Because it's fiction written by a man with a deep understanding of Roman ways, culture, myth and history. Whether the essentially sympathetic portrait of Claudius which Graves paints is historically accurate or not, the up and coming emperor is certainly a boon companion and reliable guide through the banquets and backstreets of Early Imperial Rome.
My one regret is that as a teenager I absorbed the BBC TV series starring Derek Jacoby as Claudius, so knew ahead of time some of the more frightful or surprising plot twists. More, the series sometimes went into more graphic detail than the book ever does, Claudius being a basically decent who man spends as little time as possible delving into the seamier side of his story. Still, as a piece of writing the book stands on it's own and is very enjoyable, though toward the end the taut narrative thread seems to go somewhat slack and we are treated to a mere catalog--a long, almost endless catalog--of Caligula's misdeeds and misrule. It is a relief when finally...but you'll want to find out on your own.
Meanwhile Claudius, while sympathetic, is still a Roman who lived 2,000 years ago. So while more humane than most of the figures who surround him, he finds nothing amiss in slavery, animal fights or the conquest distant tribes. In our politically correct era this is infinitely refreshing. While acutely critical of what he sees around him, Claudius still believes in the essential soundness and superiority of the ideals of Rome--a cultural confidence we don't seem able to muster these days.
As always, Frederick Davidson is simply superb. For the recording it almost sounds like he replicates Jacoby's voice characterization of Claudius. His ability to get all the nuance or sarcasm or irony out of a sentence serves this book (and all the books he reads) very well.
The thing about reading—or listening to—Wodehouse is that his characters live such long, complex lives. Bertie Wooster, for example, made his first appearance in 1919 and his last adventure was published in 1974, the year before Wodehouse’s death. Consequently, the happily married man in the novel you just finished reading may have a backstory you know nothing about. Beyond, of course, the arch allusions to his checkered career made by his wife, his relations or the narrator in the novel you just finished reading.
It all adds to the odd realism of Wodehouse. Keen observers like Evelyn Waugh asserted that the England Wodehouse writes about never really existed. Yet the appearance and reappearance of places and characters, the ability to see the same character from several other characters’ viewpoints, the interweaving of characters— for example, Bertie Wooster and Tipton Plimsol both belong to the Drones and therefor must have at least a nodding acquaintance—all contribute to this queer substantiality, making the England of P. G. Wodehouse, Utopian as it is, as solid as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.
All of this is by way of explaining why Blandings Castle is such an enjoyable listen. You get the back story of how Freddie Threepwood met and married Niagara “Aggie” Donaldson. You finally understand what a character in one of the later Blandings Castle novels was talking about when he describes Lord Emsworth as being worried about his pumpkin (your natural reaction is to assume it’s a typo; he must have meant “pig”). You discover the surprising family connection between Lord Emsworth and his head gardener. And you get the full story, only alluded to in later books, of the chap from Nebraska.
Beyond these revelations that do so much to illuminate the rest of the Blandings Castle saga, you get “Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend”, probably one of the sweetest stories Wodehouse ever wrote; not saccharine sweet but rather revealing an unsuspected tenderness and solicitude on the part of the ninth earl.
So much for the first six stories in this collection. The other six are a delightful grab bag: one featuring Bobby Whickam, the rest the various nephews and connections of Mr. Mulliner who work in Hollywood. Bobby’s tale is pure Wodehouse lunacy and the last story, “The Castaways” is a writer’s-eye view of Hollywood that should not be missed—especially if you’re a writer.
James Saxon’s performance makes me wish he’d record more Wodehouse. His characters all live as individuals in your ear buds and his vocal range covers every Wodehousian nuance, from the sprightly and brainless to the dark and dubious.
Huxley for writing the book, York for reading it and Audible for making books like this available in their Daily Deals. I would never have bought it had it not been on sale—and I would have missed an amazing work of literature as well as a fine audio performance.
Like many people, Brave New World was always one of those books I meant to read. Whenever a new tech marvel hit the scene or a new question of medical ethics made headlines, a news writer somewhere was sure to make an allusion to the title of Aldous Huxley’s masterpiece. But that’s as far as my understanding of the book went: a nebulous sense that it presented a less-than-savory picture of some indefinite, but very possible, future.
But as Mustapha Mond, the World Controller for Western Europe might say, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In the interest of full disclosure, you need to know I was born and bred in Detroit. Hence, a good deal of my enjoyment of the book stems from the author’s complete agreement with my own estimate of Henry Ford. Yes, he made America mobile. Yes, that mobility was affordable. But delve into some of the man’s writings, sayings and methods and you understand what Huxley is driving at.
One day Ford was walking through his factory when he noticed a pile of short wooden boards. Upon inquiring about them, he learned they were broken up packing cases that had contained auto parts; they were about to be thrown away. In a flash of ingenuity, he ordered the wood to be used as floorboards for his Model T’s.
It’s a story that appeals to all our recycling instincts (that’s the way we’ve been conditioned, right?) But dig a little deeper. Behind Ford’s idea there lurks a sort of maniacal drive for complete and utter efficiency.
It goes hand in hand with Ford housing his workers in barracks. Yes, they were clean, bright places to live. But they were also places where the workers could be supervised. Drinking was frowned upon for obvious reasons. Dancing was encouraged because Ford had some odd theory about its moral benefits. Random inspections were a normal feature of life.
Then there’s the famous $5 a day wage. Accepted now as a humanitarian measure—so much more, we are told, than what other industrialists were offering the downtrodden proletariat. In actuality, the downtrodden proletariat only got $2.50 an hour—the other $2.50 was held back, to be paid at a later date if the workers’ behavior met Mr. Ford’s exacting standards.
If none of this is giving you the chills, then you may not want to bother with Brave New World.
There’s a photograph of Ford relaxing (if that was possible for him) in his home in Dearborn—incidentally, an architectural monstrosity of conflicting styles. In the background a piece of needlework proclaims: “He who chops his own firewood warms himself twice”. Ok, that’s true as far as it goes. But again there’s that maniacal drive for efficiency, an almost Uber-Puritanical focus on work—a focus that excludes all other considerations.
Ford crystalized that focus with the infamous remark, “History is bunk”. The blowback from those words was so widespread he tried to atone by building Greenfield Village, the open-air museum that is as much a monument to himself and his friend Thomas Edison as homage to the past. Nevertheless, the unguarded remark reveals his true thinking.
In Brave New World, Huxley takes that thinking and follows it out to its extreme, “logical” conclusion. I understand that there’s more underpinning the book than just the wit and wisdom of Henry Ford. For example, I sense a critique of our Declaration of Independence (why did Jefferson include “happiness” among our inalienable rights, rather than keep to the classic Whig triumvirate of life, liberty and property?) It’s a piece of our foundational rhetoric that, taken to its “logical” extreme, can be just as culturally destructive as Ford’s hatred of the past.
So much for the roots of the book. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about how much of what Huxley imagined has actually come to pass.
On top of a masterpiece you also get Michael York’s performance, which is simply extraordinary. And again, big kudos to Audible for making literature like this available at sacrifice prices—and here’s hoping they’ll do it again soon. Many of the blockbusting best sellers that usually make the Daily Deal are, as the Savage would point out if he were here, a far cry from Othello.
Coming out in 1928, between the first collection of Mulliner stories and Summer Lightning in the Wodehouse syllabus, Money for Nothing was written plumb spang in the middle of one of the master’s high tides of comic genius. And it shows.
We are offered free translations of what dogs are really saying when they bark, whine or snuffle. An extended lecture on roberts, and a man named Roberts who kept roberts. And our first look at Ronald Overbury Fish, who will soon figure largely in Summer Lightening (1930) and Heavy Weather (1933).
This first edition of the Last of the Fishes is far more self-assured and intelligent than his later avatar, testimony to Wodehouse’s ability to never let what he’d previously written get in the way of a good story—just look at Lord Emsworth who, we are told in the first of the Blandings Castle novels, was born in the 1860’s (Sunset at Blandings came out in 1977). Or Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, who manages to get married in two different books and yet pops up again and again in later stories, still single, broke and living in rented rooms or, more often, on his friend Corkie’s sofa.
Though the classically convoluted plot of Money for Nothing involves criminal deeds and nefarious ne’er-do-wells, it’s all good, clean fun. And as usual Wodehouse also displays his uncanny ability to render an awkward, emotionally complex scene in all its complexity—just listen to John and Pat’s midnight boat ride on the moat. Wodehouse is never all about laughs, nor without some startling insights into human nature. And Jonathan Cecil's sensitive, perfectly modulated reading expresses it all perfectly.
The names Professor Shutt has in mind are Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea and all the other places where the Greeks turned back Persia. Places where primarily Spartan and Athenian forces, fighting against overwhelming odds, ensured that political liberty, the rule of law and free intellectual inquiry were given a chance to flourish and ultimately shape the world in which we live.
This is the best kind of military history, covering organization, commanders, tactics and battles while never losing sight of the cultures that were squaring off or the issues that were at stake. Indeed, Shutt presents those organizations, commanders and tactics as inevitable outcomes of the cultures involved. And he makes it clear that the issues were just as inevitably the result of the differences between those cultures.
Best of all, in presenting the wars that shaped the Western World—the very theme of these lectures must drive the politically correct mad—he never cringes or flinches, as if he were going through someone's dirty laundry basket or cleaning out their refrigerator. Rather, he admires the Greeks and Romans who fought for their way of life and thus shaped and informed our own culture, no matter how hard our leading educational institutions are trying to jettison what those long-dead Greeks and Romans won. As Professor Shutt makes plain in his concluding lecture, the Greco-Roman synthesis forged in these wars was a far more durable, flexible and creative entity than either Greece or Rome could have been on its own.
This is not to say that it’s all glory and cultural self-congratulation. That attitude can lead, as Shutt freely admits, to cultural blindness and for that reason has been, and should be, jettisoned “to a point”. Then he adds, “but only to a point”. Because he understands that the culture that ceases to believe in itself—and ceases to believe itself worth fighting for—is a culture in trouble. As an alternative he offers Leonidas, Themistocles and Scipio Africanus, names which countless generations have used to define what the West is and what the West means, as “touchstones”, as sources of inspiration, for us. Not a bad notion.
There are other refreshing differences between Professor Shutt’s approach and my own school days. In college the Peloponnesian War was taught in terms of Viet Nam—pointless, wasteful, unnecessary. Shutt offers a more astute, illuminating—and less predictable—analyses: perhaps the war was the inevitable conflict between the two sides of the Western character, discipline (Sparta) and imagination (Athens). Athenian overreach had certainly sparked the conflict and Shutt puts this too in the context of its time: the Greek concept of hubris. But, he asks, what of Athens had won? What of it was Athens and not Rome who made the Mediterranean basin its empire? How would that have shaped the Western World? It is a far more fruitful exploration than I—or, I daresay, most undergraduates—have experienced.
Yes, he sometimes says “Athens” when he means “Sparta”, “Rome” when he means “Carthage”. So did your professor when he or she was on a roll at the podium. You loved it then and you’ll love it now; Professor Shutt’s enthusiasm for outlandish personalities (especially Alcibiades) and mind-boggling events (particularly Cannae and Rome’s reaction to that defeat) is infectious. Just pay attention and the little verbal jumbles won’t matter.
Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the 1973 Oliver Reed / Michael York / Frank Findlay / Richard Chamberlain movie repeatedly since high school. Maybe it’s because, unlike The Count of Monte Cristo, this story is set in the more distant past, a past that has been defined and mythologized in the popular imagination (mine included) by this very story. Or maybe it’s just that, for all it has in common with Monte Cristo—opulence, flamboyance, high drama—this is first and foremost an unapologetically adventuresome adventure story. Whatever the reason, I popped in the ear buds, revved up the mower (or stepped on the train home from work, or cleaned the kitchen) and just enjoyed myself. I didn’t expect to be moved mightily and I wasn’t. I didn’t expect to be overawed by a tour-de-force of the writer’s art and I wasn’t. I did expect to be entertained, and I was, handsomely.
This is not to say I didn’t feel a thrill when Athos’ secret was revealed or cringe at the gradual, artful seduction of Lieutenant Felton or feel empathy for d’Artagnan’s grief. If anything, in the original tale the Cardinal and Milady are even more chilling, the father-son relationship between Athos and d’Artagnan even more effecting. But the pity and terror that Aristotle said literature was supposed to produce in us never gets in the way of the plumed, high-booted, hard-charging story. Thank goodness. If anything, the pity and terror the story generates help everything skim along nicely.
As with Sherlock Holmes, it’s hard to say much about a novel that has stood the test of time as well as this one, and which Hollywood never seems to get tired of revisiting (six new versions have appeared since 1973—and at least seventeen before 1973). So I’ll confine myself to this recording, which is excellent. Simon Vance is perfect. For all her beauty, Milady’s voice is always less than beautiful, always tinged with a note of menace and duplicity, even when she’s being nice. The four “inseparables” are pitch-perfect, as is the King, the Cardinal, the Queen, Constance, Kitty. The only disappointment was the executioner of Lille; I don’t know what else Mr. Vance could have done with him, but the deep, rasping note he struck seems a little too stock.
However, that is the only fly—and a miniscule fly—that appears in this ointment. It is boisterous, funny, and every once in a while able to stop you and make you hit the rewind button, as when Planchet, d’Artagnan’s lackey, delivers this bit of encouragement (and my favorite line in the book) to his master:
“Never mistrust the mercy of God.”
...that when you've heard one performance of a work, that becomes "the" performance for you. And when you've heard a book read by the incomparable Frederick Davidson (a.k.a. David Case) that reading becomes "THE" reading. No other performance will do.
Such is the case with this particular recording of Leave It To Psmith. As I listen, I am constantly reminded of how much more juice Davidson got out of that line. And that line, too. And the next one. Golden moments of irony or innuendo are passed up. Sentences seemed rushed through. The character of Psmith--a Wodehouse creation of the first rank, standing with Ukeridge as among his most engaging and unique--simply sits there. His lofty unconcern for his circumstances, his unconquerable gift for persiflage in the face of every challenge, are simply not expressed in Jonathan Cecil's vocal portrayal.
Then there is his diction. Simply put, the ends of words seem to be missing. Final s's are nonexistent. Ending syllables evaporate. There's a fault with Cecil's enunciation or the recording is faulty. Either way, it's annoying and distracting.
It's sad because Leave It To Psmith, though often overlooked or underrated, is really one of Wodehouse's very best efforts.
What to do? The cry goes round the clubs: shall this Psmith be returned to store? Yes indeed. I'm only in the middle of chapter 2 but I give up...and patiently await the day when Audible will be able to give us a wider selection of Frederick Davidson's performances from the Wodehouse shelf.
Over the years my reading has given me an impression of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s as an era when the writing of well-crafted narrative history flourished. Not too scholarly and yet not popular either (in the sense of “facile”), these writers managed to create biographies and histories that balanced analysis and insight with good old-fashioned storytelling. To the names I’m familiar with—Lloyd Lewis, Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, Richard M. Ketchum, Marquis James and Robert V. Remini—I now have to include Ernle Bradford.
According to Wikipedia, Bradford (1922-1986) was a noted and prolific historian, his main subject being the Mediterranean, where he served during World War II. His involvement in the siege of Malta during that conflict lead directly to the writing of this book, a lucky thing for those who like their history well-written, well-researched and yet with a novelist’s sense for detail and drama.
While I was listening to The Great Siege I was also reading Roger Crowley’s more recent Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto and the Contest for the Center of the World. This was fortunate for two reasons. First, Crowley’s book has an excellent (if somewhat small) map of the main harbor on Malta that the Knights of St. John used as their base. The peculiar shape of the harbor, the three peninsulas of Birgu and Senglea and Mount Sciberras, are simply too peculiar for Bradford’s prose, limpid as it is, to make clear.
Secondly, Crowley’s book provided an interesting counterpoint to Bradford. Whether because historical thought has evolved over the 47 years that separate these two works, or because no historian will simply echo another’s interpretation of events Crowley disagrees with Bradford on several key points. One example will suffice.
The Ottoman decision to concentrate first on St. Elmo, that hastily and poorly-built bastion of the tip of the Mount Sciberras peninsula, is the cardinal mistake of the siege according to Bradford, a mistake committed because Pyale, the admiral of the Turkish felt, demanded his ships be sheltered in the secure harbor that lay north of St. Elmo, within the range of the fort’s guns. But the place held out far longer than anyone—Ottoman or Christian—expected. By the time it fell much blood and ammunition had been expended by an Ottoman force 800 miles from any source of resupply.
But for Crowley, the reduction of St. Elmo was a natural first step; Pyale’s demand for safe harbor for his fleet—and the intense arguments that demand supposedly ignited in Ottoman counsels—were merely inventions of Christian chroniclers. Is Crowley being too skeptical, even too politically correct in assuming the Christian accounts would be skewed? Or is Bradford being too credulous, going for the details that make a good story without weighing his sources?
That’s what makes reading more than one book on the same historical subject such an adventure.
And Bradford’s is a rocking good story, full of daring, courage, heroism, brilliance, cowardice and treachery on both sides. His style is graceful, even elegant, and the reading by Simon Vance reflects and enhances that. Ultimately, what I found so refreshing was Bradford’s ability to write from an unvarnished Christian, Western perspective. There’s no post-modern roll of the eyes when he describes one wounded knight, refusing succor from his comrades, dragging himself to St. Elmo’s chapel and dying before the altar. Yet the death of the Muslim corsair Dragut, hit in the head by a stone fragment from a cannonball strike, is equally respectful. There was a time when the West could honor and respect the East—sometimes numbering Saladin among the Nine Worthies, for example—and yet still unapologetically prefer its own culture. Ernle Bradford belongs to that time.
By the way, though Crowley’s Empire of the Sea is available through Audible, the book might make for a difficult listening experience. While better written than his 1453, Empires is still prone to those occasional lapses of clarity that make the prose swim a bit before one’s eyes. For example, try this:
“News of his [Don Juan’s] progress swelled across Southern Europe, each landfall amplifying the sense of expectation and crusading zeal. A breathless communiqué to Rome captured the spectacular arrival of Christ’s General there on August 9th.”
If Don Juan had just arrived at Rome, why would anyone need to send a communiqué to Rome, breathless or not, describing his arrival there? Only when I looked 6 lines farther up the page did I realize that Don Juan had actually arrived in Genoa. It’s the sort of semantic tangle that’s easier to undo by flipping pages than hitting the rewind button on your iPod.
“I made a blunder, my dear Watson. Which is, I am afraid, a more common occurrence than anyone would think who only knew me through your memoirs.”
Holmes makes this comment at the beginning of the second series of these marvelous recordings. But it applies to the first series as well, of course. Having only known Holmes at an even farther remove than Watson’s memoirs—via movies and TV—it is a revelation to meet the real Holmes, blunders and all, regardless of his quibbles about the good doctor’s literary efforts.
Like reading Ian Flemming’s Bond novels only after steeping oneself in the movies (yes, I made that mistake too), we discover a far more human, cantankerous and fragile person than is revealed even in Jeremy Brett’s masterful performances. And it was a great treat to finally learn how Holmes and Watson were originally thrown together. Like ham and eggs or rum and Coke, theirs is an association so long established and so seemingly natural that we forget they had to have had a first meeting.
About stories that have stood the test of popular opinion as well as these, leaving the reading public consistently agog since their first appearance 126 years ago, nothing need be said. The character of Holmes seems an apogee of High Victorianism: a complete faith in science, progress and the power of rationalism, totally devoid of that other trait we associate with late 19th Century England, sentimentalism. Against this sheer cliff of cold deduction, we flounder along with Doctor Watson, ensnared in conclusions we leap at too quickly and obvious facts we too blithely overlook and a sentimentalism that leads us to do odd things like fall in love and get married. Watson has his moments too, bringing his specialized medical knowledge to bear on wounds and poisons, but he’s usually as in the dark as you or me. Ultimately, I’d rather be like Watson than Holmes—convenient that, since I already am—but Holmes is still fascinating to watch.
And in these recordings he’s fascinating to listen to as well. Without sounding like Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett, Charlton Griffin gives us a distinct and vibrant Holmes. His milder, self-deprecating Watson is perfect, as is all the supporting cast except the female characters. Someone else has mentioned that Griffin’s women sound idiotic. While I wouldn’t go quite that far, they do sound a bit too helpless and simple.
Another quibble: the American side of “A Study in Scarlet”, the second part of which takes place among the Mormons of Utah, is something of a challenge for Griffin. True, Conan Doyle’s writing slips off the track here as well—it sounds as if he’s writing about a country and a people he’s only known through stereotypes and hearsay. But Griffin’s wild-west accents only make it worse.
But these are minor points when set against an otherwise masterful performance. Beginning the second series, I seem to detect the women sounding a little brighter, too. Thanks to Audible for making these available and giving me the chance, as with The Count of Monte Cristo and Don Quixote, to catch up on the classics I sidestepped in my callow youth.
Wodehouse is most famous for two series, the Bertie and Jeeves novels and stories and what Wodehouse himself once referred to as “the Blandings Castle saga”.
Those who have explored the Master’s canon a little more deeply are familiar with two other delightful recurring characters: Ukridge (“that foe of the human race”) and the nephew-rich Mr. Mulliner. Below that strata are what might be identified as the “Valley Fields Chronicles”, a series of loosely-connected novels that revolve around that much-abused suburb, including such gems as Sam the Sudden (1925), Big Money (1931) and Ice in the Bedroom (1961).
Then there are all the, for lack of a better term, “one-offs”: novels with characters that never recur elsewhere, each set in a place that seldom if ever figures in other tales. Among these particular delicacies, Hot Water is one of the most delectable.
Admittedly, Gordon (“Oily” to his friends) Carlisle and Gerty (the tree on which the fruit of his larcenous life hangs) are recurring characters (most delightfully in Cocktail Time, 1958). But the main characters, Packy Franklyn, Lady Beatrice Bracken, Blair Eggleston, Senator Opal, his charming daughter Jane, the Gedges and the “Veek”, while all recognizable Wodehouse types, are all indigenous to this one story.
And what a tangled, funny, sweet, ridiculous story it is. There’s no point in summing up the plot because that would ruin the fun. Just imagine what a U.S. Senator, having been elected and re-elected for years on a sound “Dry” platform, would do if a woman—a woman who wants him to grant her husband a particular political favor—suddenly came into possession of his latest letter…to…his…bootlegger.
Jonathan Cecil is very near the top of his game on this one—not quite as good as his performances on Young Men in Spats or Uncle Fred in the Springtime, but very close. Occasionally he fails to pace himself, running out of breath on some of Wodehouse’s longer sentences but, while disappointing, this doesn’t get in the way of the fun. Every character comes through your earphones as a three-dimensional individual, and no nuance is missed.
What more could you want from an audiobook?
First, there's the multifaceted Dorothy Sayers: medieval scholar, poet, playwright, advertising copywriter (where she helped create the famous and still-used "Zoo" ads for Guinness), friend of people like C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot. She could pen Christian apologetics and scholarly essays, translate Dante, reproducing the original terza rima in fluent English, then turn around and create a character as flawed, funny, admirable and ultimately likable as Lord Peter Wimsey.
Then there is the story, full of people who act like people, with our hidden motives, self-deceptions, vanity, greed and occasional introspections. Because Sayers was a sincere and serious Christian her crime stories are set in the context of a definite moral universe. Because she was a great writer, the physical universe of the stories is just as complex and untidy as the one in which we find ourselves. An amazingly accomplished woman in her own right, she was by no means a standard-bearer for Feminism but rather an acute observer and critic of what that movement was bringing about in her own day. Thus reading or listening to her works can be a deeply illuminating counter-cultural experience.
Finally, there is Ian Carmichael. I first scraped acquaintance with Dorothy Sayers through the BBC productions of her mystery novels that starred Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey. As good as those productions were, hearing him read the story is, of course, even better. He doesn't just read, he acts, giving each character a voice so definite that it isn't hard to conjure up a mental image of the speaker. When reading the narration between the slabs of dialogue he seems to understand exactly what Sayers was driving at, injecting just the right touch of irony, sarcasm or humor.
If Carmichael performed any more of the Lord Peter mysteries, let's hope Audible can snag them and put them up for sale.
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