagpipes kick in, so too do the students react when I get onto one of my rolls.

Dick Francis shares an excitement about the world, that is his most attractive trait as a novelist. In his early novels this excitement was the joy of horse racing, or of flying, and his books are procedurals explaining what people do in these exotic occupations and sharing with the reader why Francis had so much fun when he was riding or flying. In his later novels, Francis turns this joy in life to a joy of finding about other things and sharing those with his readers. It might be the alcohol industry (Proof) or finance (Banker) or anything. In Hot Money it is not so much high finance as the basic procedurals. At one point Ian lectures his father on how to file a will with the English national registry so as to avoid probate difficulties, and while Dick Francis is using his fiction to impart a lesson in using the machinery of the state he is also sharing a certain fascination with the people and procedures that make a civil society work. Francis writes procedurals; he is fascinated with all the little things that people do when making their lives and their jobs work; and that fascination comes through the printed page.

It is why I like his novels.

Oh, and Francis' plain style and Prebble's very good reading combine to make this a very good audiobook indeed. I have read all of Dick Francis in paper; I think I shall start dropping his audiobooks into the car rotation.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:36 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 19, 2004

Shaara - The Killer Angels

Shaara, Michael - The killer angels : a novel
Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, p1991.
ISBN 0788739808 :
"Originally published in 1974 by David McKay Co., Inc., New York"

I read Killer Angels a few years back when the movie Gettysburg came out, and I grabbed this on CD as a car reading.

I did not finish it, got about halfway through and then no longer wanted to listen. I made it as far as the afternoon on the second day, with Longstreet preparing his assault late in the day, getting off slowly, and then discovering Sickles in the peach orchard.

The following comment will upset both fans of the Confederate Army and people who care about the Holocaust, but I find reading about Gettysburg to be distressingly like reading about Hitler in his bunker in 1945. In both cases I am very glad that the right people won the war. And, in both cases I have trouble reading the accounts of the losers -- they are making bad decisions that will have bad consequences for themselves, their nation, and the people whose lives depend on those decisions. So I am left torn, wishing that Lee had listened to Longstreed and moved to the right behind Meade, or that Longstreet and turned Hood loose to swing around behind the round tops into the Union baggage train; wishing that Hitler had issued moving retreat orders rather than stand and die orders, or that he remembered enough from his own wartime service to know that the icons on the map no longer represented large, powerful, military units. And yet, at the same time that I wish that Lee and Hitler had been more effective and made better decisions, I am also glad that they did make the wrong decisions.

I think that these mixed emotions are a reflection of the way that I read. I read for pleasure. My work reading is about people who try to accomplish things and generally fail, or generate unexpected consequences, or blind themselves to the bad outcomes that come with their desired goals. History, as a discipline, spends a lot of time looking at the warts, if only to explain the mistakes of the past. So, when I read for fun, I want to read about sucess, not failure. At that level fiction is a form of adolescent wish-fulfillment for me.

And, yet, if a piece of fiction is too easy, too obvious, I put it down unfinished. So when I read something like David Weber's Honor Harrington Series I get frustrated in the second quarter of the series because the villains are so stupid. There is as little vicarious pleasure in reading about a fictional character trouncing a stupid enemy as there is in reading, oh, yet another theory-driven screed ripping through selected aspects of the past in order to make an argument that can be countered by basic logic or basic awareness of the rest of the evidence.

I don't know if this makes sense. Time to go back to the real work.

Posted by Red Ted at 03:11 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 19, 2004

Steinbeck - Grapes of Wrath

I once again did not finish John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.

I grabbed Grapes and a Heinlein from the library at the same time. I started Steinbeck first and got about five tapes into the sixteen-tape book before I could not handle it any more. The books is wonderfully written, Steinbeck does a nice job alternating chapters, one about the Joad family, one stand-alone vignette, one about the Joad family, another stand-alone vignette, and so on. He writes with power and fluidity, his characters talk like people and not like lectures, and the entire book is just plan sad. No, more than sad, it is a tragedy in progress with the sure knowledge (I have read it before, after all) that worse things are yet to come.

And, while I did not remember all the details of what the Joad family would encounter, I decided that I did not particularly desire to encounter that future tragedy. I read fiction for escape, or to evaluate it for teaching, but rarely because I want to be angered or depressed. So, the Joad family and their jalopy went back to the library just as they were in the process of driving away from Uncle John's farm.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:21 AM | Comments (0)

April 28, 2004

Cornwell - Black Notice

Patricia Cornwell, Black Notice

I have no idea if this is a good book or a bad book. Partway through the first tape I got bored and turned it off, and before I could commute again I had gotten Steinbeck Grapes of Wrath and Heinlein Moon is a Harsh Mistress as additional audiobooks. Cornwell runs a distant third to these two classics, and back to the library it went.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:15 AM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2004

Kipling - Captains Courageous

Rudyard Kipling, Captains Courageous, Audiobook.

This is a classic YA and still one of my favorites. Kipling was visiting the US, got interested in the New England nautical world, and spent a summer down in Boston and Gloucester Harbours talking to everyone in sight. He then took that mess of information, combined it with a coming-of-age tale and mediation on masculinity, and wrote it as a YA novel.

The book is interesting on several levels: what was it like to go fishing for cod in the 1890s? what model of masculine adulthood is Kipling presenting, and why does the schooner We're Here sometimes remind me of an English public school? How does Kipling's use of racial terms shape his notion of masculinity?

That first of these is the obvious draw of the book, and Kipling takes us through the fog in a small dory, shows how to bait a hook and land a cod or halibut, and how to dress down the fish and pack it in salt for the trip home.

The second is Kipling's underlying purpose to the book. Harvey, our protagonist, starts as an obnoxious kid; he finishes as a good kid and has a coda as a very sharp young man. Kipling preaches hard work, responsibility, and the way that men among men will do their best, own up to their mistakes, help one another out, and work as a team to accomplish collective goals - for Kipling a ship is the model for the larger world.

The third was the most jarring, and the reason why I would not want to hand the book to a kid in 2004 without pausing for a moment. It is not just that Kipling casually refers to niggers a few times, or has a character praise another's good deed as being "mighty white" - these are turns of phrase, part of the normative world of a man born in colonial India and writing for an audience looking for "scientific" new methods of race relations. It is that the black cook, MacPherson - a "coal black gaelic speaker" from Novia Scotia, has the second sight, is double close to nature as a black man and a gael, and resolves at the end of the book to give up his own life and spend the rest of his days caring for Harvey's every need - the spiritual black man willingly devotes himself to life as a body servant, and this choice then validates Harvey's manhood and move to take up his inherited family wealth and power. The structure is jarring, for racial norms and character-defining norms have changed a great deal since the 1890s.

I might sometime want to team-teach something on novels for young adults, and their social and cultural contexts. Certainly Captains Courageous works well as a snapshot of late nineteenth century assumptions about class, work, race, and wealth.

I do like the book.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:57 AM | Comments (0)

April 06, 2004

Mystic River

Did not finsih Mystic River by Dennis Leary, on audio tape. It is a sad book full of tragedy impending, I listen to tapes while commuting too and from school, and I am in the middle of teaching the Great War and the Russian Revolution with the tragedy of the Second World War impending in the very near future.

I could not take so much sadness, even if it is well written and well crafted. The book has too much potty language for me to play it with the toddler in the car, and so it went back.

I can see why Sheila O'Malley loved the book, and I might try it again this summer.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:00 AM | Comments (0)