LISTENER

Dan Harlow

Fort Collins
  • 57
  • reviews
  • 898
  • helpful votes
  • 62
  • ratings
  • Animal Farm

  • By: George Orwell
  • Narrated by: Ralph Cosham
  • Length: 3 hrs and 11 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 9,552
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 8,126
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 8,131

George Orwell's classic satire of the Russian Revolution is an intimate part of our contemporary culture, quoted so often that we tend to forget who wrote the original words! This must-read is also a must-listen!

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • If you hate spoilers, save the intro for last.

  • By Dusty on 02-18-11

A little frightening

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 12-05-15

Any additional comments?

I had never read this novel before and though I knew what it was about I had never even had any of it spoiled for me so the entire experience was new. In some ways the novel is what I expected: a simplistic look at how a totalitarian regime can take power, but what I hadn't expected was how correct, and even a little frightening it was.

While there is nothing new I could hope to add to the analysis of this novel, I did walk away with some very strong feeling that I must have spent over two hours here typing out as part of my review. Yet I keep deleting everything I write about this novel because of how politically charged it is and how my political opinions are just that: political opinions. Not only can I add nothing new to the analysis of this novel, I can add nothing new to the discussion of politics.

And maybe that's the answer to the age-old problem of political systems: stop having such strong opinions about everything. The world needs less extremism, anyway.

So I'l just say this is a great book and I really enjoyed it and otherwise I'll keep my opinions about it to myself.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • The Pearl

  • By: John Steinbeck
  • Narrated by: Hector Elizondo
  • Length: 2 hrs and 35 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 875
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 760
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 763

In this short book illuminated by a deep understanding and love of humanity, John Steinbeck retells an old Mexican folk tale: the story of the great pearl, how it was found, and how it was lost. For the diver Kino, finding a magnificent pearl means the promise of a better life for his impoverished family. His dream blinds him to the greed and suspicions the pearl arouses in him and his neighbors, and even his loving wife cannot temper his obsession or stem the events leading to the tragedy. For Steinbeck, Kino and his wife illustrate the fall from innocence of people who believe that wealth erases all problems.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Extremely poignant; incredible listen.

  • By Chris Baldwin on 05-16-14

The exploited poor

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 11-29-15

Any additional comments?

Steinbeck's greatest achievement was to give voice to the poor. Steinbeck's critics could say he romanticized his subjects by making them all good souls who always had the high moral ground and earthy common sense, but so many of his subjects had been marginalized their whole lives that they were nearly invisible and so, I believe, deserving of a champion.

Yet many of Steinbeck's stories end badly for the main characters, they are almost always defeated by the forces they hoped to struggle free from. For a time each character in a Steinbeck has hope for the future only to succumb to the cold reality that the rich and the powerful will remain rich and powerful and the poor will remain poor and exploited.

Yet still he gave a voice to the poor and he showed his audience how difficult it was for the less fortunate to rise out of their situation, how desperate they could be to change their lives, and how terrible it was for them to fail. Steinbeck imparts on the reader a great empathy for his characters because it is vital for us to feel the pain of these people. This is why, I believe, Steinbeck's characters are almost always "good, honest people" because we believe ourselves to be people like his characters. And so when we see these characters struggle and fail we also struggle and fail and for a moment we empathize with these people.

Had Steinbeck's characters been more like Tolstoy's, full of faults and failings and hubris, he would have been less successful to get us to actually feel the pain of poverty and hopelessness because we would have had an excuse to blame the characters for their failings. Yet when the characters are a sketch, when we see only the good and watch how the bad washes over them, we understand, if only a little, the plight of people who cannot escape from their situations.

This was Steinbeck's greatest achievement: he got us to actually care about people we might otherwise never even notice. Steinbeck didn't need to create realistic characters like Tolstoy's because he knew his readers were full of faults and prejudices; his job was to get those very people to not be selfish for a few hundred pages and show them how our insensitivity to the less fortunate could be devastating.

This story, like almost all of Steinbeck's stories could easily be updated to our own times with very few changes. Replace the pearl of the world with a lottery ticket, move the setting to an inner city or desperate country, and the truths would still be the same: the poor will be taken advantage of by the powerful and any resistance on the part of the poor will be dealt harshly by the law, no matter the justification.

And so when we ask ourselves "Why did Steinbeck never offer any solution to these problems", then we should look in the mirror because he was actually asking us that question, he only gave us the tools to recognize there was even a problem to begin with.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • First Love

  • By: Ivan Turgenev
  • Narrated by: David Troughton
  • Length: 2 hrs and 40 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 47
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 35
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 34

At the end of a dinner party, the remaining guests drink wine and tell stories of their first love. For one of them, it will be a dark journey into his past, reawakening unbearable memories of his obsession with the beautiful Zinaida.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Turgenev's Famous Novel...

  • By Douglas on 01-16-14

Passion is stronger than logic

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 11-26-15

Any additional comments?

The final image of the novel, of the old lady in rags and dying on a hard floor with a sack under her head as she fights to stay alive despite a lifetime of misery gives the novel a greater perspective than just a young man sadly in love with a woman he won't have. The novel speaks to a greater need for people to live, at all costs and at any price, no matter the amount of pain it inflicts.

I have to admit to not feeling as close to Vladimir as I would have liked. Not because I didn't share any of his experiences - what young man hasn't - but there was a strange formality in him that seemed at odds with his age. I understand he was well bred and that his manners contrast beautifully with the situation of his love, but even when he was most mad, in the garden at midnight, I never really felt like I was with him. Had this been a slightly more modern novel - say written in the 1910's or 20's - there might have been a needed sexual undercurrent that is sorely missing here. I can't blame Turgenev since we have to consider when the novel was written, but still it's an element of human nature that is important.

Zinaida, however, though we never get the novel from her point of view, I felt much closer to. Her character is the real strength of the novel because we learn so much about her through her actions and the actions of everyone around her. She is a flirt, she is manipulative, she is poor (having once been wealthy), but she is not a bad person. In fact I felt more empathy to her than I did towards Tolstoy's Anna - they were similar women, but Zinaida felt more ... within reach. She wanted to be in love, not just be loved. And who doesn't want that? All her suitors were dolts, except for the one man who did have her.

I liked the image of his father's horse, the near wild Electric. This mirrored the father quite poetically and gave substance to his feelings in a way we could understand.

All-in-all this is a very sad novel, but it does speak to how we struggle in life to live and how imperfect we are. Yes we may know the right things to do, but passion is almost always stronger than logic.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • Heart of Darkness: A Signature Performance by Kenneth Branagh

  • By: Joseph Conrad
  • Narrated by: Kenneth Branagh
  • Length: 3 hrs and 49 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 4,400
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 3,921
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 3,922

A Signature Performance: Kenneth Branagh plays this like a campfire ghost story, told by a haunted, slightly insane Marlow.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Conrad's Brilliant & Wild Novella

  • By Darwin8u on 11-21-12

The lie of "civilization"

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 11-23-15

Any additional comments?

This is the third time I've read this novella: once when I was in the Navy and had just watched Apocalypse Now, and again in college where we discussed the racist and colonial aspect of the novel. I have to admit each time I "enjoy" the novella just a little less each time, perhaps because I know the story so well from a few different points of view. The language is still beautiful, the racism still troubling, the theme is still inscrutable, but for whatever reason I don't feel as if the novella speaks to me as it did when I was younger.

I'm by no means old, but at 42 I am, hopefully, more mature, more settled, and more unwilling to dash off into the world and rip every treasure out of the ground I can get my hands on. I am, such as the "intended" in the novel, a bit more willing to be lied to but only because I've seen the truth (at least a little bit) about how the world really works and am getting weary of "the horror" of it all.

A younger me would have been glad to drop everything, rush off into the proverbial jungle and conquer as much as I could all the while looking past the pain I was inflicting on the world around me and being quite arrogant in my actions. I would have said what I was doing was for the better of the world at large. That's probably why I joined the Navy when I was 18 because I wanted adventure and didn't much think about who would be at the receiving end of a giant marine cannon or how my own country's national policy might be seen as arrogant by another sovereign nation.

The older me sees it as all a terrible game that can never be stopped because you can't impart that wisdom to a younger generation. Young men will always want to rush headlong for glory, be it for money or extremism and nobody, especially the old, will tell them otherwise.

And this is what so much of Western Civilization is based upon: brute, youthful, arrogant force imposed on the bewildered and weak. And this is what, I believe, Conrad, at least in part, was trying to tell us: that the "civilized west" is terrible. It is terrible because it is based on lies. And that lie is that we have somehow conquered something, have driven out the darkness, that we are somehow better than people who live in grass huts.

But Conrad takes pains to show us we are not better, in fact we are the oppressors who are brutish and cruel and who lie to each other at every turn. We never see the natives act this way to each other, even the cannibals seem downright civilized. The white men gossip and can't even manage to get a parcel of needed rivets from point A to point B. The white men are mad, mad with greed, hatred, and jealousy.

This is the way of the West, this is what drove the Romans to conquer Britain, and it's what drove the Colonial Empires to conquer Africa and South America.

But what drives this greed? Perhaps this insatiable desire to kill and conquer is because, as Kurtz recognized, the "horror" of the darkness is so close at hand, lives right along the bank of the river, that the only way to keep from reverting to an animal state is to continually fire a cannon into its depth, no matter how absurd the outcome.

And perhaps we'd be happier if we just gave up civilization, gave up the lies and the greed, took up a bow and arrow and lived off the land? Seems far fetched, but every native in the novel who gets a little too close to Western Civilization dies.

But here lies the problem: is then the novel racist because it says all the black people in it are simple savages? This has been Chinua Achebe's (and many other's) argument against the novel because it does not elevate the native black Africans to the level of white compassion. But why would they want to be? Look how terrible the white Westerners behave! Why is a more "primitive" way of life less dignified than the man who in the middle of a steaming jungle still keeps a starched color and a pure white petticoat? I'd argue the Westerners are the real savages.

Now this is all very extreme and I'm not advocating a return to the Savannah, but it's important to keep in mind how silly we all are, how improbable our culture is, and how useless it really is in the end of all things. That's why the lie at the end of the novel is so important because it speaks to how we manage to live everyday knowing we are all going to die and our cities will all crumble, that lie is the lie we have to tell ourselves to keep living otherwise we'd go mad like Kurtz.

And that's why I didn't quite enjoy this novella as much as I did previously because I found thinking about the futility of beating back the heart of darkness to be depressing and civilized men to be more savage than the hungriest cannibal.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Blood Meridian

  • Or the Evening Redness in the West
  • By: Cormac McCarthy
  • Narrated by: Richard Poe
  • Length: 13 hrs and 6 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 4,365
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 3,586
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 3,574

Author of the National Book Award-winning All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy is one of the most provocative American stylists to emerge in the last century. The striking novel Blood Meridian offers an unflinching narrative of the brutality that accompanied the push west on the 1850s Texas frontier.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Existential leavings

  • By Colin on 03-22-08

The imaginary friend of a psychopath.

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 11-21-15

Any additional comments?

There's an old New Yorker cartoon depicting a novelist sitting down for a television interview. In the author's lap is his latest novel, a massive 1000+ page tome. The caption reads the question by the interviewer who asks the author to sum up his novel in just a few words. The joke being that if the author could do that he wouldn't have needed t write a 1000+ page novel. However, the joke implies the author is competent enough to actually need all those pages to tell his story.

Blood Meridian is a long fever study of violence in a sun-baked void. Death isn't just everywhere, it is everything. Violence is inherent in every action of men, in every breath they take (their's or another's). The strong devouring the weak is the natural state of the universe of the novel. Yet there is a strange beauty to all this violence that even the most craven cannibal can appreciate: it is unromantic and perverted and deadly, but it has an attraction that is impossible to deny. Some men are more tempted to its beauty than others, some men actually revel in the violence while others flee or take refuge in the mud, but all men sense its power one way or another. This is what the novel, at least in my mind, is about. It is an evening - not as in the time of day but as a leveling or accounting thereof - of the violent animal nature which boils in all men and which they are to be held accountable for.

Blood Meridian is also very boring, over-written, and there is no dramatic tension what-so-ever. Plenty "happens" (at least in the parts where there is more than just page after page of simile description of staring at the sky), but there is no real danger for any of the characters, it's just a continuing downward spiral of depraved murder headed by a character, the Judge, who I can only assume is the Devil. Whether the Judge is the Devil is hard to say since McCarthy is not one to go in for superstition and the supernatural, but I can't describe the Judge any more than as the Devil himself. The Judge is everything violent and terrible in man (and in the universe), he is the reckoning, the evening of all men. He comes for blood and he is always just over the horizon. He probably doesn't even actually exist in the novel but is just a placeholder for the violent tendencies of men personified as an enormous, hairless infant. He's the imaginary friend of a psychopath.

The Kid we never get to really know because he's at the mercy of everything going on around him - he barely seems to have any say in the events of the novel at all. The Kid is just led around for a few hundred pages while we watch. I had no sympathy for the Kid because there is nothing to be sympathetic towards. And maybe that was the point, but I can't subscribe to a philosophy that says it's okay to not empathize with human beings nor will I believe I have no say in who is in control of my own actions.

I will say that I'm not really sure what I was supposed to take away from the novel. I wasn't particularly moved to reevaluate my opinions of violence or of savagery or of the cold nature of the universe, I didn't spend my hours away from the novel contemplating the deeper meanings McCarthy thought he was expressing here, I was, much like the characters in the novel, unmoved by almost everything that wasn't a beautiful simile of something and found most of what the Judge said to be obfuscated jibber-jabber.

Maybe McCarthy wanted the reader to feel numb and unsympathetic towards violence by the end of the novel? Maybe that's why we shoot the dancing bear so we can feel grief for at least one dead thing? I don't know. The book was long, but it doesn't resonate. McCarty could have just said "The universe is beautiful with or without us".

Maybe if I cared to I could read up on other people's interpretations of the novel, but I think I know what I'm going to find there - a lot of hand waving and summary of the language of the novel with a few tentative stabs at what we think the novel is actually about. Maybe McCarthy really did have a point to make, but I feel like he summed his ideas up better in No Country For Old Men with the story of the father carrying the fire in the night. Blood Meridian is a cauldron of ideas McCarthy explores with more deftly (though perhaps not as beautifully) in his other novels.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • The Dervish House

  • By: Ian McDonald
  • Narrated by: Jonathan Davis
  • Length: 21 hrs and 25 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 180
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars 143
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 145

It begins with an explosion. Another day, another bus bomb. Everyone, it seems, is after a piece of Turkey. But the shockwaves from this random act of 21st century pandemic terrorism will ripple further and resonate louder than just Enginsoy Square. Welcome to the world of The Dervish House; the great, ancient, paradoxical city of Istanbul, divided like a human brain, in the great, ancient, equally paradoxical nation of Turkey. The year is 2027....

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Listen, but then read

  • By Karen on 09-18-11

An allegory for human civilization

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-18-15

Any additional comments?

In many ways this was the least science-fiction sci-fi novel I've ever read - and that made it even better.

This novel succeeds in all the ways that many of William Gibson's later novels have fallen flat. McDonald, like Gibson, is interested in exploring the world we currently live in (or are just on the cusp of living in) but he goes much further and deeper than Gibson by creating characters who are tied emotionally to the place they live in, who inhabit a world that is believable in its backwardness, whose problems are mainly their own doing. McDonald is just a better character writer than Gibson and it improves the overall story.

All of McDonald's characters in this novel are trapped, trapped either by greed, a rare heart condition, their past, or their religion. They are also all trapped by their geography, the great city of Istanbul that straddles the East and the West and in many ways has been corrupted by both instead of gaining the benefits of either. McDonald's Turkey is full of racism, of religious dogma, of superstition, of old ways of thinking, and all the while strives to be more modern, too. The city of the novel and probably much like in reality is a mess. The city is stifling hot, over-crowded, full of gossip and noise, and with very little real opportunity. Yet even among all the chaos of this city, people will still do what they can to get ahead, to make a life for themselves.

McDonald's goal here is to show us in simplified strokes the crossroads the entire world has always seemed to be at - to either follow religious authority and the respect of one's heritage or the road of technology and individual pursuits. And he shows us the successes and failures of each way of thinking, of how a priest can lose his way in the shaming of a poor woman who can find no other way to survive than to be a prostitute, or how a businessman can find no success without selling out his firm and his professional future. In this novel everyone is corrupted because they can't live in both worlds at the same time. In fact one character nearly goes insane trying to see the djinn swirling around him in the city.

The novel also touches on the cruelty of how the dominant culture of a nation can impose itself on the weaker minorities either through subtle racism to outright murder. McDonald doesn't make this a front-and-center point of the novel, but it's always there in the background either through how the Kurd's are seen, to how the Greeks were treated in Turkey. And it's this never-obtainable national purity that seems to be an obsession that holds the Turkey of this novel back from being a true power, from being united through its shared culture and heritage. Turkey is like the mellified man of the novel, but one that never will turn into life giving honey, just dust.

Everyone in the novel has a dream that is never fully obtained, they all have to settle for something less. And in this point I think McDonald makes his strongest case in how futile the effort is to try to change the world, or even to be as successful as we want in our own lives because we're too bust fighting prejudice, fighting greed, fighting economics, fighting superstition, and we're all fighting it from different sides. He paints a world that is fractured not just through geography, but as a species. At one point he tells us that the body of water separating the two sides of Istanbul looks very much like any normal river, but it is in fact the sea itself flowing through the strait, not just some stream. And buried in the muck is 2000 years of forgotten human civilization.

Structurally the book is incredibly well thought out and executed. You can feel the lives of all these characters, the entire city too, folded on top of each other, breathing the same hot, dense, noisy, polluted air. Even in minor details - such as the man in red who fishes for a catch that no longer lives in the water there anymore, or the image of an unworn wedding tuxedo juxtaposed to the observation that young men will always kill young men - is much more literary than I was expecting. Though a science-fiction novel, there is very little sci-fi: this novel is more of an allegory for human civilization and how we can't quite seem to get our act together because there are many truths, many ways of looking at the world, and many people willing to kill and die for those myriad beliefs, both the spiritual beliefs and the worldly.

This is a fascinating novel and one of the very best science-fiction novels I've ever read because it is so full of ideas and observations about what we are as a civilization and how primitive and advanced we are all at the same time.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

  • The Wind in the Willows

  • By: Kenneth Grahame
  • Narrated by: Michael Hordern
  • Length: 6 hrs and 56 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 779
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 669
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 679

Here is a timeless tale of waterside Britain that has been loved by generations of children and acclaimed as a classic. The story of Mole, Ratty, Badger, and Toad, and their escapades, whether messing about on the river or poop-pooping in Toad's shiny new car, cannot fail to enchant.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • My favorate read version of the willows!

  • By J. Glemby on 09-18-14

We were all Toad, once.

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-25-15

Any additional comments?

When I was 10 or 11 my family became acquainted with a very old, and very wealthy lady named Mrs. Marsh. Mrs. Marsh lived in Duxbery Massachusetts all alone in a very beautiful English style home that looked out over the harbor. She had a fine garden, a library stuffed with books floor to ceiling, a large kitchen you could cook anything you wanted in for as many people as you knew (and all the people they knew, too), but she was blind and couldn't much take care of herself anymore since her husband had died many years before. So my family helped her out with taking care of the house, the shopping, and some basic work for the house. We also read to her since she loved books but because she could no longer see, requested that she be read to.

Upstairs, through a concealed passage connecting to a room above the garage, was a room set up as an old school room. There was a chalkboard and desks, and even books for children to read. The room hadn't been used in decades and was dusty and everything old, but it reminded me of the scene near the end of this novel where Toad sings his final song about himself to himself. One last act of selfish bravado before "growing up".

Just a year later I would find myself having to move out of the home I grew up in, having to leave the valley and the river I had played along everyday since I had been born. I remember doing what Elspeth Huxley did in her novel, The Flame Trees of Thika, and kissed all four walls of my childhood home hoping that would mean I would one day get to come back - but I never did. My childhood stopped (a little bit) that day, and I physically left behind the first part of my life.

After that was Jr High, bad grades, worse friends, and a steady decline in any innocent childhood until I was shipped all the way out to Colorado. In fact I haven't been back to Massachusetts except once since leaving - and that was over 20 years ago.

But this book reminded me of those days, of those comforts that you have as a child - those attachments to things, the attachments to people you cared about, the attachments to long, lazy days along a river, or laying under the sticky pines, or playing baseball in the spare lot. Days where friendships, and battles, and adventures where almost common, where everything was wondrous and sometimes even a little frighteningly mysterious.

Being a child is a lot like being one of the animal characters in this book. I think that's why the animals seem to occupy a world with real people in the book, even interact with them, because they are living side by side, yet seeing the world so differently. This is why Toad can operate a car and not operate it well at all just as a child would crash it into a lake at high speed. This is why they can spend all day on the river or have everything seem to be provided for them - because it is being provided for - by the parents. Mole, Ratty, Badger, Otter, and Toad - along with all the other animals, are the neighborhood kids and the only time we meet a person is when they are in positions of authority or responsibility. That's the only time we care about adults.

I think you could make a parallel between my interpretation of the animals here and how Richard Hughes creates his children characters in A High Wind in Jamaica. The kids in that book occupy their own world, and while not totally indifferent to the adults in their world, they see the adults as some distant land of foreigners, quickly forgotten and somewhat mistrusted.

And yet we do end with the growth of one of the characters, Toad, who sees that he will have to grow at least a little, become a grown up, think of others more often, and put aside his own foolishness and selfishness and pride. And it's a sad ending too because for as much of a pain Toad is, we can't help but not only like him, but want to BE him, too. Because we were all Toad once.

Though I'm not 90 and not blind like Mrs. Marsh, I do find myself having more in common with her than with my younger self as I think about this book. That wondrous world of willows and a magical Piper at the Gates of Dawn does not exist for me anymore, it's nearly as dim as it is to the blind. And the old schoolroom is just as empty for me, full of dust as it had once been full of children. The desks all lined up still, but not for me.

We all have to grow up, but we can at least remember.

157 of 166 people found this review helpful

  • The Aran Islands

  • By: J. M. Synge
  • Narrated by: Donal Donnelly
  • Length: 6 hrs and 4 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 28
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 23
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 24

J.M. Synge, one of the greatest English language playwrites of the 20th century, immortalized the Aran Islands and its people with vivid written portraits that are among the greatest in modern literature. Synge’s vibrant language and earthy themes breathtakingly capture the folklore and way of life that has since perished on these remote northern islands.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • A glimpse of civilization's primitive past

  • By Dan Harlow on 03-07-15

A glimpse of civilization's primitive past

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-07-15

Any additional comments?

This book is a very dark glimpse into a dying world that once existed through all of human civilization. Fairies and giants and ghost ships are as much a part of these people's real world as is God and the police who come onto the islands to kick people out of their homes.

I do wonder, however, what Synge's intention was to portray these people as being so simple. He does admire their skill with the boats but he spends so much time with old men who tell tales that have no point that it's easy to think the whole island lives and thinks as these old men do. Yet the young men, Michael in particular, leaves the islands to find work elsewhere because he knows there is no future on those grey, wet rocks. And the other danger is that we get pulled into a nostalgic portrait of the islands that never really existed outside of the imaginations of these old men.

Still, there are moments that are quite beautiful and telling as to how things really are on the Aran Islands. First is the priest, whom we never meet but are always told about braving the rough sees day after day and risking his life as he tends to his flock. Though we never meet this man, I couldn't get the image out of my head of a man dressed in priest's black, standing upright on a small boat tumbling upon the waves in a fierce gale. I would love to have heard his story. The other telling moment was for the funeral of the young man. This was a beautiful and very sad scene where they bury him in the same spot where his grandmother had been buried and they find her skull among the black planks on her coffin. This image, coupled with the young man having lost his head at sea, is a wonderfully confusing image where the nostalgic sensibility of the old is placed on the dead body of the young that can't carry it to any future other than the grave.

Perhaps this is why all the stories end with absolutely no point because life is, to them, pointless. Life is hard, the women wear out in childbirth before they're even 20, the men drink and fight and die at sea for a pittance of a catch, or the lucky ones move to America and never come back, their story unfinished.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • Under Western Eyes

  • By: Joseph Conrad
  • Narrated by: Geoffrey Howard
  • Length: 11 hrs and 17 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    3.5 out of 5 stars 49
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars 31
  • Story
    3.5 out of 5 stars 31

Under Western Eyes, Joseph Conrad's novel of political treachery and oppression, of betrayal, guilt, and intrigue, begins with a bomb that kills its intended target, a hated Russian minister of police, along with a number of innocent bystanders. A young student named Razumov hides the perpetrator, then betrays him and becomes a spy among his exiled comrades. He faces a moral dilemma from which there is no escape.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • A novel without heroes but with amazing heroism

  • By Darwin8u on 06-20-13

Muddled Conrad

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 11-18-14

Any additional comments?

Oh how I had hoped this would be so much more than it is.

I have to admit total confusion as to what Conrad hoped to achieve with this novel. What starts off as insight into how precarious and arbitrary life in Russia under the government was at the time of the novel, ends with the (almost) humiliation of the people who sought to revolt against it. Everyone comes out as a loser in the end. Was Conrad trying to say everything in Russia is bad, even the people trying to change Russia? Was he really that cynical?

Then again, seeing as how events turned out in the years after the novel was published (the rise of Communism) then maybe Conrad really was onto something. Yet the book never really attempts to address the broader issues of Russian social and political reform because its focus is only on a few characters, nearly all of whom are either misguided, manipulative, or are outright fools. I kept getting the impression Conrad wanted to damn all of Russia, past, present, and every possible future.

What I found most interesting, however, was the character of Haldin. Here was a young man who, though a terrorist (and murderer), understood whom he was fighting so well as to ruin the life of a perfectly innocent person long after he himself had been executed. He wanted to light a fire under the ass of the comfortable middle class who had gladly allowed themselves to be ruled over for just a few pieces of silver at a time. Haldin saw how it wasn't those in power who were the most dangerous, but those complicit in keeping them in power. The same could be said of our own times in our capitalist society that gladly allows the business class to rule over the rest of us. We just want our creature comforts and give them all the power. Never does it occur to us to start throwing bombs around to enact real change even though the situation probably calls for it at this point.

And that's the way I thought this novel was going to go. I assumed Razumov would wind up being forced into becoming a terrorist, too, that he would be 'woken up' and would defect from his comforts to fight a oppressive system. I assumed we would see the development of a character whose terrorist actions (like Haldin's) would be explored and sympathized with. Haldin was a total mystery to us and so it's easy to denounce him as a wicked terrorist, but to have followed Razumov's path that would lead him down the same road as Haldin's, to end the book where it began but with another character, would have been rather thrilling.

But where this book goes is instead to neutral Switzerland where Russian expats live comfortably and foolishly as they plot against the Russian government. These people are not heroic freedom fighters, but just a bunch of fools who will never change anything. Why Razumov would even be needed to spy on them seems like a total waste of time to me. In fact as the book went on I was not surprised Razumov grew more and more to dislike these people and that he was was glad to help out the Russian officials. But then we get another shift where he changes sides (too late) and winds up a cripple. I didn't buy any of it, to be honest.

I have to admit I was thoroughly lost by the end of all this. I have no idea what Conrad was trying to really say and can only really recommended the book on the strength of the characters and the overall story it does wind up telling. Granted, it's a cynical and depressing affair, but it feels realistic. The only thing going against it is that only a few years after the book was published another young man, Gavrilo Princip, managed to shake the entire world up with his own actions. I don't believe Conrad would have thought it possible that so much could actually change at the hands of just one individual and so real history seems to work against the point the novel was trying to make about everyone being ineffectual.

So I'll have to put this one down as my least favorite Conrad novel. I found half of it thrilling and well written, and the other half to be boring and limited of insight. Overall it is well written like all of Conrad's work and the language is always a joy to tangle with, but I just never got the feeling that this was a book with a solid foundation or plan.

3 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • A Confederacy of Dunces

  • By: John Kennedy Toole
  • Narrated by: Barrett Whitener
  • Length: 13 hrs and 32 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 5,312
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 4,045
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 4,053

The hero of John Kennedy Toole's incomparable, Pulitzer Prize-winning comic classic is one Ignatius J. Reilly, "huge, obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua, a Don Quixote of the French Quarter". His story bursts with wholly original characters, denizens of New Orleans' lower depths, incredibly true-to-life dialogue, and the zaniest series of high and low comic adventures.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Well Done

  • By Jon on 09-18-05

A Funniest Sad Book

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 10-27-14

Any additional comments?

One thing that struck me about this book was how structured it was. Like The Master and Margarita, no matter how outrageous the story got I never felt like it was going too far or not playing within the rules it had set up. A lot of this has to do with the magical quality of some of the characters. Ignatius' unique world view could recreate reality anyway he saw fitting to suit himself, and more subtly but just as importantly Jones who has no actual corporeal form: he's just a voice, a pair of sunglasses and a cloud of cigarette smoke. This magic flittering around the edges of each character played well into the theme of fortune, Fortuna, controlling all of our fate and it helped build this fictional world of New Orleans as a real place full of living, breathing characters whose fates are intertwined and dependent on each other.

Much like poor Mr. Levy, I too kept feeling depressed while reading this wonderful book. What made me sad was everyone seems to be suffering some degree or other of mental illness that hinders them from seeing the world as it really is, and also everyone's lives were miserable because of circumstances out of their control - which led to more delusional behavior.

The most interesting theme of the book was self image and how people see themselves and each other and how they present themselves to the world. Nearly every character goes through a physical metamorphosis, Ignatius through his various jobs and hot dog vendor costumes (not to mention his weight), his mother's bowling shoes she never takes off, Jones' shifting cloud shapes, Miss Trixie's new teeth and her always delusional 'I'm a very attractive woman', Mancuso's forced undercover wardrobe choices, Darlene's southern belle strippers costume, Dorian Greene's hat (who he got from Irene at the beginning of the novel), and even Mr. Levy's pant company which he changes to selling Bermuda shorts. Everyone is continually trying on new identities and it recalls how dangerously close to insanity some of the characters really are, Ignatius and Mrs. Levy, in particular.

Another theme is security. I realized this when Dorian Greene grows paranoid about the safety of his rental when the three lesbians are kicked out. He makes sure the gate gets is locked against intruders (no doubt because he and all his friends living there are gay), but there are other issues of security. Ignatius only wants to stay safe in either his room, or more broadly New Orleans having only left the city once in his life. Mr. Gonzalez desperately wants to keep working at Levy pants, probably because his entire identity is caught up in that wretched hovel. Jones wants the security of employment, if only to stay out of jail as a vagrant. Miss Trixie wants the security of retirement and, literally, a check from social security. Even Miss Annie wants security, this in the form of peace and quiet from her insane neighbors. This security recalls people who are living close to the edge of society and could lose everything at any time. This in turn could easily feed into any sort of vice or eccentricity.

These two themes represent how lonely and sad living in a city can be. Wanting to stand out from the crowd just to feel somewhat alive keeps the soul alive but wanting security from the teeming masses of people you don't know, some of them dangerous, feeds your desire to hide away. These competing desires, to stand out and to hide, manifest themselves in various ways. Ignatius chooses to hide even though his personality makes him stand out, as does Mr Levy, and Jones. However, Dorian Greene, Claude Robichaux, Lana Lee, and Darlene all want to stand out - even if their actions mean they need to keep a low profile. Mancuso goes back and forth between hiding and standing out being he's the undercover cop who sees all sides of the city, good and bad, though mostly the bad.

But even at a deeper level, the feeling of individuality and security are primal needs and are tied to the spiritual, even cosmic nature of the book through Fortuna and her wheel. We are all bound together, we are not safe from each other, but we all need each other, too. This schizophrenic view, this back and forth between needing security and wanting individuality, manifests itself in Ignatius' world view that modern society is totally corrupt, perverted, and base. All of modern life's pleasures are wicked and debauched, but also necessary, too. He loves his Dr. Nutt (there has to be a pun in this), he loves his doughnuts and little luxuries. And he can't really reconcile these two competing ideologies, the battle between consumerism and survival (or at least spiritual). Other characters deal with this better - as most of us do - but even the most well adjusted of us sometimes feel that modern life is a bit silly and pointless and full of hypocrisy. We see and hate injustice, but we're not going to personally do anything about it, unlike Ignatius who though totally out of touch with reality, at least attempts to do something for the workers of Levy Pants.

The thing about Ignatius is that while I do not like him as a person - he's a liar, he's manipulative, he's selfish, he's lazy - is that I can understand why someone like that would exist. I mean, why wouldn't someone like that grow out of the insanity of modern life? Might as well meet insanity with more insanity! Live life on your own terms, even if it is crazy. And so I sort of forgive him a little, though I would loathe to even be in the same building as him. He's a great literary character, but a pretty awful human being. He had everything handed to him and though he did suffer through some traumatic events in his life - his father dying, and his dog dying - he's not suffering worse than, say, Jones who astutely shows us the people on the bus see him: as less than human and as a criminal. In fact the way people feel about Jones is how they should feel about Ignatius. Jones is a good person, he wants to work, he wants what modern life has to offer, even if it is as humble as a Buick and some air conditioning. He's even as smart as Ignatius - not book smart, but his mind is just as sharp and would have been as book smart had he gone to school; he is street smart like no other.

And I think a lot of the book hinges on these two characters, Jones and Ignatius. Ignatius is corpulent, Jones in non-corporal. Ignatius is lazy and slothful, Jones is willing to work, though no harder than he's being paid for; he's no fool. But they are both outcasts in society, as a lot of the characters in the book are, and that's what makes the New Orleans of the book a microcosm of all modern life. New Orleans here is a fishbowl where we can watch the crazy swim about and see how it acts, lives, and fights. And that makes Ignatius' escape at the end sort of frightening because he's now on the loose, infecting crazy wherever he goes, though his effect seemed to have a net positive impact on every single person he met. Everyone winds up the better because of him, either directly or indirectly, and whether they wanted it or not.

This was a great book and one of the funniest books I have ever read, though always with a twinge of sadness about it. And this is a completely unique book, too; I've never read anything like it. Like all great books it leaves you with much to think about and to unpack from each page and is a wonderful commentary on our modern age, even if it was written half a century ago.

By the way the narrator, Barrett Whitener is brilliant. At first I thought I would never get used to his near staccato delivery, but his character voices are the best I've ever heard. This book comes alive with his reading and his delivery adds a quality of calm to the craziness of the characters he brings to life.

7 of 9 people found this review helpful