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SUNDAY BRUNCH | BOOKSHELF

Audio

September 27, 1998|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN FLYNN | Special To The Times; Rochelle O'Gorman Flynn reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Margo Kaufman on mysteries

Listening to "Shadows on the Hudson," Isaac Bashevis Singer's novel about Jewish refugees, is like eavesdropping on a literary salon taking place within a soap opera, and one hates to hear it end. (Dove Audio, unabridged, four volumes of four cassettes each; each volume lasts six hours and costs $25. Available as a complete set for $79.95. Read by Theodore Bikel, Julie Harris and John Rubinstein; translated by Joseph Sherman.)

Infidelities and crises among the Jewish literati of the 1940s are at the heart of the story, written in installments for a Yiddish-language magazine in 1957. The subplots meander somewhat, which could have something to do with the serialization, but humorous and sharp dialogue smooths out any imperfections in the narrative. At the center of it all are a pious businessman, his oft-married daughter and her latest lover, caught between his past in Europe and a rootless existence in America. They constantly question the meaning of life but never really find answers. Meanwhile, Hitler and 6 million dead Jews are not far from anyone's mind.

The collective history of these immigrants emerges in their daily conversations. It reflects some of Singer's own experiences (he immigrated to America from Warsaw in 1935, leaving behind a young child and a wife). The characters carry their pasts with them and bemoan the fate of their people, who are losing their identity in America's melting pot.

Each of the main characters is read by a different actor, which helps the listener avoid confusion. Bikel and Rubinstein also present an array of voices from comical henpecked husbands to shrewish wives to grave and elderly scholars. Their superlative accents vary as effectively as their pacing and pitch. The only off-key performance comes from Harris, who narrates without an accent even though her character is described as speaking in a German dialect. It is jarring to hear Bikel and Rubinstein's distinctly Yiddish or European accents followed by Harris' flat American tones. Her emotional range, however, is superb. She conveys spite and anger con brio, then effortlessly imbues a subsequent speech with sadness and regret.

*

Irish sea myths, female sexuality and the emotional landscape of mother / daughter relationships are at the heart of "The Mermaids Singing," by Lisa Carey (Simon & Schuster Audio, abridged, two cassettes, three hours, $18, read by Jan Maxwell).

Little is lost in the abridgment of this sad, honest and poetic first novel. A few passages are awkward and self-conscious, but Carey did write this at the young age of 25. Her plot crisscrosses the Atlantic Ocean as three generations of women leave and then return to a small fishing community in the west of Ireland. Haunting Celtic music opens and closes the production, and sets the tone for the story of a teenager, her dying mother and her estranged grandmother trying to forgive one another their past and present sins.

Narrator Maxwell does a splendid job differentiating the women. The Boston-raised mother is middle-aged and sad, while her teenage daughter sounds young and feisty. The grandmother, an Irish national, is older, graver and speaks with a husky brogue: Her manner and accent are so clearly different from the other two voices that one almost might think a different actress had stepped in to read the part.

*

"What Men Want" was written by three New York City "professionals"--Bradley Gerstman, Esq., Christopher Pizzo, CPA, and Rich Seldes, MD--whom all women should hope never to date (Harper Audio, abridged nonfiction, one 90-minute cassette, $12, read by the authors).

They say that if you give a monkey enough time with a typewriter, eventually you will end up with Shakespeare. Perhaps. Or perhaps you will end up with this egotistical answer to that frightening guide for women, "The Rules." Very little of this offers us gals more concrete advice than we picked up in high school: What guys want is sex, and don't talk to them afterward.

Think an interesting career or a sparkling personality will help you land a man? Faggedaboudit. According to these guys, we should be nice, pretend we have no sexual history and never force our friends on them. Then, if we are lucky, we too can marry a boorish yuppie who most likely will cheat on us.

All three men narrate ably. However, you may have a hard time hearing them over the sound of your own laughter.

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