The three Theban plays by Sophocles - Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone - are one of the great landmarks of Western theatre. They tell the story of Oedipus, King of Thebes, who was destined to suffer a terrible fate - to kill his father, marry his mother, and beget children of the incestuous union. He does this unknowingly but still has to suffer terrible consequences, which also tragically affect the next generation.
Years ago, I was taught that Greek tragedy was supposed to purge the emotions with pity and terror. Reading the plays for class, most of my pity was reserved for myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand them; it was that old truth about Shakespeare, or any great playwright: drama is meant to be seen and heard.
In this case, hearing is more than adequate. The cast is superb; I still feel like my psyche has been used as a punching bag. And now I’d appreciate it if someone could plausibly explain to me how a story about a man who unknowingly murdered his father, wedded his mother, and suffered the massive consequences could possibly yield a theory that we all want to do the same thing.
Experience what it was like to be raised a Spartan man or woman, the changes in military tactics and equipment that made their armies so feared, and the tragic flaw that guaranteed that this Greek city-state's power, no matter how widespread or intimidating, could not endure.
If the aim of Spartan culture was to strip away everything—art, literature, philosophy, architecture—that might impede the production of a superbly trained soldiery, then this lecture is a perfect reflection of its subject.
We get facts. And facts. And some more facts. Very rarely is any cause-and-effect (the achievement of Greek historiography, as practiced elsewhere) introduced. The Hoplite revolution took place—but why? The Spartans conquered Messinia—but why? The phalanx formation is described, but we’re never told the origin of the term (it comes from the Greek for “finger”).
I admit, I didn’t know the whole story of the Spartan boy and the fox, alluded to more than once in the works of P. G. Wodehouse. (What a reminder of how deeply Classical civilization once permeated our popular culture.) Still, this free sample isn’t tempting me to purchase any of Professor Aldrete’s five lecture series on offer at Audible.
Churchill's history of the Second World War is, and will remain, the definitive work. Lucid, dramatic, remarkable for its breadth and sweep and for its sense of personal involvement, it is universally acknowledged as a magnificent reconstruction.
Evelyn Waugh referred to his style as, “sham Augustan prose”. He gets things wrong—like retailing the old chestnut about the Polish cavalry charging Panzers (a tale put to rest for me by the magisterial John Lukacs). And his late-Victorian certitude about the rightness of his cause and country gives many moderns the vapors.
So what? The cadence of his sentences is like somber music. The errors of detail are due to the proximity of the events he was narrating—and the fact that this is a memoir, not a history. And if that abrasive certitude was the source of his blunders, it was the wellspring of his greatness, too. Unlike the man portrayed in Darkest Hour, Churchill never doubted himself or his country; though uncertain, in May of 1940, that England would survive, he knew England would go down fighting.
The other side of the stalwart war leader is here, as well—the man who, when asked by President Roosevelt to give the conflict a name, immediately answered, “The Unnecessary War”. His love of and interest in Europe, especially France, was rare among his class. His grief at the war’s human and material devastation, and his earnest desire for lasting peace, fueled his resolve to fight on.
It’s hard not to read Churchill’s prose without sounding like Churchill, and Christian Rodska does it extremely well.
The most gorgeously theatrical of all Dickens's novels, Nicholas Nickleby follows the delightful adventures of a hearty young hero in 19th-century England. Nicholas, a gentleman's son fallen upon hard times, must set out to make his way in the world. His journey is accompanied by some of the most swaggering scoundrels and unforgettable eccentrics in Dickens's pantheon.
Years ago, someone at a party enthusiastically described Dickens as “the Ralph Nader of his day”. No more depressing pigeonhole could be found for this creator of tangible worlds populated with vivid characters. And yet that narrow, agenda-driven label is more than partly the author’s own fault.
When Dickens lets his characters be people, with vices as well as virtues, he’s delightful. When he makes them into poster children for social causes—or exemplars of pure, disinterested compassion—he’s tedious at best. Not that abusive schools or plots for forced marriages are good things. And, certainly, rare souls who know how to create happiness for themselves and others make for happy listening. It’s just that, after showing us the school, the plot, or the rare soul, Dickens can’t resist getting up on a soapbox and waxing sentimental. When she warned us of the Cult of Sensibility, Jane Austen knew what she was talking about.
Fortunately, though the sermonizing increases as the story proceeds, by and large Dickens allows his extensive cast to be human. Capitalism comes in for a few knocks (one wonders how he imagined his books were printed, or how his public afforded them). Even allowing for early Victorian sensibilities, some of the later dialogue smacks of the provincial melodramas he pokes fun at so delightfully in this story. Cheeryble Brothers sounds more like a charity than a going concern and the brothers, though rare souls, strike one as just a shade too angelic due, no doubt, to Dickens’ soap box. (Why can’t he let dialogue and actions speak for themselves?) However, I admit the grasping villains of the piece tally precisely with my experience of human malevolence.
And, when the characters are allowed to be themselves, hilarity and sentiment (as opposed to sentimentality) preponderate. This is an uneven, mostly humorous (don’t miss Mr. Mantalini, or the Language of Vegetables), pastiche of a novel; everyone’s romance ends as expected, but those resolutions are followed by other, unexpected and satisfying denouements. And, as always, Simon Vance’s impeccable performance renders it all that much more enjoyable.
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Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s most compelling Roman plays. The plot against Caesar and the infamous assassination scene make for unforgettable listening. Brutus, the true protagonist of the play, is mesmerizing in his psychological state of anguish, forced to choose between the bonds of friendship and his desire for patriotic justice.
Or Bach. Or Chaucer. Or any great artist. Having studied them in high school or college, it's easy to assume that you "know" their output. You docket them as "great" and move on to other poets, other music, other things: life, job, kids.
Then one of those kids says he's reading Julius Caesar at school. Then Audible marks the Ides of March by offering this terrific recording as a Daily Deal. And you realize all over again how great Shakespeare really is.
Centuries before CG, Shakespeare and his contemporaries did it all with language: dream sequences, crowd scenes, battles. Even in our casual, ironic, post-post-modern world, the greatness of that language can still stun us with its greatness.
It was also nice to be reminded of which play contains most of Jeeves' best quotations.
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Ever since he became a Christian at the age of 40, it has been Poirot actor David Suchet's dream to make an audio recording of the whole Bible. In between filming the final episodes of Poirot, David Suchet spent over 200 hours in the recording studio to create the very first full-length audio version of the NIV Bible spoken by a single British actor.
This is, without doubt, the most adroit performance of the most fluid English translation of the Bible available. It is also, without doubt, the most poorly organized audiobook I've ever encountered in almost a decade of listening. Still, I bought it for the reading, and that's worth every penny of the credit.
For example, listen to the Creation: "And there was evening and there was morning…" Most lectors would put the emphasis on "evening" and "morning". Suchet puts it on "there" and "there", giving evening and morning an almost palpable presence that underscores their separation and their reality. Superb.
As with other massive, well-read classics, I use this essential book as (among other things) a way to banish worry and encourage rest. It's wonderful to fall asleep among the Psalms and wake in Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. As for the navigation, we all owe J. Lamkin a round of applause.
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Like Tom Jones before him, Barry Lyndon is one of the most lively and roguish characters in English literature. He may now be best known through the colorful Stanley Kubrick film released in 1975, but it is Thackeray who, in true 19th-century style, shows him best.
The picaresque novel is an irresistible genre. When it follows the sincere but misguided exploits of a Quixote or Pickwick, the result is enchanting. When it follows the adventures of a self-inflated, morally moribund, sophistical rogue who defines "honor" as a matter of dressing, rather than acting, properly, the result is appalling. And fascinating. Like Vanity Fair, this is a novel without a hero.
A passing acquaintance with late 18th Century European history, such as the Seven Years' War and the habits and hypocrisies of Frederick the Great, will heighten your enjoyment. (Barry's barb, "What would Voltaire say?" hits home like a snide thunderbolt.) But it's not essential; Barry's own habits and hypocrisies--and those of the world he strives to inhabit--are more than enough to be getting on with.
Thackeray succeeds so well in recreating the tone of the 18th Century, it's hard to remember that the novel was published in 1844. Jonathan Keeble shines here just as brightly as he did when rendering the career of that other famous, more likable rogue, Lord Byron's Don Juan.
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In teeming Victorian London, where lavish wealth and appalling poverty live side by side, Edward Pierce charms the most prominent of the well-to-do as he cunningly orchestrates the crime of the century. Who would suspect that a gentleman of breeding could mastermind the daring theft of a fortune in gold? Who could predict the consequences of making the extraordinary robbery aboard the pride of England's industrial era, the mighty steam locomotive?
Victorian pickpockets always approached female quarry from the right because all dresses had but one pocket, and it was always on the right.
London has no central rail terminus because the railroads grew up so fast, no one thought of building something so obvious until it was too late.
Beyond Victorian ideas of a lady's proper sphere, middle- and upper-class women didn't hold jobs out of a concern that it took work from those who really needed it.
Before the invention of dynamite--10 years in the future when this story takes place--a safe, by its mere weight and strength, posed an insuperable obstacle to any criminal who lacked the key (combination locks had yet to be created, too).
The well-born and the low-born, usually separated by conventions upheld rigidly at both ends of the social spectrum, mingled freely at dog fights.
These are the sort of facts you'll learn from The Great Train Robbery. More than the story of an epic heist, this is the story of an epic heist set carefully, thoughtfully, within the context of its times. Consequently, this "novel" reads more like a history. Much of the dialogue comes from (or is, at least, based on) courtroom testimony. The slang, pass times, and proclivities of Victorian England, both criminal and otherwise, are lucidly explained, without the sniffy modern condescension usually accorded to the period. The result is a gripping thriller that's also an engaging piece of social history. (And anyone who can make social history interesting gets a gold star from me.)
Michael Kitchen, who I first encountered as Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, was the perfect choice for narrator. I've always admired the way he serves up his lines; the hesitant, thoughtful pause, the emphasis on just the right syllable. It's an understated, semi-staccato approach that somehow grabs your attention, engages your mind and, in this case, makes Michael Crichton's well-wrought prose sound even better.
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He's a self-described beach bum who won his houseboat in a card game. He's also a knight errant who's wary of credit cards, retirement benefits, political parties, mortgages, and television. He only works when his cash runs out, and his rule is simple: he'll help you find whatever was taken from you, as long as he can keep half.
"A man with a credit card is in hock to his own image of himself."
"The beer was so cold it had no taste."
"There was a nice flavor about them; that scent of 'good marriage'. Separated by a room of people, they were still paired, still aware of each other."
Right there are three good reasons to like this book. Memorable, accurate insights about society, phenomenon, and people are hard to come by. And from what other reviewers say, the Travis McGee books just get better.
I was put off at first, preferring my crime fiction of a more reverend vintage. First, because I enjoy writing that has stood the test of time (i.e.: more than 50-odd years). Second, I prefer my crime less lurid. Then there was the narrator. Robert Petkoff made McGee sound too stock. And then--I don't quite know when--I was completely immersed.
Like most hard-boiled fiction, we're in a world where nothing goes right for the right people, and our antihero plays the role of equalizer. McGee even refers to himself, ironically, as a knight-errant. There are passages that make you (or at least me) laugh out loud, in the fine tradition of Raymond Chandler. The cultural critique, as practiced by Dashiell Hammett, is even more embittered and sharper-edged. Unlike classic hard-boiled fiction, the crimes are better-defined, and seamier, sometimes to the point of nausea. But, somehow, I got used to that, too.
Then there's the psychology. Everyone seems to have a degree: "I came to the astonishing conclusion that I'd better not try to give anything until I've built up something to give. Otherwise it's just taking." Of course, that could very well be a function of the zeitgeist MacDonald is anatomizing. In other words, another accurate insight.
In short, there were facets of the book I didn't like, but by the end they didn't matter. This story is relentless. The characters are real. The writing is superb. I even came to like our narrator, Robert Petkoff, probably because I came to like Travis McGee. As Chandler once said, "[M]y whole career is based on the idea that the formula doesn't matter, the thing that counts is what you do with the formula; that is to say, it is a matter of style." John MacDonald most assuredly had that.
Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, sank back in his chair looking like the good old man in a Victorian melodrama whose mortgage the villain had just foreclosed. Lord Emsworth needed Galahad. There are tricky corners to be rounded, and assorted godsons, impostors, and pretty girls to be paired off. Fortunately, many years’ membership of the Pelican Club means the Hon. Galahad Threepwood is able to keep cool, stiffen his upper lip, and always think a shade quicker than the next man.
Once upon a time, I had this book on cassette tape, read by Frederick Davidson. And even then, with my favorite Wodehouse reader at the mic, I thought it was a shade or two below perfection. Seeing Nigel Lambert's rendition, I thought I'd give it another go. Maybe I just missed the gist last time around.
No really. In the chorus line of books P. G. Wodehouse managed to assemble in his long and productive life, this is one of the few that's out of step. The pacing, which is everything in a Wodehouse story, just isn't snappy enough. The plot isn't tangled enough. Chesney, a criminal who's wormed his way into the castle by way of Freddie Threepwood's introductory letter, isn't given a chance to create any real chaos. In fact, every plot device, from the fresh batch of imposters to the latest medical bulletin from the Empress' sty, have been handled with much greater dexterity--and generate much greater delight--elsewhere in the Wodehouse canon. As Bertie Wooster might say, this one just isn't up to sample.
I think that's why Nigel Lambert, another one of my favorite Wodehouse readers, sounds like he's trying too hard. His younger females, who usually sound charming, come off as goofy here. And Galley Threepwood, a man whose efforts to bring the young folks together are always fueled by the memory of his own broken romance, needs to be a little more worldly-wise, a tad less perky, than Lambert plays him.
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