An Audio-Book Review: Second Semester

Rome and the Barbarians

A series of lectures by Professor Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.

Published by The Learning Company

 

The Lectures:

As I said last week, sometimes it’s nice to take a break from all the fiction. Like the series on “The Great Pharaohs” which I reviewed last week, I chose this because I actually knew something about the subject. However, in this case, Dr. Harl went into details of Roman History with which I was not entirely acquainted and covered subjects I only knew a little about. So, it was very refreshing!

It is not that I knew so little about the History of Rome from its founding to the fall of the Empire, but He took the time to go into great detail, and approached it from the viewpoint of Rome’s dealing with foreigners, which was not a subject I had studied in depth.

Unlike the series on Egyptian Pharaohs, this one is given over the course of thirty-six lecture and covers only a third of the time span, so while some of the less notable emperors were passed over, most of those notable for dealing with the Barbarians were covered, including several the average person may not have heard of.

Doctor Harl is another fun lecturer to listen to and his recording sounds as though he was simply recording classes given at Tulane University, where he teaches. The dubbed in applause before and after each lecture, in fact, almost makes it sound like it was live, but I have to admit I have never heard a class applaud as their lecturer walked into the room, nor applaud again at the end of class. However, the seeming live nature of his talks includes mid-sentence corrections which, for me, enhanced, rather than took away from the experience.

The subject matter ranges from the early Roman Republic through the empire past Justinian and into the start of the Middle Ages. It’s a fairly long stretch, but the lectures cover them fairly well. I learned quite a bit throughout this class-worth of lectures even in areas I thought I was fairly knowledgeable. That is probably because I did not know as much as I thought, but also, the perspective of the lectures of Rome and her relationship with the Barbarians all along her borders was not something I had ever studied in depth.

And Rome had a lot of barbarians  along her frontiers, but then her frontiers were thousands of miles long and as time went on, there were always new barbarians  on the periphery even after the old ones had been Romanized.

So, all told, this is a really good series of lectures, given by an engaging and knowledgeable speaker.

Posted in Archaeology, HIstory, Nonfiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

An Audio-Book Review: Back to School

Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt

A series of lectures by Professor Bob Brier

Published by The Teaching Company

 

The Lectures:

Every so often I like to take a break from listening to fiction and, instead, go for something, uh, real. So for the next two weeks I shall be reviewing two series of lectures, published by The Learning Company. My academic degrees are in archaeology so it was natural I might choose to listen to this series first (The next is more historical than archaeological in nature although still of interest to me).

My field of studies, while working on my master’s thesis centered on the archaeology of the Israel area so I had to study both Mesopotamian and Egyptian archaeology because, as my freshman advisor once remarked to me, in Anthropology (and archaeology) everything is related.

Bob Brier’s lecture style is engaging and only semi-formal, but which I mean he does not drone on about his subject and that you can easily imagine sitting in his classroom as he talks. I think it is obvious that you will not be tempted to sleep during one of his lectures. So, yes, I enjoyed listening to him, but I did have a few reservations.

Perhaps because I am already reasonably well versed on most of the subjects of his lectures, I found them somewhat shallow, rarely going into great detail. They were great for the beginner who knows very little about ancient Egypt, but it definitely would not serve as a refresher for a graduate student. Then again, these lectures, and this series in particular) are meant to be introductory, so maybe I’m out of line.

I was a bit disappointed in his choice of “Great Pharaohs.” Certainly, Narmer, the king who unified Upper and Lower Egypt, was a good place to start, but I was a bit annoyed when he characterized Snefru as the Pyramid Builder. Yes, his “Red Pyramid” was the first true, smooth-sided pyramid and he had two failures (the Broken Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid) before that, but I think the credit for invention should go to Djoser, or rather his architect, Imhotep, who, during the previous dynasty built the first Step Pyramid. Snefru’s pyramids were actually just refinements (although significant refinements) of Djoser’s. Very little credit, however is given here to Djoser and Imhotep. However, one should grant that it was Snefru’s building style that led to the Great Pyramid of his son Khufu and the others situated at Giza.

And then the lecture skips roughly a thousand years (and 14 dynasties) to the reign of Hatshepsut, one of only two reigning Egyptian queens the average person may have heard of (the other being Cleopatra). I will not contest his choice of Hatshepsut. I would have centered on her too, but, a lot happened between her and Snefru (two Intermediary Periods and the whole of the Middle Kingdom). By the time we get to the 4th lecture on Akhenaten, I realized that his choice of “Great Pharaohs” meant the ones we know the most about, but not necessarily great in terms of their influence on Egyptian history. Certainly, had Howard Carter not found Tutankhamun’s undisturbed tomb, I doubt he would have been considered important enough to merit two lectures to, although Ramses II does deserve to be called the “Great.”

However, as I mentioned above, the lectures did not really go into great detail and in some cases glossed over or misrepresented some details I thought important. For example, at one point Doctor Brier states that all Egyptian art is the same, being literally set in stone and never changes, until the reign of Akhenaten. The truth, however, is that the unusual realism of Egyptian art during the Amarna Period actually can be seen in development earlier in the Eighteenth Dynasty. (NB: the Aten disk, the symbol of Akhenaten’s god, can be seen in several bits of art from the reign of his father, Amenhotep III. Aten had been a minor god but the fact the disk appears with some frequency earlier might indicate that the cult of the Aten was beginning to rise in importance even before Akhenaten chose it as his one and only god) The realistic art style reached its height when Akhenaten became king and lasted into the reigns of several successors, but it was not a sudden occurrence as the lecture makes it sound.

I was pleased to listen to a lecture on the Nubian kings of Egypt as they were ones about which I only knew a little, although I am not sure why Alexander the Great deserved a whole lecture. Yes, he conquered Egypt, but his main contribution was to die, leaving his general Ptolemy I to inherit the kingdom. We then have a lecture on the early Ptolemies and finish up with Cleopatra. Was Cleopatra a Great Pharaoh? Certainly, a famous one, but I can only say she was better at it than her brother.

In all, I think there should have been twice as many lectures in this series to at least make an attempt to fill in the many gaps necessitated by the fact that it was attempting to cover about 3000 years in only six hours. However, even though I knew most of this, it was still fun and interesting to listen to.

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An Audio-Book Review: Ah Choo!

Snuff

By Terry Pratchett

Published by Harper Audio

Read by Stephen Briggs

 

The Book:

It’s been a while since I reviewed one of the Discworld books and I don’t think I’ve done this one before, but if I have, I suppose we shall find out how consistent I am.

The Discworld, for those who have never read any of the books of this series is truly a disk and that sits on the back of four impossibly large elephants who, in turn, stand atop the shell of an even larger space-going turtle. This is because in a universe of probability something has to exist at the far end of the probability bell curve… maybe. Naturally such a construct could not exist without magic and the Discworld is definitely magical. Strangely, the shape of the world is only occasionally important to the stories that take place on it. Oh, it comes up, for example, when the Wizzard (sic) Rincewind falls off the edge, but in this story it is mere window dressing.

The Discworld stories can be grouped into a number of subseries of their own and this is one of the stories which centers on the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, especially on its commander, Samuel Vimes. Vimes may be one of Pratchett’s more interesting characters; certainly, he is different from most. When we first met the man, (I think that was in Guards! Guards!) the man seemed a hopeless alcoholic, but some small dregs of pride manage to turn him around bit by bit and over the course of the series he proves to be one of the strangest and most respected characters on Discworld.

Now Vimes’ wife, the Duchess of Ankh-Morpork, has decided to drag him and their son, Young Sam, off to the country on vacation because that is what you do. Well it is what you do when you are of the aristocracy. Vimes, on the other hand is a semi-reformed gutter rat and, in spite of his previous adventures, not really comfortable when away from the pestilent, cobbled streets of his city. Of course, even when Vimes in on vacation, he is always a cop and there is always a crime to be solved.

On the Discworld, there are many intelligent species living… well, not always in peace, but generally agreeing to stay at arms’ length from each other. In previous volumes, in fact, Vimes was instrumental in brokering a peace accord between the traditional enemy realms of the Dwarves and Trolls. On his own police force he has employed sentients of all species; trolls, dwarves, vampires, feegles and so forth, but there is one species considered vermin by most others, the goblins. The goblins and small and smelly and because of their religious beliefs have the unsavory habit of saving of their bodily secretions is pots to be buried with them after death. Not all humans see them as vermin, however and when Vimes witnesses a goblin girl playing a harp with angelic beauty he suddenly realizes that goblins are not just under-people but people as fully deserving of the rights that all others enjoy, including that of justice, which is where he comes in especially when his investigating involves, at first, the murder of a goblin and then the wholesale abduction of goblins for reasons unknown. Something smells out there in the country and it is not just the goblins and the poo that Young Sam is so intent on studying.

This is another great story that is a part of an all-around great series. The Discworld stories can be mistaken for mere parodies of fantasy tropes and, indeed, that is how they started out, but they stand on their own and are frequently good serious stories, wearing only a mask of satire.

Snuff is a good solid story with some good solid social messages but delivered in a clever and entertaining manner. It is also an excellent example of how to mix a police procedural story with fantasy. Best of all, I think it makes sense even if you have not read all the stories that precede it which is hard to accomplish in such a long-running series.

 

The Audiobook:

As usual, I very much enjoyed Stephen Briggs’ reading. He does occasionally resort to funny voices for some of the characters, but in most cases I think they are well chosen, especially for non-human characters, although I was slightly annoyed by the pubescent, breaking voice of the young “Chief Constable” out in the country. The character was much younger than Vimes, but I did not think he was that much younger. However, that was my only real criticism so all in all, he did well. Briggs has read many of the Discworld novels so it was very much a matter of coming back to a familiar friend.

So, to sum it all up, great story with both poignant and funny moments and well-read and definitely well-worth listening to.

Posted in Adventure, Audio Books, Books, Fantasy, Humor, Reviews, Terry Pratchett | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

An Audio-Book Review: Stop playing with Fire, Snookums!

Unwise Child

By Randall Garrett

Published by Librivox.org

Read by Mark Nelson

 

The Book:

I’m not sure if this story was intended as an homage to Isaac Asimov’s robot stories or a commentary of his Three Laws of Robotics or maybe both. Along with using the famous “Three Laws of Robotics” there is also a murder mystery involved here so there are clear parallels with the Elijah Bailey stories although, as usual, Garrett handled this in his own manner and was obviously not simply copying Asimov.

Michael Raphael Gabriel, aka Mike the Angel, is the designer of the power plant that is to propel the Starship Branchell to its secret and ultimate destination. The Branchel, he later learns, is to transport the super-computer robot, Snookums. Snookums is a learning robot. He started out with a completely blank mind and has been learning win his childlike and inquisitive way ever since.  However, when he learns about nuclear explosives it is decided to ship him far, far away to distant planet lest he build one to see what it does.

Yes, yes, I see the plot hole. Why not just tell him that setting off such an explosion is likely to kill humans (a violation of the First Law of Robotics)? Well, Snookums has the mind of a child and maybe he just would not consider that in advance. Tell him humans are everywhere? Hard to convince him, maybe, since he has been kept isolated from most humans. Whatever the real explanation, Snookums is being shipped to another solar system along with his designer and child psychologist.

However, once in space, the medical officer on board is murdered and Snookums seems to be guilty. It is up to Mike the Angel to figure what really happened.

The story is a bit convoluted as though Garrett was reaching for something that was not quite there. This was not his best murder mystery (he wrote some great ones in my opinion). Maybe it was just that there were too many unique, albeit interesting, concepts being thrown into the mix and they seemed to get in the way of the plot/ I’m not sure, but in spite of it, I did enjoy the story and if science fiction murder mysteries interest you, you may enjoy it too.

 

The Audiobook:

It’s been a while since I listened to a recording by Mark Nelson and it was good to hear his voice again. Mister Nelson reads stories in a nice, no nonsense manner. He does not resort to funny voices and seems to allow the dialogue to delineate the characters rather than vocal tricks. I’m not sure how he manages that since some authors don’t seem to know how to do that themselves, but so far, at least that has been my impression. However, he accomplishes it, I find it is always a good listening experience when he reads.

So, it’s a story filled with interesting concepts and with some concepts that are unique to Randall Garrett and well worth the time to listen to.

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An Audio-Book Review: SF Meets Pulp Fiction

The Ambulance Made Two Trips

By Murray Leinster

Published by Librivox.org

Read by Phil Chenovert

 

The Story:

In some ways, this is a typical early 1960’s science fiction story, but Murray Leinster gives it a spin that makes it his own special take. A gangster is taking over the town by the usual ways although I must say that instead of bribing the cops directly he is more often bribing their wives. Sort of “Take me down coppers and your wives will make you miserable!” Not sure how well that would work on the large scale of a whole police force, but it is an interesting idea. It is a very “Twilight Zone” sort of story, because mixed with the cop vs gangster plot we also have a Psionic power to manipulate probability so that when Big Jake attempts to move in on a dry-cleaning business everything just started going wrong and it is up to Officer Fitzgerald to figure out how to make that work for him before Big Jake can.

The story is improbably to say the least, but a lot of fun to read. It written in the 1970’s it might have been posed as Murphy’s Law in practice, but this is, perhaps more direct as any attempt on the dry-cleaner would go wrong even if the least probable set of circumstances had to be set up to make it happen.

As I said, it’s a fun story and a relatively short one. The pacing is good and there does not seem to be any attempt to pad the length. Well worth your time, I think.

 

The Audiobook:

Once again, Phil Chenovert plies his sardonic tone of voice to a story that seems to take well to it. Maybe he goes a bit too far this time, or maybe not. It’s possible I’ve listened to him too many times and the novelty has worn off, but I have to be honest and admit that his style fits the sardonic and cynical attitudes of the classic fictional detective at his job, so it is probably just me. I have to admit that sometimes it’s just my own mood that causes me to react to a reader and generally I like listening to Mister Chenovert. Also on a second listen to one track I did not really detect any appreciable difference between his reading here and in books I enjoyed his reading more of, so I think it is safe to say that if you like his reading in general, you will enjoy this one too and even if you have never listened to one of his recordings, chalk this one up to my being cranky.

So, I think t6his is an interesting twist on an SF detective yarn and Phil Chenovert gives his characteristic color to it as he reads. Go ahead and listen for yourself!

Posted in Audio Books, Books, Reviews, Science Fiction, SF, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

An Audio-Book Review: Seeing Things and Hearing Voices (That are Really There)

Ten Days in a Madhouse

By Nellie Bly

Published by Librivox.org

Read by Alys AtteWater

 

The Book:

Nellie Bly (aka Elizabeth Jane Cochraine Seaman) has always been an interesting person to me. She was a journalist who gained notoriety by emulating Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg and traveled around the world (breaking Fogg’s fictional record) and by this book in which she feigned insanity in order to get inside the infamous Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum in New York. Yes, she was both an investigative journalist and a “stunt” reporter at the same time, but she was also a strong and independent woman who on retiring from reporting went on to run the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. and is credited as the inventor of an improved milk can and a stacking garbage can. She possibly also invented the standard 55 gallon drum, but most believe that was the work of Henry Wehrhahn who assigned the patent to her. Later she returned to reporting where she reported from the Eastern Front during World War I and on the Woman’s Suffrage movement (Headline: “Suffragists Are Men’s Superiors.”)

In this initial effort, Miss Bly takes on the assignment from Joseph Pulitzer to infiltrate an insane asylum and write about her experiences and observations while there. I have to admit that from a slightly more modern and possibly more enlightened (or not) standpoint, her attempt to behave in an insane manner sound less than convincing. However, in her own time, I imagine most people knew as little about madness as she confesses to knowing herself. Even today unless one has known someone in that condition one’s impressions are apt to be based on depictions in movies and on television shows.

In this case, Ms. Bly merely accused all the other women in a boarding house of being crazy and I guess that was sufficient to put the seed of thought into the minds of those around her. Once accused of insanity by one apparently “normal” woman it was simple to let the doctors of the age take the easy way out and agree she was insane – and, yes they did take the easy way out, relying on tests that would be inconclusive at the best of times giving results that can be interpreted as one wishes. In fact, once accused of being insane, the assumption was guilty with some doctors merely saying they were experts on the subject and could tell at a glance.

There were a few more caring individuals in her story, such as the judge who did his best to not ship her off to Bellevue where he obviously knew she would be judged hopeless and then sent to Blackwell’s Island. Indeed, that one judge may have been one of the few who were not convinced by Ms. Bly’s act, but in the end, she had her way and she was off to the “Madhouse.”

I had expected a more gruesome and graphic description of the conditions on Blackwell’s Island, but I doubt Nellie Bly’s readers would have been able to stomach that sort of fare and I suspect Pulitzer would never have printed it. Such would have cross the line between sensational and stomach-turningly tasteless. However, what she does describe is bad enough and eventually led to an official investigation that apparently saw through the Blackwell’s staff’s attempt to clean up. What is not covered was whether any of the asylum’s staff were fired. It seemed to me that many of them were as much to blame for the horrendous conditions as was the lack of operating funds. Then again, that was the beginning of the end of Blackwell’s as an asylum although that end took another twenty-four years or so to accomplish.

 

The Audiobook:

I really enjoyed listening to Alys Attewater read this book. Part of that is that she is a friend of mine, but really because her reading voice is most engaging. She reads with a sense of wonder and somehow manages to impart Nellie Bly’s inquisitiveness. I suppose Ms Bly might have sounded more cynical had she been reading her own work. Certainly the stunt reporting she did would have required a hard character edge in any person and her early life was not one of ease.

However, I think I enjoyed Alys’ interpretation far more than I would have by someone attempting to sound like a hardened cynic.

So, a good read, I think, for anyone interested in Nellie Bly or the condition of mental health facilities in the late Nineteenth Century and this recording is a pleasant listening experience.

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An Audio-Book Review: What Do You Mean, “IF the Insurance Companies Owned the World?”

Preferred Risk

By Frederik Pohl and Lester Del Rey (writing as Edson McCann)

Published by Librivox.org

Read by Nick Bulka

 

The Book:

Here’s another piece of classic 1950’s science fiction and written by a classic pair of science fiction writers. Preferred Risk tells the tale of a claims adjuster for The Company that insures everyone on Earth against everything, thereby effectively owning the world.

Well, almost everyone: accused criminals have their policies cancelled and the poor cannot afford to buy insurance. Also, against almost everything; The company does not insure against warfare, but it claims to have put an end to war… supposedly. The Company claims to be the ultimate beneficent organization and yet there is an organized resistance movement doing what it can to bring The Company down.

Claims Adjuster Wills is a loyal Company man who knows in his heart that the Company only serves to maintain the happiness and security of all Mankind. However, when he meets a man who has collected on having suffered severed limbs multiple times (they grow back) and a beautiful but mysterious woman (of course) he learns that there is something very wrong at the very top levels of The Company and it is up to him to find a way to save the world, not only from the Company, but from the rebels who fight to bring the Company down by destroying all life on Earth.

I’m not sure how much of the science holds up some sixty-two years later, but while the story starts out a bit slowly it develops well and got better and better as the story progressed. The authors certainly knew their business and understood they had to take the time to set up their future world well before the real action began because once it started rolling, there really was no time to go back and explain. It was not a fun story as there was little humor, which would have been inappropriate in such a stark world, but it was a good story about real-seeming people in situations that, given the set-up, were quite believable.

Definitely this is a good example of mid-1950’s SF that while, perhaps a little dated, is not so out-of-date as it might be. It might not be for more modern tastes, especially for those readers looking for deeply moralistic stories set in dark and dingy worlds (side comment: have you noticed how many fantasy and science fiction movies are poorly lit lately? Sure, the story might be dark, and if you are in a cave, I don’t expect sunlight, but when alone on a space ship, why not turn on the lights? Oh, never mind, maybe I’ll cover that in a different post). Anyway, this is a story that involves hope throughout even at the worst of times and I’ll admit I prefer that to watching the protagonist being ground into dust.

 

The Audiobook:

I don’t think I have listened to a story read by Nick Bulka before, but I certainly will not shy away from recordings by him in the future. In fact I have already downloaded two more Librivox projects to which he contributed.

Nick Bulka reads the story well with just enough vocal differentiation to delineate the characters and while he does sometimes resort to accents (one character calls Wills something that sounds like “Wheels” but then, the authors wrote that into the story – as “Weels” – so he was only reading what was there. I would have done the same) none of those accents are over-the-top or difficult to listen too.

So we have a classic SF story, one of those hidden gems you hear of from time to time and it is read masterfully by Nick Bulka.

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