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Bedtime stories with the stars

With Brad Pitt, Anne Heche, Calista Flockhart, and others voicing the latest audiobooks, reading gets a little more entertaining

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Blockbuster movie? Been there. Hit TV series? Done that. Then what can restless celebrities do to stretch those atrophied creative muscles? Why, lock themselves in a studio and record the spoken-word version of the latest best-seller, of course. Audiobooks, the longtime bastion of self-help gurus, have become the playing ground for stars.

Obviously, money isn’t the motive, as the average fee per celeb reading rarely hits the $10,000 mark. But many performers are turning to audiobook recording for a true test of their acting chops: ”Ed Asner once called audiobook reading the Olympics of acting,” says Judith McGuinn, vice president-director of Time Warner AudioBooks, ”because you are called upon to create all of the characters and to maintain them throughout the book.”

With everyone from Kevin Spacey to Morgan Fairchild to John Travolta emoting on tape, it looks like reading aloud isn’t just for kids anymore. Here’s a rundown of the biggest names in the books-on-tape biz.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
Written by: Stephen King
Read by: Psycho pixie Anne Heche
Delivery: With her clear, chirpy (verging on singsong) reading, Heche is pitch perfect as spunky 9-year-old heroine Trisha McFarland.
Listen for: Heche’s equally skilled renditions of male sportscasters, radio jingles, and even Tom Gordon himself.
The lowdown: Extras such as suitably spooky background music and an afterword written by King make this a sleepaway camp essential.
Grade: A-

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Written by: Philip K. Dick
Read by: Matthew Modine and Ally McBeal‘s Calista Flockhart
Delivery: Petulant, moody, and coolly confident, Flockhart steals the tape from Modine’s comparatively bland reading of postapocalyptic bounty hunter Rick Deckard.
Listen for: How Flockhart manages to inject Ally-esque whininess into the line ”I can’t dial a setting that stimulates my cerebral cortex into wanting to dial.”
The lowdown: You can’t help wishing you could actually see the action.
Grade: B

All the Pretty Horses
Written by: Cormac McCarthy
Read by: Thelma & Louise-anointed cowboy Brad Pitt
Delivery: His sigh-heavy, gravelly inflections make even dusty, craggy, bologna-eating Texas ranchers unbearably sexy.
Listen for: The star’s mangled rendition of Spanish phrases like ”Hacienda de Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion.”
The lowdown: Pronunciation botches aside, Pitt is especially adept at giving each of the characters — from youth to geezer — a distinctive voice.
Grade: B