Saturday, November 9, 2013

An Audiobook Review: And Away We Go!

AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYSUnabridged Edition Published by Listening Library

Read by Jim Dale


Not too long ago I made the unfortunate choice to listen to Jules Verne's Off on a Comet, a book I heartily nominate for the worst ten I have ever encountered. But as a teen I read several of Verne's books and was unwilling to admit that I had been badly mistaken about his abilities as a writer, so I found a copy of Around the World in Eighty Days to see if maybe I had misremembered how enjoyable it was.

I am happy to report that this book continues to be on my must-read list. In many ways it might be the most scientifically accurate of Verne's stories. In it he dealt only with technology as it was at the time of writing. He did not have to extend known science to imagine a hollow Earth, space ships, or submarines. It is arguable that this is not science fiction, but I disagree. Science fiction does not have to take place in the future. Many stories take place in the present and some even happen in the past. Nor is it necessary to invent new science or scientific artifacts. It is perfectly acceptable to compose an SF story that uses technology as it is. The key to science fiction is that it relies on science as a major plot element.

In this story the plot element is that standard transportation methods had progressed to the point that if one could make all the connections just right, it was possible to circumnavigate the globe in eighty days or less. Verne used this fact to build his story about English gentleman Phileas Fogg and his French valet Passepartout attempting to make good on Fogg's bet with fellow club members that he could, indeed, circle the globe in that time.

In all, it's a good story; a little slow going at first, but it builds gradually with problems getting in Foggs' way more frequently as he progresses around the globe. There are scenes of action and suspense (although the suspense is relieved sometimes before the reader can fully appreciate it). There is even some comic relief, although sometimes the comedy is lost in translation.

My main criticism of the work is in Verne's characters. Had I not experienced Off on a Comet I may not have noticed, but his characters are, by and large, two dimensional at best and almost always stereotypes. Fogg is the typical English Gentleman, especially as seen by the French. He never shows emotion, is always calm, serene and phlegmatic. The one exception was the moment in which he punches out Detective Fix, the cop who chased him all around the world and arrested him at the end even though the real criminal Fix should have been chasing had been caught while he was off running around after Fogg.

Detective Fix is another English (and police) stereotype; dogged, determined and willing to do absolutely anything to get his man. I was particularly amused when Fix doped Passepartout's wine with opium in an attempt to delay Fogg's departure from Hong Kong. In a more recently written novel, Fix would have ended up in jail himself and deservedly so. Admittedly, Fix has reason to think Fogg might be a criminal as the Bank of England had been robbed the day the bet was made and by a man who vaguely resembled Fogg, but Fix continues throughout despite ever-mounting proof that Fogg is not the thief. Fix's reasons to continue suspecting Fogg are inconsistent and frequently illogical. Oh well.

In any case Passepartout is the classic sidekick, a competent valet, but one who is also a bumbling idiot when it suits the plot. The Indian woman, Aouda, has no real personality. While a widow, she is essentially the ing nue who is there, I suppose, for romantic interest, save that the entire romance happens in a page or two near the end. Most other characters come and go in an understandable blur but all are caricatures in what I now recognize as the Vernian style right down to the avaricious Jewish merchant in India, who fortunately is only mentioned as having been encountered this time around.

The story, however, is interesting and fun to read regardless of its weaknesses and there are, at times, surprising problems to be dealt with and substitutes for planned transport that did exist at the time but were little known in most parts of the world even then, such as the wind-driven sledge they used to get to Omaha in order to make their connection on time to New York.

What you will not find in the book is any part of the journey accomplished by hot air balloon. Just does not happen. It is picturesque as all heck, which I imagine is why it happens in the movies, but Verne was smart enough to realize that balloons go where the wind pushes them which is rarely where you personally want to go if you have a specific goal in mind and especially not if you have a schedule to keep.

So, yes, I can still recommend this book. It's fun and has a happy ending.


Jim Dale does a fantastic job of reading this book. Fans of the American editions of the Harry Potter Books will be well acquainted with Mister Dales work. One of these days I mean to compare his readings with those by Stephen Fry who read the British editions. It is difficult to choose between them. They both do excellent but different jobs.

Jim Dale's voice should also be familiar to fans of the short-lived TV Series, "Pushing Daisies" and it is his work in that series that I was most reminded of as I listened to this audiobook. Of course Mister Dale has had a long and successful career as actor, singer and songwriter, but I think most Americans know him for his talents as a voice actor.

The man's voice is gold when he reads Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days and he makes the story even more interesting to listen to than it is to read. On top of Dale's vocal talents, the production team of the Listening Library sprinkled in sound effects so while listening you will hear the music of a funeral procession in a remote region of India, Chinese music in Hong Kong, the sounds of steamships and railroads and much more. Normally, I think I would have been annoyed and distracted by the sound effects, but this time they worked.

So, Around the World in Eighty Days is a good book, but Jim Dale's performance makes it excellent. I definitely recommend this edition to anyone!
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