by Sukey HowardDecember, 2001
More than mere stocking stuffers, audio cassettes and CDs make very presentable presents. Any of these recently published unabridged titles will give the gift of great listening and hours of entertainment. If you're looking for a BIG audio gift, you're in luck. This season brings us two unabridged winners by the two masters of the fantasy/horror genre the dynamic, undeniably demonic duo of Stephen King and Peter Straub. Their first collaboration, The Talisman, published 17 years ago and never out of print, took young Jack Sawyer to a parallel universe of mystery and terror. Now, at last, The Talisman has been brilliantly recorded in its 28-hour entirety by renowned reader Frank Muller. Black House, the long-awaited sequel, finds Jack, now a retired homicide detective living in a small Wisconsin town, being drawn into the evils of that parallel universe again. Frank Muller continues the adventure for another dazzling 26 hours.
Susan Isaacs' snappy, smart, one-liner-laced prose is always a total delight and it's at its wise, witty best in her latest novel, Long Time No See. Judith Singer, last heard from in Compromising Positions, is back and at her best, too, as she determinedly gets involved in another crazy crime caper and involved, she hopes, with her former love, the homicide detective she gave up more than 20 years ago. Christine McMurdo-Wallis' perfect delivery makes the whole package even better, so much so that after 13 1/2 hours, I didn't want it to end.
There's no such thing as a gender-specific audio, but there are some that appeal more to guys. Fireby Sebastian Junger probably falls into that category, though I was totally taken with it. Junger, best known for his best-selling book, The Perfect Storm, is a superb journalist and the proof is here to hear. The stories he covers all deal, in one way or another, with people confronting dangerous situations, from raging wild fires to raging wars, and moves from Montana to Kosovo to Afghanistan. Junger's reporting brings us up close to the difficult, yet mesmerizing, drama of real human events and listening to him and Kevin Conway read intensifies the already intense immediacy.
While we're in mostly-for-men mode, consider a double-header by Stephen Ambrose, a singularly successful historian of all things American. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West(CD), narrated by Barrett Whitener and now available in an unabridged format, is Ambrose at his best. Here, he takes a piece of history we all trudged through in school and turns it into a vital epic of adventure, exploration and endurance, with vivid portraits of the complex and colorful characters who made it happen.
America's fighting men are another area of Ambrose expertise and his latest, The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys who Flew the B-24s Over Germany(CD), read by Jeffrey DeMunn, is a factual foray into heroism, camaraderie and daring. It's the story of another band of brothers, young men turned pilots, bombardiers, navigators and gunners who suffered over 50 percent casualties, but who persevered and made an incalculable difference to the outcome of WWII.
Sara Paretsky's new V. I. Warshawski novel, Total Recall, read by Sandra Burr, is a must for mystery mavens. Ms. Paretsky is at the top of her game and at the top of the genre—intertwining seemingly disparate storylines into a clever, convincing plot, made all the more convincing by the real issues it involves. As V. I. tackles a baffling case of insurance fraud, she becomes increasingly enmeshed in an even more baffling case of "recovered memory" that may, somehow, involve her beloved friend Dr. Lotty Herschel, Lotty's past as a refugee living in London during WWII, and the old scars and anguish it holds.
The two-volume audio presentation of The Best American Essays of the Century, selected and introduced by Joyce Carol Oates offers 24 unabridged essays, some read by contemporary writers, some by the authors themselves. Written with direct, intimate, first-person authority, these extraordinary essays spring from personal expressions linked to larger issues, issues that provoke us to think about where we've been and where we're going. Listening to this masterful mosaic of American voices you'll hear, among many others, George Plimpton read F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Louis Gates read W.E.B. Du Bois, Kaye Gibbons read Eudora Welty, Garrison Keillor read S.J. Perelman, and Annie Dillard, Gretel Ehrlich, Cynthia Ozick and Maxine Hong Kingston read their own work. A super gift for the more serious-minded.
History buffs will find David Stafford's Roosevelt and Churchill: Men of Secrets, read by Richard McGonagle, especially compelling now that Britain and the U.S. are allies in battle again. Drawing on wartime files only recently made available, Stafford examines the extraordinary and complicated friendship these two great leaders developed, and how their shared fascination with clandestine operations, hidden by layers of secrecy, became the touchstone of their mutual trust.