Books: Humour made even Planer

Audiobooks for the indolent, the ill and the intellectual, rounded up by Sue Gaisford
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The Independent Culture
I once sent a copy of one of the great classics of English comic fiction to an elderly American who had never heard of Jerome K Jerome. He dutifully read it and reported that he found it "interesting, but inaccurate in parts". Perhaps Nigel Planer's reading of Three Men in a Boat (Penguin pounds 8.99) would have helped him to get the joke. It's an innocent, confident performance: you can readily believe that Planer really is "J", who set off on holiday up the Thames with Harris, George and the fox-terrier Montmorency, during a damp and disastrous Edwardian summer. It's hilarious precisely because he takes it so earnestly.

The best readers convince us of their perfect sympathy with the author. Eileen Atkins reads Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm (BBC pounds 8.99) to perfection, bringing a mad kind of deadpan seriousness to Flora Poste's brisk efforts to sort out the lurid problems of her long-lost cousins, the Starkadders, and to help Aunt Ada Doom forget that she once saw Something Nasty in the woodshed.

If you are enjoying a mild indisposition and your weary hands can scarce creep outside the duvet to hold a book, there is nothing to beat the sense of privilege you get from someone reading to you. But talking-books are grand company even when you're fit, and they make excellent presents, easily wrapped and cheap to post.

For the intellectuals of your acquaintance, there are some challenging works about. The great John Moffatt could read a Sanskrit epic and make it sound intelligible: his reading of The Faerie Queene (Naxos pounds 9.99) is extraordinary. He sounds as if Spenser's ornate language were his own lingua franca, and you find yourself taking lines like "his gall did grate for grief and high disdain" cheerfully in your stride. Naxos tapes are always reliably well-produced, with carefully chosen musical interludes. Sam West reads the letters and poems of Keats in such a way as to break your heart with the beauty and brevity of the poet's tragic life. This tape is named after the places where Keats often travelled in his imagination, the Realms of Gold (Naxos, pounds 10.99): the music is by his young contemporary, Felix Mendelssohn.

Nobody could read Seamus Heaney's magnificent new translation of Beowulf (Faber Penguin pounds 8.99) better than he. Heaney's strong Irish baritone gives its own distinctive, accessible accent to the alliterative, earthy lines and the story of (frankly rather absurd) battles between heroes and monsters acquires a momentum and immediacy that has nothing to do with the poem's revered status as the earliest English epic.

Frank McCourt, the second volume of whose autobiography is just out. 'Tis (HarperCollins pounds 8.99), has been reviled as much as praised for his best-selling portrayal of a grim Limerick childhood, but, like Angela's Ashes, this book rings true beyond refutation.

Less demanding is Erica James's romantic tear-jerker Act of Faith (Orion pounds 12.99), read by the still teenage-sounding Jenny Agutter. And in rather the same, though more seasonal vein, Maeve Binchy's large collection of stories about Christmas expresses the hopes of millions in its title alone, This Year It Will Be Different (Orion pounds 12.99). The author's cousin Kate Binchy reads these generally cosy tales very well.

Short and Sweet, by name at least, are the 101 Very Short Poems chosen by Simon Armitage (Faber/Penguin pounds 8.99), though some of them are bitter and one or two downright sour. Finally, Verses of the Poets Laureate (Orion pounds 9.99) is an object lesson in what can happen to poets when greatness is thrust upon them: Tennyson said that he accepted the job because it would get him "the best pieces of chicken at dinner", but the prize for awfulness must go to Alfred Austin, a great bad poet. Sadly, in Hilary Laurie's selection, one splendid couplet does not appear. Here it is anyway: "Spring is come, the winter is over, / The cuckoo-flower sprouts mauver and mauver".