I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
Anton Chekhov's The Kiss and the Duel and Other Stories translated by Constance Garnett (1916-1923) is an excellent collection. Each story features a crisis in some human relationship: between strangers in "The Kiss" (1887), when a bespectacled, lynx-whiskered, milquetoast army officer is mistakenly kissed by an unknown woman in a dark room at a tea party; enemies in "The Duel" (1891) when a coldly superior botanist challenges a lazy, spoiled, and amoral intellectual official to a duel; brother and sister in "Excellent People" (1886), when a listless sister who has always worshiped her wannabe literary figure brother begins asking him about the principle of non-resistance to evil; dupes and vamp in "Mire" (1886), when a younger cousin and his older cousin take turns visiting a cynical and mercurial Jewess who owes one of them money; brother, sister, and friend in "Neighbours" (1892), when a young country gentleman rides to confront his beloved sister and the idealistic and pathetic married man she's run away to live with; and royal and subject in "The Princess" (1889), when a spoiled princess who believes she's an angel dispensing light and joy to humanity asks a doctor she's fired to tell her the truth about her mistakes.
To explain the crisis and prepare for the climax of each story, Chekhov dispassionately and sympathetically cores the human soul. His insights into the human heart and mind are accurate, humorous, and devastating. He excels at placing people out of their depths in intolerable situations, so that if they manage to swim back to shore it's a heroic feat. At the same time, he concisely depicts Russian culture near the end of the 19th century, complete with growing conflicts between different classes, cultures, regions, philosophies, and so on.
Interestingly, Chekhov's stories, no matter how bleak, give me intense pleasure, and make me feel more alive. How does he do it? It must be his irony and empathy, keen eye for observation, and original mind for metaphors. Whenever his characters resolve to righteously take someone to task and then find themselves instead wimpishly appeasing the person, I think, Ah, that's me! The best we can hope to achieve, it seems, is coming to understand, as one character says near the end of "The Duel," "No one knows where the real truth lies." That and trying to treat people with humanity and kindness.
Fred Williams gives a solid reading of the stories. He doesn't dramatically change his voice for different characters, unlike virtuoso actor-readers, but he reads every word clearly and every sentence with appropriate rhythm and emphasis, and he enhances the text with appropriate wit and emotion. And I really like his deliberate, deep, and slightly gravelly and nasal voice. The only difficult point about the audiobook lay in my unfamiliarity with Russian names, so that, especially in the novella "The Duel," I sometimes mixed the characters up in my mind when listening. So I'd recommend getting a text version of the story (many free ones are online) and reading the character names in it once or twice so as to be able to hear their differences more readily.
You have to love lines like this from "Neighbours":
"It's a charming house altogether," she went on, sitting down opposite her brother. "There's some pleasant memory in every room. In my room, only fancy, Grigory's grandfather shot himself."
And it's a testament to Chekhov's genius that of the conclusions of the last two stories in the collection, the self-realization of the first nearly makes a happy ending, while the self-delusion of the second surely makes an unhappy one:
"From Koltovitch's copse and garden there came a strong fragrant scent of lilies of the valley and honey-laden flowers. Pyotr Mihalitch rode along the bank of the pond and looked mournfully into the water. And thinking about his life, he came to the conclusion he had never said or acted upon what he really thought, and other people had repaid him in the same way. And so the whole of life seemed to him as dark as this water in which the night sky was reflected and water-weeds grew in a tangle. And it seemed to him that nothing could ever set it right." (from "Neighbours")
Trying to look like a bird, the princess fluttered into the carriage and nodded in all directions. There was a gay, warm, serene feeling in her heart, and she felt herself that her smile was particularly soft and friendly. As the carriage rolled towards the gates, and afterwards along the dusty road past huts and gardens, past long trains of waggons and strings of pilgrims on their way to the monastery, she still screwed up her eyes and smiled softly. She was thinking there was no higher bliss than to bring warmth, light, and joy wherever one went, to forgive injuries, to smile graciously on one's enemies. The peasants she passed bowed to her, the carriage rustled softly, clouds of dust rose from under the wheels and floated over the golden rye, and it seemed to the princess that her body was swaying not on carriage cushions but on clouds, and that she herself was like a light, transparent little cloud. . . .
"How happy I am!" she murmured, shutting her eyes. "How happy I am!" (from "The Princess")
If you like epic poems like The Odyssey, if you are interested in a big influence on Tolkien (especially his Silmarillion), or if you enjoy fantasy full of exuberant imagination, you should read The Kalevala (1835/49) by Elias Lonnrot. As a doctor in the early 19th century, Lonnrot traveled around Finland listening to people singing the ancient stories of the legendary founding heroes of their land, copying the songs, and editing and assembling them into a coherent whole in 1835 and more completely in 1849. The national epic of Finland, the Kalevala reveals Finnish culture even as it tells entertaining stories that explore the dark and bright places in the human heart.
The Kalevala recounts the conflict between two regions and cultures, fair Kalevala (or Wainola), "the home of heroes," versus the dismal Sariola (or Pohyola or Lapland), "where the ogres flourish." Three main hero-wizards live in Kalevala: wise Wainamoinen, the ancient bard respected for his comprehensive knowledge and wonderful singing; skilled Ilmarinen, the blacksmith "metal-maker" famed for the miraculous creations of his hands; and handsome Lemminkainen, the momma's boy infamous for his reckless courage and play with maidens. In addition to their superhuman abilities, the heroes possess all too human flaws. The Kalevala even features a compelling anti-hero called Kullervo, born with too much magic and "ill-nurtured" without enough love, destroying all he sets his hand to. And toothless Louhi, hostess of never-pleasant Pohyola, a witch-matriarch with an endless supply of beautiful daughters, is more than a match in magic and cunning for the heroes she finds as wicked as they find her.
John Martin Crawford's 1888 translation of the epic into English is a pleasure to read. Crawford translated The Kalevala in a trochaic tetrameter rhythm similar to that of the original Finnish poem: "MOUNtains DANCE and VALleys LISten." And like other oral epic poems, the Kalevala enjoyably repeats epithets for proper names (e.g., "Kullerwoinen, wicked wizard") and accumulates paraphrasing examples, as when wild Lemminkainen sweet-talks a maiden he's ravished:
"My sweet strawberry of Pohyola,
Still thine anguish, cease thy weeping,
Be thou free from care and sorrow,
Never shall I do thee evil,
Never will my hands maltreat thee,
Never will mine arms abuse thee,
Never will my tongue revile thee,
Never will my heart deceive thee."
Reader Robert Bethune reads the poetry with intensity and fluidity. He only changes his voice slightly for the different characters, but he amplifies emotions when characters are wicked, angry, joyful, or sad. My only criticism of the audiobook is that it lacks the interesting and helpful introduction by Crawford.
There are many impressive moments in the epic, among them youthful Youkahainen engaging in a duel of magical knowledge with ancient Wainamoinen; wise Wainamoinen learning (too late) the identity of a wonderful fish he catches; handsome Lemminkainen's mother raking the river of death for his body parts; grieving Ilmarinen smithying a cold bride of gold; wicked Kullervo asking his magical god's sword if it would like to drink his life-blood; minstrel Wainamoinen playing his magical pike's jaw harp and singing so as to reduce everyone to tears, including himself; reckless Lemminkainen singing in his screeching voice at an inopportune time; and vengeful Louhi pursuing the stolen magic sampo.
Surprisingly, the epic devotes more time to wooing than to fighting: a few lines to summarize an offstage battle, hundreds of lines to detail the impossible tasks of a suitor, or the food, drink, and speeches of a wedding feast, or the things a bride loses and gains by marrying, or the different roles of a good wife and a good husband. The Kalevala also relishes the good things of life, like barley-beer, honey-biscuits, hot baths, and cuckoo song. It is also full of humor and charm, as in the nicknames for bears (honey-paw) and bees (honey-birdling). And the epic teaches good behavior in daily life, from how to clean house to how to be a good person.
Best of all, in the world of the Kalevala, everything is alive, magical, sentient, and articulate: artifacts (ships, sledges, snowshoes, etc.), flora (aspens, oaks, berries, etc.), fauna (reindeer, eagles, snakes, etc.), and even fire, iron, and paths. Everything has its own desires, depending on its nature and role in the story. Magic itself has a system, for the better your voice and the greater your wisdom and knowledge, the more powerful and effective your magic will be. The best wizards master things by singing their origins and traits and then singing what they'd like them to do or not to do. The best mages are able to shape-change, make magical tools, conjure hosts of heroes, control the elements, and request the aid of the gods.
The Finnish singers of the Kalevala were such bard-mages, and when we read their songs we make their magic.
The characters who populate Thackery???s Vanity Fair (1848), set in England and Europe during and after the Napoleonic Wars, are a cast of decadent lords, pious snobs, pedantic teachers, sycophantic schemers, hedonistic spinsters, tyrannical fathers, imperious brats, philandering generals, gambling rakes, gossiping servants, false friends, faithful toadies, and many more. Unlike in Dickens, there is no perfect person. Thackery plays his ???puppets??? through scenes that are comical, appalling, suspenseful, moving, or revelatory. He keeps us alert, peering through layers of irony. And he has such empathy for humanity that he makes most of his characters, even the feckless or false or cruel ones, at least sometimes sympathetic.
Becky Sharp, the ???poor little friendless orphan??? who becomes a bohemian adventuress, who remains throughout her life selfish, scheming, heartless, and ???artful,??? who abominably neglects her son, alarmingly attracts the husbands, brothers, and sons of her friends, and comically mimics everyone behind their backs, and yet who is capable of genuine feeling, is one of the most fascinating anti-heroines in literature. Is she a plucky survivor or a wicked siren? Her foil, the seemingly pure, simple, loving, and good Amelia Sedley, is also compelling, for with selfish selflessness she indulges in her Angel in the House, submissive and dependent feminine saintliness to such a degree that she harms herself and her true lover.
The reader John Castle is great! With perfect pauses, emphases, wit, and emotion, he engagingly reads all the characters??? voices with their different accents, personalities, genders, and moods, whether a stingy hyena-faced old country baron, a drunken cockney footman, a boastful Irish officer???s wife, a mercenary French maid, or a foppish German diplomat--everyone.
Thackery???s ???historian??? narrator, who???s telling a ???true??? story based on the accounts of the principle characters he has met, satirizes early 19th century British and European culture (class, religion, education, business, war, tourism, etc.) so as to expose human vanity in general. We are all driven by vain desires and feel unfulfilled after getting what we want. We are all selfish, artful, and self- and other-deluding. The novel may seem misanthropic. But Thackery is so good at making us laugh, groan, cry, or think, that if the novel (???without a hero???) is not uplifting, it is entertaining, stimulating, and often moving.