Lights, Camera, Read

You see them everywhere: smiling for the camera, promoting their latest film, putting their hands in cement. Yes, I’m talking about the famous (and infamous) stars of stage, screen and television. You can stoically resist their charms, but even the most cynical of us have a tendency to succumb to their gravitational pull eventually.

I was surprised to find that, for me, this even holds true when I’m selecting an audiobook. I’ve found that, if the narrator of an audiobook has a famous name, I will sometimes give it a try no matter what the book itself is. Call me shallow, but this has actually led me to listen to some interesting audiobooks that you might enjoy as well. Here are two examples:

world war zWorld War Z (Movie Tie-In Edition) by Max Brooks
I know, I know. More zombies. But there are two good reasons to give this audiobook a try. First there are more stars than you can shake a stick at narrating this edition. Clearly the author, with the help of the studio promoting the upcoming film I would wager, pulled some strings to get the likes of Mark Hamill, John Turturro, Nathan Fillion, Simon Pegg, Henry Rollins, Martin Scorsese and many, many, others to narrate. Secondly, this book is actually more of a social history of a zombie apocalypse than a survivalist do or die zombie apocalypse. I know it sounds odd. Lisa captured the feel perfectly in her post from last summer. Once you get into it, it truly does feel like an oral history, albeit of a fictional future event.

I, ClaudiusI Claudius: A BBC Radio-4 Full Cast Dramatization by Robert Graves
There is no need for an ancient history degree to appreciate this fun visit to a very, very dysfunctional family who just happens to rule the Roman Empire. While definitely based on the Robert Graves novel, this recording is a fresh take on the material and is more akin to a recorded play than a reading of the book. There is little gravitas which lets the dark humor of the Machiavellian scheming come through. Best of all, the cast is chock full of British stage, film and television actors that are top-notch. Standouts include Tim McInnerny, Harriet Walter, Jessica Raine, Tom Goodman-Hill and, of course, Derek Jacobi playing Augustus this time around.

Sadly my listening time is even more limited than my reading time. There are only so many listening hours (primarily when I’m driving, exercising or weeding) that I can squeeze out of the week. But if my formula of star power leading to intriguing listening experiences holds true, these new titles might also be worth considering.

gatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Timed to coincide with the theatrical summer release, this version is narrated by the actor Jake Gyllenhaal. To my shame, I’ll admit that Gatsby has never been one of my favorite novels. On the other hand I really did like Donnie Darko. Perhaps the two might negate each other and lead to a pleasurable listening experience. Stranger things have happened.

88 by Dustin Black
This is a recording of Black’s play about the legal attempt to repeal proposition 8, a constitutional amendment that repealed the right of same-sex couples to marry in California. While an important topic, politics and the legal system can be a bit dull. The all-star cast (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Kevin Bacon, John C. Riley, Jamie Lee Curtis and many more) might just bring it to life, however.

During my search, I was surprised to find that actors and actresses narrating audiobooks is not a new phenomenon. There are many who regularly narrate and are well represented in our collection. A few names that you might recognize are: Joe Mantegna, Campbell Scott, Elizabeth McGovern, Gary Sinise, Bronson Pinchot, Wil Wheaton and Dan Stevens.

So there you have it. A new method of selecting audiobooks based on star power. Don’t be embarrassed. Resistance is futile.


Mad, Bad and Dangerous

You rarely forget your first glimpse into the forbidden world of adults. Perhaps it was reading a banned book or sneaking into an R rated film. For me, quaint as it might seem now, it was getting to see the episodes of I Claudius that featured the Roman Emperor Caligula.

You see, long ago in a time before cable, Masterpiece Theater was premiering the BBC adaptation of the Robert Graves novel I Claudius. Most of the episodes aired at the regular time but the ones depicting Caligula’s reign were shown way past my bedtime in an attempt to discourage young viewers.  My parents, seeing I was addicted to the series, relented, and I was exposed to John Hurt’s mesmerizing, disturbing, and slightly campy version of the infamous emperor.

Every since viewing that series, I’ve had a soft spot for the whole dysfunctional Julio-Claudian dynasty. With this in mind, I was pretty much destined to check out Caligula: A Biography by Aloys Winterling.

As advertised, this new work pieces together the life and brief reign of Caligula. It is a masterful attempt to sift fact from fiction and come up with some kind of unified portrait. As the author acknowledges, this is no easy task due to the lack of reliable sources. The few accounts that have survived were written a generation after Caligula’s time and by members of the senate. Since one of Caligula’s more infamous, yet humorous, deeds was to nominate his favorite horse to become a senator, he doesn’t come off too well in these accounts.

Thankfully, Winterling doesn’t simply dismiss every fanciful tale as a matter of bias. What fun would that be after all? Instead he engages in an entertaining attempt to find out what was really going on. Did Caligula really smother the aged Emperor Tiberius with a pillow? After becoming Emperor, did he march to the English Channel, declare war on Neptune, and collect sea shells as war booty?  And what about those sisters of his?

If you want a reasoned and fascinating attempt to parse the truth of these claims and more, definitely read Caligula: A Biography.

If, instead, you want all the dirt and the truth be damned, head straight to the source and check out Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. Come for the decadent and insane Caligula, but stay for the rational but ruthless Augustus, the dour and despairing Tiberius, the sympathetic but weak-willed Claudius and the less-said-about-him-the-better Nero. As John Hurt’s version of Caligula would say: people really are despicable.