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Listen Up!
(October 2002)
By David Pitt

Okay, we've got plenty of ground to cover, so let's get movin'.

Nothing is Impossible (Simon & Schuster Audio, 3.5 hrs.) is the title of Christopher Reeve's new book, a chronicle of his quietly impressive life since his near-total paralysis seven years ago. The idea of Superman rendered immobile from a fall from a horse seems somehow surreal, but it's worth noting that, to Reeve, being rendered immobile is not the same thing as being rendered hopeless. Nothing is Impossible, subtitled 'Reflections on a New Life,' is a book filled with hope, with encouragement, with the idea that, no matter what happens to us, we can overcome it. Beautifully written, and performed by Reeve in a gentle and heartening voice, it's a wonderful audiobook.

For a rather more traditional life story, check out Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy (Harper Audio, 6 hrs.), written by Washington Post sportswriter Jane Leavy and performed by the author and, of all people, Robert Pinsky, the former Poet Laureate of the good ol' U.S. of A (and quite the fan of Koufax). The book, lovingly performed, traces the life and career of the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who is generally considered one of the best who will ever play the game. Despite his retirement at a relatively early age -- he quit the game when he was but thirty -- he changed baseball forever, gave it a refinement and dignity that it very much needed. Leavy interviewed hundreds of Koufax's friends and colleagues, and we leave the book with a clear sense of the man, the game he loved, and the time in which he played it.

Patricia Heaton -- you may know her from Everybody Loves Raymond, the popular sitcom -- has actually had a fairly lengthy career in film and television. In Motherhood and Hollywood (Random House Audio, 5 hrs.), Heaton discusses her professional life, but it's her personal life you might find a tad more interesting. This collection of essays -- read by the author, natch -- takes us inside her world: marriage, motherhood, childhood (her own and that of her offspring), everyday things. We often forget Hollywood stars live lives that are largely mundane, the same as ours, and Heaton reminds us of this with wit and grace.

Charles Barkley, the basketball player turned commercial star turned television host, has never been known for his reticence: if he has an opinion, he's usually pretty quick to let us know what it is. Barkley performs the audio abridgement of his new book, I May Be Wrong but I Doubt It (Random House Audio, 2.5 hrs.), and he's as outspoken as we expect him to be. He tackles some big ideas -- racism, class structure, politics, and whatnot -- with intelligence, a sharp eye, and, no surprise here, plenty of attitude. A lot of fun.

If you're a fan of thrillers, oh boy is this your day. Here's Beyond Suspicion (Harper Audio, 6 hrs.), the new one from James Grippando. Performed by Tom Wopat, it's the story of a Miami lawyer whose ex-girlfriend is being sued for a substantial wad of cash; an insurance company claims she bilked them out of a small fortune. Our hero defends her, only to learn she's guilty -- and, as if that weren't bad enough, she turns up dead, in his bathtub. Can he find the real killer before he's convicted of her murder? An exciting, fast-paced yarn, well told and well performed.

Also well told and well performed is Dark Horse (Random House Audio, 5 hrs.), by Tami Hoag. Former undercover cop Elena Estes, now very far down and very far out, has a chance to get her life back together when a young girl comes to her with a sad story: the girl's stepsister is missing, and she doesn't know what to do. She doesn't have a private investigator's licence, but Elena does have compassion, and she sets out to find the missing woman. Of course, she find much more than she bargained for ... Performed by television and stage actress Blair Brown with her customary flair, Dark Horse is top-notch adventure fare.

The Murder book (Random House Audio, 6 hrs.) is the latest Alex Delaware novel from Jonathan Kellerman. This time around, the clinical psychologist turned sleuth digs into a long-unsolved murder. Things get rolling when somebody sends Alex a grisly scrapbook -- called The Murder Book -- in which his friend, homicide cop Milo Sturgis, finds pictures that take him back to his early days as a rookie. Can Alex and Milo solve the two-decade-old crime, and, more importantly, can Milo dispel some very old demons? The Delaware series just keeps getting better and better, and John Rubenstein's sterling performance lends the proceedings just the right amount of eeriness.

Sue Grafton's Kinsley Millhone series isn't doing quite so well. Lately, the novels have suffered from a general air of sameness, as though Grafton has quietly run out of things to say about her private-eye heroine. Thankfully, Q is for Quarry (Random House Audio, 6 hrs.) breathes some much-needed new life into the series, largely because Grafton has based the novel on a real case, an unsolved three-decades-old murder. This story of the search for an unidentified woman's killers is lively, moving, and thoroughly captivating. The performance, by stage actress Judy Kaye, is entirely appropriate to the material.

Written before he was seriously injured in a road accident, Stephen King's From A Buick 8 (Simon & Schuster Audio, 13.5 hrs.) tells the story of State Police D Troop, whose members share a terrible secret, one that revolves around a 1954 Buick Roadmaster, found abandoned by a trooper in 1979. Told with shifting points of view, and performed by six narrators, the story is utterly gripping, King writing the way he wrote a quarter-century ago (when he wrote, incidentally, another book about a car, Christine), when everything he did was new and fresh and joyous. 'Nuff said, really.

Speaking of King, here's The Wavedancer Benefit (Simon & Schuster Audio, 2 hrs.), a recording of a Feb. 2, 2002, live reading by four big-name writers: King, Pat Conroy, John Grisham, and Peter Straub. The performance was a tribute to Frank Muller, the veteran audiobook performer who was critically injured in a motorcycle accident. This is certainly a one-of-a-kind audio book; the odds of the same writers gathering together again, under the same circumstances, are virtually nil. This is, in other words, probably your only chance to hear these giants perform their own works before a live audience. You simply must have it.

Just in time for Hallowe'en, Spine Chilling Tales of Horror (Caedmon, 6.5 hrs.) features excerpts from several classic horror stories, like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and The Gold Bug. The performers are top of the line -- James Mason, Vincent Price, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and so forth -- and, I'm sure I don't need to point out, the words themselves are beautiful, lyrical, and downright spooky. In its own way this one, too, is a one-of-a-kind.

And now for a real treat: C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters (Harper Audio, 6 hrs.), unabridged, performed by Joss Ackland. If his name doesn't ring a bell, maybe this'll help: he played a Russian liar in The Hunt for Red October, and played a South African villain in Lethal Weapon 2. He's got a deep, melodious voice, everything he says comes out sounding like it was dipped in molasses, and he is, without question, absolutely the perfect man to read Lewis's brilliant satire (which, in case you don't know -- shame on you -- consists of letters written by Screwtape, one of Satan's assistants, to his nephew Wormwood, an up-and-coming young demon). If somebody asks you why you need a book on tape, why you can't just read the words, this is the audiobook to give them. As splendid as Lewis's classic book is, Ackland's magnificent performance makes it even better.

On the subject of classics, you must check out F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (Caedmon, 7 hrs.), performed by Tim Robbins. Like Ackland's rendition of The Screwtape Letters, this is the perfect match of performer to material. Fitzgerald's witty, satiric story about the Jazz Age, and the various characters who wandered through it (including the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby, of course), is alternately hilarious and thought-provoking, and Robbins reads the book with just the right mixture of comedy and drama.

No Way to Treat a First Lady (Random House Audio, 6 hrs.), by Christopher Buckley, is another mixture of comedy and drama ... although, come to think of it, it's mostly comedy. It's the convoluted story of the First Lady of the United States, brought to trial for assassinating her husband (the President, that is), defended by an ex-lover, attacked from all sides by political enemies, the press, pretty much anyone you care to name. Buckley's comedy is broad, his satire borders on outright spoofing, and, as always, the story is thoroughly delightful. I'm a big fan of Buckley, and this is one of his best. The wink-wink-nudge-nudge performance by Tim Matheson is excellent, too.

Now we come to Abarat (Harper Audio, 12 hrs.), written by Clive Barker and read by Richard Ferrone. Unfortunately, this isn't an instance where a great story is elevated to new heights; Barker's novel about a young woman swept away on a wave to the archipelago of Abarat, where she must save the inhabitants from the forces of evil, is silly, poorly constructed, and rather dull (even with its plentiful illustrations). It's also the first of a projected series, which means it's open-ended, without a satisfying resolution. I am pleased to report, however, that the unabridged audio version is substantially livelier. Even though all of the book's words are here, the story itself doesn't seem as tedious. Ferrone lends the proceedings some much-needed energy, turning this dry story into something joyous. I can't recommend the novel, but the audiobook is well worth a listen.

If you can spare me another coupla minutes, I want to tell you about Scenario Productions. This Canadian audiobook company is releasing radio plays originally broadcast on the CBC between 1942 and 1968, and some of this material is pure gold. Wayne and Schuster: The Radio Years (4 hrs.) brings you such vintage sketches as 'Rinse the Blood off My Toga,' and 'Shakespearean Baseball,' and full-length episodes of the comedy team's radio series, complete with musical numbers and commercial spots. Another audiobook contains two plays, Heart of Darkness, an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel starring Lorne Greene, and the lesser-known The Investigator, written by Reuben Ship and featuring John Drainie, Barry Morse, and some guy named James Doohan, who went on to play a Scottish engineer on a starship named Enterprise. Scenario also offers adaptations of stories by Mordecai Richler, Stephen Leacock, Arthur Conan Doyle, Herman Melville, and more. I don't usually plug a particular publisher, and (in case you're wondering) I'm not affiliated with these guys, but, if you're a fan of radio from the mid-twentieth century -- when it was still the primary home-entertainment medium -- you have to sample their wares.

That's all for now.
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