I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
On the surface not much happens in Virginia Woolf's semi-autobiographical modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse (1929). In Part I: The Window, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay (based on Woolf's own parents), their eight children, and several guests are vacationing at the Ramsays' summer house on the Isle of Skye in the early 20th century. Mrs. Ramsay, a meddling and kind fifty-year-old Greek-goddess, goes to town on errands, reads a fairy tale to her youngest child James, knits a stocking, presides over a dinner, communes without words with her husband, and holds the different people in the house together with the gravity of her charisma. Mr. Ramsay, an eccentric philosopher-academic, carries on with egotism, insecurity, and emotional tyranny. James' desire to visit the local lighthouse is thwarted by his father and the weather. Mr. Charles Tansley, an uptight disciple of Mr. Ramsay, asserts himself charmlessly. The somnolent and cat-eyed poet Mr. Carmichael reclines on the lawn. And independent, Chinese-eyed and pucker-faced Lily Briscoe works on a painting of Mrs. Ramsay and James and critically contemplates the family. In Part II: Time Passes, the forces of entropy besiege the house as it stands empty of people for ten years. And in Part III: The Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay coerces his two youngest children--now moody teenagers—to accompany him to the lighthouse while Lily Briscoe--who partly represents Woolf herself as a writer--comes to terms with her feelings for Mrs. Ramsay as she tries to capture her vision in the painting she'd attempted ten years earlier.
Woolf is so good at sympathetically and honestly exposing people's minds and so good at revealing the beautiful and awful world we live in, and her writing is so beautiful, flowing, controlled, and poetic, that spending only a couple days with her characters is an indelibly rich experience. She employs a modernist stream of consciousness narration, and fluidly moves from one character to another. Her technique in the novel has been likened to that of the lighthouse beam moving across the benighted island world, briefly illuminating one mind and then another as it goes round, but Woolf's narration feels more organic than that. I relish her long, elegant sentences comprised of multiple clauses attached by semi-colons, her original and vivid metaphors, and her insights into human nature in a variety of vessels (male, female, old, young, educated, simple, etc.). I expected To the Lighthouse to be beautiful, philosophical, and sad, and it was, but I was surprised by its constant humor. At least as often as a poignant pang, I felt a flush of pleasure, similar to what Cam feels while sailing towards the lighthouse:
"From her hand, ice cold, held deep in the sea, there spurted up a fountain of joy at the change, at the escape, at the adventure (that she should be alive, that she should be there). And the drops falling from this sudden and unthinking fountain of joy fell here and there on the dark, the slumbrous shapes in her mind; shapes of a world not realised but turning in their darkness, catching here and there, a spark of light; Greece, Rome, Constantinople."
The dense novel explores the miraculous fragility and meaning (or lack thereof) of life; the varied and complex nature of love; the losses and gains involved in making families or living alone; the fraught relationships between children and parents; the confining roles of men and women; the surprising vividness and poignancy of memory; the complex nature of perception; the doomed but necessary attempt to understand other people; and the doomed but noble attempt through art to capture truth and to avoid entropy.
Juliet Stevenson was born to read Virginia Woolf! Her voice is lovely to listen to and full of understanding, irony, and sympathy, a perfect accompaniment to the text. With skillful subtlety, she modifies her voice for the thoughts of men and women and children and adults (and for the local Scottish workers who help the Ramsays). She carried me off To the Lighthouse. The only thing, perhaps, that is lost in the audiobook is Woolf's use of parentheses and brackets and semi-colons, which visually shape the reading of the text.
To the Lighthouse, like Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, should be read by anyone interested in gender, art, love, life, modernism, beautiful prose, and early 20th century British culture.
Listening to Charlton Griffin's reading of Richmond Lattimore's translation of The Iliad was a wonderful experience.
Griffin is good at modifying the pitch and tone of his voice to evoke the different genders and ages and moods and agendas of the various characters. He brings the epic to life. He even makes fascinating the 90-minute introduction by scholar Herbert J. Muller. And the sound effects (ravens cawing over a battlefield) and Greek mood music introducing and concluding the 24 books of the epic immersed me in its world.
As for Homer's story, an epic focused on a short slice of a long war, a tragedy with plenty of humor, it is rewardingly rich, depicting the appalling heroism and horror of war, the full range of human nature (from bravery to cowardice, brutality to mercy, destruction to creation, and hatred to love), the richness of ancient Greek culture, the pettiness and power of the gods, and the mortality and wonder of life. Among the most impressive moments are Hector's meeting with his wife and baby before going out to fight, Hephaestus' crafting of a shield with the heavens and earth and all of human endeavor animated upon it, and Achilles' inability to embrace the ghost of Patroclus in a dream. I hope the following quotation will give an idea of the excellence of Lattimore's translation and the depth of Homer's vision:
As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity,
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another dies.
In conclusion, I thoroughly savored this audio version of The Iliad, often smiling with appreciation for Homer's story, Lattimore's translation, and Griffin's reading. I highly recommend it.
Which is more impressive in this audiobook, the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde or the readings of them by the assembled famous British actors? At their best, Wilde's stories are exquisitely beautiful and painful and reveal deep understanding of the tragedy of the human condition (mortality, inequality, prejudice, selfishness, and hatred), as well as its transcendence through generosity, self-sacrifice, beauty, faith, and love. The readers are perfect, with wise, compassionate, and flexible voices and deep understanding of each word they say and of each scene they depict.
Special highlights are Dame Judi Dench reading "The Nightingale and the Rose" so full of wit and emotion, Jeremy Irons reading "The Devoted Friend" with a surprisingly wide range of voices for different characters, Joanna Lumley reading "The Star Child" and moving me to tears, and Robert Harris reading "The Happy Prince" and moving me to tears, too, especially whenever he says, "Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow." Sir Derek Jacobi reading "The Fisherman and His Soul," Sinead Cusack reading "The Birthday of the Infanta," and Sir Donald Sinden reading "The Selfish Giant" all do fine jobs with fine tales.
The only dud (forgive the pun) is "The Remarkable Rocket," which, despite Geoffrey Palmer's excellent reading and despite the interesting concept (sentient fireworks talking about their upcoming royal display) is finally a mediocre joke that long overstays its welcome. The only disappointment is that the cover art says that there is a bonus track of "The Actress" read by Elaine Stritch, but it's absent from the audiobook.
Anyway, I highly recommend this excellent audiobook.
Hey Audible, don't raise prices and I promise to buy lots more books.
When I read reviewers write, “the best book I have ever read,” I thought yeah right! ‘must not have read many books. Well, I have read a fair bit myself and this is definitely one of the best written books I have ever read. I believe it is a book that one can read and reread and enjoy over and over and find something new in each reading of it. Not to be redundant, it is also one of the most fun and funniest I have ever read. It is a scholarly and even literary work, if you will. And yet, at the same time, the book is totally enchanting, witty and charming.
The legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table arose in the early Middle Ages, when England was just beginning to come under the influence of Christianity. When anyone retells the story, the author brings his own perspective to the tale of chivalry. Here T.H. White often appears to use the education of the young king Wart by Merlyn to educate the reader. While not in so many words, or maybe it is that: Merlin is a time-traveler. Not so much in the context of some science fiction novel but in his memory. Merlin is aware of past, present and the future. Certainly the author is aware of those times and uses those temporal events to tell his story. The book is in many ways a critique of mid-twentieth-century British culture. At first, things seem somewhat anachronistic but then we see that the narrator regularly references events and people in modern times to help tell his tale even more effectively.
Both T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings were written in the shadow of World War II, and both reflect that context to some extent:
“No. There is one fairly good reason for fighting - and that is, if the other man starts it. You see, wars are a wickedness, perhaps the greatest wickedness of a wicked species. They are so wicked that they must not be allowed. When you can be perfectly certain that the other man started them, then is the time when you might have a sort of duty to stop him.” (Merlyn)
Not only is T.H. White’s The Once and Future King full of anachronistic references to places and events of modern times, but it also plays fast and loose with time within the framework of the novel itself. Given the references to the death of Uther Pendragon in 1216 and the appearance of Thomas Malory at the end of the story, Arthur would have lived from 1201-1485. In effect, what White does is telescope almost three hundred years of English history and social development into the backdrop of a single narrative.
The book is long. But multiple versions of the story of King Arthur are considered within its covers so how short can it be? No, this is the best of several interpretations of the legend and it is not too long. While much of the book’s ending dwells on allegory, philosophy and social commentary, it is done with and eloquence and prose that is hard to compare with.
One of the young reviewers of this book that I found tried to figure out the audience for for whom the author intended and concluded there were many. I agree:
For children and young adults-
“I have been thinking ... about Might and Right. I don’t think things ought to be done because you are able to do them. I think they should be done because you ought to do them.” (Arthur). One of the central themes of the book is War: Right and Might.
On one level, both Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and T.H.
White’s The Once and Future King are children’s stories, yet both novels contain very
serious social commentary clearly intended for adults. Who could argue though that the social satire found in these novels detracts too much from the ability of children to enjoy them. Could a child appreciate all that is contained within TOaFK? Certainly not. However, there are many stories in this legend and many that target the child in all of us. One need not read this entire book though I am sure a lust will always remain to do so.
No reviewer could possibly do justice to this book. How about some more of the author’s own words:
“The best thing for being sad ... is to learn something. That is the only thing that never
fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then - to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.” (Merlyn)
This is a story about great compassion-
“If I were made a knight ..., I should insist on doing my vigil by myself, a Hob does with
his hawks, and I should pray to God to let me encounter all the evil in the world in my own person, so that if I conquered there would be none left, and, if I were defeated, I would be the one to suffer for it.” (Wart)
The author writes a great deal about the evolution of man-
“Here, all you embryos, come here with your beaks and whatnots to look upon Our first
Man. He is the only one who has guessed Our riddle, out of all of you, and We have great pleasure in conferring upon him the Order of Dominion over the Fowls of the Air, and the Beasts of the Earth, and the Fishes of the Sea. Now let the rest of you get along, and love and multiply, for it is time to knock off for the weekend. As for you, Man, you will be a naked tool all your life, though a user of tools. You will look like an embryo till they bury you, but all the others will be embryos before your might. Eternally undeveloped, you will always remain potential in Our image, able to see some of Our sorrows and to feel some of Our joys. We are partly sorry for you, Man, but partly hopeful.” (Badger)
Much is written about human morality-
“Morals ... are a form of insanity. Give me a moral man who insists on doing the right
things all the time, and I will show you a tangle which an angel couldn’t get out of.” (Lionel)
This title actually includes Books 1-5 of T.H. White’s magnum opus. It is not so much about world-building per se though there is enough of that. The book is more about us as humans and our nature... our intellectual, psychological, social and even political nature. The book is philosophical, satirical with even a little theology thrown in. Not too much; just the right amount. If it is action that ye seek, knockdown, drag out fighting, best look elsewhere. This is one more about relationships and different kinds of heroes.
This is brilliant storytelling brilliantly read and performed. The narration by Neville Jason is as good as it gets. I could not recommend a book more highly.