Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Audio Book: Aubreyad

I haven't mentioned listening to books on tape for a while, mainly since I've been listening to just one story, which has gone through seventeen packets of CDs and a couple years worth of commute. Note that I don't consider my commute all that excessive -30-45 minutes, twice a day, and quite often I drive in relative silence since I am writing mentally while I drive. In fact, one of the problems of books on tape is that it is not easy to track back to the exact passage you missed through inattention. So you will suddenly hear something which sends you into a mental side-channel, and then come back and realize the CD is still going and you haven't been paying attention.

Anyway, the "book" has been sixteen books (and a fragment) of the Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. I first experienced the series many years ago through Margaret Weis, and read the first four volumes (from Master and Commander through The Mauritius Command . Starting with Desolation Island, however, I switched to tape/CD, mainly because the Lovely Bride and I were in Jersey with a rented car and long stretches of driving ahead of us.

And the series makes for a good listen. It is the tales of Captain Jack Aubrey and his companion ship's surgeon/naturalist/spy Stephen Maturin, in the age of fighting sail, the time of wooden ships and iron men. Most people know about it from the Master and Commander movie. Both books and movie have the same basic story engine: They sail around, and stuff happens.

And that is pretty much it. O'Brien doesn't abide to the pacing of a novel as much as the pacing of the sea. There are long stretches of "nothing" going on in the books, followed by a series of quick events. Long periods of tedium followed by a collection of blind panic and action. This is particularly noticeable in the CDs, where the act of replacing the disks breaks the story in different places than the standard chapter arrangement. You realize that the ship's crew has spent the entire previous disk becalmed in the tropics, or preparing for a dinner party. Then immediately you are confronted by three ship-to-ship battles, a shipwreck, and a volcano, all in the space of a few tracks.

Captain Aubrey, based on the real life career of Thomas Cochran, is easy to describe - confident and capable at sea, bludgeon-headed and beset by continual troubles when land-bound, he is at his best when freed of those constraints. His partner in sail, Stephen Maturin, is in many ways O'Brien's personality distilled in the book, and as a result has a wide variety of knowledge - surgeon, ornithologist, druggie, naturalist Irish revolutionary, and spy, and he provides continual detailed sidebars not available solely through the military Aubrey.

There are a number of audio versions circulating, but the best ones have Patrick Tull as the reader. There were a couple we couldn't get with his recordings, and the other readers felt irritating, reducing Stephen's mild, cultured tongue to a thick, impenetrable brogue and cranking up Aubrey authoritative voice to bombast.

I have probably more to say on Aubrey and Maturin, but as far as the CDs are concerned, they have been good company on the trips. And they've seen some mileage as well, since I passed them on to Steve Miller, then packaged them up to my brother back in Pittsburgh. And the pacing of the books match up well the commute.

More later,