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September 13, 1998|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN FLYNN | Special To The Times

There's nothing like a dark and stormy night to capture one's undivided attention. This is especially true if the yarn is no fish story but an actual account--of, say, a ship lost at sea.

"The Perfect Storm" by Sebastian Junger originated in real-life headlines. (Random House AudioBooks, unabridged nonfiction, six cassettes, nine hours, read by Richard M. Davidson, $34.95. Also available abridged: two cassettes, three hours, $18, read by Stanley Tucci.) Junger draws us into the story slowly, then whirls in and out: His writing style evokes the storm that battered and finally sank the Andrea Gail off the coast of Nova Scotia in October 1991. He covers much ground, from the history of the swordfishing boat to the backgrounds of the crew members to the stories of the pragmatic women they left behind in Gloucester, Mass. He also packs in more meteorological information than you probably ever thought you'd find in one place.

Davidson is an able narrator, energetic when he should be and graced with a deep, pleasant voice. There is nothing particularly memorable or outstanding about his performance, but "The Perfect Storm" is a salty, vivid account of a hard lifestyle and does not require flamboyant recitation. Davidson, with his unadorned approach, almost melds into the background, serving his purpose without getting in the way.

*

Here's another seafaring tale, this one of sunken gold and techno-wonks. "Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea" by Gary Kinder traces the loss and recovery of 21 tons of gold from the SS Central America, which sank in a storm off the Carolina coast during the heyday of the California Gold Rush. (Random House AudioBooks, abridged nonfiction, four cassettes, five hours, read by Bruce Davison, $24.)

Kinder begins with a history of the ship and her ill-fated passengers, and brings the story into the 1980s when Tommy Thompson, an engineer from Ohio, locates the vessel in 8,000 feet of water. Every aspect of the disaster and recovery is put into context. We are told of the psychological and economic impact (the loss of the ship and its enormous stockpile of gold was a major factor in the panic and subsequent economic depression of 1857). The technical side of the tale is fascinating, as scientists and sailors race against treasure hunters, fighting the elements and inventing technology as needed.

Indeed, because the printed version of the book (though more complete) is more technical and somewhat drier, this is an instance when an abridgment is more satisfying than the original. Davison's narration brings energy and enthusiasm to the text, which consists mostly of straightforward reporting.

*

"Do They Hear You When You Cry," by Fauziya Kassindja and Layli Miller Bashir, is another real-life adventure, but one of a more personal nature. (Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio, abridged nonfiction, four cassettes, six hours, read by Sheryl Lee Ralph with a foreword by Kassindja and an epilogue by Bashir, $24.95.)

This is the harrowing autobiographical account of a teenage girl who fled the African country of Togo to avoid female genital mutilation. It's another work that loses nothing when abridged. We miss some detail, but the book was written by a very young woman and her attorney friend, another first-time writer. Their verbiage may be intense but will never win any awards.

After the death of a protective and forward-thinking father, Kassindja faced a forced betrothal to a middle-aged polygamist and was scheduled for a ritual circumcision. She fled the country, made her way to Germany and then to America, where she spent 16 months in various INS prisons while pleading her case.

A narrator who slides easily from a melodious African accent into an American twang, Ralph brings much emotion to this production. Her voice is appealing, with a pretty, musical cadence--very easy on the ears.

Rochelle O'Gorman Flynn reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mysteries.

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