By Mavis Gallant
Blackstone Audio, unabridged short stories, 14 CDs, 17 hours, $120 ( $11.99 rental), read by Lorna Raver and Yuri Rasovsky . Also available on MP3 CD for $44.95 and as a download from www.audible.com for $31.47.
The View From Castle Rock
By Alice Munro
Random House Audio, abridged short stories, 10 CDs, 11 hours and 49 minutes, $29.95; read by Kimberly Farr . Also available as a download from www.audible.com for $20.97.
The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories
By Susanna Clarke
Audio Renaissance, unabridged short stories, six CDs, $24.99, read by Simon Prebble and Davina Porter. Also available as a download from www.audible.com for $20.97.
Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!: The Best of "Not My Job"
From NPR and Chicago Public Radio
HighBridge Audio, unabridged selections, two CDs, two hours and 15 minutes, $22.95, featuring celebrity guests Barack Obama, Harold Ramis, Tom Hanks and 12 others.
Continuing with an earlier theme, we are again turning our collective ear toward that most agreeable format: short stories.
In his introduction to "Paris Stories," novelist Michael Ondaatje tells us that Mavis Gallant is a wonderful writer who is not very well known in America. And he couldn't be more correct . A frequent contributor to The New Yorker for almost 50 years, she is a Canadian native who decamped for Paris in the 1950s and remains there still.
Gallant's graceful stories are not fueled by plot so much as by character. The people in her tales are or have been wanderers, uprooted by war, family, jobs. Some are damaged, many are witty, and most have poignant stories to tell.
This production is a 2007 finalist for an Audie Award in the Short Stories/Collections category (to be announced June 1). It sounds nicely polished, with agreeable bits of piano music that break up the stories and give us a chance to gear up for a new set of Gallant's fleshed-out and realistic characters.
Lorna Raver captures the sly wit, tragedy, or underlying anger found in these stories, and she does so without sentimentality, which is right on the money. Raver can begin with a light and quick narration, but clearly expresses a change in tone when necessary. And it often is necessary, because Gallant, knowing how quickly a life can be altered, sometimes turns humor into tragedy with one sentence.
Yuri Rasovsky also has a strong sense of timing, but his accents are hard to pin down. Still, both readers clearly identify different characters in the stories through various accents, which is always helpful.
Another Canadian writer also tackles the subject of people looking for home: The first five stories in Alice Munro 's collection "The View From Castle Rock" are fictionalized accounts of her family's emigration from the Ettrick Valley, in Scotland, to Canada and America.
When Munro began looking for her family's roots, her search took her back to 18th-century Scotland. But it also caused her to look inward, and this collection is more personal than most of her work. These stories are hybrids, really, of fact and fiction, and many concern people who have died. And though there is sadness in them, they are far from maudlin. Her characters, émigrés and pioneers and small-town inhabitants, are very much alive and full of emotion.
Kimberly Farr, who does a mean Scottish burr, has a clear, pretty voice and an understanding of this material. She kens the ennui of everyday life and expresses it as easily as the more dramatic segments. Almost anyone can express anger, but it takes skill to convey more subtle emotions, such as boredom or spite. Kudos to Farr for pulling it off.
Much like Susanna Clarke's first novel, the best-selling "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell," the eight tales in "The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories" are set in an England where magic is studied and practiced. They feature witches, fairies, and even the scholarly Mr. Strange. The most successful is the title story, in which three country witches, well versed in the magic of the Raven King, foil the nefarious plans of a nasty captain and stand toe to toe with Mr. Strange. Clarke's reworking of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale, in contrast, simply sounds tired and unoriginal, despite her intelligent and irresistible prose and her unique way of blending whimsy with darkness .
Narrator Davina Porter has one of those pretty, well-trained British voices that one could listen to forever. She does a remarkable job of changing her voice and accent. She can manage deep and growly in one sentence and then sound delicate and extremely feminine in the next. Almost her match is Simon Prebble, who is also adept at interpreting various characters, but his narration lacks the brio Porter brings.
Though not short stories, the excerpts from "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!: The Best of 'Not My Job' " are so much fun they should not be missed. In this fast-paced and often laugh-out-loud quiz show, famous people are asked silly questions out of their field. The guests are quick and clever, and commentary by the show's celebrity panel is also very humorous. This is fluff, but it is smart fluff .
Rochelle O'Gorman is publisher and editor in chief of audiobookcafe.com, an online magazine featuring daily reviews, interviews, and articles related to the audiobook industry.