I really enjoy Henry James, and this book was no exception. It is a portrait, perhaps one of the earlier, of a character encountered in a number of books (e.g., Sinclair Lewis' Dodsworth): the intelligent, successful, open and likeable American who goes out to see the (old) world and who is somehow completely blind to European social structure and conventions. In some aspects he is naive, but he is not stupid or inexperienced; he is simply unable to grasp the way members of a class-based society perceive humanity. And above all, he is genuinely likeable. I was also somewhat surprised to find that this book was written in 1877 -- to me, it really felt like an early-20th century novel, though I can't explain the precise reason. It wasn't the greatest piece of literature I've ever read, but it was very nice.
As for the narrator: it's really hard to rate him. On the one hand, he has a very warm, pleasant, clear voice, and he has a touch of that slightly outdated American accent which is perfect for the character and the narrator. He makes no attempt at characterizations, which I thought was fine -- I never felt confused as to the identity of the speaker. But the major problem with him is that he simply doesn't know any language other than American. Most of the story takes part in France, and there are quite a few French characters and expressions. For all of these, the narrator sounds like a caricature of an American mispronouncing French. He even mispronounces French expressions that are used in English, such as "coup d'etat" (he pronounces the final t). And the only character he tries to supply with an accent -- an elderly English woman -- sounds more or less like Dick Van Dyke's hilarious mock-Cockney accent in "Mary Poppins". It really sounded as if the main character was reading the novel. And just like the main character, the narrator has such a pleasant and earnest voice that it was hard to "blame" him for this shortcoming -- that's just the way he is.
All in all, an enjoyable if slightly confusing experience.
I can only agree with a previous reviewer. The novel itself is very moving and exquisitely done. It has a fluid, effortless flow, and at the same time is unrelentingly brutal (and really not for the faint of heart). In some aspects it reminded me of "The Lord of the Flies", of "Crime and Punishment" and Sartre's "The Nausea". In one of the strongest scenes in the book, a group of boys kill and "dissect" a stray kitten in order to train themselves in "perfect lack of feeling" -- I had a very hard time listening to this. But the most striking thing is the seeming ease with which the writing shifts between points of view, between past and present, between events and reminiscences. It could have been an outstanding audiobook.
But unfortunately it isn't, and that is due to the reader. It's a shame, because Brian Nishii reads very clearly and pronounces all the Japanese names correctly. But for some reason he almost always seems to emphasize the wrong part of the sentence. It's as if he reads every sentence separately, with no notion of context. In the end, it was possible to follow and enjoy the writing, but I had to overcome the flaws in the narration to do that. And that's the exact opposite of what an audiobook narrator should do.
Bottom line: recommended, but proceed with caution.
It is difficult to think of a narrator better suited for The Song of Hiawatha than the late, great William Hootkins. I believe he reads the poem almost better than it's written, with such feeling, grace and timing, perfect pathos and emotion. And the poem? It's enchanting, with its clear, hypnotic meter. It evokes a clear sensation of an ancient, hallowed story, of an ancient native legend. Sure, it's parodied quite widely (I myself am almost tempted to compose this humble comment in trochaic tetrameter) but it doesn't really matter.
Very highly recommended.
(Slight spoiler below)
Everything the reviews on the product page say is true, so I won't repeat that the novel has more of an American "feel" than a Japanese one, etc. The key, to me, is in the quote from the New York Times calling this "a close to perfect novel". Why not perfect? Well, most of the book is indeed very good (though it was probably more shocking when first written than it is today). It is the story of a selfish, immature man who can't face the birth of his deformed son and just wants the baby to die. The character is well drawn, and his fear, anxiety and escapism are heart-wrenchingly realistic. But then comes the final chapter which to me felt tacked on. The ending is so optimistic, such a "happy ending" that I found it unbelievable, basically "and then he grew up and did the right thing and everything was Very Good." I felt cheated. That said, cut off this last chapter and I would have given the story five stars. As it is, I don't think I'd recommend it -- it's certainly not bad, but it should have been better.
The narrator, Eric Michael Summerer, does an excellent job.
I don't have much to add about the poem itself, which is truly marvelous; the translation here is the one by Rolfe Humphries, and it is indeed extremely good. However, there's another aspect of the audiobook which I didn't care for. In addition to the poem itself, the audiobook contains two short essays: a biographical sketch of Lucretius by William Young Sellar, and an overview of Epicureanism by William Wallace. I actually found the essays an interesting addition, but for some reason they are not include before or after the text, but interspersed with it. I normally like to read or listen to introductions after the text itself, and I found that the arrangement here broke the flow of the text. If you're like me, the following layout might be useful:
0h0m to 0h15m: Lucretius biography, part 1
0h15m to 1h29m: Book I of the poem
1h29m to 1h45m: Lucretius biography, part 2
1h45m to 3h04m: Book II
3h04m to 3h20m: Epicureanism, part 1
3h20m to 4h32m: Book III
4h32m to 4h46m: Epicureanism, part 2
4h46m to 6h13m: Book IV
6h13m to 7h54m: Book V
7h54m to 9h12m: Book VI
As for the narrator: I've bought quite a few of Charlton Griffin's audiobooks, and there's no denying he's an excellent narrator. He's not my personal favorite, because I find his booming voice a little too, well, booming. I sometimes felt like it was an irate Roman god reading the poem, and not an atheistic poet. Not a real problem, of course, just my personal taste.
In short: an excellent poem, beautifully translated, expertly read. I only wish the extra parts were concentrated in one place, either at the beginning or the end.
The book itself is well worthy of the name "classic". It is deep, intelligent and moving, and the most impressive thing about it, to me, was the apparent ease with which the author portrays such a complex protagonist and such deep feelings. However, I was only able to reach these conclusions after reading a print version of the book, since in the audiobook I could only barely follow the story.
The problem with the narrator is very simple: his voice is just too deep. He's not an untalented narrator, in that his pronunciation is very clear and he reads without any errors (I think I detected a hint of accent -- South African, perhaps?). However, he reads at such a low pitch that it is very hard to decipher what he's saying. Most of the time it sounds like someone grumbling to himself in another room. This would be a perfect voice for some sort of "mountain-man" in an animated film, but constantly straining to understand the narrator is not what you want in an audiobook.
The story itself is quite nice and well written, if slightly dated. Or perhaps you need to be younger to appreciate the story and ignore the fact that a lot of it has become cliche ("A mysterious island, shrouded in fear, evil, and darkness" etc.)
As for the narrator, I must say I didn't care for his performance. It's not that he does anything "wrong": his voice is pleasant, his diction is flawless. But to my taste it was overacted. Mr. Harrison simply expresses too much emotion in his narration. As always, this is a matter of taste, but that's what I thought.
All in all, well worth getting, especially for this price.
If you've never read anything by Nabokov then this probably isn't the first book you should get, but it's a very nice, very short novel. You get the feeling that it could just as easily have been a short story. As always with Nabokov, the writing is exquisite. I also found the plot and the main character quite touching.
There is one point I hope might help some readers: For some reason, the general view among reviewers of this novel seems to be that the riddle in it (Nabokov has to have a riddle...) is very hard to figure out and that the book leaves the reader utterly bewildered. Maybe I was lucky, maybe the novel is easier to understand today than when it first appeared, in any case I found the "mystery" element pretty clear as such things go. It was nothing so complex as, say "Pale Fire". My point is, don't let the supposed difficulty of the book deter you from a rewarding listen.
As for the narrator, he does a flawless job. He has the right voice, the right intonation, everything sounds just as it should. He does mispronounce a French word or two, but those really are minor nitpicks.
In short: an excellent minor work from a wonderful author.
I'll start with the positive: if you're looking for infinitely sophisticated, superbly written and masterfully narrated postmodern (meta-)fiction, look no further. The book is a prime example of the genre, and the narrator does a perfect job.
For me, however, there was something lacking. Had this been my first exposure to this type of fiction, I imagine I would have thought it the most amazing thing I'd ever read, but as things stand, I find that the style hasn't aged well. The structure, the language and the cleverness of it all are mind-boggling, but still it never drew more than a chuckle from me. It felt like an exercise in cleverness. The book isn't bad, far from it. I just felt that it lacked a point.
This story is an extremely simple Christian fable: a man who's had a hard life has fallen into depression. He starts to read the New Testament, becomes calm and content, and stops drinking. He then applies the teachings of the gospel and become blissful. That's basically it. Nothing wrong with it if you're religious, I suppose, but as literary fiction I found it, well, embarrassing. I kept waiting for some sort of plot development or non-trivial (to my taste, anyway) insight, but there was nothing. It's hard to believe that this is the same Tolstoy who wrote War and Peace or The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I personally have nothing against stories with a religious message in them -- I loved Ivan Ilyich, for example, or G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday -- but only if they have some literary quality as "compensation".
As for the narrator: I thought he was perfectly fine. True, he has a noticeable Boston accent, but personally I don't mind it -- after all, Tolstoy wrote in Russian, and a British or "General American" accent would be just as foreign to the piece.
The bottom line: Unless you're looking for an inspirational Christian fable, I wouldn't bother with this audiobook.
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