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An Insightful Look at Love and Sexuality


"Trans-Sister Radio" is the latest offering from Vermont author Chris Bohjalian, whose 1997 novel, "Midwives," was an Oprah Book Club choice. (Random House Audiobooks; abridged fiction; three cassettes; five hours; $25; read by Judith Ivey.)

Professor Dana Stevens is a woman trapped in a man's body. He's about to rectify that situation through surgery. Dana is also in love with Allison Banks, a schoolteacher in a rural Vermont town. When Dana begins the transformation from man to woman, she stirs up controversy in the town and brings up questions for the reader. What is the relationship between gender and sexuality? Do we fall in love with the essence of a person or that person's sexual being?

Bohjalian writes from four perspectives and does so with great compassion and insight. There are Dana and Allison, but also Allison's ex-husband and their teenage daughter. Not only does each character have his own take on Dana's big switch, but each also experiences an internal change because of it. Excerpts from a National Public Radio story about Dana's transsexualism help to sketch in the novel's emotional background. Most intriguing is that Bohjalian, a man, writes convincingly from a woman's perspective.

Judith Ivey is a fine choice for this multi-voiced narrative, as she bestows vocal individuality upon each character. Her New England accent may not sound 100% authentic, but it is much better than most narrators' attempts. As the actress creates a different persona for each character, we know instantly who is speaking. She lowers and roughens her voice for some of the men and manages a bouncy, surprisingly realistic young girl.

Dana and Allison's stories survive the abridgment fairly intact, though details regarding Allison's daughter and ex-husband were considerably pared down. Still, none of the novel's emotional impact was lost in truncation. This works extremely well on audio, both because Bohjalian's thought-provoking story flows without effort and because of Ivey's well-rounded performance.


The female perspective is at the heart of another recent audio book, though the subject matter and style are much breezier. "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason," by Helen Fielding, does not quite live up to the reputation of the author's first comedic romp, but neither does it disappoint. (Random House Audiobooks; abridged fiction; four cassettes; six hours; $25.95; read by Tracie Bennett.)

Fielding's first lighthearted novel, "Bridget Jones' Diary," was based on Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." In this sequel, Fielding lifts literary devices from Austen's "Persuasion," as well as the many Hollywood movies in which innocents abroad are accused of drug smuggling and thrown into nasty Asian jails.

Last time out, Bridget was mad for and finally hooked up with Mark Darcy. In this outing, Bridget suffers relationship blues, searches for the meaning of life and once again hooks up with Mark Darcy.

The pace is a bit frantic and somewhat forced as Bridget takes us through most of a calendar year with her diary entries. The result is humorous, but anyone acquainted with the original already knows the conceit, and it simply does not work as well the second time around.

However, there is a delightfully dippy interview between journalist Bridget and actor Colin Firth, the man who played Mr. Darcy in the successful 1996 British film version of "Pride and Prejudice." It is one of the most hilarious passages of dialogue ever recorded, as Bridget is a drooling fan who cannot rise to any level of professionalism when confronted with the object of her desire. Fielding is also in top form when she tackles the many self-help books aimed at desperate single women hoping to land a man.

The real charmer in this audio is not Bridget, but narrator Tracie Bennett. She is a vocal chameleon who changes tone, pitch and timing for Bridget and her large circle of friends and family. Drunks slur, snooty women sneer and Bridget's bombastic boss roars and bellows his every word. Bennett is one of the most ingenious narrators in her field, and she milks this audio for every possible giggle.


Horse people and their equine ways are the subject of Jane Smiley's latest satire "Horse Heaven." (Random House Audiobooks; abridged fiction; four cassettes; six hours; $25.95; read by Mary Beth Hurt.)

Owners, trainers, an animal communicator, con artists, the art of racing and anthropomorphism all factor into a story that spans two years on the racing circuit. Smiley's characters range from unfulfilled billionaires to an amusing 11-year-old girl who saves a racehorse from starvation. Then there is the woman who claims she can read horses' minds. The problem is that Smiley overpopulates her tale. She eventually connects the numerous story lines, but it is a meandering and sometimes tedious path before that conclusion is reached.

This novel is a dilemma for the listener, as it is too bloated to hear unabridged, but the truncation eliminates much of the author's sly humor. Also, new characters of both the two- and four-legged variety are frequently introduced, which becomes a bit confusing in just a short period of time.

Actress Mary Beth Hurt does not have the strongest of voices, nor is her voice particularly pleasant, being high and thin. In spite of that, Hurt is an astute performer who breathes life into Smiley's characters. Lust, humor and discontent are heard in her narration as readily as they are in the text. She especially delights when haltingly reading a letter from a young girl, managing to sound remarkably youthful.


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

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