Review: The End of the Affair, Graham Greene, narrated by Colin Firth

I’ve been listening to Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair narrated by Colin Firth as I have puttered around the house, washing dishes or making soap, for about a month now.

This production was the Audiobook of the Year at the Audies in 2012. It is, in fact, a beautifully read audio book (which I will get to in a moment).

The End of the Affair is the story of Maurice Bendrix, who is reflecting on an affair he had with Sarah Miles, wife of Henry Miles. During the war, Maurice’s apartment building suffers damage as a result of German bombing, and Maurice is knocked unconscious. He wakes to find Sarah looking over him, and he quickly realizes something is wrong. Sarah abruptly calls off her affair with Maurice. Thinking it must be another man, Maurice hires a private detective to follow Sarah. Rather than losing Sarah to another man, Maurice discovers he’s lost her to something much larger and more complicated than he imagined.

I was surprisingly moved by this story. I think it was perhaps the unlikely friendship of Maurice and Henry, the wronged husband. I don’t want to give away plot points if you want to read the novel, but the two men form a bond, and the strangest thing about the bond is how “not weird” it is. In fact, the way Greene sets it up, it makes perfect sense in the context of the story. Despite glimpses at her personality through her diary and letters, Sarah remains more of an enigma than Maurice and Henry. Greene’s characterization of all the characters, whether major or minor, is rendered realistically. I did feel as if all the people I read about existed somewhere, and that this story might really have happened to them.

The novel is also an interesting study of psychology. Greene is an astute observer of humanity. Those interested in Kübler-Ross’s theories about the acceptance of death (here applied to the end of an affair), will recognize much of Maurice and Sarah’s behavior, even though Kübler-Ross’s model of the stages of grief was not published until 1969. In particular, the book focuses a great deal on bargaining, which I found interesting. Maurice’s arc as he moves through the stages is particularly fascinating psychologically, but to say much more would spoil the plot.

Colin Firth is an expert reader. Of course, you would imagine that he would be. He renders Henry Miles’s parts in a sort of Mark Gatiss tone that is perfect for the character. I think I could honestly have listened to Firth read the phone book and be mildly entertained. He gives the same breadth and nuance to this performance as he does to his acting performances. He’s an excellent narrator.

Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Published in 1951, The End of the Affair is my selection for a 20th Century Classic in the Back to the Classics Challenge.

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Sunday Post #19: Memorial Day Weekend

Sunday PostFinal exams have been taken, and I am finishing up grading for the year. I’m sipping my morning coffee. In a little while, I have to go to school to perform my last weekend duty assignment of the year. I always seem to have duty on Memorial Day weekend. I’m not sure what’s up with that.

Anyone out there use the Audible app and have a major issue with the last iOS version app update? Apparently lots of people were unhappy. I opened my app yesterday to listen to my book while I was making soap, and I had an error message. Nothing I did seemed to work, so I emailed tech support and was told to delete the app and reinstall it (logging out first, of course). I was so nervous about doing that because I was afraid I’d lose all my record-keeping and badges, not to mention my place in the current book. I’m not a big one for taking notes or using bookmarks in Audible, so I wasn’t as concerned. I followed the process, and I did have to mark all the books I had read as “finished” again, but other than that, it seems okay. I will give it whirl later and make sure. If you ever run into the problem, here is the error message I received:

Encountered Error while trying to Upgrade Application. Do you wish to re-try? Warning!Canceling the upgrade will result in loss of data.

All the spaces are just as I saw them in the error message, copied word for word exactly as I saw it.

The steps to resolve it are as follows:

  1. Turn on Airplane mode (not sure this is strictly necessary, but I did it).
  2. Open the Audible app.
  3. Go to settings.
  4. Press and hold on my email address at the top.
  5. At prompt “Reset Sign In,” tap “Sign Out” option.
  6. Delete the app.
  7. Turn Airplane mode back off (not one of the steps sent me, but necessary to proceed).
  8. Re-download it from the App Store.
  9. Open the app and sign in again.
  10. Re-download any current books (my book seems to be where I left off).
  11. Mark any previously read books “finished” again.

This process seemed to work for me. All my badges and records are still intact.

I added some more books to my ever-growing TBR pile this week.

I seriously may have to pick some of these up for the summer. They look pretty good. Gorgeous covers. I’m particularly excited for Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos—one of the main characters is an English teacher who has a son with autism. I think I can relate to that one!

I obviously didn’t finish anything else this week (no reviews), and once again, I’ve only really made any progress on The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. At this point, I’m probably behind in the number of books I should have read to reach my goal of reading 52 by the end of the year, but I’m not too worried because I have been around a book ahead for most of this year, and the summer beckons with more time to read.

In the coming week, I need to focus on finishing my grading and finishing up the year. I’m not sure I’ll get a ton of reading done, but who knows? What are your plans for the week?

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, narrated by Stephen Fry

I may in fact be the last person on Earth to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I will, therefore, dispense with any summary. The Internet makes a lot more sense to me now that I’ve read this book.

Stephen Fry’s narration was excellent. He gave the perfect irritating note (in an American accent) to the ship’s computer. He made Zaphod Beeblebrox sound a little bit like Austin Powers, but not so much that you decide he’s not cool.

If I had to pick favorite parts, they would be as follows (in no particular order):

  • The dolphins, unable to communicate Earth’s impending doom to less intelligent humans, leave and say “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”
  • The bowl of petunias thinks, “Oh no, not again.” After which many people speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias thought this, we would know a lot more of the nature of the Universe than we do now.
  • The poor sperm whale created by one of the missiles.
  • The Infinite Improbability Drive as a whole concept.
  • Shooty and Bang Bang, the Galatic Police.
  • Devious super-genius mice who seem to be running everything.
  • Oolon Colluphid’s books.
  • Vogon poetry.
  • The Babel Fish. We should get those things for real.
  • The Earth as a giant computer designed to figure out the the Question.

I first tried to read this book when I was in sixth grade, and perhaps some sixth graders could have read it and appreciated it quite a lot, but I didn’t get it, so I put it down without finishing it. Then years passed, and for one reason and another, I never managed to pick it up again until now. It’s hard to believe it was written in 1979, as much of seems prescient while other parts of it are timeless. It’s quite funny, and I could definitely see its influence on other writers I enjoy, such as Neil Gaiman. I see its influence on Doctor Who as well. And yes, I realize Douglas Adams wrote for that series.

So, one more book I should have read a long time ago crossed off the list, and wouldn’t it have been perfect if I had read it last year, when I was 42? My daughter Maggie told me on my birthday that year that I was “the answer to life, the Universe, and everything.”

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman

I listened to Neil Gaiman’s latest short story collection, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances, on Audible, mainly because I know that Gaiman is quite a fantastic reader (not all writers are). Unfortunately, that also meant that I didn’t have a real sense of the way in which the collection might hang together as a whole because I listened to it mostly in bursts as I cleaned house or made soap. As such, I can only really recall my favorite stories with any clarity, and I don’t have a print book to examine in order to refresh my memory, so I skimmed what pieces I could find in Amazon’s preview and Google Books. Finally, I found this review, which discusses each piece with a rating out five stars. I won’t discuss each story. Just the ones I liked or remembered better than the others.

“The Lunar Labyrinth” is the first story in the collection (following the poem “Making a Chair”). This story made me think of American Gods, and given that I knew the collection had an American Gods story in it, I assumed it would be this one. It wasn’t. Still, the story does nod toward the American Gods concept that those silly roadside attractions are more than they seem.

I liked the story “The Thing About Cassandra” quite a bit. How would you feel if you made up an imaginary girlfriend, and years later your friends and mother are insisting they ran into her?

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” reminded me of straight up fantasy. It’s a little bit Tolkienesque, but doesn’t quite make it.

“Orange” story told completely as answers to questions the reader doesn’t hear. Humorous and a little scary at the same time.

“The Case of Death and Honey” is a Sherlock Holmes story about Holmes’s quest to solve the ancient question of how to live forever. I quite enjoyed this one as both a story and a contribution to the Sherlock Holmes repository.

“The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” is a poignant comment on loss of memory as well as a love letter to one of Gaiman’s favorite authors.

“Nothing O’Clock” is a Doctor Who story. As I listened to this one, I kept wishing it had been filmed. It would have made an excellent episode. It’s set during the time of the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companion Amy Pond. The Doctor and Amy land on Earth in the TARDIS to discover that no one exists, and a voice insists they’re trespassing.

“Black Dog,” as it turns out, is the American Gods story, and I didn’t like it. As with American Gods, I could see that Neil Gaiman was doing something interesting with the idea of ancient gods in modern times, but in the end, I just wasn’t into it.

The other stories and poems didn’t leave enough of an impression on me to merit discussion here.

I thought the collection as a whole was a bit uneven, despite moments that I absolutely enjoyed. The individual stories I mentioned in this review are worth seeking out (with the exception, in my opinion, of the last. As much as I did enjoy Gaiman’s reading, I don’t think I’ll listen to another short story collection on Audible. I can’t recall enough of the individual stories, and there is not an easy way for me to glance back at the book again. I was tempted to give this only three stars, but the truth is, when the stories are good, they are really good.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Drums of Autumn, Diana Gabaldon, narrated by Davina Porter

Drums of AutumnAs I make soap, I’ve been listening to audio books, and I just finished a really long one—Drums of Autumn, the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Like the other books in this series, Drums of Autumn is narrated by Davina Porter.

This book picks up the story of Jamie and Claire as they settle in North Carolina on Fraser’s Ridge. Their daughter, Brianna, who lives about 200 years in the future in the late 1960’s, discovers disturbing news about her parents and decides to go through the stones at Craigh na Dun and help Jamie and Claire. Roger Wakefield, sometimes known by his birth name of Roger MacKenzie, discovers what Brianna has done and follows her through the stones.

I have read this book once before. I will just lay this on the table: I am not a fan of Brianna’s. I don’t like her personality much, and I can’t put my finger on why. Claire, to me, is interesting because she’s so knowledgeable about medicine, and I found her understanding of herbal healing particularly fascinating. I’m not into herbalism per se, but as a soap maker, I do find it interesting. Claire is no-nonsense, passionate, intelligent, and above everything else, interesting.

Because this book focuses so much on Brianna’s trials and tribulations, I find I don’t like it as much as the other books. I like the parts that dwell on Claire, Jamie, and even Young Ian, however. I didn’t realize until I read it again this time, but I also don’t care much for Roger. I don’t know if it’s because the pair of them seem indecisive and dispassionate compared to Claire and Jamie. I do feel that Gabaldon tries to impart some passion in their relationship, but I don’t buy it as a reader. It doesn’t feel the same. I wonder if it has something to do with this interesting comment Gabaldon made in her book The Outlandish Companion:

These [hard nuts] are the most difficult characters for me to animate; the characters whose function in the story is structural—they’re important not because of personality or action, but because of the role they play.

One example of a hard nut is Brianna, Jamie and Claire’s daughter. She existed in the first place only because I had to have a child. The fact of her conception provides the motive for one of the major dramatic scenes in Dragonfly, but it didn’t matter at all at that point who this kid was or what she would be like…

But who the heck was this character? And having created her purely for plot purposes, how was I to give her a personality? (130-131)

Perhaps it’s just my opinion, and others might disagree, but I would argue that Gabaldon doesn’t succeed fully in making either Brianna or Roger as real or as interesting as Jamie and Claire, or even as real and interesting as other minor characters who pop off the page.

Davina Porter is a heck of a good narrator, especially deft with handling all the voices of the characters. I would definitely seek out other books she has narrated just to hear her read.

In case you are wondering at this point, I have been enjoying the new Outlander series on Starz quite a bit. It is very true to the book, and the casting is excellent. I haven’t missed an episode yet. Even my husband is watching with me, insisting, “I don’t get how this is considered a woman’s story. I mean, I guess the books are romances…” Not exactly. Sort of difficult to classify. At any rate, the series is beautifully shot with great music and some fine acting. Check it out, if you haven’t.

Book Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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The Odyssey, Homer, Narrated by Ian McKellen

The OdysseyIf you have an Audible membership, you should totally use one of your credits to purchase The Odyssey read by Ian McKellen. It is the Fagles translation, which I had not previously read. As you might imagine if you have ever seen McKellen act, he is a masterful reader, and given the material he has to work with in this instance, you can’t miss. I seem to remember that Jenny once said that Fagles was her favorite translation, but I can’t remember if she said why. I believe she was a Classics major as well. I have previously read the Fitzgerald translation, and while I appreciate its beauty, and I understand his reasons for preserving the Greek spellings for names, it was a little confusing. I used a translation by Stanley Lombardo when I taught sometimes as well.

One of the things that struck me again upon listening to The Odyssey is how modern it sounds. People certainly haven’t changed much, and The Odyssey lays bare human nature from the ridiculous to the sublime. I love it. My favorite parts of the book cover the period beginning in Book 9, when Odysseus encounters the Cyclops, to Book Twelve, when Odysseus’s crew is destroyed by Scylla and Charybdis, and he washes up on Ogygia and is held captive by Calypso.

After listening to this version, I was quite struck by how much the poem focuses on loyalty. Penelope is considered throughout all Greece to be the epitome of the loyal wife because she refuses to acknowledge her husband’s purported death and marry one of the many suitors courting her. In truth, they’re all so boorish one doesn’t wonder that she refuses to marry any of them. Eumaeus, Eurycleia, and Argus the dog are all held up as shining examples of loyalty as well. It is not as though I had not noticed this aspect of the poem before, but I think listening to it helped me to see the emphasis on loyalty as it runs throughout. But what bothers me, I guess (as it always has) is the double-standard. Odysseus is not expected to be loyal to his wife or his servants. Their loyalty to him is praised, but his disloyalty is not remarked upon. True that it was written at a different time with different values.

I had completely forgotten the suitors show up in Hades at the end and talk with Agamemnon. For a few minutes, I thought that there was something wrong with my recording, and it had somehow switched back to the part when Odysseus goes into Hades to speak with Tiresias. It felt completely new to me. I wondered at the fact that the suitors blamed Penelope for their downfall. Naturally!

This translation and narration is spot on and gorgeous. I highly recommend it.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Kenneth Branagh

Heart of DarknessKenneth Branagh should read all the audio books.

Well, maybe not all.

He is probably the best narrator I’ve ever listened to, however. Of course, I’m also about to listen to Ian McKellen do Fagles’s translation of The Odyssey, so I may stand corrected shortly.

If you haven’t read Heart of Darkness before, I can’t think of a better way to do it than listening to Audible’s version. After all, Marlow tells the entire story to a crew of sailors on the Thames River, and Branagh perfectly embodies not just Marlow, but all the characters, from the Russian protege to Kurtz to the native man who says, “Mistah Kurtz, he dead” to Kurtz’s “intended.” In fact, I dare you not to get a chill when he reads Kurtz. He almost makes you understand why Kurtz has so captivated everyone in the novel. Almost.

I think the reason this novel is still relevant is that it speaks to our infinite capacity for evil. All of us have it inside us, and “the horror” is realizing that fact. I think Chinua Achebe’s criticism of the novel is valid. It is racist. (It’s sexist, too, but that fact often goes uncommented upon.) The African characters are only so much scenery, and their culture is dehumanized. They are depicted like animals, slavish in their devotion to and fear of Kurtz. There is no getting around it. At the same time, you can look at Marlow as narrator. Who is he but a perfect product of his times? Of course he believes Africans to be subhuman. Conrad probably thought so, too, but it is Marlow who tells the story, so who can say? There probably is no such thing as a completely reliable narrator.

You might like this Book Drum profile of the novel. I found the section on the history of the Congo very interesting (and very tragic, as is the case in so many places colonized by Europe).

Many years ago, I went to an English teachers’ conference, and one session I attended discussed how you can engage students in the reading of literature and help them make thematic connections by asking them to choose modern songs that have a story, theme, or message similar to a work of literature they have studied. One of the presenter’s students connected Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Nine Inch Nails’ song “Head Like a Hole.”

After listening to it with that connection in mind, I had to agree that the song and the novel shared such a close connection that I have wondered for years if Trent Reznor was thinking of Heart of Darkness when he wrote it. Connect Reznor’s last line “You know who you are” with Kurtz’s last words “The horror, the horror,” and it’s just plain spooky. And I know I make that connection every time I talk about the novel now. I did it in my previous review of Heart of Darkness. This is the third time I’ve read the novel—once in college, once a few years ago.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t share this mashup of “Head Like a Hole” and “Call Me, Maybe.”

You can’t unhear it. Sorry. Not really.

Rating: ★★★★★

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The Shadow of the Wind, Carlo Ruiz Zafón

[amazon_image id=”0143057812″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Shadow of the Wind[/amazon_image]Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel [amazon_link id=”0143057812″ target=”_blank” ]The Shadow of the Wind[/amazon_link] begins with a trip to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a vast, labyrinthine repository for books of all kinds. Daniel Sempere’s father, a bookseller, cautions his son that he must never speak of what he sees to anyone—it’s a great secret. Ten-year-old Daniel is allowed to choose a book for his very own, to be its protector and champion and rescue it from obscurity. A mysterious book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax catches his eye. He devours the book, but when he tries to find more books by Carax, he discovers that someone has mysteriously been burning all of Carax’s works, and his copy of The Shadow of the Wind is one of the rarest books he will ever encounter. One day, Daniel is confronted by a man calling himself Lain Coubert, the devil in The Shadow of the Wind—the man who has been attempting to obliterate Carax’s works from the literary landscape. Daniel feels compelled to learn more about Carax. As Daniel grows, his life begins to eerily mimic events in Carax’s life.

The novel is an excellent mystery involving the obsession with reading and with true love. Jonathan Davis’s reading is superb. If he is not a native Spanish speaker, he certainly sounds like one. The audio book kept me riveted. I looked forward to my commutes so that I could listen to the story unfold. If I have one complaint, it is that the audio version employs mood music. On the one hand, the music was a cue to listen carefully as something very important would be happening, but it needed to be modulated differently—sometimes I strained to hear Davis over the music. As with any audio book, it is hard to go back and easily re-read portions, which is something I really wanted to do as I listened to this book. The story itself can be somewhat hard to follow—it takes twists and turns. However, Zafón brought the streets of Barcelona alive. Anyone who loves books should enjoy The Shadow of the Wind.

Rating: ★★★★½

I read this book as part of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the Gothic Reading Challenge. I am making steady progress in both challenges. I have six more books to complete the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and fourteen more books for the Gothic Reading Challenge. Yeah, I bit off more than I could chew with that one.

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Friday Finds

Friday Finds—May 6, 2011

Friday Finds

This week, I discovered an answer to a question that has bothering me. Until recently, all of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books were available for audio download on Audible except for The Fiery Cross and A Breath of Snow and Ashes. I have read all the series up until The Fiery Cross, and I had decided that perhaps listening to the books during my commute would be a better option for me in terms of catching up. I was dismayed to find out I couldn’t complete my collection, and I was even more puzzled because An Echo in the Bone, the most recent novel, was available on Audible in addition to the four books prior to The Fiery Cross.

This week I discovered via Diana Gabaldon’s blog why the books were not available in an unabridged format and that A Breath of Snow and Ashes now is available, and The Fiery Cross will be available in November.

I don’t understand the notion of abridged books. Either read it all or skim it yourself, but why buy it abridged in the first place? How can you trust you have the essence of the story intact?

Gabaldon’s series is also, of course, available in paper:

  • [amazon_link id=”0385319959″ target=”_blank” ]Outlander[/amazon_link]
  • [amazon_link id=”0385335970″ target=”_blank” ]Dragonfly in Amber[/amazon_link]
  • [amazon_link id=”0385335997″ target=”_blank” ]Voyager[/amazon_link]
  • [amazon_link id=”B002VLLJDI” target=”_blank” ]Drums of Autumn[/amazon_link]
  • [amazon_link id=”0440221668″ target=”_blank” ]The Fiery Cross[/amazon_link]
  • [amazon_link id=”0440225809″ target=”_blank” ]A Breath of Snow and Ashes[/amazon_link]
  • [amazon_link id=”0440245680″ target=”_blank” ]An Echo in the Bone[/amazon_link]

What did you discover this week?

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Reading Update: Spring is Here

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Nasty spring rain ruined my weekend plans. Drivin’ N Cryin’ (remember them? from a few blogs posts ago?) were playing at a free street festival in nearby Woodstock, and we had planned to go, but it rained. And rained. And hailed some. And rained some more. It is still kind of gross outside. I know we’ll have some other nice weekends this spring, but this one was to include a free Drivin’ N Cryin’ concert.

I’d like to say all that time indoors meant I read a lot, but mostly I worked on my genealogy. I am alternately engrossed in or neglectful of my family history. I seem to have no in between. Still, I enjoyed doing it, so it was productive.

I am still reading Joshilyn Jackson’s Between, Georgia, and I am enjoying it so far. It is what I thought it would be: a fun, light read. I started using my Audible app to see if I like it better than iTunes for listening to audio books, and it does have a few more features that I like, including connections to Facebook and Twitter, and a bookmarking/note-taking system like my Kindle. The books did take quite a while to download to it, however. I am listening to The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Luiz Zafón, which I purchased via my monthly Audible credit some time ago. The reader does a great job with the Spanish names. I started a new book via DailyLit: The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas. I love a great Dumas swashbuckler, and though I’ve seen the movie version, I’ve never read the book. If I don’t put it on hold or read faster than one post a day, I should finish it around the end of October.

I talked to my sister today. It was great. I haven’t talked to her on the phone in ages. I miss her.

In other news, Diana Wynne Jones died on Saturday. I haven’t read her books, though I had planned to, and my daughter, who has read some of her books, was sad to hear this news. Neil Gaiman has posted a wonderful tribute to her on his blog.

photo credit: Cia de Foto

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