Fukuoka, Japan | Member Since 2010
Gormenghast (1950), the second novel in Mervyn Peake’s classic fantasy trilogy, opens with seven-year-old Titus Groan, the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, already conflicted by rebellious desires to be free from the meaningless ritual and dry duty of the castle and from his role as its figurehead. The novel depicts his maturing into a sensitive and self-aware young man scarred by violence, seasoned by loss, and attracted by the world outside. Into that plot Peake weaves the career of the amoral ex-kitchen boy Steerpike, scheming his way ever deeper into the heart of Gormenghast. And for comic relief, Peake spends (almost too) much time with Professor Bellgrove, his bachelor colleagues, and Irma Prunesquallor, who wants a husband.
There are many memorable set pieces in the novel, like the moment when Titus and his sister Fuchsia discover that they love each other, the “Bachelorette” soiree at the Prunesquallors, the demise of an anile headmaster, the game of marbles in the Lichen Fort, the tracking of a satanic outlaw, the aborted ceremony of the Bright Carvings, the encounter with the wild Thing in the forest cave, the Biblical flooding of the castle, and the schoolboy game featuring a classroom window 100 feet above the ground, a giant plane tree, a pair of polished floor boards, and a gauntlet of slingshots.
Reader Robert Whitfield’s narrator is clear, refined, and sympathetic, and his character voices varied and on target (especially Dr. Prunesquallor, Irma, Bellgrove, Barquentine, Steerpike, and Flay). But his Fuchsia needs more raw passion and less nasal whine and his Countess Gertrude more gravitas and less dowager quaver. And there is an odd glitch whereby about twenty times during the course of the book Whitfield’s sentences jarringly repeat.
Gormenghast resembles Titus Groan, the first novel in the trilogy. Both novels are set in a vividly realized castle world populated by grotesque denizens. Both intoxicate the reader with rich language, baroque detail, painterly description, and blended humor and pathos. Both leave images etched upon the mind’s eye. Both feature long passages of conversation or description punctuated by unpredictable scenes of suspenseful action. Both express themes about the primacy of passion and imagination over reason and calculation and the comforting and stultifying influence of tradition on human lives. Although both novels are “fantasies of manners,” however, Gormenghast is also a romantic comedy, a British school story, a gothic thriller, and a bildungsroman. And it highlights new themes: the conflict between duty and freedom and the transformations, wonders, and absurdities of love and aging.
Finally, Gormenghast, like Titus Groan, is a unique masterpiece that offers a satisfying conclusion to the story arc of the first two novels that perhaps renders the third book, Titus Alone, unnecessary.
Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) is an absorbing tale about the attempt by the colonists of Luna to revolt against the exploitative Lunar Authority of the Federated Nations of Earth. Because the Loonies are outnumbered 11 billion to 3 million and because earth has all the spaceships and soldiers, it would seem to be a doomed fight for freedom. But the Loonies have a secret weapon: Mike the supercomputer who runs Luna’s infrastructure and who has become self-aware, a fact known only to the three people who plan the revolution, Mannie, Wyoh, and Prof.
Mannie narrates the action in an appealing voice, with Australian (e.g. cobber), Russian (e.g. da/nyet), and Loonie (e.g. earthworm) vocabulary spoken as if by a Russian speaker of English (e.g. “Was good plan”). It was a revelation to hear reader Lloyd James read Mannie’s Russian accent, because I didn't notice it when I encountered the book 20 years ago, and James is good at bringing the other characters to life with their own distinctive voices, especially Mike (though his French speakers evoke Pepe Le Pew).
The novel has many virtues. It is often funny, as when Mannie says, “I’ve seen a woman [nude] before,” and Wyoh retorts, “What a thrill it must have been for her.” Or as when, during a serious discussion about organizing the revolution, Prof is distracted by Mike’s potential use for winning bets on horse races. It also boasts many provocative ideas, as in the minuses of government and pluses of “rational anarchy,” the nature of sentience, the differences between genders, the benefits of group marriages run by women, and “tanstaafl.” Mike’s awareness and friendship with Mannie begin humorously but end movingly and mysteriously, while Mannie’s desire to get away from civilization finally recalls Huck Finn’s. And Heinlein extrapolates a convincing Luna culture based on physical realities of rock, ice, air, and gravity, and then works out how a mongrelized population originally comprised of “jailbirds” from various nations on earth with men outnumbering women 2-1 would live in cities and farms tunneling down into the moon.
I question the novel’s anti-taxation, libertarian philosophy. And I doubt that harsh situations would make most bad actors disappear, or that all big mouths should be eliminated. And Bog knows that Prof is sometimes a know-it-all, and some passages make me cringe at their gender stereotypes or for their attempts to break them, and perhaps Mike is too good to be true (though when he feels the equivalent of an orgasm when lining up a number of rock-bombs to simultaneously hit the earth I shiver and remember HAL from 2001).
But overall I was impressed by how readable the novel remains and how (for Heinlein) tightly written and plotted it is, and if you are interested in the history of science fiction, or in tales of revolutions or of AI, you should listen to this audiobook.
In Lord Jim (1899-1900) by Joseph Conrad an experienced, wise, and sympathetic sea captain called Marlow tries to learn, understand, and tell the story of the life of a young ship’s officer called Jim (surname discretely hidden). Marlow, as we know from Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness (1903), is a compelling story-teller with a bent towards the mysterious and dark quality of human nature and the universe. Jim is a charismatic and complex character, so imaginative, romantic, courageous, and lucky and so naïve, egotistical, unconfident, and doomed. We are told early on that despite (or because) of his youthful dreams of heroic adventure, Jim once did an appalling deed that blighted his promising career and life, so that he has been serving as a humble ship chandler’s water clerk on a series of ships, doing a fine job for each one, but repeatedly abandoning his position and moving farther east each time that his past catches up with him, until he is given the opportunity to make a clean start in a fictional Indonesian (?) country called Patusan, a world mostly apart from his original white-European one. Will Jim finally be able to forge a new identity and atone for his past? Will Marlow finally be able to understand the inscrutable core and meaning of Jim’s life?
Lord Jim is replete with vivid descriptions, like the moment before Jim’s ship meets an accident, “The young moon recurved, and shining low in the west, was like a slender shaving thrown up from a bar of gold, and the Arabian Sea, smooth and cool to the eye like a sheet of ice, extended its perfect level to the perfect circle of a dark horizon,” or like the gait of an abject villain, “His slow laborious walk resembled the creeping of a repulsive beetle, the legs alone moving with horrid industry while the body glided evenly.” The novel also has many interesting themes about the uncaring if not inimical nature of the universe, the complexity and mystery of the human heart, the danger of being too imaginative and romantic, and the foulness of being too cynical and realistic. And it is also subtly provocative about gender and race.
Nigel Graham does a wonderful job reading Lord Jim. He has an intelligently masculine manner and an appealingly gravelly voice, effectively varies the pace of his reading, and brings the different characters to life in all their cultural, experiential, emotional, and intellectual variety.
Lord Jim is a challenging audiobook, because Marlow tells a story comprised of different things he has heard from different people at different times. And although the first half or so of the novel is a compelling psychological study, I here and there found myself losing track of its discourse. But finally all the pieces cohere and culminate in a devastating and (possibly) transcendent climax. If you like The Heart of Darkness, you’d probably like Lord Jim, but you’d need to be prepared for a longer, more complex, and sadder tale.
The Story of the Volsungs is a classic Icelandic saga, written in the 13th century from much older oral fragments of songs. Eirikr Magnusson and William Morris’ 1888 translation of the saga is fast-paced, coherent, heroic, tragic, and darkly beautiful. It is mostly prose, but includes many passages of poetry or songs. It influenced H. Rider Haggard’s The Saga of Eric Brighteyes, J. R. R. Tolkien’s oeuvre (especially the Silmarillion), and Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. If you like such tragic fantastic adventure fiction, if you are interested in Norsemen (Vikings!), or if you enjoy reading epics for their insights into human nature and their windows into different cultures, you should listen to this audiobook.
It begins with a useful 48-minute introduction by H. Halliday Sparling about the historical, religious, political, and cultural context of the Norsemen and of their sagas, which is followed by an 8-minute preface by Magnusson and Morris about their translation.
The saga depicts the interrelated fates of two great Norse families, the Volsungs and the Guikings. From the opening sequence, in which Sigi, grandfather of Volsung, kills a thrall who outperforms him in hunting and then hides his body in a snowdrift, the people in the saga are prey to overwhelming ambition, pride, envy, love, and hate. So there are plenty of battles, with kings killing kings and heroes dealing death till their arms are “red with blood, even to the shoulders,” and murders, brothers killing brothers, sons fathers, and mothers children, with poison, sword, or fire. The Norns have already decided the people’s dooms.
There are also fantastic elements aplenty: men change into wolves, nightmares reveal disastrous futures, magic potions make men forget, magical swords are re-forged, Odin interferes with advice, boon, or doom, and so on. There are many great scenes, like Sigurd talking with a dragon about its cursed treasure or finding the sleep-spelled shield-maiden, Brynhild, “clad in a byrny as closely set on her as though it had grown to her flesh.” The characters are compelling because they’re so heroic and flawed. Any character might be loathsome one moment and admirable the next, or vice versa.
The saga is not an easy listen, because many characters’ names sound similar and because of the archaic Malory-esque language used by Morris to evoke a timeless and heroic age (so the free online text might be helpful). But there is a dark, spare, grand, and beautiful poetry in his translation, and reader Antony Ferguson treats the text with restraint and fluency, subtly highlighting its terse turns and beautiful flights and rich alliteration, as in the following excerpt:
"So Regin makes a sword, and gives it into Sigurd’s hands. He took the sword, and said—'Behold thy smithying, Regin!' and therewith smote it into the anvil, and the sword brake; so he cast down the brand, and bade him forge a better."
I am very glad to have listened to this saga.
The Valley of Fear, the last Sherlock Holmes novel, begins promisingly, with Holmes and Watson trying to solve a murder mystery at a country manor and firing off some great lines, as when Holmes upbraids Watson with a dumbbell: “One dumb-bell, Watson! Consider an athlete with one dumb-bell! Picture to yourself the unilateral development, the imminent danger of a spinal curvature. Shocking, Watson, shocking!”
But finally the novel is disappointing. Despite the skills and gravelly gravitas of reader Simon Prebble, I felt while listening that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was going through the motions to satisfy importunate fans or to make some money, dusting off things from previous tales like the Hidden Room, the Vengeful Brotherhood, and the American History. And the discomfiture of dull Inspectors by Holmes’ Sphinx-like utterances until the Great Detective finally explains everything has worn thin.
And the second half of the novel removes us from Holmes and Watson, occurring in an American mining valley being terrorized by a secret Order of thugs, and the lurid interest evoked by Doyle doesn’t ring true, perhaps because he doesn’t know America as well as he knows England, or perhaps because the effect of the whole hinges on a surprise from which Watson (narrating Part 2 based on a pile of notes he has received) would spare us.
Doyle also uncomfortably forces this novel into the Holmes Chronology before the events of “The Final Problem” (which follows The Valley of Fear in this audiobook), for in “The Final Problem” Holmes asks Watson if he’s ever heard of “ex-professor” Moriarty, and Watson says never, but the professor is a familiar topic at the start of The Valley of Fear.
I recommend this audiobook to fans of Holmes who must read all his stories, but other readers should begin with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or The Memoirs, and readers who’d like to experience Doyle engaged heart and soul in his work should try The White Company or The Lost World.
For a complete adult telling of the stories of King Arthur, listen to Malory or T. H. White, because Pyle’s The Story of King Arthur and His Knights is only the first of his books about Arthur, recounting Arthur’s birth and youth and winning of Excalibur and Guinevere, and then Merlin’s fate and the stories of Sir Pellias and Sir Gawaine. Moreover, Pyle moralizes after the episodes, telling us, for example, that although we may not literally become knights with swords, we may wield truth (Excalibur) and faith (its scabbard).
As for David Thorn’s reading, his nearly tongue-in-cheek delivery was perfect for Jonathan Stroud’s Heroes of the Valley, but almost seems out of place here, for Pyle reveres Arthur, “the most honorable, gentle Knight who ever lived in all the world,” and his knights, while Thorn’s heroes often sound nasally arrogant. And a woman reads Pyle’s chapter titles and descriptions with an American accent and syrupy manner, jarring next to Thorn’s British English. And each chapter closes with repetitive pseudo medieval music fit for a cheap computer game.
Nonetheless, there is much to enjoy and admire in this audiobook. Pyle assumes a vivid and muscular “medieval” style, as when Arthur jousts a knight “out of his saddle like a windmill—whirling in the air and smiting the earth so that the ground shuddered beneath him.” Or as when Arthur delivers some justice: “At this, the face of that knight fell all pale, like to ashes, and he emitted a sound similar to the sound made by a hare when the hound lays hold upon it. Then King Arthur catched him very violently by the arm, and he catched the locket and brake it away from about the knight's neck, and upon that the knight shrieked very loud, and fell down upon his knees and besought mercy of the King, and there was great uproar in that place.”
And the Story of King Arthur has plenty of exciting and humorous moments and scenes of sublime wonder and beauty. And knights, wizards, faeries, dastards, damsels, hermits, quests, enchantments, disguises, combats, loves, hates, oaths, betrayals, humiliations, machinations, and glorifications. Despite Pyle’s exaltation of Arthur and company, they are often humanly proud, foolish, seducible, and violent. And Thorn reads all with energy and accuracy.
Every second and every word of Anne Flosik’s reading of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows were a pure pleasure to listen to. If I wasn’t laughing at the incorrigible Toad’s absurd, selfish, reckless, and yet somehow heroic antics, I was shutting my eyes to imagine and savor the warm friendship between Rat and Mole and the rich descriptions of the different seasons of the natural world around the River. The novel achieves great poignancy when Mole misses his home and when Rat hears the call of the south, and sublime beauty when the friends see and forget the Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
I like the ambiguous nature of the animals, who obey the “etiquette” of the changing seasons according to their animal natures, use paws, live in holes, and are aware of their differences from human beings, and yet who also wear clothes, eat human foods, and equip their holes with comfortable human furnishings. And just what is their size? If they are the naturally sized smallish animals (like any rodents or toads) they sometimes seem to be (like the seafaring rat from Constantinople), how could a field mouse go out shopping for Christmas feast supplies and come back laden with a pound of this and a pound of that and how could Toad crash stolen motorcars, disguise himself as a washerwoman, and ride a stolen horse? This blurring of naturalism and fantasy is one of the delightful pleasures of The Wind in the Willows.
Is The Wind in the Willows a children’s book? Hmmm. I suspect that (as with the Alice books) adults may enjoy it more than children, though the Toad chapters should make every reader laugh. The book may be read critically for its conservative views on class and gender, but I treasure its humor, beauty, wonder, warmth, nature, and art. And Anne Flosik enhances all those virtues perfectly with her husky and measured voice and appealing wit and emotion.
Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay Faye was an absorbing and entertaining (and frighteningly disturbing) listen. Faye does an excellent job of channeling Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so that I usually had the illusion that I was listening to some apocryphal actual Holmes story rather than to a 21st century pastiche. The relationship between Watson and Holmes is depicted accurately, humorously, and movingly. The case, that of the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888 London, is relentlessly horrible, ultimately making us look uncomfortably into the dark human heart. I’m no Ripperologist, but having read Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell, it seems to me that Faye effectively matches up the historical case with the fictional detective. Faye is also quite good at evoking the slums of London in all their foul and brutalizing misery: dingy tenements, opium dens, slaughterhouses, public houses, and poor houses; fruit sellers, cat meat men, police, prostitutes—and a serial killer.
Simon Vance is his usual effortless and professional self reading the novel, changing his voice just enough to distinguish between the various characters without distracting the listener from the story, perfectly enhancing the text.
There are a few flaws (in my mind) in the novel. The Holmes of my experience would figure out the culprit’s profession sooner than I did, wouldn’t break someone’s nose in a fit of pique, and wouldn’t say “Now get the hell out of here!” And the climax, while utterly gripping, is unconvincing after the fact. But overall I really enjoyed Dust and Shadow, and am sure it would appeal to any fan of Sherlock Holmes or Jack the Ripper.
Brave New World is a bitterly funny and humorously tragic dystopian novel in which Aldous Huxley satirizes modern civilization’s obsession with consumerism, sensual pleasure, popular culture entertainment, mass production, and eugenics. His far future world limits individual freedom in exchange for communal happiness via mass culture arts like “feelies” (movies with sensual immersion), the state-produced feel-good drug soma, sex-hormone gum, popular sports like “obstacle golf,” and the assembly line chemical manipulation of ova and fetuses so as to decant from their bottles babies perfectly suited for their destined castes and jobs, babies who are then mentally conditioned to become satisfied workers and consumers who believe that everyone belongs to everyone. In a way it’s more horrible than the more obviously brutal and violent repression of individuals by totalitarian systems in dystopias like George Orwell’s 1984, because Huxley’s novel implies that people are happy being mindless cogs in the wheels of economic production as long as they get their entertainments and new goods.
Michael York does a great job reading the novel, his voice oozing satire for the long opening tour of the Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, and then modifying in timbre and dialect for the various characters, among them the self-centered brooder Bernard Marx, the budding intellectual poet Helmholtz Howard, the sexy, sensitive, and increasingly confused Lenina Crowne, the spookily understanding Resident World Controller of Western Europe Mustapha Mond, and especially the good-natured, sad, and conflicted Shakespearean quoting “savage” John.
I had never read this classic of dystopian science fiction, so I’m glad to have listened to this excellent audiobook, because it is entertaining and devastating in its depiction of human nature and modern civilization, especially timely in our own brave new Facebook world.
Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror is a fascinating history. As she explores the historical context surrounding the “protagonist” of her book, the lord Enguerrand de Coucy (who seems less cruel, arrogant, and wasteful and more brave, capable, and appealing than most of his noble peers), Tuchman provides vivid details about every imaginable aspect of medieval life, among them: chivalry, marriage, love, sex, children, war, mercenaries, politics, economics, taxes, religion, fashion, sewage, literature, art, pogroms, and plague. One of my favorites is the nobility’s absurd fashion consisting of pointed shoes so long that their tips had to be curled up against the legs with golden chains. She also manages to tell the gripping overall story of the European 14th century, with many absorbing sub-plots featuring remarkable actors and events.
I love Tuchman’s irony, sympathy, empathy, enthusiasm, and attention to detail for her subject. She brings history to life and makes us care about the people involved in it, from the abused peasants to the arrogant nobility, all of whom are caught up in disasters both natural (like earthquake and plague) and artificial (like war and class division). One of the wonderful things about Tuchman’s book is how strange it makes 14th century worldview and life seem and yet at the same time how uncannily it holds them up to mirror our own era and culture. In the words of Voltaire quoted by Tuchman: “History never repeats itself; man always does.”
She excels at the pithy turn of phrase, like this throwaway line from the epilogue where she describes Henry V, “who at 25 was prepared, with all the sanctimonious energy of a reformed rake, to enter upon a reign of stern virtue and heroic conquest.”
Though at times Nadia May’s voice is a little scratchy, her reading perfectly captures the tone of Tuchman’s writing. It’s a pleasure to listen to her witty and fluid prose. All in all this was an incredibly illuminating book.
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