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In The Children???s Homer Padraig Colum weaves The Iliad into The Odyssey to make a single narrative in two parts. He begins the first part with the scene from the Odyssey where Athene recommends Telemachus to embark on a voyage to search for news of his father, and then has a minstrel, Nestor, Menelaus, and Helen narrate to Odysseus??? son the major causes and events of the Trojan war. In the second part Colum closely follows the sections of The Odyssey from Odysseus??? leave-taking from Calypso to his arrival back home at Ithaca. As the subtitle of Colum???s book reveals (The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy), Odysseus here becomes the focal point of both The Odyssey and The Iliad.
Colum keeps many of the humorous insults, terrible battles, moving conversations, cultural textures, vivid similes, fantastic elements, and epic flavors of Homer???s epics in his 4.5 hour book. Perhaps due to his young audience or limited space, he also leaves out many impressive things, like Achilles repeatedly dragging the body of Hector around the walls of Troy, Odysseus visiting Hades, and Odysseus executing his serving women after having them clean up the gory remains of his slaughter of the suitors. The English translation seems faithful and strong, though it does favor thee, thy, and thine, as well as ???archaic??? forms like hast and spake.
I believe that although any reader (from child to adult) should really listen to the unabridged Homerian epics (of which there are many excellent translations and readings available on audible), if kids would be daunted by their length or more graphic gore, this would be a good choice, for although much shorter than the originals, it is not dumbed down and retains their grim view of mortality and vibrant view of life. And Robert Whitfield (Simon Vance) gives his usual elegant and assured reading.
Metatropolis (2009), edited by John Scalzi, is an audiobook collection of sf stories about the near future of cities that tries to transcend our usual conceptions of them. The writers are solid and the readers excellent. The collection is entertaining, though it feels at times a little too earnest (some listeners have said "preachy"), and sometimes the concepts are stronger than the plots and characters.
In the mysterious (if not mystifying) opener, Jay Lake's "In the Forests of the Night," a preternaturally strong, charismatic, calm, and capable stranger called Tygre Tygre comes to Cascadiopolis, a city in Cascadia, a collection of "green," self-sustaining, micro-technology sharing cities stretching from Portland to Vancouver and hiding in basalt mountains beneath evergreen trees. Is Tygre an agent sent by a capitalist community to infiltrate, pilfer, and destroy? Or is he a Christ-like catalyst of transformation? Lake evokes the environmentally-challenged future and the organized anarchist response to it by interweaving pieces of future commentary from the likes of Paolo Bacigalupi into a tale told like a legend after the fact. The savory reading of Michael Hogan strengthens the story.
"Stocahsti-city" by Tobias Buckell depicts a radical change in the life of Reginald, an ex-military colonel who dealt with insurgencies abroad and who now works as a bar bouncer and lives in "the Wilds," the derelict suburbs of Detroit. As the story progresses, Reginald becomes involved with a group called Spaceship Detroit that appears to be working militantly for a car-free Motor City but might have a more ambitious project hiding behind it, all in the face of opposition from the Edgewater security firm. The story is hampered by Reginald's too great expertise, though Scott Brick gives a fine reading of it.
The third story, "The Red in the Sky Is Our Blood" by Elizabeth Bear, well read by Kandyse McClure, is also set in Detroit and features a wary woman named Katy living incognito, working as a bicycle carrier, and trying to support her five year old daughter in a high security crèche because she's hiding from her vengeful Russian (Ukrainian?) gangster lord husband. In the violent climax of this generic action-suspense movie premise, Katy must decide whether or not to join an alternate city-making organization based on a "collective and distributed economy."
"Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis" ("Use Everything But the Squeal") by John Scalzi injects comedy relief into the collection. The protagonist, 19-year-old slacker Benjy, is a denizen of New St. Louis, one of the high-tech hermetic city-states of the future. Benji finally gets a job: working with genetically enhanced, intelligent pigs designed to excrete extra waste for use in maintaining the city's zero carbon footprint. The problem is that the inhabitants of NSL are not keen to share their technology with the starving and rioting people outside the city. This is a fun story smoothly read by Alessandro Juliani, but nearly seems too glib and too prone to adolescent porcine potty humor and pay back.
"To Hie from Far Cilenia" by Karl Schroeder, read by the deep-voiced and articulate Stefan Rudnicki, is an excellent conclusion to the collection. Whereas the other stories center on cities and their alternatives in the real world, this one is about Silenia, not a physical place but an Internet protocol that exists inside an ARG (alternate reality game) that exists inside another ARG that exists inside our real world. The story features some nifty tech, like computerized glasses and Cyranoids (from Cyrano de Bergerac), people who earn money by renting out their bodies so that others connected to the net can "ride" them anywhere they happen to be in the world. It has some neat moments (like "They stepped from Stockholm into Atlantis") and a fine closing line ("Some things are real in any world") but the virtual Sonatica organization fomenting organized disasters seemed a bit too much like one side in other fictional wars between Chaos and Order.
People who don't find capitalism at fault for the increasing gaps between rich and poor and increasing environmental problems from global warming would probably loathe this collection. I think the stories are on target in their condemnation of the capitalist, mass consuming, unsustainable, urban conglomerations of our contemporary world, and am sympathetic to finding alternative ways forward like some in this collection, recycling, salvaging, using renewable energy and green tech, and so on. Finally, Metatropolis was an enjoyable but one-time listen, lacking many lines worthy of rewinding to savor again.
The 2nd volume of the audiobook of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire contains the 3rd (1781) and 4th (1788-89) volumes of the classic six volume history, moving from 340 AD through the “total extinction” of the Western Empire and 600 years of the continual decay of the Eastern Empire. Along the way Gibbon performs refined autopsies on 250 years of internecine Christian warfare fought over the precise nature of the Incarnation of Christ (“religious controversy [being] the offspring of arrogance and folly”); the “apostolic fervor” of the Christian extirpation of paganism and destruction of its beautiful temples; the pernicious popularity of relics and saints (“myriads of imaginary heroes, who had never existed, except in the fancy of crafty or credulous legendaries”); the rise of savagely solitary hermits (“unhappy exiles from social life . . . impelled by the dark and implacable genius of superstition”); 1000+ years of Roman laws, from property and inheritance through marriage and divorce to crime and punishment; the superstitious perception of disasters like earthquakes, comets, and plagues; and the impacts on language, religion, law, class, and empire of “barbarians” like Attila and the Huns, Theodoric and the Goths, Genseric and the Vandals, Clovis and the Franks, and Alboin and the Lombards (Long Beards!). And he writes fascinating cultural reports about things like the Green and Blue chariot racing faction conflict that pervaded every sphere of society (from the familial and vocational to the political and religious) and nearly toppled the Eastern Empire (making the soccer hooligans of today seem like quaint Quakers and casting light on our own obsession with sports stars and teams). He even recounts legends of interest, like the story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, a Rip Van Winkle-like tale that spread throughout the world, a human response to shocking change like that of the pagan Roman Empire turning Christian.
There is in this second audiobook volume no single figure as fascinating as the Apostate Emperor Julian in the first, but there are more compelling supporting characters. The emperor Justinian, for example, the persecutor of Jews and torturer of homosexuals, the rewarder of enemies and punisher of friends, the reformer of the law code, promoter of science and technology and builder of churches, hospitals, and aqueducts, unprecedentedly gave half his reign to his wife Theodora, who in her younger days acted in ribald comic pantomimes and sold her sexual favors to a parade of lovers and who after becoming Empress had people disappear into her private prisons and reappear as maimed monuments to her displeasure and had an old palace converted into a home for 500 prostitutes. The general Belisarius, perhaps the greatest military leader in the history of the Empire--an active giant among a race of supine pygmies--used his brains, bravery, charisma, leadership, and reputation to recover in only six years with pitiful resources and puny armies half of the provinces of Africa and Italy etc. lost by the fall of the Western Empire. In return for his boon-service, Belisarius was repeatedly humiliated by suspicious Justinian but ever exercised a patience and loyalty “either below or above the character of a man,” and his only flaw was uxoriousness, giving Gibbon the opportunity of remarking, “the revenge of a guilty woman is implacable and bloody.” And the life of Andronicus, the last Emperor of the Comnenian dynasty, was an engaging cross between a romantic pulp adventure novel and a revenge tragedy.
No one can run down a villain as enjoyably as Gibbon! Now he introduces the archbishop Theophilus as “the perpetual enemy of peace and virtue; a bold, bad man, whose hands were alternately polluted with gold and with blood.” Now he dryly caps the life of the emperor Arcadius: "At length, in the thirty-first year of his age, after a reign, if we may abuse that word, of thirteen years, three months, and fifteen days, Arcadius expired, in the palace of Constantinople." Now he ironically sums up Empress Theodora: “The prostitute, who, in the presence of innumerable spectators, had polluted the theatre of Constantinople, was adored as a queen in the same city, by grave magistrates, orthodox bishops, victorious generals, and captive monarchs.” And now he takes to task Romanus: “The hours which the emperor owed to his people were consumed in strenuous idleness. In the morning he visited the circus; at noon he feasted the senators; the greater part of the afternoon he spent in the sphoeristerium, or tennis-court, the only theatre of his victories.”
Gibbon’s moderation even compels him to qualify his admiration for things he likes, like the St. Sophia cathedral in Constantinople, a sublime work of taste, wealth, and skill that seemed the residence if not the workmanship of the deity: “yet how dull the artifice and insignificant the labor if it be compared to the formation of the vilest insect that crawls on the surface of the temple.”
The audiobok sounds a little tinny and “skips” several times, but Bernard Mayes is a pleasing reader through this long history, sounding like a wittily articulate and dryly enthusiastic British professor. He never stoops to donning different voices, but merely reads Gibbon’s elegant text with every appropriate nuance.
Throughout, Gibbon’s history is marked by his Age of Enlightenment value of humane, rational, and moderate behavior and his condemnation of its opposite, by his rich and balanced sentences, by his wit and imagination, by his attempts to obtain from earlier panegyrics and invectives an objective historical truth about his subjects, by his application of the lessons of history to his own contemporary era and to human civilization in general, and by his impressive ability to hold the reader’s interest through thousands of pages of centuries of history. He says near the end, “In a composition of some days, in a perusal of some hours, six hundred years have rolled away, and the duration of a life or reign is contracted to a fleeting moment: the grave is ever beside the throne: the success of a criminal is almost instantly followed by the loss of his prize and our immortal reason survives and disdains the sixty phantoms of kings who have passed before our eyes, and faintly dwell on our remembrance.”
The Cossacks: a Tale of 1852 (1863), Tolstoy’s first novel, conveys a vivid sense of a particular time, place, and culture and also explores universal themes about youth, love, nature, and civilization. The story begins with 24-year-old rich boy Dmitri Andreich Olenin leaving Moscow because he’s in debt and has just realized that he doesn’t love this rich woman he was supposed to marry, and he has nothing better to do, having aborted other half-hearted pursuits like attending university and farming, so he expects to get a fresh experience in the Caucasus Mountains as a cadet in the Russian army. As he journeys from Moscow to the mountains with his trusty serf-servant Vanyusha, he passes time complimenting himself for being a fine fellow, wondering what his friends will think about his move, calculating how many months he’ll have to live frugally to pay off his gambling and other debts, and fantasizing about becoming a heroic soldier and possessing a Cossack woman who will be beautiful, wild, clever, enchanting, and submissive. When he sees the mountains clearly for the first time on his first morning there, they penetrate his being, purging him of his trivial dreams, cleansing him of his Moscow shames:
“Suddenly he saw, about twenty paces away as it seemed to him at first glance, pure white gigantic masses with delicate contours, the distinct fantastic outlines of their summits showing sharply against the far-off sky. When he had realized the distance between himself and them and the sky and the whole immensity of the mountains, and felt the infinitude of all that beauty, he became afraid that it was but a phantasm or a dream. He gave himself a shake to rouse himself, but the mountains were still the same.”
Tolstoy then introduces the local inhabitants, the Grebensk Cossacks, who live in a village near the Terek River, across which live their rivals, the Muslim Tartars (Chechens), with whom they are continuously engaged in small scale horse-trading, raiding, and ambushing. The Cossacks are Old Believer Christians, free-spirited, down-to-earth, and feisty, close to nature, poor in material things but rich in passion and pride. They feel more akin to and respectful of their Islamic enemies across the river (and speak a lot of their Tartar language) than of their Russian allies whom they must billet in their villages.
Tolstoy develops his story by depicting the developing relationships between three Cossacks and Olenin. Taking the Russian under his muscular wing is Daddy Eroshka, a “solitary and superannuated,” powerfully-built, seventy-something guy who loves nothing better than hunting, drinking, gossiping, mooching, and boasting about his youthful exploits. Marianka, the young daughter of the village cornet in whose house Olenin is lodging, is a masculine girl who strikes Olenin as being as beautiful and inaccessible as the mountains and becomes his Cossack muse. And Rukashaka, the most dashing, plucky, and handsome of the young Cossacks, becomes Olenin’s unacknowledged rival. There are many neat moments: Olenin going hunting, being swarmed by mosquitoes, and having an epiphany about the best way to live; Daddy Eroshka wondering why Russians are so well educated but never know anything or explaining to Olenin why animals are at least as wise as people; Marianka cracking seeds, harvesting grapes or perching atop the stove; Rukashaka waiting in ambush or communicating with his deaf and dumb sister.
Tolstoy is not telling a page-turning, action-packed adventure story! With two notable exceptions, every scene of violent action happens off-stage, and most of the “action” consists of people drinking and talking as Tolstoy evokes Cossack culture (poised as it was between the Tartars and Russians in the fertile and sublime mountains), and to examine Olenin’s heart in that context. Will he forever remain an outsider? Will he learn what love is, or how to be happy in life?
David Thorn reads the novel with enthusiasm, irony, and clarity, and, fortunately, doesn’t try to make female voices sound female. Unfortunately, this audiobook production is damaged by two flaws: the end of each chapter is signaled by some pseudo “Russian” music that sounds like a digital guitar or harpsichord from a low-budget fantasy computer game, and the number of each new chapter is announced by a horribly syrupy, buttery, and American-sounding woman’s voice, and there are 42 of the durn things in this short novel. An awful mood-breaker. Oh, and the cover picture has egregiously little to do with the content of the novel.
The Cossacks is a perfect book to begin an acquaintance with Tolstoy, because it’s short and is accessible, filled with the psychological and philosophical insights of his longer tomes, but set in an exotic place and told with a more humorous tone.
"What is Kim?" asks the title character of Rudyard Kipling's classic novel (1901) more than once. Kim is a poor orphan boy whose Irish parents have died in India, leaving him basically on his own in the city of Lahore, where he has been doing "nothing with an immense success," other than avoiding British authority figures who would send him to an orphanage or, worse, to a school, as well as engaging in nighttime intrigue by carrying messages between dandies and their mistresses and hanging out with a varied host of uncommon common people, becoming known as Little Friend of all the World. He speaks English brokenly as a second language but is fluent in vernacular Hindi and Urdu, expressing himself in them with a spicy street poetry, and he can pass for an indigenous Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. So fluidly swims Kim in his environment that not many people know that he's really a sahib (white master) whose full name is Kimball O'Hara.
As the novel opens, Kim is playing King of the Canon when an exotic old lama appears before him, down from his Tibetan monastery and bewildered by the big city. The "gentle and untainted" holy man, who is not proof from, to his shame, becoming "a brawler and a swashbuckler" when pushed off the Middle Way, wants to "free himself from the Wheel of Things," and hence is questing through the plains of India for the legendary river that sprung from the earth at the spot where Buddha shot an arrow, for bathing in the River of the Arrow will cleanse him of all dirt and sin and facilitate transcendence. Kim takes the lama under his wing, quickly becoming his "chela" (begging-acolyte), permitting charitable people to "acquire merit" by giving food, showing him how to ride a "te-rain" (train), protecting him from rapacious, opium plying priests, and generally being a vital street- and people-smart support. But Kim is also attracted to a red-bearded, horse-trading Muslim Afghan called Mahbub Ali who just happens to be a player in the Great Game, the late 19th century cold war being waged by Great Britain against Russia via proxy spies in India and environs. Mahbub Ali hires Kim to deliver a top secret coded message to a British ethnologist Colonel near where the holy man and his chela are bound.
The picaresque and philosophical buildingsroman follows Kim on his travels throughout India, "This great and beautiful land," visiting various cities and villages, meeting colorful people like an old ex-soldier who saw action in the Great Mutiny and a feisty grandmother with still "a wag left to [her] tongue," all the while growing ever closer to the holy man and the horse trader, learning more about spiritual matters and spy matters, and maturing into a complex youth of many parts: plucky spy on a mission, earnest acolyte on a pilgrimage, and Friend of all the World. Throughout, Kim's relationship with the lama is funny, touching, and fulfilling. The holy man says things to the boy like, "I consider in my own mind whether thou art a spirit sometimes or sometimes an evil imp," "Do not weep; for, look you, all Desire is Illusion and a new binding on the Wheel," and "Never has there been such a chela as thou."
Kipling's evocation of 19th century India is vivid and fascinating. It ranges from cities bustling with pickpockets, courtesans, policemen, witches, and vegetable and curry sellers to plains smoky with heat and dust and mountains bracing with snow-waters and musky pines, all via roads and trains peopled with "Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims and potters—all the world going and coming." He laces his narrative with moments of beauty: "Golden, rose, saffron, and pink, the morning mists smoked away across the flat green levels. All the rich Punjab lay out in the splendour of the keen sun." And he sprinkles it with interesting cultural touches: “A churel is the peculiarly malignant ghost of a woman who has died in child-bed. She haunts lonely roads, her feet are turned backwards on the ankles, and she leads men to torment.” And the novel sparkles with quotable lines, ranging from pearls of wisdom to spicy insults:
"To abstain from action is well, except to acquire merit."
"It's an awful thing still to dread the magic that you contemptuously investigate."
"The faiths are like the horses. Each has merit in its own country."
"Only the devils and the English walk to and fro without reason."
"Thy mother was devoted to a devil, being led thereto by her mother."
"Never make friends with a devil, a monkey, or a boy."
Madhav Sharma reads Kim with wit, clarity, and dexterity, enthusiastically channeling children and adults, men and women, Indians and English, in a variety of moods, accents, and situations and providing an enthralling listening experience.
I perhaps would not have enjoyed Kim as a boy, because I'd have wanted more typical adventure action and would not have understood the philosophical ideas about life and spiritual matters. But as an adult I found it irresistible from start to finish: funny, moving, thought-provoking, and absorbing. If you have avoided Kipling the Imperial White Man's Burden Racist Apologist, read this novel and you will find a different author and a different world than you expected. Kipling's respect for and interest in different religions, especially Buddhist, illuminates the book. And Kim is a white boy only on the surface, for his love for the land and his father figures and theirs for him transcend race. As his holy man says to Kim, "We be but two souls seeking escape." As Kim says to his holy man, "I am not a sahib. I am thy chela."
In the 1932 America of Hard Magic (2011), the first novel in Larry Correia's Grimnoir Trilogy, Jake Sullivan is a World War I hero private eye who also happens to be a "Heavy," gifted with the "magical" ability of mentally manipulating gravity, as when he squashed flat a racist sheriff who was going to lynch an African American boy possessed of magical Power. This murder landed Jake in prison, until a manipulative Hubert Hoover made a deal with him: after apprehending for the FBI five magically powered murderers, he may go free. What will he do in Chicago when he's supposed to capture his former flame Delilah Jones, a beautiful ex-prostitute "Brute" endowed with super fighting powers? Meanwhile, the uneducated but creative Okie hick Faye, a teenage "Traveler" with inchoate powers of teleportation, is living a quiet life with her adoptive Portuguese dairy farmer grandfather in California when some well-armed goons led by a horribly scarred and monstrous man come calling.
In the alternate world of Hard Magic, from about the 1850s "magic" has been a Power that certain people, Actives, are able to access. Most Actives can only use the Power for a single kind of action, so in addition to ones like Jake, Delilah, and Faye, there are Torches, Sparks, Healers, Pale Horses, Cogs, Movers, Lazaruses, Mouths, Summoners, and so on. Apparently only one man in the world is able to access any or all of the different powers, the Satanic and invincible Chairman Tokugawa of the Japanese Imperium threatening to take over the entire world. Tokugawa commands legions of Iron Guards (fighters) and Shadow Guards (ninjas), whose bodies are scarred with kanji that give them artificial access to different Powers. And Tokugawa's agents have been violently acquiring hidden pieces of a dismantled Tesla super weapon with which to blast America into smithereens and so pave the way for world domination.
Hard Magic is exciting, funny, and gruesome, entertainingly using horror, action, steampunk, and comic book genre elements like zombies, ninjas, dirigibles, sky pirates, and superpowers. It recalls X-Men minus the costumes and set in an alternate 1932 and featuring a lot of big guns and swords (sometimes it's better to save one's Power and just blow or slice the brains or hearts out of one's enemies). The novel is more science fiction than fantasy, for the magical Powers have a pseudoscientific explanation and basis. Correia has fun opening his chapters with modified quotations from famous real world figures (Darwin, Al Capone, Wyatt Earp, W. D. Griffith, etc.), both grounding his narrative world in our reality and warping it into a fittingly alternate one, as when he has Babe Ruth explain how he used muscle and magic to hit 200 homeruns in a season. And he incorporates real world figures like Raymond Chandler and John Moses Browning into his plot. The two main characters, the brilliant and violent Jake and the innocent, vengeful, and powerful Faye are appealing, and supporting characters like the Fade Heinrich, the Mover Francis, and even the evil Tokugawa, are interesting, too.
In Hard Magic all the best heroes are white, most of the worst villains are people of color, and Japan is an evil Yellow Peril. Granted, in the real world Japan's infamous Unit 731 conducted appalling experiments on living human beings and Japan tried to do an imperialist take over of Asia, all of which could legitimately be extrapolated into something like what they are doing in the novel, but no country in our world has a monopoly on crimes against humanity, and a casual reference to Wounded Knee, where an Active "knight" saw action (where in the real world the US Army massacred mostly unarmed Lakota men, women, and children), and the thought that it would only be 13 years from 1932 until the USA dropped the Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, disturbed me. The book does seem a libertarian gun lover's dream--pacifists and appeasers need not apply--in which bad people enslave others while good people fight for freedom. The ends do not justify the means here, however, and at one point one character morally opines something like, "Real soldiers don't kill civilians."
The super Power shtick may give Correia a bit too much leeway for deus ex machina-like flourishes, and sometimes things verge on the absurd or unnecessary (as when a sumo Brute fights a zombie Brute during the climax). The novel has few poetic passages to savor, and some lines sound immature, as when Jake addresses the dread Chairman as "Mr. Fancy Pants," and some of the baddies are a bit too easily peeved (to get a rise out of an elite Shadow Guard, just call her a cow). But Correia tells a clean and fast moving story and is skilled at the wry one liner: "There were probably smarter places to experiment with physics altering magic than on an airplane."
As with his Poul Anderson and Flannery O'Connor books, Bronson Pinchot does an excellent job reading Hard Magic. He effectively changes his voice for many different kinds of people, from Okie Faye to Southern Jake, and his amoral Pale Horse Harkeness, who emphasizes odd words, is creepily inspired. I was not sure, however, why he gives ex-Buffalo Soldier Elijah Rawls a sophisticated pseudo-British accent...
Finally, I am in no hurry to listen to the next two books in the trilogy, because the ending of this one is not a cliffhanger, and I have had enough gun, blade, and magic mayhem for a time. But Hard Magic was mostly a neat romp.
Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89) is one of those classics you always hear about but never read because the prospect of broaching a six-volume history of the Roman Empire written in the 18th century is so daunting. But finally listening to the first volume of the audiobook (which includes the first two volumes of Gibbon's opus) filled me with a historical and literary rapture.
Gibbon brings to life the Roman Empire from about 180 AD to about 395, the extent of its boundaries, the governing of its provinces, the organization of its military, and the success that led to its decline and fall by, among other things, making the citizens too soft, the military too mercenary, and the senate too weak. This history was made by spoiled citizens, fickle soldiers, corrupt prefects, obsequious senators, pernicious eunuchs, rapacious barbarians, and, of course, numerous emperors: amoral and tyrannical, pusillanimous and paranoid, or, rarely, moderate and able. Gibbon wittily and enthusiastically relates fateful battles, appalling scenes of treachery, rapine, and slaughter (often internecine or inter-familial), interesting details of exotic cultures (like the Sarmatian barbarians who wore "mail" vests of overlapping horse hoof slices and wielded poisoned fish bone weapons), and telling insights like, "History is little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind."
I was morbidly fascinated by Gibbon's account of the feuding sects of the "primitive" Christian church, Catholics, Arians, Homoousians, and so on arguing, persecuting, and excommunicating each other over the true substance of Jesus while indulging in pomp, pelf, pride, and power, yet ever spreading their religion due to their zeal, world everlasting after death, and "real" relics, miracles, and visions. Gibbon advocates Age of Enlightenment reason against superstition and might have enjoyed the Jefferson Bible.
My favorite figure was the philosopher-poet-general Apostate Emperor Julian, who packed so much into his short life (32 years) and reign (1 year and 8 months). As new Caesar, Julian was tossed into Gaul with 360 soldiers and told to rescue it from tens of thousands of German barbarians, disarmingly declaiming, "Plato, Plato! What a task for a philosopher!" As new Emperor, he booted bishops, barbers, and eunuchs out of the palace, replaced them with poets, philosophers, and sages, and tried to return the newly Christian Roman Empire to a Hellenistic Paganism. He even got back at the insulting people of Antioch by writing a satire on his beard. Ah, how might the current world have developed had Julian not played Alexander the Great and invaded Persia!
Although Gibbon objectively navigates between earlier historical panegyrics and calumnies of his imperial subjects, he also falls prey to his own biases. The worst is his favoritism for western culture at the expense of eastern (opining that a single Greek statue is worth more than whole Persian palaces), and for "civilization" at the expense of "barbarism" (figuring that oral cultures produce no worthy art or culture). Nevertheless, Gibbon always champions humane behavior and criticizes wanton slaughter and destruction, regardless of whether the actors were barbarian or Roman.
The audiobook is really abridged, because it excludes "Gibbon's table talk," his spicy notes. This is understandable, because they would have broken the flow of the narrative and made the audiobook run too long, but still a pity.
Some listeners complain that reader Bernard Mayes sounds too British or boring, but I find him perfectly suited to reading long works of history (like Herodotus' Histories). He reads with a professorial British accent and impeccable rhythm, enunciation, and emphasis, a wise and weathered uncle recounting a fascinating history.
Mostly I had no problem following Gibbon's well-regulated trains of thought, and found his writing elegant, clear, and pleasurable. The only difficulty I had while listening to the audiobook occurred during his long sentences that include "the former" and "the latter," because I'd often have forgotten which was which by the time they appeared, leaving me longing for a printed version of the text. But anyone familiar with 18th and 19th century novels should otherwise have no trouble with Gibbon's prose. I relished it to the point of grins and chuckles. I'll close this review with some examples:
"The monstrous vices of the son have cast a shade on the purity of the father's virtues."
"But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous."
"He promised only to betray, he flattered only to ruin; and however he might occasionally bind himself by oaths and treaties, his conscience, obsequious to his interest, always released him from the inconvenient obligation."
"It was easier to vanquish the Goths than to eradicate the public vices, yet even in the first of these enterprises Decius lost his army and his life."
"The ecclesiastical governors of the Christians were taught to unite the wisdom of the serpent with the innocence of the dove; but as the former was refined, so the latter was insensibly corrupted, by the habits of government."
"If this Punic war was carried on without any effusion of blood, it was owing much less to the moderation than to the weakness of the contending prelates. Invectives and excommunications were their only weapons; and these, during the progress of the whole controversy, they hurled against each other with equal fury and devotion."
"The weak and guilty Lupicinus, who had dared to provoke, who had neglected to destroy, and who still presumed to despise his formidable enemy, marched against the Goths at the head of such a military force as could be collected in this emergency."
"Their flesh was greedily devoured by the birds of prey, who in that age enjoyed very frequent and delicious feasts, and several years afterwards, the white and naked bones which covered the wide extent of the fields presented to the eyes of Ammianus a dreadful monument of the battle of Salices."
In Part One of Joseph Conrad's Victory (1915) the narrator introduces Axel Heyst, a Swedish "baron" drifting about the Tropical Belt of Eastern Asian islands (Timor, Saigon, Manila, and many small ones). Heyst is a mystery because he doesn't do anything to make money, unlike the narrator and his peers who cruise around on their ships trading with the locals. Everyone calls him derisive nicknames: "Enchanted Heyst," "Hard Fact Heyst," and "Utopist Heyst." Everyone thinks he's a harmless eccentric except for Schomberg, a coarse and cowardly Teutonic hotel owner who hates him with a passion and spreads foul rumors about his perceived perfidies. Heyst is completely unaware of how people see him.
Heyst, it develops, was molded by his failed philosopher father to live life as a rootless and detached spectator, feeling contempt and pity for the follies and plights of human beings who, after all, have nothing to do with him. Will he discover that it may not be so easy to go through life untouched and unentangled? What will become of his father's philosophy when Heyst's aloof observer orbit collides with four Brits? There is Morrison, a pathetic trader who never calls in debts, Lena (AKA Alma or the Magdalen), a beautiful, laconic, audacious, and sad damsel in distress, and "plain Mr. Jones," a cadaverous and misogynistic "gentleman" who has fallen Lucifer-like from his proper class and country to languidly gamble, thieve, extort, and kill up and down the world with the help of Martin Ricardo, his faithful lower-class feline thug of a "secretary" henchman.
Victory is a character study, a tropical romance, a crime thriller, and a philosophical debate. It may also be, not unlike Lord Jim, a triumphant tragedy involving a Pyrrhic victory leading, perhaps, to a romantic redemption. Its themes concern gender, class, race, colonialism, civilization, fate, love, and life in the world and apart from it. The novel is often strangely funny, and of course (Conrad being Conrad) it is shot through with wonderfully evocative and vivid descriptions of sea, sun, and people and cool insights into human nature.
Here is some neat humor, description, and character:
"His nearest neighbour--I am speaking now of things showing some sort of animation--was an indolent volcano which smoked faintly all day with its head just above the northern horizon, and at night levelled at him, from amongst the clear stars, a dull red glow, expanding and collapsing spasmodically like the end of a gigantic cigar puffed at intermittently in the dark. Axel Heyst was also a smoker; and when he lounged out on his veranda with his cheroot, the last thing before going to bed, he made in the night the same sort of glow and of the same size as that other one so many miles away."
Here is some serene beauty:
"The islands are very quiet. One sees them lying about, clothed in their dark garments of leaves, in a great hush of silver and azure, where the sea without murmurs meets the sky in a ring of magic stillness. A sort of smiling somnolence broods over them; the very voices of their people are soft and subdued, as if afraid to break some protecting spell."
Here is some ominous suspense:
"Behind his back the sun, touching the water, was like a disc of iron cooled to a dull red glow, ready to start rolling round the circular steel plate of the sea, which, under the darkening sky, looked more solid than the high ridge of Samburan."
And here are some wonderful lines:
"For the use of reason is to justify the obscure desires that move our conduct..."
"The Zangiacomo band was not making music; it was simply murdering silence with a vulgar, ferocious energy."
"The world is a bad dog. It will bite you if you give it a chance."
"Man on this earth is an unforeseen accident which does not stand close investigation."
"That girl, seated in her chair in graceful quietude, was to him like a script in an unknown language, or even more simply mysterious, like any writing to the illiterate."
"An insane bandit is a deadly combination."
"I find it easier to believe in the misfortune of mankind than in its wickedness."
If there were an American I'd like to listen to reading a British novel, it would be George Guidall. Instead of affecting British accents he speaks a limpid international English, all the while enhancing the various emotions and agendas and personalities of the characters with his at times sardonic at times sympathetic and always savory voice. However, for the interplay between Mr. Jones and Martin I did long for greater differentiation between their high and low classes via accent than Guidall conveys.
Fans of Joseph Conrad, great prose, and bleak yet hopeful visions should give Victory a try--though Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness would be better Conrad works with which to begin an acquaintance with the twinkling-eyed master of existential exotic adventure.
In the Tao of Pooh (1982) Benjamin Hoff entertainingly uses Taoist philosophy to explain Winnie the Pooh, and Winnie the Pooh to explain Taoist philosophy. He begins by distinguishing among Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism by describing a traditional Chinese allegorical scroll painting in which the three founders of each philosophy are standing around a jar of vinegar after tasting of it. Confucius has a sour expression on his face (because he finds life out of harmony with the past and with heaven and in need of traditional rules, rituals, and regulations to correct it), Buddha has a bitter expression (because he finds life in the world to be full of desires, traps, illusions, pain, and suffering and better off transcended to Nirvana), while Lao-tse is smiling (because he sees the natural balance and harmony and universal laws in all things in the world according to their own natures and knows that things are only sour if we meddle with them).
Hoff talks with Pooh, Piglet, and Rabbit as he is "writing" The Tao of Pooh, explains Taoism through simple expositions of the philosophy as exemplified by great scenes and characters from Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), and encourages us to adopt the Lao-tse and Winnie-the-Pooh approach to life. For the bear of little brain is an ideal embodiment of the Taoist "Simplicity of the Uncarved Block"--he is his simple self just as he is, unpretentious and stress-free and happy just being, just enjoying the simple pleasures of life in the now, like eating honey and hanging out with Piglet and Christopher Robin. Modeling ourselves on Pooh, we would accept our weak points and utilize them as strong ones without trying unnaturally to improve (carve) ourselves or to learn many things for the sake of being clever (like Rabbit) or appearing wise (like Owl) or complaining (like Eeyore). For "The learned are not wise and the wise are not learned." Let's not, then, become "Confusionist, Dessicated Scholars" (Pooh's mangling of "Confuciunist, Dedicated Scholars"). Let's not meddle with the natural order and balance of things. Let's not rush madly about saving time and being busy for the sake of being busy. Instead, let's be simple, natural, empty, and intuitive. Because I love the Winnie-the-Pooh books, I really enjoyed gaining a basic idea of Taoism through them.
It was great fun listening to Simon Vance reading Milne's text as well as Hoff's pastiches of it. I confess, however, that after having listened to Judi Dench as the narrator and Jane Horrocks as Piglet and Stephen Fry as Pooh in the perfect dramatizations of the Pooh books (also available on Audible), I found Simon Vance's voice to be a little bit thin and lacking the depth and character to bring the animals to life pleasurably.
And it is true that The Tao of Pooh would be more easily understood as a physical book, because then you could easily stop and ponder the ideas and re-read and savor the prose and enjoy the original Shepherd illustrations, whereas with the audiobook you tend to feel compelled to go with the flow (I did re-listen to several chapters and found the ideas and examples sinking in more deeply the second time).
I recommend the Tao of Pooh not to little kids in general but to people who love the Pooh books and who are interested in Taoism or who like Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books and want to learn about a BIG source for her ideas on magic and balance and so on. Ogion and Lao-tse and Pooh would all get along famously!
Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front is beautiful, moving, and appalling, setting forth so clearly and cogently so many awful truths about war, patriotism, youth, maturity, human nature, love, and life. It is as apt today as it was when it was written, and despite being set in the First World War applies to any war fought before or after.
Remarque's purpose: "To give an account of a generation destroyed by the war." If not directly maiming and killing young soldiers, war--no adventure--severs their psychological connections to life, turning them into kill or be killed animals and abandoned children who are also old men. The real enemy is not the French (or any country) but death and war itself, as well, perhaps, as the "morally bankrupt" authority figures (politicians, teachers, preachers, parents, and newspapers) who should know better but who mismanage everything so as to let war happen and then brainwash or browbeat innocent young men full of life into entering the war. The truth of war, Paul says, is found in military hospitals, in which are found examples of every possible way to harm a human body, and which render pointless all human thoughts, words, and deeds.
The novel begins in medias res with the first person narrator Paul Baumer telling in present tense how he and his young-old veteran friends in Company B are ecstatic because their company of 150 men was just unexpectedly attacked and lost 70 men, so that the food and tobacco that had been ordered for 150 will now go to only 80, so they will finally get enough to eat. "Because of that, everything is new and full of life, the red poppies, the good food, the cigarettes, the summer breeze." They then visit one of their friends who is dying from an infected wound. "It's still him, but it isn't really him anymore. His image has faded, become blurred, like a photographic plate that has had too many copies made from it. Even his voice sounds like ashes." Another friend really wants to get the dying guy's boots, and this is perfectly natural. In the second chapter Paul flashbacks to how the boys were persuaded to volunteer by their schoolmaster (a man they now scorn), and how they were bullied through basic training by a sadistic drill corporal till they'd become hard and suspicious.
Through Paul, Remarque vividly depicts trench warfare: latrines, rations, and cigarettes; hunger and thirst; "corpse rats" and lice; dysentery, influenza, and typhus; barbed wire, trenches, dugouts, and craters; revolvers, rifles, machine guns, tracer bullets, bayonets, trench spades, flame throwers, trench mortars, rockets, shells, daisy cutters, shrapnel, hand grenades, and gas; observation balloons, airplanes, trucks, trains, and tanks; continuous fire, defensive fire, and curtain fire; attacks and counter-attacks back and forth across the lunar no-man's land; shattered bones, fragments of flesh, decapitations, disembowelings, torn off faces, blown off limbs, bodies blown out of uniforms and into trees, blue-faced gas corpses, and hissing and belching corpses. All of that becomes more and more hellish as the war drags on and the German supplies and troops dwindle.
Paul has a poet's mind for metaphor. Sitting in their dugout in the trenches is like "Sitting in our own grave waiting to be buried," or "as if we were sitting inside a massive echoing metal boiler that is being pounded on every side." Paul and his friends watch fountains of mud and iron rising up all around them, and mist rising up from the shell holes "like ghostly secrets." He says, "No man's land is outside us and inside us." And "Our hands are earth, our bodies mud, and our eyes puddles of rain." Paul's memories from before the war are dangerous, because to dwell in their lost quietness would render him unable to deal with the reality of the present moment at the front. "We are dead. Our memories come to haunt us. We have been consumed by the fires of reality." Here and there he utters brief lyrical and poignant descriptions: "The wind plays with our hair, and with our words and our thoughts." And "Days are like angels in blue and gold, untouchable."
The only good thing about the war (and it's a very sad good thing) is the bonding it forges between Paul and his friends, comrades in arms. At one point Paul and his mentor Kat are eating a goose they've organized, and Paul feels that "We are brothers… two tiny sparks of life; outside there is just the night, and all around us, death." When he gets two weeks of leave, he is painfully uncomfortable at home, feeling no point of contact with his pre-war self or with his family members or former teachers, etc., because they have not the remotest conception of the front. When he returns to his friends at the front he thinks a devastating truth: "This is where I belong."
This is Brian Murdoch's 1994 translation, not A. W. Wheen's 1929 one. Here is a brief comparison:
Murdoch: "The front is a cage, and you have to wait nervously in it for whatever will happen to you."
Wheen: "The front is a cage in which we must await fearfully whatever may happen."
Tom Lawrence reads Murdoch's translation so well--his youthful, British voice, perfect clarity and pacing, and sensitive and sad manner all so appealing--that I found it fine.
People who are fascinated by vivid accounts of the horror of war, or who are interested in World War I as seen from the German point of view, or who like well-written, beautiful, awful, and sad books should read All Quiet on the Western Front.
The Adventures of Dr. Eszterhazy (1991?) assembles all fourteen of the Dr. Eszterhazy stories by Avram Davidson, mostly from the 1970s and 80s, and puts them in internal chronological order, beginning with his hero's origin and working up through his learned degrees and outre experiences to a bleak hint that his troublesome and beloved Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania Triune Empire will disappear. SPT is a union of fractious ethnic groups with different languages, religions, and traditions, all ready to disintegrate at the slightest excuse. The Eastern European SPT Empire exists in a fictional, alternate world around 1900. The stories refer to many of our world's countries and political, literary, and scientific figures and developments, often with tweaks to signal that we are not in Kansas. In Dr. E.'s world, the supernatural (witches, wizards, magic, divine winds, etc.) is real, yet technology is advancing (almost) as in our world, so the stories feel a bit like proto-steampunk.
Like Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Eszterhazy lives at an address in his capital city (33 Turkling Street in Bella), is an eccentric man of genius, learning, and discretion, reads newspapers avidly, and pursues bizarre crimes and situations that stump the authorities. Unlike Holmes, Dr. E. is learning everything he can about everything (from jurisprudence, medicine, and science to philosophy, literature, and magic) for the mere sake of knowledge, often witnesses rather than solves mysteries, and is willing to accept supernatural explanations or no explanations.
The stories are comedies of politics, religion, culture, tradition, science, and magic, and often feature internal or external threats to the Triune Empire. The stories are discursive, reflecting Dr. E.'s motto, "often pause and turn aside." And they are funny, from comical situations, as when an Australian travel writer unwittingly eats some special "poultry," to witty dialogue, as when a bitter Baron asks the be-moccasined Yankee frontier poet Washington Parthenopias "Pard" Powell if he was ever really in Honduras, and the bard replies, "Was Dante ever in hell?" The humor can be silly, as when a put-upon minister trying to get Dr. E. (of the myriad doctorates) to do him a favor stammers, "Dr. Eszterhazy, Dr. Dr. Eszterhazy, Dr. Dr. Dr. Eszterhazy, Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Eszterhazy--" until he's finally stopped. Often the descriptions are humorous, as when visiting a barbaric backwoods prince, Dr. E. "pass[es] through the great hall adorned with rude and massive furniture on or in which giants might have sat cross-legged and smaller men have camped." And the narrator is wont to interrupt himself: "a man, no longer at all young, with a weather beaten and worn--worn? ERODED face." The constant humor begins to numb, but even towards the end of the collection Davidson often made me smile. And some denouements are moving.
Here are the stories (the first five are long, the last nine short):
"Cornet Eszterhazy" involves the incognito King Magnus of dual rival Scandinavian countries, the king's Skraeling shaman-bodyguard, the eccentric SPT Emperor Ignats Louis, some bitter revolutionists, some feisty American wild west show entrepreneurs, a semi-retired local brigand, a trio of Christian priestess-witches, and a noble errand boy called Cornet Esterhazy, who, as a result of the adventure, will leave the court to court knowledge.
In "The Autogondola Invention" Esterhazy, now a Doctor of Philosophy, hosts a seance attended by a dodgy Finnish medium, a fake riverboat captain, a shabby inventor, an irritable Baron, and the poet "Pard" Powell, after which they all end up somehow flying off to try to save the Triune Empire.
In "The Duke Pasquale's Ring," a dread wizard has targeted a possible Ring of Power belonging to the King and Queen of the Single Sicily living in impoverished exile in Bella. Can Dr. E. use science to thwart the magical villain?
In "Writ in Water, or the Gingerbread Men" Dr. E. learns the history of gingerbread men and watches the collision between an immemorial sacred grove and a new "clean" engine.
Dr. E must try to use mountain magic in "The King Across the Mountains" to stop the feckless heir of the heir of the Emperor from eloping with a married gypsy dancer.
In "Polly Charms, the Sleeping Woman" Dr. E. goes with Commissioner of Police Lobatz to watch a side show act featuring a girl who has been asleep for thirty years. Is her manager an infamous mesmerist from England? Is she another M. Valdemar?
In "The Crown Jewels of Jerusalem, or The Tell-Tale Head," the titular jewels are missing, a disaster for the SPT Triune Empire, so Dr. E. is soon analyzing his intensely detailed phrenological study of the skull of a likely suspect.
In "The Old Woman Who Lived with a Bear" Dr. E. hears of a backcountry witch living with an infidel she charmed into the shape of a bear. Or is he only an ex-hussar with a bear-fur shako and a brain-damaging war injury?
"The Church of St. Satan and Pan Demons" brings together a secret Christian Diabolism cult and an eager American railroad company.
In "Milord Sir Smiht, the English Wizard" the snobbish Sir Smiht (who misspells his name, Smith, to help the many Europeans who cannot pronounce it right) has been manipulating the Odyllic Forces for a fee.
When Dr. E. investigates a rumored undine in a river by some superstitious peasants in "The Case of the Mother-in-Law of Pearl," he discovers some sad truths.
In "The Ceaseless Stone" Dr. E. and Commissioner Lobatz are on the case of a mysterious guy selling rings made of pure gold for cheap prices. Is it dragon's gold, or has another ex-chemistry teacher broken bad?
"The King's Shadow Has No Limits" gives Dr. E. an unsettling day in which he possibly sees the SPT Emperor impossibly playing the geriatric pauper here and there.
"An Odd Old Bird" is a tall-tale joke story in which Dr. E. and the Imperial Geologist hope to get the fossil of the missing link between dinosaurs and birds, while an ignorant hunting prince is more interested in a pointillist painting.
The collection closes with "The Inchoation of Eszterhazy," an afterword in which Davidson recounts how he came up with Dr. E. and SPT.
Robert Blumenthal relishes reading the discursive and witty text with all its exotic proper names, big vocabulary words, and varied accents. A highlight is when a fiery Bishop fondly recalls "that Godly man Duke Vlad the Impaler, rrrrrr." That said, to make the stories with their strange names and digressions easier to follow, I had to listen to the first ten minutes of each story twice.
Patient people interested in clever and digressive alternate history stories in which magic and science collide should enjoy this book.
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