This was a romp! As a traveler myself, and to many of the places on the "innocents'" itinerary, it was a kick to hear Twain's take on the people and places and various travel annoyances, many of which haven't changed in the past 150 years. It was also great fun to get a picture of how international travel took place in those days, and left me wishing I had 5 months and a sponsor to send me following in their wake.
Twain was not immune to the ethnic stereotypes and prejudices of the period, which can certainly make the more culturally sensitive among us cringe; however, I often suspected that many of his more outrageous and condescending remarks were just his way of satirizing their own (and our) ignorance of how the rest of the world lives. In any case, it was easy to just consider the source and appreciate the cleverness, if not always the content, and bear in mind that it is in fact possible to encounter the embodiment of our stereotypes from time to time.
I very much enjoyed Grover Gardener's narration, as his tone sounded to me like what I would expect Mark Twain to sound like. In sum, a good time was had by all!
There were many things I loved about this novel - above all it's a fascinating slice of post-war, pre-sexual revolution, cold war history through the eyes of a rule-bending middle class British woman (Lessing's alter ego?). The structure of the narrative provides a fragmented, prism-like view of Anna's life and times as it alternates between her various notebooks - listeners should be aware of this challenge in the beginning, until it becomes clear what each notebook represents and contains. Some of these (the Africa vignettes) were more interesting to me than others (the Communist Party deconstructions), and there were definitely times when Anna's difficulties and choices got a more than a little annoying, but ultimately it was an enlightening and unforgettable literary experience.
And finally, a word about Juliet Stevenson, the narrator: I believe she could make a phone book sound lively and distinctive... She's one of the reasons I delved into this recording in the first place, and she did not disappoint; her ability to create characters is unmatched (in spite of a little awkwardness with the American accents), and I will always leap at books she performs. (She's such a fun actress, too - catch her in 'Emma', with Gwyneth Paltrow!)
This book creates a wonderful backdrop for appreciating the work of Vincent Van Gogh, providing an understanding of his development as an artist, as well as giving insight into the popular perceptions of him as a quintessential starving artist and cutter of his own ear. The story was developed using Vincent's own words from his letters to brother Theo, which certainly lends credibility to the thoughts that Stone puts in Vincent's head, as well as to conversations between Vincent and the other Impressionists of the age.
However, I think this may be one of those books best read rather than listened to...
It's not the narration; Mr. West does a fine, measured job, especially attributing a sweet earnestness to Vincent, and I probably would never have gotten around to the written version before my travels to Amsterdam (where his museum lives) and Provence (where he did much of his painting).
But Stone put so much effort into his descriptions of the places, people, clothing, food, the period in general, that it was often difficult to visualize them at the same pace they were being read - or maybe it's that I felt they deserved to be re-read and dwelt upon. It's strange that in the end, I felt that the hours of narration passed both too slowly because of the detail, and too quickly because I couldn't absorb all the detail!
While I'm happy to have listened to this version of the book, I plan to find a real paper copy that I can search through for certain descriptions of paintings and settings, to bookmark and compare to the paintings that are now as beloved by the world as they seemed to have been by Vincent himself. (P.S. The Van Gogh Museum is worth a visit, especially when they keep it open late on Friday nights! The most fascinating part is where they compare the current colors in the paintings to what was originally put on canvas - many of the blues used to be purples...)
I love that this story was told largely from within the experience of 'ordinary Germans' during the war - what they experienced, the decisions they had to make, the hardships brought to them by both Hitler and the Allies.
But there's so much more than that to love. The structure of the narrative is so unique - as is the narrator, of course. The flashes back and forward - as told by Death from both experience and his own book thievery - at first made it hard to get into the book and then made it hard to put down (or turn off, in the case of the audio version).
What really makes the audio version exceptional, however, is the performance of Allan Corduner. While other narrators may be more adept at creating completely distinct voices for each person, Mr. Corduner excels at creating character and emotion. Between his narration and the writing itself, some parts of the book were truly heartbreaking in a way that I'm not sure they would have been if it was just the voice in my own head telling the story.
If you've been having doubts about this book, put them aside and give it a try - I'm pretty sure you won't be disappointed.
I'll say right up front that Matthew was just a little too smart, and the pieces fell together just a little too neatly, for my taste. However, that didn't keep me from enjoying the listen! In the end, I really did want to know how all those pieces dropped into place.
The atmosphere of a colonial town on the frontier between English, Spanish, and native America was fascinating to visualize, and Edoardo Ballerini did a fine job of creating a variety of characters who on the surface all could have sounded exactly the same. He has a smooth and soothing voice (probably leading some to say "dull") that to me creates subtle characterizations and no little bit of suspense.
In spite of this story's being rather heavy on coincidence, I enjoyed Mr. McCammon's writing well enough (and he does have a wonderful way with words) to be curious about how Matthew proceeds with his questioning and theory-generating personality into the 18th century and the big city. Give it a try!
If you've read/listened to "Pillars of the Earth", you've met many of these characters before: Machiavellian clergy, socio/psychopathic nobility, brutish in-laws, clever artisans, and the beautiful young woman who's always the smartest person in the room.
However, once you get past that (if it even bothers you at all), this is one of the more enjoyable ways to absorb a little medieval history. And although I felt that the story drew to a close rather too quickly after all we'd been through, then end of one of the novel's villains was one of the most satisfying I've read in awhile. I was rather less happy with the resolution to the plot's one mystery point, which I gather was treated much differently in the film version - a good reason for me to revisit Kingsbridge yet another time.
John Lee was marvelous, as ever.
I can always count on Russell Banks to carry me completely into an experience I never would have expected to want in the first place! His imagination for characters and the twists and turns of their lives is unique and compelling. This book is a perfect example - who knew that Liberian history could come in such a package? The character of Hannah Musgrave is unlike anyone I've ever 'met' in literature, and this account of her attempt to come to terms with her dramatic, traumatic past had me enthralled. Banks also has great talent for evoking mood with his words, such that the feelings he creates can stay with you long after the story has ended.
My only complaint in this case is with the narration. The dry, jaded voice Ms. Hurt has created for Hannah, laced on occasion with appropriate shame, self-loathing and regret, is on the one hand the perfect vehicle for such a story. On the other hand, it often became very weighty and difficult to listen to, and sometimes I longed to hear flashes of the impulsive energy that Hannah must have once had to get into this situation in the first place...
Nevertheless, it was a wonderful listening experience that I highly recommend!
I admit, I was one listener who almost gave up at the beginning. The drug dealing scenes were so unpleasant to me - a high school teacher living in denial about how teens really live and think ;-) - that I was wondering what could come up that would make it worth my time to continue.
But once we were really introduced to Skippy and his pals, I had my answer: the characterizations. I don't mean the narrations - which were fine though not remarkable in my mind - but the characters the author developed, both kids and adults. Murray's subtlety, his way of dropping crumbs of detail along with the big chunks of action and dialog, is what builds the bonds between reader and character, to the point that we even care about the ones we are repulsed by. The story itself was good, but in the end it was just a vehicle for introducing us to a world of people and perspectives that I, for one, would never otherwise experience.
I loved the premise of this novel, and Niffenegger does a masterful job of creating time-traveling "rules" that stay consistent throughout. Even when we're pretty sure how things are going to end, I was riveted to the narrative to find out how all the pieces fit together. Thankfully, Clare and Henry had their own narrators, which really helped keep everything straight. My only complaint (thus the 4 stars) is with performances of the readers. They weren't terrible - far from it - but William Hope particularly seemed to lack a spark (surprising, given the number of high profile books he's narrated). Also, they both made some odd pronunciation choices in a few places. But overall I found this to be an excellent audiobook, well worth "reading" to the very end!
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