Book: Audio

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The Independent Culture
According to the judges of the Talkies 1998, the audio-book of the year was Tom Wolfe's Ambush at Fort Bragg (BBC pounds 9.99, unabridged 3hrs). His first work of fiction since Bonfire of the Vanities was published exclusively in the spoken word format. It was an unusual move, and diverted attention from the fact that after 11 years, the best he could come up with was a melodramatic and simplistic satire on the world of TV news. Obviously, he was conserving his considerable talents for A Man in Full (BBC pounds 12.99), which here has been brought down to a mere six hours' listening time, read by William Hootkins.

Brad Pitt also made a low-key career move when he agreed to read Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy (All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain) (Harper Collins pounds 17.99, abridged 9hrs). Now I like Brad Pitt, but in this case he reads in a tone as flat as McCarthy's Mexican plains. But if you're looking for gifts, I'd be very surprised if you couldn't find anyone who liked either the books or the idea of Brad whispering in their ear at night.

It's been a good year for compilations and non-fiction on audio tape. Harold Pinter reads his own Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948- 1998 (Faber/Penguin pounds 8.99, unabridged 2 hrs) with a precise, intelligent voice, breathing life into the quotes I had to memorise for my English A-level. It also reminded me that Pinter is still one of our country's greatest playwright-essayist-novelist-poets. Penguin's 11 English Short Stories - 1950 to the Present Day (pounds 12.50, unabridged 71/2hrs) is a fairly random collection; ranging from the passionate and emotional (Samantha Bond reading Angela Carter's Our Lady of the Massacre and Josette Simon with Jean Rhys's Let Them Call It Jazz) through the dispassionate but disturbing (Julian Wadham reading Ian McEwan's Reflections of a Kept Ape) to the laughable (Nigel Davenport reading Angus Wilson's Et Dona Ferentes). Its only downside is that Davenport's impression of a charming but ultimately sinister Swedish teenager sounds like the Indian shop keeper in The Simpsons.

Easily outdoing English Short Stories in its randomness is The Chronicle (Mr Punch pounds 29.99 abridged 12hrs) in which Philip Larkin describes his driving test in a letter and Beatrix Potter writes about bicycles and war in her diary. There are 363 other intimate, irreverent, fascinating or banal snippets from the letters and diaries of almost everyone I can think of who might have ever written anything - one for each day of the year. A great concept, well read, and luckily 1999 isn't a leap year.

If you want to find out why the year 2000 isn't a leap year either, get The Calendar, read by David Ewing Duncan (Harper Collins pounds 8.99, abridged 3hrs). It's the fascinating, true story of the Western calendar from Caesar and Cleopatra's time to the point today when we can measure time more accurately than the earth itself.

And finally, in his new album Time To Stand and Stare (BBC pounds 13.99) Des Lynam pours his heart and soul into readings of "some of our best-loved and best-known" poems and still manages to keep one eyebrow raised in a sexy but distinguished way. The single - Kipling's "If", accompanied by Faure's Pavane, deserves to be the Christmas Number One. Seriously.