Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Book reviews: Vacation audiobooks

The Great American Road Trip affords ample time for listening to audiobooks.  Here are some quick reviews.

The Children's Homer by Padraic Colum is required reading in Cedar Tree middle school years, so it was familiar to our first two, but I hadn't read it.  This was our first CD to try in the new van.  It is an easily accessible retelling of both the Iliad and the Odyssey.  The only thing that was a bit disconcerting for me was the very jumpy storyline.  I know epics are supposed to start in medias res, but this story started with Telemachus going on a quest to find out what happened to his father and hearing the Iliad (and parts of the Aeneid) told to him by the other war veterans he meets, all in flashback form.  The great battle scenes of the Trojan War are as much of a blur to me (as a decided non-combatant) as they have always been, but I caught the mention of Helen's golden spindle and Penelope's golden shuttle! (I'm not sure how practical they would be, but I'm game to try fiber tools made of gold if someone wants to give one to me as a mark of my high status!)  I have always favored the more linear retelling that I have enjoyed since childhood myself in Myths of Greece and Rome; but this is an expanded version that keeps the flavor of the original while placing the young reader (or hearer) in the shoes of Telemachus.  Note to those who plan to read the originals: don't expect to find the Trojan Horse in either of the Homeric epics: that's saved for Vergil's Aeneid.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!  Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz, is a quick read/listen.  Written as a series of short monologues for a school play, it's like a miniature Canterbury Tales for children (the Miller's son is edgy in this version too).  I liked the audio version's use of music from Carmina Burana in the interludes, and I liked the meticulous historical research and the emotional resonance created by each of the different characters (sometimes in very unexpected but historically authentic ways).  I disliked the automatic negative portrayal of Latin wherever it appeared (boo!) and in general, the modernistic lens through which these medieval characters are viewed.  For example, there is not much mention of Church vocations at all, and none in a positive light; there is an assumption that the lack of birth control proved a severe hardship to village women, and that Christians normally treated Jews with murderous enmity.  But overall, a delightful and lyrically written play.  The audiobook was beautifully produced with multiple voice actors; the pictures in the real book are well worth close examination.

The Time Machine and other stories by H.G. Wells - this is one of those books that I had never made it through although I've been meaning to forever.  Overall, I prefer Jules Verne's sense of optimism to Wells' bleak disillusionment with the Victorian age of progress.  He seems to accept Darwin's evolution, but melds it with Marxism in a way that will lead to the ultimate downfall of humanity.  Our audiobook had a series of short stories included, some of which were memorable and haunting.  I enjoyed playing literary detective and speculating about which stories influenced C.S. Lewis.

Gotta go, we have a breakfast date with Minnie.

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