The Dinglehopper

You've Probably Never Heard of Us

Leave a comment

Audio Book Review – 1924: The Year That Made Hitler

1924: The Year That Made Hitler
by Peter Ross Range narrated by Paul Hodgson

1924 The Year that Made Hitler cover

The dark story of Adolf Hitler’s life in 1924 – the year that made a monster

Before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, there was 1924. This was the year of Hitler’s final transformation into the self-proclaimed savior and infallible leader who would interpret and distort Germany’s historical traditions to support his vision for the Third Reich.

Everything that would come – the rallies and riots, the single-minded deployment of a catastrophically evil idea – all of it crystallized in one defining year. Nineteen twenty-four was the year that Hitler spent locked away from society, in prison and surrounded by coconspirators of the failed Beer Hall Putsch. It was a year of deep reading and intensive writing, a year of courtroom speeches and a treason trial, a year of slowly walking gravel paths and spouting ideology while working feverishly on the book that became his manifesto: Mein Kampf.

Until now, no one has fully examined this single and pivotal period of Hitler’s life. In 1924, Peter Ross Range richly depicts the stories and scenes of a year vital to understanding the man and the brutality he wrought in a war that changed the world forever.

Real talk. I’m not sure I want this guy on our blog. I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with him at all. But understanding post-war Europe isn’t really feasible with a big hole in the middle. So here I am. Here we are.

Smack in the middle of the decade that saw American fortunes rise, Germany existed perpetually on the cusp of revolution. Left and right wing paramilitary extremists plotted and prepared for coup attempts. Late in 1923, the Nazi party made their move.

1924 offers a condensed biography of the party’s leader and his rise to prominence in the early years of the decade. Compared to the relatively long works I’ve been listening to, this nine hour audiobook felt almost like a snapshot. Names and dates seemed to jostle for space with motivations and contexts. Overlapping timelines tended to be more confusing than illuminating.

Nevertheless, the speed and density of the narrative managed to sweep me along. Range knows his subject and has chosen to focus on a period that’s routinely been glossed over. So even for World War II enthusiasts, this will cover some new ground.

While the book seems to rush toward the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s subsequent imprisonment, treason trial, and sentencing are explored in some detail. Whereas most treason trials, particularly those ending in conviction, would mark the end of a political career, this one had the opposite effect. Providing a platform for a relatively unknown figure, it catapulted him and his ideology to international notoriety.

A light sentence in posh accommodations actually provided the opportunity to write that ideology down. Apparently Mein Kampf was facilitated primarily by this enforced period of downtime for the political agitator. Its release coincided with his and eventually made him rich.

Digging into the early twentieth century has been full of surprises, for sure. And just as full of disappointing parallels with the present. In a vacuum, this would be one of the strangest stories of the period. In context it’s the record of a tragic mistake and the making of a monster.

Paul Hodgson is an able reader with a subtle range of voices and accents. The audio is well mixed and clear.

Recommended for Jack Gladney, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Prince.

Leave a comment

Audiobook Review: Lawrence in Arabia

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East
by Scott Anderson read by Malcolm Hillgartner

Lawrence in Arabia Cover

A thrilling and revelatory narrative of one of the most epic and consequential periods in twentieth century history—the Arab Revolt and the secret game to control the Middle East

The Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I was, in the words of T. E. Lawrence, “a sideshow of a sideshow.” As a result, the conflict was shaped to a remarkable degree by a small handful of adventurers and low-level officers far removed from the corridors of power. Curt Prüfer was an academic attached to the German embassy in Cairo whose clandestine role was to foment jihad against British rule. Aaron Aaronsohn was a renowned agronomist and committed Zionist who gained the trust of the Ottoman governor of Palestine even as he built an elaborate anti-Ottoman spy ring. William Yale was a fallen scion of the American aristocracy who traveled the Ottoman Empire on behalf of Standard Oil, dissembling to the Turks in order to gain valuable oil concessions. At the center of it all was Lawrence. In early 1914 he was an archaeologist digging ruins in Syria; by 1917 he was riding into legend at the head of an Arab army, as he fought a rearguard action against his own government and its imperial ambitions.

Based on four years of intensive primary document research, Lawrence in Arabia definitively overturns received wisdom on how the modern Middle East was formed. Sweeping in its action, keen in its portraiture, acid in its condemnation of the destruction wrought by European colonial plots, this is a book that brilliantly captures the way in which the folly of the past creates the anguish of the present.

Histories of The Great War tend to focus on Europe, on the western front, even mostly on France. This makes plenty of sense if you’re reading primarily in English and especially if you’re reading from the American libraries. The eastern front seems poorly understood and even alien in some cases, despite being at the center of the drama. And the Russian Revolution and their subsequent withdrawal from the war is often portrayed as a burden on Britain, France, And the United States.

But there was a theater in World War I that wasn’t really covered in all the hours of Blueprint for Armageddon or anything else I’ve read recently. The Ottoman Empire, The Middle East, and North Africa. When Lawrence in Arabia came up in a search, I leapt at it.

Scott Anderson’s focused research and delicate understanding just shines. Written almost as an interlocking narrative of the lives of Prüfer, Aaronsohn, Yale, and of course Lawrence, this book delivers breath and depth in an oft neglected space. The competing interests of colonial powers have never been so illuminated, the people responsible for them so incisively deconstructed.

This corner of World War I, examined in such detail, provides perspective on many of the missteps made on both sides as they ramify out to the fringes to be repeated or rejected. Seen as relatively insignificant at the time, this is where many of our modern conflicts began. If the Middle East confuses you, you could scarcely read a better book to gain a foundational understanding of how we got to where we are now.

It’s well worth a recommendation on it’s own. But it’s better in context. Getting to know the primary figures in this history prepares you for the creation of Israel, the propaganda of World War II Germany, the United States’ commercial project, and Britain’s social transformation. The twentieth century would not have been what it is had these events not happened the way they did.

Finally, since it’s mostly focused on T.E. Lawrence, this is where you want to start with him. The oughties and the teens have produced incredible scholarship on some of history’s most controversial figures. Lawrence apparently left little of his own work behind and managed to contradict himself and undermine his credibility even so. Anderson compares everything that’s come before along with contemporary primary sources to create a portait of a fascinating human being.

It’s apolitical and sympathetic everywhere it can be, giving context for people of their time thrust into difficult situations. No one comes out unscathed and yet neither are any irrevocably damned. That may come later, of course, but such only proves the even hand applied.

Lawrence in Arabia is edifying. I’m truly better off for having read it. Listened to it, rather. Malcolm Hillgartner reads clearly and consistently, displaying interest and keeping the listener engaged in a complex story with an otherwise overwhelming onslaught of information.

Recommended for fans of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lawrence of Arabia, and Aaron Burr.

1 Comment

Audiobook Review: Only Yesterday

Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s
by Frederick Lewis Allen read by Grover Gardner

Only Yesterday

Prohibition. Al Capone. The President Harding scandals. The revolution of manners and morals. Black Tuesday. These are only an inkling of the events and figures characterizing the wild, tumultuous era that was the Roaring Twenties. Originally published in 1931, Only Yesterday traces the rise of post–World War I prosperity up to the Wall Street crash of 1929 against a colorful backdrop of jazz, flappers, speakeasies, the first radio, and the scandalous rise of skirt hemlines. In this span between armistice and depression, Americans were kicking up their heels, but they were also bringing about major changes in the social and political structure of their country.

Hailed as an instant classic, this is Frederick Lewis Allen’s vivid and definitive account of one of the twentieth century’s most fascinating decades, chronicling a time of both joy and terror—when dizzying highs were quickly succeeded by heartbreaking lows. It is a fond, witty, penetrating biography of this restless decade—a delightful reminiscence for those who can remember and a fascinating firsthand look for those who have only heard.

Hard on the heels of a World War I era binge, I found myself interested in what followed. Just as I’d never known much about the Great War, neither had I taken much note of the culture and art of its aftermath. I picked up a few popular histories full of pictures and bullet points, but by far the most interesting text available was Only Yesterday.

It seemed sort of too good to be true. Written immediately following the decade in question and drawing on material collected and reported during its course, the book was perhaps the most immediate and unselfconscious take imaginable. Of course, I was never going to have time to read it. Luckily, the audio was excellent.

Some reviews call it irresponsible, biased and frustratingly colloquial. That’s all true. Especially the latter. Whether reading or listening, it’s difficult to believe what’s written at first. The tone is somewhere between conversational and bloviating. It is, as we say, a product of its time. One you get past that initial distrust, however, you’re transported back in time.

Grover Gardner skirts awfully close to the forced Mid-Atlantic accent as he delivers Frederick Lewis Allen’s words and the effect is fantastic. For however long you listen, you’re immersed in a newsreel unraveling a decade of innovation and upheaval. The United States comes to grips with new social realities and its emerging position in world affairs.

I learned a lot, or at least contextualized things I’d already known. Only Yesterday provides a solid picture of mainstream culture in the 1920s. If there’s a criticism to be leveled, it’s that jazz, indeed music in general, is unfortunately sidelined. There’s ample attention to literature, mass media, sports and even party games, but the inauguration of one of the truly American art forms apparently just wasn’t something Allen paid mush attention to.

Even so, looking at the other titles I picked up, it’s clear that this is the book you want to read if you’ve only got time for one. The rest are pretenders at best and virtual plagiarisms at worst. Admittedly not a proper history, any work addressing the broader trends of the decade owes the author a debt.

Perhaps the most striking thing about it is how little our politics, press, and popular culture have really changed since the 1920s. In some sections, Only Yesterday could describe the latest news on Wall Street or our current political campaign. Reading history is cumulative. The more you know, the less mysterious your world is.

Recommended for fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald, JNCOs, and VH-1’s I Love the [insert decade]’s.

Leave a comment

(Audio)Book Review: Rogues

Rogues edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

Rogues Cover

If you’re a fan of fiction that is more than just black and white, this latest story collection from #1 New York Times bestselling author George R. R. Martin and award-winning editor Gardner Dozois is filled with subtle shades of gray. Twenty-one all-original stories, by an all-star list of contributors, will delight and astonish you in equal measure with their cunning twists and dazzling reversals. And George R. R. Martin himself offers a brand-new A Game of Thrones tale chronicling one of the biggest rogues in the entire history of Ice and Fire.

Follow along with the likes of Gillian Flynn, Joe Abercrombie, Neil Gaiman, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, Cherie Priest, Garth Nix, and Connie Willis, as well as other masters of literary sleight-of-hand, in this rogues gallery of stories that will plunder your heart—and yet leave you all the richer for it.

I picked up Rogues the day it came out because there’s a whole Patrick Rothfuss novella in it. When you’re a fan of someone with low output, you’ll buy a thousand pages for maybe sixty. The struggle is real.

So I read that and I liked it. If you’re a fan, too, then it’s totally worth it. Go buy it.

Then it sat in my Kindle for… ever. I wasn’t going to read it. I tried. I got through the first couple stories by Joe Abercrombie and Gillian Flynn. They’re both exemplary. “Times are Tough All Over” is tightly plotted driving action with deft handling of multiple characters rivaling Martin himself.  In a short story. Joe Abercrombie wrote one of my favorite fantasy novels, Before They are Hanged, and if you like this one you should check out his longer work.  My experience with Flynn is more limited, but if you read Gone Girl and thought maybe you wanted more stories like that, “What Do You Do?” certainly fits the bill.

After that I went for the audiobook. Three different times. It’s long. And while the variety of narrators both increases the appeal and makes each entry distinct, it’s also kind of an appreciation grab bag.

For example, I’ve been a fan of Walter John Williams since the eighties. Especially his short work. And I’m usually a long narrative dense world deep engagement reader. “Diamonds from Tequilla” had his je ne sais quoi, though. But I didn’t care for David Greenlee’s narration. On the other hand, Molly C Quinn’s reading of “Now Showing” by Connie Willis encouraged me to seek out the author’s other work. The same goes for “The Roaring Twenties” by Carrie Vaughn, read by Janis Ian.

The stand out winner, if one can win an anthology, was “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” by Scott Lynch. Like the Abercrombie story, it’s read by Gwendoline Christie. I’d read Lynch before, but now I’m a fan.

Runners up include “Ill Seen in Tyre” by Steven Saylor, a fiction of fictions read by Gethin Anthony and “Heavy Metal” by Cherie Priest, which was odd and creepy and scary. Scott Brick did an excellent job narrating. So well, in fact, that I sought out some of his other work.

Martin and Dozois picked and arranged a good anthology, here. If you like any of the authors, pick this one up. You’re sure to find and enjoy something unexpected. If you can, read it. If you can’t, listen. Your preferences will be different from mine.

Recommended for fans of Castle, Game of Thrones, and buffets.

Leave a comment

Audiobook Review – George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I

George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I by Miranda Carter read by Rosalyn Landor

George Nicholas Wilhelm cover

In the years before the First World War, the great European powers were ruled by three first cousins: King George V of Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Together, they presided over the last years of dynastic Europe and the outbreak of the most destructive war the world had ever seen, a war that set twentieth-century Europe on course to be the most violent continent in the history of the world.

Through brilliant and often darkly comic portraits of these men and their lives, their foibles and obsessions, Miranda Carter delivers the tragicomic story of Europe’s early twentieth-century aristocracy, a solipsistic world preposterously out of kilter with its times.

The holidays are a time for dodging responsibilities, abandoning plans, and shifting interests. After listening to three entire days of early twentieth century gobbledygook, I remain unsatisfied. If something I’ve had on hold suddenly becomes available, I’m sure I’ll switch over; but for now I only have ears for the geopolitical and socioeconomic milieu surrounding The Great War.

Like I mentioned in my Catastrophe 1914 review, our library’s digital offerings are scant, so it’s either resubscribe to Audible, which would still leave me bereft three weeks out of every month, or take what I can get and like it.

George, Nicholas and Wilhelm is a tripartite biography tracing the strange and oddly parallel upbringing of three cousins who happened to control a large portion of the globe and sent Europe into armageddon. Drawing from personal diaries as well as received history, Carter paints a portrait of mental instability, irresponsibility, and tragedy that contextualizes the relationships of the continent’s faltering monarchies prior to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

It’s tempting to look at World War I and play the game of if only. George, Nicholas and Wilhelm finally filled in many of the gaps wherein I’d been playing that game. With these three in power or struggling to assert it, there was no way way conflict could have been avoided short of one of them simply not existing. And probably not even then.

George Nicholas Wilhelm

The book emphatically does not put all the blame on their shoulders. Parliaments and other governing bodies, militaries, and publics play appropriate roles. But it does provide a disturbing account of folks at the height of wealth and power, with access to others in the same position, that simply could not have been more poorly suited for it.

I had my heart set on trench diaries or partisan accounts and accepted this one reluctantly. But it surprised me. The author does some valuable work helping the dabbler understand the stubborn humanity at the top that sent a generation to the grave. It’s very much worth taking this in while forming an opinion about the inauguration of the previous century.

Even so, it’s worth noting that it dwells a bit luridly on suspected homosexuality, scandal, and appearance. Which was probably exactly what the popular press  was doing at the time. It’s pro-English, ani-Russian, and sort of casually racist toward other continents. And it’s full of bizarre trivia: Nicholas eating a piece of the true cross as a child, Wilhelm’s physical challenges, and George changing his name to distance himself from his Russian cousin in 1917.

Recommended for fans of Denethor II, George W. Bush, and that kid from middle school who always had a better story.

Leave a comment

Audiobook Review – Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings read by Simon Vance

Catastrophe 1914

From the acclaimed military historian, a new history of the outbreak of World War I—from the breakdown of diplomacy to the dramatic battles that occurred before the war bogged down in the trenches

World War I immediately evokes images of the trenches—grinding, halting battles that sacrificed millions of lives for no territory or visible gain. Yet the first months of the war, from the German invasion of Belgium to the Marne to Ypres, were utterly different—full of advances and retreats, tactical maneuvering, and significant gains and losses. In Catastrophe 1914, Max Hastings re-creates this dramatic year, from the diplomatic crisis to the fighting in Belgium and France on the western front and Serbia and Galicia to the east. He gives vivid accounts of the battles and frank assessments of generals and political leaders, and shows why it was inevitable that this first war among modern industrial nations could not produce a decisive victory, resulting in a war of attrition. Throughout we encounter high officials and average soldiers, as well as civilians on the home front, giving us a vivid portrait of how a continent became embroiled in a war that would change everything.

After listening to “Blueprint for Armageddon”, I developed a keener interest in the Great War. However, my to read pile is more of a mountain range with an extensive network of mines. So i turned to the digital audio offerings from our public library.

There weren’t a lot. But Catastrophe 1914 was among them. And Simon Hastings had transformed The Problem of Pain into an enjoyable listen.

Tightly focused on the first year of World War I, Hastings’ narrative is quite different from the broad overview offered by Dan Carlin. This is really the story of the unready. Of old notions and old armies coming face to face with ugly new realities. The existential meat grinder was only just beginning to turn in 1914.

Hastings is critical of every party in the conflict. He ends to remind the reader that Germany bears almost the entire responsibility for the war. And while I’m no historian there is some truth to that. But even they were only individuals swept up in a complex context. He is frustrated by British complacency and caution. And he’s particularly dismissive of Russia’s organizational incompetence. Those are the drumbeats of the book. You’ll encounter them again and again.

However, you’ll also get personal testimonials from the men and women on the front lines as well as the generals in the rear. And this is married to the statistics one expects from military histories. Hastings does an admirable job of maintaining the sense of time, especially as collapsed as this moment is.

The catastrophes of 1914 were the failures. The failures of diplomacy, the failures to act quickly and decisively, the failures to adapt to modern warfare. The first year of The Great War set the stage of for the next half decade and it was terrifying.

Hastings attempts to salvage some hope from the grim reality by ending at or shortly after the famous Christmas truces. He tries to justify every belligerent. And while he allows that all war is tragic, he deems the sacrifice of millions worth it in the end.

Recommended for grognards, Europhiles, and modernists.

Leave a comment

Audiobook Review: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) written and read by Felicia Day

You're Never Weird on the Internet

When Felicia Day was a girl, all she wanted was to connect with other kids (desperately). Growing up in the Deep South, where she was “home-schooled for hippie reasons,” she looked online to find her tribe. The internet was in its infancy and she became an early adopter at every stage of its growth—finding joy and unlikely friendships in the emerging digital world. Her relative isolation meant that she could pursue passions like gaming, calculus, and 1930’s detective novels without shame. Because she had no idea how “uncool” she really was.

But if it hadn’t been for her strange background— the awkwardness continued when she started college at sixteen, with Mom driving her to campus every day—she might never have had the naive confidence to forge her own path. Like when she graduated as valedictorian with a math degree and then headed to Hollywood to pursue a career in acting despite having zero contacts. Or when she tired of being typecast as the crazy cat-lady secretary and decided to create her own web series before people in show business understood that online video could be more than just cats chasing laser pointers.

Felicia’s rags-to-riches rise to internet fame launched her career as one of the most influen­tial creators in new media. Ever candid, she opens up about the rough patches along the way, recounting battles with writer’s block, a full-blown gaming addiction, severe anxiety and depression—and how she reinvented herself when overachieving became overwhelming.

It’s been more than year since I read or listened to a memoir. I think I can still count all the memoirs I’ve ever read on one hand. I guess it’s not really my genre. Most lives don’t have the metatextual intricacy or the teenagers and lazers I usually go for. Oddly enough, Felicia Day’s kind of does.

And that’s not even why I chose the audiobook. Like the last memoir I took in, I’d heard plenty of good things about it and it was read by the author. I think the latter’s pretty important. A dissociated narrator reading someone else’s autobiographical material makes me go Twilight Zone.

But it was really because of World of Warcraft. Yes, we’d seen Felicia Day in Buffy and then Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, but I never went out of my way to read about the lives of any of the principals.  It was “Do You Wanna Date My Avatar” playing while we waited for a raid to start. It was watching The Guild on off nights.

So I expected some stuff about childhood and some stuff about Geek and Sundry and I was hoping for a little bit about that moment where our lives intersected someone else’s, however briefly and tenuously. What I got was a surprisingly relatable story about a child prodigy that was part Real Genius and part every nerd everywhere. It was entertaining before WoW entered the picture.

When it did, I learned that Codex, portrayed in The Guild as a priest, was actually a warlock. I’ll just say that made things personal. Suddenly the whole narrative made so much more sense.

Day strips her rise to celebrity down to the bones, showing how it’s dirty and odd and difficult. And then all of the sudden it’s not. And even now it’s sort of specific and even kind of weird. Except on the internet.

It’s an empowering story. And an entertaining one. Encountering it at my age I can pass on whatever wisdom it has to offer to others. But I’d definitely hand it out to teenagers and college students if that wouldn’t be creepy and expensive.

Recommended for fans of Bossypants, Terry Gilliam, and Malefic Raiment.

1 Comment

Audiobook Review – 11/22/63: A Novel

11/22/63: A Novel by Stephen King read by Craig Wasson

11 22 63 cover

Dallas, 11/22/63: Three shots ring out.

President John F. Kennedy is dead.

Life can turn on a dime—or stumble into the extraordinary, as it does for Jake Epping, a high school English teacher in a Maine town. While grading essays by his GED students, Jake reads a gruesome, enthralling piece penned by janitor Harry Dunning: fifty years ago, Harry somehow survived his father’s sledgehammer slaughter of his entire family. Jake is blown away…but an even more bizarre secret comes to light when Jake’s friend Al, owner of the local diner, enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination. How? By stepping through a portal in the diner’s storeroom, and into the era of Ike and Elvis, of big American cars, sock hops, and cigarette smoke… Finding himself in warmhearted Jodie, Texas, Jake begins a new life. But all turns in the road lead to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald. The course of history is about to be rewritten…and become heart-stoppingly suspenseful.

I’ve read enough Stephen King books to be called a fan. I mean, I keep going back so that has to mean something. But it’s more like I just somehow keep intersecting his catalog at some point in every decade or something. I read three or four books in one, began The Dark Tower series in another, waited like everybody else for those to start up again, and now I’m poking around his newer stuff.

I chose this one because, well, come on: it’s a fantastic premise. Going back in time to prevent some event is a genre staple. The Kennedy assassination is almost holy for my parents’ generation. They’re made for one another.

But it’s not the idea itself that makes a book. It’s the execution. Right from the start you understand that this isn’t some grand adventure taken on by an organized conspiracy. It’s not The Terminator. It’s solidly grounded in the lives of two men, one of whom may have been wearing away the fabric of spacetime and the other practically conscripted into a role that’s difficult for him to refuse.

It’s a personal story, full of personal struggle and intimate detail. It’s written almost as a memoir. However, as in many the later King books I’ve read, there’s an element of ritual, of oral storytelling, to it as well. The repetition of phrases framing the repetition of patterns forming a reverberation chamber for meaning.

It’s especially fun in 11/22/63 because the protagonist is an English teacher. Having a genre savvy hero looking for meaning and recognizing the patterns and ostensibly writing about it could be heavy handed, I suppose. But here it allows the rich detail and intense research to create a believable world populated by authentic characters to transport the reader through time.

The audio is solid. The volume is such that the book can be listened to without headphones in an environment with moderate noise pollution. Craig Wasson makes you feel the frustrations, determination, and occasional joy of Jake Epping as he grapples with the past, the future, and the desire for justice. I’m almost afraid to listen to him read anything else, lest it diminish the folksy atmosphere of 11/22/63.

If you’re familiar with The Dark Tower and the shared universe of King’s books, you’ll note several nods. But of course they’re more than simply that. This is part of that story, too. The actions taken here are complicit in the world moving on. You don’t need to know this. Might miss it anyway. But implication is wonderful.

11/22/63 is a great entry in the annals of time travel fiction. It maintains tension throughout what is essentially a five year waiting game. And it keeps the stakes both grand, the fate of the world, and personal, integrity and righteousness,

Recommended for fans of “The Skull”, Twelve Monkeys, and Hamlet.

Leave a comment

Audiobook Review: Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel read by Kirsten Potter

Station 11

An audacious, darkly glittering novel about art, fame, and ambition set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, from the author of three highly-acclaimed previous novels.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as The Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

A few days ago, I got an email alert from my local library announcing that one of my longstanding holds was available. When I saw that it was Station Eleven I was excited enough to return something and download it immediately. What’s kind of amusing is that I can’t remember exactly why I wanted to listen it. I bet it had something to do with the intersecting fiascoes surrounding the Hugo Awards, but whatever.

My corrupt memory and the entirely digital experience of wanting, acquiring, and experiencing the novel are sort of integral to the narrative. In the absence of our communication and transportation infrastructure, how do we retain our experiences and define ourselves? How do we preserve and transmit our culture? What is our culture?

Station Eleven is, in the most succinct analysis, post apocalyptic speculative fiction. But it’s really so much more than that. Emily St. John Mandel constructs a dense interwoven narrative combing elements of epistle, interview, memoir, both internal and external analepsis and prolepsis, and both real and imaginary secondary texts.

It sounds impenetrable and yet it’s not. The narrative flows naturally, easily, shifting in time and point of view with control and precision. Where some ambitious literary fiction can be disorienting or unweildy, Station Eleven manages to feel organic by sinking the reader deep into the characters’ lives and experiences. All of the impressive technique is subsumed within the compelling story being told.

And Kirsten Potter does an excellent job telling it. She speaks clearly and precisely and subtly shifts her tone depending on the type of narrative at play. Shakespeare has a bit of gravity, interviews have a hollow formality, action has a sort of breathlessness. I can see myself taking a chance on a book because of her narration. The audio isn’t so high that an unamplified device will suffice, but this was definitely worth the trouble of hooking up to speakers.

It’s frightening, empowering, melancholy, and stoic. The use of King Lear seems utterly appropriate. The title, traditionally Jesus being nailed to the cross, suggests suffering and sacrifice and ultimately a better world to come. If you believe that sort of thing.

I’ve read so many books that want to be what Station Eleven is, to do what Station Eleven does so effortlessly, that I’d kind of lost hope. A few chapters in I could see the broad outline of the story and I still enjoyed every moment of its unfolding. So, even though I can’t remember why I wanted to listen to it, I’m glad I did.

This ones for two kinds of readers. Recommended for fans of White Noise, The Blind Assassin, and Confessions of a Memory Eater. And fans of The Walking Dead, World War Z, and The Year of the Flood. Obviously if you like Margaret Atwood you should get to it as soon as possible.


Audiobook Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies

Red Seas Under Red Skies (Gentleman Bastards, Book 2) by Scott Lynch, read by Michael Page

Red Seas

In his highly acclaimed debut, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch took us on an adrenaline-fueled adventure with a band of daring thieves led by con artist extraordinaire Locke Lamora. Now Lynch brings back his outrageous hero for a caper so death-defying, nothing short of a miracle will pull it off.

After a brutal battle with the underworld that nearly destroyed him, Locke and his trusted sidekick, Jean, fled the island city of their birth and landed on the exotic shores of Tal Verrar to nurse their wounds. But even at this westernmost edge of civilization, they can’t rest for long—and are soon back to what they do best: stealing from the undeserving rich and pocketing the proceeds for themselves.

This time, however, they have targeted the grandest prize of all: the Sinspire, the most exclusive and heavily guarded gambling house in the world. Its nine floors attract the wealthiest clientele—and to rise to the top, one must impress with good credit, amusing behavior…and excruciatingly impeccable play. For there is one cardinal rule, enforced by Requin, the house’s cold-blooded master: it is death to cheat at any game at the Sinspire.

Brazenly undeterred, Locke and Jean have orchestrated an elaborate plan to lie, trick, and swindle their way up the nine floors…straight to Requin’s teeming vault. Under the cloak of false identities, they meticulously make their climb—until they are closer to the spoils than ever.

But someone in Tal Verrar has uncovered the duo’s secret. Someone from their past who has every intention of making the impudent criminals pay for their sins. Now it will take every ounce of cunning to save their mercenary souls. And even that may not be enough.…

It occurs to me that I never reviewed The Lies of Locke Lamora. I read and listen to a lot of books, but I end up mostly trying to post about the recently released or upcoming stuff here on the blog. So I’m gonna say a few brief words about Lynch’s debut first. Begging your pardon, of course, for luring you in under false pretenses.

Michael Page read both books. And he reads the third book in the Gentleman Bastards Sequence, The Republic of Thieves. He reads with a clear, strong voice employing more than just a range of pitches to distinguish his characters. He’ll bring a slight growl from the throat or clip the ends of words with aspiration or any of a number of other techniques to provide a distinct speech pattern that lets you know exactly who’s speaking even in the chaos of a pirate attack.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is a darling of contemporary epic fantasy. Fans hold it in the same esteem as A Game of Thrones or The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s almost required homework if you want to discuss the genre seriously. That’s why I took it in.

I liked it well enough. It reminded me of nothing so much as Ocean’s Eleven, or maybe twelve with a darkly humorous inversion of the special orphan origin story and maybe the early X-Men without the superpowers. It’s a heist novel and a revenge tale and a curious exploration of family and faith. Locke and Jean and their compatriots stick with you.

The Lies of Locke Lamora made me a reader. Lynch’s story “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” in the anthology Rogues made me a fan. But Michael Page brought me back to the audiobooks.

Red Seas Under Red Skies is another complicated heist novel with all the danger and glamour of a Bond movie. Incredible set pieces like a Renaissance interzone where the wealthy live beyond the law, a casino high rise made of shimmering glass, and a pirate ship on the high seas lend a cinematic quality to the action. Lynch is meticulous and detailed and it all comes together both believably and unexpectedly.

However, like all the best epics, this is really a story about friendship, recovery, hardship, sorrow, and loss. The author knows his business and plays most of the genre’s tropes straight, subverting them only to make a point about honor and justice. Most of the time when outlaw characters “live by a code” it’s just an arbitrary mess of personal prejudices. Here, they struggle with the right thing versus the sensible thing over and over again.

Locke and Jean are terrible people by most standards. But their conduct is so proscribed, their behavior so emphatic, that the reader is lulled into rooting for them. This is a special thing.

Recommended for fans of Fast Five, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Stress of Her Regard.