A year ago I took this book out of the local library. After a few dozen pages I realized that Anthony Everitt’s style was so easy, his approach so intelligent, that his book would make a perfect listen. Not long after that, Audible had a sale.
In his Introduction Everitt calls the book a “taster” which is, I assume, the British equivalent of our “sampler”. And he’s right. Neither too scholarly nor too simplistic, he has written a sweeping, bird’s-eye-view introduction to how the Roman Empire became the Roman Empire. Everitt says he wrote in hopes of inspiring deeper investigations into the riches of the subject by his readers, and I’m sure that will happen. For this listener the book worked in the opposite way: helping me to string together the chunks of Roman history I already knew into a coherent, seamless narrative.
Everitt’s intelligence and clarity begin with the way he organizes his material, breaking it into three main sections: Legend, Story and History. Legend recounts the tales that, true or not, are important because they’re what the Romans believed about themselves and their city, and helped inspire their decisions as that city grew. Story recounts the strange netherworld between prehistory and history, while history takes up the story at the point where actual, documented facts begin to undergird the narrative.
Complex political situations are explained lucidly. I’m not saying didn’t have to rewind to catch all the nuances, but the fault lay with the Romans and their allies or enemies, not with the writer. Everitt obviously loves his subject and it shows. Another touch I appreciated was his wise forbearance from drawing parallels between ancient and recent history. Those can be made, as he points out, by individual readers. And no matter where you are on the political spectrum, there is enough material here to buttress your particular point of view. Everitt gives us an engaging narrative, unburdened by any tendentious political message, tongue clucking, moralizing or the sound of axes being ground. Bless him.
Finally, a word about Clive Chafer as narrator. At first his delivery can sound somewhat dreary. He seems tired and uninspired. Then after a few minutes you realize he’s the perfect choice for a book like this. For all of Everitt’s skill as a story teller, the story he tells can get complex. Chafer’s measured delivery makes it much easier to follow.
In sum: I enjoyed this book from start to finish, learned many new things and was able to put the few things I already knew into a clearer, more coherent context. And I was able to do all that because, unlike many other writers on classical history, Everitt told the story without getting tangled in the second-growth forest of academic fashions or scholarly disagreements.
At least about this. “Between Kipling and Fleming,” he said, “stands John Buchan, the father of the modern spy thriller.”
A nameless reviewer at Library Journal agrees:
“Buchan essentially invented the espionage novel with his Richard Hannay yarns.”
And a nameless officer serving on the Western Front offered this endorsement:
“It is just the kind of fiction for here. One wants something to engross the attention without tiring the mind. The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”
Finally, this bit of analysis from someone at the London Telegraph:
“[Buchan] understood that in a thriller…what matters above all is to keep the reader focused on what is going to happen next…It doesn’t matter that the reader has no clue where he is being taken or, when he gets there, how the thing happened as it did. All that matters is that once you’ve started, you can’t put the book down.”
The viewpoint that fascinates me most is from that line officer at the front. Granted, his comment was about Buchan’s first thriller, The 39 Steps. Nevertheless, it could apply the Greenmantle as well. It’s a neat trick to write about mortal danger in such a way that men who are living with it on a daily basis don’t chuck your book into No Man’s Land or, more likely, use it as necessary paper. Buchan treads a fine line when talking about the war. Yes, he and his hero are patriotic. There's a touch of Rupert Brooke here--soldiering is described as the only proper work for a man. And it's hard to remember, living as we do at the other end of the disastrous 20th Century, that soldiers cherish the camaraderie that grows out of shared dangers. Membership in a group of fighters who are also friends and the death of some of those friends makes war personal. It is a job that has to be done and there is pride in doing it well. Duty, as Ulysses Grant said, can be a beautiful word. War is hell but it isn't always hell. At the same time, Buchan and his protagonist never flinch from admitting the ghastliness of the Western Front. It's a combination of idealism and realism that may have done much to brace spirits at Ypres and the Somme--probably because it accurately reflected the general attitude in the trenches. As some of the poems quoted in Martin Gilbert's works on World War I attest, as bad as it was many believed in what they were doing in Flanders.
And our anonymous officer was right—like Dumas, the story grabs you and carries you along. So far from tiring my mind, I find Buchan (again, like Dumas) refreshes it. Unlike most who-dunnits I have in my audio collection, Buchan—along with Dorothy Sayers—will bear re-listening.
And the Telegraph makes a good point too. For all its improbabilities you accept the story and yes, you really can’t put it down. I attribute this to that same delicate mix of “real life” and spy thrills that Fleming was so adept at concocting. No doubt, as Hitchens suggested, he learned a thing or two from John Buchan.
Unlike 39 Steps, knowing a little history helps for this one. Fortunately, I recently read John Keegan's book on World War I and Gilbert's volume on the Somme offensive so when Richard Hannay met Enver Pasha or we hear that the effort at Gallipoli is being given up I wasn't completely at a loss.
I’m taking one star away from the usually superb Simon Vance (aka Richard Whitfield) for a slight tendency to trip up ever-so-slightly, every so often in the middle of sentences. I may be overly sensitive—part of my daily work is reading things aloud in phone conferences and I am a lector at church, so I know what it is to trip up ever-so-slightly. These slight catches didn’t distract my attention or detract from the tale, but they were wrinkles in an otherwise pitch-perfect performance.
Of early Wodehouse novels I have observed—and I’m sure others have, too—that they show the author moving from the then-popular, sentimental yet more “real” world of human emotions and tragedies toward his signature style of persiflage, tempests in teapots and sheer physical comedy. But even after that mature style has asserted itself, we can have relapses. And I think Summer Moonshine (1937) is one of them. Perhaps it is the only one. (Perhaps not; The Coming of Bill, 1920, also stands out as an aberration in the canon.)
I don’t mean to say that the whole book is sloppily sentimental, a sort of Rosy M. Banks saturnalia. On the whole it is the usual Wodehouse fun. There is a young mutton head who can’t say no to girls, a Kensington-educated secretary who says “quate” instead of “quite”, a shilling-less baronet whose American brother-in-law insists on addressing as “your lordship”, and an irrepressible young man named Joe Vanringham who, with his endless persiflage and unsinkable good humor, strikes you—or at least me—as a sort of two-fisted, American version of Psmith. But there are also passages—and in particular one character—that we don’t run up against in any of the other later, mature works.
Her full name is Princess Heloise von und zu Dwornitzchek. And I can’t think of anyone whom I’d rather not run up against. Richard Useborne, in his Plum Sauce, a P. G. Wodehouse Companion, agrees: “The Princess, wicked stepmother and not a bit funny, is the most un-Wodehousian character in all the books.” Her stepson, Joe concurs:
“The effortless ease with which she overrode all obstacles and went complacently through life on the crest of the wave offended his sense of dramatic construction. She was so obviously the villainess of the piece that it seemed inevitable that eventually the doom must overtake her. But it never did. Whoever had started that idea that Right in the end must always triumph over Wrong had never known the Princess Dwornitzchek.
“He watched her as she sat there smoking and smiling quietly at some thought that seemed to be amusing her, and tried to analyze the murderous feelings which she had always aroused in him. She was, as he had said, undefeatable, and he came to the conclusion that it was this impregnability of hers that caused them. She had no heart and a vast amount of money, and this enabled her to face the world encased in triple brass. He had a sense of futility, as if he were a very small wave beating up against a large complacent cliff. No doubt the officials of the United States treasury Department felt the same.”
Yes, there is the little, the very little smile (and a wry smile at that) at the end. But where else in Wodehouse have we read the word “murderous” written in earnest? What other character besides Joe Vanringham has felt this frustrated about someone this appallingly real? Earlier in the book we learn that that murderous feeling took root as Joe watched the princess “killing” his father:
“Oh, I don’t mean little-known Asiatic poisons. A resourceful woman with a sensitive subject to work on can make out quite well without the help of strychnine in the soup. Her method was just to make life hell for him.”
True, Lady Constance Keeble can menace the peace of her brothers (and I defy you to find another subject as sensitive as the ninth earl). Lady Julia Fish is capable of anything from heavy-handed irony to outright rudeness when it comes to breaking up her son, Ronald, and his chorus girl fiancée Sue Brown. And Bertie’s Aunt Agatha is always ready to marry him off to some frightful female or other. But we end up laughing at all three. After all, they are routed by, in the first two cases, the adroit staff work of the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, and in the latter case by the fish-fed intellect of the best gentleman’s personal gentleman in London, Jeeves. Watching them try to make life hell for the men in their lives is fun because we know they won’t succeed. Besides, these women have a redeeming what-is-it about them. Sometimes they are even right—Lord Emsworth shouldn’t have come down with a brass paper fastener serving in place of a missing shirt stud. Lady Julia earns the grudging admiration from her brother Galley, “there are the seeds of greatness in that woman”.
But the princess is uniquely, horribly different. Unlike Mrs. Rosalinda Banks Bessemer Spottsworth, another Wodehouse female worth millions, the princess uses her wealth as a weapon. And she is what we would now call now a cougar. But what makes her truly awful is that there is no Galahad or Jeeves to slip a well-aimed stick in her spokes. Her designs are not frustrated. She “wins”.
Fittingly, her paramour Adrian Peake also reminds us uncomfortably of unpleasant, manipulative, self-centered people we have known all too well in real life.
But all this is just a long way of saying that while there are elements in this novel that diverge from the usual Wodehouse romp, Summer Moonshine is still a satisfying, reliable romp. In fact, the princess and her twerp Peake provide an interesting counterpoint to the general Wodehousian fun, making it, if anything, more piquant. It seems to stand as an alternate universe to the self-absorption and destructiveness of the princess and her slimy consort. You get the distinct feeling that neither one of them would enjoy reading or listening to the Master’s works. People who take themselves too seriously seldom do.
A final word: Jonathan Cecil is pitch-perfect on this outing. His vocal portrayal of the princess—something between a spoiled Persian cat and a roused rattlesnake—is at times a little chilling.
When Audible gave this out for free two Christmases ago, we enjoyed it very much. And then, of course, I forgot to write a review.
It really was just what we wanted. A stiff drink or two, some cocktail nibbles, the snow sandpapering the side of the house, and a very fine performance of a wonderful little mystery. What more could you want?
In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that I love C. S. Lewis. His apologetics helped my wife and I keep our sanity in the Episcopal Church and he was among the galaxy of writers who lead us toward the Catholic Church. His scholarly works are a delight to anyone interested in medieval literature. His slim guide to Paradise Lost is indispensible to a satisfying understanding of that poem. Oddly, I have never dipped into his fiction to any great extent, though I did have a third grade teacher who read us chapters from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
So when I didn’t enjoy Screwtape as much as I thought I would, I was perplexed. How could I not revel in Lewis’ customarily incisive separation of modern misperceptions from the ancient perceptions, insanity from sanity, the comfortable lie from the uncomfortable truth? Fittingly, it was Lewis himself who explained my dilemma.
Truth be told, he didn’t much like this book either. His confession appears in his short introduction to the last chapter of this recording, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”. This exercise in what he calls “diabolical ventriloquism” proved to be something he could write with the greatest of ease, but with the least enjoyment. “Though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude” he writes, “it was not fun—or nor fun for long.” The “strain” of writing this book produced what he calls “a sort of spiritual cramp”. “It almost smothered me before I was done. It would have smothered my readers if I had prolonged it.”
Now I didn’t feel so bad. My reactions to Screwtape’s correspondence tallied with their author’s. I, too, felt that spiritual cramp. An overwhelming sense of the relentlessness of sin, an airless, trapped feeling that verges on claustrophobia. While Lewis was aware of this problem with his book, he was even more painfully aware of his inability to solve it.
Ideally, he admits, the book should have included Arch-angelical advice to the “patient’s” guardian angel. “Without this, the picture of human life is lopsided.” (A fine example of British understatement, that.) The problem is one of style. “[F]or the style would really be part of the content. Mere advice would be no good. Every sentence would have to smell of heaven”. In today’s world it was “a book no one could write”, for “even if you could write prose like Traherne’s, you wouldn’t be allowed to, for the canon of ‘functionalism’ has disabled literature for half its functions.”
A typically telling insight, combining faith and reason and scholarship and a complete and easy familiarity with the greatest writers—all delivered without pride or pomposity. All the things that make Lewis such a treasure to read and reread.
So, while I am grateful to Audible for offering this as a Daily Deal for a mere $1.95, and Ralph Cosham does a fine job as reader, I can’t give this one all the stars I thought I would. And, based on the evidence, I think Lewis would agree.
And this is one of them.
It's the usual romp at Blandings Castle, and by "usual" I mean unusual--a small universe that runs on it's own slightly off-balance dynamics. There's the continuing struggle for porcine supremacy between the ninth earl and his neighbor, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, Bart. Sir Gregory's struggle to lose a few pounds, and thus allay his future wife's fears that she will be accused of bigamy before she leaves the sacred edifice. There's Jerry Vale, a writer of detective fiction and temporary secretary to Lord Emsworth who wants enough cash to open a health establishment. And there's his betrothed, Penny Donadlson, who's also betrothed to Orlo, Lord Vosper. Add a former barmaid who now runs a detective agency and who once almost married "Tubby" Parsloe, a pig man who has been denied the beer that is so much a part of his daily routine and might do anything to get a pint, and a third pig--which is to say another pig altogether, neither Lord Emsworth's Empress of Blandings nor Sir Gregory's Pride of Matchingham--and you have enough to be getting by with.
But most importantly, there are six large, economy-size bottles of Slimmo.
Jeremy Sinden does it all more than justice. In fact, he is superb--as good as his stellar performance on Full Moon. From the quality of his voice to the way he inflects it for comic effect or bends it to portray a lord, a pig man or a young daughter of an American manufacturer of dog biscuits, he is flawless. It's a book and a performance you will be able to enjoy again and again.
Evelyn Waugh was about right when he said, “Mr. Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”
This classic from the Monarch or Royal of the Master—he apparently used both brands of typewriter in the course of a longish authorial career—has certainly released me more than once from dull hours and duller cares. In a bookshelf with more high spots than a can-can line, Code of the Woosters is one of the highest; a story that delights no matter how many times I listen to it—and I generally fit it in at least once a year, in the autumn, the season in which the story is set.
The tonic effect of Wodehouse is, I believe, heightened with repeated listening. The rhythm of his sentences and then the almost bulletproof good humor of his perspective, begin to seep into your system and you notice bits of his Drones Club jargon in your own speech. Rather than say you don’t want to see someone, you observe that you’d run a mile in tight shoes to avoid them. Instead of merely feeling relieved, you start singing like a relieved nightingale. Don’t fight it. It means the inoculation against Modern Times is taking effect and the cure is working.
I’m not going to say a word about the plot because with Woodhouse plot is everything and it’s my object here to give away nothing. He once said that, on average, he generated around 400 pages of notes to work out the plot of one of his books—a book that generally ran half that length. Let’s just say that I’ve always suspected the notes for this plot may have run a tad longer. It in complex, contorted and convoluted, all words which, in the world according to Wodehouse, are good things.
One of the peculiarities about audio books is that, if there are different recordings of a book, the version you first heard becomes THE version; no others will satisfy. This is especially so with a writer like Wodehouse, where every inflection makes a difference. Years ago I first listened to this version of this book on audiocassette. So the fact that I think Jonathan Cecil is at his very best on this one may be due merely to my early, Lorenzian imprinting. Nevertheless, there it is.
Buy it, listen to it—and repeat the dose as often as needed.
My candidates for Very Best: The Inferiority Complex of Old Sippy, Jeeves and the Yuletide Spirit, Jeeves and the Song of Songs, The Spot of Art, The Love that Purifies, and Jeeves and the Old School Chum.
Let's see...that's six out of a total of eleven stories. And the remaining five are almost as good.
The only downside is that I first heard Frederick Davidson read this collection. As good as Jonathan Cecil can be--see his rendition of Uncle Fred in the Springtime, Uncle Dynamite or The Code of the Woosters--he doesn't come up to the mark set (at least in my mind) by Davidson on this set of stories.
I bought this version because 1) it was on sale and 2) I have Davidson's version on cassette tape and needed something more portable. Cecil's performance is good but too rushed. As a rule, his versions of the same book are always an hour shorter than Davidson's, the reason being that Davidson uses that hour to squeeze every nuance of humor or irony out of very line. While I enjoyed the listen--it is, after all, Wodehouse--I was constantly being reminded of how much better a version I had on cassette tapes in the basement. If only that old Walkman still worked...
Years ago I read a nasty comment somewhere, claiming that David Suchet was just "walking through" his performances of the Poirot mysteries. I never saw what they were talking about; for me the series broke down when the people on the other side of the camera changed Christie's stories and characters to be more in keeping with modern, enlightened sensibilities.
Be that as it may, Suchet doesn't walk through this performance. Hearing the voice you think of as Poirot reading the first Poirot mystery is indeed a treat. And getting the characters and the story as Christie conceived them is even better.
The best story in this collection has to be "A Bit of Luck for Mabel". Any story with Stanley Ukeridge at its epicenter would be good, but this one is supreme. But then the last three stories are all Ukeridge tales and they'll all good.
On the other hand, the first four stories form a panorama of the looney home life of Bingo Little, a man who gets his money from his devoted, novel-writing wife and his racing tips from dreams and omens. And things only get stickier when she lands him a job ("The Editor Regrets").
The one Mulliner story, "Anselm Gets His Chance" is up to the usual lofty Mulliner standard. And "Romance at Droitgate Spa" stands alone with some of the funniest lines in all of Wodehouse: "We have a lung tonic I think you'll appreciate. We pride ourselves on our cellar."
Just buy it, listen once, then keep it handy whenever it seems like life is getting you down. That P. G. Wodehouse survived a Victorian infancy, found his niche as a writer and continued to write until his dying day is indeed a bit of luck for us all.
I don't mean to repeat myself but I can't think of a better word--this is simply a delightful story, made even more delightful by the many-sided vocal talent of Mr. John Wells. From the rotundity of Beach to the ferret-face of Percy Pilbeam, everything is as vivid as if the listener was watching a movie. Better, in fact. A movie would have to cut out most of Wodehouse's narration, which is where most of the fun resides.
The volume under advisement contains, among other riches, a chorus girl posing as a million heiress, a stolen pig, a volume of memoirs that could lose Lady Constance Keeble all her friends, and one of the best drunk scenes in all of the Master's canon.
Like most of the Wodehouse in my collection, this is one I go back to again and again. Maybe it's just me. Maybe I suffer from some little-known form of dementia. But I enjoy listening to Wodehouse--especially when it's performed this flawlessly--over and over. He's one of the few humorists I know who can be funny without hurting anyone's feelings or slipping into bitterness or sarcasm. In the midst of the most violent, unhinged century on record, Pelham Grenville just went on writing funny stories. God bless him.
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