Two points to make about this: one is that it's Bernard Shaw; the other is that it's read throughout by the very capable Kimberly Schraf.
Shaw can be funny, serious, tough-minded and sentimental by turns; he can also be alternately captivating and tedious. In this outing he's all of the above.
Cleopatra is not the fading, mercurial enchantress of Shakespeare’s play. Shaw presents her as a charming but hopelessly spoiled 16-year-old girl. There is a tremor at the end, though, that gives a hint of what is to come.
The play comes with not one but two prologues (take your pick), which is about one and a half too many. An afterward provides historical background on some of the points raised in the play.
I've never seen this one staged. If it were done exactly as written - something I suspect would be a financial impossibility - it would be more elaborate than the most expensive Broadway musical. The sets Shaw describes are spectacular beyond belief, with multiple levels, colonnaded porticos, the Pharos lighthouse, a Sphinx (though not THE Sphinx), and a ship at pier. Dozens if not scores of soldiers, guards, and servants dot the landscape.
In this setting, Shaw tells an unromantic story about a young girl with a lesson to learn about ruling, and an old(er) man with a destiny to fulfill. Like much of Shaw’s work, for me it speaks much more clearly to my head than my heart.
It’s also a chaste story. Caesar is more a kindly uncle here than an aging lover, and Caesarion - the child Caesar and Cleopatra had together - does not show up to complicate matters. At the end, returning to Rome, Caesar promises to send her childhood crush, Mark Antony, and this Queen of the Nile dances and giggles like the schoolgirl she most clearly resembles.
As mentioned, the play is read by a single reader. This has a distinct disadvantage and a number of advantages, especially when it comes to Shaw.
The disadvantage is that it lacks the dramatic tension that results from the interplay of different real personalities.
But the advantages, for someone like me who had not previously read the play, are considerable. In a play as crowded with characters as this one, it's helpful to always know who’s talking. (In single-reader productions like this one, it's customary to preface each line of dialogue with the name of the character speaking it.) Schraf helps this along by using slightly different voices for each character.
And with Shaw, you get the benefit of hearing his novelistic set and character descriptions. Shaw put a lot into these descriptions, and they're useful as hints for actors, directors, and designers; but in an audiobook, where you can't see the finished result, the effect is lost - unless, as here, they're incorporated into the reading.
So, not my favorite play (or my favorite by Shaw), but it’s a skillful and accessible rendering of the play.
# Nixon's defense
Anybody who still thinks Nixon was railroaded in Watergate should consider this: within four days of the breakin, Nixon had talked to Chuck Colson about E Howard Hunt’s involvement, and to Haldeman about Gordon Liddy. They concocted a scheme to use the Cubans as a front for raising money from the Cuban American community in Miami. Would the men who were arrested be strong, Nixon wondered, or would they crack? Haldeman described to Nixon the kind of bugging equipment the burglars had, and noted that Hunt and another operative were in the Howard Johnson’s across the street, where the bugging receivers were located. They wondered if Hunt should be spirited away to an "undisclosed location."
The thing is, while the prosecutors were aware of some of this, they didn't know about Liddy yet. Someone operating in full disclosure mode would have called in the prosecutors and said, "Here's a guy who was involved in this, and this is where you can find him." Instead, at the urging of John Mitchell, they began looking for ways to turn off the FBI investigation. Within another few days, they had settled on trying to get the CIA to intervene - a blatant obstruction of justice that ultimately cost Nixon his presidency.
Nixon never, to his dying day, operated in full disclosure mode. And that fact becomes glaringly obvious as John Dean meticulously reconstructs the many conversations Nixon had about Watergate over the course of a year.
By the end of 1972, Nixon had a pretty clear picture of what had happened and who was involved. He was sketchy on some of the details, but he knew that Mitchell, Colson, and Haldeman were all involved; that Ehrlichman was at risk if the activities of the Plumbers were revealed; that Magruder had committed perjury to protect Mitchell; that Mitchell had probably committed perjury; that the people involved in the burglary were receiving clandestine financial assistance and promising to maintain silence in return. (In other words, he knew they were being bribed.)
When Dean sat down with Nixon on March 21, 1973, for the famous "cancer on the presidency" briefing, very little of what he said was news to Nixon. In fact, only a couple of days earlier, John Ehrlichman had had a long discussion with Nixon that went over much of the same material.
At that point, from the standpoint of the justice system, there were only seven people involved: the original five burglars, plus Hunt and Liddy. Nixon - the "chief law enforcement officer in the land" - knew the crime involved many others in his administration, yet continued to focus on Watergate as a PR problem. He dictated to Haldeman the substance of what an "internal investigation" - an investigation that never took place - should report. It has never been more clearly demonstrated how complicit Nixon was in the coverup - planning, reviewing, directing, troubleshooting.
And that was only in the first 6 months after the breakin. In January 1973 and the months following, it got far worse. Nixon became increasingly desperate as members of his administration began hiring lawyers. Some, like Dean, began talking to prosecutors. Nixon finally settled on his last defense: he would claim he knew nothing about Watergate until Dean sat down with him on March 21st. This book is the ultimate refutation of that lie.
It's important to keep in mind what the book is intended to be. It's not the definitive book about Watergate. It's not a rehash of Dean's earlier books with the "deleted scenes" added back in. Dean is quite explicit: his intention is to present a catalogue of every conversation - at least every one Dean can track down - that Nixon had about Watergate.
The tapes are the primary sources. Where tapes are not available, Dean turns to contemporaneous diary entries; and in the absence of those, gleans what he can from the various memoirs published by participants. Always, though, again and again, he turns back to the tapes.
The reader of this audiobook, Joe Barrett, gives a wonderful, sustained performance. He does a dead-on impression of Nixon. That's not always helpful or desirable in a nonfiction audiobook, but in this one - which is 95% taped conversation and 5% commentary - it definitely adds to the pleasure. At times it almost feels like you're sitting in a dark corner in the Oval Office itself.
One last comment on the story. There is unintentional hilarity in the conversations of late April 1973. At that point, Dean has begun meeting with the prosecutors. Nixon asks Haldeman to listen to the famous March 21st "cancer on the presidency" speech. The one thing that bothers me, Nixon says, is whether he had a tape recorder on him. Is there any way you could find out (he asks Haldeman) if he could have smuggled in a little tape recorder? He comes back to that point over and over again. He's having nightmares about whether Dean has his own tape.
Because, of course, if he did, people would know that Nixon's response, when Dean observed that they might need a million dollars in hush money, was NOT "we could get it, but that would be wrong" (as Haldeman later testified, resulting in his being indicted for perjury), but:
"We could get a million dollars. We could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten. ... Don't you agree that we need to keep the lid on that Hunt thing, in order to have any options?"
Well, this is dumb. I just realized that I posted my review of Part Two under Part Three. So I may as well post my review of Part Three under Part Two and hope that anyone interested in either play will read both.
The third part of Henry VI condenses most of the action of the War of the Roses, and as such is filled with one (sometimes confusing) battle after another. Wakefield, Barnet, and Tewkesbury follow one another in a whirlwind, dissolving into clashing steel and shouting men.
The rise and fall of great ones can be confusing too. The Earl of Warwick fights for York, then Lancaster, and then he's dead. Clarence, one of the sons of York, fights for his brother, then switches sides, then switches back again. Henry (played here, as before, by the brilliant David Tennant) is king, then he's not king, then he's king again; Edward, son of Richard Duke of York, is king and then not king and then king again. When the dust settles, Edward is on top and Henry is dead.
It's probably better not to try to keep it straight. Just go with the flow and focus on the great set pieces in the play, of which there are many. One enacts the death of Richard Duke of York, standing on a hillock in the midst of battle, tormented by the taunts of Queen Margaret (played as before by the excellent Kelly Hunter). “She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France!” he cries: “O tiger’s heart wrapped in woman’s hide!”
Another great set piece - also on a hillock in the midst of battle (on stage, they could be the same hillock, lending a visual resonance to the scene) - King Henry laments his fate, born to be king but without the strength of personality needed to do the job. As he watches, “enter a father who has killed his son and a son who has killed his father,” portraying the costs of civil war in starkly human and individual terms. (This scene, with haunting background music, is particularly effective.)
And keep your eye as well on David Troughton as Richard, younger son of the lamented Duke of York. His murderous ambition becomes clear as the play progresses. The Richard who ends this play is the Richard who opens his own play, Richard III (the next in the series), declaring that “the winter of our discontent” has been made glorious summer “by this son of York” - his brother Edward. By the end of THAT play, everybody - Edward, his children, brother Clarence, Richard himself, and all the Lancastrians but one - is dead.
If you've seen Richard III and have wondered about the background, the third part of Henry VI is an excellent introduction.
This is a complicated play, like Part One, and if you're not familiar with it, it might be a good idea to keep the text handy. The first segment of this play deals mostly with the scheming that leads to the downfall and murder of Good Duke Humphrey, the King's Protector. The conspiracy to bring this about is led by Queen Margaret and (according to the play) her lover, the Duke of Suffolk.
The second segment stages the rebellion of Jack Cade and - following the collapse of that disorganized revolt - an even more dangerous one led by Richard, Duke of York. York finally comes clean about his determination to take the throne, and he and his sons and allies unleash the "dogs" at the Battle of St Albans. The War of the Roses is on.
Several people lose their heads in this play: Suffolk first, then Lord Say and his son-in-law James Cromer, and finally Jack Cade himself. The heads are not lopped off and forgotten: they are handled, fondled, tossed, stuck on pikes and made to kiss. It must have been quite a challenge for the Elizabethan props department.
David Tennant, Clive Merrison, and others continue the contributions they made in Part One. Tennant gives a standout performance as the tortured and passive king. Late in the play, he's had enough, and he explodes with anger and invective. It's an all-too-brief moment: after banishing Suffolk, he lapses back into tortured passivity.
Kelly Hunter, as Queen Margaret, had a few lines of dialogue in Part One, but here assumes a major role. Margaret expected to marry a KING, not the huddled mass yearning to be free that her husband has become. "What are you made of?" she yells at him, as the Battle of St Albans goes against them. "You'll nor fight nor fly!" The royal faction increasingly looks to her for leadership.
Another distinctive voice in this part is Kenneth Cranham as Jack Cade. To me, Cranham has always sounded a bit like James Mason. Here he plays an out and out villain - an anarchist, an ignorant leveler, the embodiment of chaos. Yet, Shakespeare being Shakespeare and Cranham being Cranham, even Cade gets a moment of compassion (only a moment: if you blink, you'll miss it).
Another voice to "watch" here is David Troughton, son of Patrick (the Second Doctor). He plays Richard Crookback, second son of the Duke of York. The role is brief here but will be developed brilliantly in the next two plays.
Of the three Henry VI plays, Part Two is my favorite. It pretty much has everything - and best of all, it has the classic line: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers!"
Henry VI Part One is another one of Shakespeare's early plays. There are three Henry VI plays, and there's a lot of discussion in scholarly circles as to what order they were written in and whether Shakespeare had any collaborators. The first part is especially problematic in that respect.
One theory that seems to be in favor at present is that Shakespeare originally wrote a two-part play about Henry VI that were later designated parts two and three. Rival playwrights, seeing the success of his plays about the reign, created a play that focused on other parts of the story: the wars in France, the hero John Talbot, and the evil and cunning (to the English!) Joan of Arc. This play was also successful; and eventually, because Elizabethan actors often moved from one company to another, it came into the possession of Shakespeare's company. He added a few scenes to tie it more closely to his own plays, and it was staged as a prequel.
However it came to be written, it's an exciting, colorful play with one spectacular battle scene after another. The courageous Talbot fights the evil French at Orleans, Rouen, and Bordeaux; cities are taken, lost, and retaken; swords clang and cannon go off. Meanwhile the English nobles at home quarrel amongst themselves and fail to send Talbot the support he needs.
The quarreling is more intense than usual because the King of England, son of the valiant Henry V, is a studious, uncertain, and ostentatiously devout minor. Played by none other than David Tennant, Henry VI is a weak king, who pleads ineffectually with his nobles to love God and befriend each other.
Meanwhile the Duke of York, played by Clive Merrison - the voice of Sherlock Holmes for BBC radio - begins to lay the groundwork for his own bid for the throne. He is, as so many characters in this play are, a descendant of Edward III, and while York's claim isn't as strong as he would like to think, it's not imaginary; and there's no question he would make a stronger and more effective king.
Talbot is overcome and killed by the deceitful French, and the "witch" Joan of Arc - played by Amanda Root - is captured and burned. The play ends in midstream, as the Duke of Suffolk lays plans to have Henry marry the noble but penniless Frenchwoman Margaret. Suffolk's intention is to dominate Henry through Margaret. Part Two will show how that works out for him. (Spoiler alert: not so well.)
The Arkangel production is terrific, as almost all of the Arkangels are, giving this rarely produced and imperfect play the same commitment and energy they give to the major tragedies. Sound, music, and top-knotch acting are all integrated into a rapidly moving historical epic.
One caveat. Though the producers go out of their way to make the factions clear, it IS audio. On stage, when the various groups enter, they wear white roses or red, instantly communicating their allegiance. That important visual cue is missing in audio. With such a large number of characters, it might be helpful to keep a copy of the play handy.
This is a tough one. The narrator is good - something unfortunately all too rare in Verne audiobooks - and the translation has been somewhat revised from the original by "Mrs Cashel Hoey." But the audiobook is missing the Brian Taves introduction mentioned in the description. And a comparison of the text with a more recent translation - the one by Rick Walter published by SUNY - shows that many of the cuts made by Mrs Hoey have not been restored in this version. I would use this as an intro to the story - but try to get your hands on the Walter edition (which has, in addition to the original novel by Edgar Allan Poe, a long critical essay by Verne about Poe's novel).
I've read and listened to several books about the origins of World War I; this one is the best I've encountered so far. Much of the territory is familiar, but MacMillan goes back further, provides more detail and context, and weaves it into a fuller narrative than most of the others. She shifts seamlessly between lively portraits of individual leaders and analytical and statistical accounts of military and social changes.
Many books mention that Russia lost a war with Japan in 1905 and that major civil unrest in Russia followed. MacMillan goes into detail about both, explaining causes and consequences. Many books mention that Paris was distracted in the summer of 1914 by the trial of Henriette Caillaux, who murdered the editor of Le Figaro. Macmillan tells us more about her husband, Joseph Caillaux, and his prominent role in foreign affairs; the scandal of the trial made it impossible for him to act as a voice of restraint in the crisis.
The first part of the book is more geographic than chronological. MacMillan takes us on a tour of the European capitals, introducing us to the pathetic Kaiser Wilhelm II (described by someone as a warship at full speed without a rudder); the happily married and largely detached prime minister of Great Britain, Lord Salisbury; rising men like Edward Grey, Joseph Chamberlain, William Churchill and Lloyd George; the tragically clueless Czar Nicholas II of Russia and his family's involvement with the unwashed Rasputin. We spend time at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (which she enjoyed immensely but refused to pay for), and at the 1900 Paris Exposition. We hear about the many international conferences that tried to promote peace or at least establish rules for "civilized warfare."
And she describes the new factor in governance that sometimes hamstrung a country's leaders: the rise of newspapers and the nebulous but powerful force of "public opinion." And terrorism: the president of France, two Spanish prime ministers, King Umberto of Italy, the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph, the uncle and grandfather of the Czar were all murdered in terrorist attacks. It was not exactly a balmy time.
The second part of the book is a fascinating narrative account of the many crises that preceded the outbreak of war: the two Moroccan crises; Austria's unilateral annexation of Bosnia; the two Balkan wars; the bloody coup in Turkey - each of them playing a role in desensitizing Europe to the prospect of universal war. Germany, fearful of being encircled by enemies, drew up a war plan that violated international law left and right - and the civilian leaders abdicated their responsibility; they failed to rein in the military. Many books have traced these events, but MacMillan's book is the clearest, most detailed, and most absorbing I've read.
Richard Burnip's narration is excellent. If you want to understand the why as well as the how, this is a great place to start.
Balzac's "Eugenie Grandet" is an early and short entry in his massive "Human Comedy" project. The comedy in Balzac's case is not funny: it's simply showing people "as they are" rather than how they wish they were.
And in this provincial town, how they are is mostly unpleasant. Eugenie's father is a sharp dealer in the business world, is astonishingly rich, and is a mean-spirited miser. He resents the money they have to spend on candles, and the family spends many evenings in the dark. Eugenie has a set of rare gold coins that are worth a fortune, and her father demands to see them on a regular basis - presumably to make sure she hasn't cashed them in.
Eugenie's cousin Charles shows up, and Monsieur Grandet has to break the news to him that his father, overwhelmed by financial ruin, has committed suicide. At one point Grandet and an ally go to Paris and in a series of complicated transactions, they bilk the creditors of Charles's father and skip town. I have to admit I couldn't follow the details of their scheme; it hinges on the legal differences between bankruptcy and liquidation.
Ultimately Eugenie, her father's sole heir, ends up rich and alone, her hopes for love with Charles having come to nothing. At one point Charles does seem to genuinely love her; she gives him her gold and he goes off on a business venture; but fooled by Grandet's meanness into thinking they're poor, he turns his romantic attentions elsewhere.
The novel's pace is uneven. There are many sharply etched scenes, gradually building toward an ugly confrontation; and then suddenly the narrative whips through the next decade in a couple of paragraphs.
Not many people to care about here. Everybody but Eugenie is, or becomes, corrupted by money. Still, it's a carefully observed novel of provincial life, and is definitely one of the shorter and more accessible novels of Balzac.
Unfortunately I didn't care much for the Recorded Books narrator, Jonathan Fried. His reading style is a bit too "external" for me, too much like an announcer and too little like a storyteller. The translation is relatively recent, though, and on balance I'd have to say it's worth a listen.
What a strange book this is. Robert Graves is a master of classical history and literature - his "Anger of Achilles" is one of the best translations of "The Iliad" around - and he's turned his attention here to what should be congenial territory: first century Roman Palestine. But the results are decidedly mixed.
The basic premise of the novel is easily told. Jesus, in this account, is the legitimate grandson of Herod the Great. Herod's first-born son Antipater contracts a secret marriage with Mary and gives her into the safekeeping of the elderly widower Joseph. Antipater is executed by his father on a trumped-up charge, and Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escape to Egypt. But a small group of people know the secret, and when Jesus is ready to announce himself, they are there to offer support.
What makes the book so odd is not this historical fantasy but the bizarre mythology and superstitious rituals that surround it. Jesus, on being crowned, is immediately pushed off a cliff by his adherents, because of course the King Must Be Lame. He limps his way around Galilee, getting into interminable (and sometimes incomprehensible) debates about theology with other Jewish leaders and with Mary the Hairdresser - a witchlike incarnation of Mary Magdalene.
It all comes to a head in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover. Most Jews want a traditional king, one who will throw out the Romans, but Jesus is after a bigger and more spiritual kingdom: he is after nothing less than the Suppression of the Female. And this is where, for me, the novel really goes off the tracks. Graves has turned it into another occasion for beating his personal dead horse, the supremacy of the "White Goddess." Jesus fails because he turns his back on the power of The Mother.
But ultimately it isn't the strangeness that makes this book (in my opinion) an artistic failure: it's the endless debating about minutiae. "King Jesus" is boring. The story is told from the perspective of an upperclass Roman citizen some 60 years later, and in Graves's masterful hands, it sounds like it's been translated - by Robert Graves - from a Latin original. It is straightforward, earnest, devoid of passion, and dull.
It's not the narrator's fault. Philip Bird does an excellent job making it all sound real; the narrative pace is steady and clear, and the voices of the characters are differentiated by tone and accent. But in this case, the audacious, opinionated, brilliant Robert Graves missed the mark.
A couple of the stories in this collection have something I wouldn't have believed was possible: something almost resembling a happy ending. I love Thomas Hardy, but I do get tired of the relentless hammer of fate he uses to pound his characters, often with the help of contrived coincidences (or somebody's odd reluctance to speak up at The Key Moment).
Most of the stories here are not happy. Some, like "The Imaginative Woman" and "The Melancholy Hussar," end brutally. A couple, like "The Withered Arm," are a bit spooky - and end brutally. Relationships between husbands and wives are mostly stunted and ill-fated.
So it's not a collection to be undertaken lightly. But there are occasional touches of humor, as there sometimes are in Hardy, and a couple of people who escape the overall sentence of doom. Neville Jason does a wonderful job narrating, as he did with "Jude the Obscure." Overall, it doesn't pack the same punch as Hardy's longer works, but the stories make up an interesting sampler.
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