I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
In the fifteen stories of Dubliners, people feel trapped by and yearn to escape from their homes or families or marriages or schools or jobs or communities or religions or lives--or anyway from Dublin--but do not know that they feel trapped or yearn to escape or do not know how to achieve their desires. The stories would be grim were it not for the spare beauty of their prose, the rich irony and humor of their situations, and the sense that even as they authentically, scornfully, and affectionately expose a particular time (early 20th century) and place (Dublin, Ireland), they also reveal the secret places of the human heart. How a boy may love a girl with all the pure and sensual religion of his soul; how a teenage girl may reject her only chance at love, freedom, and happiness; how an old spinster may enjoy a holiday party; how an alcoholic father only at home in a public house may exorcise his frustrations on his son; how a mother may become too righteous and dominating for her daughter's good; how a wife may love her baby and hate her husband; how a husband may suddenly realize the gulf between his thoughts and his wife's… Joyce's gift for writing characters who feel so human (almost) redeems the dark epiphanies or bleak conclusions of his tales.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses are, I believe, greater than Dubliners. Some of its stories give too little pleasure. Some of its protagonists are not compelling. Some of its epiphanies remain opaque. And though its restrained prose makes for clear reading, I miss the exuberant play with language of his wonderful novels. Apart from "The Dead" (a masterpiece), I don't want to re-read Dubliners, whereas I am looking forward to re-reading Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses.
As he does for the novels, Jim Norton gives an inspired reading of Dubliners. He exudes a deep understanding of and appreciation for every word and every sentence. He gives voice to each character (including children, women, and old people) with complete conviction and ease, so they all sound just right in emotion, agenda, tone, accent, and personality. And the audiobook samples period songs that feature in the stories before or after they begin or end.
Although Joyce's prose in Dubliners does not usually attempt the flights of fancy or exuberant language of his novels, there are great descriptions and moments, like the following:
"How my heart beat as he came running across the field to me! He ran as if to bring me aid. And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little."
"But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires."
"Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger."
"Her eyes, which were grey with a shade of green through them, had a habit of glancing upwards when she spoke with anyone, which made her look like a little perverse Madonna."
"She dealt with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat."
"He longed to ascend through the roof and fly away to another country where he would never hear again of his trouble, and yet a force pushed him downstairs step by step."
"He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side glances."
"She seemed to be near him in the darkness. At moments he seemed to feel her voice touch his ear, her hand touch his. He stood to listen."
"His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."
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")
The Things They Carried (1990) is a powerful audiobook, perfectly read by Bryan Cranston, and written with searing and sensitive honesty by Tim O'Brien. The book contains twenty-two Vietnam war stories based on O'Brien's experiences and those of his fellow soldiers during his one-year tour of duty in 1969. The pieces combine to vividly evoke what it was like before, during, and after the Vietnam War. And it's not only a Vietnam War book; it also explores universal questions of memory, imagination, language, reality, story, war, and love. For O'Brien, Vietnam becomes at times a metaphor for the world, and a state of mind as much as a physical place.
The title story introduces the war and the American men who fought in it by listing and explaining what they carried: war gear (helmets, boots, bandages, weaponry, etc.), practical things (canteens, c-rations, toilet paper, bug repellent, etc.), personal things (comic books, condoms, dope, photos, letters, basketballs, etc.), unpleasant things (infections, diseases, lice, molds, etc.), intangible things (fear, guilt, longing, grief, memories, etc.), and Vietnam itself (soil, sky, monsoons, etc.). They carried it all without any "sense of strategy or mission" or hope, moving by inertia. Through the lists O'Brien weaves the desperate fantasy love of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross for Martha, an unresponsive girl he dated once in college.
"Love" depicts Jimmy Cross' visit to O'Brien some years after the war, when the subject of his love, Martha, came up in conversation.
The third story, "Spin," concerns how memory makes the war now, while story makes it forever.
"The Rainy River" examines what to O'Brien was a colossal failure of conscience and nerve, his choice not to flee to Canada to avoid Vietnam: "I was a coward. I went to the war."
"Enemies" shows how the enemy is not always the guy fighting for the other country.
"Friends" ironically develops the situation between two enemies in the previous story.
"How to Tell a True War Story" anatomizes war, memory, fiction, and reality. "If you feel uplifted in the end [of a war story], if there is any rectitude, you've been made a victim of a years old and terrible lie."
"The Dentist" is a vignette about a bully's fear of dentists.
"Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" depicts the seductive call of nighttime jungle patrols to the soul of a 17-year-old girl visiting her boyfriend soldier: "I feel close to my own body. I'm glowing in the dark. I know exactly who I am. I couldn't feel that anywhere else."
"Stockings" proves the talismanic protective power of pantyhose.
"Church" is a quiet story in which the platoon occupies a pagoda, monks cleaning machine guns and soldiers talking about religion.
In "The Man I Killed" O'Brien describes a young VC soldier he killed, delicate body and smooth complexion, black pajama pants, blown out of his rubber sandals, one eye staring open, the other a star-shaped wound, his jaw knocked into his throat, his hopes and fears and goals and wife.
In "Ambush" O'Brien tells how he killed the man, and when his daughter asks him, "Have you have killed a man?" he says "No," but is still seeing "the young man step out of the fog."
In "Style" O'Brien depicts a callous soldier mocking the graceful dance of a Vietnamese girl before her burnt house and killed family.
After the war in "Speaking of Courage," Norman Bowker is at a loss at home, driving round and round his small town's prairie lake, houses, and 4th of July park, imagining telling the story of how he failed to get the silver medal for uncommon bravery.
"Notes" explains the "true" story behind "Speaking of Courage," revealing in a "slip" that it was O'Brien who failed to win that medal by failing to prevent his buddy from sinking into a field of excrement and mud during an appalling mortar barrage.
In "In the Field," the platoon searches that muck for the corpse of their fellow-soldier as O'Brien (?) tries to come to terms with his role in his friend's death.
In "Good Form" O'Brien says that apart from his having done a tour of duty in Vietnam, everything is invented. He didn't kill that young man but, having been present, he might as well have killed him. Story vs. truth. Or the truth of story.
20 years later in "Field Trip," visiting that same muck field with his 10-year-old daughter, he goes for a cleansing swim in it.
In "Ghost Soldiers" O'Brien deals with his second wounding injury and his vengeful hatred for the rookie medic who nearly killed him by mistreating him.
In "Night Life" a fellow soldier bugs out from the stress of high alert nights.
In the last story, "The Lives of the Dead," O'Brien interweaves his sad memories of Linda, a girl he loved as a boy ("Why do you think I'm dead?") with his memories of death during his tour of duty.
After The Things They Carried, an hour-long "bonus featurette" written and read by O'Brien, "The Vietnam in Me," (1994), closes the audiobook. This non-fiction piece depicts his return in 1994 to Vietnam with his lover, Kate, revisiting places of terrible carnage from his tour of duty and speaking with local people and trying to deal with his nightmarish memories, vivid nightmares, and love for Kate. I found this non-fiction piece more moving than The Things They Carried. I had felt that occasionally in his stories he is at times too consciously telling stories, both in his comments about the nature of memory, story, and truth, and in his talent for crafting perfect tales. That coupled with Bryan Cranston's stellar professional reading made for a moving and harrowing experience that at times felt crafted, acted, and story-like. By contrast, O'Brien's craggy, tenor voice is the voice of a plain, sensitive, and damaged person reading his failures, survivals, and losses, along with the self-delusional nature of America's mythology of righteous innocence. The burning truth of "The Vietnam in Me" as read by O'Brien scorches the stories.
Finally, O'Brien, who may feel like a coward to have gone to war, exercises intense bravery in his honest fictional autobiographies.