This is a wonderful novel - how did I manage to avoid it for so long? (I've been working my way through all of Dickens' novels over the last couple of years. I would almost say I've been "working them off," but if you listen to this one - and I strongly recommend that you do - you'll understand that working things off is not always a good thing.)
Dickens is at his morally outraged best in Barnaby Rudge: the story centers around the anti-Catholic riots in London in 1780. I'd read a little bit about the riots before - they show up in biographies of Samuel Johnson, who was in London at the time - but nothing like the real horror of it. Tens of thousands of rioters marched through the streets. Hundreds of people were killed, many by the soldiers called in (finally) to restore order; houses, churches, and carriages were burned by the score. Newgate Prison itself was destroyed and all the prisoners set free. In the aftermath, dozens of rioters were hanged.
Moving through this gripping slice of history are the simple-minded Barnaby Rudge; his mother; a brace of loving couples; a heroic locksmith; and a chilling assortment of villains. Barnaby, in his simplicity, is coaxed into carrying a banner for the rioters, and thinks he's being a brave warrior in a noble cause, until he comes face to face with the gallows.
It's not all grim. Dickens' comic invention is in evidence throughout. The dialogue sparkles, and at least three of the four main villains have brilliant star turns that are wickedly funny. (The fourth villain is a brutal, frightening concoction - one of the most unredeemed, and unredeemable, parents Dickens ever invented.)
Sean Barrett's narration is brilliant. Every character has a unique voice, and all are utterly convincing, even the almost too-good-to-be-true Barnaby. Most of the villains have coarse, gravelly voices, but one has a voice as smooth as silk and is all the scarier because of it. This is going down as one of my three or four favorite audiobooks of Dickens. For me, it was infinitely more interesting and rewarding than his other historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities. It's a rip-roaring tale, and I loved it.
The Taming of the Shrew is another early Shakespeare play, and it's one that makes me distinctly uncomfortable - maybe even more so than The Merchant of Venice, another "problem play."
It is, in my opinion, a misogynistic play. The spirited Kate has a few moments of tenderness with her crazy husband Petruchio, but only after she's been starved, deprived of sleep, and forced to debase herself in front of others. (To his credit, he never actually hits her, but that's setting the bar pretty low.) Many productions try to get around the implications by making it all seem ironic, but I've never been able to find that irony in the text.
(One of Shakespeare's fellow playwrights seemed to think the same thing, and wrote a sequel called The Tamer Tamed: Petruchio's second wife turns the tables on him.)
Not much irony in this production either; it's played straight. The cast is, as usual, first-rate, although Frances Barber is sometimes a little too shrill as Kate; granted the character is described repeatedly as a shrew, but there's shrewishness that's funny and shrewishness that's just unpleasant.
The other odd thing about the play is the appearance and disappearance of the "framing story" involving Christopher Sly. Shakespeare sets it up and then abandons it after a couple of scenes. Another play from the period provides a few other scenes with Sly, including an epilogue that neatly ties up the loose ends. Many recent productions, if they include the framing story at all, add these scenes. I suspect they were written by Shakespeare and intended to be part of the play, but Arkangel sticks to their guns (and their stated purpose) and omits them.
Not one of the more satisfying entries in the series, but the fault is mostly Shakespeare's.
Eugene Onegin is a "novel in verse - the whole of it written in a series of 14-line verses with an unusually complex rhyme scheme. Falen's translation tries to reproduce the scheme in English. This isn't an easy task - English being notoriously short on rhymes - but he succeeds to an extent I wouldn't have thought possible. The syntax isn't distorted, and the rhymes click into place reliably and gracefully.
The rhymes are a big part of the pleasure of listening to this (although Raphael Corkhill's narration sometimes emphasizes line endings more than I would have preferred). Even if you don't try to explicitly follow the scheme, you will begin to intuit it and eagerly anticipate the next rhyme. That this doesn't distract from comprehension of the story testifies to the clarity and lucid simplicity of both story and verse.
It's a straightforward, sad story about friendship, love, loss, and regret. I'd read it years ago for a literature class, but I think the translation was a dud; it didn't make much of an impression. This time around, the novel was a pure delight.
If you give it a try, watch for the almost psychedelic description of a young woman's nightmare.
Professor Desan is a clear and engaging guide to this crucial period of European history. It's a bit unusual for a book or course to cover both the Revolution and Napoleon, but it's hard to argue with the results as she traces the cause and effect relationships. My interest is only partly historical; I was looking also for something that would help fill in the context for the political and military struggles that play such a major role in 19th century European fiction. (Not to mention Richard Sharpe and Jack Aubrey.) This does that beautifully.
Everything I said about Stevens' reading of The Iliad is true for this one, and then some. It's a nearly perfect marriage of translator and narrator. (Homer's not half bad either.)
The structure of The Odyssey is a wonder: multiple layers, multiple points of view, all of it flowing forth effortlessly.
Fitzgerald's translation of The Odyssey was my first contact with Homer. There are other translations that are more accurate, on a line by line basis; but few that throw off as many sparks of compact beauty.
Bart Ehrman is spot on as usual. The advantage of listening to his lectures rather than to someone else narrating his book is hearing the author's own voice. Ehrman is enthusiastic and engaging; he sounds like he's speaking off the cuff rather than reading a script; and he's able to present complex material in a clear and systematic way. It's important to note, however, that this lecture series is a history of early Christian IDEAS rather than early Christian people. There are a number of people discussed, of course - people like Tertullian, Ignatius, and Origen - but the lectures are far more topical than chronological.
My interest in Napoleon was sparked a few years ago by the adventures of Richard Sharpe and the Aubrey/Maturin series. After re-reading War and Peace, I decided I had to learn more about the background. Since then, I've listened to a number of audiobooks about Napoleon (a surprising number of them narrated by John Lee).
I had also previously read Andrew Roberts' history of the Second World War, The Storm of War, and was impressed by his writing and the organization of the narrative. The same qualities are in evidence here. We follow Napoleon from his early days on Corsica to military school in France, to Italy, to Egypt, to Spain, and to Russia. The whole of Europe became his battlefield.
As in The Storm of War, Roberts includes a generous helping of political history too. Napoleon scattered constitutions around Europe like travel brochures. He codified and exported laws that embodied at least some of the ideals of the French Revolution. (Roberts, however, notes that the liberal tendencies of the famed Napoleonic code were blunted by its persistent sexism: all men might be equal under the law, but women need not apply.)
The man himself was an interesting combination of engaging and repellent traits. He was a bully, certainly - and a butcher - but he also had an insatiable thirst for knowledge: if a dinner guest had specialized knowledge, he would pepper him with questions and take notes. He was never afraid to say "I don't know" in response to a particular question; but he would always try to find out. He was always in motion. He consumed his meals in 10 minutes, and his lovemaking was likely to be equally hurried.
Napoleon's spectacular rise is matched by his equally spectacular fall. His story has an inherently dramatic shape, and that comes through in this mostly chronological account.
John Lee is, as always, a rapid and enthusiastic narrator. And also as always with this type of material on audio, I found myself reaching for supplementary maps and diagrams in Wikipedia. I do wish PDF supplements were standard for this type of book on Audible, and that they were easily accessible through the mobile app.
Donald MG Sutherland is a great storyteller, although his voice is a bit unprepossessing. He takes us step by step through Napoleon's career, from the island of Corsica to the island of St Helena. The military and political campaigns are described clearly (although I have to admit I'm still a little foggy about the various German and Austrian campaigns). If you want a good overview of Napoleon before digging deeper into some of the other audiobooks on the subject, this is a good place to begin.
Paul Johnson is a trenchant critic of dictators in general and Napoleon in particular. I'm reading other, more favorably disposed, biographies at the same time; Johnson is a useful corrective. The man who brought the ideals of the French Revolution to much of the continent of Europe was also the man who repeatedly deserted his troops in a crisis and was responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of millions.
John Lee gives his usual clear and energetic interpretation. He seems to have become the go-to guy for biographies of Napoleon.
Bill Homewood is a wonderful narrator and has done thrilling versions of books by Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo. And his narration here is first-rate. But the text itself is a puzzle. The Man in the Iron Mask is actually part of a much larger novel by Dumas, The Vicomte de Bragelonne. Different editors divide the book up in different ways. The particular version selected for this recording begins incoherently: Aramis is visiting Philippe in the Bastille, but all indications of context have been lopped off the front. For example, the first sentence is: "Since Aramis's singular transformation into a confessor of the order, Baisemeaux was no longer the same man." What order? Who is Baisemeaux? The next sentence goes on to talk about the "the place which Aramis held in the worthy governor's estimation." Governor of what? Is he still talking about Baisemeaux or someone else? The narrator mentions "the turnkey, the same who, on Aramis's first arrival, had shown himself so inquisitive and curious." Wait - this isn't his first visit? Which turnkey? Is Baisemeaux the turnkey? What was he curious about? "In this wise they reached the basement of the Bertaudiere." Um.... OK.... what's the Bertaudiere? And why are they in the basement?
Continued listening will clarify the context, but I found myself irritated by this unnecessarily rocky start. Granted this is a widely available "editor's cut" of the novel, but there ARE other versions that begin in a less confusing way. Naxos usually takes more care in choosing editions of non-English works.
For those who are interested, all parts of the massive Vicomte de Bragelonne have been recorded in an excellent version by Simon Vance.
Dan Stevens is a wonderful narrator, and Robert Fitzgerald is a wonderful translator. The result here is one of the finest versions of The Iliad available.
It's hard to say what's so awe-inspiring about Fitzgerald’s verse. I don't read Greek, so I can only base my assessment on how it works as an English poem. I would call it crystalline, because the language has many sharply-edged facets. But that makes it sound static and over-engineered. And that's not right, because Fitzgerald’s verse is also rough and craggy like a mountain, and it cascades down cliffs like a waterfall. It's full of what Fitzgerald himself calls "the ruck of war."
The Iliad is largely dialogue, and it's in the back-and-forth speeches that Stevens really shines. His Homeric heroes don't just declaim, and their speeches are not just a continuation of the narrative by other means. Stevens gives them passion and turmoil. They express anger and sorrow, helplessness and despair, joy and excitement and overweening pride. In his hands, and with the sturdy foundation of Fitzgerald’s translation, the Homeric heroes in this audiobook LIVE.
One minor note about character names. Fitzgerald used transliterations of many of the names that are closer to the Greek but are odd-looking or -sounding to many people. The main character, for example, is Akhilleus. Two of the mighty Greek warriors are named Aias. Hector's mother is Hekabe. For this audiobook, the producers have substituted the more familiar forms (Achilles, Ajax) - though Hector’s mother remains Hekabe rather than Hecuba. I think this is the right decision: the poem is challenging enough even without the alternate names.
A couple of thoughts about the poem itself. Compared to the Odyssey, with its multi-layered narrative and symmetrical structure, The Iliad is pretty straightforward. Along its single chronological thread, there are many digressions and delays. Whole books (like Book 10) are given over to episodes that have nothing to do with the main action and don't advance it an inch. Heroes about to come to blows pause and recite pages of genealogy at each other. Parts of it read like they were written by committee.
Yet there are few works of literature that can reach the tragic grandeur of the death of Hector or even Patroclus; and I defy anyone with a heart to hear the encounter of Achilles and Priam without weeping.
So there's a lot of good stuff here. I can't wait to listen to the companion version of The Odyssey. There are so many good versions of Homer available on Audible, it would be hard to pick just one; and if I were a first-time listener, I'm not sure this is the one I would go with: the beauty of the language might be a distraction. But if you know the story and you want to be swept up by a narrative and linguistic treasure, this is definitely the one.
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