Although many books these days are published simultaneously in both print and audio versions, even more are not, and they are usually the books to which one (if one is me) would like to listen. However, there's nothing like a big fat prize to propel print into sound, and that is what happened to a couple of last year's excellent novels. Between them, Edward P. Jones's The Known World and Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire took the three major American book awards -- the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award; both are now in splendid audio versions.
Dreams of the War Weary
Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire (Recorded Books: unabridged, 11.25 hours; 10 CDs, purchase, $29.99; 8 cassettes, purchase, $39.95; rental, $16.95; www.recordedbooks.com; download, $19.95 from www.audible.com) begins in 1947, in a devastated Japan occupied by triumphant Americans and overweening Australians. At the novel's center is Aldred Leith, a 32-year-old Englishman, war hero and melancholic postcolonial figure of a sort exceedingly familiar to the veteran novel reader. He neither knows nor likes the world rising out of the ashes of the war. Recognizable though he may be, there is still nothing hackneyed about his state of mind and the world through which he moves thanks to Hazzard's precision of imagery, her meticulous characterization of circumstance and her precise evocation of destiny prevailing against the forces of entropy.
Again and again, Hazzard gets it right, as in her portrayal of Mrs. Driscoll, a military wife with "large forcible head and martial shoulders," behind whose spectacles, "at the center of a thick lens, the eye shone, small, animate, and marble." This scary entity is bound on foiling the possibility for happiness of our hero and her own young daughter, who have fallen in love. Narrator Virginia Leishman's rendition of the creature's "piping voice, active with falsity" is superb, as are all her voices and her dreamy telling of this atmospheric story. There are odd patches of song in the novel to which Leishman gives melodic throat, although every time she does it comes as a bit of a shock.
Up From Slavery
Narrator Kevin R. Free takes on the voices of something like 50 characters in rendering Edward Jones's The Known World (Recorded Books: unabridged, 14.25 hours; 12 CDs, purchase, $49.95; 10 cassettes, purchase, $44.95; rental, $16.50; download, $17.50 from audible.com). In addition to delivering the authorial voice with resolute impassivity and ironic reserve, he gives us men and women, black and white, young and old, Northern and Southern, educated and illiterate. He never makes a mistake, and his emotional range is spectacular, conveying a sense of the indomitable and the discontented, the aggrieved, the crazed, the rage-steeped, the arrogant and peremptory, the sadistic and the kind. Here, with the additional dimension of the spoken word, is a society -- that "nickname for life," as Joseph Brodsky once put it -- in all its components, arrangements and tempers.
The novel pivots on the death in 1855 of Henry Townsend, a free black man and owner of 33 slaves. The anomaly of his position and the macabre light it sheds on the institution of slavery give way after his death to the progressive unraveling of the social fabric of fictional Manchester County, Va. It is a world forged and subsequently shattered by the grotesque force of slavery, by its bald violence and insidious perversion of reason. This is an ingeniously complex novel, moving back and forth through time, from character to character, from harbinger to aftershock, from official report to rumor and myth. All this shuttlecocking about of the narrative, however, could lead to considerable exercise of the replay button on the listener's part. Or put another way, this is not a book for listening to while negotiating traffic rotaries, merges or left turns of any description. It is, in fact, a true work of art and will remain among the elect in my ruthlessly weeded permanent collection.
Kinetic Energy Writ Large
Most of us can't be lazing around all day, sitting stock-still listening and re-listening to intricately told stories, but must get on with the business of driving all over the place, committing housework and mortifying our flesh in the pursuit of fitness. This is where escape in the form of light entertainment is called for and where Helen Fielding perfectly fills the bill with Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination (Penguin/Books on Tape: unabridged, 9 hours; 8 CDs, purchase, $35.96; rental, 16.95; 6 cassettes, purchase, $31.44; rental, $14.95; www.booksontape.com). The novel is a combination of chick lit, espionage thriller and another tribute to Jane Austen (in this case, the template, much warped, is Northanger Abbey). It is a wonderfully silly, immensely exciting, thoroughly absorbing account of a freelance journalist (could have been me!) who gets mixed up with saving the world from terrorists. Josephine Bailey's alluring matte-textured voice is ideal for the authorial narration, while for Olivia, the heroine, it takes on a most appropriate, untactful, girls'-school energy. In addition, awful PR people blat on as is exactly their wont, and even the American Prince Charming is well done, not suffering from those occlusions of the pharynx that so many English narrators inflict on us. If the villain of the piece, a Middle Eastern zealot, sounds like Natasha from "Rocky and Bullwinkle," that is surely the nature of evil.
Lighter even than Helen Fielding are Carl Hiaasen and his latest Florida caper, Skinny Dip, which is available in two weights. The abridged version (Random House: 5 hours; 4 CDs, $27.50; 4 cassettes, $25. download, $15. from audible.com) is read by Barry Bostwick. In this rendition, certain hidden shallows of character have been sacrificed to precis, as have some maneuvers of plot. The bevy of beings who romp through the book includes Chaz Perrone, a priapic, venal, scientist creep who not only tools around in a Hummer but also throws his perfectly good wife off a cruise ship on their anniversary in an attempt to murder her; the dumped wife herself, Joey, beautiful, rich and an excellent swimmer; a much-divorced, nature-loving loner who cooks manly meals of freshly caught fish; a very hairy person with an unexpected streak of goodness; a high-heeled, good-time girl; and a python-owning cop homesick for Minnesota.
It's all excellent fun, which Bostwick's merry voice amplifies, taking on greater cheer as it details the unlovely Chaz's getting his many just desserts. If Bostwick's Minnesotan sounds too much like a Swedish Irishman and you wish to spend more time in Hiaasen's world, there is an alternative in the unabridged version read by Stephen Hoye (Books on Tape: 13.5 hours; 11 CDs, purchase, $44.96; rental, $18.95; 9 cassettes, purchase, 35.96; rental, $17.95. MP3, $25.95). Hoye's delivery sounds almost tranquilized compared with Bostwick's. Still, it's a resonant treatment, slow and luxurious, perfect for savoring the sweetness of revenge. *
Katherine A. Powers writes a literary column for the Boston Globe.