Summer Reading: Greek and Roman Myth

ancient greece photo

I have been taking an online course in Greek and Roman Mythology offered by Penn State through Coursera. I have just two weeks left, and most of my reading this summer has been for this course. I have fallen a bit behind in documenting my reading as well, which is something I hope to fix. I thought, however, that I would share the texts we have read, along with my brief reviews.

First, we read Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey. As I had so recently listened to Ian McKellen read Fagles’ translation, I opted not to re-read it, and I seemed to do just fine with the coursework.

The next text was Hesiod’s Theogony. I had never read the Theogony before, and I admit I found parts of it quite interesting, at least in terms of origins for some of the popular myths with which I was familiar, including the displacement of Cronus by Zeus. This particular translation renders Uranus and Gaia as Heaven and Earth, respectively, and I admit because of unfamiliarity with the myths, I had to look that up. I think I would have liked it had their names not been translated. I found it interesting to learn, through the lectures, that the translation of “Chaos,” rendered in this translation “Chasm,” is not disorder so much as a void, which seems much more in line with the concept of the Big Bang and a move increasing toward entropy rather than away from it. In all, however, Theogony reads a little more like the “begats” in the Bible, and is not nearly as interesting as the other texts we read, though I can see why we read it.

Next we read two Homeric Hymns: the Hymn to Demeter and the Hymn to Apollo. The Hymn to Demeter recounts the story of Hades and Persephone, and the Hymn to Apollo recounts both Apollo’s birth and establishment of his Oracle at Delphi. For some reason, I didn’t get the requested translation, and I think the translations I used were a bit flowery and probably not as good. I don’t remember finding them to be all that gripping. To be honest, I can’t remember what I read much at all, which is probably not a good sign.

Afterward, we moved into Greek tragedy and read Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Eumenides. When I was in high school, I got my hands on a list—I think I found it in a book—of texts all high school students should read in order to prepare for college. I knew my high school reading was sorely lacking, partly because I had moved so much that I went to three different high schools, and partly because we just didn’t read much. I read a lot of the books you probably remember reading in high school on my own. At any rate, Agamemnon was on that list, and I tried to read it back then and gave up. Reading it now, I think I can see why. For a play in which some interesting stuff happens, we sure don’t get to see any of it. It’s mostly some back-and-forth between Clytemnestra and the Chorus. I liked Eumenides better, mainly because it was an interesting look at jurisprudence, which was also how the course’s professor approached the play in his lectures. Talk about being damned if you do and damned if you don’t! Orestes must avenge his father’s murder, but in so doing, he must kill his mother, invoking the wrath of the Furies.

After this point in the course, I fell behind. I was supposed to read Oedipus Rex (which I have actually already read and taught before) and The Bacchae, but I haven’t finished either one yet. Reviews to come once I do. I has been a long time since I read Oedipus Rex, but I am enjoying it great deal more than I liked either of the Aeschylus plays. However, I have had to put these readings aside in order to try, as much as possible, to catch up because this week, I was supposed to have read Books 1-5 of The Aeneid translated by Robert Fitzgerald, and I have to read Book 6 for next week as well as Books 3, 12, and 13 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

I think the texts were well chosen in terms of a good introduction to Greek and Roman myth, and I have to say I have learned a great deal from the lectures. I do happen to think that the pace of the course is too fast and the demands are too high for a Coursera course. I think a lot of people take Coursera courses to dip in a learn a little bit, and honestly, this one is as demanding as a normal college course in terms of time. However, it is a great course, and no one is twisting your arm making you take the quizzes or write the essays—you only do that if you want a certificate. But you know me. I have to be Hermione Granger about it. As a result, I don’t think I’ve had a chance to really savor what I’m learning. In fact, I can’t keep up.

Photo by uzi yachin

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Summer Reading

Photo by Vassil Tsvetanov Ah, summer. That glorious time of year when it seems like all the time in the world to read is within our grasp. It seems like my TBR pile is getting larger and larger. The good news is that I have managed to find myself a book club, which I’ve been trying to do for some time. The book club is reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I have been wanting to read Adichie for some time, and without the impetus of the book club, I’m not sure when I would have gotten around to it.

I’m finally reading The Age of Innocence. I’ve seen the movie with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder many times, but I haven’t actually read the book, and it’s long overdue. I’m enjoying it a great deal so far. Beyond these two books, I’m still trying to figure out what I want to read. I signed up for a course in Greek and Roman Mythology through Coursera, and it has some required reading. Luckily, we start with The Odyssey, and I read it so recently (plus I’ve taught it a bunch of times), that I don’t feel tasked to re-read it for the class. I’m trying to figure out what’s been on my list for a long time that I really want to try to read.

However, it’s shaping up to be the summer of catching up on things I’ve meant to read for a long time. Case in point? I really would like to get to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, both of which I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I keep picking up The Pillars of the Earth and putting it back down again. I didn’t used to be so squeamish about really long books with tiny print, but in the last few years or so, I don’t know… I really have to want to read it if it’s that long. I’m not as bothered by listening to them as audiobooks, curiously. Perhaps it’s that my eyes are starting to bother me now when I try to read really tiny print. As I said, I wasn’t bothered by big books with tiny print so much in the past.

I have a lot of books on my Kindle that I want to get to, as well: Eleanor & ParkLongbournThe Dressmaker, and many others besides.

I also need to read More Than This by Patrick Ness, as it’s my school’s Upper School summer read. What are you reading this summer?

Photo by Vassil Tsvetanov

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Review: The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Patrick Stewart

The Last Battle is the final book in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series. It begins with an evil ape named Shift, who bosses around a donkey named Puzzle under the pretense of being the donkey’s friend. The two find a lion skin, and Shift gets the bright idea of having Puzzle wear it so they can fool everyone into thinking Puzzle is Aslan. A bunch of people believe it. There is a bit with some dwarfs. There is a centaur and a unicorn. The Pevensies, minus Susan, and Eustace, Jill, Digory, and Polly, are all pulled back to Narnia after a mysterious bit with a train. A bunch of people worship the evil god Tash and want him to come but aren’t very happy when he shows up.

I don’t know what heck I read.

Listen, I have no problem with Christian allegory. Despite what J. R. R. Tolkien thinks, a good case can be made for The Lord of the Rings as Christian allegory, especially if you put it with The Silmarillion. I also happen to be a Christian. However, in this novel, Lewis sacrificed the plot in favor of ham-handed allegory. And it’s not even good.

I was already prepared for the “problem of Susan,” as I had run into commentary on the subject prior to reading the book, but it bears mentioning that leaving Susan completely bereft of family because she’s a normal teenager is truly heinous. What, girls should not grow up and become women? That’s not pure enough?

But what really bothers me is that it’s supposed to be Christian allegory, and everyone’s killing people right and left. What the heck? I mean, I gather it’s more Revelations than Book of John, but still…

My advice to anyone who, like me, didn’t read these as a child and decides to read them as an adult is to read The Magician’s Nephew, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and leave it at that. Maybe The Horse and His Boy if you want to learn more about those characters, who only get a few mentions in the last couple of books and otherwise don’t figure much into the grand narrative. Stay far, far away from the final two books.

Racist, sexist, sloppily written, muddled, pile of crap. I don’t understand why a writer would desecrate his own writing like that. Patrick Stewart couldn’t save it, though his narration was brilliant. WORST. ENDING. EVER.

I so hate C. S. Lewis.

Book Rating: ½☆☆☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Widow’s War, Sally Gunning

The Widow’s War: A NovelSally Gunning’s novel The Widow’s War is the story of Lyddie Berry who lives with her husband Edward in 1761 Satucket (Brewster), Massachusetts on Cape Cod. When Edward dies in a whaling accident, Lyddie finds herself not only bereft of his companionship but also of the life they shared: as a widow, most of her property—including her house, cow, and furniture—is now owned by her son-in-law, Nathan Clarke, who also happens to be a jerk and a pig. As the novel unfolds, Lyddie, determined to maintain her independence and continue living the life she led before Edward’s death, challenges Nathan and attempts to hold on to her freedom.

This novel is an enlightening peek into what women’s lives in the eighteenth century might have been like. Gunning’s research is meticulous, and her characters leap off the page in full relief. All the historical details ring true. One thing I think Gunning gets right in her historical novels is she is able to produce strong heroines who live within but also challenge the strictures of their time periods in ways that are believable. Lyddie’s struggle for independence was heartbreaking, realistic, and intriguing. I know that some reviewers have challenged whether or not the book realistically depicts Lyddie’s relationship with her Native American neighbor Sam Cowett, but I didn’t find it difficult to believe. I also liked that the author did not choose to have Lyddie be “rescued” through a second marriage or a sudden change of heart on her son-in-law’s part. I could have put a spoiler alert before that last sentence I suppose, but I liked the ending enough (and for a stretch of the book didn’t think it was going to happen that way) that I went ahead and spoiled it anyway. Lyddie is a likable character. She could be called stubborn, but no one would say she was stubborn if she were a man. She is independent in a time when it’s just about criminal or at least unheard of for a woman to be so, and I found myself rooting for her to be successful. She’s made of some pretty strong stuff.

The Widow’s War is the first in what she calls her Satucket trilogy. I previously read the third book, The Rebellion of Jane Clarke.

Rating: ★★★★½

I read this novel as part of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

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Review: The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Jeremy Northam

The Silver Chair (The Chronicles of Narnia)The penultimate book in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is The Silver Chair. This book features the Pevensie siblings’ cousin Eustace Scrubb, who first appeared in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Jill Pole, a classmate of Eustace’s at a boarding school called Experiment House. Eustace and Jill are being chased by bullies when they are magically whisked to Narnia and become embroiled in a quest to find the missing Prince Rilian, the son of King Caspian X, who is now an old man.

*Sigh*. Where to start with this hot mess. I didn’t like it from the start because it’s quite clear that Lewis is attempting to skewer progressive education in his characterization of Experiment House, but rather than create a good satire, he winds up sounding like an old fart who doesn’t know what he’s talking about (“Back in my day, we took switches to kids and prayed in school!”). Eustace and Jill are not nearly as likable as the Pevensies. Puddleglum is fun, but then I think I liked him mainly because of Jeremy Northam’s voice characterization—he had the best West Country accent. The male superiority is maddening. Jill actually says, “Where I come from, they don’t think much of men who are bossed about by their wives.” Um… What? I can’t imagine Lucy Pevensie saying such a thing. Yes, I know all about Susan being interested in lipstick and stockings in the next book. Which I will read to say I’ve read the whole series.

It’s clear Lewis was thinking of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by having the Lady of the Green Kirtle kidnap and enchant Prince Rilian, but the stories diverge quite a bit aside from a passing similarity, which is a bit of a pity, because the rest of the plot is unremarkable. For a children’s book, the pace bogs down rather unforgivably once the characters go underground, and the plot is predictable from the start to the finish. Jeremy Northam’s narration, however, is superb. I just wish he had better material to work with. One thing I figured out after reading this book—I would love to visit Hogwarts and Middle Earth, but I have zero desire to go to Narnia.

Book Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became ShakespeareShakespeare’s life has been the subject of much speculation, particularly because when compared with some writers, there is much we don’t know about it (we actually know more about him than people think, and more than we know about most of his contemporaries). Stephen Greenblatt’s book Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare takes a bit of a different route. Rather than focus only on biographical details, Greenblatt puts Shakespeare in the context of the events that surround him. What did he think of the Earl of Essex’s downfall? How did he feel about King James’s preoccupation with witches and witchcraft? What did he make of fellow writer Robert Greene’s dig (that he had a “Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide”)? How did he feel about his wife and daughters? We can’t know the full answers to these questions, but Greenblatt examines the plays for evidence, and a picture of who Shakespeare was and how his world shaped him unfolds in the pages of this book.

I especially liked Greenblatt’s commentary on the ways in which Robert Greene may have influenced Shakespeare’s characterization of one of his most memorable characters: Sir John Falstaff. Greenblatt makes a compelling case for Greene as the model of the dissolute knight. Also interesting was some of the speculation about the possibility that Shakespeare’s family were recusants (secret Catholics). Greenblatt’s discussion of the ghost of Hamlet’s father connects to this line of speculation but with a troubling twist that helps explain Hamlet’s inaction much more clearly:

What does it mean that a ghost from purgatory erupts into the world of Hamlet pleading to be remembered? Even setting aside for a moment that purgatory, according to the Protestant church, did not exist, the allusions to it here are an enigma, for spirits in God’s great penitentiary could not by definition ask anyone to commit a crime. After all, they are being purged of their sins in order to ascend to heaven. Yet this ghost is not asking for Masses and alms; he is preempting God’s monopoly on revenge by demanding that his son kill the man who murdered him, seized his crown, and married his widow … Hamlet worries about it, and his paralyzing doubts and anxieties displace revenge as the center of the play’s interest. (320)

Shakespeare’s source material for this play recounts Prince Hamlet’s story quite differently: too young to avenge the death of his father, he feigns madness in order to convince his murderous uncle that he is no threat. Then he waits. When the time is right, he kills his uncle and his uncle’s entire retinue in the best spirit of the adage that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” Shakespeare rightly realizes that carrying out such a story would be impossible on stage, and he makes the conflict more about Hamlet’s inner feelings. The passage above really gave me a new understanding of what is really going on in Hamlet’s mind.

Equally interesting to me were the origins of the witches in Macbeth, in particular, the possibility (strong, given allusions written in the play) that Shakespeare read Reginald Scot’s The Discovery of Witchcraft, a book that challenges Jacobean notions of witchcraft, possibly leading to King James’s decision to have all copies of the book burned.

If I have one major quibble with the book, it is that it becomes bogged down with the language of speculation. Phrases such as “let us imagine,” “perhaps,” “could possibly,” “presumably,” and the like almost start to become distracting, making the book sound like so much speculation. I realize that Greenblatt is merely being careful with language, but his speculation is based on solid historical research, and I wonder if he might not have found a way to express that more clearly.

In all, I believe that James Shapiro’s books A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599 and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? were more engaging and focused. In some ways, I think Shakespeare’s story is too big to confine to a single volume, and Shapiro manages to focus on two aspects: one important year in Shakespeare’s life and the authorship controversy. Still, I am glad I read Will in the World, and I have some good information to share with students next time I teach Hamlet or Macbeth.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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The Trouble with Amazon Reviews

Amazon reviews can be helpful. I find them particularly valuable when I’m buying an appliance I’m not too sure about, but I admit that there are some aspects of Amazon reviews—of all types—that I find problematic. I never rely on Amazon book reviews, for instance.

In order to present my case, I selected a book I read in the last few years, Jude Morgan’s Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontës. You can read my review of this book here. For the record, I loved it.

Charlotte and Emily by Jude MorganForgive the apostrophe error in the title; it’s not mine. Note that the book is rated at 4.5 stars with only 12 reviews.

On Goodreads, the same book:

Charlotte and Emily by Jude Morgan The rating is 3.76 stars with 120 reviews and 471 ratings.

To be fair, this book’s title in the UK is The Taste of Sorrow (much better title, but the publisher likely thought Americans wouldn’t get it), and Goodreads compiles reviews for both titles. Amazon does not, so I searched for that book and found only 5 more reviews (all 5-stars). Amazon UK’s site has 58 reviews for The Taste of Sorrow averaging 4 stars.

The first issue I see is that literary fiction, especially from authors who are not as well known (especially in the US), don’t receive a lot of reviews on Amazon. Compare the number of ratings for each book. The novel was rated only 12 times by Amazon reviews, but it received 471 total ratings, 120 of which also had written reviews, on Goodreads. As a result, one review, either direction, makes a big difference. With books that receive a large number of Amazon reviews, the ratings tend to even out to numbers that resemble those on Goodreads more closely, but for niche books that don’t have a wide audience, Amazon isn’t often that helpful for readers trying to decide whether or not to read a book.

Amazon requires written reviews; readers cannot simply rate a book on a star system without writing an explanation of their rating. While I find that requirement helpful, as often understanding the reason for the review helps me more than a simple star-rating, I can understand why some people might not want to bother.

On the other hand, I find Amazon reviews often focus on the packaging or some other insignificant detail of the book when what I want to know is whether it’s a good book or not. I find it maddening that so many Amazon reviewers still do not understand this concept: the review is for the product itself, not for the service, the packaging, or any other element. I don’t care if it was packaged well and arrived promptly.

One recent trend I’ve noticed on Amazon is for reviewers to write amusing, over-the-top reviews for products that it’s clear they haven’t used, but that they find funny. A case in point is the product page for Sugar Free Gummi Bears, which has pretty much devolved into TMI toilet humor. It’s so bad that the same kind of reviews are being written on the product pages for regular Gummi Bears, which, to my knowledge, do not seem to have the same purported laxative effect as the sugar-free ones. Amazon doesn’t do anything to prevent these kinds of reviews. I don’t want to be a downer, as I actually do think these kinds of reviews can be fun (maybe not the Gummi Bears in particular, but you have to admit the reviews for the Mountain’s Three Wolf Moon tee-shirt are classic). I like amusing reviews. I just want to know that people who are reviewing a product are familiar with it and not just writing reviews to be funny. There is a way to write funny reviews that are also helpful.

A final issue I have with Amazon reviews is that you can rate reviews as either helpful or not. A lot of people use this function exactly as it’s supposed to be used: to upvote reviews that are particularly helpful and downvote reviews that are not helpful. However, a significant number of Amazon users use this feature to downvote reviews with which they disagree, especially if you didn’t like a book they loved or if you loved a book they hated. Or perhaps because they’re capricious and/or ignorant. Who knows?

One of the reasons I started a book blog many years ago is that I didn’t like reviewing my books on Amazon, for all the reasons I’ve shared here. Had Goodreads existed back when I started this blog, the blog might not exist, as I still find Goodreads very helpful and probably would have decided to write books reviews there. Barnes and Noble, with its focus on books and more literary bent, is also helpful, though it suffers from the same issues with literary fiction as Amazon: Charlotte and Emily has only 7 reviews on their site.

I very rarely write Amazon reviews, but at this stage, I think I’m giving up on writing them completely. Any authors who share books with me with the hopes of seeing them reviewed on Amazon have a right to know so that they can decide whether they want to share books if they will be reviewed only on my blog, Goodreads, and Shelfari. I think Amazon’s review system is broken, and I believe sharing my reviews in these other venues is ultimately more helpful, even if fewer people will read them.

None of my concerns about Amazon reviews prevent me from purchasing products from the site, but they prevent the site from being as useful as it might be.

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Weekend Reading: May 3, 2014

BookSpring finally appears to have sprung here in New England. We had an especially cold and long winter here. I haven’t done a weekend reading update in quite some time. It is so typical of me to decide to do some sort of regular post and forget about it.

Right now, I’m reading several things: Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt, A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present by Howard Zinn (just dipping in and out of that one), The Silver Chair (Chronicles of Narnia, HarperCollins Audio) by C. S. Lewis (meh so far), and Blood and Beauty: The Borgias; A Novel by Sarah Dunant (not hooking me, but not boring me).

The other day, I came across an article on NPR discussing this excellent cookbook collection curated by Amazon. I spent a long time poring through the regional cookbook selections, finding myself especially drawn to the historical cookbooks. What a find! I decided I must start collecting cookbooks and put the ones that interested me most in my wishlist. I especially liked the way the cookbooks were broken down by region, and I found myself drawn most to the collections from my adopted home of New England, my former home in the South, and my family connections and ancestral ties to Texas. I found the Southwest intriguing as well. Anyway, I think it’s an excellent collection for a beginner to peruse, and I found that the methods of selection for the list interested me as well:

To develop the map, Malcolm started with books she personally liked, then James Beard and International Association of Culinary Professionals award winners, then historically significant ones like Fannie Farmer and the quintessential African-American from the 19th century: What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc. Then she threw in highly rated reader favorites. “Editorial selection criteria didn’t have anything to do with sales,” she says.

The first book I ordered from the collection comes from New England. The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook: Recipes and Reflections from a Small Vermont Dairy drew me because of its emphasis on one unusual ingredient. The book is especially praised in reviews for the ranch dressing and scalloped potato recipes. I am a huge fan of ranch dressing, and when you get it just right, it’s amazing. The book also includes instructions on making butter and buttermilk. I actually already know how to make butter, but I was curious about making buttermilk. I know that some folks substitute buttermilk with milk and vinegar or lemon juice, and I am really, really hoping that is NOT the recipe. Surely not. Wouldn’t that be kind of embarrassing in a cookbook like this? Anyway, I will find out later today, when FedEx brings the book.

So what are you reading?

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Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Derek Jacobi

C. S. Lewis’s fifth novel in The Chronicles of Narnia is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lucy and Edmund Pevensie are visiting their terrible cousin Eustace Scrubb (who “almost” deserves the name) and are drawn back into Narnia through a picture of a ship hanging in a guest bedroom at their aunt and uncle’s house. They find themselves on King Caspian X’s ship the Dawn Treader, which is headed on a course to the Lone Islands to find the seven lords Caspian’s usurping uncle Miraz banished. Accompanying the king on his voyage are the ship’s captain, Lord Drinian, and the irrepressible mouse knight Reepicheep.

One of the things I liked about this book is that each of the characters, excepting Edmund, is tempted and tested. There aren’t any real enemies at the focus, as in first four books of the series. Of course, they encounter bad people, such as the slave traders, who must be vanquished before they can move on, but there is not one great enemy they must defeat, aside from themselves. Reepicheep is probably one of Lewis’s best characters. He’s fearless and adorable at the same time. He deserves his own series. I suppose he might be why we have Brian Jacques’s Redwall and Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux.

I was reminded several times of the Camelot knights’ quest for the Holy Grail as I read. For instance, the scene in which the children encounter the three hairy sleeping men at the banquet table and the resulting quest to go to the uttermost East and leave one of their company behind there reminds me of Sir Percival’s story in the Grail quest. If you haven’t read it, Percival goes to the Grail castle and encounters the Fisher King, but ultimately fails in his quest to retrieve the Grail, while Galahad succeeds. Galahad is taken up into heaven. Reepicheep, then, is Sir Galahad. I also thought of The Odyssey many times, especially when the ship encountered the Dark Island, where dreams come true—the description of the unseen terror that lay in wait put me to mind of Scylla and Charybdis. Actually, a bit later on, the book itself referenced the part of The Odyssey when Odysseus covers his ears with beeswax and has himself lashed to the mast so he can listen to the sirens.

I’ve already said my peace about Aslan, so I won’t rehash it here, but suffice it to say I don’t feel any differently after this book. The device of the painting drawing the children into Narnia doesn’t make as much sense to me as the wardrobe or Susan’s horn.

Derek Jacobi, as you might expect, is an outstanding narrator. His characterization of Reepicheep is particularly praiseworthy, but really, I could listen to him all day on potentially any subject (except the Earl of Oxford, but I digress). He has done a substantial number of audio books besides this one. I would highly recommend listening to his narration of this book.

When I first tried to read this series many years ago, my memory was that I stalled out somewhere in the middle of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I have no memory at all of the stories after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from that time, so it’s possible I started this book, but I’m rather wondering if I didn’t stall out in the middle of Prince Caspian now. Not sure, and I probably never will be, but this one was highly enjoyable. I have to say, the entire series has been exceptionally narrated, with the lamentable exception of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I’m looking forward to Jeremy Northam’s reading The Silver Chair and Patrick Stewart’s reading The Last Battle. After I finish this series, I think I’ll return to Diana Gabaldon’s series on audio.

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Prince Caspian, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Lynn Redgrave

Prince CaspianI finished listening to C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian over the weekend, and I haven’t had a chance to do my review yet.

Prince Caspian takes place one Earth year after the Pevensie siblings—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—have returned from Narnia through the wardrobe. They are at the train station preparing to go off to school, when they are suddenly whisked back to Narnia. It takes them some time to realize where they are because everything has changed. While they have been gone, hundreds of years have passed in Narnia, and they discover they have been summoned because Narnia once again has great need of their services. Prince Caspian, rightful king of Narnia, has had his power usurped by his evil Uncle Miraz, and he can’t defeat his uncle alone.

Each of the novels in this audio book series is narrated by a different great British actor. I found Kenneth Branagh’s reading of The Magician’s Nephew utterly charming, while Michael York’s reading of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a bit spottier. Alex Jennings’s read of The Horse and His Boy was also good. Lynn Redgrave’s reading of Prince Caspian is excellent. She did a masterful job capturing the characters’ voices and using different types of accents. She managed to inject the patronizing tone of older siblings into Peter and Susan, and her characterization of the dwarfs Trumpkin and Nikabrik made me glad whenever they took the “stage.” I also particularly enjoyed her characterization of Doctor Cornelius, Reepicheep, and Trufflehunter. It looks like she has narrated a few other audio books, so I have to recommend her highly. What a shame she is no longer with us.

Of the four Chronicles of Narnia books I’ve read or re-read this year, I would say Prince Caspian comes in a strong second after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Pevensies strike me as similar to King Arthur: they will come when Narnia has great need of them, and the device of Susan’s horn to call them was clever (and somewhat evocative of other myths). I really loved some of the minor characters in this one. Caspian is likeable, but Trumpkin, Reepicheep, Trufflehunter, and Doctor Cornelius are loveable. I like the idea that Narnian time passes at a different rate. I wonder if I can say this, though, without making someone angry: I just don’t like Aslan. He’s not bad, he’s just so heavy-handed a symbol. I realize it would wreck Lewis’s Jesus allegory if he removed Aslan from the stories, but I would find them more interesting if they had to figure out how to defeat the enemies without him as a deus ex machina. I also don’t find his personality particularly compelling. I understand his role in the stories, but he just doesn’t interest me as much as the children do. I suppose that if he is supposed to represent Jesus, then I’m not really sure I like this particular characterization of Jesus. Jesus struck me as less judgey and more gentle. I know he overturned the moneychangers’ tables at the Temple, but I mean on the whole. Aslan is forgiving, too; I’m doing a sloppy job putting my finger on their differences. Suffice it to say that I don’t find him as much fun as the other characters.

In all, this was a very enjoyable reading. I know I’m liking an audio book when I find excuses to wash the dishes so I can listen to a book while I do it. I mean, that’s just crazy, right?

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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