LET US murmur sympathy for those poor souls whose only exposure to Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil was through the movie version starring celebrated diva Roseanne Barr. The movie was a bomb, but the unabridged audio treatment narrated by Davina Porter is a beaut.
Weldon's intricate social satire introduces us to Ruth, a woman scorned who takes revenge. Does she ever. Six-foot-two yet beaten down to psychic putty, Ruth is a lumpish drudge victimized by her callow husband, Bobbo, and their wretched children. Yet oddly, it is Bobbo who liberates Ruth during one of his periodic rages. "You're not a woman at all," he snarls, "You're a she-devil!"
Just as Zen monks achieve satori when struck just so by the master's stick, Bobbo's crack shocks Ruth into seeing her true nature. If I am a she-devil, she reasons, then I am outside society, beyond all rules and conventions. She-devils can therefore do as they wish. And so Ruth does.
First, she burns her house down, having made sure her children are off stuffing their porcine faces at MacDonald's. Ruth also removes the dog and cat before the inferno devours the family's possessions, but declines to save the guinea pig, which was always unpleasant to her.
After the fire, Ruth deposits the children with Bobbo and his great love, Mary Fisher, a beautiful, graceful writer of romance novels, "who lives in a high tower" by the sea. Bobbo, the children and delicate Mary Fisher are shocked. They have no way of knowing that the She-Devil is only just beginning her complicated odyssey of revenge.
Davina Porter's narrative pacing and English accent are a perfect complement to Weldon's story. Though Porter gives different voices and inflections to Weldon's many characters, she never overpowers the author's words and carefully crafted images. The movie version went for cheap laughs; this audio production (Recorded Books, $36.95 or monthly rental, 800-638-1304) goes for deeper meanings. Atwood on Audio
THE HANDMAID'S TALE, by Margaret Atwood, was also recently made into a film which, while not a flop, was greeted with mixed reviews. There are no such problems with the unabridged recording narrated by Betty Harris (Recorded Books, $56.95).
The story is set "sometime in the near future," after the United States has been taken over by fascistic Christian evangelicals and renamed the Republic of Gilead -- a woman's world in the very worst way. Environmental pollution has rendered almost the entire population sterile, so the ruling class uses the few fertile women as breeding stock, housing them in compounds dominated by an all-powerful staff of Commanders of the Faithful, guardians and female wardens called "Marthas." A sign waving at one of the regularly scheduled antiabortion rallies sums up life in Gilead: Let It Bleed.
The tale is told in the first person by a handmaid who describes -- as though reading from a journal -- how she was captured with her husband and daughter while trying to escape to Canada. She has been brainwashed and renamed Offred, though memories of her previous life keep punching through her consciousness.
Offred must, when ovulating, report to her Commander and his televangelist wife, Serena Joy. The three engage in ritual copulation, a solemn affair more clinical and clumsy than erotic. If Offred does not become pregnant after four such ceremonies, she will be redesignated an "unwoman" and shipped off to work and slow death in a toxic waste dump.
The Commander is drawn to Offred, however, seeking her clandestine company not for sex but for a relationship centered on forbidden conversation and, of all things, Scrabble. The liaison is illegal and Offred knows that not even the Commander will be able to save her from severe punishment if she is found sneaking out at night. There is also the matter of Offred's lesbian friend, Moira, a resourceful, dynamic woman who refuses to surrender her identity or life to the Republic's insanity.
All of this is woven into a complex and witty novel that is alternately funny and frightening precisely because it is so plausible. Harris's narration is subdued, creating just the right mood of darkness and danger.
If The Handmaid's Tale whets your appetite for more Atwood on tape, listen to Cat's Eye (Bantam, $14.95). Kate Nelligan reads the story of Elaine Risley, a painter who returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her work. But Risley is also returning to the city of her youth, of shattered dreams and of long-suppressed pain.
One incident, a cruel childhood initiation rite inflicted by three girls she considered friends, still haunts her. Memories mingle with the present as Risley unravels her past, recalling her adolescence in the '50s, college in the '60s and her awakening with the beginning of feminism in the '70s. Sometimes funny but mostly haunting, this three-hour abridged reading of Cat's Eye has an able narrator in Nelligan, whose woodwind-like voice is perfectly suited to the intimacy demanded by audio.
Atwood's Bluebeard's Egg (Brilliance, $17.95) is a nice change from the preceding titles because this collection of 13 stories -- including "Uglypuss," "Spring Song of the Frogs," "In Search of the Rattlesnake Plantain" and "The Salt Garden" -- is often humorous and biting, rather than menacing. I often found it difficult to care deeply about some of the people Atwood writes about in several of these stories, but perhaps only because characters like Offred and Elaine Risley were so vivid in contrast. This is an unabridged, three-cassette, three-hour recording with a cast of 14 actors. The stories are performed as a play rather than read by a lone narrator. Mean Streets of Chicago
V.I. WARSHAWSKI wouldn't conform easily to Atwood's repressive Gilead, no more than she does to present-day Chicago. Victoria -- Vic, to her friends -- doesn't do well when there are people telling her what to do and where to go and what to believe. She is too tough and too smart a private eye to put up with getting shoved around. But that's what she gets plenty of in Sarah Paretsky's Burn Marks (Bantam, $14.95), a mystery that pits Vic against bare-knuckle Chicago politics, graft, and crooked cops. Not an easy mess to sort out when you're the daughter of a policeman (she carries her dad's shield and a .38 in her purse), especially not when you're a smart, attractive woman. Some men are trying to bed Victoria while others are trying just as hard to kill her.
The whole confusing adventure starts one midnight when Warshawski's boozy, aging Aunt Elena shows up after her crummy rooming house burns down. Elena is hardly a model senior citizen, having recently been apprehended for turning tricks uptown. But Victoria is loyal to her aunt, so she starts asking questions that get answered with more questions. Why was the Indiana Arms torched? How does it tie in with a multimillion dollar deal for a new stadium to be built on the site? And why are Vic's political pals and her friends on the police force so touchy about her insistent queries? The most important questions come later in this three-hour abridgement: Who kidnapped Aunt Elena and killed her junkie friend? And who is trying so hard to bump off Warshawski?
Kathy Bates as V.I. Warshawski is terrific. Her deep, versatile voice captures V.I.'s toughness, intelligence and humor. But Bates really outdoes herself with her characterization of whiny, devious and lovable Aunt Elena, whose Chicago accent could cut glass. You'll know trouble is brewing when you hear Elena snuffle and cry, "Awwwww, Victoria!" Fast Forward
AUDIO BOOKS-to-Go (703-823-5004), the area's first service specializing in renting a wide range of fiction and nonfiction cassette books, currently offers free pick up and delivery to the Tysons, McLean and Ballston areas and to the Pentagon. In November, the enterprise launched its retail store -- SmarTapes -- on Duke Street in Alexandria. SmarTapes will initially carry 880 audio books and will offer special membership rates to the blind and those over 62 . . . Fans of Louis L'Amour westerns (and those who loved listening to westerns on radio) should look to Bantam Audio, the publisher of 30 L'Amour audio books, most recently Grub Line Rider. Almost all are produced as dramas with music, sound effects and a cast of actors. Bantam Audio says there are "many more" L'Amour stories to come . . . Audio Renaissance (800-221-7945; extension 577) has a new series of True Crime Audio. The first titles include Linda Wolfe's Wasted: The Preppie Murder; Darcy O'Brien's Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers and Murder in Little Egypt; Ken Englade's Murder in Boston; Leslie Walker's Sudden Fury; and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song -- this one read by Mailer. All are three-hour abridgements, $15.95 each . . . Also from Audio Renaissance and just in time for those gloomy winter nights is Tony Hudz's Vampires and Werewolves. This historical investigation, narrated by the unnervingly deep-voiced Stanley Ralph Ross, examines the myths surrounding "those human/inhuman creatures who rise by the light of the moon to stalk and destroy us." And you thought we had trouble with elected officials.
Vic Sussman regularly reviews recorded books for Book World.