Today I finished the audiobook of Richard J. Evans’s The Coming of the Third Reich (read by Sean Pratt).
It is utterly fucking horrifying.
(I started the next one, The Third Reich in Power).
I am a huge fan of audiobooks. I’ve pretty much always got one going—for commutes, jogs, workaday chores, etc. The usual. I love to listen to audiobooks of books I’ve already read, in particular, but I of course listen to new stuff too, or stuff that’s new to me, anyway. There just isn’t time to get to all the reading and rereading I want to do otherwise.
Beyond the fact that audiobooks allow me to experience more books than I would be able to otherwise, I like the medium itself: I like a reader reading me a story. Like a lot of people, some of my earliest, best memories are of someone reading to me. (The narrative in my family was always that my mother fell asleep while reading me The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and that I picked it up and finished it on my own and that’s how I “learned” to read—I’m not really sure of this tale’s veracity, which makes it a good story, of course). So I’ve never fully understood folks who sniff their noses at audiobooks as less than real reading.
Indeed, the best literature is best read aloud. It is for the ear, as William H. Gass puts it in his marvelous essay “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”:
Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life . . . Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written. So the next time someone asks you that stupid question, “Who is your audience?” or “Whom do you write for?” you can answer, “The ear.” I don’t just read Henry James; I hear him. . . . The writer must be a musician—accordingly. Look at what you’ve written, but later … at your leisure. First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville.
Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Melville—a difficult foursome, no? I would argue that the finest audiobooks—those with the most perceptive performers (often guided by a great director and/or producer) can guide an auditor’s ear from sound to sense to spirit. A great audiobook can channel the pneuma of a complex and so-called difficult novel by animating it, channeling its life force. The very best audiobooks can teach their auditors how to read the novels—how to hear and feel their spirit.
I shall follow (with one slight deviation, substituting one William for another) Gass’s foursome by way of example. Joyce initiates his list, so:
I had read Joyce’s Ulysses twice before I first experience RTÉ’s 1982 dramatized, soundtracked, sound-effected, full cast recording of the novel (download it via that link). I wrote about the Irish broadcast company’s production at length when I first heard it, but briefly: This is a full cast of voices bringing the bustle and energy (and torpor and solemnity and ecstasy and etc.) of Bloomsday to vivid vivacious vivifying life. It’s not just that RTÉ’s cast captures the tone of Ulysses—all its brains and hearts, its howls and its harrumphs—it’s also that this production masterfully expresses the pace and the rhythm of Ulysses. Readers (unnecessarily) daunted by Ulysses’s reputation should consider reading the book in tandem with RTÉ’s production.
Woolf is next on Gass’s list. Orlando is my favorite book of hers, although I have been told by scholars and others that it is not as serious or important as To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway. It is probably not as “difficult” either; nevertheless, put it on the list! Clare Higgins’s reading of Orlando remains one of my favorite audiobooks of all times: arch without being glib, Higgins animates the novel with a picaresque force that subtly highlights the novel’s wonderful absurdities.
Faulkner…well, did you recall that I admitted I would not keep complete faith to Gass’s short list? Certainly Faulkner’s long twisted sentences evoke their own mossy music, but alas, I’ve yet to find an audiobook with a reader whose take on Faulkner I could tolerate. I tried Grover Gardner’s take on Absalom, Absalom! but alas!—our reader often took pains to untangle what was properly tangled. I don’t know. I was similarly disappointed in an audiobook of The Sound and the Fury (I don’t recall the reader). And yet I’m sure Faulkner could be translated into a marvelous audiobook (Apprise me, apprise me!).
Let me substitute another difficult William: Gaddis. I don’t know if I could’ve cracked J R if I hadn’t first read it in tandem with Nick Sullivan’s audiobook. J R is a tragicomic opera of voices—unattributed voices!—and it would be easy to quickly lose heart without signposts to guide you. Sullivan’s reading is frankly amazing, a baroque, wild, hilarious, and ultimately quite moving performance of what may be the most important American novel of the late twentieth century. A recent reread of J R was almost breezy; Sullivan had taught me how to read it.
Mighty Melville caps Gass’s list. I had read Moby-Dick a number of times, studying it under at least two excellent teachers, before I first heard William Hootkins read it. (Hootkins, a character actor, is probably most well-known as the X-wing pilot Porkins in A New Hope). As a younger reader, I struggled with Moby-Dick, even as it intrigued me. I did not, however, understand just how funny it was, and even though I intuited its humor later in life, I didn’t fully experience it until Hootkins’ reading. Hootkins inhabits Ishmael with a dynamic, goodwilled aplomb, but where his reading really excels is in handling the novel’s narrative macroscopic shifts, as Ishmael’s ego seems to fold into the crew/chorus, and dark Ahab takes over at times. But not just Ahab—Hootkins embodies Starbuck, Flask, and Stubb with humor and pathos. Hootkins breaths spirit into Melville’s music. I cannot overstate how much I recommend Hootkins audiobook, particularly for readers new to Moby-Dick. And readers old to Moby-Dick too.
“What can we do to find out how writing is written? Why, we listen to writers who have written well,” advises (or scolds, if you like) William Gass. The best audiobook performances of difficult books don’t merely provide shortcuts to understanding those books—rather, they teach auditors how to hear them, how to feel them, how to read them.
I got a lovely email, with the subject line “Audiobooks,” a few weeks ago from a guy named Ben. Basically, he asked me to do a post on some of my favorite audiobooks, which I suppose I could’ve done fairly easy as a list (and which, yes, if you want to drop down, I will list below, oh-so-non-definitively)—but after thinking about his question, I thought I might break the post up into a couple of posts on audiobooks in general—the excellent ones, the average ones, the terrible ones afflicted by readers who misread the material; the audiobooks I’m auditing now/recently; childhood favorites (on vinyl!); hell, maybe even a totally pretentious post called “How to listen to audiobooks” or some such garbage.
Before I go on though, let me share Ben’s email (he gave me his permission), which is mostly a marvelous anecdote about Álvaro Mutis’s Maqroll novellas:
After reading your post on The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, I immediately ordered the book and read it with my father as we travelled through Borneo, passing it back and forth every dozen pages. The reading became even more significant as we reached the passage in which Maqroll is laid up sick in Northridge, California, in an area surrounded by orange groves. This area is where my father spent his childhood. Reading Maqroll with my father on that trip stands as my most meaningful reading experience. I thank you for putting us onto that book.
Have you done a post yet on your favorite audiobooks? I’d like to get your recommendations. I recall you mentioning a few in previous posts, but could not track them down. Keep at it.
Ben’s Maqroll story surely deserves a response in full, fleshed out detail, and my next post will discuss in detail why I praise the following audio productions. But for now a list (sans, alas, Álvaro Mutis: our Gaviero Maqroll has not found his way into an audiobook yet, at least to my knowledge).
In no real order, and by no means definitive, a list of eight perfect or near-perfect audiobooks:
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, as read by Richard Poe
1. Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, MaddAddam concludes the trilogy she began with Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009).
2. Both of those novels are superior to MaddAddam (Oryx and Crake is the strongest, in my estimation, although I read it almost a decade ago).
3. I audited the audiobook of MaddAddam, read by Bernadette Dunne, Bob Walter and Robbie Daymond. The actors do a fine job and the production is swell.
4. I am now going to rip off elements of my own 2010 review for The Year of the Flood.
5. In that review I wrote:
Apocalypse lit isn’t so much predictive as it is descriptive of the contemporary world, and Atwood’s dystopian vision is no exception.
I still more or less agree with that sentence, and MaddAddam is, like the two books preceding it, a satire of sorts on modern life.
Viscerally prescient, Flood paints our own society in bold, vibrant colors, magnifying the strange relationships with nature, religion, and our fellow humans that modernity prescribes.
I don’t know if it’s me or the book or just the fact that so much of what Atwood conjures in her trilogy seems more real than it was just a decade ago—but MaddAddam didn’t read quite so bold or vibrant as the first two books.
7. I also wrote:
Atwood ends her book in media res, with Toby and a handful of other characters somehow still alive, ready, perhaps, to become stewards of a new world. Flood concludes tense and, in a sense, unresolved, but Atwood implies hope: Toby will lead her small group to cultivate a new Eden. Despite all the ugliness and cruelty and devastation, people can be redeemed.
MaddAddam picks up right where Flood and O&C end (those novels essentially converge). In some ways—often very obvious, sometimes boring ways—MaddAddam provides a sense of resolution for the trilogy’s many threads.
8. What is the book about?
I will lazily slap in publisher Random House’s blurb here, interspersed with my riffage :
Months after the Waterless Flood pandemic has wiped out most of humanity, Toby and Ren have rescued their friend Amanda from the vicious Painballers.
The opening of MaddAddam was a bit too in media res for me: I think the beginning of the book will probably read much smoother if the reader has immediately read the first two books. I had to go reread a summary of the first two books (thanks Wikipedia!) to refresh my old brain.
They [Toby/Ren/Amanda] return to the MaddAddamite cob house, newly fortified against man and giant pigoon alike. Accompanying them are the Crakers, the gentle, quasi-human species engineered by the brilliant but deceased Crake.
The Crakers are potentially the most interesting aspect of MaddAddam, but Atwood keeps them on the margins; in the book’s most disappointing moments they’re behavior is basically relegated to punchlines. (Maybe I wanted the book to be an entirely different book—never a fair position for a reviewer to take, but hell, I’ll just say it here in the protection of parentheses—I wanted the book to be about the Crakers in the new world).
Their [the Crakers’] reluctant prophet, Snowman-the-Jimmy, is recovering from a debilitating fever, so it’s left to Toby to preach the Craker theology, with Crake as Creator. She must also deal with cultural misunderstandings, terrible coffee, and her jealousy over her lover, Zeb.
MaddAddam kinda sorta takes the form of an oral history (the novel is polyglossic, fragmented, decentered, blah blah blah). Toby, taking over Jimmy’s storytelling role with the Crakers, essentially invents a mythology. These are some of the best moments of the novel—little riffs on storytelling and memory and legend and myth and history and language and how meaning is made and preserved and transmitted. By the end of the novel, Toby has taught a Craker child—Blackbeard—to read and write. He becomes a translator between the MaddAddamites and the pigoons, but he also takes on the role of storyteller and scribe. He becomes Blackboard, Blackbard.
Zeb has been searching for Adam One, founder of the God’s Gardeners, the pacifist green religion from which Zeb broke years ago to lead the MaddAddamites in active resistance against the destructive CorpSeCorps. But now, under threat of a Painballer attack, the MaddAddamites must fight back with the aid of their newfound allies, some of whom have four trotters. At the center of MaddAddam is the story of Zeb’s dark and twisted past, which contains a lost brother, a hidden murder, a bear, and a bizarre act of revenge.
Atwood devotes most of the novel to Zeb’s backstory, which is mildly entertaining but oh lord! exposition exposition exposition. Even when Zeb’s backstory is conveyed with action and energy, there’s often this constant state of clarification/reminder/callback going on, where the narrative voice has to remind the reader for some reason how the particular event being narrated squares against events in the previous two books.
9. In my review for YotF I wrote
Atwood’s prose sometimes relies on placeholders and stock expressions common to sci-fi and YA fiction, and her complex plot (disappointingly) devolves to a simple adventure story in the end, but her ideas and insights into what our society might look like in a few decades are compelling reading (or, uh, listening in this case).
Okay, so ditto most of that for MaddAddam, only perhaps less compelling. There’s nothing wrong with the simple adventure story that Atwood uses to move her ideas along on here, but there’s also nothing especially engaging either.
10. MaddAddam features an overlong dénouement, culminating in several deaths and births. Even though the ending seems stretched (and often predictable), it nevertheless offers the most cohesive vision in the novel: A future of hybridization and radical diversity that is still beholden to the Darwinian economy of the natural world.
11. The novel resolves by clearing out all of its major characters (sorry if this is a spoiler, but it really isn’t), freeing the imaginative space that Atwood has created—and to be clear, that’s a rich, fertile space—for new adventures, new ways of living, new creatures. I suppose I wanted more What now? explored than the novel had to offer—more exploration of what the genetically-hybridized world might look like with humans no longer the dominant species.
12. But a review (or even a lazy riff) shouldn’t fault a novel for what it doesn’t set out to do. Perhaps leaving the post-flood world barely explored is Atwood’s parting gift to the trilogy’s readers: She offers us a chance to imagine more.
A few weeks ago on this blog, I declared Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams a perfect novella, a claim that I feel even more certain about after listening to Macmillan audio’s new production of the book, read by Will Patton.
Precise, funny, and moving, Train Dreams tells the story of Robert Grainier, a laborer (and eventual hermit of sorts) who makes a life in (and against) the strange wilderness of the Idaho panhandle. The book somehow measures the first half of the twentieth century in the US without overreaching; instead, through Grainier’s human (but anti-social) presence, Johnson traces the end of Manifest Destiny, the last strands of the wild frontier. Train Dreams, poised tautly on a line that divides the mythic and metaphysical from the concrete and real, shows us a world where we might catch a glimpse of wolf-children and angels—the real thing, not just the sham show, not just a pale suggestion.
Moving through the book again via Patton’s expert narration, I was struck by how constructed yet seamless Johnson’s narrative is. Johnson gets so much credit for the precision of his syntax, but a rereading of Train Dreams reveals how tight and layered, yet never obvious, his plot is—how he lays out his themes repeatedly without brazenly calling attention to them. (One of the joys of reading is rereading; one of the joys of a novella is that its brevity allows us to easily reread). The book is a gem.
Will Patton’s reading perfectly matches the tone, pacing, and depth of Train Dreams. He understands the restraint of Johnson’s prose, never tripping over into bombast or ghastly over-emoting. Patton’s wry, not-quite-dusty, not-quite-dulcet tone brings Johnson’s small cast to vivid life. In particular, he breathes energy into the humorous dialogues. I found myself laughing aloud over a discourse between Grainier and a man who’s been shot by his own dog. Patton understands the material and brings the same sensitivity, pathos, and wit to it that he brought to his reading of Johnson’s 2007 opus, Tree of Smoke.
A good reader makes all the difference of course. In the wrong hands—excuse me, wrong voice–—a book we thought we knew can come across stifled, squashed; the reader can actually hurt the book, impose the wrong tone: misread. A reader like Patton (and I should credit his director and production team too, of course) can enlarge a book for its audience, shining light on the subtle nuances we might overlook, or even clouding phrases we thought we fully understood, empowering the language with a new ambiguity that enriches the overall reading experience. Highly recommended.
Here’s Patton reading the first part of Train Dreams:
1. Just Kids, Patti Smith
Really slowed down on this one, mostly because the spring semester hath begun, wreaking all sorts of destabilizing tasks on me. Momentum and reading habits will inevitably return. Anyway, Smith’s book is more or less a litany of famous meetings and infamous moments with lots and lots of descriptions of talismanic objects. The scene where she meets Allen Ginsberg is pretty cool. Smith presents herself as earnest, passionate, but also somehow at odds (or at least outs) with the whole Chelsea Hotel scene.
2. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Vol 1, Hayao Miyazaki
Completed the first volume of Miyazaki’s groundbreaking manga and started the second. The art is well crafted and distinct, but often extremely busy and even frenetic. It sometimes feels squashed in the panels, like it needs room to breathe. I can’t help but compare it to the film that followed, which is visually richer and more expansive. The film, in a sense, helps me to fill out the scope signaled in Miyazki’s inky illustrations.
The story in the manga so far differs subtly but significantly from the film; without adding spoilers (I think fans of the film will enjoy the book), the political dimension of the plot is heightened and gender roles are explored with greater concern. Nausicaä’s initial rashness is also presented with greater intensity (read: violent consequences). More to come.
3. Imperial, William T. Vollmann
Chapter 3 of Imperial, “The Water of Life,” is some of the best gonzo journalism I’ve ever read. Vollmann (along with an improbably game ex-Marine/hotel clerk) takes a raft—a cheap rubber dinghy, really—down the infamous New River, purportedly one of the most polluted waterways in North America. This river is filled with dead birds, dead fish, probably dead humans, lots and lots of garbage, industrial runoff, and lots and lots of human shit.
Of course, Vollmann can find beauty and strangeness and ugliness all at once:
The chapter does everything one wants from the book, and if you’re at all intrigued, there’s a version in the excellent Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden, which is a good starting point for his work.
The next chapter, “Sublineations: Lovescapes,” is this awful emo exploration of a bad breakup and the following heartbreak Volls feels after. It was torturous to get through, the sort of thing that screams for an editor. It also underscores how deeply deeply deeply personal the book is to him, though. More to come.
4. A Dance with Dragons, George R. R. Martin (audiobook read by Roy Dotrice)
Well goddam if I didn’t finally finish it. As I’ve lamented elsewhere in these e-pages, Martin’s fourth and fifth books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series (I hate that name, by the way: Game of Thrones (without the indefinite article) is way cooler sounding) are bloated, sagging, overfilled beasts sorely in need of an enema. Still, Dragons picks up in its final third, and ends with some shockers that, if I remember them 12 years from now when he finally finishes the next one, I may want to read it. Roy Dotrice = a very gifted reader. A great audiobook (still, I can’t believe this one topped so many year end lists).
5. JR, William Gaddis (tandem reading with audiobook read by Nick Sullivan)
Big thanks to Dwight at A Common Reader for suggesting the audiobook of JR read by Sullivan. I’m a few hours in; I’ve also been rereading bits immediately when I get home (I listen mostly in the car or on walks), retracing the lines that I’ve mentally underlined. Sullivan is a gifted voice actor who brings the many, many voices of JR to vivid life (that line seems hackneyed but it is in no way insincere. If I weren’t riffing I’d revise. If I weren’t riffing I’d edit parenthetical excuses. I’m gonna drink more red zin now). I’m reminded in some ways of RTE’s full-cast unabridged recording—performance really—of Joyce’s Ulysses. I’d read Ulysses twice before, but I feel like the full-cast production was an equally definitive version to the one in my head. Like Ulysses—especially the Sirens episode—JR is extremely aural; it’s mostly dialogue.
I’ve laughed out loud several times so far—had no idea the book would be this funny. Also, reading/hearing it, I can’t help but see how profoundly David Foster Wallace was influenced by Gaddis here: the bizarre corporate-speak, the disjunctive rhythms, the absurd humor, the satire on modernity, the ironic-earnest axis—even the passages of naturalistic description.
On deck: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, Open City by Teju Cole, Smut by Alan Bennett and more more more.
Listening to Gordon Lish read selections from Iambik Audio’s compendium of his Collected Fictions for the fourth time today, it occurred to me that I should just go ahead and review the damn thing. Quit stalling. Get to it. I hope that pointing out that I’ve listened to Lish narrate ten of his odd, funny, gut-wrenching tales four times now (and will surely listen again) is enough to motivate thee, gentle reader, to follow my example—but that’s lazy, wishful thinking, right? There needs to be a proper review. Here goes—
Lish is perhaps more famous as an editor than a writer of short fiction. He worked for years at Vanity Fair and later for Knopf, and the list of writers that he championed reads like a who’s-who of contemporary greats: Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Amy Hempel, Barry Hannah, David Leavitt, and Harold Brodkey, just to name a few. The writer he is perhaps most associated with though is Raymond Carver. By paring down sentence after sentence, Lish helped Carver develop his spare, minimalist style.
It’s that attention to sentences, to the truth of each sentence, to their individual force, that shines through in the collection. Consider this beauty, from “The Death of Me,” a story about a boy (surely Gordon Lish, hero of all Gordon Lish stories) who peaks too early, winning first place in all five field events at his summer camp one fine day in 1944, and then succumbing to the realization that this apex is, frankly, the end of it all–
I felt like going to sleep and staying asleep until someone came and told me that my parents were dead and that I was all grown up and that there was a new God in heaven and that he liked me better even than the old God had.
This sentence seems to me to be the expression of an emotion that I’ve felt for which I have no name. Lish’s sentences can move through tragedy and pathos to devastating comedy, a kind of comedy that collapses the auditor. Check out a line from “Mr. Goldbaum”–
What if your father was the kind of father who was dying and he called you to him and you were his son and he said for you to come lie down on the bed with him so that he could hold you and so that you could hold him so that you both could be like that hugging with each other like that to say goodbye before you had to actually go leave each other and did it, you did it, you god down on the bed with your father and you got up close to your father and you got your arms around your father and your father was hugging you and you were hugging your father and there was one of you who could not stop it, who could not help it, but who just got a hard-on?
Lish advised, “Don’t have stories — have sentences,” but “The Death of Me” and “Mr. Goldbaum” are more than the sum of their parts, more than just a collection of sculpted, scalpeled syntax. From the 1988 collection Mourner at the Door (the only Lish book I’d read before Collected Fictions), both stories announce Lish’s major theme of death, the absurdity of death, or the absurdity of life against the inevitability of death—but also the heavy truth of death, the ugly truth of death, the powerlessness of language against the finality of death. “Spell Bereavement,” also from Mourner, is essentially a prequel to “Mr. Goldbaum”: Gordon gets the news of his father’s death from his sister and mother. The story takes place over the phone as a sort of switch-hit interrogation, as mom and sis caustically berate the speechless man, who tells us, at the end, “There are not people in my heart of hears. There are just sentences in my heart of hearts.” Why does Gordon the narrator of “Spell Bereavement” fail to respond to the news of his father’s death? He is “too disabled to talk . . . going crazy with pencil and paper so as not to miss one word.”
Lish means to capture the ecstatic truth in death, and truth is at the core of all these stories, even when they are fables of a sort, like “After the Beanstalk,” which features a bewitched princess who has been transmogrified into a dog. The tale is hilarious and cutting and sad. There’s also “Squeak in the Sycamore,” which begins as a child’s list of fears and enumerations of death and longing and nature and ends in a joke and then an insult to the reader for laughing at the joke. (Best line: “Six is: the gardener died from digging up a basilisk”). “How to Write a Poem” is a caustic rant that argues that literary theft is really a matter of stern guts, of facing truth, and “Everything I Know” problematizes the very act of storytelling — it’s a story about how we tell stories, or our versions of stories. By far the most affecting piece that Lish reads though is “Eats with Ozick and Lentricchia,” about which he tells us, before reading it, “there is not a word of it that is not true.” It is a story that hovers around the death, or the dying of, more accurately, Lish’s wife Barbara; its details are almost too cruel, too true to bear.
Lish reads his tales in a bold voice that seems to challenge the auditor at all angles, as if his sentences were prodding you, poking you, pinching you even. He claims, in one of the many asides that precede these tales, to have never really read his work aloud before, and not to have really read the work in years, but his confidence seems to belie this notion; maybe, more accurately, it conveys the intense concentration of his intellect. His tone fascinates, and then he cracks out something like: “It always astonishes me I could have written such a thing” in such a dry honest voice that, while his quip hangs ambiguous, it remains utterly sincere. There’s a wonderful moment in the recording when he moves from reading “Mr. Goldbaum” to “Spell Bereavement” and seems to notice, as if for the first time, their close connection. He then remarks–
It shames me in one kind of way to see that my writing gathers itself into such a rut, but on the other hand it does please me to have spoken again and again and again about that which occurred to me at the time to be of consequence. I haven’t written fiction or anything else really for a great number of years and this occasion, reading these pieces, is an education for me and alien, foreign, in one kind of way, because the sentences are complex, but in another kind of way, I’m reminded of who I am.
Lish’s influence cannot be underestimated, from writers like David Foster Wallace to Denis Johnson to Sam Lipsyte, and all of those who will follow in turn. Readers have a fantastic (and incredibly inexpensive, I must add) starting place in Iambik’s wonderful collection. Do yourself a favor and check this out. Very highly recommended.
My third (complete) trip through James Joyce’s Ulysses finds me just as (or even more than) stunned as the previous two journeys, a bit (very much) unequal to properly reviewing the book, but this time with an easy out — I listened to an unabridged, full cast audio recording. The aforementioned “easy out” is resting on the received greatness and goodness (and evilness) of the book, which I will hardly contend with and heartily endorse (and do very little real critical work to support my endorsement). Ulysses is fantastic. But what about this audio recording?
First thing’s first — I listened to, absorbed, choked up at, guffawed about, cackled around, and generally loved RTÉ’s 1982 dramatized, soundtracked, sound-effected, lovingly detailed recording of Ulysses, a work crammed with voices to match (if perhaps not equal) Joyce’s big fat work. This recording is not as widely available as LibriVox’s (free) full cast production or Jim Norton’s Naxos reading, but, after sampling both, I’d argue that it’s better. The Irish players bring sensitivity and humor to their roles, but beyond that pathos, the energy of RTÉ’s troupe is what really makes the book sing. Leopold Bloom gets his own voice, as does Stephen Dedalus and Molly (and all the characters). This innovation propels the narrative forward with dramatic power, and clarifies the oh-so indirectness of Joyce’s free indirect style, making the plot’s pitfalls and pratfalls more distinct and defined. There are songs (and dances) and music (and musing) and humming (and hemming and hawing and reverb). There is chanting and chawing and brouhaha. There is chaos and calamity and confusion. There is brilliance and peace and transcendence. It’s all very good, great, wonderful.
So: Who is a full cast unabridged audio recording of Ulysses for? Say, for instance, can someone who’s never read Ulysses listen to this instead?
I don’t know.
Here’s what I think though: Ulysses begs to be read aloud, is musical, soundical. Beyond obvious chapters like episode 11, “Sirens,” an overtly musical interlude that actually hurt my throat the first (second?) time I read it (even though I read it that time silently) — beyond the obvious musicality of “Sirens,” Ulysses hums and thrums and bristles and thumps with lively, vocal, melodious, rhythmic energy, pulses in sound and vision. The full cast reading, to cling to a hoary cliché, brings this sound and vision to life, animating Joyce’s words with a just vitality. But I’ve tripped into details, put carts before horses — the prime advantage for an audio recording of Ulysses to newbies is probably how clearly (and audibly, ahem) it delineates the book’s plot. But —
At the same time, I think anyone reading the book for the first time will want to read it along with the audio recording. Read along as in literally read along with, or, more likely read first or after — chapter by chapter that is. Yes, I think, yes, that’s what I’d recommend (lagersoaked now as my brain might be) — read a chapter first, then listen, then read another (or reread). Rinse. Lather. Repeat.
Now I retreat to that ugly bastard of literary criticism, reader response shtick, the stuff of fellows who can’t make real claims on the work itself but rather hide behind how the book made me feel and think and blah blah blah. Sorry. I break myself against Ulysses. And it’s not even the book, truth be told (to trot out another hoary cliché) — I’ve reviewed books here that sought to rival Ulysses, books that undoubtedly contend with it — it’s more the critical tradition that accompanies Ulysses that daunts me. But enough. Anyone who wishes to read pages of graduate school work on the subject, written by moi, may apply below. Suffice to say for now that I loved loved loved listening to this audio recording.
Perhaps because I was so familiar (or familiar enough) with Joyce’s themes at this reading/auditing, I was able to relax during this odyssey through Joyce’s epic. To put it another way, I felt no need to be “on” — to pick up allusions, to grasp at threads — and trip over them. Instead, I found a human dimension to Joyce’s work, one I’d felt there before, but perhaps not fully experienced (I am not claiming that I have fully experienced Ulysses). I laughed. I angered. I spit. I snarled. I cried (yes, I cried; at the mention of Rudy at the end of “Circes,” and then, again, at the end of the novel, just a bit, when I felt (felt) Molly’s love for her husband). There might have been a stirring at the loins.
I found a confirmation of my favorite episodes: “Circe,” foremost, an apocalyptic carnival brought to a bristling boil in the Irish cast’s capable choir. The aforementioned “Sirens” sings of course; far more pleasant, really, to hear than read. “Telemachus,” sure, who can nay-say an opener like that, although it’s really just the opener to the prelude to the real opener “Calypso” — great stuff. What earthy joy to meet Bloom. “Hades” — a sad treat. “Aeolus” — a funny treat, windily rebounding in vim and vigor and vigorous vim. The library episode — “Scylla and Charybdis” — I’ve always thought of it as Hamlet and Stephen, or grandfathers and ghosts — becomes clearer in the voices of RTÉ’s cast. Clearer not in the sense of: “Now I understand what Stephen’s getting at,” but clearer in the sense: “Now I see where Stephen sees what he is not quite sure he is getting at.” That chapter on pig-headed closemindedness, “The Cyclops” — a triumph, a magnitude, a bold chuckle. And “Penelope.” Well, yes, great stuff.
It’s more remarkable, I suppose, the ways in which RTÉ’s recording illuminated those chapters I’d struggled with, those that had made me yawn. The first, tedious, purposefully clichéd half of “Nausica” tried my patience (get back to Bloom!) — but the actress who reads it highlights the chapter’s tedium, its commonplaces — even as it/she rushes to that juicy climax. “Proteus”: far more manageable than I’d remembered. And “The Oxen of the Sun” (aka that chapter that I never really read properly) — well, with a full band of nasty drunken med students, a bold narrator (and a sympathetic nurse), this stumbling rock becomes a springboard to the madness I so love (and have loved) in “Circe.” In the once-trying catechism of “Ithaca,” the actors find a rhythmic bounce, a dry crunching that explodes in the wet gush of “Penelope.” And didn’t I say, yes, great stuff.
What this audio recording does best is humanize Joyce’s characters. While there is never a doubt that they are set against their mythotypical forebears, I found in Joyce’s characters this time a deep specificity, a concreteness of place, a realness. I found no need to situate a Bloom-as-Odysseus correspondence. Molly did not have to be an earth goddess. Stephen was freed from the burden of Hamlet. Sure, metempsychosis was in play, but it was a backdrop, not a foregrounding, determining analytical program. I think the audio recording helped transmit this humanity, a humanity that was always there, obscured by the clutter of critical tradition.
If I haven’t been clear: Very highly recommended.
Woody Allen talks to The New York Times about recording audiobook versions of his anthologies Getting Even, Without Feathers, Mere Anarchy, and Side Effects. Here’s Woody, from the interview, emitting his usual positive vibes:
I imagined it would be quite easy for me, and, in fact, it turned out to be monstrously hard. I hated every second of it, regretted that I had agreed to it, and after reading one or two stories each day, found myself exhausted. The discovery I made was that any number of stories are really meant to work, and only work, in the mind’s ear and hearing them out loud diminishes their effectiveness. Some of course hold up amusingly, but it’s no fun hearing a story that’s really meant to be read, which brings me to your next question, and that is that there is no substitute for reading, and there never will be. Hearing something aloud is its own experience, but it’s hard to beat sitting in bed or in a comfortable chair turning the pages of a book, putting it down, and eagerly awaiting the chance to get back to it.
Despite being a bit too long, I enjoyed listening to Random House’s new audiobook recording of China Miéville‘s second novel, Perdido Street Station, read by John Lee. Perdido Street Station is Miéville’s first novel set in the steampunk world of Bas-Lag, a strange world populated by plenty of bizarre races and even more bizarre “Remades,” persons who have been forced (or in some instances have chosen) to restructure their biological makeup to perform (very) specific jobs. This sci-fi adventure story centers around protagonist Isaac Van der Grimnebulin, an overweight renegade scientist trying to perfect a new technology he calls “crisis energy.” Isaac is trying to help a Garuda named Yagherak who, as a form of punishment, has had his marvelous wings cut off. To this end, Isaac experiments with a strange caterpillar that feeds off of an hallucinogenic drug called “dreamshit.” Unfortunately, the caterpillar turns into a giant dream-feeding, brainsucking moth that, along with its relatives, terrorizes the city at night. Isaac tries to stop the moths and save his girlfriend, an artist with a bug’s head. Lots of picaresque adventuring ensues.
Miéville’s Bas-Lag world is finely detailed and richly imagined, and will no doubt appeal to anyone who digs H.P. Lovecraft or William Gibson. Miéville certainly has a handle on both of his many concepts (artificial intelligence, the nature of bodies, difference and (literal) alienation), and his story unfolds with the thrilling clip one expects from pulp fiction. Still, the book felt overwritten to me. Miéville never settles on just one adjective if two (or three) come to mind, and he’s in love with adverbs (oh the adverbs in this book! Is there a sentence without one?). And while exposition of a sort is certainly necessary in a novel about such a profoundly strange world, I think that Miéville would get a bigger payoff if he trusted his reader a bit more. Perdido Street Station feels rhetorically claustrophobic, as if Miéville is afraid to let his reader imagine even a little of Bas-Leg for him or herself. It’s a bit selfish, really. On the whole though, a great read (or listen, in this case), and it intrigued us enough to go straight into Miéville’s latest book, The City & The City (also newly released this summer from Random house, also read by John Lee).
The City & The City combines noir detective fiction with one of science fiction’s greatest gambits, namely, positing something utterly implausible, unimaginable, and then making it ordinary. In The City & The City, two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, occupy the exact same geographic space, yet their citizens are trained from birth to “unsee” and “unhear” all aspects of the other city. Inspector Tyador Borlu is drawn into the mysterious death of a beautiful young woman (is there an older trope? Edgar Allan Poe even wrote an essay on why and how you should use beautiful yong dead girls in your literature). His investigation leads him into crossing the border between the cities, an impossible border, of course, and yet the genius of the book here is that, through Borlu’s narration, the reader doesn’t experience this bordercrossing (and its attendant “unseeing”) as satirical or even ridiculous; rather, we witness the uncanny alienation of double consciousness. Miéville, a Marxist, is working in part from some of Althusser‘s ideas, and he’s not afraid to namedrop Foucault or Žižek. Thankfully, however, Miéville not only knows his theorists, he knows enough not to let theory get in the way of a Chandleresque murder mystery that explores themes of surveillance, alterity, and what it means to see someone seeing you seeing them seeing you (seeing them seeing you . . .). Great stuff.
And so well with the help of Jenny Sterlin’s narration and my handy-dandy portable mp3-playing device, I finally made it through Zadie Smith‘s 2000 novel White Teeth, and, having digested all of it, am now fit to declare it hilarious in places, larded with moments of intensely brilliant prose, wildly ambitious, and ultimately hollow, overstuffed with flat characters who, despite Smith’s best efforts, do not manage to earn the Big Important Climax she shoves them toward. Smith succeeds in communicating the multicultural problematics of late-twentieth-century London, but her massive scope (the audiobook is 23 hours and my unfinished paperback runs to nearly 500 pages) is just too massive. Smith seems to think that loads of concrete detail will automatically conjure emotional force, but what we get instead verges on soap opera at times–more bathos than pathos.It doesn’t help reader expectations of course that White Teeth was wildly overpraised after its debut. While White Teeth‘s attempt to reconcile the personal traumas of a postcolonial world with the demands of family, tradition, and personal worth is admirable, its aim exceeds its grasp, and the end disappoints. Still, I enjoyed it as an audiobook–Jenny Sterlin mugs enthusiastically through the various accents and argots of a melting pot London, and Smith’s concrete emphasis on detail makes it an ideal listen for a few summer afternoons of gardening or housework. Not the Great Book we’ve been told it is, but a fine listen nonetheless.
Summer is, of course, a great time for audiobooks, and I’m thrilled that China Miéville‘s breakthrough second novel Perdido Street Station is finally available on mp3. I’ve been wanting to read Miéville for quite some time now, but the length of his dystopian tomes has made it difficult until now (I am a very busy, important man, with busy, important things to do). Perdido Street Station, set in a bizarre, gross world of humans, Re-mades, and other sundry races, is weird fiction at its finest (so far)–a great hybrid of Charles Dickens and PK Dick, HP Lovecraft and JG Ballard. It trawls the line between real and surreal, art and science, grime and enlightenment, in lovely, if dense prose, that could never be mistaken as genre fiction. Great stuff, so far.
Also great stuff, so far, is Roberto Bolaño‘s collection of short stories, Last Evenings on Earth. I read the first three tales in succession last night, unable to put the book down although it was well-past my well-established “you must go to bed now or your toddler daughter will wreak havoc on you in the AM” bedtime. The first three stories are about, get this, (big surprise if you’ve read Bolaño), writers–good, bad, indifferent writers, failed, semi-failed, miserable writers. Sad writers, mad writers. The opener “Sensini” tells the story of an epistolary relationship between a young writer and an aging, uncelebrated writer. It’s sad yet measured in its pathos, and it earns its happy ending by loading that ending with the seed of potential disaster. The next story, “Henri Simon Leprince,” is the hilarious (and sad) tale of a miserable writer, a hack who teams up with the Resistance in WWII France. Despite his best intentions, he’s roundly despised by all those he helps. And he’s a terrible writer. The third story, “Enrique Martín,” literally made me laugh out loud, several times, to the point of tears. Narrated by Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s literary stand-in, it tells the desperate story of the titular failed poet, a would-be artist and sometime UFO hunter who slowly watches his dreams disintegrate.
All of Bolaño’s stories so far have extended past the mad force of his own strong voice(s) and implanted themselves into my mind, reaching into my own past; his characters, in hashing out their strange young lives (from a bit of distance, now) repeatedly evoked my own youthful memories, stuff I hadn’t thought about in years. There’s a sad brilliance under all of Bolaño’s stuff, like bright noon sun perceived through an ambiguous tear resting on your eye. Reading the beginning of Last Evenings on Earth last night, it occurred to me for the first time that Bolaño had died, and he’d died really young, and there weren’t going to be anymore books from him. But that’s a bummer note to end on. Let’s leave it at this–Last Evenings on Earth is some seriously great stuff.
We’re big advocates of audiobooks here at Biblioklept. A good audiobook helps the most mundane of chores zip by, making you a more educated, conscientious, and cultured person in the process (probably). Audiobooks are also essential to any road trip, and the good folks at Random House’s Listening Library labs have a new contest to help encourage parents and their kids to listen to audiobooks this summer. The contest, open to teens ages 13 to 18, is to create a video that addresses the following prompt: “If you could go on a road trip with a character from your favorite audio series, where would you go? What would you do along the way? How would you travel?” The winner will get an 8GB iPod Touch, as well as signed copies of audiobooks by the contest judges authors Libba Bray, Tamora Pierce, and Rick Riordan, all accomplished writers of young adult fantasy series. Get full details of the contest at Listening Library’s website. Seems pretty cool.
Check out these mp3s of James Joyce reading selections from his novels (that word, “novel,” it doesn’t seem right…) Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Lovely lilting rhythm. Mostly, it’s just cool to hear his voice. From the original liner notes by Sylvia Beach to the 1924 album (courtesy The Modern World):
In 1924 I went to the office of His Master’s Voice in Paris to ask them if they would record a reading by James Joyce from ULYSSES. But they would agree only if it were done at my expense. The record would not have their label on it, nor would it be listed in their catalogue. I accepted the terms: thirty copies of the recording to be paid for on delivery.
Joyce himself was anxious to have this recording made. He had made up his mind, he told me, that this would be his only reading from ULYSSES. Recording was done in a rather primitive manner in those days. All the same, I think the ULYSSES recording is a wonderful performance. I never hear it without being deeply moved.
Or, if you prefer, check out Jim Norton reading the first few pages of Finnegans Wake (from the audio book version, which who knows if listening to counts as reading the thing–but it’s pretty cool to hear an adult man make these noises and think that such a thing might be Great Literature).
Yesterday afternoon, I finished listening to the audiobook version of Michael Chabon’s much heralded 2007 novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, read quite competently by Peter Riegert.
I like audiobooks. They give me a chance to catch up with a lot of stuff that I otherwise wouldn’t have the time to read. Some people have a problem with audiobooks; apparently no one ever read a story to them. Or they’re just uptight. But that’s not what this is about. See, before I start picking at TYPU, I just want to preempt any Chabon fans saying: “Well, if you actually read the book, you would’ve liked it better.” No. I’m really good at listening to books on CD. Like, I can even make mental annotations. And I’ve enjoyed plenty of audiobooks in the past. This one, however? Nah.
I’m sure that many of you out there are staunch defenders of Chabon, and I won’t deny that he’s a “literary” writer, and one who, like one of my faves Jonathan Lethem, uses genre tropes and styles to great rhetorical effect. That said: this “detective story” is a completely overwritten, self-conscious barrage of hyperboles that rarely engaged me; worst of all, the book leads nowhere. In Chabon’s alternate reality, the Jewish diaspora continues into the Alaskan frontier. On the eve of the Yiddish settlement of Sitka’s Reversion–and the attendant displacement of the Jews–Detective Landsman investigates the murder of a young man, the son of an Orthodox gangster, who may or may not have been the messiah. There are all sorts of other problems, too, of course. Lots of problems=good writing, right?
In short, Chabon takes a cool premise–(what he believes to be) a Chandleresque detective story set in an alternate universe (à la PK Dicks’ The Man in the High Tower)–and crams in far too many tertiary plots, red herrings, and awkward symbols. Although Chabon’s prose is often funny and sometimes moving, in TYPU, his love for his own exaggerated metaphors and overstuffed similes distracts from the pacing and rhythm in what should be a gripping murder-mystery full of intrigue and suspense. Instead, I found TYPU to be clunky, and at times down right dull, but I kept listening: this book had gotten rave reviews, right? It was at the end of the book, when Chabon suddenly shifts perspective and lazily dumps an entire plot-essential back story on the reader, that I began to realize that this book was not the detective story it was claiming to be. No, the detective story was, like, a ruse, a trope, a form for Chabon to utilize in telling a story of Jewish identity, loss (infanticide lurks at the heart of this novel), and the metaphysical significance of chess. Chabon doesn’t really care about telling a good detective story (compare to Lethem’s lovelier and leaner Motherless Brooklyn, a detective novel that succeeds in telling a good mystery story and being all deep and shit). Instead, Chabon is happy to deadpan pseudophilosophy and use dippy conspiracy theories to help resolve his dangling plot threads. Not recommended.