Edward Ball, Southern-born and Northern-educated, begins "Slaves in the Family," his family history, with a telling joke regarding his ancestors' legacy as former slave owners (Simon & Schuster Audio, abridged nonfiction, four cassettes, five hours, $25, read by the author). "There are five things we don't talk about in the Ball family," his father would say. "Religion, sex, death, money and the Negroes."
"What does that leave to talk about?" his mother once asked.
Ball, a former columnist for the Village Voice, traces his origins from England to the Colonies, where in pre-Revolutionary America it became clear to some that fortunes could be made upon the backs of others. By following leads to Sierra Leone and across America, he also identifies the blood relationships between the white members of his family and their former slaves.
The lives of owners and slaves were so interwoven that Ball could not recount the history of his white forebears without allotting equal space to those who planted their "Carolina Gold"--rice--and occasionally bore their children. The act of writing this book served as obvious apology to their memory and their descendants.
Only half of the original text made it to the audio, but Ball is a flavorful writer, and little of his voice was excised. However, greatly missed from the written material are the revealing photographs and paintings from his family's past and present.
Unlike most authors, Ball is at ease behind the microphone. He is more polished than most, with a cultured manner and crisp diction. He has mostly eradicated his Southern drawl, though a hint of Georgia haunts his words still. This is to the listener's advantage, as Ball resurrects images of the Old South as he quotes those he interviewed.
Ball successfully ages his voice, manages a Gullah accent and imparts infectious bonhomie into the words of a cousin with a big and friendly personality. He is even able to belt out a few lines of a spiritual.
The audio is a trade-off. One must sacrifice some of the detailed poignancy of the uncut text to hear Ball tell his story. The exchange is more than fair.
Former Wall Street lawyer Gerald Posner has tackled such subjects in the past as John F. Kennedy's assassination and an expose of the heroin trade. His most recent investigative report, "Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.," is a detailed and thoroughly documented anatomy of a murder. Unfortunately, you'd never know it from the audio version (Random House Audio, abridged nonfiction, four cassettes, four hours, $24, read by the author).
This abridgment sounds like a laundry list of names and dates. Much of the flavor, along with Posner's careful reporting, has been cut. The original material is quite dense, replete with footnotes and concluding with a bibliography and a thick chapter of author's notes. The book is stimulating because of those arcane nuggets Posner worked so hard to unearth.
What remains on audiotape is simply the idea of a book that includes conspiracy theories, the assassination, Ray's ever-changing story, and an outline of Ray's fringe existence as a racist and small-time criminal.
Posner's narration adds little to the production. He is merely adequate. His voice is a little high; his delivery, a tad understated. If you are thinking the audio sounds dull, you are on the right track. Not that you should avoid Posner's book. Just read it.
You may have heard the famous speeches, but now you can hear the emotional sermons that first pushed King into the public's awareness with "A Knock at Midnight: Original Recordings of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.," edited by Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran (Time Warner AudioBooks, unabridged nonfiction, six cassettes, seven hours and 45 minutes, $26.98).
Intriguing because this is not a collection of King's greatest speeches, these sermons allow the listener to follow King's method and message over the course of 14 years, beginning in 1954. Each is introduced and intelligently put into context by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. Billy Graham, among others. The introductions, when not read by the authors, are narrated by Keith David or Jay Gregory.
Instructive and inspirational, these are perfect for parents hoping to teach their children about the history and heroes of the 20th century. Some of the sound quality of the early sermons is quite poor, muddied by time and primitive equipment. The sound improves significantly as the set goes on. But where they occur, the sound difficulties are easily overlooked for the historical thrill these recordings provide.
Rochelle O'Gorman Flynn reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Margo Kaufman on mysteries.