Cotacachi, Ecuador | Member Since 2013
It’s a simple, sinister plot with shades of the classic short story, “The Lottery.” One hundred selected teenage boys compete each year for a prize of unimaginable wealth by walking for days until only one of them is left. No stopping, no resting, no slowing down. Whenever one falls behind in the grueling march, he doesn’t just lose a shot at the prize; he is shot dead. Soldiers do the shooting and enforce the rules. An Orwellian government is implied but never detailed. All along the long route over back roads and highways, sometimes through cheering crowds and often alone together in the night, a little community develops among the characters, who both compete against and support each other in a struggle that all but one must lose. It is a long book – nearly 11 hours – and probably couldn’t fully impart the marathon nature of The Walk if it weren’t.
An interesting aside on grammar: In King’s book, “On Writing,” he rails against the over-use of adverbs, and suggests that the last step in writing a book is to go through and remove about half of them. Maybe it’s because I just heard that book, but in “The Long Walk” it seems like someone put them all back in, and quite a few more. Or maybe it’s because the fictitious Richard Bachman really does, as King claims, have a style of his own.
Cabot Wright is a promising young man. He is a newly married scion of Wall Street, who would have nothing but bright prospects, were it not for his past conviction for more than 300 rapes. And he is easily the most positive person in a novel crowded with characters whose unique and fascinating lives are almost invariably headed toward a gloomy end. As in other of his novels such as “Malcolm” and “The Nephew”—neither apparently available in audio—James Purdy displays the quietly dazzling craftsmanship of a writer who deserved to be far better known than he was.
The oddballs are legion. Bernie Gladhart, for one, a former used car salesman and failed author of unpublished books about himself, is writing one about Wright at the insistence of his wife, an obese, sex-crazed, thrice-divorced painter of miniatures who dreams only of being married to a successful writer. In Purdy’s works, everyone is an eccentric, and no two are remotely alike.
The book is a merciless mockery of American culture at the midpoint of the 20th century that spares nothing—television, advertising, publishing, politics, religion, race, sex, business. It is hilarious, but darkly so.
Among many other trademark techniques, Purdy is a master of wildly mismatched descriptors, such as that of a man who wears “an expression between hunger and amnesia,” or someone who speaks in a way that is “prayerfully menacing.” Almost every sentence is a complex work of literary genius, and listening his work in audio form is something to savor.
The prolific and uncommonly accessible historian David McCullough chose the great Johnstown Flood of 1889 as the subject for this book, his first, in 1968. The traits that would define his works are evident here: engaging writing, historical credibility, and deep and detailed research that yields such personal and personable accounts of places and characters, you’d swear McCullough must have been present himself. (It’s also just slightly dated. In 1968 we were still saying “all men” instead of “all people,” but that’s history for you.)
The chronology unfolds against a portrait of Johnstown as a working class, company town, populated by hardworking people with big families. It was a steel town—a major center for the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Cambria Iron Works. Fourteen miles upstream on the Little Conemaugh River and 450 feet higher than the town, the reservoir known as Lake Conemaugh held 20 million tons of water behind an aging earthen dam. What was built as a reservoir to feed a defunct canal system had become the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a private retreat for Pittsburgh industrialists and their families.
A convergence of factors—a river narrowed by development, unwise changes to the dam, and an unprecedented series of rainstorms—combined to produce the horror of May 31. Water burst from the swollen lake and roared downstream, preceded by a wall of debris taller than the 78-foot stone railroad bridge it first crushed. The flood wiped smaller villages off the earth on its way to Johnstown, where it arrived in less than an hour. The destruction was nightmarish, and then became unimaginably worse when a mountain of wreckage, bound together by the remains of a barbed wire factory, piled against the town’s Stone Bridge and burst into flames. The official death toll was 2,209.
It would have been easy to portray this tragedy simply as the negligence of evil, uncaring tycoons whose poor management of their private lake unleashed it on a doomed populace. And that would be fairly accurate. But McCullough explores the many subtleties instead, getting around to culpability with scarcely an hour to go. While neither the exclusive club nor any of its gold-plated members was ever held accountable, the case did lead to the standard of "strict liability" that was adopted by American law in the next century.
Narrator Edward Herrmann delivers a seemingly effortless, expressive performance that is warm and easy to listen to.
Technical note: Many very long silences, some between chapters and some not, make me think several times that the player had stopped working.
Sixty-five years after its publication, “Earth Abides” remains fresh in its singular view of what might happen after most of the world’s population is wiped out by a fast-moving plague. The premise is a familiar one. Stephen King, for one, credits the work as an inspiration for his hugely successful “The Stand.” But his took off in an entirely different direction.
“Earth Abides” follows the post-pandemic life of Isherwood “Ish” Williams and what becomes a small group of survivors who cluster together in Berkeley, California as the world they knew steadily crumbles. The electricity fails, and years later the water supply. In between, everything changes. George R. Stewart, a serious academic, provides insights that are often surprising in this, his first and only science fiction novel.
There is the rise and fall of species—first ants, then rats, cattle, grasshoppers, and mountain lions. It is the constant cycle of animals that overbreed as they react to the rise and fall of their supply of prey and predators, then practically die out again.
And then something like it starts happening to the culture of the people. The little community of survivors—“the tribe,” as they increasingly call themselves—have children. Over the decades, the children marry and produce more children. But they don’t learn to read, or retain much sense of all the human history that was so recently lost. They don’t care about ice, for example, since they’ve never had it, so ice is one of those myriad achievements of civilization they feel no compulsion to recreate. They use matches, but couldn’t make one. After all this time, they don’t know how to fabricate things, or build things, or raise domesticated animals for food. They have become complacent scavengers in a land of incalculable plenty, thanks to thousands of abandoned stores, and they don’t realize how much they have forgotten.
Superstition rises to fill the space where knowledge belongs. Ish becomes something of a reluctant demigod.
This is not the way post-apocalyptic books usually go. They tend to be filled with renegade bad guys and warring factions whom the survivors must fear—zombies in the latest versions. Here the survivors themselves have become their worst enemy, or so it seems for a time. The whole of human civilization that separates them from savagery turns out to be an ephemeral thing.
In a way, it is an illustration of the theory that humans are never more than a generation away from atavism, as was illustrated in “Lord of the Flies.” But viewed differently, it’s not quite that, but rather the fact that in a slimmed-down world, the trappings of civilization are not particularly useful. In a tribe of 30 people, there’s very little urgency about preserving the science of plastics manufacture. There’s no need to make ammunition when a bow and arrow will do nicely.
They have all the civilization they need.
If Stewart set out to create an abiding volume, he couldn’t have done it better. There are very few clues within the book as to its real age. There are comments about records and record players, and incidents of careless use of the DDT that would be banned in 1972, but most of the book is timeless. There is never a mention of any specific year. It does have a formal, slightly dated writing style which constantly uses “which” when “that” would do, and there are no contractions.
The narration by Jonathan Davis is engaging and warm, and the audiobook is an affecting experience. Except perhaps for the truly devoted science fiction fan, however, the strident introduction by Connie Willis is a distraction.
In 1961, Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old son of Nelson Rockefeller, disappeared on an art-collecting mission in New Guinea and was never seen again. Swimming ashore from his capsized boat in warm, smooth waters, his presumed death was officially attributed to drowning. Yet rumors persisted for decades that he was actually killed after reaching shore, dismembered and eaten by cannibals.
Fifty years later, Carl Hoffman immersed himself in the jungle and its people, and unearthed documents to build a persuasive argument that young Rockefeller did, indeed, meet his fate at the hands of cannibals. It’s an engrossing mystery. But at the same time, it is a penetrating glimpse into the world of almost any primitive culture, where time is elastic, myth trumps facts, values are upside down, and nothing is as it seems.
“Savage Harvest” is exhaustive and compelling journalism, insightful in its portrayal of a shadowy, often savage world. The bonus is another articulate, engaging read by Joe Barrett.
From its iconic, elegiac opening paragraph to its extraordinary finale, when disparate elements accelerate and converge like a meteor swarm, “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is an awe-inspiring John Irving masterpiece. He always begins writing a book from the end, he says in an appended interview, taking as much as 18 months to devise a “roadmap” of the story. It’s the only way to imagine the creation of such a complex, multilayered opus—long but never tedious, laced with chilling portent, and all at once engaging, funny, moving and tragic.
It begins with a fateful Little League game in 1953, and goes to times and places where only John Irving could take it.
There is a concept in journalism called “advancing the story,” where a writer continually reveals new developments, rather than heaping on details that simply make the story longer. Irving is a virtuoso at its fictional counterpart. Just a couple of hours into “Owen Meany,” you’ve heard so much, in such gripping and intimate detail, that you begin to wonder what could possibly fill the remaining 25 hours or so. You wonder how it could ever end, and then, later, you fear that it will.
I am not a religious person—neither, he says, is the author—but its religiosity is what gives the book such strength of character. My life has been enriched by listening to Joe Barrett’s masterful reading of “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” It’s that good.
Reviewers typically give up when it comes to the work of Charles Portis, saying in one way or another that it simply can’t be described. That’s just how I feel after hearing “A Dog of the South” and learning of him for the first time, long after I should have. It is a rambling little yarn of the Deep South in the 1970s—so Deep that it rambles into Belize. The characters are a tattered, mismatched bunch of shifty failures, grifters, evangelists, shallow dreamers and a couple of weird children, all of whom, for some reason, are easily imagined as shadowy figures in the dim light of a bare bulb in some rundown hotel.
Ray Midge’s friend has stolen his wife and his car and headed to Mexico and beyond, and Ray goes after them—to retrieve his car. The people and puzzlements he encounters are beyond imagining. The plot is a barely-necessary device to support the author’s hilarious and inventive prose. For example, he arrives at the steamy, seedy Fair Play Hotel in Belize and meets the night clerk:
“She woke a small Negro boy named Webster Spooner, who slept in a box in the foyer. It was a pretty good wooden box, with bedding in it. I knew his name because he had written it on a piece of paper and taped it to his box. At the foot of his makeshift bed, there was a tomato plant growing in an old Texaco grease bucket.“
The first sentence would be plenty good by itself, but Portis piles on unexpected details that yield rich and riveting descriptions of an exceedingly strange world. It is deliciously funny.
As I said, it can’t be described. The soft Southern accent of David Aaron Baker provides the perfect first-person voice for Ray Midge—a decent fellow with good intentions and vague ambitions you know he will never realize. But listening to his zany adventure unfold is an excellent way to spend eight hours. You won’t regret it.
The particular genius of Stephen King at his best is an ability to concoct supernatural situations that are patently absurd, and then guide the reader down the twisting path of an inventive storyline toward unconditional credulity. By the time characters start swapping minds between their bodies or “flipping” into parallel dimensions, it has all become strangely plausible. This is one of those books.
“Doctor Sleep” provides the long-awaited sequel to “The Shining,” one of King’s earliest successes, and especially the character of little Danny, now all grown up and tormented by alcoholism and ghosts. It’s probably not necessary to know the original in order to enjoy the second, but it helps in small, significant ways.
Here is more of King’s pure invention: a band of elderly characters traveling the country in RVs, whose golf pants and liver spots mask a breed of ancient vampires called The True Knot (just “the True” to their friends). They feed—not on blood, but on the mystic essence of children who happen to possess the psychic powers of “the shining,” as Dan does. This essence is called “steam,” and its extraction is brutal, painful, and eventually fatal. For the True Knot, it's life itself. for centuries.
Downloaded in three parts, I wasn’t initially sure I’d stick with it. Not every King work is an unqualified page-turner for everyone. Before the end of the first third I was hooked. The reading by Will Patton is another tour de force, making a gripping story even more emotionally wired. He can do more with a harsh, throaty whisper than most could do with a scream, making your skin crawl. I couldn’t put it down, and I hated to see it end.
A leisurely listen to the account of Steinbeck’s iconic road trip after all these years is pure pleasure, and the wisdom of his penetrating observations is undeniable. Perhaps the best known is, “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” There is also compelling reasoning for traveling alone, and in revisiting the haunts of his youth on the West Coast, surprising insights into the true nature of ghosts: they are us.
The most powerful experience is that of his sweep through the racist Deep South of 55 years ago, and it’s enough to make you squirm. As it did him.
I do not know what the voice of John Steinbeck sounded like, but from now on it will be that of Gary Sinise, who provides exactly the right mix of warmth, irony, and—at the end—exhaustion from a marathon observant journey across America.
In this monumental, meticulous work by David McCullough, John Adams is intimately revealed as a passionate, visionary, bullheaded patriot, sometimes arrogant, and at times gullible when others conspired against him, which was often. He was as responsible as any, and more than most, in propelling the difficult birth of a great nation against all odds.
The portrayals in this book can be surprising. In contrast to historical images of bold and thoughtful men working together, there were constant clashes of egos and competing personal agendas among the founding fathers. They were mortals—the irascible and sometimes indolent Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and many more. Hamilton, especially, was a treacherous and self-aggrandizing man whose vicious and false public accusations cost Adams his reelection and ultimately ended Hamilton’s own career. The revered Thomas Jefferson comes off as something quite different from his reputation: a vain, mercurial, spendthrift, self-centered man who can be a trusted friend one day and a scheming, duplicitous betrayer the next. The architects of America comprised a cast of heroes and scoundrels. Many were both.
For those who worry about modern digital messaging consuming too much of our time, have no fear. It was rampant 250 years ago, via quill and ink, when people wrote endless letters and kept daily journals in elaborate prose, rife with literary and scriptural quotations, describing and debating the issues and events of the day. It was oddly formal. Abigail Adams addressed her beloved husband in letters as “My dearest friend.” Any educated person must have written millions of words in a lifetime. It’s difficult to imagine how they had time to do anything else. Parsing them must have been a colossal task for David McCullough, but it creates a history that would otherwise be far from complete.
There are fascinating insights here into 18th century politics. For example, presidential candidates in those earliest years took no part in the campaign, staying home for months and waiting to see what the outcome would be.
Although McCullough himself is also a fine narrator, Nelson Runger does a superb job through all thirty hours.
Adams and Jefferson, in particular, were often at odds and sometimes didn't communicate for decades. But their lives at last converged once more in the years of their retirements, when they carried on a memorable exchange of correspondence on every conceivable subject. And in one of history’s stunning coincidences, both men died in their homes on July 4, 1826, precisely the 50th anniversary of the independence of the nation they had worked so brilliantly to create.
I've read/heard and greatly enjoyed and admired several of Anne Rice's vampire chronicles. This one, not so much. The reading is superb, and for that matter, so is the writing. But the story falls short for me. Although devoted followers of the series will probably disagree--and I didn't come to the book expecting hand-to-hand combat among immortals--after 90 minutes of listening, when nothing whatever had happened, I gave up.
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