You can’t blame Raffel or Modern Library. An unabridged dual-language version would run more than 1,000 pages, making it...

THE CANTERBURY TALES

Burton Raffel has made two key decisions in his rendition of Chaucer’s greatest work. While most editions stick to the half-dozen or so best-known stories—the raunchy “Miller’s Tale” and the proto-feminist “Wife of Bath’s Tale” being the most popular with contemporary readers—Raffel offers modern English versions of even such unfinished fragments as “The Squire’s Tale” and such often-skipped sections as “The Parson’s Tale.” Few today will be burning to hear from the longwinded parson, but in general this unabridged edition is a delight. It lets you appreciate the masterful way Chaucer unifies his stylistically and topically diverse stories with a few overarching themes: the proper relationship between man and woman (the answer’s not what you’d expect from a 14th-century civil servant), the role of the clergy (they’re only human in his realistic portraits), the all-powerful impact of chance on our destinies. Having the full text also enables readers to enjoy the sly way Chaucer toys with them, allowing his raconteurs to interrupt their narratives with such tantalizing phrases as, “but nothing like that can be included here.” The unabridged edition provides more opportunities to savor the counterpoint of Chaucer’s earthy humor against passages of piercingly beautiful lyric poetry.

That glorious language—there’s the rub in Raffel’s second decision. Most modern editions of Chaucer include his Middle English text on the facing page; it’s the simplest way to make sure readers know what’s going on but still hear Chaucer’s distinctive voice. Raffel’s modern English captures to a large extent the polyphonic vigor of Chaucer’s verse and prose. But he cannot capture Chaucer’s voice. “When April arrives, and with his sweetened showers / Drenches dried-up roots, gives them power / To stir dead plants and sprout the living flowers / That spring has always spread across these fields,” is lovely. Can it equal, “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, / And bathed every veyne in swich licour / Of which vertu engendred is the flour”? Of course not, and it would be unfair to expect it. But it would be nice to look across the page from Raffel’s lucid, lyrical rendition and be able to see the gnarled yet delicate taproot from which grew Shakespeare, John Donne and the King James Bible.

You can’t blame Raffel or Modern Library. An unabridged dual-language version would run more than 1,000 pages, making it prohibitively expensive and inaccessible to non-students who might want to use it somewhere other than at their desks. Keeping the oldest portions of our literary heritage alive for contemporary readers always involves compromise. If we lose some of the deepest levels of Chaucer’s poetry here, we are partly compensated with the full sweep of his zestful, unsentimental understanding of human nature and his abiding love for all kinds of good stories.

Pub Date: Nov. 18, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-679-64355-5

Page Count: 630

Publisher: Modern Library

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2009

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

A first novel, this is also a first person account of Scout's (Jean Louise) recall of the years that led to the ending of a mystery, the breaking of her brother Jem's elbow, the death of her father's enemy — and the close of childhood years. A widower, Atticus raises his children with legal dispassion and paternal intelligence, and is ably abetted by Calpurnia, the colored cook, while the Alabama town of Maycomb, in the 1930's, remains aloof to their divergence from its tribal patterns. Scout and Jem, with their summer-time companion, Dill, find their paths free from interference — but not from dangers; their curiosity about the imprisoned Boo, whose miserable past is incorporated in their play, results in a tentative friendliness; their fears of Atticus' lack of distinction is dissipated when he shoots a mad dog; his defense of a Negro accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell, is followed with avid interest and turns the rabble whites against him. Scout is the means of averting an attack on Atticus but when he loses the case it is Boo who saves Jem and Scout by killing Mayella's father when he attempts to murder them. The shadows of a beginning for black-white understanding, the persistent fight that Scout carries on against school, Jem's emergence into adulthood, Calpurnia's quiet power, and all the incidents touching on the children's "growing outward" have an attractive starchiness that keeps this southern picture pert and provocative. There is much advance interest in this book; it has been selected by the Literary Guild and Reader's Digest; it should win many friends.

Pub Date: July 11, 1960

ISBN: 0060935464

Page Count: 323

Publisher: Lippincott

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1960

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