Thursday, February 23, 2006

Review: Dracula [audiobook]

I recently finished listening to Dracula, by Bram Stoker, as read by Alexander Spencer and Susan Adams, released by Recorded Books Company. I'm mostly going to review the audiobook production here, though the book itself is of no small interest in its own right.

First, the voices: As the story is told almost exclusively through increasingly improbable journal entries (given the choice between writing down much of what was written, and getting some sleep, I think I'd almost always get the sleep), there is almost no narration. As a result, both Mr Spencer and Ms Adams are almost always speaking in the voice of one of the characters, and by and large they both do an excellent job with managing the multiple voices, even in heated conversation. There is one glaring exception, however-- the American, Quincey Morris.

Let me be the first to say that, if asked to do any sort of British accent, much less an identifiably regional one (say, Brummie or Cornish), I would do a horrible job. But then again, I'm not an actor, so I wouldn't put myself in that situation in the first place. Spencer's Morris seems to wanter all over the landscape, accent-wise, from Texas (which is where he is supposed to be from) to Georgia, Louisiana, a brief jaunt up the Appalachians to Virginia, and at least from time to time could well have been mistaken for a Yankee. This should just be a minor quibble, but every time Quincey spoke, or wrote, I was hugely conscious of the fact that I was listening to a British actor read the part. I suppose it's a compliment, in a way, that the rest of the readings were so transparent (though, as an American, I cannot comment on the various accents of the British characters, other than to say they were distinct and not obviously bogus) that I found this one exception so jarring.

Next, the presentation itself. I think that, as an audiobook, Dracula works far better than as a book. The book's plotting and pace have rightfully been derided as pedantic and slow, but when read aloud, I got a much better sense of how the characters felt, and the way they missed clues which were obvious to the reader seemed less implausible. The story still lagged towards the middle, and the ending still felt far too abrupt, but overall, the pacing held up better when read aloud, I felt, than when read from a book. Also, several characters felt better-drawn-- Renfield's psychosis, and occasional transformation to sanity were clearer and easier to follow when you heard his voice change from low-class to a very refined RP-style delivery.

If you felt disappointed by the book in the wake of the very sensational movies based off of it, I can wholeheartedly recommend this audiobook version.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Shoggoth Girl

As I'm listening to the audiobook version of Shopgirl, I'm unable to shake the conviction that Steve Martin, as a writer resembles no-one else so strongly as H.P. Lovecraft. In no way is the similarity so superficial as what they write about, their characters, or their language. No, it's something oddly meaningful, and significant only in its absence. This is that they both avoid dialogue in such a way that is can only be deliberate.

Unlike Lovecraft, Martin is actually able to write dialogue, but he does not seem to take great pleasure in doing so, avoiding it in the main. Conversations between his characters are less often recounted as described: "And then he told her about his life", instead of him actually telling her (and the reader) about it. The whole story takes place from an almost aggressively third-person viewpoint, the distance of which seems to reflect the distance all the characters feel from each other. Maybe that was his point, I'm not sure, but it seems at times that every scene, every action is narrated from a curiously personally impersonal viewpoint. Here's a sample:

Where his insight comes from as he courts her, even he doesn't know. It might have been that he was ready to grow up, that the knowledge was already in him, like a dormant gene. Whatever it is, she is the perfect recipient of his attention, and he is the perfect recipient of her tenderness.

I don't want to dislike it-- and in fact, I don't dislike it, not really; I just feel, like the characters in the book, vaguely unsatisfied; not displeased, just not fulfilled. I just wish Martin would show me these things, not tell me. I almost feel as if, listening to the audiobook, that Martin is summarizing the actual story, as if I'm getting the Cliff Notes version of the novel he was afraid no-one would publish. But then he will come up with a small, but simple line that is all too representative of life as some have lived it, a line that rings true enough in its banality that it comes as close to touching something meaningful within me that I wish he'd spend more time exploring it and less time writing it:

How is it possible to miss a woman that you kept at a distance so that, when she was gone, you would not miss her?

A movie of this came out a while back; I suspect I might enjoy it more than the novella it's based on.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Google Maps are SchWEET

I had absolutely nothing useful to do at work today, so I learned something new (always a good thing to do, if you ask me-- a day you learn nothing is a day wasted). I taught myself the Google Maps API, and produced a map of the churches in the diocese of Colorado Springs. The maps API is really easy and fun to work with, and I was surprised at how much it reminds me of X11/Motif programming, both in terms of how you respond to events, and how you create graphical objects.

Lots of fun!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Artificial is sometimes better than Natural

I just read an article at Inside Higher Ed about two sites-- and Rate Your Students. But I'm not interested right now in the article itself, though there is plenty of meat there, both in the use of sites like and in the (perceived) need of professors to respond in kind. No, I'm interested most by this comment, by Larry:

While, indeed, it is pathetic, the combination of these two sites should us the truth about humanity. This is the way most people really talk when they are not forced to pretend to be enthusiastic about everything. Perhaps if people didn’t see the need to be “congenial” or use “social skills” all the time, humans could interact with each other on a much more meaningful level.

This attitude-- that social skills or congeniality suppress meaningful interactions-- is by no means an attitude that is exclusive to Larry, and in fact at one time I shared it. But over time, I have come to the conclusion that those social skills and occasional forced congeniality are precisely what enable meaningful interactions in the first place. It's not by accident that nearly every etiquette manual I've read describe them as social lubricants. They grease the wheels of interaction so that we don't spend all our time fighting about the precise definition of "is", and can get on to the more substantive matters we originally intended to discuss.

This is not a new idea, and I'm certainly not claiming any originalty in expression for myself here. I find it more interesting how my own perspective on this has changed over time than any real or imagined deficits in Larry's argument.