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Reviews: 'The Help,' 'Wolf Hall'

THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett, read by Cassandra Campbell, Jenna Lamia, Octavia Spencer and Bahni Turpin. Penguin Audio, 15 CDs, $39.95.

Some books are better to listen to than to read and, by my lights, most of those books are narrated by Brits. The average American narrator varies his or her voice slightly to portray different characters, while the average British narrator is capable of countless vocal transformations, delighting in the subtle distinctions that signify social rank.

"The Help," a very American novel by Kathryn Stockett about race relations in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s, gets around the problem with four narrators, one for each of the main characters, two black maids and two young white women. The maids are Abilene, dignified and loving (think Morgan Freeman in drag) and Minny, hot tempered and malcontent. The white women are Celia, a newlywed whose white-trash origins disqualify her from Jackson's social set, and Skeeter, who has just graduated from Ole Miss with a desire to become a writer.

Skeeter, well meaning but rather insensitive to racial politics at the book's beginning, hits upon the idea of putting together a collection of transcribed oral histories based on the experiences of a dozen or so maids; Abilene and Minny become the driving forces behind the project.

A huge grass-roots bestseller, "The Help" has taken some hits. Many readers are uncomfortable with the idea of a white author speaking through black characters, and politically correct stereotypes abound: The black characters inhabit a moral spectrum from admirable to saintly while the best you can say about the most sympathetic white characters is that they are well intentioned. Nevertheless, it's a white character who is the instrument of the black characters' ultimate deliverance.

What can I say? I was thoroughly captivated. My book club (like most book clubs) read "The Help" and I do believe the reason I enjoyed it more than anyone else was that I listened to the audiobook. The print edition is, well, plagued by writing in dialect. Listening to a gifted actress say "Minny near 'bout the best cook in Hinds County, maybe even all a Mississippi" is much better than reading it.

WOLF HALL, by Hilary Mantel, read by Simon Slater. Macmillan Audio, 18 CDs, $49.99.

Back to the Brits. Is there a subject more beloved by Anglophiles than the court of Henry VIII? The Tudor period has it all: the king's marital woes and attendant beheadings, the infiltration of the continent's nascent Protestant Reformation, Henry's break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England.

One of the period's great ironies, poignantly illustrated by Hilary Mantel's massive - and massively absorbing - "Wolf Hall," is that Henry is the furthest thing from a Protestant sympathizer: He was awarded the honorific "Defender of the Faith" by the Pope for writing an anti-Lutheran tract. If the Pope had granted Henry a divorce from his first wife, he would have remained a Catholic.

Henry is a secondary character in "Wolf Hall"; the book belongs to Thomas Cromwell, the king's lowborn and much maligned adviser. History has portrayed him as ruthless and amoral, but Mantel's Cromwell is merely practical and perceptive. He alone sees the outlines of the modern world and his career is an ongoing effort to yank Tudor England out of the Middle Ages.

Mantel chronicles Cromwell's rise from Cardinal Wolsey's protégé to Henry's closest counselor, and I have to warn you that the pace is slow. I initially thought that the 24-plus hours of sound would take me to the end of Cromwell's career, but as CD 17 gave way to 18, Anne Boleyn, fascinatingly drawn, was still very much alive.

Another of the book's great portraits is that of Thomas More, hero of Robert Bolt's play "A Man for All Seasons." Bolt's More is modest and principled; Mantel's is vain, pompous and sadistic.

Simon Slater does a masterful job of capturing Mantel's abundant and diverse characters (although Wolsey does sound a bit like a drag queen). My one complaint about the audiobook - and it's a significant one - is that it omits the cast of characters and genealogical charts that occupy the first five pages of the print edition. I actually went out and bought the hardcover so I could figure out the tangled skein of in-laws, nieces, nephews and apprentices that made up Cromwell's household, and without it, I wouldn't have twigged that Charles Brandon was also the Duke of Suffolk and Thomas Howard the Duke of Norfolk. Couldn't Macmillan Audio have packaged a cheat sheet along with the discs or, at the very least, provided a link to the information online?

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