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The Secret Agent
The Secret Agent
by Joseph Conrad
Edition: MP3 CD
Price: £20.05

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Compelling, 19 Oct. 2013
This review is from: The Secret Agent (MP3 CD)
This is an excellent reading of one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Although Steven Crossley does not have the most beautiful voice and his range of character voices is limited, he reads with fine intelligence and a sure sense of where the novel is going. He voices the boorish, sluggish Verloc superbly. Those whose admiration for Conrad is rooted in their love of Heart of Darkness will be surprised by this novel's unremittingly ironic tone, narrative detachment and tight discipline. It is one of the most satisfyingly constructed novels in the canon: Conrad stretches and manipulates chronology with consummate virtuosity. From the opening paragraph it is clear he sees the whole story, all its characters' shifting narrative perspectives with unerring clarity. A masterpiece from which any aspiring novelist could learn a great deal.


Death in Venice CD
Death in Venice CD
by Thomas Mann
Edition: Audio CD

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Great novella, pity about the production., 5 Sept. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Death in Venice CD (Audio CD)
Death in Venice, one of the twentieth century's finest literary achievements, deserves to be much more widely enjoyed; we need a fine audio version. Sadly, this is not that. Simon Callow has beautiful enunciation; I've always thought of him as an intelligent and sensitive actor but on this occasion either scant preparation or a philistine producer has resulted in a parody of Thomas Mann's great work.

The prose of Death in Venice is rich in suggestiveness and irony; it needs space to register its complex and subtle effects on the listener. Callow reads at a brusque, unrelenting pace and in such a monochrome register that Mann's rich poetry is reduced to functional prose. It's as if the producer has fallen into the trap of confusing Aschenbach the writer, that severe Prussian didact, with the author of this most poignant tragedy. Most of the time, Callow rattles along, deaf to the implications of what he's reading, like someone hurrying to a much more congenial engagement and mildly irritated that he must first plough through so many words. Occasionally, and increasingly towards the end of the tale, he's aware that something interesting, complex and dramatic is afoot and slows down, gives the text room to breathe, to engage the reader's imagination- Tadzio's smile is such a moment. But for the most part, listening to this reading is rather like hearing a Beethoven symphony delivered at an insensitive gallop, as if the producer is under orders to economise on recording time. In fact the three discs are not well-filled- there's room for at least another half hour's reading, more than enough to have rescued this botched enterprise.

The translation may be partly to blame. Rather than use the familiar and thoroughly idiomatic one by Lowe-Porter (published by Penguin) Caedmon have used a new one which may be more "accurate" but is often unhappy and clunky in its expression- it sounds like a translation which Lowe-Porter does not.

As if to celebrate the sloppy insensitivity of the whole project, the sublime closing paragraphs of the tale are followed, without a break, by a high-pitched American voice advertising Caedmon's other offerings. The discs come in cheap, clumsy-to-open packaging. Although it's better to have this unsatisfactory recording than none at all, it's frustrating that the enterprise was so poorly executed.

One can only hope Naxos will fill the yawning gap in their catalogue and find an actor who knows and loves this story to record the Lowe-Porter version.


Dombey and Son (Unabridged)
Dombey and Son (Unabridged)
Offered by Audible Ltd

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A magnificent reading of an important and fascinating novel., 18 Aug. 2013
This is a magnificent reading of one of Dickens's most important novels, and the longest. David Timson has the panache and ventriloquism which must have characterised Dickens's own public readings. He manages to animate a huge cast of characters, revealing the distinctive voices better than any rival. If you want to get to know this most frustrating of novels, listening to it is far more rewarding than trying to read it to yourself. It is, after all, how Dickens expected to be encountered. He wrote for family reading, not for silent contemplation of his words. The very features of his style which most irritate today, the use of vivid, stylised leitmotivs for each of the major players in the novel, give coherence to a huge and rambling story originally serialised over a very long period. It was essential to his purpose that everyone should instantly recognise who was on stage. David Timson's colourful repertory company of voices does the job wonderfully: he becomes each of his characters, changing costume without pausing for breath. And he knows the text so well than he keeps a tight grip on its narrative progress. It is a dazzling achievement.

Dickens is a virtuoso storyteller. Very early in his career, he was possessed of a prose style of enormous vigour and variety which could captivate a mass audience. He is most Shakespearean in his music: quite simply, he ravishes the ear and generates such narrative momentum that we are carried along in spite of our reservations because the direction and energy of travel is so compelling, entertaining and exhilarating. Like Shakespeare, he had the benefit of not going to university. His roots are in vernacular speech rather than the classics; if he ever read Jane Austen, he was mightily unimpressed; there is a vulgarity and range in his voice which couldn't be less like her poised, limited perfection. He possesses a huge vocabulary, is at home in a greater variety of registers than any other novelist, including Tolstoy. He is the antitype of Henry James with his self-conscious, constipated, narcissistic deliberations. He was always writing against an impossible deadline and had no opportunity of revising his novels because by the time he was writing chapter ten, the first few chapters were already in print. If much of his writing is slapdash, and merely filling the pages, what's amazing is that he can suddenly produce passages of prose far more original, probing and lyrical than anything in George Eliot. He has the many voices of London in his brain, the narrative brio of the Arabian Nights, Bunyan, Shakespeare and popular fiction in his bloodstream. By the time he came to write Dombey and Son, he was unrivalled as the popular entertainer of his day. But it is in this novel that we catch glimpses of something more impressive. Something echoing Shakespeare in his middle period.

Dombey and Son is an infuriating read. There are acres of transcendently vulgar mediocrity which need filing in the dustbin. Dickens lacked self-doubt, was incapable of questioning his own limitations, taste and prejudices, was subject to no editorial constraints. Like J K Rowling, he made so much money so easily that nobody was able to point out that a great deal of what he was producing was trash. He lacked any desire to discipline or refine his art. He was too impatient, too brimful of ideas to distinguish between the sublime and the crude. Once he embarks upon on an idea, he hammers away at it relentlessly, long after it has ceased to entertain or generate any dramatic interest. Most of the characters in this book are ludicrous cartoon figures: a couple of mannerisms and a simplistic attitude to life given a meagre handful of physical and verbal gestures and set going like clockwork toys. Captain Cuttle, Major Bagstock, the Carkers, Mrs Skewton, Florence and Edith Dombey, Walter Gay, Toots... these figures may have entertained Dickens and, presumably, many of his unsophisticated audience, but they are an impossibly tedious read today. Occasionally they bloom into something resembling acute, sentient and articulate human beings but most of the time they are simply dummies.

But Dickens's major blindspot is that, like all novelists, he cannot write credibly about the other sex. If this makes him no worse than Charlotte Bronte or D H Lawrence, what he lacks that they do not, is an attitude to the other sex that is founded upon respect. Dickens has such an insufferably hypocritical and patronising attitude to women that it disqualifies him from achieving genuine comparability with Shakespeare and Chaucer. If only he had been capable of reading and learning from Jane Eyre and Villete (written shortly after Dombey), what an incomparably greater novelist he would have been. Dickens preaches a condescending Victorian concept of womanly virtue which we can only find as primitive and ridiculous as the creed of the Taliban; Dickens's version of Christianity is sentimental and shallow. His stance on political and social reform is confused. For all his progressive sentiments, he lacks the courage to question the social organisation in which he is lionised.

And yet... Domey and Son, like the great novels which were to follow, occasionally gives us Dickens the visionary, the prophet who uncovers what is rotten at the heart of contemporary society. The first quarter of this novel includes some of his most distinguished writing. It's like watching a somnambulist stumble into territory nobody else has discovered or analysed so sharply or so eloquently. These revelatory passages come and go as they will do in Bleak House, Little Dorritt and Our Mutual Friend: they seem to be the work of a major poet quite distinct from the brash and sloppy hack who calls himself Charles Dickens and is responsible for the contemptible ballast by which these moments are almost obscured.

Dombey himself has something of the tragic potential of King Lear. He may be characterised as Money itself, the incarnation of Capitalism, Pride or Blindness but he is above all, a credibly flawed human consciousness, capable of error, suffering and redemption as these mighty abstractions are not. Dickens manages the diagnosis better than he handles the treatment: the second, much longer part of the novel is almost exclusively given over to caricature and melodrama so that any convincing or satisfying development of the character created at the beginning of the book becomes impossible. But the opening chapter promises something both tragic and satiric: perhaps if Dickens had not been imprisoned in the medium of serialised fiction and the need to fill so many hundred of pages, he might have produced a short story as powerful and influential as Heart of Darkness.

And the analysis of Dombey has moments of psychological insight beyond anything to be found in Captain Cuttle or Major Bagstock which makes those scenes which put such mismatched creations alongside one another almost impossible to read: it's like trying to make sense of a dialogue between Popeye and Hamlet.


War And Peace [3 DVD BOX SET] [1966]
War And Peace [3 DVD BOX SET] [1966]
Dvd ~ Andrei Bolkonsky
Price: £28.12

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A flawed masterpiece, 7 Aug. 2013
This remarkable film version of War and Peace will never be equalled. Bondarchuk knows the novel intimately, as does the huge team involved
in making the film. It was a prestige production, drawing on the fabulous resources of the Soviet state: dancers from the Bolshoi, 12,000 troops, a cavalry made up
of state circus performers, a huge costumes budget under the control of enthusiastic historians and an inspired composer who loved his Tolstoy. It took five years to make and no expense was spared.
There is nothing vulgar, sentimental or sensational in the spectacular scenes: Natasha's first ball, the spell-binding Battle of Borodino, the rivetting scenes of the burning of Moscow.
The only problematic area is the film's sound. The version I saw used a disappointing mixture of clumsy American voiced dubbing and subtitled Russian: if there is a version with
subtitles alone, it will be preferable. The five disc version contains some fascinating interviews with those involved in the project: very extensive, intellectual chat: not
the usual gush. Warts and all, this one of the finest films ever made of one of the world's greatest novels. It's a pity there are so many confusing packages to choose from. I've no idea which offers
the most authentic version.


Villette (Naxos Classic Fiction)
Villette (Naxos Classic Fiction)
by Charlotte Brontė
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £51.06

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding novel, outstanding performance., 5 Aug. 2013
The art of Charlotte Bronte is the antithesis of the art of Charles Dickens. Where Dickens grandstands, Bronte speaks to the reader as an intelligent confidante. In place of ravishing rhapsodic rhetoric, we have a prose style as plain as a Quaker's dress. She exhibits no awareness of the large social issues, no interest whatever in promoting social justice; her mission is the search for personal integrity and salvation, with little interest in conventional piety. Where Dickens dazzles us with broad comedy, sensational melodrama and memorable caricature, Bronte offers only understatement, quiet irony and nice observation. In place of his broad canvases peopled by a cast of hundreds of colourful types, we are given insights into a select handful of individuals. The main difference between Charlotte Bronte and perhaps any other nineteenth century novelist is that her principal characters have an intense, compelling and credible inner life as they search for decency and meaning without reference to prescribed norms and conventions. She is the first psychological novelist, the first existentialist.

Villette is a huge advance on Jane Eyre: in place of its moments of romantic fantasy, we are offered an adult love story in which love is explored as something rather more complex and interesting than Hollywood could understand. Like the best parts of Jane Eyre, Villette is largely autobiographical: the situations and emotions do not feel not simulated but acutely and honestly recalled. It is also one of the best constructed novels in the canon.

Mandy Weston's reading is compelling. She is an excellent actress who brings to life all the major characters, male and female: no mean feat since they have a tendency to lapse into French frequently and occasionally into German. If her enunciation is a tad plebeian for an English teacher, her dramatic intelligence is ample compensation. Unfortunately for non French speakers, there are no subtitles.


Cambridge Poetry Workshop: 14+
Cambridge Poetry Workshop: 14+
by Jeffrey Wood
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Another useful aid, 29 Jun. 2013
These exercises introduce kids to a wide range of poetry and encourage them to produce original writing rather than just write sterile essays about alliteration or verse patterns. Highly recommended as is the rest of the series.


Cambridge Poetry Workshop: GCSE
Cambridge Poetry Workshop: GCSE
by Jeffrey Wood
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Invaluable teaching aid, 29 Jun. 2013
This was the first in the Cambridge Poetry Workshop series and it is still my favourite volume. I have used many of these exercises with mixed ability classes over the years and been encouraged to develop the way I teach poetry. By concentrating upon the imaginative approach, these books rescue literature teaching from the dull plodding way many of us were taught: looking for a technical feature rather than enjoying what the poems were saying. A great pity it's now out of print but I picked one up for a song when my own copy finally fell to bits.


The Rape of Lucrece
The Rape of Lucrece
Price: £0.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Electrifying!, 29 Jun. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Rape of Lucrece (MP3 Download)
This electrifying reading of Shakespeare's greatest narrative poem deserves the widest circulation. It will probably help convince those who have struggled to read this poem on their own that Lucrece is one of Shakespeare's finest dramatic achievements despite its rhetorical excesses. Burton takes the whole thing as seriously as it deserves: Tarquin, Lucrece, Collatine and even Brutus speak with passion and conviction: there is no sense that this is all melodramatic self-indulgence or merely decorative word-painting. Presumably the text had to be abridged to accommodate the reading onto an LP record. but unless you know the text very well indeed, you are unlikely to spot or lament the cuts: the text is rhetorically patterned and intelligent abridgement does no great harm, though I suspect, given the chance, Burton would have made a strong case for every line of the poem, such is his commitment and intelligence.

Just occasionally there is some pre-echo and minor distortion but the recording is outstanding. No one reads Shakespeare, or English poetry generally, better than Burton. This riveting performance makes one weep that he wasted so much time filming trash when he could have been recording Paradise Lost, Lear or Macbeth.


Cambridge Poetry Workshop: 16+
Cambridge Poetry Workshop: 16+
by Jeffrey Wood
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Opening up the territory, 29 Jun. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is the latest in the Cambridge Poetry Workshop series which encourages students to explore poetry by responding to the imaginative territory the poems occupy. In many ways, it is the most courageous and exciting book in the series, enticing kids to engage with major works rarely attempted by teachers in GCSE classes: alongside poetry by Browning, Ted Hughes and Hopkins, there are extracts from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (in a modernised version), Chaucer's The Merchant's Tale and Eliot's the Wasteland as well as a group of poems by Carol Ann Duffy. The authors obviously have complete confidence in great literature's ability to speak, given the chance: there is nothing patronising about their approach. Nor are the exercises mechanical or didactic: students are encouraged to respond to these exciting works by producing their own original writing, not simply regurgitating second-hand critical ideas or ticking boxes. If only all schools taught poetry in this way!


Cecilia Bartoli: Gluck Italian Arias
Cecilia Bartoli: Gluck Italian Arias
Price: £15.45

5.0 out of 5 stars Brave Bartoli at her thrilling best., 29 Jun. 2013
Not much I can add to the excellent review above. Bartoli is an operatic heroine: she explores repertoire others never bother about and forces us to enjoy music which has become merely the territory of scholars. It's all very exciting and convincing: her passion wins one over to the latest cause: I hope she continues to trail blaze in this way. The present disc is of very unfamiliar stuff but once one acclimatises to Gluck's non-Mozartian idiom, it is captivating and musically Gluck has far more worth saying than Vivaldi. The singing is ravishing.


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