There are thousands of new editions, translations and recordings of "classic" literature that have become available over the last few years. Here are fifteen that we found to be vaut le voyage. Some, as we note below, were more classic than others.

A Passage to India
E. M. Forster
Sam Dastor,

(Audio Partners)
A Passage to India is a goldmine of astute writing and wonderful plotting. It is crammed with currents and cross-currents of characters and cultures --- the anguish of the Indians, the cloddishness of the English, the mystical brightness of the Hindus.

There is the roil of boring Christianity vs. the colorful "oriental" religions; overall, there is a subtle skein of mystical, ghostly symbols and images. A creature bangs into a car; is it a hyena, or a ghost? Strange things happen in the caves. After her "enlightenment," one of the characters, Mrs. Moore, a rather straightforward Englishwoman, becomes a Hindu goddess, "Esmiss Esmoor."

Outside of the alleged rape of her future daughter-in-law, (a "rape" that may have been a mere spiritual manifestation), Mrs. Moore is the one most changed by her visit to the caves. A crowd comes in behind her, and, in the dark, "some vile naked thing struck her face and settled on her mouth like a pad." Then there was "the echo:"

    Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. "Boum" is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or "bou-oum," or "ou-boum," utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce "boum."

"The echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had murmured to her, 'Pathos, piety, courage --- they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.'"

The reading by Sam Dastor is superb.

Go to the complete

To Have and
Have Not

Ernest Hemingway
Will Patton, Reader

(Recorded Books)
They say that the bifurcation in To Have and Have Not came about because Hemingway had promised 300,000 words to his publisher and only had 150,000 so he whipped out the last in a couple of weeks, had to make Harry disappear until the last chapter, when everything falls apart. Great loss for the reader.

But before Harry gets popped, it's a wonderful run. I think about Harry and Wesley involved in their endless funny circular dialogue there in the shot-up boat stuck in the swamp, Wesley complaining "You treat a man no better than a dog." And Harry wondering if maybe he should kill him ... or maybe not, because Wesley was a "good old nigger."

    "Why didn't we stop when they started shooting?"

    The man did not answer.

    "Ain't a man's life worth more than a load of liquor?"

    The man went on with his steering.

    "No," the man said. "They take the liquor and the boat and you go to jail."

    "I don't mind jail," the nigger said. "But I never wanted to get shot."

    He was getting on the man's nerves now and the man was becoming tired of hearing him talk.

    "Who the hell's shot worse?" he asked him. "You or me?"

    "You're shot worse," the nigger said. "But I ain't never been shot. I didn't figure to get shot. I ain't paid to get shot. I don't want to be shot."

    "Take it easy, Wesley," the man told him. "It don't do you any good to talk like that."

I know ... it sounds crude and 1930's, but the writing here is a play about surviving the Depression: Our Town with sneers, a low class, rum-running, gun-toting Arsenic and Old Lace. Hemingway, when he was good, was very good ... no, he was the best.

Go to the complete

The Last of
The Mohicans

James Fenimore Cooper
Robertson Dean, Reader
(Books on Tape)
It is easy to make fun of Fenimore Cooper. His characters have more names than you might find in a Tolstoi novel. The brave scout Natty Bumppo (sic!) is also known as "Leatherstocking," by the Indians as "the Long Gun," "Pathfinder," "Deerslayer," or "Hawkeye." The characters are forever winding themselves up in speeches that go on to such length that they threaten to disappear in the forest amongst the moss and woodpeckers. (Characters are also, without any shame whatsoever, ejaculating: "'The Lenape are rulers of their own hills,' he ejaculates.")

Still, it is not unpleasant to roam the forests with Hawkeye and Unca, chasing after poor Cora and Alice. The reading we have here is by Robertson Dean, and it is a dilly: measured, well-paced, even regal. The Last of the Mohicans was published in 1826, in the days before books came to be more commonly available. They were written to be read aloud, preferably to the kids, safely under the covers, at bedtime. With this Books on Tape version, you are there, in bed, or, best, in the silent baleful forest, as much a character in this book as Chingachgook and son Unca and the brave, clear-eyed, ringletted Cora, half black ... it turns out she was born on a Caribbean isle to a slave mother.

She is certainly no slouch in the stout-heart department: at one point, Leather-stocking ejaculates, "I would I had a thousand men, of brawny limbs and quick eyes, that feared death as little as you!"

    I'd send the jabbering Frenchers back into their den again, afore the week was ended, howling like so many fettered hounds, or hungry wolves.
Go to the complete

The Ballad of
Reading Gaol

Oscar Wilde
(Two Rivers Press)
It's a sad story, made even sadder by the fact that Wilde brought it on himself, not just by his love for Alfred Douglas, but, too, when it all blew up, his lawyer told him to get the hell out of the country. Sweet arrogance: he decided to brazen it out, not even conceiving, for a moment, the astonishing power of the Puritans in Anglo-Saxon society that, like an enraged beast, come and do in the wistful as well as the blatant.

This edition, only 64 pages long, is gorgeous. There are dozens of cuts, made, we are told, from blocks of rubber erasers, by Peter Hay, the founder of Two Rivers Press. They enrich a text that for its melancholy (and its surprising and constant references to the Christian divine) might just be too much without them.

Go to the complete


Emily Brontë
Donada Peters,

(Books on Tape)
I have to confess to you I am no more than half-way through this one. I'll be starting in on tape #5 tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. I will be done at 10 or so. Don't try to interrupt me.

Well, you can try, but it won't work, for I'll be far away, me and my car dawdling along the lonely moors of Yorkshire, with the cold and the wind and the darkness of a family poisoned by this gypsy-dark boy, that bleak cliff at the edge of the heath. You'll find me gone for an hour and a half (or possibly it might be longer, however long Ms. Brontë wants to keep me) so don't try to wave me down or call me on the cell-phone because I won't respond being as enmeshed as I am (as they are) in this nuthouse, as they are with each other on the very heights that wither the soul, that shrivel the heart, that kill the innocent and the beautiful alike --- kill them with love.

By-the-bye, Donada Peters reads all the parts of this book like a dream, being able to invoke the harsh voice and harsh words of that scoundrel Heathcliff, the sweet seductive (later acidly scolding) Catherine, the stolid peasant intonations of dear, rocklike Nelly, the Yorkshire accents of the pious boor Joseph, the drunken cursing scowling of Hindley, the futile reasoning of the younger Cathy. It's all perfectly contained in this one from Books on Tape. I guarantee that if you try it you'll never forget --- nor forgive, alas --- that foundling gypsy who was able to poison them all for love.

Go to the complete

Just So

Rudyard Kipling
Geoffrey Palmer,

(Naxos Audio Books)
It's been decades now since Mum read me to sleep with Kipling, me drifting off, waking a little as she led me to my bed, kissed me goodnight (the air of that sweet Vanishing Cream!) I have to tell you I am still smitten with these twelve tales, as I was as a child.

However, with time, we change, and the sometimes judgmental awareness the world thrusts on us. What they were about in 1902 when they were first published, or in 1942 when I first heard them, are a world apart from the now.

For one thing, these tales reek of English colonialism. There are stories from North Africa and South Africa and the Orient and Australia and India --- all exotic places on the globe, but all part of the Empire --- the background for the adventures of elephant and kangaroo and leopard and rhinoceros and camel and "the Ethiopian" and the cat in the "Wet Wild Woods waving his wild tail, and walking by his wild lone."

Even more interesting are the invocations and incantations. "The High and Far-Off Times, O Best Beloved." "In the beginning of years, when the world was so new and all..." "In the days when everybody started fair, Best Beloved..." "Hear and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was, O my Best Beloved, when the Tame animals were wild..." These remind one of holy scripture, the New Testament, the Koran, the Mahabharata, the Songs to the Buddha, the Jerusalem Bible. What Kipling has done here is to peg child adventures with a wording out of the Holy Writ --- giving not only the poetry of the exotic but the invocation of the gods as witness: important words are to be uttered, and one should pay heed and attend as if listening to Gospel.

There is repetition, as good as any out of Poe or Tennyson or the Songs of Shakespeare (or the "Song of Songs," for that matter): "On the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees." No poet in his right mind would shove four gre's together like this --- great grey-green, greasy --- but Kipling is writing for children and he knows he can get away with it.

Then there's the lim-po-po (we all know what po-po means to a child) which he rounds it off with the "fever-trees" ("What are fever-trees, Mum?" "Trees with a bark that's supposed to cure malaria," she answers promptly.) Kipling repeats this phrase --- "the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River" --- a total of nine times so it becomes an incantation, a round of repetition that serves holy epics, stories that go 'round and 'round, circling us all about in their tale-telling.

I remember the power of these --- my memories some sixty years after the fact --- suggests that the tales go beyond simple fiction. For we children were being initiated into not only the Empire (where everything came to have its order and place) but, too, a Darwinian world of the exotics, and how they became what they became --- told in the style of a high paean so that we children were sure (half-believing, half-not-believing) that we were hearing the great truths of nature.

Geoffrey Palmer reads these with the appropriate accent and elegance that those of us who grew up with Mumsie's perfect readings would expect. The Naxos Company has added a bit of music --- Janacek, Mozart, Saint-Saens, Dvorák --- that is in no way intrusive. The whole runs slightly less than three-and-a-half hours. It's worth it.

Go to the complete

Two Years
Before the Mast

And Other Voyages
Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
(Library of America)
If you are a fan of the ilk of the sea tales of Patrick MacDonald, this might appeal to you. For the rest of us who can't tell a jib from the bilge, nor the poop from a reef, it is trying at best, throw-the-book-across-the-room at worst.

Dana's conclusions consisted of a warning to all who thought there was "a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sights of a ship, and the sailor's dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchantmen, than all the pressgangs of Europe." He accurately portrayed the life for the common sailor "all work and hardship ... and matter-of-fact drudgery." The food was terrible, the water --- both on deck and surrounding the vessel --- dangerous. On "temperance" ships, such as his, there wasn't even the relief of rum to warm the heart and lighten the soul.

His main complaints were the smelly dark accommodations for sailors, the impossible endless tasks above deck, and the fact that, with two or four-hour shifts, sleep was impossible. Later as an attorney in Boston, he helped to litigate cases against callous captains who deprived their charges of food and who, in some cases, resorted, and resorted brutally, to the lash.

Dana comes across as a bit of a prude, one who picks and chooses the facts to be laid out in order to paint himself more sturdy of heart. He pointedly ignores a letter from a companion who referred to "the beautiful Indian lasses who often frequented your humble abode in the hide house."

One is here reminded of the words of Winston Churchill. As we wrote in a review of The Unexpected Hero,

    Early on, he got appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. He was rumored to have said, "What are the traditions of the Navy? Rum, sodomy, and the lash?" In later years he explained that he had never said this but wished he had.

Go to the complete

A Tale of
Two Cities

Charles Dickens
Richard Pasco, Reader
(Audio Partners
It's too bad that the thing most remembered about A Tale of Two Cities is but the first twelve words: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," because the entire opening paragraph of the book is a study in counterpoint. And if we parse the lines, it turns into a not unreasonable bit of poetry:

    It was the age of wisdom,
    it was the age of foolishness,
    it was the epoch of belief,
    it was the epoch of incredulity,
    it was the season of Light,
    it was the season of Darkness,
    it was the spring of hope,
    it was the winter of despair...

    We had everything before us,
    we had nothing before us,
    we were all going direct to Heaven,
    we were all going direct the other way.

Not only does it turn out to be a bit of doggerel worthy of Poe --- if not Bach --- the entire novel is a high art, making its author one of those --- along with Fielding, Austen, Thackeray, James, Twain --- who could hammer together a lengthy, absorbing epic, worthy of his time and times.

Dickens' novels were meant to be read out loud. Father in his smoking chair, with the grandchildren gathered around his knees; or me driving around the city (another city!) with this in the cassette: there we all are, caught up by Charles Darnay and Jarvis Lorry and the worst of the French Revolution, spun out with such gore and cynicism that we now know why La Guillotine was called "The Shave." "Ha ha," says the wood-sawer, "He is so droll, that Samson" (referring to the head-chop). "Such a Barber!"

The blade comes down quickly, the women, suddenly elevated to power, sitting by with their knitting, counting the stitches, counting the shaves.

Go to the complete

The Autobiography of
Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin
Fredd Wayne,

(Audio Partners)
Franklin had the accountant's worm in his brain, but he was so cheerful withal, and his moments of chagrin are so human, and his regrets are so charming, his sophistry so elegant, that we can always forgive him. This on how he ended his months-long experiment at being a vegetarian:

    I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanced some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs. Then thought I, "If you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you." So I dined upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

The reading on these discs is elegant. (We would only wish that Mr. Wayne had instructed himself in the correct pronunciation of "hautbois" and "victuals." A small complaint, when laid against such considerable effort.)

We were left with the thought that our country has wisely placed the engraving of the good doctor on the $100 bill ... something to be striven for, rarely obtained. We were struck too with the epitaph that Franklin asked to be placed on his head-stone:

B. Franklin
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and Amended
By the Author.
He was born on January 6, 1706.
Died 17...

Go to the complete

A Doll's House
Henrik Ibsen
Nicholas Rudall,

(Ivan R. Dee)
It's tight, and terse --- reads like a fine short novel. Nora is pure schizoid, alternatively happy and then moments later, threatening to kill herself. To Torvald she acts like a doll --- and he, naturally, wants to keep her there, in pretty dresses, a slave of love, with their doll-like children. But a villainous blackmailer by the name of Krogstad appears on scene, curling his black mustache, saying, "Now, me proud beauty, I have you in my power."

Nora and Torvald also fight over the kroners ("But we can't just go wasting money..." "You could give me more money ... no more than you think you can spare...") making this bit of 19th Century drama just like a 21st century marriage & mortgage drama , the usual battles of the budget in the master bedroom when the kids are asleep.

There's some byplay with a Dr. Rank, who's secretly in love with Nora (and who is secretly dying of syphilis --- VD being an old Ibsen standby); there's a crafty friend (another ex-lover) --- Mrs. Linde --- but above all, the triad of Krogstad, Nora, and Torvald makes for a wonderful case study of what, now, in the early 21st century, we call a dysfunctional family. Nora's decision to become a late Victorian hippie, on the road, children left behind, makes for a rambling good melodrama, especially for those of us who are still fans of that particular genre.

Go to the complete

The Classic
Polar Adventure

Admiral Richard E. Byrd
(Island Press)
In his own way, Byrd was a minimalist; thus he could be seen to be in his element in such a delicate environment. He was also sloppy. I don't mean in dress and action and speech: no, in those, he was always the perfect English admiral. He was a slob in another way. His preparation for his six months alone was awful.

Like his famous (and martyred) predecessor, Robert Falcon Scott, his arrogance damn near killed him. If you have any doubts of the reasons for Scott's famous and ghastly death, you only have to read his preparations for his journey: horses in an environment where they could not survive; a scow from New Zealand to the Antarctic that was dangerously overloaded; and the provisioning showed a foolish lack of foresight. Scott and several companions died because he was a terrible planner. For proof of this, see The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

The key to Richard Byrd's survival was not to be his sturdy character ... but his gasoline heater. His tiny hut was constructed 10,000 miles away and delivered to Little America, then to the Barrier. But it was not tested. The doors quickly warped in the icy moisture and would not shut properly.

More ominously, the chimneys for the heating apparatus and the gas-powered transmitter were flawed --- so deeply flawed that they continually leaked carbon monoxide into the hut. In any closed space, carbon monoxide can incapacitate a person's thinking and physical health not to say kill through asphyxiation. It is impossible for one to survive the most pernicious aspect of CO ... that is, it goes directly from the lungs into the bloodstream, binding with oxygen in the bloodstream, depriving the body of its single most important survival mechanism.

Within a few weeks of Byrd's self-imposed exile, he was dying. His journal entries telling of his inability to eat, headaches, backaches, dizziness, fainting fits, throwing up --- combined with the brutal cold that would attack fingers, toes, eyes, cheeks, nose and mouth, plus the other horrors of an hostile environment. This, plus the degradation of a man used to robust mental health.

The recounting of these horrors make up the bulk of Alone --- and, in a gory way --- it makes for fascinating reading. Although we know he is going to make it (he wrote the book four years after) we still come under the spell of a man who is dying, and not understanding exactly why.

Go to the complete

A Portrait of the Artist
As a Young Man

James Joyce
Jim Norton, Reader
Portrait of the Artist is not only a picture of a young man going to war with his country and his religion, it is, more cunningly, the story of a man at war with himself. It is a contrary war that can fill Stephen with self-rebuke. Throughout it all, there are hints of young Dedalus's true love: the "queer" sound he hears in the word kiss; his father calling him a "bitch;" his mother saying that he always did have a "queer mind;" Cranly and Dedalus, touching blushingly on the question of love,

    "Have you ever loved anyone?"

    "You mean women?"

    "I am not speaking of that," Cranly said in a colder tone. "I ask if you ever felt love towards anyone or anything?"

Despite Dedalus's (and Joyce's) immersion in the theory and practice of being a powerfully committed artist, one who must famously endure "silence, exile, cunning," there is overall the portrait of a man who has been torn apart by ambivalence over his own soul, if not his own passion.

Go to the complete

William Faulkner
Novels, 1926 - 1929
Flags in the Dust
(The Library of America)
There are many musics in Sartoris. There is the descriptive language. And there are three dialogues: the upper-class whites (Pompous but wise Horace, speaking of humanity and the divine: "Perhaps he has forgotten Himself what the plan was.") Then there are the lower-class whites, this dialogue between the men, for those of us who grew up in the old south, ringing as true as a bell, the men on a hunt,

    "Thar, now!" the old man exclaimed, shapeless in his overcoat, up on his white horse. "Aint that music fer a man, now?"

    "I hope they git 'im this time," Jackson said. "Hit hurts Gen'ral's conceit so much ever' time he fools 'im."

    "They won't git 'im," Buddy said. "Soon's he gits tired, he'll hole up in them rocks..."


    The talk ceased, and again across the silence the dogs' voices rang among the hills. Long, ringing cries fading, falling with a quavering suspense, like touched bells or strings, repeated and sustained by bell-like echoes repeated and dying among the dark hills beneath the stars, lingering yet in the ears crystal-clear, mournful and valiant and a little sad.

Go to the complete

Pepys' Diary
Samuel Pepys
Kenneth Branagh,

(HighBridge Classics)
His follies are memorable. Pepys had several affairs with respectable lady friends. At times, he was caught by his jealous wife; at other times, he worked around (if not under) her. His specialty outside provisioning naval warships was hunting down innocent housemaids; all peccadilloes were noted in his special code within the general code of the diary (the whole was written in something called "lachgraphy;" it was deciphered and published in bowdlerized form in 1825).

Pepys' love affairs were rendered into a strange mix of English, French and Spanish. His name was pronounced "Peeps" but, in keeping with his ubiquitous lusts, it is appropriate to find that some of his cousins pronounced the name with two syllables.

Go to the complete

The Death of
Ivan Ilyich

Leo Tolstoy
Hugh Aplin,

(Hesperus Classics)
Tolstoy may be a visionary, but he does have his quirks. Besides his very young son, the one person who speaks honestly (without words) to dying Ivan Ilych is the young peasant Gerasim, "wearing thick boots, spreading about him the pleasant smell of tar from the boots and the freshness of the wintry air, in a clean hempen apron and a clean cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up on bare, strong young arms." This is Tolstoy and the simple, powerful peasants, on whom he was to pin so many of his hopes for the future of Mother Russia.

The Death of Ivan Ilych is unremitting. When it ends,

    "It's over," said someone above him.

    He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. "Death is over," he said to himself. "It is no more."

Tolstoy named it The Death of Ivan Ilych. He could just as well have entitled it The Death of Death.

Go to the complete

My Ántonia
Willa Cather

Jeff Cummings, Reader
(Blackstone Audio)
This one of those "classics" that, when you are done with it, you are wondering why it is considered classic? Who picks these things, anyway? It's like being an English major at Podunk U., wrestling with The Scarlet Letter, or that gory Moby Dick or the complete works of John Greenleaf Whittier. My Ántonia rambles all over the place, foreigners in drudgery in the dust and the sweat, in the winter of our despair not far from god-forsaken Lincoln, Nebraska.

Perhaps it is the reality that the critics like: people driven nuts in the midst of the American dream, in 1890, getting robbed, foreigners starving to death there in the breadbasket of the world, killing themselves, women working like indentured slaves, delivering endless babies and getting wrinkled and haggard ... but with that old Nebraska can-do verve.

Burden concludes with his final meeting with his old flame --- a gush of feeling --- so far ... and yet so near:

    The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.

Feelings that you could touch! The road of Destiny! The incommunicable past!

Go to the complete

Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH