Category: literature

A Brief Introduction to Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets

Whenever I think of English poetry, the first style to come to mind is something like the Cavalier poets. For me, their work is the good stuff; no multi-page bouts of navel-gazing in free verse here. Nope, this is good old-fashioned metrical writing with regular rhyme schemes, and what does a good Cavalier write about? Put simply, the good life – the love of beautiful women, a comfortable home in the country, close friends, duty, and at times, the loss of those things.

Of course, the Cavalier poets were a fairly large group and thus did have some variety in tone and subject; Norton Critical Editions’ Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets, the compilation I’ve just finished reading, includes eighteen different writers, making it a solid introduction to the breadth of the school. Jonson is, deservedly, the most famous, and fairly representative for the rest. For example, here’s the first part of “To Penshurst,” which was the first “country house” poem in English:

Thou are not, Penshurst, built to envious show
Of touch, or marble, nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;
Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,
Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,
And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.
Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,
Of wood, of water: therein thou art fair.
Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;
Thy Mount, to which the dryads to resort,
Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made
Beneath the broad beech and the chestnut shade;
That taller tree, which of a nut was set,
At his great birth, where all the Muses met.
There in the writhéd bark are cut the names
Of many a sylvan, taken with his flames.
And thence the ruddy satyrs oft provoke
The lighter fauns to reach thy Lady’s oak.
Thy copse, too, named of Gamage, thou hast there,
That never fails to serve thee seasoned deer
When thou wouldst feast, or exercise thy friends.

That one is fairly long, but personally I tend to prefer short poems with a strong image, similar to what I discussed in the Hyakunin Isshu. Of course, Jonson could do that, too:

Swell me a bowl with lusty wine,
Till I may see the plump Lyaeus swim
Above the brim;
I drink as I would write,
In flowing measure, filled with flame and sprite.

“Lyaeus,” by the way, is Bacchus; Jonson and some of these other poets, but again, not all, are rather fond of references to Classical literature and mythology. Often context is sufficient to get the gist of a poem even if one isn’t familiar with these references, but be ready to check with footnotes somewhat often on some of these.…

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Short Thoughts on Titus Andronicus, and Two Comedies

Though I’d heard that Titus Andronicus is one of William Shakespeare’s most violent works, I wasn’t really expecting the story of Procne and Philomela via the Elizabethan Tarantino. Nothing can really shock a modern audience, regardless of how intense a story is by Elizabethan standards, but the revenge, rape, and sadistic violence was enough to make a couple scenes a bit difficult to watch even for me. It’s the type of work where, when characters consider whether they should kill an infant, it seems completely plausible that they might actually do it.

Titus Andronicus was apparently one of Shakespeare’s first works, probably his first tragedy, and often considered one of his weakest. It is weak, I suppose, by Shakespearean standards, though I’d still rather watch another production of this than any of the comedies. I don’t think “entertained” or “enjoyed” is the right word, but it certainly kept my full attention throughout. Tamora and Aaron are good villains, and I liked Titus and Marcus Andronicus. The play was very popular when it was new, and it’s not hard to see why.

The main problem, really, is in comparison to his later work. For example, Titus Andronicus includes (mostly faked) madness by one character, but this is also done later, and better, in Hamlet. Also like, and not as good as, Hamlet is the revenge theme. Aaron, a Moor, brings in a racial element to the story, but again, Shakespeare did this again, and better, later on in Othello. Conspiracies, of course, figure in a number of histories and tragedies, Titus Andronicus included, but are more interesting in, say, Julius Caesar.

I mentioned above that I actually watched this play, specifically this production by the Seoul Shakespeare Company. As I’ve mentioned here-and-there before, plays are meant to be watched, not read, and are far more enjoyable that way. An actual live production is preferable to a YouTube recording, but I’d still like to get through all of Shakespeare’s works this year, so I’m not going to wait for local productions. The only problem with this approach is that stage acting always comes across as somewhat awkward and overwrought on film, but after a few minutes I mostly got used to it, except for Demetrius and Chiron’s scenes.

Since my goal this year is to become a Shakespeare completist, I should add that I did read the first couple acts of Two Gentlemen of Verona, but dropped it. As much as I enjoy the histories and tragedies, I find the comedies a chore to get through. Maybe this means that I’ll need to put an asterisk next to my “completist” achievement, but frankly I don’t care. I also skipped over The Taming of the Shrew entirely, because I read that in college and even saw an abbreviated live production, but still didn’t enjoy it.…

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Henry VI Part III, or Two Ways to Fail at Kingship

So, at last we come to Henry VI Part III, or The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry the Sixth, even though Richard’s brother Edward seems like a more central character than Richard, and historians would contest how much of it is true, but whatever; far be it from me to question the Bard or Oxford’s editors, and The Historically Dubious Tragedy… isn’t as catchy a title, anyway.

In any case, I mentioned that Part II is a study in bad kingship, and Part III continues that theme with two examples of bad kingship. Starting with Henry VI, he seems like a nice guy; I’m sure he’d have made a fine constitutional monarch. Unfortunately, he’s a sad sack. The Duke of York literally sits right down on Henry’s throne and demands that Henry recognise him as the legitimate king, and the two compromise because Henry agrees to disinherit his son Edward and name York as his heir in exchange for York allowing him to live out the rest of his reign as king. Of course, this doesn’t solve the problem at all; his wife, Queen Margaret, understandably protests and she and Edward go off to gather support, and very quickly we’re back at the civil war game.

I hate to say it, but Henry’s like the Jeb Bush of this contest. Later on York’s supporters, now led by York’s heir, confusingly also named Edward, are arguing with Henry’s (or rather, Margaret and Prince Edward’s) supporters; Margaret tells Henry to be quiet, and Henry objects, “I prithee give no limits to my tongue / I am a king, and privileged to speak.” Everyone else just keeps talking over him, anyway, and he doesn’t say another word for the entire scene. Later on, the Duke of Exeter tells Henry that he fears that Edward (York, not Henry’s son) will seduce their supporters to change sides. Henry says of his subjects:

My pity hath been balm to heal their wounds,
My mildness hath allayed their swelling griefs,
My mercy dried their water-flowing tears.
I have not been desirous of their wealth,
Nor much oppressed them with great subsidies,
Nor forward of revenge, though they much erred.
Then why should they love Edward more than me?
No, Exeter, these graces challenge grace;
And when the lion fawns upon the lamb,
The lamb will never cease to follow him.

“[T]hey love Edward more than” you, Henry, because you don’t inspire them. He gives a monologue at one point about how he wished he could have been born a commoner, which reminded me somewhat of a comment J.R.R. Tolkien once made, that he would like a king whose main interest was something like stamp-collecting. Now, I know what Tolkien was getting at, but Henry VI is an example of why stamp collectors don’t make good kings.

On the other hand, we have Edward, who inherits the claims of his father, the Duke of York, and who provides an example of the opposite problem; he wants and enjoys the powers of kingship too much. It is, of course, ultimately his party that starts the civil war, though Henry provided the opening. We don’t see a lot of what Edward does in power, but he’s clearly not above abusing his position. He meets with Lady Gray, who asks him to give her late husband’s estate to her and her children, which had been confiscated because he had fought for York. He offers to grant her request if she fulfill “an easy task,” that is, “to love a king.” She at first assumes he means the loyalty of subject to sovereign until he clarifies, “To tell thee plain, I aim to lie with thee.” She answers “To tell you plain, I had rather lie in prison.” He offers her marriage, and it’s clear that she’s not going to get her estate back unless she agrees.

Now, after they’ve been married a while, her attitude totally changes and she comes across about as dedicated to his cause as Queen Margaret is to Henry and Prince Edward’s. While Edward was wooing her (sort of), though, he’d already sent Warwick as an emissary to arrange a marriage between him and the daughter of the King of France, and thus threw his own ambassador under a bus and insulted the French King. When Edward’s brothers point this out to him, his only defense boils down to emphasising that he’s the king and can do what he wants, even if it means creating two powerful enemies due to an arbitrary exercise of power.

The original title called him “Good King Henry the Sixth,” and I suppose he was good. At one point he disguises himself as a monk, but that disguise seems so fitting that he’d have probably been happiest just joining a monastery for real. One of the main advantages of monarchy is that it keeps the jackals away from absolute power, but poor Henry is just too nice to do that.

On a final note, I think 3 Henry VI is the best of this trilogy. The first part felt more hit-and-miss from one scene to another, though I did enjoy it. The second was more focused on Henry, which is good, but I like that the third part gives us Edward as a foil for Henry, which makes it feel more thematically coherent than the other two parts.…

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Henry VI Part Two

It took me a minute to find this one in The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works because the editors insist on calling it by the original title, The First Part of the Contention of the two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster with the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey. That title rolls right off the tongue, but I think I’ll keep calling it Henry VI Part Two. Also, I have to appreciate the spoiler right in the title.

Anyway, I wasn’t a fan of 1 Henry VI, but that was just an appetizer for the main course. Maybe it’s because the prequel was written later as a collaboration, or he just wanted to bash out something to cash in on the popularity of the original (possibly making 1 Henry VI the Phantom Menace of the Shakespearean oeuvre [okay, maybe it’s not nearly that bad]). Whatever the deal is, 2 Henry VI is closer to the Shakespeare we all know and love.

In Part One, things fall apart for England in the war in France, but here they fall apart in England as King Henry faces internal conspiracies and attempted usurpation – or rather, he gets swept away by conspiracies. In both parts of this story so far, Henry hasn’t really done much himself, except to act on bad or malicious advice, but that seems to be the point. Henry is a rather mediocre king, crowned as a child on his father’s death and, as a young man, still clearly in over his head. He says in Act 4 Scene 8 “Was never subject longed to be a king / As I do long and wish to be a subject,” but he was ready enough to dismiss Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, who had been ruling for him as Lord Protector, and rule in his own right instead.

Speaking of Gloucester, he resembles Lord Talbot from Part One in that he’s the only one in a position to save Henry’s fortunes, but as Talbot was abandoned in a hopeless battle, Gloucester is dismissed after false charges of corruption are brought against him and then, as the spoiler in the original title says, is assassinated. So, instead of having Gloucester to serve as his Metternich, Henry is left to the mercy of the other ambitious, conspiring nobles. I’m guessing that the play is not very historically accurate outside of a basic outline of events, but if Part Three is like the first two one could write a book on leadership by contrasting Henry to the other major characters. Call it, “The Art of Kingship: Don’t Be Like Henry VI.” Gloucester predicts what will happen as soon as he’s dismissed:

Ah, thus King Henry throws away his crutch
Before his legs be firm to bear his body.
Thus is the shepherd beaten from thy side,
And wolves are gnarling who shall gnaw thee first.
Ah, that my fear were false; ah, that it were!
For, good King Henry, thy decay I fear.

Gloucester was mostly thinking of the nobility, but there’s also a peasants’ rebellion led by Jack Cade, which Henry attempts to appease and entreat with, then flee from (albeit only after Saye urges him to leave London), until someone else solves the problem for him. In any case, by the time York’s rebellion actually begins, one has the sense that Henry has lost the Mandate of Heaven anyway.

Speaking of Cade, he’s only in a few scenes, but he’s probably my favourite character in the work. He’s obviously a peasant, but brazenly lies about his heritage to try claiming the throne. Here he attempts to introduce himself, with some interruption from one of his followers, a butcher:

CADE: My father was a Mortimer-
BUTCHER (to his fellows): He was an honest man and a good bricklayer.
CADE: My mother a Plantagenet-
BUTCHER (to his fellows): I knew her well, she was a midwife.
CADE: My wife descended from the Lacys-
BUTCHER (to his fellows): She was indeed a pedlar’s daughter and sold many laces.

Shakespeare’s comedy is hit-and-miss with me, but something about this made me laugh. I don’t know if the butcher is intentionally letting his fellow rebels in on Cade’s scam, or if he just doesn’t realise that he’s exposing the lie, or what. The butcher is also the character who delivers the famous line, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!” Cade does have his comic moments here or in his proud, stubborn philistinism, like when he asks a clerk taken prisoner “Dost thou use [letters] to write thy name? Or hast thou a mark to thyself like an honest plain-dealing man?” However, he’s so brazen in his lies, and bold in everything he does, it’s hard not to give him a little respect. After his followers are convinced to desert him, he spends several days in hiding until forced to scavenge an esquire’s garden for food; the owner finds him and Cade, too famished to fight well, is killed. “For I,” he says, “that never feared any, am vanquished by famine, not by valour.”

So, we’re still not quite up to the heights of Shakespeare’s tragedies, but we’re getting there. Stay tuned for Henry VI Part Three, or whatever the Oxford editors decide to call it.…

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The 2016 Shakespeare Project and Henry VI, Part 1

As longtime readers may already know, I majored in Literature but went to a university with only a token arts and humanities department. The professors I had were generally good, but to give an idea of what the school was like, there was no classicist on the faculty, and I managed to graduate without reading much of anything not originally in English or written prior to 1800 or so. The two best instructors were well aware of this, and though neither of them specialised in the period, they did make sure that one of them would offer a class on Shakespeare every semester – inadequate as the school was, it at least wouldn’t be so inadequate that graduates would entirely miss out on Shakespeare.

So, I do have some basic familiarity with the Bard – I’ve read most of his best-known works, and have seen Richard III and a couple of the comedies performed live. However, everyone who takes English literature seriously needs, at some point, to read all of Shakespeare. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, and even mentioned it in December 2014 as a goal for 2015, but I’ve decided that this will be the year I do it. This will be a year-long project, rather than something I do all at once, and I may combine multiple plays into one post if I don’t have a lot to say about them, so don’t worry – you’re not going to get thirty-some consecutive weeks of Shakespeare posts.

Now, I started with Henry VI, Part 1, which I haven’t read before. It’s fine, but it’s not going to be a favourite. It’s set just after the coronation of King Henry VI during the Hundred Years War, though Henry himself doesn’t do a lot during the play. Even the resolution feels like it’s just setting up for the Part 2, since not much seems to have been resolved at the end. Like the handful of Shakespeare’s other histories I know, there’s a fairly large cast of characters, which can make it a bit difficult to follow early on as the reader sorts out who’s who, who’s important, and who’s just a side character. A little historical knowledge of the period helps, but isn’t really necessary. 1 Henry VI is relatively action-packed, though reading action scenes in print isn’t exactly thrilling; I suppose I can’t really fault the author for that since, to be fair, this is supposed to be performed, not just read.

1 Henry VI is a bit weak, at least by Shakespearean standards, but I did like the scene just before the climax where Lord Talbot, commander of much of England’s army in France, finds himself in a hopeless battle because his comrades were too busy with infighting to send him support, and he urges his son, John, to flee and save himself. John refuses, saying:

No more can I be sever’d from your side,
Than can yourself yourself in twain divide:
Stay, go, do what you will, the like do I;
For live I will not, if my father die.

Interestingly, St. Joan of Arc is a major character here, though since Shakespeare wrote from an English perspective, and long before her canonisation, he portrays her as a villain, and near the end it’s revealed that her visions are a result of sorcery, not divine revelations. This portrayal is only surprising now because she seems near-universally admired today; Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s Joan, which I wrote about last year, seems closer to what I’m used to.

In any case, it’s rather mediocre start to the year, but there’s still a long way to go. Up next are the other two parts of Henry VI.…

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La Vita Nuova (75 Books LXVII)

Writing about Dante’s non-fiction Monarchia not once, but twice on this blog, and once at length on the main site, made me want to revisit his poetry. I haven’t had time to tackle The Divine Comedy this year, but was able to get through the fairly short La Vita Nuova over Christmas weekend, when not visiting with my kinsfolk.

La Vita Nuova is a bit of an odd work; the poetry makes up the centrepiece, but the work as a whole is autobiographical, and concerns Dante’s relationship, such as it was, with Beatrice. His love for Beatrice is famous, and plays a large part in The Divine Comedy, but as intensely felt as it was for Dante, from the outside not much seems to have come from it. They never really do anything together, barely so much as even a short conversation, and Dante deliberately hides his love for at least the first part of this story. If anything, the style of the book reminds me of the Hyakunin Isshu, which I just wrote about, in that it’s essentially a collection of occasional poems that Dante wrote capturing or commenting on moments with Beatrice, her friends, love in general, and so on. Basically, as the hundred poets would write a tanka as almost a matter of course whenever something subjectively interesting happens, Dante does the same but typically in sonnet form.…

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One Hundred Leaves (75 Books LXVI)

There are only two groups of Americans who are likely to know about the Hyakunin Isshu, literature enthusiasts who’ve taken an interest in Japan, and fans of the comic and anime Chihayafuru. I’m certainly the former and like the latter enough to have imported the French edition, so Frank Watson’s One Hundred Leaves: A New Annotated Translation of the Hyakunin Isshu seemed like a must-have to me.

If you’re not in either of those groups, the Hyakunin Isshu is an anthology of one hundred poems, each by a different poet, compiled by poet and critic Fujiwara no Teika around 1237. For readers, myself included, who don’t have a lot of experience with Japanese poetry, Watson does offer a few things to help us out. There’s a short introduction on appreciating this style of poem, annotations explaining the intricate wordplay that characterises these works, and a “literal” translation of each poem to supplement the main translation. He also includes the original versions, both in Japanese script and English transliteration, for those who either know a little Japanese or want to read them out loud. Finally, he also provides a painting from traditional Japanese art to complement each poem. Unfortunately, a few aspects of the presentation do fall short of the ideal. The pictures are in black-and-white with no indication of the title or artist, and it’s sometimes hard to see what the picture has to do with the poem it ostensibly illustrates. Not all poems have annotations, either; some stand on their own well enough not to need much explanation, but it would be nice to at least get a short biographical note about the writers. The annotations also get a little repetitive; for example, he explains several times that the image of “wet sleeves” indicates wiping away tears.…

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The Man in the High Castle (75 Books LXI)

I first read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle back in college, and at the time I loved it. The recent hype around Amazon’s adaptation of the novel made me think of it again, and I decided to re-read it to see how it holds up.

Overall, it’s still very good. The setting is 1962 with an obvious alternate history premise where the Axis Powers won the Second World War, with Germany occupying the Eastern United States, Japan the Western, with a more-or-less autonomous zone between them. How this apparently came about is plausible enough, though I must say that some of the things the Nazis have been up to are rather far-fetched. They apparently have a space programme going to Mars, have drained the Mediterranean, and have wiped out most of Africa (though something apparently went wrong with this project, but details are never explained). They’ve only just invented television, though, so reality has the advantage in idiot box technology.

Anyway, most of the story takes place in Japan-occupied San Francisco. Dick could’ve turned this into a propaganda novel and made it an outright dystopia, but the main problem for white Americans is the loss of confidence accompanying being an occupied nation; blacks and Jews do, however, have bigger problems, though much less so in Japanese territory than German. One sees this most in Robert Childan, who runs a shop selling American antiques and collectibles to Japanese clients. He’s constantly fretting about how to deal with his customers, how to show proper respect, and so on, and at one point feels guilty for selling his country’s art as curiosities to foreigners. In one interesting scene, he goes to visit a prospective client, and even speaks in a noticeably Japanified manner. When he offers this customer and his wife a gift, for example, he says, “Bagatelle for you. To display fragment of the relaxation and enjoyment I feel in being here.” This sounds like a student’s understandable-but-awkward attempts at conversing in a new language, not the speech of a native-born American.

One major theme of the book is uncertainty about what’s real and what’s not, which Dick also covered in other works like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” but it’s more fully developed here. Childan discovers that many of his products are counterfeits, two different characters have secret identities, not counting a Jewish character who’s had surgery and a name change to pass as white, and most importantly the ending, which I won’t spoil, calls the reality of everything else in the novel into question in an extremely metafictional way.

It was that ending that really sold me on the novel back in college, though it’s so out of left field that it’s more clever than satisfying as a conclusion to the story. In fact, one possible criticism of the novel is that this conclusion is only known to one character, Juliana, and the story could probably have starred only her. If Dick had written the story only about Juliana, completely writing out the other characters except for some references to her ex-husband, the story would still be complete and thematically coherent. I’m glad the other characters are there because I enjoy their stories a lot and they do expand on the themes, but strictly speaking they could be considered almost as an “expanded universe” for the novel. I don’t consider this a problem, really, it just means that the plot isn’t as tightly constructed as it could be. The only other problem is that I don’t buy Juliana’s behaviour near the climax of the novel with Joe Cinnadella, but this is only one scene in an otherwise-excellent book.

So, High Castle is just solid, A-level fiction, and it’s still one of my favourite novels. Even if you’re not generally interested in alternate history stories, this one is well worth the time to read.…

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An Experiment in Fandom Criticism

A few years ago, I wrote a post called “What’s Up with Anime Fans?” In short, I considered why anime and its fandom make some people, including some of its own fans, uncomfortable, and concluded that the problem isn’t anime in itself so much as the culture surrounding it, and that the fandom’s awkwardness is a self-reinforcing phenomenon. I still agree with most of that post, but it raises a couple broader questions that may be worth considering. First, can we judge a medium by its fans? Second, can we judge a person’s character by the media he consumes?

First, we should recognise that though the quality of art isn’t as objective or precise as, say, mathematics or the natural sciences, this does not mean that it is completely subjective and unarguable. The simplest criteria we can use to judge the quality of a work is whether it accomplishes what it sets out to do. If it’s a comedy, does it make the audience laugh? If a tragedy, does it give a sense of catharsis? Responses will vary, of course – humour in particular is notoriously subjective – but things become clearer if we examine why a work succeeds or not. Is the plot coherent, the characters believable, the spectacle artful? Taken together, did the various parts of the work each contribute to the intended effect? Should any of the parts be removed, did anything need to be added?

Furthermore, there is a moral dimension to judging art. The best works uplift the audience in some way. This certainly does not mean having an explicit moral; in fact, explicitness is often counter-productive. Compare the uplifting but enjoyable Lord of the Rings to the preachy, unbearable Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

From Bakshi's film adaptatin of Lord of the Rings
From Ralph Bakshi’s film adaptation of Lord of the Rings
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The Castle (75 Books – XX)

Is it fair to criticise a book that the author left unfinished at his death? Well, it was published, so I suppose so.

Most of Franz Kafka’s The Castle doesn’t really feel unfinished, anyway. There are a few spots that could use some editing, I suppose, but I wouldn’t have guessed that the author died before completing it until the book stops. That’s probably the main problem, really, which is hardly Kafka’s fault – though there is a note at the end of my audiobook edition about how Kafka intended the novel to end, the manuscript we have just stops in the middle. I sense that the story was likely nearing a conclusion, but obviously it’s still frustrating to have a story just stop with no conclusion at all.

Not that I mind the novel ending soon, so much; it started getting tedious to listen through well before the stop. The majority of the novel consists of the protagonist, K., going from conversation to conversation trying to sort out his position in this town where he was summoned to work as a land surveyor, only to find that this was likely a mistake. One problem is that most of these dialogues take the same basic form; one character relates some event, interprets it, the other says, essentially, “Ah, that’s what you think it means, but actually it means this…” Conveying the tedium of K.’s efforts is part of the intended effect, but unfortunately Kafka may have succeeded a little too well.

Also, I may have missed something here, but it’s not entirely clear to me why K. can’t just leave the town, aside from stubbornness. He talks about the difficult journey to get there, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he’s not going to be able to work as a land surveyor, and as far as I can tell there’s nothing keeping him there. I’d assumed early on that he must have a hidden reason for wanting to stay, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Perhaps Kafka planned to add some explanation later, but I can only take the novel as it is now.

I listened to this in an edition published by Naxos Audiobooks, and read by Allan Corduner, who does a fine job narrating. He’s actually the first narrator I’ve encountered whose work I’d listen to just because he’s the narrator. My only problem, and this is very much a minor issue, is that the main character’s name (or initial, I suppose) is pronounced with the German name for the letter, “kah,” instead of the English “kay,” so it took me a while to figure out what his “name” actually is. Everything else is fine, though, and the narration was probably the highlight of the book.…

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