I love Professor Michael Drout, perhaps because there are a lot of things he loves, especially very old and very new literature. He certainly does love Tolkien's work, and for any devotee of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, these lectures are a cheerful delight.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of medieval literature, and he brought very old forms into his own writing, which was much influenced by the evils he experienced in World Wars I and II. Like Shakespeare and Churchill, Tolkien wrote from the very bones of English itself, and his language calls powerfully to modern English-speakers who can feel what he is doing. Tolkien's work has strongly influenced 20th and 21st century writing, and major movie epics have been made of his books. He is important, and this course tells why and how.
You can't go wrong with Professor Drout. I've listened to a number of his courses, and he has charm and youthful enthusiasm. It's a winning combination.
Nothing like this ever was ---- a novel published in 1897 that prefigured powered flight, space travel, poison gas, lasers, and alien invasion from outer space. This is a short, exciting novel vividly read by the great reader Simon Vance, and I recommend people listen to it rather than read it: Vance makes it much more exciting than one can do reading silently to oneself. Every detail of the story was interpreted in modern terms in the Tom Cruise War of the Worlds movie and it's a lot of fun to listen to this book and then watch the movie and consider the parallels: the fleeing population, the loud moaning tripod-machines, the blackbirds at the end. The movie vividly illustrates the Martian takeover exactly as the book describes it in all its living red color. I appreciate the respectful homage paid by Hollywood to this great pioneering scifi story.
Our hero is quietly reading his paper at breakfast when news comes of a big crater splashed into the nearby Common from something large falling out of the sky. Many people go to see, and watch as a large cylinder unscrews at the top and strange beings emerge. A deputation arrives to parley, but talk is not what the Martians are after. Very bad things start to happen to the people, the town, London, and the countryside. More and more cylinders fall to Earth from Mars. A few people survive, but only by chance and only temporarily. It is the planet Earth itself that rejects the invaders.
The same reader, Robert Whitfield, did this unabridged Gormenghast as read the first volume, Titus Groan. His reading is brilliant, in my opinion: this is of course a very difficult book to read well, as it's experimental fiction on the order of Ulysses and it is a form of poetry in prose: note the very careful choice of every word, for the dire, the scary, the unsettling. The plot is vivid and full of action, but could be told in a third the words: but the words are the point. So enjoy them. This book is not about the plot, exciting though that is. It's not about the characters, fascinating though they are. It's about the second-by-second elaborate description of the experience.
There is a production problem that did not occur in Titus Groan: I counted eleven times when the reader repeated whole sentences, having apparently stopped, taken a break, and then went on repeating from the top of the paragraph. Obviously the editor should have edited out the repeats!! Bad production not to bother. It should be done right and reissued. However, it's still a very good rendition and well worth hearing.
The conclusion is highly satisfying and there is no need to go on to the post-mortem third volume cobbled together from notes on the author's desk. I would advise first reading the two works, then listening to them, and finally watching the excellent BBC movie starring John Rhys Meyer as Steerpike. It's a star-studded cast: you will be surprised at the important actors you recognize. They stay very close to the text, though it must have been hard to make, given the spectacular scenery and events.
Farthing seems at first to be a comfortable English country house mystery. It quickly becomes unusually candid about toxic relationships, however. Our heroine, Lucy, heiress to all the money of a very large and historic English estate, hates her mother, and it becomes apparent that she is right to do so. She also has married a Jew, and this in an England twisted out of the shape it has in our world by an early peace settlement in 1941. The war did not last five years and Hitler was not defeated. Instead, the Rudolf Hess flight to Scotland in May 1941, widely believed by many to this day, including me, to have been a separate peace offer from Hitler (it is, after all, what Hess claimed at the time!) was in that alternative reality taken up by a clique called the "Farthing set" which out-maneuvered Winston Churchill, who intended to fight on and would have squelched the initiative and jailed Hess as a madman as in our reality. The best alternative histories have that one tiny change that is plausible: England ended the war early, in 1941, with the Farthing slogan "Peace With Honor" after a short negotiation with Hitler. The resonances with the earlier real-time appeasement by Chamberlain in Munich are obvious, and add to the plausibility.
The war continues in Russia for many years and Jews are persecuted all over central and eastern Europe, and are losing ground in England, which had a substantial Fascist constituency before WWII and does again, since that was never defeated. An apparent murder at Farthing by Jews and a terrorist attack on Farthing by Bolsheviks puts Lucy's husband David right in the crosshairs, where he is intended to be. Can they escape? The chapters alternate between Lucy's narration and that of Inspector Carmichael, and so the producers have used two readers, a woman and a man. The woman reader uses the sad, falling-voice technique that I felt was a problem in the reading of Hillary Mantel's "Wolf Hall," too. After all, much of the life of Thomas Cromwell went very well. And Lucy Kahn is a more resolute than sad heroine. The male reader is excellent and the female one is quite good except for that one habit. This novel is sexually complex, but there is no explicit sexual description whatsoever; it's mainly characterization. I think this novel would be very suitable for late teens and any age after that.
Lucy Eversley married David Kahn partly as adolescent rebellion at the stultified, restricted life she leads in the ultra-upper-class: even she realizes there is a component of rebellion. However, it's a real marriage: they fill out each other's lacks and they are extremely supportive of each other. She wants children and believes she is pregnant and is very happy about that. Therefore, the reader is both aghast and amused at the surprise she gets in the end: Lucy is definitely going to be paying her dues now and having an interesting life.
I recommend Farthing strongly and plan to listen to the other two "Small Change" novels in the series.
Riddle of the Sands was published in 1903, 11 years before WWI started, but it is redolent with the suspicion between Germany and other countries that circulated at that time and resulted, finally, in the Great War. The Riddle is that our two young spies gradually realize that Germany is planning an invasion of England via the low-water tributaries in the Frisian islands, pulling low-draft troop carriers among the natural channels through the sands . The places named are real and you can follow the plot on Google Earth.
Anton Lesser does a superb reading, and reads with the tones of a young man, which is crucial, because while the plot and action are gripping, the characterization and character development is just as beautifully and humorously written, and this is why it seems to me almost a crime to settle for an abridged version of this classic. You won't regret listening to the original.
Our narrator, Carruthers, is a rising young star in the Foreign Office, and when he reluctantly boards the Dulcibella, he is deeply disappointed that it is not the stylish, elegant yacht with crew that he had dressed and packed for. He is a prig, and no sailor, and both faults get well and truly reformed during this story as he grows up, learns to sail, and finds his place in the world -- because however "at sea" he may feel in a boat, Carruthers has talent and courage as a spy on land that make the reader feel he would be wasted in the Foreign Office.
Of course there is a beautiful girl. And a dubious father. And Germans, nice and otherwise, whose accents Lesser performs convincingly. Best of all, there is a VIP who comes to inspect how well the invasion plans are working out. This is "he who insists" on coming.
SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
"He who insists" is the Kaiser. Kaiser Wilhelm II, ruler of Germany, avid yachtsman, committed to building up Germany's navy. The idea that Germany might invade England is hardly remarkable: most wars involve the aggressing Continental power considering it very carefully, or actually doing it. The last ones were Napoleon and Hitler, both of whom made elaborate plans for invasion, but never actually carried them out. Eleven years after this book came out, Germany used its navy to try to starve England out via U-Boots sinking ships carrying imports, rather than invasion. But in the meanwhile this book, Riddle of the Sands, resulted in some large changes in the British navy basing, because in fact, the plan was plausible.
The most delightful moment in the book, to me, is when Carruthers, needing a quick exit from his hiding place, not only wrecks the Kaiser's boat, but also gets him to help cast off the dinghy he's in so he can row away. He gives brusque orders in the confusion of running the boat aground, and as a yachtsman used to quick hands-on sailing, the Kaiser obeys him!
There is a Michael York movie of this book which is excellent and fairly close to the original.
There are two abridged versions of "Titus Groan," but get the unabridged --- because the words are the point, not the plot. There is a clear plot, and the action is also clear. But it's the dark, seductive, carefully mined and honed words that matter. Robert Whitfield is a brilliant reader, and like the best readers he plainly actually understands this book better than I did the first time I read it, and can communicate that understanding. "Titus Groan" is a parody, harsher than Dickens, perhaps Thackerian would be fair. The parody attacks useless, empty traditions of class-based aristocracy, and on its own terms, not the terms of any sort of from-below social revolution such as communism. The parody is funny, incredibly: wait for the climax at the end when the baby Titus goes through the ceremony of "earling" and casually disposes of all the elaborate symbols of his office.
The hero, Steerpike, is an anti-hero, even a villain. But that's nothing: all the characters, 100%, are anti-characters. There is not a straight type that we expect among them. The doctor may be the only one with a good character, and possibly Mrs. Slag and Fuchia the sister, but all of them are not merely eccentrics, they are grotesques. I don't see how anyone could have done Prunesquallor the doctor better than the reader Whitfield read him. That was a difficult challenge for an actor-reader, but he achieved it, delightfully.
The action and the plot are vivid and murderous and also grotesque. The famous setting, the many-storied stone castle that goes on for miles and miles and miles as its own self-contained world, is so original that it has been used by others: perhaps by C.S. Lewis in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," as the professor's house, and certainly by Tad Williams in his brilliant "Otherland." as one of the virtual sci-fi worlds the characters find themselves inside.
This book is worth reading before you hear it. Note the carefully ominous word choice: the words are invariably the ones that would unsettle us. On the next order of composition, the phrases are dire even when their individual words are blameless. I assume Peake was a fan of Lovecraft, but this is not an exercise in the supernatural or in horror from the outside. Gormenghast Castle is its own world and if there is horror, no one there notices, because that is how they expect to live. I highly recommend this brilliant book with Whitfield's illuminating reading.
These are jangly old radio performances "based on" M.R. James stories. Derek Jacobi just says a few words at the beginning. I bought this audiobook because I thought he was actually reading the stories and that would have been great. These are scripts with various actors taken loosely from the stories and they are not very good, I thought, and hard to follow. I think the description of this offering should be rewritten, as it is credited to Jacobi, but he has very little to do with it.
This is an eight-hour lecture series on World War I, a topic so huge that the time limit constrains Professor Ramsden to useful summary and clear ideas that may surprise and delight even veteran WWI readers, as it did me. The Modern Scholar series is a very good university-quality lecture series with riveting lecturers, in my experience, and this is a fine example of the line.
Prof. Ramsden hits all the stories we need to know because they represent WWI in our culture. So it's a good starting place or a good review. But importantly, he states clearly and simply summaries of situations and ideas behind battle plans, something that almost no source does because the detail of WWI, the millions dead, the endless trenches, the hopelessness of the carnage for years, overwhelms us all. For instance, Prof. Ramsden says the point of Gallipoli was first to sail the great British fleet right into the Dardanelles past Constantinople, thus overawing the Turks, keeping them out of the war, and securing passage of the Straits to resupply Russia. But that didn't work, because the Turks sank a lot of the ships at the entrance to the Straits. So the planners said, no problem, we'll just land soldiers on the Gallipoli peninsula and they can run over to the forts guarding the Straits, silence the guns, and then the ships can sail majestically through. As we know, what happened instead was total catastrophe on land, also. It is very helpful to stay out of the details of a given disaster long enough to understand what people were trying to do, what was going on overall, and that is a strong point by Professor Ramsden.
He does the same with the end of the war, reminding us that there has been a controversy from 1918 till now about whether the western powers should have fully defeated Germany, including invasion, to persuade Germany it was defeated and thus perhaps avoid World War II. He agrees that Germany never believing it had been defeated (and "machinations" stealing their victory) was a cause of WWII. But he crisply concludes that it simply could not have been done, for a number of reasons that could not possibly have been gotten past -- that they stopped the war as best they could at the time and nothing better was possible. I found that deeply satisfying, because I agree with it. Should have been done better, couldn't be, so much for that.
This course focuses too much on the professor and his sexual interests, which he attempts to connect to Shakespeare's plays. There is a camp quality to the verbal style, including long shuddering intakes of breath meant to communicate sexual excitement. The ideas are sometimes unusual, such as Prof. Saccio's belief that Shakespeare's sonnets are not biographical, but are perhaps an extended experiment in sonnet-making. I don't believe that is a majority opinion. I held out till nearly the end of the first half of the lectures, when a lovely quoted passage was so enthusiastically sexualized in the discussion that I turned off the book and deleted it as indecent. The professor frequently promotes his two other lecture series on Shakespeare for The Great Courses, but I'll want to take care to avoid those.
I wish they would retire Scott Brick -- his wildly melodramatic readings are quite a problem considering I have entirely too many unheard audiobooks that I see are read by him ---- aaaaack. I won't buy anymore by him now that I know about his over-acting. He causes the characters to lack dignity, and that is too bad with The Woods because Cope, the main character, has a lot of dignity. I eventually switched to reading it as an ebook, and that worked better. Great thriller, I thought, gasping surprises and a complex but very clear plot. One of Coben's best standalone thrillers.
This audiobook is an excerpt from the larger story cycle told by Thomas Malory and printed in 1485, the Morte d'Arthur, the Death of Arthur stories, which have inspired so many modern works, including Lord of the Rings. The reading is lovely. Much of the original language is kept and though words are different and turned around in meaning sometimes, one very quickly catches on, because the reader keeps modern pronunciation. One of my favorite discoveries from this reading was how Malory likes to make rhyming paired alternatives: we still say "whether he will or nil," but he also says "would or nood" and "wist or nist" for knowing or not knowing. All you really need to know to understand this book from (barely) pre-Tudor times is that Siege means seat, not a warfare tactic. As in the Siege Perilous, that only Galahad could safely sit in at the Round Table. Siege is simply a French word, and they used some French in those days that we have exchanged for other French these days.
The story cycle of the search for the Grail is short and makes sense from beginning to end. It follows not only the original story by Chretien de Troyes, who probably first imagined the Grail, but the amendments quickly added by other writers such as Robert de Boron to Christianize the story, making the Grail a cup and in fact, THE cup, and adding in Joseph of Arimathea. The original glimpse of the Grail that we got from Chretien was none too Christian and then the author died before he finished the story, so his bestseller book sorely needed a quick fix and got fixes from writers across Europe. Malory faithfully reports the dominant legend as it came down to him from the early 13th century, almost three centuries before he wrote his great collection of Arthur stories.
The Grail tales are lively and vivid and have, as intended, many ethical issues which were no doubt discussed in 15th century book discussions. Which should Bors rescue, a maiden being raped, or his brother being beaten to death with whips from thorn bushes? Lionel survives, but one can appreciate just how seriously annoyed he was at the choice Bors made. What about that queen whose illness could only be cured by (a lot) of blood from a maiden? Was it really an appropriate moral decision for Perceval's sister to sacrifice herself? And what about the 24 tombs of similar maidens the knights found after she died? Hmmmmmm. Needs thought.
This audiobook would be great for fans of the Holy Grail, for Malory fans, and for young people who can only profit from grounding in our basic English literature without being bored.
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