Audiobook Review

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.

Audiobook Review: Steelheart

Steel heartSteelheart (Reckoners #1)
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Narrated by: Macleod Andrews
Originally Published: 2013
Length: 12 hrs 14 mins
Why I read it: Review request
Where I got it: Audible.com

Quick thoughts: A crackling sci-fi thriller that already has me aching to read the next book in the series.

If some cataclysmic event caused a handful of people to develop superpowers, comic books have taught us to believe that superheroes would rise up to enforce justice against villains who might abuse those powers. Brandon Sanderson’s latest novel, Steelheart, imagines a near-future world where that isn’t necessarily the case. If I tried selling the story with a quick pitch, it would be to imagine a world where Superman is evil and average people must find a way to defeat him. It’s a twist that hones the tension to a keen edge, and Sanderson has delivered a real knockout in this first instalment of what will almost certainly be a stellar series.

After reading Legion, Sanderson’s novella from last year, I had high hopes that he would use the ideas behind that piece as a springboard into something unique. As much as wrapping up the Wheel of Time series did wonders for publicity, I think it also threatened to pigeonhole him as a Robert Jordan derivative. Legionreally showcased his potential in thinking up innovative stories well outside the confines of high fantasy, and now Steelheart proves there’s plenty more inspiration in that creative well.

If there’s one element I’ve come to love about Sanderson’s approach, it’s that that he is very rule-oriented. Each of his books is based on a unique magic system that functions as logically and consistently as elements in a periodic table. Moving into the dystopian sci-fi world of Steelheart, the supporting framework really isn’t much different from his high fantasy worlds. Each Epic has both a primary and secondary superpower, along with a corollary weakness. These powers are then further categorized into broader categories with defining traits, and each Epic has a degree of power which functions as a multiplication factor. In many ways it reads like a novelized role playing game with all the regalia of geekdom. The beauty of it, though, is that it provides a logical consistency to the whole. I might chuckle and laugh at some of the plot elements, but I’ll never feel as though Sanderson cheated in finding a way to bridge a plot hole.

Although this book is being marketed as a teen novel, I’m tempted to say that’s a bit of a misnomer. I’m not suggesting that the content is inappropriate—Sanderson’s writing has always been and likely will always be squeaky-clean—but it would be like calling The Avengers a kid’s movie. Don’t be misled by the marketing. If you like books where you can’t help but give a few adrenaline-fuelled fist-pumping whoops, then Steelheartis definitely worth your attention.

Audiobook notes: The narration by Macleod Andrews was fantastic, although I say that with a mild caveat. The text was read so slowly that I was on the verge of gouging out my own eyes. After bumping up the playback speed on my iPod to 1.5x, though, it was silky-smooth perfection. Andrews was exceptional in creating distinctive voices for all of the characters, and it often felt more like a radio play than a novel. In fact, his performance was so outstanding that this Canuck can even forgive him for giving the French Canadian a Parisian accent (the difference between soft and harsh sounds, or “zee accent” compared to “da haxENT”). This style of book is already perfectly suited to great audiobook narration in the first place, but Andrews really takes it to the next level. Well, at 1.5X speed anyways, and that’s enough for a strong recommendation in my book.

From the Publisher:

From the number-one New York Times best-selling author of the Mistborn Trilogy, Brandon Sanderson, comes the first book in a new, action-packed thrill ride of a series – Steelheart. Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics.

Nobody fights the Epics…nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.

And David wants in. He wants Steelheart – the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David’s father. For years, like the Reckoners, David’s been studying, and planning – and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.

He’s seen Steelheart bleed.

And he wants revenge.

Brandon SandersonBrandon Sanderson was born in 1975 in Lincoln, Nebraska. As a child Brandon enjoyed reading, but he lost interest in the types of titles often suggested to him, and by junior high he never cracked a book if he could help it. This changed when an eighth grade teacher gave him Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly.

Brandon was working on his thirteenth novel when Moshe Feder at Tor Books bought the sixth he had written. Tor has published Elantris , the Mistborn trilogy and its followup The Alloy of Law, Warbreaker, and The Way of Kings, the first in the planned ten-volume series The Stormlight Archive. He was chosen to complete Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series; 2009’s The Gathering Storm and 2010’s Towers of Midnight were followed by the final book in the series, A Memory of Light, in January 2013. Four books in his middle-grade Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians series were released by Scholastic, and his novella Infinity Blade Awakening was an ebook bestseller for Epic Games accompanying their acclaimed Infinity Blade iOS video game series. Two more novellas, Legion and The Emperor's Soul, were released by Subterranean Press and Tachyon Publications in 2012, and 2013 brings two young adult novels, The Rithmatist from Tor and Steelheart from Delacorte.

The only author to make the short list for the David Gemmell Legend Award six times in four years, Brandon won that award in 2011 for The Way of Kings. The Emperor’s Soul won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novella. He has hit the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best-Seller List seven times, with all three Wheel of Time books hitting the #1 spot.

Currently living in Utah with his wife and children, Brandon teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University.

Audiobook Review: The Art of Fielding

Art of FieldingThe Art of Fielding
Author: Chad Harbach
Narrated by: Holter Graham
Originally Published: 2011
Length: 16 hrs
Why I read it: Personal selection
Where I got it: Audible.com

Quick thoughts: It’s not perfect, but this literary sports novel has enough heart to make up for its shortcomings.

The Art of Fielding had been on my reading list for a little while, but there were a few issues that kept nudging it to the bottom of the pile. First, it seemed to suffer from flash-in-the-pan syndrome. Everybody seemed to be unanimously hailing it as the best novel of 2011, and then it just vanished. I’ve seen that scenario play out often enough that it’s cause for concern. A second strike against it was the sports theme. I like a good sports novel, but it’s usually an exception for me. It’s the rare author who can rise above the tired clichés to create something unique and interesting. I have to admit that the title didn’t exactly win me over either, providing a trifecta of excuses to keep putting it off despite some lingering interest.

Considering how long I procrastinated, it came as quite a surprised to me that I enjoyed it so much. The story hinges on the character of Henry Skrimshander, a small kid with an outsized passion for baseball. His preternatural skill defies the expectations of scouts conditioned to look for something more physically imposing, and you can’t help but cheer for this kid fighting an uphill battle just to play the game he loves . It’s a time-worn formula of triumphing against the odds, but Harbach puts a unique spin on his telling, dodging the bullet of tired clichés that I was admittedly expecting. It’s not often that I’m on the edge of my seat while reading a book. With The Art of Fielding, I was utterly absorbed. You couldn’t predict which way the story would go or where a character arc would lead, and the passion was contagious.

Despite the obvious and pervasive emphasis on baseball, The Art of Fielding is very much a literary novel, packing in all the trappings one would expect from modern fiction. The Art of Fielding is actually a book within a book – a Zen Buddhist manual on baseball that riffs on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War – and Westish College, the fictional school where Skrimshander plays, is loaded with references and homages to Herman Melville. There’s also the fairly standard soul-searching twist of fate, side-trips of agonizing introspection, and even (in what’s beginning to feel like a prerequisite for serious novels nowadays) a gay subplot.

All that literary stuff AND a sports novel, you ask? Well, that’s the idea in theory, but the execution isn’t always so seamless. At times it feels as though Harbach is trying to paint a mural onto a postage stamp. There is just too much going on to fully develop any one theme or idea, and the result is that things tend to get lost in the shuffle. Even something as central as baseball is occasionally relegated to irrelevance as “serious” themes are explored. Having said that, though, it’s not something I really noticed when the story was in full swing. It was only in retrospect, when trying to piece together the story elements into a cohesive whole, that the themes and allusions began to seem less than the sum of their parts.

While it might not be a perfect novel, it’s certainly got heart. In many ways, it’s a little like Henry Skrimshander himself: something that seems below the mark, but has such a keen eye for what matters that it eclipses any shortcomings. It’s that person who seems so ordinary in a photo, yet so compelling in real life. The character inside threatens to burst out at every seam, and you can’t help but be won over by some sort of ephemeral life force. So long as you’re not expecting the great American novel — or even the best novel of 2011, for that matter — The Art of Fielding is a great choice if you’re looking for something arty that dishes out an equal amount of whimsical fun.

Audiobook notes: Holter Graham’s narration really plays on the muted emotions and the feeling of inertia that accompanies a few of the character arcs. It serves well to set the artistic tone which the book seems to be striving for, although there are times when the combination of voices in conversation sounds staged and hokey. Overall, though, this production works quite well.

From the Publisher:
At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for Big League stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended. Henry’s fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future.

College President Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry’s gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners’ team captain and Henry’s best friend, realizes he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process, they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths.

Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment – to oneself and to others.

Chad Harbach

Chad Harbach grew up in Wisconsin and was educated at Harvard and the University of Virginia. He is a cofounder and coeditor of n+1. - See more at: http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/authors/chad-harbach/#about