Work, work, work, that's all we Americans do, at least compared to Europeans who loll around all day taking 6-week vacations. But for some reason, the specifics of our jobs rarely make their way into books. The actual details of most occupations are, as far as literature is concerned, a closed book. There are exceptions, of course. By now there is scarcely a reader who doesn't know how to commit murder or, for that matter, how to detect the canniest perp. And there is the greatest of all American novels, Moby-Dick, which is full of the minutiae of work, though perhaps the book's melancholy publishing history kept it from setting a trend. The novel has been recorded many times, both abridged and unabridged. Now it has come forth again, this time in full from Naxos (25 hours, 19 CDs, $101.58), read by William Hootkins, who takes complete charge of Melville's exuberant style and often vexatious syntax. Through supple pacing and, in the more awkward, technical passages, unrushed deliberation, he corrals the meaning of sentences and keeps them accessible to the listener.
Melville's excursions into laborious detail are notorious, and the idea of skipping them has tempted many readers. In truth, this can be done as easily here as in print: The short tracks of the CDs cut the narrative not only into chapters but also into smaller parcels. So, for instance, the chapter concerning the whale's skin, "The Blanket," comprises two tracks, the first beginning with the title and the second with "A word or two more concerning this matter. . . ." Hootkins brings as much zeal to the descriptions of whales and gear and technique as he does to the great drama itself; and these passages, so easily passed over in print, assume their proper status as exemplars of the spirit of American practicality and esteem for work. Most important, though, Hootkins inhabits the countless characters who people this book, beginning with the pedantic "sunken-eyed Platonist" Ishmael. His voice -- so greatly impressed with its own observations, so rapt with poetic and antiquarian conceit -- confirms for us why he in particular would seek a berth upon the ancient Pequod, the most curious and reprobate-looking ship in the harbor. Hootkins's virtuosity of accents and moods is splendid throughout, not least in Ahab's reverberatingly mad timbre.
Poets at Work and Poetry in Motion
Melville was, of course, not only a novelist but also a poet, an occupation some people don't think of as work. Billy Collins might beg to differ. In "Monday," the second of the 24 poems that make up Billy Collins Live (Random House Audio, 1 1/4 hr., 1 CD, $19.95), the former poet laureate gives us some idea of the poet's place in the great scheme of industry: "The clerks are at their desks,/ the miners are down in their mines,/ and the poets are looking out their windows/ maybe with a cigarette, a cup of tea,/ and maybe a flannel shirt or bathrobe is involved." Collins's voice is amused and genial, delighting in surprise and insouciance as in "The Revenant," which consists of the plainspoken sentiments of a dog, recently "put to sleep" by a master whom it turns out he loathed. ("When I licked your face,/ I thought of biting off your nose.") The collection, introduced by Bill Murray, preserves a live performance given last April in New York at the Peter Norton Symphony Space.
A Woman's Work
The era of the professional working woman has created a new job-weary fantasy. Unlike the traditional male ones of retiring at 40 or escaping to sea, the distaff reverie actually lengthens the workday, filling it with top-level conferences and designer clothes. Beauty treatments play a large role in the American version of the fantasy, cooking and cleaning an oddly prominent one in the British one. The absolute master of the latter is Margaret Thomson Davis, a prolific Scottish writer of historical romances who is relatively unknown to these shores. The Glasgow Belle (Clipper Audio, distributed by Recorded Books, unabridged, 8 hours; 6 cassettes, purchase, $34.95; rental, $13.50; www.recordedbooks.com) is a prime example. Set in the Glasgow of the late 18th century, it tells the story of Isla Anderson, a poor, but "right spunky wee lassie." Rescued from the streets and her stepfather's "rough groping hands" by the old earl of Kirklee Castle, she soon enough falls afoul of his jealous relations and, after several vicissitudes, sets herself up in business, running a tavern. Scenes of valiant cleaning ensue, beautifully narrated by Jean Simmons, whose invigorating Scottish accent evokes the scouring brush and the righteous pail: "She scrubbed the bar and the shelves, she wiped the bottles, she washed pewter plates and tankards." Isla's industry is rewarded with respect, prosperity and the love of "a giant of a man . . . with enormous shoulders and muscly thighs straining in tight breeches."
A man of a similarly juicy cut has been provided for Samantha Sweeting, the English heroine of Sophie Kinsella's The Undomestic Goddess (Books on Tape, unabridged, 12 hours, 10 CDs, $ 79.20; 8 cassettes, $64.80; download from www.audible.com, $27.97). Forced by a ghastly snafu to leave London, corporate law and her BlackBerry behind, Samantha falls into the position of housekeeper to rich folk, managing to disguise her bottomless ignorance of the domestic mysteries thanks to luck, ingenuity and a can-do attitude. Tried and true chick-lit narrator Rosalyn Landor displays the same self-deprecating charm she brought to Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, keeping dismay, confusion and panic within a well-bred tonal range. Moreover, she is positively inspired in her rendition of a young, overly entitled snob who we just know is riding for a fall. Well supplied with embarrassment, vindication, romantic misunderstanding and, above all, spine-tingling cooking and cleaning adventures, the book is disgracefully satisfying -- though probably not to male listeners. An abridged edition also exists, read by Katherine Kellgren (Random House, 6 hours, 5 CDs, $29.95, 4 cassettes, $26.95).
Little to Earn, Many to Keep
Before launching her own attempt to bag a decent white-collar job, Barbara Ehrenreich pictured the corporate world as "a castle on a hill, well fortified, surrounded by difficult checkpoints, with its glass walls gleaming invitingly from on high." Hard though she knew it would be, she was confident that she could get in the door. She couldn't, and that is the tale told in Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (Audio Renaissance, unabridged, 7 hours, 6 CDs, $29.95), narrated by Anne Twomey. Ehrenreich spent months in the twilight world of the hard-working middle-class unemployed, preyed upon by life coaches, career counselors, image consultants, resume boosters and other species of hucksters and charlatans. Twomey's warm, steady voice is both compassionate and wryly indignant at all the chicanery afoot. That Ehrenreich had never actually held the sort of job she was looking for injects an element of fantasy into her search, yet her general observations on the disposability of American white-collar work remain sound. *
Katherine A. Powers regularly reviews audio books for Book World.