Month: January 2015

Audiobook Review: Gulliver’s Travels

Gullivers TravelsGulliver’s Travels: A Signature Performance by David Hyde Pierce
Author: Jonathan Swift
Narrated by: David Hyde Pierce
Originally Published: 1726
Length: 9 hrs 52 mins
Why I read it: Personal Selection
Where I got it: Audible.com

Quick thoughts: Expecting a facile children’s book, I was instead astounded by a brilliant adult satire.

I had always believed Gulliver’s Travels to be a child’s novel. In my defense, it’s rather hard not to come to that conclusion when the story is fodder for family television and movie adaptations, and when abridged versions are often included in juvenile collections of classic literature. My immediate impression upon finishing the novel, however, was how emphatically this was not a children’s book. Not because of inappropriate content or mature subject matter, but because it was so concerned with politics and social philosophies.

Everyone is likely familiar with the first part of this book where Gulliver wakes to find himself bound by hundreds of tiny people, but that is just one of the four voyages recounted here. Each journey involves the introduction of some impossible alternative reality wherein the people, apart from possessing some memorable physical distinction, have developed an entirely different society. Much of the novel is taken with describing the benefits of these alternative models, and recognizing by comparison how silly some European social customs and conventions appear.

Some of these examples are brilliant. One of my personal favourites was the land of the Houyhnhnms, where the horses are intelligent and humanoid beings are the animal labourers. The Houyhnhnms do not lie, and have no word by which to express an untruth, leaving Gulliver at an absolute loss in attempting to describe a lawyer. Others are a product of their age, and have either lost their appeal or hint at failed social experiments from our modern history.

Although it lacks consistency (the third voyage seems to drag on interminably), the sparks of genius often seem just as fresh nearly 300 years after its original publication. It’s easy to see why it became an instant classic, and why it still holds cultural sway in our modern age. In a way, it’s also a shame that this has for many been relegated to a shelf which holds little interest to a child, yet is assumed to be too childish for an adult. It’s a biting political satire which retains a good deal of its sting despite the intervening years, and is definitely worth the read.

Audiobook notes: Do I really need to say more than Dr. Niles Crane from Frasier? Probably yes, but a bit of bombast is always fun. I was actually expecting something more frivolous and contrived, but David Hyde Pierce instead went a much more natural route. My initial disappointment was perhaps paired with my expectations that this would be a children’s book, and the more I came to see the novel as an adult satire, the more I appreciated the narration. This was a brilliant choice all around, and a production that I would highly recommend.

Summary:
Shipwrecked castaway Lemuel Gulliver’s encounters with the petty, diminutive Lilliputians, the crude giants of Brobdingnag, the abstracted scientists of Laputa, the philosophical Houyhnhnms, and the brutish Yahoos give him new, bitter insights into human behavior. Swift’s fantastic and subversive book remains supremely relevant in our own age of distortion, hypocrisy, and irony.
Jonathan SwiftJonathan Swift was an Anglo-Irish cleric, Dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin, satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer (first for Whigs then for Tories), and poet, famous for works like Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal, A Journal to Stella, The Drapier's Letters, The Battle of the Books, and A Tale of a Tub. Swift is probably the foremost prose satirist in the English language, and is less well known for his poetry. Swift published all of his works under pseudonyms — such as Lemuel Gulliver, Isaac Bickerstaff, M.B. Drapier — or anonymously. He is also known for being a master of two styles of satire; the Horatian and Juvenalian styles.

Audiobook Review: The Story of Dr. Dolittle

do littleThe Story of Dr. Dolittle
Author: Hugh Lofting
Narrated by: David Case
Originally Published: 1920
Length: 2 hrs 33 min
Why I read it: Personal selection
Where I got it: Audible.com

Quick thoughts: A classic, perhaps, but this wasn’t exactly a winner with our family.

Even though I never read any of Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle books as a child, the doctor who speaks with animals is too culturally pervasive for me to have been entirely ignorant. Between movie adaptations, TV references and one-liners in comedy routines, it’s rather hard to imagine remaining unfamiliar with the character on some basic level. When Audible offered this particular edition as part of a free promotion this summer, it seemed like an excellent excuse to make my acquaintance while at the same time letting my children listen to this classic on a road trip.

Apart from some general idea of a doctor talking to animals in the jungle, I was also aware of some accusations of racism, so we had a little family chat before pressing play. Things were relatively fine on that level until our heroes got to Africa. At that point, my wife and I dropped our collective jaws at the diverse usage of racial epithets, and at the storyline that involves an African prince wanting to become white so he can win the fair princess. Even though the story was always innocent and never actively bigoted, it was still quite shocking to hear such racially loaded terms in a beloved children’s book. I’ve read several justifications after the fact — some well-reasoned, others quite belligerent — but there’s really no way of excusing or avoiding the fact that Dr. Dolittle has more than its fair share of problematic colonial holdovers.

There were some quality lessons, to be sure, such as the need to actually listen to the needs of others, as exemplified by Dr. Dolittle taking the time to learn to talk to animals. The whimsical nature of the story, altogether too rare in our day, was also a most welcome feature of the book. Yet despite the many positives, I can’t say that we ever truly enjoyed the story. Perhaps we were too spoiled in our modernity to appreciate such innocence, or maybe the sheer number of children’s books makes it that much more difficult to impress. Either way, it was difficult to bridge the gap between this book and our modern sensibilities, although I can certainly appreciate why it has remained so loved through the years. For myself, I may just end up watching the Eddie Murphy adaptation which I’ve been so studiously avoiding these many years. At that point, I will undoubtedly revel in the sheer irony of an African-American playing Dr. Dolittle, and smile at how the seed of a good story can grow into something fundamentally the same yet entirely changed.

Audiobook notes: Although mostly a solid production, there were two issues in this edition which I found terribly distracting. First, it begins with a lengthy note by the author explaining why The Story of Dr. Dolittlewas such a great children’s book. Yes, that type of author introduction was common back in the day, but I found it a poor decision to include at the start of the audiobook. Not only did the self praise set my teeth on edge; it’s also incredibly hard to keep a child’s attention focused when some adult is nattering on about nothing. I was also a bit turned off by the ludicrous accent chosen by the narrator for the African voices, as it only served to reinforce the colonial caricatures.

Hugh LoftingLofting was born in Maidenhead, England, to English and Irish parents. His early education was at Mount St Mary's College in Sheffield, after which he went to the United States, completing a degree in civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He traveled widely as a civil engineer before enlisting in the Irish Guards to serve in World War I. Not wishing to write to his children of the brutality of the war, he wrote imaginative letters that were the foundation of the successful Doctor Dolittle novels for children. Seriously wounded in the war, he moved with his family to Connecticut in the United States. Lofting was married three times and had three children, one of whom, his son Christopher, is the executor of his literary estate.