Seamus Heaney is a wonderful poet and a wonderful reader: listening to him is like hearing the original poet holding forth. But the reading is abridged, in what seems more like a marketing decision -- trying to fit the audiobook onto a two-CD set -- than an artistic one. "Beowulf" could certainly use some abridgement here and there, and I wouldn't mind if there were only minor omissions; but among the episodes cut is the challenge that Unferth issues to Beowulf about his swimming contest with Brecca. This isn't just empty padding: it's essential to the characters of both Unferth and Beowulf. In many ways this is the best single recording of "Beowulf" available: why couldn't there be an unabridged (or at least a less-abridged) version as well? That would get six stars out of five. No other version comes close to the mastery of language shown by this one.
I avoided this book for a long time: who wants to read a book about a person who's so good everyone around him thinks he's an idiot?
Boy, was I wrong. This is an intense and brooding novel, filled with Dostoevsky's usual array of deeply conflicted characters and blistering monologues. The idiot himself, Prince Myshkin, is no pushover: maybe he's a bit naive at times, but he insists on treating people as equals and assuming their good intentions until contrary evidence is overwhelming. He suffers from epilepsy, and in the course of the novel has a couple of seizures that dramatically alter the direction of the story.
Superficially, the novel is about Myshkin's conflicted relationships with two women: Aglaya, the youngest daughter of a distant relative, with whom he is in love; and Anastassya Filippovna, a "fallen woman" who's been fobbed off by her former lover and who seems to be drifting from one self-destructive relationship to another. Myshkin may have loved her once, but now he mainly pities her. Aglaya, who at one point seems willing to marry Myshkin, ultimately breaks off because of his obsession with Anastassya.
But that's only one small facet of this complex, teeming book. The characters are captivating, the scenes at times almost hypnotic in their intensity. I've only read a few of Dostoevsky's novels, but so far I'm inclined to say this is probably my favorite.
Robert Whitfield (=Simon Vance) gives a stellar reading. Of particular note is his ability to distinguish the voices of the many women in the book: sometimes the shading is subtle, but I always knew instantly who was talking. Well done, highly recommended.
Langguth is a wonderful writer and Gardner is a wonderful narrator. Union 1812 tells the story of the early republic, up through the War of 1812. The subtitle is a key to the book's approach: it's a history that focuses on the people involved, with incisive portraits of the earliest statesmen (Washington, Adams, and Jefferson) as well as the later generation: John Quincy Adams, James Madison, William Henry Harrison, Andrew Jackson.
The story is somewhat more panoramic than the title implies. In laying the groundwork for his narrative of the war, Langguth describes the Constitutional Convention and the careers of the first four presidents in a series of brisk chapters. When he gets to the presidency of James Madison, the timeline slows down to focus on the events of the war itself. (The timeline slows down but the pace doesn't: Union 1812 remains a compelling and exciting listen throughout.)
I knew little about the War of 1812 before the book. My main impressions of it came from the movie The Buccaneer, which tells the story of the pirate Jean LaFitte at the battle of New Orleans. I had no idea the US had invaded Canada not once but multiple times over the course of the war; and though I knew the White House was burned by the British, I knew nothing about the campaign that led up to that. I'd heard of Tecumseh, the Native American leader who sided with the British, but had no idea what role he played in the conflict. The book was, for me, full of dramatic surprises.
I liked it so much I immediately downloaded Langguth's "sequel," Driven West, which is supposed to cover the years from the end of the war up to the Civil War. Many years ago, I'd read Langguth's history of the American Revolution, Patriots: if Audible or someone else would care to publish that as an audiobook (hint, hint), we'd have a dynamite trilogy.
My only complaint, as usual with books of this type, is that I needed to track down some good battle maps while listening. Presumably the printed book came with some: it would be nice if there were a PDF with those maps that could be downloaded from Audible. Maybe it's just me. I need to get some spatial sense of what's happening, and if I don't know the geography, I need to look at a map.
Like a lot of people my age, I grew up on Walt Disney; in my case, it went way past childhood. I got a lot of ribbing in high school because I continued to insist that he was a genius. I still think that, even though there is, undeniably, a saccharine quality to a lot of his work. Disney always considered himself more a "story man" than a master animator, and the grace and strength of the story structure in his best features is one of his most enduring monuments.
Gabler's biography is a fascinating look at Disney's life and work - especially his work. The emphasis here in on the professional, and Gabler provides totally absorbing accounts of the studio's process in creating some of the great features of the 30s and 40s. Disney did go wrong at certain points in his career, some of it financial and some of it political, and the fact that he was able to oversee the creation of so many masterpieces in spite of these wrong turns is astonishing. In the 50s, with the advent of Disneyland and the weekly TV show, Disney began once again to hit his stride.
When Disney is totally committed to what he's doing, Gabler is wonderful. When Disney is bored, Gabler becomes much less interesting. The biggest weakness in the book is the overly-detailed account of the financial dealings. It's an essential part of the story, but (as Gabler himself makes clear) it's not really what Disney was about.
The book is a useful corrective to the only other biography of Disney I've read - "The Disney Version" by Richard Schickel. That was clearly hostile; Gabler takes a much more balanced and nuanced approach. While I understand from browsing the web that not everyone agrees with me, I get the sense from the book that Gabler actually likes Disney. The book isn't the celebration some would prefer, but neither is it an indictment. It's a portrait of a man who smoked too much and drank too much and never lost a yearning for the turn-of-the-century small town perfection he'd known as a child: a man with a brilliant vision of what animation could do and the ability to motivate others to join him in the pursuit of the insanely great.
I enjoyed Arthur Morey's narration (as I always do). He maintains a steady, straightforward tone that matches the material.
Robin Field appears to be doing all the voices in this production. Given that, it's more dramatic than might be expected: he's acting out the play, not simply reading it. If Field were less skillful, it could be dismissed as a vanity production. But it doesn't quite work for me. I have two complaints: in a couple of scenes, the voices are close enough together that it's difficult to tell immediately who's speaking; and the translation Field uses is a very poor one, from the standpoint of English style: an early-twentieth-century imitation of "Bible English" taken from Harvard Classics. (Probably easy on the royalty department, but hard on the ears. Surely there are better public domain translations available.)
This is probably the best-produced version of Dubliners on Audible. Naxos does its customary magic with the incidental music: carefully-selected songs set each story apart; sometimes the song echoes the theme of the story; sometimes it's the actual music referred to in the story. The effect, from an atmospheric standpoint, is great. Jim Norton has a great voice too, deep and timbre-y. My only problem is that he's a bit on the quiet, subdued side, even when Joyce seems to be calling for a more raucous delivery. This is true at least of the narration; dialogue is captured here with great energy and a wide variety of voices.
The stories themselves are wonderful. I never liked "Dubliners" much until I made up my mind to listen to them; and after listening to four different versions now, I've discovered a wondeful thematic unity across all the stories, an almost cyclical development of images and situations. (Just to take the most obvious example, the book begins with a story about two sisters and ends with a story about two sisters.) There's a great deal of sly humor and good will as well. If you decide to listen to "Dubliners," do yourself a favor and listen to all of them, in order.
The stories usually end on an oddly discordant note, without a clear resolution; they take some time to get used to. That's one reason why the musical interludes on this recording are so important and so effective.
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