Saturday, July 2, 2011

Passing Time In A Time Of War

The wildfire continues to expand that threatens the nation's nuclear bomb plant at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where deadly plutonium waste is stored above ground in metal drums. It is being said that the so-called Los Conchas (the shells) fire is now the largest in New Mexico's history. This Friday afternoon view of smoke from the fire buring in the Jemez Mountains, taken at San Ysidro, NM, shows the smoke plumes turning to a cloud of haze that drifts down the Rio Grande Valley into Albuquerque.

Books For The Blind

 (Left: a truck driver listening to War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy's novel about the Napoleonic wars. It is hotly debated among truck drivers whether it's OK to read the Russians in translation instead of the original Russian. At the Petro truck stop in West Memphis recently, a discussion about what, exactly, the brothers Karamazov might be archetypes of, ended up in a brawl.

(Safety Tip: Always fasten your seat belt when you see a police car.)

Audio books are one of the joys of my life. Gradually, I'm getting reading done I should have done while skating through high school and college. A surprising discovery I've made is that so-called literary classics are actually good books.
(Tolstoy, by the way, says history is not made by famous people like a Napoleon or a Czar Alexander, but that they are merely expressions of the will of the masses... think about it.) (And say that to a Republican county chairperson standing in front of a poster of Ronald Reagan, see the eyes widen and narrow, hear iron gates deep in their mind creak and crush up against the piles of boulders.)

Audio books are available from many different sources now. A store in Albuquerque rents them and has a good sampling of classics. A couple of the truck stop chains rent them: pick them up here and drop them off there. For awhile some classics were available that way, but eventually the selection degenerated to primarily pulp fiction; like westerns and those screeds that popular radio and TV commentators dash off.

Blackstone Audio, a long established company originally formed to make books for the blind, has a vast rental library and they are well produced. I've rented things like Plato's The Republic from them and several William Faulkner novels, including God's Little Acre, read (well) by Burt Reynolds.

The narrator can make or break an audio book. Many of the commercial audio books are read by actors, who almost always do an excellent job. One of my favorites is Edward Hermann, who has read some of Annie Proulx's novels. Meredith MacRae, who played a blond in sitcoms of the 60s and 70s, did an excellent reading of Secret Ceremonies, an expose of the Mormon religion by Deborah Laake recounting the psychological abuse she received from her husband and his family.

Librivox is a free online source. Volunteers read books that are in the public domain, which includes most all the classics. They can be downloaded as mp3 files or with a link on the site as podcasts via iTunes. iTunes also lists many podcasts at the iTunes store - click podcasts -- and by subscribing that way they go easily to my computer then into my little iPod, where they are arranged nicely by chapter.

For the past couple of weeks I've been listening to a Librivox rendition of a Louise Shanks Maud and Aylmer Maud translation of War and Peace, one of the great all time novels which many (including me) have started and few (including me) have finished.

There are many short chapters in that book, and many volunteer Librivox readers have taken a shot at one or more chapters.

I wondered whether that would make it hard to follow the narrative or to grasp the book as a whole, but it has not. The characters and their interweaving stories end up driving the narrative anyway. But having different narrators does make for an interesting experience. One guy seemed to be trying to channel a Shakespearian actor. Somewhere in each sentence, no matter the subject, his voice would change into a sinister, laughing voice. Another guy had birds chirping in the background. At some points the birds were louder than he was. Those two read only one chapter apiece. Another one-timer kept repeating some phrases over and over before completing a sentence, as if was a vinyl record skipping.

The Russian nobility spoke French, and here and there, a phrase or a sentence is in French. A woman who has read a few chapters doesn't read the French parts herself but has recorded someone else reading them and inserts those into her recording. It gives one a little jolt.

"Frankie from Jersey City" has read a few chapters very well.

The narrators begin each chapter by saying what the book is and what chapter it is, and most people give their names. "War and Peace, Book 10, chapter 11, read for by Eva Harnig."

The bulk of the book has been read by four or five good readers. Some are excellent, like Eva Harnig of Ponte Vedra, Florida. Eva, who speaks English with a kind of German accent, can express much through subtle changes in voice. She gives a fine interpretation. I could listen to Eva say "Florida" for quite awhile.

Likewise Ernst Patayama of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, who has what I assume is a Dutch accent. He has a wonderful, warm tenor voice that catches the vast scope of this vast narrative and the kindness that underlies Tolstoy's understanding of human nature, and like all the better readers Ernst almost unnoticeably, or maybe unobtrusively, leaves his mark on the reading.

Likewise Anna Simone, from I don't know where, who has a French kind of accent. Like all the good readings, hers is flawless, so that your attention remains on the narrative. These readers have the confidence to know what the writer means, the skill to lay it all before us, and humility to not get in the way of it. Using the same process, a good musician interprets what has been written by a composer.

These three people and few more have helped make listening to the book a real pleasure. I thank them, and I thank everybody who uses their free time to volunteer to read good books for us.

(More on podcasts, including those from established radio stations, like the Pacifica stations, and those produced independently by people in their basements, later.)

Misc: Diplomacy



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. So glad to read this! I'm listening to War and Peace as read by Librovox right now. All your comments about the readers were what I've been telling my friends and family for weeks. So funny! Glad I'm not alone in my love of Eva's "Florida". (I say it with her!)

    Thanks for the blog!


    1. Thank you for that kind comment, Bonita. I'm sorry it took me so long to respond but it was a tired and busy week last week.

      And Eva, yes! I can still hear her. Have you noticed you can look up the projects a reader has worked on by clicking on their name? I don't see any complete projects by Eva but she's helped out on many.

      Listening to War and Peace was very pleasurable experience for me and set me off on a bit of a Russian novelist kick. Another that had that vast scope was Anna Karenina, which I also enjoyed immensely. I'm finally doing the outside reading, I tell myself, that I should have done in school. I've been listening to some Edith Wharton of late, and Friederich Engels. And how is it that you got into Librivox, anyway?

  3. Your commentary on War & Peace was perfect! I found it because I decided to google Eva Harnik.

    I listen to audiobooks in my car each day during my 45 minute commute to and from work. Whenever Eva says, "War and Peace, book 11, chapter 26, read for by Eva Harnik, Ponte Vedra, Florida", my 8-year-old and I say it (joyfully) along with her. I laughed my head off, though, when Ernst put in the echo sound effects (in 2009) when any dialogue was taking place. I adore when Anna Simone speaks French. I, too, am so grateful for these wonderful people who have volunteered to read to me.


    1. Thank you for your comment, Robin. It's amazing to me that you came to my blog via Eva's reading of War and Peace. You may have noticed the previous comment was also about Eva -- maybe that's how that listener found my blog, too.

      I think it's very cool that you listen with your young son. What an education he's getting, an advanced one!

      I'm still driving trucks and listening to Librivox books. I just finished listening to The Wanderer, or, Women's Difficulties by Frances "Fanny" Burney, which I'd heard some British feminist scholars discussing on a New Statesman podcast. It was 92 chapters but very excellent. I'm always at a loss what to do after finishing a good book.

      I, too, am grateful to the Librivox readers.