I really loved this audiobook. Simon Callow is a gifted writer as well as a gifted actor, and I really can't imagine hearing anyone else read his book.
He has a unique perspective on Dickens. He's played him in various contexts: on a couple of episodes of "Doctor Who," for one thing; and in a one-man show written especially for him by Peter Ackroyd, who has written his own distinguished biography of Dickens. He seems to have "psyched" Dickens and gives him to us in a broadly sympathetic portrait, but still "with all his imperfections on his head." (Dickens treated his wife badly, eventually moving out and taking up with the actress Ellen Ternan. Callow explains all of this, mostly from Dickens' perspective, but he doesn't attempt to whitewash it.)
As a biography, it doesn't have the same level of detail as Claire Tomalin's (also) wonderful book on the subject. Tomalin provides much additional information about the early years and about Dickens' often fraught relationships with his publishers and with his children; those things appear here as well, but in a more condensed form.
Callow mentions but doesn't offer a literary analysis of the novels and stories (although he does offer some choice observations on specific characters). He's after something different: Dickens engaged with the world in general and with the world of theater in particular. He recounts many anecdotes about Dickens and the theater. Dickens was an accomplished amateur actor. And the processes used in creating characters are not all that different in the two professions: when writing, Dickens would often jump up and run to the mirror, where he would try out various expressions before returning to his desk.
He drew on his acting abilities in the readings he gave in later years - readings that often left his audiences shuddering or crying. One famous scene he often performed was the murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes, from "Oliver Twist." The scene left both him and his audiences wrung out and exhausted - and the toll it took on him may have actually shortened his life. Callow's own brief recreation of this scene will knock your socks off.
In another life, Callow speculates, Dickens would have made a terrific actor/manager in the William Charles Macready mode. (Macready was one of his friends, along with Wilkie Collins and William Makepeace Thackeray.)
It's a wonderful introduction to Dickens' life. If you feel the need to explore further, Tomalin's biography is also available on Audible. But I'd start with this one. It impressed me enough to make me want to read even "Edwin Drood," and for me, that's pretty impressive.
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.
"George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm" provides a unique perspective on the years leading up to the First World War. Miranda Carter focuses on the three related royal houses - the monarchs of England, Germany, and Russia - who were first cousins and who often addressed each other as "Nicky" and "Willy" (but possibly not "Georgie").
The characters of the three monarchs, especially the autocrats Wilhelm and Nicholas, are drawn with precision and dramatic detail. Nicholas, for example, was brought to the deathbed of his grandfather, Alexander II: Alexander had been mortally wounded by a terrorist bomb that blew his legs off and exposed his entrails. When Nicholas's father Alexander III died after a short reign, the family was in dire straits; Uncle Bertie - Albert Edward, Prince of Wales - took charge of the funeral arrangements and tried to coach Nicholas in his new role, a role for which the clueless young man had been given no preparation.
Carter's account of the death of Nicholas and his family at the hands of the Bolsheviks is wrenching. Wilhelm II comes in for an unusual amount of sympathy as well: his terrible birth, with a dislocated shoulder that left his arm permanently disabled; and his flight to the Netherlands as the war drew to an end, where he puttered sadly about, tried to justify himself, and in later years sent congratulatory telegrams to Hitler (which Hitler received with scorn).
As a portrait of royal families, it's a first-rate listen. Rosalyn Landor, the narrator, speaks with exquisite precision and empathy but with an occasional hint of exasperated humor. As a study of the origins of the First World War, it's a bit lopsided: Austria-Hungary wasn't in the grandchildren-of-Queen-Victoria league, so there's not much discussion of that empire; the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is dispensed with in a sentence. And the political situation in France - horror of horrors, a monarch-free Republic - receives little attention.
But the book serves its purpose: these three remote, lofty figures of history are given a local habitation and a name, not to mention recognizable personalities. Their lives, like everyone else's, were a mixture of blessings and great suffering.
It's been a major treat finally having the Arkangel Shakespeare available on Audible - almost as good as finally getting the Beatles on iTunes. This remarkable series of recordings includes every play Shakespeare wrote, in a full-court-press audio production with sound effects and an original score. The series is 10-15 years old at this point, but it holds up magnificently.
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" is not one of Shakespeare's best. My own private theory is that it was his first play, written before he even left Stratford. Most of the scenes involve only two people; the famous (or infamous) last scene leaves one character, Sylvia, mute for the last 10 minutes. The turning point of the play is completely unbelievable. The puns, some of them tedious to begin with, go on forever, and there's a surprising carelessness about place names. It's definitely prentice work.
On the other hand, the play has the servant Launce and his dog Crab. Launce is played here by the brilliant John Woodvine: if you're old enough, you may remember him as the evil uncle from the sprawling stage production of "Nicholas Nickleby." Launce is dumb as a post, but not so dumb that he can't see that his master, Proteus, is a scoundrel. Proteus is played by Michael Maloney (who did a brilliant turn as the Dauphin in Branagh's "Henry V"); he tries to betray the love interest of his best friend, Valentine, played by Damian Lewis (quite a change from his more recent incarnation on "Homeland"). In fact, one of the pleasures to be had from the series is recognizing the voices of actors who are better-known in other contexts.
The music for all of the Arkangel productions is composed by Dominique Le Gendre. The score sounds like the kind of jazzy, smoky music you'd hear in the background at a candlelit dinner. Usually it works, but the one criticism I have of the production is that his version of "Who is Sylvia?" misses the mark, with an overly complex melody that doesn't quite fit the pace of the lyrics. It's a rare misstep in the series.
If you're going for the Shakespeare highlights, you can give this one a pass. But if you're determined to do the whole canon, it's well worth your while: if nothing else, there's always Crab.
This rambling and (sometimes) gently satirical novel tells the story of Frederic Moreau, a starry-eyed romantic and idealist who gradually becomes an ungrateful and despicable cad. I'm not sure that's the effect Flaubert intended to create, but that's the effect the book had on me. Frederic is every bit as selfish and unpleasant as the insufferable Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."
Dedalus at least had an excuse: he was a genius. Frederic is just a poseur. He is callow narcissicism personified. He fathers a child with one woman while trying to have an affair with another; and he actually does have an affair with a third (but he's only in that one for the money).
And then, of course - why not? - he begins having fits of jealous rage about the former lovers of the woman he got pregnant. He seems to have forgotten that her shockingly open promiscuity was originally one of her attractions.
The (unattainable) love of his life is Madame Arnoux, wife of a mostly failed potter, the hub of a small collective of artists and bohemians in the days before the political turmoil of 1848. Madame Arnoux gradually becomes aware of Frederic's intentions, but she is far too virtuous to give in. Years later, when her fortunes have fallen and she approaches him for help, he spurns her with outright cruelty.
So no, I didn't care much for the "hero" of this book. I did, however, love the writing, and also the brilliant narration by Michael Maloney. Maloney is great at capturing the passions of youth - the joy, the rage, the dazzling love and the anguished despair. Third-person narration is usually delivered a bit more tamely. Maloney gives in to whatever emotions are driving Frederic at the moment, making it easy for the listener to be swept up as well.
Gardner has done three things here. First, he's written a good old-fashioned American novel in the Faulkner tradition. The story is loaded with people and places, mostly focusing on one family (doomed, of course): the Hodges from the small town of Batavia in western New York. Everybody has a story to tell, and Gardner coaxes it out of them.
Second, he's tunneled through this would-be placid scene and mined the book with robberies, murders, seductions, deadly fires, and horrific accidents.
Third, he's layered on top of this a series of fascinating and bizarre debates about free will and determinism, using a contrast between supposed Judaeo-Christian values and the ancient Babylonian mindset. The antagonists in these debates are Fred Clumly, chief of Batavia's police force, and the Sunlight Man, a scarred and possibly insane man who is also a philosopher and brilliant vaudeville-style magician. The Sunlight Man is a kind of cross between Jean Paul Sartre, Penn Gillette, and Monty Python.
It's all brilliantly done, with sometimes extravagant language and a deep, deep compassion for all the characters. And for the most part, Michael Butler Murray carries it off with energy and humor. There are a couple of words, like "recalcitrant," that he consistently mispronounces. But all in all it was such an enjoyable ride I was willing to forgive him the occasional lapse.
You should know that in places the book is quite slow. Gardner seems to have squeezed in every detail of backstory he came up with in the planning stages. And a couple of the subplots, interesting as they are in themselves, aren't very well integrated with the main story. But listen to it patiently. The ending sweeps up all the emotions that preceded it in a spectacular moment of triumph.
A nightmare: Mr Goliadkin, a Russian bureaucrat, finds his life falling apart, and to make matters worse, someone who looks exactly like him, and has the same name, shows up and appears to be conspiring against him. Things do not end well for Mr Goliadkin.
I can't think of anything else I've read by Dostoevsky where the narrator had such a loose grip on reality. The action is presented from Goliadkin's point of view, and it's hard to tell when he's seeing something for real and when he's hallucinating. The prose itself, with its repetitions of key words, especially proper names, begins to have a hallucinatory quality. Goliadkin slides into full-blown paranoia, and at times he takes us with him.
Richard Pevar, in the introduction to his translation of the book - not the one used here - says two things about it that seem wrong to me. He says that Goliadkin isn't an example of "the abnormal and pathological," but an attempt on Dostoevsky's part to explore a "normal human soul, but by means of an extreme case and a bold device." And he says that Dostoevsky came back to this theme later, with greater artistry, in "Notes from the Underground." For this non-expert reader, it's hard to see any other interpretation Goliadkin's ruminations but a gradually worsening schizophrenia; and the narrator of "Underground," as compulsively self-conscious as he is, doesn't seem quite so unhinged.
Like many of Dostoevsky's characters, Goliadkin combines a paralyzing and suffocating self-consciousness with an appalling lack of self-awareness.
Stefan Rudnicki gives a powerful reading, conveying Goliadkin's desperation and paranoia with real anguish. And he also conveys the repetitive rhythms of the prose without overemphasizing them. Probably the best thing I could say about him is that my cat purrs when Rudnicki is on the speaker.
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