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Audio Books

Presenting Two Oscar Nominees on Cassette

March 19, 2000|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With all the talk about the Academy Awards these days, it seems only natural to want to hear a good movie.

Patricia Highsmith's creepy, first-person novel may have garnered five Academy Award nominations, but it does not compare with the eerie feeling evoked from hearing "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Even if you saw the film, the audio remains fascinating for the way it lets you into the head of a mentally ill young man who manages to function in society. (Random House Audio; unabridged fiction; six cassettes, nine hours; $39.95; read by Michael Hayden.)

The amoral Tom Ripley heads for Italy at the behest of an acquaintance's father, who hopes Tom will bring his son back to America and the family business. Instead, Tom finds himself so smitten by this acquaintance that he will do anything to be just like him.

Set in the more innocent world of the 1950s, this is made all the more ghoulish for its seductive qualities. Highsmith digs deeper and deeper into Ripley's psyche until we are as tantalized by him as by Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita."

The book provides a more detailed account of Ripley's life and clears up the film's blurred moral issues, such as his homicidal acts, which are more premeditated than the movie allowed.

With a voice bordering on sexy, narrator Michael Hayden changes his tone some and his attitude more for each character. His performance is smooth and his manner captivating. He easily conveys Italian and French accents, and has no trouble with foreign pronunciation. A problem, however, is the packaging, which could be mistaken for a movie ad. The film's actors are listed on the box, although they have nothing to do with the audio book. Also, it mistakenly lists the number of cassettes as seven when there are only six.

*

Another contender in the Oscar race is John Irving's "The Cider House Rules," which was nominated seven times. (Harper Audio; unabridged fiction; 17 cassettes; 25 hours; $46.95; read by Grover Gardner.)

Although the film ably condenses the novel, this is a big, old-fashioned, sweeping story that is so well-written one could listen to all 25 hours without stopping. The movie does not ruin the book for you, as there are surprises in this rich story not found in the film. It is rife with blunt, dry humor and a wicked New England penchant for irony.

The ether-inhaling Dr. Wilbur Larch toils at a Maine orphanage, sometimes delivering women of babies and sometimes of their troubles. He mentors the orphaned Homer Wells, a young man of great intellect who is one of the more fully realized characters in contemporary literature. Friendship, family, love, abortion and loyalty are issues woven into the subtext of a story that provides as much intellectual stimulation as amusement.

With his genial manner and slightly flat accent, narrator Grover Gardner could pass as a New Englander. He does not put on a Down East accent, but with his direct manner, he sounds like a true Yankee. Gardner understands and conveys the book's sly humor and comprehension of human foibles. Also, considering the length of this unabridged novel, it is marketed at a very reasonable price.

*

Although most of America may have ignored the film version of Michael Korda's "Isn't She Great," starring Bette Midler and Nathan Lane, audiophiles interested in behind-the-scenes celebrity stories may want to give it a listen. (Simon & Schuster Audio; abridged fiction; two cassettes; three hours; $18; read by the author.)

Korda, who hails from an extensive movie family, has been an editor at Simon & Schuster for more than 40 years. For much of that time he was editor in chief. He writes with a true appreciation for his subjects and is descriptive without being nasty.

The problem with this audio is that its presentation is deceptive. While Korda has dishy stories about Carlos Castaneda, Joan Crawford and Graham Greene, the packaging would lead you to believe that this is an audio version of the film, which is about glitzy author Jacqueline Susann. It's not. The film is based on a chapter of Korda's book, "Another Life," published in 1999. Susann is just one of the many celebrities in his memoir.

Although he matches his energetic writing style with a charged delivery, Korda sounds as if he has something thick and gooey in his mouth. There is a certain gleefulness to his narration, and frankly, he comes across as a real character. His enunciation, however, is less than wonderful.

*

If science fiction is more your cup of Venusian tea, you may wish to tune into all 45 hours of "Battlefield Earth," recently made into a movie starring John Travolta. However, 45 hours was too much of a commitment for me, so I merely sampled this novel, often considered the best work by pulp writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. In this action-adventure story, humanity slowly rebounds after near destruction by an alien race. (Books on Tape; unabridged fiction; 30 cassettes; $79.95; read by Michael Russotto.)

The audio begins with a biography of Hubbard that, oddly, never mentions his bestselling book "Dianetics" or the movement he later founded. It includes a lengthy and intriguing introduction by Hubbard giving his thoughts on the science-fiction and fantasy genres.

Though his voice is just average, narrator Russotto changes it for different characters and noticeably alters accents. Some of these characters have unusual, alien intonations, and he creates markedly different and interesting personas for each.

Considering the staggering number of cassettes, this is very reasonably priced, as most unabridged novels cost close to $50 and contain less than half the number of tapes.

*

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

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