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Charming Touch of Blarney Infuses Tale of Irish Widow and Brood

March 05, 2000|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A mini-Celtic revival has occurred just in time for St. Patrick's Day. If you're looking for more than green beer and marching bands, you can do no better than "The Mammy" by Brendan O'Carroll. (Books on Tape; unabridged fiction; four cassettes; six hours; $29.95; read by Donada Peters.)

Sentimental and sweet, if a bit sappy, this is the first book in a trilogy by the Irish writer, and is the basis of the Anjelica Huston movie "Agnes Browne," which opened Friday. O'Carroll wrote fondly of these people, though you can almost hear the blather in his tale of a Dublin widow and her seven children. His characters may make us laugh out loud, but we simultaneously appreciate their optimism and sense of survival. The Mammy is Agnes Browne, a fruit vendor who was widowed in 1967 at age 34. Feisty and streetwise, Agnes knows how to take care of herself and her brood, as is made clear from the humorous opening chapter. As she and her best friend Marion claim a widow's pension for Agnes, it is quickly revealed that her departed husband's body is not yet cold. The humor is often derived from Agnes and Marion's tendency to mispronounce words and take a far too literal approach to life.

But O'Carroll also writes with poignancy, creating touching little portraits of family life. He is sometimes a bit too heavy-handed, but listeners quickly realize they are in for an old-fashioned, romanticized version of the Irish. It may have been filtered through the Blarney Stone, but it is nonetheless fast-moving and entertaining.

Narrator Donada Peters has a moderately deep, pleasant voice. There is a bit of a bite to her performance that imbues it with a hint of worldliness, giving it texture. Although she comically mispronounces words and delivers humorous passages with plenty of punch, her Germanic accent should have been left out of the performance.

*

One of the classiest productions ever released on audio is a new edition of "Dubliners" by James Joyce. (Caedmon Audio; unabridged fiction; six cassettes; nine hours; $34.95.)

Fifteen readers, each with a different approach and style, bring these portraits to life. In his newly minted stream-of-consciousness style, Joyce portrayed human nature with tales of pettiness and epiphany, sexual awakening, desire and death. This was his first published work, which he called a series of chapters in the oral history of his community. Listening to stories first published in 1922, we are struck by both the immediacy and the contemporary feel of stories set in a time of horse-drawn carriages.

The readers are Frank McCourt, Patrick McCabe, Colm Meaney, Dearbhla Molloy, Dan O'Herlihy, Malachy McCourt, Donal Donnelly, Brendan Coyle, Jim Norton, Sorcha Cusack, Ciaran Hinds, T.P. McKenna, Fionnula Flanagan, Charles Keating and Stephen Rea. Frank McCourt, author of "Angela's Ashes" and " 'Tis," begins the anthology with a smooth, rather solemn narration. Hinds and Rea are standouts, each conjuring up powerful emotions with an astute restraint and a crystal-clear understanding of the text. Meaney, Malachy McCourt and Donnelly bring high energy to their stories, while Molloy enhances the sad desperation of Eveline.

If there is one weak spot, it is McCabe's reading of "The Encounter." This author of "The Butcher Boy" may capture the story's sexuality, but his energy is too low.

*

Celtic music aficionados should greatly enjoy the blend of words and music in "The Chieftains: The Authorized Biography With Music," by John Glatt. (The Publishing Mills; abridged fiction; three cassettes; four hours; $24.95; read by Nanci Griffith. Also available on four CDs; four hours; $35; also read by Griffith.)

This is a Grammy-nominated production containing 12 tracks of Chieftains music. It features interviews with band members and Sarah McLachlan, Tom Jones, Jackson Browne, Marianne Faithfull, Art Garfunkel, Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs and Anjelica Huston. Although it briefly covers the individual band members' histories, the focus is on founding member Paddy Maloney and the evolution of the group's success. A true music history, it contains little backstage gossip.

The original printed version, published in 1997, has more meat to it, including longer personal histories. However, the audio allows you to hear their voices. Not only is original Chieftains music used between segments, but archival material was reproduced from interviews with band members and other musicians.

Although the tonal quality can be fuzzy, as some of these quotes are quite old, it is still interesting to hear Maloney, Faithfull and Browne discuss the rise of traditional Celtic music in the last three decades. Unfortunately, singer Griffith does not have the most pleasing speaking voice. It is slightly thin and high. She also sounds uncomfortable with the process, although she warms to the task as it unfolds.

Not that she is a detriment to the production, but she is never better than mediocre. The liner notes include a list of the music played as well as the band's discography.

Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Margo Kaufman on mystery books.

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