For some reason I missed "Roughing It" in my earlier attempts at reading all of Mark Twain. My loss: it's an absolutely hilarious journey, part factual reporting, part tall tale in the best western campfire tradition. (If you're familiar with the omitted "raft chapter" in "Huckleberry Finn," you know what to expect.) One of Twain's greatest strengths is his willingness to include himself among the objects of genial mockery. This is Mark Twain the Humorist at his best.
I didn't find the problems with audio quality that others reported. I agree that Fraley's recording of "Huckleberry Finn" is a superior piece of work, but Norman Dietz does a great job on this one. He's droll, unassuming, loquacious, and endearing, and he adopts one of a variety of other voices at the drop of a hat. My one complaint would be a certain breathiness of delivery -- occasional rapid delivery punctuated by sharp intakes of breath. I think this is partly a matter of recording age and technology: I find that occurring less often on more recent audiobooks. In any case, for an audiobook that gave me this much pleasure, I have to give it five stars.
Bill Homewood is a wonderful narrator and has done thrilling versions of books by Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo. And his narration here is first-rate. But the text itself is a puzzle. The Man in the Iron Mask is actually part of a much larger novel by Dumas, The Vicomte de Bragelonne. Different editors divide the book up in different ways. The particular version selected for this recording begins incoherently: Aramis is visiting Philippe in the Bastille, but all indications of context have been lopped off the front. For example, the first sentence is: "Since Aramis's singular transformation into a confessor of the order, Baisemeaux was no longer the same man." What order? Who is Baisemeaux? The next sentence goes on to talk about the "the place which Aramis held in the worthy governor's estimation." Governor of what? Is he still talking about Baisemeaux or someone else? The narrator mentions "the turnkey, the same who, on Aramis's first arrival, had shown himself so inquisitive and curious." Wait - this isn't his first visit? Which turnkey? Is Baisemeaux the turnkey? What was he curious about? "In this wise they reached the basement of the Bertaudiere." Um.... OK.... what's the Bertaudiere? And why are they in the basement?
Continued listening will clarify the context, but I found myself irritated by this unnecessarily rocky start. Granted this is a widely available "editor's cut" of the novel, but there ARE other versions that begin in a less confusing way. Naxos usually takes more care in choosing editions of non-English works.
For those who are interested, all parts of the massive Vicomte de Bragelonne have been recorded in an excellent version by Simon Vance.
Dan Stevens is a wonderful narrator, and Robert Fitzgerald is a wonderful translator. The result here is one of the finest versions of The Iliad available.
It's hard to say what's so awe-inspiring about Fitzgerald’s verse. I don't read Greek, so I can only base my assessment on how it works as an English poem. I would call it crystalline, because the language has many sharply-edged facets. But that makes it sound static and over-engineered. And that's not right, because Fitzgerald’s verse is also rough and craggy like a mountain, and it cascades down cliffs like a waterfall. It's full of what Fitzgerald himself calls "the ruck of war."
The Iliad is largely dialogue, and it's in the back-and-forth speeches that Stevens really shines. His Homeric heroes don't just declaim, and their speeches are not just a continuation of the narrative by other means. Stevens gives them passion and turmoil. They express anger and sorrow, helplessness and despair, joy and excitement and overweening pride. In his hands, and with the sturdy foundation of Fitzgerald’s translation, the Homeric heroes in this audiobook LIVE.
One minor note about character names. Fitzgerald used transliterations of many of the names that are closer to the Greek but are odd-looking or -sounding to many people. The main character, for example, is Akhilleus. Two of the mighty Greek warriors are named Aias. Hector's mother is Hekabe. For this audiobook, the producers have substituted the more familiar forms (Achilles, Ajax) - though Hector’s mother remains Hekabe rather than Hecuba. I think this is the right decision: the poem is challenging enough even without the alternate names.
A couple of thoughts about the poem itself. Compared to the Odyssey, with its multi-layered narrative and symmetrical structure, The Iliad is pretty straightforward. Along its single chronological thread, there are many digressions and delays. Whole books (like Book 10) are given over to episodes that have nothing to do with the main action and don't advance it an inch. Heroes about to come to blows pause and recite pages of genealogy at each other. Parts of it read like they were written by committee.
Yet there are few works of literature that can reach the tragic grandeur of the death of Hector or even Patroclus; and I defy anyone with a heart to hear the encounter of Achilles and Priam without weeping.
So there's a lot of good stuff here. I can't wait to listen to the companion version of The Odyssey. There are so many good versions of Homer available on Audible, it would be hard to pick just one; and if I were a first-time listener, I'm not sure this is the one I would go with: the beauty of the language might be a distraction. But if you know the story and you want to be swept up by a narrative and linguistic treasure, this is definitely the one.
Can't figure out what to make of this. I was attracted by the blurb, which promised a "method" for learning that works better than taking notes. I'm all in favor of efficient learning. But what the audiobook delivers is the text of a formal research proposal comparing students who are encouraged to take notes in a lecture to students who are encouraged to participate by asking questions. The researcher seems to believe that the questioners will be shown to learn better than the notetakers. But as far as I can tell from the audiobook, the proposed research is still pending. So.... huh?
Rick Perlstein is a brilliant writer and political analyst. His two previous books, one about the rise of Goldwater, the other about the rise of Nixon, were chock full of surprises: Perlstein is a master of the forgotten detail and the hidden pattern. In the third book, he presents the rise of Reagan against the backdrop of Nixon’s fall. Together the three books provide new insight into the growth of modern-day American conservatism.
One of the surprises in this book, for me, was Perlstein’s negative attitude toward Jimmy Carter. I have a higher opinion of Carter’s presidency than most people, and his actions after his presidency have only increased my opinion of him as a man. But in Perlstein’s view, virtually every action, every speech of Carter’s is tinged with hypocrisy and vindictiveness. It's a puzzling attitude on the part of an author with whom I seem to be in agreement on almost everything else.
The book ends with the 1976 Republican convention. And another surprise for me was how divided that convention was. Ford and Reagan arrived at the convention with neither having a clear majority of delegates. The horse-trading that gave the nomination to Ford also saddled him with the most conservative platform in American political history. This was the year the Republican Party and antiabortion activists became fellow travelers.
I lived through those times, and I've always thought of myself as a well-informed and moderately active political junkie. And yet I don't remember any of that. Perlstein turns it into a nail-biter.
David Devries is not nearly as good a reader as Perlstein is a writer. It took me a long time to get used to his pattern of pauses and emphases. I played a lot of the book at 1.25x and even 1.5x speeds (to tell the truth, I listen to most books at a minimum of 1.25x at this point); the faster speeds seemed to even out the rhythm of the narration. By the time I was about a fourth of the way through, I stopped noticing the narration and was able to immerse myself in the story. The one complaint I still had at the end of the book is a trivial one: Devries, like most audiobook narrators who tackle this period, repeatedly mispronounces Gordon Strachan's name. Maybe different branches of the family pronounce the name differently; but for this minor participant in the Watergate scandal, the last name rhymes with "brawn," not with "bacon."
Much of the book is given over to a biography of Ronald Reagan. I knew little about his past going in, and Perlstein’s account is by turns informative, caustic, and sympathetic. Reagan didn't have an easy time of it: he grew up in grinding poverty with an alcoholic father. He became a lifeguard; he went to a small Christian college; he acted in school plays. He became a sportscaster and later an actor in Hollywood. So far so good: the caustic part comes in when Perlstein notes the many contradictions and exaggerations in Reagan's account of his past. Many of Reagan’s stories about himself are not, Perlstein says, borne out by other accounts. Yet there was a sunniness about his disposition, a warmth of character, that left people wanting to believe everything he said.
If Nixon saw everything as a PR problem, Reagan saw everything as a fairy tale - and saw himself as the white knight riding to the rescue.
He turned his charm to political advantage, first in the actors' union, then in California politics. He became a staunch anti-communist early on, converted by a single meeting with FBI agents who gave him the "scoop" on his fellow union activists. (If that's all it took to convert him, he was probably more than halfway there already.)
Come 1976, many conservatives in the Republican Party were disenchanted with Ford’s (and Kissinger’s) realpolitik approach to foreign policy. They saw Reagan as Goldwater’s heir and pressured him to enter the race. When he did, all bets were suddenly off, and the convention in Detroit was one of the more rambunctious of modern times.
I've only scratched the surface of Perlstein’s comprehensive narrative. Among other things, he covers the Watergate hearings, the Nixon impeachment hearings, the sad tale of Patty Hearst, the return of Vietnam POWs, "peace with honor," the EPA, the Arab oil embargo, “Ford to NY: Drop Dead!”, and the race riots in South Boston. To read the book is to relive the period, with the benefit of a much greater historical context than was available at the time.
I hope he writes at least one more book on the topic. I would love to read his account of the Carter and Reagan presidencies.
Elizabeth Drew has written a wonderful book about the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon. That the proceedings ended with his resignation rather than an actual impeachment and trial is only one of the many surprising turns taken by events in that dark time. It all looks so straightforward now, in retrospect, but Drew reminds us how full of twists and turns the story was at the time.
The great advantage of the book, and the source of its immediacy, is that it was written and published as a series of weekly dispatches as the events unfolded. When Drew described the opening speeches of the Judiciary Committee, she had no idea that Nixon's team was about to release the transcript of a conversation that would make his conviction by the Senate inevitable. It was as much a surprise to her as to the rest of us - and her account, far more than any other reporting on Watergate I'm aware of, helps us feel that surprise again.
Her typical method for a week's dispatch is to summarize the week's key events as reported in other sources. Sometimes - for a press conference or speech or committee meeting - she's able to describe the events first hand. Then she makes her rounds of Congressional sources, some of them named and some anonymous, and reports her conversations with them (they rarely feel like interviews) and distills their insights into the events of the week and their predictions for the future.
One of the surprises is the way the impeachment process had to be made up as the committee went along. The constitution is surprisingly vague about what constitutes an impeachable offense. "High crimes" seems straightforward, although it's unclear what differentiates a "high" crime from any other kind of crime; and what on earth is a "high misdemeanor"? The conclusion of the committee was that "high crimes and misdemeanors" meant whatever a majority of the House said it meant at that point in time.
My only regret about the book - really, my ONLY regret - is that she didn't start her assignment four or five months earlier. Had she done so, she would have been able to use her considerable talents to capture, for all time, that magnificent circus known as the Senate Watergate Committee. But no one gave her that assignment, and no one knew at the time where things would lead.
The narrator is OK: I found her pacing somewhat staccato in the beginning, but it grew on me, and by the end I felt like I was listening to Drew herself.
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.
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