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Tad Davis

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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-10-18

Furious pace

Zola’s novels, at least the ones I’ve read, seem to be focused on everything that is worst about human beings: greed, violence, promiscuous sex, putrefaction, and squalor. Yet his plots are exciting - if at times melodramatic - and his characters thoroughly developed. So as unpleasant as they may be, they make compelling reading.

The Beast in Man (or, as I believe it could be translated, The Human Beast) is about trains: sort of. It's really about the people who make the trains go, but there are times when the great hulking machines themselves seem alive. A wrecked engine is pronounced "dying" and then "dead." An engine being driven for the first time is having its "virginity taken." The engines are given names by their engineers and caressed like lovers.

Zola has mastered his subject and presents it to us with a wealth of circumstantial and convincing detail; and it takes the form of a novel-sized metaphor, with the fate of the characters hurtling down the tracks like a train with no driver. His description of a train derailment in one chapter - with Peter Joyce’s passionate narration - has a visceral impact light years beyond train wrecks in films like The Fugitive and Under Siege 2. Only when the deafening scream of escaping steam recedes can the screams of the survivors be heard. I don’t often shudder when reading a book, but I shuddered repeatedly while listening to this passage.

The mainspring of the plot is a murder - the murder of a railroad official who'd imposed himself on Severine when she was only 15; the murder is carried out by her husband, a decade of more after the fact. It almost takes place off stage. We know Severine and Roubaud are planning it, but the only glimpse we get of it is a fleeting one - the flash of the knife, a throat being cut - seen through a train window by a third character, Jacques. He thinks it was Roubaud. He thinks a hulking mass he saw in a corner of the window was Severine. But he can't be sure; the train was hurtling by at 80 kilometers an hour.

Zola hides the details of the crime until much later in the book, when Severine confesses her involvement to Jacques, who has become her lover. (Zola's treatment of sex - his willingness to talk about passion and naked bodies - is never more than R-rated but is still shocking to anyone who thinks of 19th century fiction as "Victorian.") The confession scene could be simple exposition, but it isn't: it becomes the chief cause of the climactic action. Severine doesn’t know it, but Jacques himself has long harbored homicidal impulses, and her confession has an unexpected effect: it whets his appetite for making his own fantasies a reality.

Throughout the book, Zola’s writing is powerful and naked, almost tortured. There are so many lost souls here, so many broken people. I’ve read that Zola was a determinist and a fatalist. Unlike the curses laid on families by the ancient gods, the families of Zola suffer from genetic defects. Whole families are infected, from generation to generation, by alcoholism, violence, greed, and lust. You might call it the Bad Seed school of destiny. I haven’t found that so obvious in the books I’ve read, where individuals seem to be cursed by no more than our common fate, that of being human beings with bewildering and contradictory motives, in a hostile universe. Despite the intensity of Jacques’ bloodlust, Zola treats him sympathetically: he struggles against the role fate has assigned him, and his downfall is pitiable.

As I said, Joyce gives a passionate reading. He is by far the brightest star among narrators who mostly record for their own company. The one odd thing about this recording is that there are no chapter breaks. Certainly the audiobook is divided into chapters, but the divisions are arbitrary, coming almost anywhere, sometimes (it seems) even in the middle of a paragraph. What I mean is that Zola’s chapter breaks are never announced. The book is read as if it were a single long narrative. It wasn't a problem as far as the pace is concerned, because the narrative races along like that out-of-control train. It was just a problem sometimes knowing where to stop and take a break. I always did that reluctantly.

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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-28-18

Great listen

What a treat - my favorite group and my favorite narrator, together at last!

Steve Turner’s book focuses on a single year in the Beatles’ career: 1966, when they recorded the album “Revolver” - one that many people feel was a more significant innovation than “Sgt Pepper.” It’s the album of Eleanor Rigby and Taxman: the album of floating downstream with the help of Indian music and psychelic drugs and a doctor who hands out amphetamines like candy. It was the album where the Beatles made a full-time commitment to developing songs in the studio rather than on the road.

1966 was also the year of touring - Japan, the Philippines, Shea Stadium, Candlestick Park - when the Beatles discovered that large numbers of people not only disliked them but actively wished them harm. The Philippines were especially scary: they were seen as having insulted Imelda Marcos, and had to make their way to the airport without the customary police escort. The US provided its own backdrop of threats: this was the year when John’s comment about Jesus led to bonfires that burned Beatles records and memorabilia, and the United Klans of America picketed their concerts. They were threatened with assassination on stage.

And it was the year when Yoko Ono first appeared in the Beatles’ orbit. She and John Lennon locked eyes at an exhibition of her work and instantly realized that they “got” each other.

The actual recording of Revolver takes up most of April and May. By the end of the year, they have recorded Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, and Paul is mapping out his concept for Sgt Pepper. But the music is only part of the story. Turner quotes generously from the interviews each Beatle had with Maureen Cleave. And he quotes from his own interviews: he was there, and he talked to many of the principals like George Martin. Each Beatle appears in this narrative as an individual, someone with a life that existed independently of their participation in the group. Although John and Paul dominate the narrative, George and Ringo are for once given their due as more than sidemen; George’s growing interest in Indian culture and religion is given particular attention.

I think the book will be interesting and entertaining even for people who have only a cursory knowledge of the Beatles. It helps to know who Brian Epstein and George Martin are, and the roles they played in the Beatles’ evolution. But it isn’t necessary to have read Philip Norman or Mark Lewisohn to appreciate Turner’s detailed account of this important stage in their career.

While much of the information is already known to Beatles fans, there were some surprises, at least for me. I had never heard of the singer Alma Cogan before, but it appears that she and John had a significant relationship, and he was devastated by her death in late 1966.

Simon Vance can do a hundred different voices without batting an eye, which makes him an especially appealing narrator of fiction. For nonfiction books like this, his approach is more subtle. He doesn’t try to imitate the voices of the Beatles directly, but by slight variations in tone and rhythm,he captures the distinctive speech patterns of each.

Great listen. Highly recommended.

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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-23-18

Beautiful and devastating

With this production of “Nana,” Naxos provides another excellent entry in its series of 19th century classics. I hope there are more Zola novels to come, especially with Leighton Pugh as narrator.

“Nana” is a tragic story, beautifully written. Zola has the curious ability to write about things he finds detestable - like drunkenness and prostitution - with great compassion and a brilliant eye for the telling detail. The characters are individuals, not just by virtue of external mannerisms and speech, but through a deep perception of their motives and failings.

Nana, although she takes great joy in life, has little awareness or concern for the effect she has on others. She is a prostitute with an almost hypnotic beauty. She tries to parlay this into a career as an actress, but though her physical form enchants Parisian audiences, her acting and singing are somewhat lacking (to put it mildly). Though she spends most of the novel in the keeping of Count Muffat, she strings a number of other men along, leaving behind her a trail of suicidal and financially ruined former lovers.

Zola is never explicit about sex, but it leaves unmistakable traces in every chapter. For example, Nana needs 400 francs to pay a debt; she leaves for two hours; she returns with 400 francs in an envelope. There’s no question how she earned it. A visit to a dive turns out to be an introduction to same-sex relationships - again without ever saying so in quite so many words. The relentless focus on Nana’s beauty leads to the devastating final paragraphs of the novel.

“Nana” can be a tough listen for someone (like me) who doesn’t have the hang of French pronunciation. Many chapters are crowded set-pieces with dozens of people, and I often found it hard to distinguish the names. My solution was to download the text of the novel - there are plenty available, both free and paid - and look up the names while listening to the first few chapters until I became familiar with them.

Zola is a compelling novelist, although it must be said there’s little humor in his dire view of Parisian society. I loved it and hope to listen to it again soon.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-14-18

The first James novel I enjoyed

At last: a Henry James novel that I actually enjoyed! Part of that is due to the wonderful narration of James Wood; part to the spirited character of Isabel Archer, whose intelligence and good humor surpass those of any other James character I’ve read.

Isabel is a young American woman who visits her expat cousins in England. There she meets with unexpected good fortune, but her naïveté leads her into an unwise relationship with a couple of gold-diggers. The ending of the novel is ambiguous, but I choose to regard it as moving toward a moderately happy ending that lies just outside the boundaries of the novel.

The characters are all sharply drawn and full of life. Special honors go to the American journalist Henrietta Stackpoole, an inveterate gossip and a good and loyal friend. Even the villains of the piece, nasty and cold as they are, have motives that rescue them from being caricatures.

James Wood breathes life into the novel with a brilliant take on each character. It’s a tough one: there is such a mixture of British and American voices that it’s hard for any one narrator to get it all right. I’ve read some comments here about his failure to quite get the American accents right; all I can say is that, as an American, the accents sounded fine to me — at least, they didn’t call attention to themselves as irritants.

I have two more Henry James novels on my bucket list. I hope I’m as lucky with them. I’d be happy to listen to this one again.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-05-18

Atrocities

As a chronological history of Reconstruction, “The Wars of Reconstruction” seems fragmented at times; the story of the rise and fall of the Klan, for example, appears in bits and pieces across several chapters, and is somewhat diluted as a result. But Egerton is writing a different book, not a strictly chronological history but one that highlights the organized violence that destroyed this promising attempt at progressive reform. The narrative is filled with accounts of appalling murders, massacres, and mutilations. (In one case, a supporter of Reconstruction was allowed to live, but only after he’d been taken into a swamp and castrated. In other cases, peaceful assemblies of freed people were broken up and hundreds killed.)

The depth of racism in the post-Civil War South is almost unbelievable. The dignified debates of the South Carolina constitutional convention were, in the popular imagination, a minstrel-show mockery of government. (I’ve read transcripts of some of those debates, and they are impressive.) Benjamin Randolph, a black state senator, fought hard to include provisions for universal public education, and to increase voting rights for blacks and whites. He was gunned down by the Klan in October 1868.

One of the most wrenching parts of the book describes the thousands of personal ads taken out by freed people; some black-owned newspapers were largely devoted to this. The ads were attempts to track down spouses and children who’d been separated by slave-owners looking for ready cash. Parents knew who their children had been sold to, but not where they’d ended up. The fabric of family life had been destroyed.

Egerton carries his narrative well into the 20th century. He describes the efforts of African American scholars like WEB Du Bois to set the record straight on Reconstruction, and the futility of their efforts as the racist glorification of The Lost Cause took root in American cultural life. Many, if not most, Americans today think of Reconstruction as an evil attempt by carpetbaggers and scalawags, along with illiterate and gullible blacks, to profit off the degradation of the South. If nothing else, the accounts of courage in the face of the atrocities in this book will show that version of history as the atrocious lie that it is.

Eric Martin’s narration is steady and matter-of-fact throughout.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-29-18

Strong narrative

With his usual narrative drive and extensive quotations from participants, HW Brands gives a portrait of the Gilded Age and the rise of the robber barons. Democracy and capitalism are usually described as apples and oranges — one a political system, the other economic — but Brands draws them in sharp opposition. He shows beyond question the way that free-range capitalism makes a mockery of democratic government.

As an overall history of the age, it’s lacking. Reconstruction is barely mentioned, and when it comes up, the focus is mainly on the effect of reconstruction policies on money. Most cultural trends are ignored. He misses a golden opportunity by severely limiting his references to Mark Twain: Twain was a perfect embodiment of the age, and nearly died on the shoals of capitalist envy. But he appears here mainly as the man who gave the Gilded Age its name.

Brands also steers clear of atrocities. Capitalism’s war on labor is described in exciting detail, but the far greater evil of white southerners’ war on freed slaves is only briefly touched on. In describing America’s imperialism of the 1890s, he includes only a brief mention of the atrocities committed by American troops in the Philippines. It was this very crime that turned Mark Twain from a self-satisfied expansionist into an angry and bitter opponent of imperialism.

But within the terms he’s set for himself, Brands makes his case. The robber barons — Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan — are all here; so are the champions of labor — Eugene Debs, Henry George, Coxey’s Army. And Teddy Roosevelt, imperialist AND trust-buster, cuts an imposing figure in the later chapters. While giving capitalism credit for some of the gains in living standards enjoyed by Americans, there’s not much doubt that his overall sympathies are on the side of labor.

It’s a pleasure to hear all this related in Robertson Dean’s smooth, deep voice. Once I got into it, I had trouble putting the audiobook down.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-05-18

Good story well told

The central notion of this book - the friendship of Sam Clemens and John Hay - doesn’t hold up that well. They are more acquaintances than friends, and they move in different social circles. But the book succeeds brilliantly anyway. It’s a good story well told, an outstanding example of narrative nonfiction.

It covers a critical period in the lives of both men. Sam Clemens has gone bankrupt and goes on a round-the-world lecture tour to restore his finances. His daughter Susy dies, and then his wife Livy; his daughter Jean has epileptic seizures. An initial proponent of war with Spain, he becomes radicalized by the horrific way freedom fighters in the Philippines are treated after the US wins "possession" of the islands.

John Hay, one of Lincoln’s secretaries during the Civil War, later served McKinley as ambassador to the UK and then Secretary of State. When McKinley is assassinated at the beginning of his second term, Hay stays on at State under Theodore Roosevelt. (TR, an ambitious, blustering, and shallow imperialist warmonger, doesn’t come off well in this book.) Hay oversees the resolution of a Canadian border controversy and the acquisition of territory from Colombia - territory that became the future state of Panama - to build a canal across the isthmus. (The US sent gunboats to discourage Colombia from trying to suppress the rebellion in Panama.)

Zwonitzer has a great eye for detail, and his narrative is vivid and entertaining. And Joe Barrett gives a fantastic performance. It should be an entertaining read for fans of Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, John Hay, and anyone interested in this less-well-known (by me) period of American history.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-03-18

Overlong but enjoyable

Part swashbuckler, part romance, part hymn to the beauty of farm country. It reminds me a bit of Poldark - the original novel, not the TV version(s). Lorna Doone is episodic and a shade too long; what saves it and holds it together is the genial, self-deprecating common sense of the narrator, John Ridd. Jonathan Keeble delivers the entire book in regional dialect. It’s a bit softened, and perfectly understandable, in John’s case, but for the dialogue of some of his fellows, it’s full-blown. (Even there, though, the general sense is always clear.)

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 05-24-18

A strong plot

I’m not a fan of Henry James, but I’m trying to fill in some gaps in my education. This is the third of his novels I’ve read recently. The other two were Washington Square and The Europeans. The Aspern Papers, with its strong and focused plot, makes an interesting contrast with those two novels. (I found them to be diffuse, a bit drab, oddly structured.)

The narrator of The Aspern Papers has a very specific goal, and the story ends when that goal is finally resolved. He starts out as a likable, intense man, more than a little obsessed with a poet from a previous generation. He is editing the works of Jeffrey Aspern, and he has reason to believe that an old flame of the poet’s still possesses a great many of Aspern’s papers. What he does to obtain them quickly loses him any sympathy (at least from me). But there’s no question that he, and the other two main characters, are drawn convincingly and with nuance. He has the decency to feel guilty about his actions.

Adam Sims (not Adams Sims, listed as the narrator as I write this) is a good match for Henry James. All in all, this is an enjoyable listen.

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3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 05-16-18

Dreary

I have a hard time getting into Henry James. This is my second try (the first was Washington Square); and so far, I’d have to say he’s a dreary writer, devoid of humor, writing about mostly uninteresting characters and incorporating the most vaporous of plots. This one involves not so much a love triangle as a love parallelogram: it works out for a couple of people and doesn’t work out for a couple of others. It could have been a lively story, but it isn’t. The changes in relationships could have come with deep self-reflection and emotional struggle, but they don’t.

Adam Sims is a good narrator and does the best he can with this dessicated crew of (mostly) New Englanders.

I’m not ready to give up on Henry James yet. When someone has a reputation like his, I tend to distrust my own responses: with all the critical praise of his work, there must be fire here somewhere. It wouldn’t be the first time that additional effort helped unlock the pleasures that an author has to offer. But I suspect one or two more novels by Henry James may be enough.

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