Byzantium is too-often considered merely the "eastern rump" of the old Roman Empire, a curious and even unsettling mix of the classical and medieval. Yet it was, according to Professor Harl, "without a doubt the greatest state in Christendom through much of the Middle Ages," and well worth our attention as a way to widen our perspective on everything from the decline of imperial Rome to the rise of the Renaissance.
Professor Harl kicks off with an observation that my own experience bears out: history courses focus on Greece, then Rome, and then the Medieval West that rose from the fall of Rome—forgetting that only half of Rome had fallen. That other half (actually two-thirds, in terms of population and wealth), which would endure for another thousand years, is often bypassed.
I always knew it was there. But I also knew it was complex, remote, exotic and, well…Byzantine. Professor Harl untangles much of the political, dynastic, military, religious, and cultural complexities. Even at a mere 12 hours (why not the more usual 18?) there’s plenty here to grapple with, and I now have a reliable outline of the period and the culture, along with some solid benchmarks (the emperors Justinian and Basil II, for example) to guide future reading and listening. Along the way I also began to grasp the roots of the split between the Eastern and Western Church, Russia’s assumption of the Orthodox mantle, her historic sense of mission, and Dostoyevsky’s rabid anti-Catholicism.
There are moments when I wish I were in the lecture hall, able to ask for clarification (the course guide, however, is crystal clear). Other times I’d like to ask questions. For example, if Byzantium alone turned back the Muslim tide—a feat for which Harl asserts the West was “unprepared”—then what of the Frankish triumph at Poitiers in 732?
Covering early efforts to comprehend the true nature of Christ, Harl sees heresies as merely so many “confessional” options, any of which might have triumphed—and their suppression as the beginning of “medieval censorship”. (Never mind that only by being fully human and fully divine can Christ fully reconcile Creator and creature.) When the faithful process icons and relics, imploring divine assistance in moments of crisis, you can almost see the professor’s eyes roll.
On the other hand, Harl gives the first Constantine credit for a sincere conversion. He also refutes the now-standard idea, first stated by Machiavelli and echoed by Gibbon, that Christian mercy and love hobbled Roman strength and discipline. And he discounts the popular notion—one that I’ve passed on to my kids—that an erudite, advanced Muslim civilization preserved Plato and Aristotle for a shaggy, beer-and-broadsword-wielding West. According to Harl, an erudite, advanced Byzantine civilization preserved Greek philosophy for a shaggy, beer-and-broadsword-wielding West.
Now, with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the next logical step is to listen to Professor Harl’s series on that empire.
In this first novel, we are introduced to suave, handsome Tom Ripley: a young striver, newly arrived in the heady world of Manhattan in the 1950s. A product of a broken home, branded a "sissy" by his dismissive Aunt Dottie, Ripley becomes enamored of the moneyed world of his new friend, Dickie Greenleaf. This fondness turns obsessive when Ripley is sent to Italy to bring back his libertine pal, but he grows enraged by Dickie's ambivalent feelings for Marge, a charming American dilettante.
Like it felt weird knowing that he’d get away with everything (that’s not a spoiler; how else could there be four more books in the series?). And it felt even weirder when I caught myself kinda-sorta hoping he would get away with it (hey, I’m used to liking my protagonists, and we spend the entire book in Tom’s head, viewing everything and everyone from his perspective).
But most of the time, while I couldn’t stop listening, I also couldn’t ignore the knot of uneasiness I carried around in the pit of my stomach. Another reviewer has likened this book to watching a car wreck, and she’s right. I’d only add that it’s a car wreck in which all the innocent people are injured or killed, while the person who caused the accident walks away, haunted not by any guilt, but only by fears of getting caught.
On the other hand, it feels perfectly natural giving Kevin Kenerly five stars. Highsmith’s achievement is to make the inconceivable perfectly plausible, and our narrator brings it all believably, chillingly, to life.
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.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful