‘The road goes ever on….’ A review of Rob Inglis’s narration of J.R.R Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”

Rob Inglis is the perfect choice to read these epochal works. He has gravitas and a lightness of tone that matches both the bright radiance and dark terrors of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. He is a great character actor, bringing life to Hobbits, men, elves and monsters. He lends the songs melody and charm, history and tradition. The temp quickens in the more dramatic passages in a way that makes you sit up and listen. Sheer brilliance. His reading of this work has calmed me at night so that I drift into sleep, as well as completely commanded my attention and made me forget everything else on my commute into work.

The tale itself is well familiar to me and many others, but if you are new to this world, welcome and I envy you, to see it all with an explorers eyes for the first time. Frodo Baggins inherits his Uncle Bilbo’s ring when Bilbo leaves the Shire, exhausted after the adventures of ‘The Hobbit’ and by his possession of the ring, which draws from its bearer a heavy cost, as well as magical boons such as an unnaturally long life. This may be granted but it comes with a dep fatigue of ‘being spread too thin.’ It also belongs to the darkest power in the land, Sauron, who now seeks the ring as it is the key to dominance of all life. The wizard Gandalf sets Frodo, his gardener and friends Sam, Merry and Pippin, on a quest to find out what to do with the ring. They meet up with Aragon, ‘a ranger from the North,’ and journey to the Elves of Rivendell to take Council, where the fellowship grows, and they begin their epic quest to destroy the ring….

The Lord of the Rings is the last word in world building, J R R Tolkien having invented whole languages, histories and mythologies for his world through his life, informed by his career as a soldier in World War One and by his academic career as an Oxford Professor.
Just typing this makes me feel ‘not worthy’ and ‘stretched too thin’ to do this work justice. just sink into it, and be renewed.

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“Winder!” W-I-N-D-E-R! Now go and clean ’em!” A review of the Audible Production of Charles Dickens’s “Nicholas Nickleby”

This audible production of Charles Dickens’s classic Victorian melodrama has been released in nineteen parts (mirroring Dickens’s original print serialisation), averaging about two hours each. It has it’s own epic, sweeping theme music, and a ‘next time on Nicholas Nickleby’ teaser trailer to the next episode, which cleverly utilises Dickens’s original chapter headings.
Left Destitute after his father’s death, Nicholas, his mother and sister Kate travel to London looking naturally for family help from his Uncle Ralph Nickleby. Unfortunately Ralph is anything but natural, he is a debased, scheming Usurer or money-lender, who has utterly disregarded his humanity in his quest for wealth. Ralph sets Nicholas on his apprenticeship to the schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, who with his family run a brutal boarding school regime where physical, mental and emotional abuse are the norm. Nicholas is driven to an act of rebellion that leads to him going on the run with the friendless, abused, damaged and abandoned lad, Smike. This is only the start of Nicholas’s adventures, however, and through the course of the novel we shall encounter theatrical troupes, ruined dressmakers, suffering servants, heroic philanthropists and a range of heroes, villains and grotesques, moments of high comedy, incredible dramatic coincidences, edge of the seat drama, social criticism and satire that hits its mark every time.

What a joy this production is. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s narration is a wonder of character acting; from the rasping, biting tones of Ralph to the free ranging witterings of Mrs Nickleby, the wheedling whining of Squeers, the quietly spoken heroism of Nicholas, and much more. Narrator and writer seem perfectly matched,and the result is one of the happiest, most compelling listens I have found on audible. It is first class, and its production values and use of music lift the mood and atmosphere further.

My recommended audio-book of the year and definitely in my top five of all time.

A gripping but inadequate chronicle of the times: A review of Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House.”

I read Bob Woodward and Car Bernstein’s ‘All the Presidents Men’ some time back, as I have always been fascinated by the Nixon Presidency, with all its drama and dysfunction and ‘dark side of Camelot’ themes, as well as the tortured psychology of Nixon himself. Woodward has chronicled pretty much every President since, and has traced the effects of Watergate through successive Presidencies.
Trump, though, is a new low of dysfunction, a new standard of venality and dysfunction in the White House that makes Nixon look the soul of integrity. How does Woodward tackle him? he uses the ‘deep cover’ that has serviced him well in the past, speaking to senior officials off the record. And it does here make for gripping drama. the book is mainly reconstructed dialogue of various situations in the Trump Presidency as harvested from these interviews, with linking narrative and background there, but kept to a minimum.
It works well in conveying immediacy, drama, the white hot moments of critical events unfolding. Trump’s criminal stupidity is of Godzilla proportions, stomping on any good sense that gets in its way, as his beleaguered officials try to steer him, contain him, and snatch documents from his desk so that he can’t sign his own harmful directives.
That all said, I am left feeling that Bob Woodward used his usual playbook, which is very ‘Washington,’ always slightly dazzled by the culture of the Hill and the language and customs of power. And that play-book can’t do justice to the Trump Presidency. This is a Presidency that is tearing up all the norms of political and human decency. Woodward’s style is more suited to days when they were still ascendant, even when they were tarnished by Nixon. Woodward wrote well about that tarnishing. But here, I feel he needs a tougher approach.
Woodward pretty much buys into the idea that the GOP contains heroes trying to restrain Trump. But he ignores why more of them aren’t being more active in defying this President. It is one thing to whisper to a journalist in deep cover, or sneak a document off a desk. Another to really do something that counts, by taking a public stand. And why does Woodward dismiss Christopher Steele’s dossier on Russian Collusion as trash? This is an essential theme and he does not explain his view, or acknowledge its importance.
All in all this is a compulsive read, but inadequate to the times.

As a postscript, I tried to post this review on Amazon, but was blocked, as Amazon says “reviews are being limited because of unusual reviewing activity.”  Go figure.

Rebuilding the New World: A review of Deon Meyer’s “Fever.”

Deon Meyer is a South African award winning novelist, known for his crime thrillers rooted firmly in South African culture and written originally in Afrikaan. ‘Fever’ is a departure from the writer’s usual genre, being an epic stand-alone post apocalyptic story that has invited comparisons with ‘The Road,’ ‘The Stand,’ and more. It is, however, very much its own work, and Mr Meyer writes with a powerful and distinctive voice.

A flu-like pandemic has decimated the population of the world. Pockets of survivors try and survive and rebuild, with threats from ruthless marauders that can be beasts (wild dogs and in one case feral domesticated pigs, being examples), or people who exhibit the most beast like nature of humanity, such as rapacious motorcycle gangs or those embracing the immorality the new world order allows them to indulge, unchecked by the usual restraints.

In this world walk WIlhelm and Nico Storm, father and son respectively. Crossing the country in a Volvo truck, the father seeks to build a new community built on the finest egalitarian principles, that people can flee to. And so ‘Amanzi’ is eventually founded, a growing community built on hope and democratic principles. Much of the narrative is dedicated to the founding and building of this community, as told from various viewpoints. The novel employs a multi-narrative structure, so difficult to do successfully, because you will get hooked on one voice and want to know more of the story that voice is telling, only to jump to a different perspective. But Deon Meyer is a fine writer and uses this technique to good effect, orchestrating these different narrators without diffusing tension. He uses the device of transcribed interviews for a history of this community. And it is this emphasis of the hopeful building of new community that gets this book to stand apart form others that share the shelf of this crowded genre. Many human communities in post apocalyptic fiction are dysfunctional to the point of psychopathy and doomed from the outset (think the Walking Dead’s Woodbury). Amanzi is pretty much an exception to the rule.
The suspense from the narrative comes from an epic foreshadowing. We know the father will be murdered, we are told in the opening pages, and this terrible event does not happen to well into the last quarter of the book. But who is the killer, or killers? There is tension within the community as a disaffected Pastor seeks to build a community he deems a more ‘godly.’ And there are epic battles with marauders, and the last quarter of the book introduces a new, mysterious military threat. But the story of Willhem’s demise contains a rug-pull so massive, all I can say is that it reinterprets the entire narrative, and I am struggling to process it. It raises some pretty titanic moral questions.

Characterisation is vivid; we get to know well the idealistic, principled humanist father; the son who loves his father but holds this in tension with his own emerging identity being forged in this crucible of fire; the tattooed Domingo, mysterious and lethally effective;and the political Pastor Nikosi; all these are vivid in their humanity, and the book gives us no easy heroes or easy scapegoats. These are all very complex people, convincingly drawn.

An amazing book, truly unforgettable. If you like intelligent post apocalyptic fiction, or / and suspenseful thrillers full of people so real you feel you have been talking with them yourself, you can’t miss this.

A review of Greg Garrett’s “Living with the Living Dead: the Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse.”

In this exciting, fun and informative work, Greg Garrett, Professor of English at Baylor University, and a theologian and Church leader, takes on our culture’s obsession with the undead.
Why have they exploded in public consciousness, invading film, tv, books, art, comics and more. Why is the term ‘zombie’ appearing at all levels of our discourse, including economics and politics?

The writer explains that at times when humanity feels itself under attack and in crisis, facing an existential threat, it turns to personified figures of death, including the zombie, to help it work things through and deal.
And so in the middle ages, at the time of the Black Death, we get death personified, the skeletal, cowled and scythed figure. During world war one death personified again appeared in poetry and art. During Vietnam we got Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. And, following the November 11th Twin Tower attacks, we got an explosion of the zombie through our media and culture.

Referencing a wide range of stories, TV shows, books, movies, comics and art, most frequently Cormac McCarthy’s “the Road,” (yes the baddies are not strictly zombies, but they are predatory cannibals in apocalyptic setting that have disavowed their humanity. The important difference is…..?), “the Walking Dead,” Game of Thrones,” and the films of George A Romero, Mr Garret shows how the undead narrative can teach is much about community, ethics, and whether we face the end with nihilism or hope. As important as the monsters is the setting of the cataclysm or apocalypse that unleashes them. He writes eloquently of the history of the apocalypse, it’s secular and religious understandings, and why it is a context that so haunts us.
His references and quotes are always well judged, entertaining and illuminating. He also draws on a number of less well known sources such as the comic “Afterlife with Archie,” a story called “Escape from the Mall,” the movie “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and more.
His arguments are profound and wise; by naming our deepest fears and horrors, sharing them, showing how good always remains a choice even in the darkest times, we gain strength and inner resources to deal with the threats we face individually and as communities every day.
It is up to us whether we become a snarling opportunist or someone who “carries the fire” to light up the darkness.
The writing is clear, accessible, warm, engaging and hopeful.

Thoroughly recommended

A review of C.S.Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

For many years now our family has enjoyed the most wonderful Summer holidays in Cornwall.  And it’s at this time that my tradition is to read a book by C.S.Lewis.

Having exhausted his science fiction trilogy, and his essays and works on the Christian faith, I have now turned to the Chronicles of Narnia.  Last year it was “the Magician’s Nephew,” this year “the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

One of the best known and loved of Lewis’s works, the out-line of the story will be known to most.  Children are playing hide and seek in an Uncle’s large house.  One child, Lucy, bolts into a wardrobe and into another world, populated by Fauns. talking animals, and an evil witch who has cast the land in a perpetual Winter, and cancelled Christmas.  Lucy is shortly followed by Edmund, who meets said Queen and is turned to the dark side by a box of Turkish delight.  Then enter the rest of the gang, older children Peter and Susan.

They are befriended by Mr and Mrs Beaver, and taken to meet the land’s power for Good, Aslan.  An epic confrontation between good and evil follows.  What is also well known is how this is modelled on the Christian Gospel, with its vicarious sacrifice to pay the price for evil and treachery, and resurrection and the defeat of evil.

For my money Lewis does this without distorting or spoiling the story.  It is, above all, an engaging, fast paced, imaginative and moving story.  And I think you would feel that with no knowledge of Christianity.  For those of and sympathetic to the Christian faith it offers another level of meaning, and it is skilful how the events do parallel those in the Gospel.  As well as the main notes, we get the torment and persecution of Aslan by monsters echoing the torture and taunting of Christ, and the women watching the tomb and tending to the slain Christ are echoed by Lucy and Susan in this story in their ministering to Aslan at the stone table.  But the foundation to all this, I have to stress, is a really good story.  None of it would work if it wasn’t.

I love also the black and white illustrations by Pauline Baynes, sketches that capture the magic and wonder of the story.

Lewis’s gender politics are dated and have been a problem for many, and hotly debated.  That they were the norm when he wrote does not mean that they do not grate.  There is a line here that made me wince about battles being uglier if women fight.  No, war is ugly whoever fights, and World War One destroyed the notion of wars fought by poetic, chivalrous combat.

It is a problem, but not one in my view that should spoil the story.  We have to be sympathetic to the fact that he was writing in and of his time, and his female characters, Queen included, are so epic.  Lucy and Susan drive the action as much as if not more that their male counterparts.

A wonderful story, well written by a master story-teller.  Young or old, this is here to be enjoyed.

A review of Harold Bloom’s “Lear: the great image of authority.”

Harold Bloom’s literary criticism does not lack ambition. He credits the character of John Falstaff, for example, of inventing what it means to be human. He describes Hamlet Prince of Denmark for taking us past the limits of thought, and King Lear past the limits of feeling, describing them almost as God-like beings that we cannot approach directly, hence the need for characters who mediate for us, such as Horatio in Hamlet and Kent in Lear.
Your capacity for the scope and scale of Bloom’s assertions will largely determine as to whether you are able to finish his books.
I myself admire the ambition but am not always convinced by it. There is a sense of Shakespeare’s characters being overloaded with more freight than they can carry. Shakespeare has been loved through the years because his characters are all too real, all too like you and me in thoughts and feelings and vulnerabilities. But that does not make them beyond our reach in terms of what we can comprehend. What we lack in power with some of these characters, we keep pace with in frailties, mortality and capacity for moral choice.
What I enjoyed about this shorter work on Lear, part of a series by Bloom on Shakespeare’s characters are the range of sources and influences and works that have been influenced, that he brings to bear. For example, we see how Lear echoes the Bible at certain points, especially the language of the Geneva Bible, the translation that would have been predominant when Shakespeare wrote. We find lesser known poems such the anonymous Tom O’Bedlam song here reproduced in its entirety, from a common-place book of around 1620. It’s a fascinating and rich poem and it’s good that Bloom is giving it a wider readership. We also see how the play influenced Browning (“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came”) and others.
Bloom’s contention is that although Lear references Christianity, which he describes as “addicted to hope,” Lear’s universe is so dark and nihilistic that it negates hope. He argues that Edgar’s journey is from betrayed brother to outcast to avenging nemesis to a ruler who realises the hopelessness of life. Bloom argues that the play offers no consolation or hope, good actions being admirable but otherwise futile on the treacherous “great stage of fools.” Lear is a tough play, and it does take us into the abyss. But I would argue that it mirrors the cataclysm of evil in our own world but does not negate goodness. When goodness if defeated, as it appears to be in Lear, it may be a lost battle, but it takes place in a wider war. And the goodness of Edgar, Cordelia, Kent and others, is truly exemplary and inspirational, in turn helping us to achieve good actions in our lives. The play also spotlights the hypocrisy, banality and self-defeating nature of evil. The play may end in a cataclysm, but the evil characters are also consumed, either by their own hand or by those of the play’s heroes such as Edgar. It is the good that is left standing.
And so, Bloom’s book is an engaging read and the writing is wonderful. But Bloom’s massive, meta claims on Shakespeare’s heroes, together with a bleak and nihilistic world view, means that much seems missed, and some arguments seem to be supported by nothing more than bloom’s conceit.
A good read, though, and some genuine insights.