This is a non-standard sweep through 20th Century intellectual and moral history from a contrarian/right-of-center point of view. It's much more interesting than most works of this scope because Johnson is very opinionated and says just what he thinks, and he does it with some panache. I don't think it he is always correct (I'd still take FDR over Calvin Cooolidge) but I was never bored. It was no doubt a messy, ugly, bloody Century, and there can't be much argument over who the true monsters were. Lots of fun, but don't let this be your only guide.
I've always appreciated Gordon S. Wood's writing -- his "Creation of the American Republic" is one of my favorite books of all time. He manages to write in a popular, main-stream way without dumbing anything down. This is just very good narrative history, much like the other Oxford History of the US books. There is probably not much new being revealed here, but I find his synthesis of the facts about this era very enlightening. For example, I think I had a pretty good understanding already of the basic Federalist/Republican differences, but Wood has retold the story in such a clear and interesting way that the whole thing felt fresh. Also, his style is just great -- the words flow, the vignettes are well-chosen to illustrate his points, and the result is a beautifully told story of the early republic.
The narration is competent but not spectacular. I have downloaded and will listen to the other Oxford History of the US works at Audible (What Hath God Wrought by Howe, Battle Cry of Freedom by McPherson.) I hope Audible will consider getting the others in the series now that they have made such an excellent start.
These essays are unusually smart and convey Orwell's particular brand of thinking. The flavor of the book is very English, somewhat glum, but intellectually stimulating. The parts which are dated (the English are a particularly gentle people) or esoteric (a long discussion about the meaning of popular picture post cards) or suspect (socialism or totalitarianism or the only viable options), are still quite interesting and even illuminating. The narrator is very upper-crust-sounding, but it fits somehow. The four stars are not five only because there are so many skips -- not just one or two as you might have in any recording, but dozens -- that it sometimes affects the meaning. When you have a writer who uses prose as economically as Orwell, you can't afford to lose many words.
Contrary to the person who thinks Prof. Kreeft was too politically correct and not pro-Catholic enough, I think this was a very balanced presentation from someone who is clearly "pro-religion", i.e., who believes in God. He doesn't discount the "other side" because he acknowledges that there are perspectives very much worth considering. This is supposed to be like a university course, requiring open-minded thoughtfulness, and it succeeds in that. Prof. Kreeft is engaging, smart without being condescending, and accessible without being too cute. I think he is an unusually calm, intelligent voice on the side of religious belief.
I wanted to relive some of the thrills I had from reading sci-fi as a kid. Either I've lost the taste, or this is just unusually bad. Granted, the concept is a good one, but I would have had as much enjoyment from about 20-pages of summary description of the ring, the theories behind its construction, the description of the current state of humanity and its alien fellow travelers. The writing, though, is just terribly clunky. No one speaks in human sentences expressing human thoughts (especially the humans.) It's just when Mr. Niven seems to feel the need to put in some writing like a regular writer might (when he isn't inserting technical descriptions, e.g.) that the whole thing goes into cringe-inducing awkwardness. If this is an award-winning book, it's no wonder that science fiction is valued the way it is in the general literary world. Getting to the concepts is not worth wading through the prose.
In the hope that someone might be looking here at Trollope's most famous title, I just want to put out a general plug for his novels (especially all six of the Barsetshire series.) They are very mature, intelligent reads -- truly books for grown ups. And Simon Vance (who, like many narrators, has a couple of names) is just about everyone's favorite interpreter of 19th C. English fiction. Start with "The Warden", then you will enjoy "Barchester Towers" even more. Happy listening!
I just want to reiterate what others have already said: Simon Vance is a great reader, and these Trollope novels are a real treat. Trollope is a crafty writer, giving all the appearance of just dashing off whatever he "remembers" about the incidents of the current tale while all the time weaving together a very satisfying and well-constructed narrative that feels as much like reality as you could like. He is only concerned with the doings of the gentry class for the most part, but they have enough troubles and cares within their insular world to make the telling of it interesting -- and they talk so beautifully! You Jane Austen fans could do a lot worse than Trollope if you are looking for someone to feed your need for good, clever, intelligent prose.
I don't think Martin Chuzzlewit is the most popular of Dickens's works, and there are reasons not to like it -- it's not very well plotted and the motivation of the main characters isn't quite clear. I've always loved it because of Pecksniff -- so unctuous and hypocritical that you can hardly wait to hear what he'll say or do next. And then there is Mrs. Gamp, one of the oddest and funniest creations in literature. Tom Pinch has the role of the too-good-to-be-true character usually reserved for the Dickens females, and Jonas Chuzzlewit is as nasty a bad guy as you could want. The Anglo Bengalese Disinterested Life and Assurance Company alone is worth the price of admission. The slapped-on America bashing is artificial. We probably have national vices as bad as those portrayed, but not quite the same ones anymore, I think. Mr. Davidson is always good with Dickens (I have listened to him read 3 or 4 of the novels now.) Full of interest and (despite the flaws) always one of my favorites. Isn't that the way with Dickens -- a thousand wrongs somehow all coalesce into a work of genius.
It is interesting to look at the earlier reviews – I don’t know that I’ve ever seen so many 1-star and 5-star ratings attached to the same book. That seems to mean that “Confederacy of Dunces” is either going to grab you or repulse you.
After reading the book with great enjoyment, I was skeptical about listening to it: the characters all have a distinct voice in my mind, and I thought it would be hard for a narrator to pull it off well. I was very pleased with this rendition. I am a native Midwesterner and know very little about New Orleans. Those who are familiar with it in these reviews seem to have differing opinions about the accuracy of the accents, but from an outside perspective, the variety of voices and dialects and the nuances needed to bring out the characters’ personalities were all handled beautifully.
I think the comparison between Ignatius and Don Quixote is a good one – they are both creations of genius with no real antecedents, insane by most standards, but profoundly poignant representations of the people many of us are afraid we may be – people who don’t quite fit into the world we live in. Maybe it is those who feel like we are floating along in a ship of fools (or a confederacy of dunces) who appreciate the book more.
I think Jane Austen is just about the greatest purveyor of English prose ever. "Emma" is plotted so well, the characters are so masterfully rendered, and the purity of her writing is so pitch-perfect that I can hardly say enough good things about this work. When Frank Churchill says that Mr. Knightley is "a man I cannot presume to praise" I know just what he means, because I feel the same way about Jane Austen's writing. Like other writers I admire (e.g., Anthony Trollope, Patrick O'Brian) she writes with economy -- every word seems carefully chosen, and no word seems wasted, and no word could have been safely left out. It's like drinking a fine wine, as opposed to the rousing fun of Dickens, who is a tankard of ale and plenty to eat besides. The reader is just right, too -- intelligent and properly English and good in her characterizations.
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