All across the nation, car doors are slamming and sliding shut and the great American summer rite, the family car trip, begins. With its legendary rigors and traumas, it makes up a distinct strand of our cultural heritage, from Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" to "National Lampoon's Vacation." For most people with children, however, escaped convicts and dead grannies are less of a problem than the boredom and belligerence that car trips breed in the young. Any number of amusements, high-tech and low, have been devised to ameliorate the situation, but reading, unfortunately, is out -- not because it is passe, though, of course, there is that, but because, when done in a car, it is notoriously associated with young persons turning green and throwing up all over the place. Sadly, though possibly libelously, reading and car sickness are forever joined. The solution is audio books, and with some care it is possible to find ones that, though written for children, are nonetheless appealing to adults. When such books are read well, they perform the miraculous, bringing a reign of peace to the car.
Fairy Tales for the Young at Heart
As it happens, this year marks the bicentennial of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen and brings the publication of Tiina Nunnally's wonderfully translated Fairy Tales, a collection of 30 of his best known stories, available from Listening Library (unabridged, 14 hours; 9 cassettes, $60; 11 CDs, $75; download from Audible.com, $20.97). Over the years, especially the last 50 or so, the tales have been so bowdlerized, so dumbed down, cuted up and licked over, that to hear them read in this vigorous, sparkling translation is to recover youth's sense of enchantment. Even a child of today, raised in the desiccating blaze of TV and computer screens, will find wonder in these tales, so much more fresh and powerful are they than the synthetic products of the storyboard. Who would not thrill to the Ice Maiden's unholy kiss deep in an icy chasm? Or linger deliciously over the image of small, chopped-off feet dancing in their red shoes "across the fields and into the deep forest"? Or be happily scandalized by the matrimonial designs of a "dreary mole in a black-velvet coat" upon a thumb-sized maiden? Or, for that matter, of a morocco-leather ball upon a swallow?
Two magnificent narrators, Kate Reading and Richard Matthews, read the tales. Reading, who is American but sounds British, begins with "The Tinder Box," Andersen's first published story, which nonetheless displays most of his works' riveting elements. There is the delight in riches and fine things, the joy in cunning, resourcefulness and magical powers. There is a beautiful princess, of course, and there is a great desire fulfilled -- though, in this case, without the usual fatal consequence, at least for the hero. To be sure, some characteristic elements are not exactly in keeping with today's sense of propriety, specifically, the fascination with ugliness as represented here in "an old witch . . . so hideous her lip hung down to her breast," and the nonchalant violence, beginning with the expeditious dispatch of that witch:
" 'Pish, posh,' said the soldier. 'Tell me right now what you want [the tinder box] for or I'll pull out my sword and cut off your head!'
" 'No,' said the witch.
"So the soldier chopped off her head. There she lay! But he wrapped up all his money in her apron, slung it in a bundle over his shoulder, stuffed the tinder box in his pocket, and headed straight for the city."
As the tales progress, adroitly voiced, highly opinionated talking animals, toys and gabby domestic objects emerge, all sounding very happy to be in the stories. The exoticism gradually becomes more spell-bindingly sinister, and though the plots take exhilaratingly abrupt turns, they become increasingly infused with melancholy and a sense of the evanescence of happiness. Both narrators render the mood beautifully. Matthews, an English native (who reads elsewhere under his real name, Simon Vance, and another "nom de voix," Robert Whitfield), delivers a simply mesmerizing performance of the haunting, disconcerting story "The Ice Maiden." Later, Reading takes on the seven tales that make up "The Snow Queen," beginning merrily with the evil troll who "was one of the 'worst' " but continuing with mounting and eloquent desolation.
Andersen's teeming and gorgeous vision, his terrifying, willful, Romantic imagination, and his blunt, contrary narrative style leave J.K. Rowling in the dust. Still, if you insist on that product -- and that surely is the word -- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is, indeed, available in audio format, read, as are the preceding five volumes, by Jim Dale with his usual spunk (Listening Library, unabridged, 18 CDs, $75; 12 cassettes, $50).
White Witch and Black Magic
Harry Potter's vast commercial success lies behind the gargantuan publicity crusade beginning its march toward December's release of the movie of C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first volume, properly speaking, of The Chronicles of Narnia. One hears that the Christian ingredient of the work is being downplayed -- as, I dare say, will be the unlovely element of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority. But every word and conceit, good, bad and tendentious, are included in the recently published 7-volume audio version (Harper Audio, unabridged, each volume: CD version, $29.95; download from Audible.com, $19.57).
The production is a truly extraordinary accomplishment, with each book being read by a first-rate actor. Kenneth Branagh takes on The Magician's Nephew (4 hours, 4 CDs), the series's "prequel," which Lewis wrote last to provide Narnia's genesis -- or Genesis, as it may be. Among Branagh's feats is a hugely funny rendition of a horse talking with its mouth blissfully full of grass, recommending the delicacy to two dismayed and hungry children.
Michael York narrates The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (4 hours, 4 CDs), giving marvelous regional accents to his animals. Next, Alex Jennings is burdened with The Horse and Its Boy (4 hours, 4 CDs), a pretty dull story except for the horse, Bree, whose absurd pride Jennings renders with comic brio. Lynn Redgrave carries the narrative of Prince Caspian (4 hours, 4 CDs) in low, melodic voice but also finds a myriad of other tones and accents to convey the personalities of the countless animals at large in this book, from Bulgy Bears to Trufflehunter the badger, to Patterwig the squirrel, on to that cynosure of valor, Reepicheep the mouse. Derek Jacobi gives a terrific rendition of Voyage of the Dawn Treader (6 hours, 5 CDs), which includes a most satisfyingly ghastly spoiled kid, Eustace Clarence Scrubb. Jeremy Northam transmits restrained urgency in his voice as he narrates The Silver Chair (6 hours, 5 CDS), adding emotional depth to what is a fairly scary book replete with treachery and dreadful black magic. Finally, Patrick Stewart's deep, resonant voice polishes off the series with The Last Battle (5 hours, 5 CDs), a disturbing book with its anti-Christ figure, an ape called Shift. And so that is that -- and listening to all of it may well bring you and your family right to the threshold of the movie.
Here's Your Golden Ticket
Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now a movie, of course. It is also a splendid audio book (Harper Audio, unabridged, 3 1/2 hours; 3 CDs, download from Audible.com, $16.80), narrated by the incomparable Monty Pythonian Eric Idle, whose whole manner is in perfect keeping with the hectic fantasy of this much-loved, much-censured book. He is incandescently joyous in describing the horrendous fates of the frightful children and delivers himself of the Oompa Loompas' final song with infectious gusto: "So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,/ Go throw your TV set away,/ And in its place you can install/ A lovely bookshelf on the wall./ Then fill the shelves with lots of books,/ Ignoring all the dirty looks,/ The screams and yells, and bites and kicks,/ And children hitting you with sticks -- . . ." Carry on! *