By Katherine A. Powers
Sunday, June 14, 2009
THE IRREGULARS Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring In Wartime Washington By Jennet Conant (11 hours, HighBridge (www.highbridgeaudio.com), 10 CDs, $34.95; Audible.com download, $24.47)
Summer in D.C.: always a difficult time for espionage, what with everyone taking themselves and their best secrets out of town. But in July 1943 Roald Dahl, British spy, propagandist and future author, was lucky enough to secure an invitation to the very center of things, President Roosevelt's retreat at Hyde Park, N.Y. Dahl's Hyde Park doings are among the many intriguing tales in "The Irregulars," a gripping account of his lesser-known, non-literary pursuits. Along with Ian Fleming, Noel Coward and other audacious British writers, Dahl was a member of the infamous British Security Coordination. The group's goal was to rally American support for England's war effort, confound and defeat isolationists and shape the post-war relationship between the United States and Britain. Simon Prebble, fastidiously pukka in his accent, has a fine "top-secret" voice, shaded with condescension and understatedly urgent. Coming from him, the expression "rumor mill" sounds especially insidious, and the deeds he describes -- "eavesdropping and peering over people's shoulders," forgery, political subversion and general backstabbing -- seem wonderfully dastardly.THE IRRESISTIBLE INHERITANCE OF WILBERFORCE By Paul Torday (9 hours (unabridged), Audible.com download, $27.09)
This recording begins with a cork pop and the quiet chuckle of pouring wine -- but what follows is far from festive. Set in London and Newcastle, it is the story of Wilberforce, an ex-computer whiz who fancies prime numbers. He has acquired a cellar of wine from a dead friend and is devoting his life -- losing it, that is -- to drinking the collection. Oblivious Wilberforce tells his own tale, backtracking through a sequence of devastating revelations which, for all their sadness and badness, are streaked with ghoulish humor. David Rintoul narrates this ingenious story in a wine-dark voice, rich in timbre, ranging from smoky oak to black currant, giving meaty tongue to poor Wilberforce's occasional befuddlement. His command of accents -- sommelier French, Tyneside demotic, upper-class snootiness -- is restrained and adept. Both novel and narration are outstanding, and though an abridged version is available, I wouldn't bother with it.THE FIRST TYCOON The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt By T.J. Stiles (28 hours, Books on Tape (www.booksontape.com), 23 CDs, $80; Audible.com download, $45.50)
Most of the financial and technological forces -- to say nothing of the ambition, determination and ingenuity -- that shaped this nation from the 1820s to the 1870s came together in the six-foot, 200-lb. frame of the Commodore, Cornelius Vanderbilt, a man, it was said, who "thought he knew best, and always would know best, even after he was dead." Ruthless, cagey and inventive, Vanderbilt began by breaking up an existing monopoly on the New York ferry trade and moved on to steamboats, transportation to the goldfields of California through Nicaragua, and to railroads. Along the way, he developed many of the financial instruments and entities that have helped create the modern corporate world. For all its complexity, T.J. Stiles's appreciative account of Vanderbilt's derring-do is a model of clarity, briskness and brio, and Mark Deakins's unhurried, pleasantly grave delivery serves it well.BROOKLYN By Colm Toibin (7 hours, Blackstone www.blackstoneaudio.com. 6 CDs. $29.95. Audible.com download, $17.47)
Though rich enough in petty snobbery and lethal small-mindedness, "Brooklyn," Colm Toibin's deceptively subdued, penetrating new novel, is somewhat kinder toward its Irish characters than is this particular author's wont. Kirsten Potter reads this story of Eilis Lacey, a young woman born in a provincial Irish town who emigrates to Brooklyn in the early 1950s. Faced with other people's plans for her life -- a priest's, her sister's, a couple of boyfriends', her mother's -- she simply acquiesces, displaying a brand of docility and resignation that may be incredible to many readers today, but is entirely in keeping with the book's setting. Toibin evokes this powerfully, as he does the young woman's homesickness in Brooklyn, so distant from the world she grew up in. Potter's low, gentle voice suits Eilis's disposition, but the novel's force and austerity are a little diminished by her take on an Irish accent. It is the pasteurized, sweetened-up version often adopted by American actors -- or "Irish Lite" as it has been called. Still, she produces the American characters without flaw and delivers the general narrative at a nice, easy pace.
Katherine A. Powers, who reviews audio books for Book World, writes a literary column for the Boston Globe.