I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
The Story of the Volsungs is a classic Icelandic saga, written in the 13th century from much older oral fragments of songs. Eirikr Magnusson and William Morris??? 1888 translation of the saga is fast-paced, coherent, heroic, tragic, and darkly beautiful. It is mostly prose, but includes many passages of poetry or songs. It influenced H. Rider Haggard???s The Saga of Eric Brighteyes, J. R. R. Tolkien???s oeuvre (especially the Silmarillion), and Poul Anderson???s The Broken Sword. If you like such tragic fantastic adventure fiction, if you are interested in Norsemen (Vikings!), or if you enjoy reading epics for their insights into human nature and their windows into different cultures, you should listen to this audiobook.
It begins with a useful 48-minute introduction by H. Halliday Sparling about the historical, religious, political, and cultural context of the Norsemen and of their sagas, which is followed by an 8-minute preface by Magnusson and Morris about their translation.
The saga depicts the interrelated fates of two great Norse families, the Volsungs and the Guikings. From the opening sequence, in which Sigi, grandfather of Volsung, kills a thrall who outperforms him in hunting and then hides his body in a snowdrift, the people in the saga are prey to overwhelming ambition, pride, envy, love, and hate. So there are plenty of battles, with kings killing kings and heroes dealing death till their arms are ???red with blood, even to the shoulders,??? and murders, brothers killing brothers, sons fathers, and mothers children, with poison, sword, or fire. The Norns have already decided the people???s dooms.
There are also fantastic elements aplenty: men change into wolves, nightmares reveal disastrous futures, magic potions make men forget, magical swords are re-forged, Odin interferes with advice, boon, or doom, and so on. There are many great scenes, like Sigurd talking with a dragon about its cursed treasure or finding the sleep-spelled shield-maiden, Brynhild, ???clad in a byrny as closely set on her as though it had grown to her flesh.??? The characters are compelling because they???re so heroic and flawed. Any character might be loathsome one moment and admirable the next, or vice versa.
The saga is not an easy listen, because many characters??? names sound similar and because of the archaic Malory-esque language used by Morris to evoke a timeless and heroic age (so the free online text might be helpful). But there is a dark, spare, grand, and beautiful poetry in his translation, and reader Antony Ferguson treats the text with restraint and fluency, subtly highlighting its terse turns and beautiful flights and rich alliteration, as in the following excerpt:
"So Regin makes a sword, and gives it into Sigurd???s hands. He took the sword, and said???'Behold thy smithying, Regin!' and therewith smote it into the anvil, and the sword brake; so he cast down the brand, and bade him forge a better."
I am very glad to have listened to this saga.
Listening to Tim Curry read Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth was a surprisingly entertaining experience. I had expected the novel to be a weak story overwhelmed by a series of dry scientific facts and pseudo-facts, but it was lively and funny and often exciting and awe-inducing. The first-person narrator Axel is refreshingly reluctant, cowardly, weak, and despairing, especially when compared to his fiery, impetuous, glory-seeking, knowledge-hunting, unquenchable middle-aged uncle Professor Otto Lidenbrock and their taciturn do-everything guide Hans. Verne vividly depicts their descent down the volcano tube and exploration of the subterranean world deep inside the earth. Sure, the ???science??? is crazy, and it takes three and a half hours for them to even get down there, but Verne's enthusiasm for it all and the sense of the vast scale of time that has passed on our earth and the joy of discovery and the interplay between Axel and his uncle all glow brightly throughout. And Tim Curry multiplies the enjoyment. I'm still hearing in my mind his Professor Lidenbrock remonstrating with Axel to buck up or his Axel futilely trying to get "Uncle" not to do something reckless and chuckling to myself.
Some reviewers have said that the book is dull or that there isn't enough action, but I think that 1) the avoidance of what today would be a non-stop page-turning never-ending action sequence novel is refreshing and that 2) Verne's depiction of the relationship between Axel and his uncle and his enthusiasm for the natural world and Curry's reading of it all is entertaining, even when Axel or his uncle are listing different kinds of minerals or different eras in the earth's geologic history.
I would give four stars to Verne's novel and five to Curry's reading.
What a strange classic is Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851)! Scientific, philosophical, comical, beautiful, terrible, and exciting, the novel is written with what Ishmael (Melville's narrator and alter-ego) calls "a careful disorderliness," featuring motley modes, like adventure, natural history, drama, and allegory, and an exuberantly encyclopedic approach fit for his "mighty theme." The novel is Biblical, Shakespearean, Hawthornian, Cetacean, and American.
Ishmael begins his narrative by telling us that some years ago, feeling grim and drizzly, he decided to go to sea on a whaling ship to purge his spleen. He and his bosom buddy, the harpooner Queequeg, a cannibal prince with a profile like George Washington's and a body tattooed with illegible hieroglyphs that might hold the key to the truth of the universe, join the Pequod, captained by the soul-scorched and charismatic Ahab. Captain Ahab soon seduces the crew into swearing an unholy oath to help him hunt and kill the famed White Whale, Moby Dick, who by biting off his leg drove him into a monomaniacal quest for revenge.
Throughout that narrative Ishmael interweaves passages about the physical, behavioral, and symbolic aspects of sperm whales and about the history, tools, strategies, dangers, and noble nature of whaling. He relates such passages with vivid descriptions, humorous metaphors, and interesting allusions to myriad eras, cultures, religions, and artifacts. A reader sympathetic to whales may recoil from Ishmael's depiction of their callous butchery or assertion that they will never be in danger from over-hunting. Nevertheless, he also respects and empathizes with the sublime leviathans.
Ishmael, a "subterranean miner," attempts to "pierce the profundity" lurking beneath the surface of the world to attain the Truth about life and its dark realities--and so to appall rather than please his readers--and ambitiously attempts to compass his vast subject, the whale and all it signifies throughout human history. He speculates on fate and free will, belief and unbelief, civilization and savagery, community and alienation, and our brief lives in a dangerous world in which "all men live enveloped in whale-lines."
The reader Duncan Carse speaks with an austere and educated tone for Ishmael's base narration, from which he deviates to amplify the different personalities of the various characters. He handles Melville's many long and complex sentences with agility and clarity. His reading enhances the meaning and interest of the monologues and asides of characters like earnest Starbuck, jocund Stubb, grim Ahab, and divinely insane Pip.
Carse, however, more than a few times misspeaks a word and then quickly catches himself and reads it correctly (e.g., "a wissing--missing boat"). It's nearly unnoticeable, but such moments should have been edited out of the audiobook. Worse, the whale etymologies and literary extracts collected by Melville's "consumptive grammarian" and "grub-worm librarian" that preface the novel are absent.
In closing, I'd like to share some great lines from Moby-Dick:
"Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian."
"Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright."
"There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own."
"One serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea."
"Let us all squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness."
"In that sloping afternoon sunlight, the shadows that the three boats sent down beneath the surface, must have been long enough and broad enough to shade half Xerxes' army. Who can tell how appalling to the wounded whale must have been such huge phantoms flitting over his head!"
"Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal?"
"The rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monmaniac commander's soul."
"Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man!"
"I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look."
"Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand!"
This book is a revelation for its spiritual depth, its evocation of beauty (and its opposite) and the portrait of its passionate hero, Zorba. Listening to this, I experienced the greatest sense of well-being and the greatest heartbreak - to the point of tears. The narrator, George Guidall, is great, as always - one of the best readers I've had the pleasure to come across.