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The Great Courses
If you’re like us, the changing weather reminds us of our school days, of cramming for exams, and of discovering new worlds in classic books. But even if you're not heading back to school this fall you never have to stop learning. Pick up a book from each of the curated collections below to build out your own Literature 101 course.

Over to the Experts:

 
Mel
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Votes
18046
392 REVIEWS / 840 ratings Member Since 2009 7744 Followers / Following 23
 
  • "Brilliant"
    The Kiss and The Duel and Other Stories

    "Brilliant"

    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    With simple words and and simple storylines there is such magnificence and brilliance; there is magic in Chekhov's writing. Where Tolstoy was complex and so serious--Chekhov is lighter and even humorous, pointing out the foibles in our characters, our human tendencies to manipulate morality to fit our desires. Short stories that are easy to get through and so very worth any reader's time.

  • "A Perfect Pairing"
    The Return of the Native

    "A Perfect Pairing"

    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    One of the most satisfying audio productions I've listened to--a case where the audio version was more enjoyable to me than the text because of the pefect pairing of 2 artists. Rickman's voice added a rich shading and emphasis to Hardy's already beautiful lyricism; it was almost hypnotic. I remember long passages (especially describing Egdon Heath) that challenged my attention when I first read this book, but with Rickman's reading, it all went by like beautiful scenery. One to sit down and experience leisurely.

  • "Often Copied--..."
    A Christmas Carol: A Signature Performance by Tim Curry

    "Often Copied--Never Bettered"

    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    Like setting the star on top the tree, Christmas is complete when we've heard at least some version of Dickens's A Christmas Carol -- and as much as I've enjoyed every one of the many homages to Dicken's Carol, (from Alastair Sim to Mr. Magoo to Bill Murray to Scrooge McDuck) nothing warms the cockles like the original icy Scrooge..."tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner, hard and sharp as flint"... without Mr. Scrooge, there is something missing in Christmas. "Marley was dead..." those opening lines send shivers of memories and delight through me each year I hear them anew. Stupendous production, Curry's expressive and distinctive voice alone is an ensemble; for 3 1/2 hours I was as mesmerized as the first time I read the story. Dickens is always a favorite, but perhaps at his wisest and timeless best here.

 
Darwin8u
Helpful
Votes
18807
Mesa, AZ, United States 860 REVIEWS / 868 ratings 3961 Followers / Following 19
 
  • "Full of emotio..."
    Time Regained: Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 7

    "Full of emotional/intellectual/experiential joules"

    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    Wow, Proust kills it with this last book in his masterpiece In Search of Lost Time. He pulls it all together. I loved Proust's reflections on literary and artistic creation, reality, memory, pain, death and time -- and how in 'Time Regained' he draws all his themes together.

    About 2/3 into 'Time Regained' the book started to swarm with emotional, intellectual, and experiential energy. You can feel Proust near a climax. IT is like the last movement of a great classical piece. The book feels like all his themes and fugues are twisting together, increasing in tempo, and taking a firmer shape: page by page, word after word.

    I'm almost sad that it is over. There are few books I've ever wanted to start reading/listening to again immediately after finishing. Today as I was setting down 'Time Regained', I almost reached for 'Swann's Way'. I feel like there was so much I missed, whole sections that I just didn't get in the beginning. Gems that dropped between the pages of my cognition.

    At the same time, I think that is the essence of Proust: the recognition that in the end, his novel is just us. My same need or desire to go back and read 'In Search of Lost Time' again is similar to my desire to go back into my own past and re-experience my youth with the knowledge I have now. It is a futile, but a very human desire. It is an impulse created by recognizing the expanse and limitations of time and memory. The genius of Proust is his ability to transport the reader to that point where we recognize the art within our own lives at the intersection of our memory and experience.

    I'm glad I had the audiobook version to help me pace through this masterpiece.

  • "Conrad's liter..."
    The Secret Sharer

    "Conrad's literary rigging is tight."

    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    2013 has definitely been my year of doppelgänger books. 'The Secret Sharer' belongs on the shelf next to Doestoevsky's 'the Double', Nabokov's 'Despair', Highsmith's 'The Talented Mr. Ripley', and Roth's 'Operation Shylock' and probably 'the Epic of Gilgamesh' too.

    These are all great doppelgänger books, and Conrad's 'Secret Sharer' is not inferior to any of them. Conrad constantly delivers on the nuance of his language, his thought, and his absolute control of the English language.

    Conrad's literary rigging is tight and when you step onto one of Conrad's novels (or in this case novellas) you recognize from the first word to the final period that Conrad is in absolute control and knows exactly where he is taking you AND your creepy twin.

  • "Orwell Flirts ..."
    Coming up for Air

    "Orwell Flirts and Fishes w/ Nostalgia & Modernity."

    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    A novel that explores the pastoral life and experiences of youth in Edwardian England before the First World War as a memory of a man who is anxious about his own existence and pessimistic about his nation's inevitable progress towards another world war.

    I think John Wain was right when he said, "What makes _Coming Up For Air_ so peculiarly bitter to the taste is that, in addition to calling up the twin spectres of totalitarianism and workless poverty, it also declares the impossibility of 'retaining one's childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies' - because it postulates a world in which these things are simply not there any more."

    This is a pessimistic novel that deals with sevearl paired themes:
    - nostalgia for the past vs fear of the future
    - memory vs truth
    - memento mori vs inevitable change
    - the individual/internal vs the universal/external
    - liberty vs loss
    - poverty vs wealth

    As with Orwell's other work, 'Coming Up for Air' has some amazing prose and is definitely worth the effort. Brown does a great job reading this novel in a way that evokes both the pre-World War I and pre-World War II eras.

  • "Isolation, Lon..."
    Winesburg, Ohio

    "Isolation, Loneliness, Love & Midwest Grotesque"

    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    This is one of those important novels I would have probably passed over or missed if Sherwood Anderson wasn't mentioned in so many lists--and if so many authors I admire (Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, O'Connor, McCarthy) didn't mention him as an influence or inspiration.

    There is something beautiful about every single sentence that Anderson writes. Some of the stories in 'Winesburg, Ohio' (Death, Loneliness, the Strength of God, Godliness, and Adventure) were nearly perfect. Others, while they might not have hit me as hard as those five, were still almost uniformly beautiful and interesting. Like waves beating rhythmically against a wall, Anderson's stories seemed to gently deliver a message from the universe of the grotesque. Ideas of isolation, loneliness, love and the need to reach out to others (to find love or understanding) float from one story to the next and weave the various plots of the twenty-two short stories together. 'Winesburg, Ohio' is a great piece of American fiction and an amazing piece of 2oth century art.

 
Tad Davis
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Votes
5506
370 REVIEWS / 1885 ratings 2514 Followers / Following 11
 
  • "Many voices, a..."
    The Canterbury Tales [Blackstone]

    "Many voices, at times enthralling"

    Overall

    This new Blackstone recording of "Canterbury Tales" is wonderful and at times enthralling -- and also at times laugh-out-loud funny. Like the Charlton Griffin recording (also available here), it's the whole ball of wax: every tale, including the often-omitted Tale of Melibee and the Parson's Tale (which is really a three-hour sermon rather than a tale. Listen to it. It's good for the digestion, and quite a bit more interesting than it sounds). This translation, by J.U. Nicholson, uses a more old-fashioned vocabulary in places than the Coghill translation used by Griffin; but at the same time, it's also saltier. There are few crude names for parts or functions of the human body that Chaucer fails to use at one point or another, and most of them find their way into this recording. (For me, that's a GOOD thing!) One notable feature is that this is a multi-voice recording. Martin Jarvis is Chaucer, Ralph Cosham the Lawyer, Simon Vance the Squire; and that's only a few examples. Both this version and Griffin's version are five-star recordings in my book. Griffin's has occasional music, which this one lacks; on the other hand, this one has greater variety of tone and voice.

  • "Great prose tr..."
    Odyssey: The Story of Odysseus

    "Great prose translation, great reading"

    Overall

    I've always loved W.H.D. Rouse's prose translations of Homer. They've been available on Audible for years in an older recording by Nadia May. Blackstone has just reissued them in new readings by Anthony Heald, and they're wonderful. Heald is fast becoming one of my favorite readers. His fast-paced, emotionally-charged style is perfectly suited to the breezy rhythms of Rouse's prose. There are other more poetic translations and readings of The Iliad and The Odyssey, but to my mind these are by far the best prose versions -- especially appropriate if your goal is to be immersed in the story rather than the language.

    There are some things about Rouse's style you should be aware of, though. Mostly these are reflections of Homer's style, but some translators smooth it over; Rouse does not. Zeus is sometimes referred to Cronides, Cronion, or just plain God. Other characters are referred to sometimes by their names, sometimes by their patronymics (Agamemnon is Atreides, the son of Atreus; Achilles is Peleides, the son of Peleus). Sometimes, as in Cronides/Cronion, those patronymics have more than one form. In addition, Rouse often uses the word "good" to indicate an in-law relationship: a "good-sister" is actually a sister-in-law; a "good-father" is a father-in-law. To me this is part of the charm of the translation, but if you're not prepared for it, it can be confusing.

  • "Great reading"
    Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus

    "Great reading"

    Overall

    This is yet another excellent reading of "Frankenstein." There are actually several really good performances of this book on Audible. Simon Vance tends to emphasize the lyrical Romanticism of the prose. Others have other strengths: George Guidall emphasizes the brooding tragedy; the three-reader version from Blackstone highlights the unusual structure of the narrative; and Flo Gibson gives what I think is the only available recording of the shorter 1818 version of the text. (Most use the 1831 revision.) I seem to be collecting versions of this book without realizing it. Vance's reading is lively and clearly differentiates the three major voices in the book (Walton, Frankenstein, and the Creature).

  • "Why, oh, why i..."
    Beowulf

    "Why, oh, why is it abridged?"

    Overall

    Seamus Heaney is a wonderful poet and a wonderful reader: listening to him is like hearing the original poet holding forth. But the reading is abridged, in what seems more like a marketing decision -- trying to fit the audiobook onto a two-CD set -- than an artistic one. "Beowulf" could certainly use some abridgement here and there, and I wouldn't mind if there were only minor omissions; but among the episodes cut is the challenge that Unferth issues to Beowulf about his swimming contest with Brecca. This isn't just empty padding: it's essential to the characters of both Unferth and Beowulf. In many ways this is the best single recording of "Beowulf" available: why couldn't there be an unabridged (or at least a less-abridged) version as well? That would get six stars out of five. No other version comes close to the mastery of language shown by this one.

 
Ian
Helpful
Votes
591
Farnborough, United Kingdom 73 REVIEWS / 353 ratings Member Since 2018 80 Followers / Following 1
 
  • "Essential chil..."
    Peter Pan

    "Essential childhood reading"

    Overall

    I never read this book as a child. Neither was it read to me and I thought that Peter Pan was a cartoo character until I was an adult. I missed out.

    If you have children then buy the book and read it to them. If you can't or won't then the next best thing is to let Jim Dale read it to them for you. His delivery is excellent and carries just the right balance of restraint and enthusiasm.

    An excellent presentation of a classic story.

  • "Fascinating hi..."
    Barnaby Rudge

    "Fascinating historical story"

    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    Reading (knd of) Dickens has been one of the gifts that Audible has introduced me too. As a historical novel this is a bit of a departure from Dickens normal period and I needed to remind myself of that change of era at times through the story.

    Before this book I knew that there had been "Gordon Riots" but I had no idea what or who Grodon was and what the riots were about. Dickens sets out the story clearly and using the kind of characters and storylines that he seems to create better than anybody else. By the end of the work all the threads have been drawn together for a satisfying story but also the history has been told in a clear and memorable way.

    The narration is good and clear, characterisation is useful rather than intrusive. Recommended.

  • "Buy it!"
    The Old Man and the Sea

    "Buy it!"

    Overall

    If you care at all about the English language you must use 2 1/2 hours of your time on the planet listening to this work. It is possibly the simplest scenario imaginable for a novel but is completed with style and economy which is what made Hemingway unique. The icing on the cake is that Sutherland's narration is nearly as exceptional as the book itself. Buy it!

  • "I should hate ..."
    Ulysses

    "I should hate this - but I don't."

    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    This book has all the things which annoy me about supposed "great" literature.

    It is excessively poetic. (Not a fan of poetry).
    It is wordy for the sake of it. (Big fan of directness).
    There is relatively little direct narrative. (I like a plain and simple central thread).
    Its full of clever devices. (Like my English not mucked about with)

    But it is magnificent! I'm pretty sure that I didn't properly follow a lot of it but it doesn't matter. Some of the words made no sense but the sounded beautiful. Some of the scenes were meaningless to me but they were magic to listen to. The whole thing was a joy to listen to.

    One of the other reviewers suggest that you should be familiar with this book in print before listening to this but I disagree. I suspect that if I had tried to read this from paper I would have made it t about page 12 before throwing it out of a window. It was made to be read out loud and if there is a better version available than this I'm not sure I would be able to cope with it.

    Jim Norton gives each character just enough depth to make him distinguishable wthout creating any cartoon Irishmen in the process. There are a few sections read in a female voice. (Marcella Riordan - who should get a narrators credit). Double handed narration can be clumsy but this is perfectly judged. Overall - an excellent listen.


 
Jefferson
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Votes
3361
360 REVIEWS / 387 ratings Member Since 2010 1360 Followers / Following 13
 
  • "A Stark Tower ..."
    To the Lighthouse

    "A Stark Tower on a Bare Rock, or a Hanging Garden?"

    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    On the surface not much happens in Virginia Woolf's semi-autobiographical modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse (1929). In Part I: The Window, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay (based on Woolf's own parents), their eight children, and several guests are vacationing at the Ramsays' summer house on the Isle of Skye in the early 20th century. Mrs. Ramsay, a meddling and kind fifty-year-old Greek-goddess, goes to town on errands, reads a fairy tale to her youngest child James, knits a stocking, presides over a dinner, communes without words with her husband, and holds the different people in the house together with the gravity of her charisma. Mr. Ramsay, an eccentric philosopher-academic, carries on with egotism, insecurity, and emotional tyranny. James' desire to visit the local lighthouse is thwarted by his father and the weather. Mr. Charles Tansley, an uptight disciple of Mr. Ramsay, asserts himself charmlessly. The somnolent and cat-eyed poet Mr. Carmichael reclines on the lawn. And independent, Chinese-eyed and pucker-faced Lily Briscoe works on a painting of Mrs. Ramsay and James and critically contemplates the family. In Part II: Time Passes, the forces of entropy besiege the house as it stands empty of people for ten years. And in Part III: The Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay coerces his two youngest children--now moody teenagers—to accompany him to the lighthouse while Lily Briscoe--who partly represents Woolf herself as a writer--comes to terms with her feelings for Mrs. Ramsay as she tries to capture her vision in the painting she'd attempted ten years earlier.

    Woolf is so good at sympathetically and honestly exposing people's minds and so good at revealing the beautiful and awful world we live in, and her writing is so beautiful, flowing, controlled, and poetic, that spending only a couple days with her characters is an indelibly rich experience. She employs a modernist stream of consciousness narration, and fluidly moves from one character to another. Her technique in the novel has been likened to that of the lighthouse beam moving across the benighted island world, briefly illuminating one mind and then another as it goes round, but Woolf's narration feels more organic than that. I relish her long, elegant sentences comprised of multiple clauses attached by semi-colons, her original and vivid metaphors, and her insights into human nature in a variety of vessels (male, female, old, young, educated, simple, etc.). I expected To the Lighthouse to be beautiful, philosophical, and sad, and it was, but I was surprised by its constant humor. At least as often as a poignant pang, I felt a flush of pleasure, similar to what Cam feels while sailing towards the lighthouse:

    "From her hand, ice cold, held deep in the sea, there spurted up a fountain of joy at the change, at the escape, at the adventure (that she should be alive, that she should be there). And the drops falling from this sudden and unthinking fountain of joy fell here and there on the dark, the slumbrous shapes in her mind; shapes of a world not realised but turning in their darkness, catching here and there, a spark of light; Greece, Rome, Constantinople."

    The dense novel explores the miraculous fragility and meaning (or lack thereof) of life; the varied and complex nature of love; the losses and gains involved in making families or living alone; the fraught relationships between children and parents; the confining roles of men and women; the surprising vividness and poignancy of memory; the complex nature of perception; the doomed but necessary attempt to understand other people; and the doomed but noble attempt through art to capture truth and to avoid entropy.

    Juliet Stevenson was born to read Virginia Woolf! Her voice is lovely to listen to and full of understanding, irony, and sympathy, a perfect accompaniment to the text. With skillful subtlety, she modifies her voice for the thoughts of men and women and children and adults (and for the local Scottish workers who help the Ramsays). She carried me off To the Lighthouse. The only thing, perhaps, that is lost in the audiobook is Woolf's use of parentheses and brackets and semi-colons, which visually shape the reading of the text.

    To the Lighthouse, like Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, should be read by anyone interested in gender, art, love, life, modernism, beautiful prose, and early 20th century British culture.

  • "Poignant Moder..."
    Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde: In Aid of the Royal Theatrical Fund

    "Poignant Modern Fairy Tales Wonderfully Read"

    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    Which is more impressive in this audiobook, the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde or the readings of them by the assembled famous British actors? At their best, Wilde's stories are exquisitely beautiful and painful and reveal deep understanding of the tragedy of the human condition (mortality, inequality, prejudice, selfishness, and hatred), as well as its transcendence through generosity, self-sacrifice, beauty, faith, and love. The readers are perfect, with wise, compassionate, and flexible voices and deep understanding of each word they say and of each scene they depict.

    Special highlights are Dame Judi Dench reading "The Nightingale and the Rose" so full of wit and emotion, Jeremy Irons reading "The Devoted Friend" with a surprisingly wide range of voices for different characters, Joanna Lumley reading "The Star Child" and moving me to tears, and Robert Harris reading "The Happy Prince" and moving me to tears, too, especially whenever he says, "Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow." Sir Derek Jacobi reading "The Fisherman and His Soul," Sinead Cusack reading "The Birthday of the Infanta," and Sir Donald Sinden reading "The Selfish Giant" all do fine jobs with fine tales.

    The only dud (forgive the pun) is "The Remarkable Rocket," which, despite Geoffrey Palmer's excellent reading and despite the interesting concept (sentient fireworks talking about their upcoming royal display) is finally a mediocre joke that long overstays its welcome. The only disappointment is that the cover art says that there is a bonus track of "The Actress" read by Elaine Stritch, but it's absent from the audiobook.

    Anyway, I highly recommend this excellent audiobook.

  • "An Excellent I..."
    The Iliad

    "An Excellent Iliad"

    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    Listening to Charlton Griffin's reading of Richmond Lattimore's translation of The Iliad was a wonderful experience.

    Griffin is good at modifying the pitch and tone of his voice to evoke the different genders and ages and moods and agendas of the various characters. He brings the epic to life. He even makes fascinating the 90-minute introduction by scholar Herbert J. Muller. And the sound effects (ravens cawing over a battlefield) and Greek mood music introducing and concluding the 24 books of the epic immersed me in its world.

    As for Homer's story, an epic focused on a short slice of a long war, a tragedy with plenty of humor, it is rewardingly rich, depicting the appalling heroism and horror of war, the full range of human nature (from bravery to cowardice, brutality to mercy, destruction to creation, and hatred to love), the richness of ancient Greek culture, the pettiness and power of the gods, and the mortality and wonder of life. Among the most impressive moments are Hector's meeting with his wife and baby before going out to fight, Hephaestus' crafting of a shield with the heavens and earth and all of human endeavor animated upon it, and Achilles' inability to embrace the ghost of Patroclus in a dream. I hope the following quotation will give an idea of the excellence of Lattimore's translation and the depth of Homer's vision:

    As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity,
    The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
    burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
    So one generation of men will grow while another dies.

    In conclusion, I thoroughly savored this audio version of The Iliad, often smiling with appreciation for Homer's story, Lattimore's translation, and Griffin's reading. I highly recommend it.

  • "A Perfect Cant..."
    The Canterbury Tales [Blackstone]

    "A Perfect Canterbury Tales from Many Voices"

    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    The fourteen readers of The Canterbury Tales are excellent in changing their inflection, tone, and register to suit whatever is happening in their tales. Thus the ribald tales and insulting exchanges between pilgrims are funny, the tragic tales moving, and the virtuous tales uplifting. Nicholson's translation into modern English seems accurate enough; he maintains much of Chaucer's language and rhymes. At the same time, it is easy to follow the tales because of the fine readers, the clear translation, and Chaucer's natural storytelling.

    The tales and their prologues and epilogues (in which the pilgrims comment on the tales and each other) are fascinating and enjoyable and depict the full range of human folly (sanctimonious con men friars, corrupt judges, cuckolded husbands, lickerish wives, drunken cooks, and crooked millers) and goodness (noble courtly lovers, wise wives, faithful husbands, self-sacrificing virgins, and pure saints). The variety of tales is also impressive: beast fables, ribald jokes, sermons, parables, romances, and so on. They give a priceless glimpse into various Medieval English occupations, lifestyles, and philosophies.

    In short, if you're interested in Chaucer's tales, the Middle Ages, fine readings of good poetry, and life, or if you're studying the original Middle English version, I recommend this audiobook.