"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Saturday, December 20, 2003

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

By Mark Twain

Read by Patrick Fraley

Audio Partners

6 CDs, 7.5 hours

The unabridged audiobook of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer recently released by Audio Partners Publishing Corp. does exactly what a good audio book should do: It brings the text to life.

Admittedly, it would be tough to make as entertaining a writer as Mark Twain seem dull without doing a complete hatchet job, but voice actor Patrick Fraley makes the classic tale of 19th-century American boyhood gleam like the gem it is.

While Tom Sawyer is the poorer literary predecessor to Twain's masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it is still more than worthwhile reading and listening. Using tales of Tom's comic mischief and imagination to illustrate the human foibles of conformity, pride, superstition, greed, jealousy and prejudice, the author offers his own ironic comments in a wry manner well captured by the reader.

Fraley, who has put his talents to use in numerous audiobooks, radio programs and cartoons, has clearly studied actor Hal Holbrook's practiced interpretation in cultivating his own. Fraley evokes Twain's Missouri drawl ably, though his take on the various character voices edges on the cartoonish at times, leaving the adult listener wondering if he has picked up something from the juvenile section.

While Tom Sawyer is suitable for children, Twain wrote it more with adults in mind. Fraley manages to capture the dry sarcasm of Twain's observations on human nature without milking it, and his leisurely pacing makes the entire 7-1/2-hour package a relaxing experience eminently recommendable as commuter listening.

--Kevin Wood

Copyright 2003 The Yomiuri Shimbun

In Your Ear

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer


Concert for George

Warner, 3,400 yen (CD)

Whether you view them as long-lost musical gems, heartfelt tributes or crass attempts to turn leftovers into cash, CDs and DVDs hitting the store shelves for Christmas this year prove that phony or not, Beatlemania has not yet bitten the dust.

Of the three items here, Concert for George is the only one to provide anything that approaches new music. A live two CD recording of a tribute concert held on the first anniversary of George Harrison's death, the album provides a better musical look at the concert than the film of the same event, which cuts back and forth between rehearsals and performances by concert organizer Eric Clapton, former bandmates Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and others.

The first disc features Anoushka Shankar, daughter of Ravi Shankar, performing and conducting mesmerizing yet impressively energetic Indian music.

The second disc is more conventional rock written by the Quiet Beatle and performed by those who knew and loved him. While it suffers from some of the usual excesses of live tribute concerts, such as Billy Preston's overlong "My Sweet Lord," Concert For George provides a showcase for a terrific songwriter who was too often overshadowed by the Lennon-McCartney hit factory.


Let It Be...Naked

Toshiba-EMI, 2,667 yen (CD)

Let It Be...Naked is, in essence, something of a correction. The original album was recorded in 1969, before the lushly layered Abbey Road. The original intention was to rehearse a number of new songs with an eye to performing a live concert and to film the whole process with the concert providing the film's climax. The four lads from Liverpool were unable to settle on where and when the concert would take place, finally compromising on an impromptu gig on the roof of the recording studio.

The film was made and the tapes handed over to hit-making producer Phil "Wall of Sound" Spector, who added strings and choirs to the live recording and even slowed down the tape on "Across the Universe" to turn out a chart-topper.

The 2003 version is stripped of Spector's dross and uses different takes for some songs. Six of the 11 tracks are virtually unchanged, though the sound quality has been drastically improved. There are two good reasons to buy this release: to hear what "The Long and Winding Road" really sounds like now that it has been excavated from the mound of saccharin it was buried under for 30 years; and the inclusion of "Don't Let Me Down" not previously on the album.

The bad news is that the bits of studio chatter and telltale Beatles humor have also been stripped away. In Japan at least, an effort has been made to make up for this with a second disc of between-takes banter. "Fly on the Wall" really is only for the truly obsessive, but it does give a brief first look at a few songs that ended up on later solo albums.


Lennon Legend,

EMI Records, 3,890 yen (DVD)

The latest attempt to stripmine the collective memory of John Lennon for cash, the Lennon Legend DVD, is surprisingly good. A number of previously unseen film clips, such as Lennon's last live performance in 1975, and bits and pieces from the family archives are included along with 20 song videos.

The gut-wrenching video that accompanies "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" will allow you to reclaim the song in all its idealistic glory.

Collectors should also note that a two-DVD set Ed Sullivan Presents The Beatles is also available.

Copyright 2003 The Yomiuri Shimbun

I didn't even know he was sick

Some people have way way way too much time on their hands


Friday, December 19, 2003

Bill Moyers is God!
I wish I had said thisbut he did. And it is brilliant

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Panorama of history, science and comedy

Kevin Wood Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer


By Neal Stephenson

William Morrow, 926 pp, 27.95 dollars

Reading Neal Stephenson's latest tome, the 926-page Quicksilver, is like lugging a heavy cooler of beer to the beach on a scorching hot day. The container is heavy and awkward to carry, and getting through the entire contents is a daunting task, but in the end it is delightfully frothy, refreshingly cool and leaves us thirsty for more when it's finished.

Quicksilver is billed as volume one of The Baroque Cycle and will be followed in April by The Confusion and in October by The System of the World. Because of Stephenson's earlier success as a science fiction writer (through the excellent novels Snow Crash, The Diamond Age and Zodiac), this book is viewed by some as belonging to that genre. In truth, it is historical fiction about science.

Quicksilver is a sprawling story about the germination of the seeds of the modern world in the 17th and 18th centuries, focusing on the beginnings of modern science, economics, politics and even language. But in Stephenson's mansion there are many rooms: Quicksilver is also a rip-roaring adventure yarn, a biting satire, a biography of several notable historic figures, a political and military history of the latter part of the baroque period in Europe, the story of the founding and early years of the Royal Society of London--and if you whack a potato hard enough with it, it probably even makes julienne French fries. It is smart, funny, erudite and an addictive page turner. The book's length, however initially daunting, is meaningless. Certainly it is the only 900-page novel that leaves the reader impatient for a pair of sequels.

Obviously, this single volume is several books packed into one. The author breaks it into thirds, each focusing on a key character.

The first opens with a mysterious traveling salesman of alchemical supplies arriving in Boston in 1713 to seek out the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal (sic) Arts, Daniel Waterhouse. A small boy named Ben Franklin guides him to the door of the Puritan scientist, whose father had been a close associate of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. Dr. Waterhouse is needed back in London to settle a dispute between his Cambridge University roommate Sir Isaac Newton and his longtime friend, the noted German polymath Baron Gottfried Wilhelm von Liebniz, over which one of them was the first to invent calculus. On his voyage back to London, Waterhouse's ship is pursued by the pirate fleet of Edward "Blackbeard" Teach. Flashbacks from Waterhouse's younger days feature the great plague year of 1665, the great fire of London and the founding of the Royal Society--and that is just in the first 150 pages.

The second section, "King of the Vagabonds," concerns the adventures of Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, who goes from a childhood in which he and brother earn their keep by swinging from the legs of men on the gallows in the London suburb of Tyburn to hasten their demise, to stealing an ostrich and a harem girl from the Turkish camp at the breaking of the siege of Vienna. Nicknamed for the results of an unfortunate accident with a cauterizing iron suffered while being treated for syphilis, Shaftoe is slowing going mad. One of the weirdest and most entertaining scenes in the book--which has a pretty high overall standard for entertaining weirdness--is his hallucination of dancing nuns, singing galley slaves and lascivious fishwives performing a movie-musical production number in the streets of Paris that would turn Busby Berkeley green with shock and envy.

The third section is largely devoted to the adventures of the aforementioned harem girl, Eliza, who wanders Europe with Jack, settling in Amsterdam for a time and becoming moderately well-to-do as an early stock trader before becoming William of Orange's spy at the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. Much of this part is told through coded letters between Eliza and Liebniz, which are intercepted and read by agents of both kings.

As packed with plot threads as the book is, Quicksilver is also a learned discourse on the evolution of alchemy and astrology into modern science and mathematics, and the birth of banking, stock markets and modern capitalism.

One of the most entertaining devices Stephenson uses is his scattering of anachronisms throughout the story. At one point Eliza writes from Venice about the phenomenon of "canal rage" among gondoliers and Waterhouse is warned not to get on Isaac Newton's "s--- list."

Hindsight makes for a certain amount of amusement as well, with a minor character sampling the first tea brought back to England by a traveling scholar and pronouncing it "inoffensive enough, but I don't think Englishmen will ever take to anything so outlandish."

Trimmed of its numerous frills, which include a handful of short plays, digressions into scientific and historical in-jokes and some astonishingly detailed descriptions, Quicksilver could have been half as long and still been a great swashbuckling historical adventure. But such economy is not always desirable; Hamlet is four hours long, and trimmed of its frills it becomes a soap opera about a mopey, rich Danish mama's boy. The devil may be in the details, but so are the delights of Quicksilver