For some reason I missed "Roughing It" in my earlier attempts at reading all of Mark Twain. My loss: it's an absolutely hilarious journey, part factual reporting, part tall tale in the best western campfire tradition. (If you're familiar with the omitted "raft chapter" in "Huckleberry Finn," you know what to expect.) One of Twain's greatest strengths is his willingness to include himself among the objects of genial mockery. This is Mark Twain the Humorist at his best.
I didn't find the problems with audio quality that others reported. I agree that Fraley's recording of "Huckleberry Finn" is a superior piece of work, but Norman Dietz does a great job on this one. He's droll, unassuming, loquacious, and endearing, and he adopts one of a variety of other voices at the drop of a hat. My one complaint would be a certain breathiness of delivery -- occasional rapid delivery punctuated by sharp intakes of breath. I think this is partly a matter of recording age and technology: I find that occurring less often on more recent audiobooks. In any case, for an audiobook that gave me this much pleasure, I have to give it five stars.
An interesting travelogue. It's billed as "unabridged," but it isn't, really. The publishers have combined parts of Johnson's "Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland" with parts of Boswell's "Tour of the Hebrides." Both books tell the story of the same journey, from very different points of view. The editing has been done carefully, so there's little overlap; when Johnson and Boswell both relate the same anecdote, one or the other has been chosen for this presentation. But a good bit of both books - especially Johnson's, the more discursive of the two - has been omitted; and the audiobook ended so abruptly that I wondered if part of it was missing.
On the other hand, taken for what it is - an invitation to sample the works of these two excellent men - it's a lovely and lively four-hour treat. Alexander Spencer is a creditable Boswell, and Patrick Tull, ever the gruff, gravelly narrator, is a wonderful Johnson. I would go so far as to say that if you want to stick your toe in the Johnson/Boswell stream, this is a good place to start.
I would love to see an audiobook based on the same idea - intertwined selections from the two books - but with fuller selections. The great thing about Johnson's book is that you really feel like you've been to Scotland; the great thing about Boswell's is that you really feel like you've been there with Johnson.
Footnote: with the exception of this audiobook, both men have been somewhat poorly served in audio. Boswell's life of Johnson is available in either a well-produced but massively abridged version, or a massively complete version with mediocre sound quality. What's needed is a well-produced, well-performed, and sensibly abridged version: 15-20 hours, maybe: enough to linger over some of the famous episodes but not so much that the pace lags. (There's a BBC dramatization available on Audible that I hope to review soon. It's a great listen, but again, it's mostly a "greatest hits" version.)
Johnson has been served even worse - in quantity, not in quality. Apart from this book and a recording or two of his novel "Rasselas," there are no audio editions of Johnson's prose. And Johnson's prose is brilliant: rolling, thunderous, incisive, honorable, and wise. His preface to Shakespeare is one of the greatest pieces of criticism ever written. His essays for The Idler, The Rambler, and The Adventurer are full of awesome turns of phrase and "aha!" moments. Couldn't somebody be persuaded to put together a 15-20 hour anthology of Johnson's writings? Patrick Tull is no longer with us, but maybe Kenneth Cranham could be persuaded to do the honors.
As it stands now, once your taste has been whetted by the "Hebrides" audiobook, there's nowhere much to go for more of the same except print. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
Robin Field comes about as close to channelling Mark Twain as it's possible for someone to do in the electronic age. Contemporaries described Twain's voice as a somewhat high-pitched drawl, and Field's reedy voice comes close to matching that description. He delivers Twain's observations on the Mediterranean world and the people who travel to see it with mostly deadpan humor, occasionally pausing slightly for timing or not-quite-clearing-his-throat for emphasis. For a long time, the only version of this book available on Audible was narrated by Flo Gibson; and while Flo Gibson is always a delight to hear, this reading is clearly more Twain-ish.
The book itself poses some problems for the reader in the 21st century. Twain spares no one his satiric eye; the "quaint" customs of Old Europe come in for particularly acidic commentary, as do the fawning antics of the New World travellers. But it's when the book veers out of Europe and into the Muslim worlds of Turkey, Syria, and Palestine that Twain's voice becomes a bit grating. Twain had few equals when decrying the ravages of poverty close to home, but for some reason when he got to the Middle East, his usual compassion deserted him, and the behavior of people trapped in brutal poverty -- alternately begging, feuding, and slumped in despair -- seems to have aroused a sense of moral indignation at the victims.
Still, Twain was a hard-nosed reporter to his core, and it would be difficult to find more precisely-observed pictures of unfamiliar sights than the ones he sets forth here. This isn't the funniest of his travel books, but it's a good place to start.
mostly nonfiction listener
I just read Vowell's new book, The Wordy Shipmates, and loved it so much I immediately picked up the The Partly Cloudy Patriot. If Assassination Vacation was available unabridged at Audible I read that next.
Partly Cloudy Patriot is good fun....but nowhere near as smart or well developed as her latest book. You can see her maturity as a writer between the books, as Vowell is finding her voice in Patriot. In Shipmates, Vowell moves from a humorist (or essayist) to a historian.
Still....I enjoyed spending a few hours with Vowell - and came away feeling better about my own geek, history loving cred.