Independent choice: audio books

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Audiobooks are, much more than the written word, "the words of a dead man modified in the guts of the living", as Auden puts it in "In Memory of WB Yeats". Badly done, they are infuriatingly intrusive on the intimate tete a tete between book and reader. But converts to audiobooks know how much added value they can provide: readers who enrich thrillers with suspenseful menace or illuminate difficult texts with lucid emphases, a painless dripfeed through dauntingly long classics, the opportunity to hear a great actor or, most fascinating of all, the voice of the author himself. On journeys they are especially attractive, shortening the longueurs of motorways, soothing one to sleep in strange hotel rooms.

There is no more companionable book on earth for the solitary traveller than John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley (Penguin, unabridged, c.8 hrs, pounds 12.99), and since it is the tale of a journey at the wheel it is ideal driving fodder. When "the virus of restlessness" assailed him, Steinbeck took off from Long Island to tour America with his giant poodle Charley in a van converted to his own specifications. He discovered an America more eccentric, benign and human than anything that hit the headlines, and the wry wisdom with which he views human nature remains ineradicably in the mind. Gary Sinise's voice occasionally has a soporific quality, but he is an excellent Steinbeck soundalike.

The most classic of all journeys is of course that of the "man of many wiles" Ulysses to Troy and back by way of Circe, Cyclops and innumerable trials. For non-classicists it has always been a daunting prospect, but Homer's Odyssey (Hodder, c.9hrs, pounds 25), gives us the complete text in unusually accessible form. This version is read with unflagging excitement and sensitivity by Derek Jacobi in a translation by Allen Mandelbaum which avoids archaisms but retains all the thrilling rhythms of the original.

Dante's journey into the underworld is a different kind of classic journey, an allegory of past and future ages. Heathcote Williams reads The Inferno (Naxos, 4 hrs, pounds 8.99) with a husky intensity that had me spellbound. Benedict Flynn's translation does full justice to the original and, as is usual with Naxos's always rounded and thoughtful productions, contemporary music adds drama to the reading.

The calm, clear-eyed heroine of Neville Shute's A Town Like Alice (Chivers, 10 hrs, pounds 15.95) also makes a journey to hell and back in wartorn Burma. Shute, a master storyteller, is rightly enjoying a return to popularity, but avoid the two cassette dramatised abridgement of the book just been released by the BBC. lt really is worth buying this excellent complete version. Then wait for a long haul so that you can enjoy every word of Robin Bailey's gentle, intense reading of this famous novel.

Poetry is a delight to have by one while travelling, but it can be much more easily murdered on tape than prose. Classic Poems (HarperCollins, 2.5hrs, pounds 8.99) is a curate's egg, but brilliance easily outweighs the occasional dud and its astonishing cast of readers and many historic recordings make it an absolute must have. What greater added value could there be than T S Eliot, Auden, Hughes and Dylan Thomas reading their own verse, Boris Karloff intoning Kipling's "If" and Sybil Thorndike ecstatically emoting "The Lady of Shalott"? Ralph Richardson makes Blake's Tyger lazily terrible, James Mason puts incalculable menace into Browning's "My Last Duchess" and Diana Quick show us just why "Aurora Leigh" was a sensation in its day. lt is an especial treat to have Burns and Yeats read with the Celtic lilt they deserve.

Finally and most unmissable, Patricia Hodge reads To War With Whitaker (Chivers, c.13 hrs, pounds 16.99) with all the pluck and panache that its extraordinary author, Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly showed in her six years of wanderings through wartime Africa and Europe with a revolver tucked into her girdle, wheedling her way through the labyrinth of wartime bureacuracy in order to achieve her ambition: to stay as close as possible to her husband, and, when he was taken prisoner, not to return to England until he did. Besides being a trusty blade-straight mate, Ranfurly is a born diarist and a natural yarn spinner, whose humour and ebullience delight the ear, but who can also be treasonably frank about the major personalities in the confused theatre of war that we glimpse behind Bogart's Casablanca. Arguably the star of the show, is the short and portly Whitaker, the Ranfurlys' English cook-butler who also refuses to be left behind and carries on intrepidly, whether crossing the desert perched on the luggage of the Baby Austin or dancing boompsadaisy with his ladyship.