I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
When Randy Bragg, an aimless Korean war vet who has developed a taste for bourbon in his coffee while living in his hometown, Fort Repose, Florida, gets a telegram from his older brother Mark, a Colonel for Strategic Air Command, that closes with ???Alas, Babylon,??? Randy realizes that hydrogen bombs are about to start flying between the USSR and the USA. The rest of Pat Frank???s novel, Alas, Babylon (1959), depicts how Randy and his Fort Repose neighbors survive after ???the Day??? on which the bombs fell. Frank convincingly imagines the geo-politics that could lead to such a war, as well as the social and inter-personal dynamics of survival that would likely follow it.
Frank???s novel is a post-holocaust communal Robinsoniad, with key things (like an uncontaminated river, an ancestor???s journal, an unlimited source of salt, and even a well-equipped attic) in retrospect a little too convenient for ???island??? Fort Repose. But I let that pass because I respect and care so much for Frank???s characters as they are pushed to their limits to find ways to survive physically and emotionally, and the main thrust of his novel is to test his characters to see which ones will survive with humanity intact and which will not.
I like Frank???s attempt at a progressive vision of race (for its time and southern setting), but George Stewart???s earlier novel Earth Abides (1949) may be more radical in that respect. In general, Earth Abides is more philosophical, cyclical, beautiful, and moving than Alas, Babylon, which is more political, tactical, exciting, and martial. Alas, Babylon is an anti-nuclear war novel that nevertheless valorizes the heroic American male soldier/leader.
Will Patton???s reading of the novel is fine; his voice is appropriately manly and dry with undercurrents of emotion that bring the story to life.
I???ve never been in a war, but listening to Stephen Crane???s The Red Badge of Courage made me feel thrust into one. Crane???s horrific descriptions of the sights and sounds of a Civil War battle, as well as his unromantic depictions of the behavior of soldiers in such a fray (from raw recruits to erratic officers), and through it all his brutally honest account of the changing mental state of the naive northern farm-boy, Henry Fleming, all feel so authentic that I???m amazed that Crane had never experienced war when he wrote his short novel.
With his deep, gravelly voice, the reader, John Michaels, does a fine job of expressing Crane???s matter-of-fact, portentous, ironic, excited, and empathetic tone (though a few times he blurs some words so that I had to rewind to understand them).
Crane writes an appalling poetry of war. Bullets whistling and nipping among the trees, until ???Twigs and leaves came sailing down???. as if a thousand axes, wee and invisible, were being wielded.??? Artillery firing ???an interminable roar???. the whirring and thumping of gigantic machinery, complications among the smaller stars.??? Corpses, ???ghastly forms??? lying ???twisted in fantastic contortions??? as if ???dumped out upon the ground from the sky.??? The poetic descriptions contrast with the soldiers??? vernacular: "Oh, say, this is too much of a good thing!" Their morale is fragile: ???The slaves toiling in the temple of this god began to feel rebellion at his harsh tasks.???
Many war-is-hell stories revel in exciting battle scenes, and possibly one or two in Crane???s novel could be taken out of context to ignite the martial passions. But he really depicts war as a filthy, chaotic, brutal, and horrific ???devilment,??? which, if it does impel some men to become ???heroes,??? does so at a cost to their humanity and is fought for ultimately mysterious reasons for which nature cares nothing. Because we still haven???t been able to stop toiling in the temple of the god of war, this audiobook should be heard.
The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Maddox Ford is "the saddest story" the narrator has ever heard, but because it's so well written about unlikeable characters who have been emotionally destroyed before the first chapter begins, it engrossed rather than moved me. The narrator, John Dowell, a Pennsylvania Quaker and a member of the American idle rich, is telling the tragic story of the relationships in the early 20th century Europe between himself and his wife, Florence, the relationship then between a married couple of the English aristocracy, Captain Edward Ashburnham ("the good soldier") and his wife Leonora, and the relationships between the four of them. He's telling the story in the way that people who witness disasters like "the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people" feel compelled to write about them for the benefit of future generations or simply "to get the sight out of their heads." Unsure whether to begin at the beginning and progress chronologically to the end, or to tell his imagined listener whatever comes to his mind when it comes and to fill in missing things as needed, he settles on the latter method. This makes the novel innovative for its time, an early example of modernism, though without the stream of consciousness of writers like Virginia Woolf. Dowell recounts how his wife, "poor dear Florence," was, he thought, an invalid with a heart condition that required him to live as her caretaker for the twelve years they were together, carefully monitoring all subjects of conversation to suppress any "dangerous" topics (involving religion or strong emotions or politics, etc.) so as to avoid upsetting her weak heart. It also involved complete celibacy, so that her bedroom door (in whatever European resort or spa hotel they happened to be staying in) was always locked to him. After three years in Europe, Dowell and Florence met the Ashburnhams in Nauheim, Germany, a famous heart spa town, and for over nine years the two couples made a happy foursome, Dowell believed, and if the apple he thought was perfect turned out to be rotten at the core after nearly nine years and six months, to him it was delicious until the end of that period.
This is not to spoil the book, because from the beginning Dowell tells us that the two seemingly happy loving couples, who seemed to make together "an extraordinarily safe castle," or "one of those tall ships with the white sails upon a blue sea, one of those things that seem the proudest and safest of all the beautiful and safe things that God has permitted the mind of man to frame," or a perfectly choreographed and instinctively coordinated "minuet de la cour," were destroyed by adultery, falseness, hatred, love, and death. The Good Soldier employs the cuckoldry or philandering of husbands, the duplicity or domination of wives, and the innocent cruelty of youth to explore the opacity of human nature, the impossibility of knowing what another person (especially a spouse) is really feeling and thinking, and the ungovernable nature of the human heart.
Despite Ford's incisive insights into our flawed human nature, the different influences of Protestant and Catholic Christianities on true believers, and the differences between early 20th century American and British characters and cultures, and despite his vivid metaphors, distilled dialogue, innovatively non-chronological story-telling, and perfectly constructed narrative (told by a man scrupulously relating the history of his devastating obtuseness), The Good Soldier and its characters were rather unpleasant.
The reading by Ralph Cosham is, like any book he reads, flawlessly delivered without showing off, adding to his voice the perfectly appropriate emotion and intention for every scene in the novel without any straining after different characters' voices. The problem is that whereas Cosham's method and style and voice are all just right for Watership Down, The Plague Dogs, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Robinson Crusoe, for example, here his tendency to turn phrases and sentences down at their ends works with the sordid story to make it all the more of a downer.
I recommend this novel to people who like a good tragedy revealed in layers and layers (like a morose and moldy onion being unpeeled little by little), or to people who want to read one of the best 100 novels in the English language to see what it's like and how it was innovative, or to people who are interested in plumbing the sad and mysterious depths of the human heart.
I've never been one to deplore my lack of quality education in public school. I figured that whatever I missed was likely due to inattentiveness and lack of inquisitiveness on my part; but after reading INVISIBLE MAN, I finally come away insensed! Angry and insensed that this book was not assigned to me as part of my upbringing. Even if I can forgive my public schools, then I must blame my private / public university and well-heeled graduate educations for not at least trying to make me aware that this great literature exploring MY American background exists. While I was raised in the most caucasion of caucasion communities, I feel I should still have been made aware--by somebody!--that I needed to read INVISIBLE MAN!
Well . .. now that I've raved a bit, I must admit that even in grad school I wasn't always the most attentive of students. I was deeply involved in whatever topics were discussed at hand, and I wrote stellar essays, I suppose . . . but I might have been daydreaming the day(s) that Ellison's profound influence on modern literature and social and racial issues was discussed . . . perhaps. What a masterpiece. I will read and study it again, and do all I can to influence persons whose education I hope for to read it and read it well.
By the way, if a reader orders this after reading my rant here, please make sure you listen to the introduction. It helps. The book is exquisitely performed and masterfully written. Not only does it provide an essential piece in one's education, but it's also a great, entertaining, riveting, and even humorous in many ways, read.