Many audiobooks are simply tools of convenience, a form that lets you read during a long commute or while working out. But while there’s nothing wrong with that—who doesn’t want to squeeze more good books into her life?—there are some audiobooks that deliver more. A great narrator’s performance can enrich and deepen a reader’s encounter with a novel, and the author’s own voice can enhance the ring of authenticity in a memoir. (Yes, you puritanical audiobook naysayers, good books also hold their own on the page, and a bad narrator can ruin an audiobook—but we’re talking about best-case scenarios right now.) These were the books I listened to this year whose narrators made me grateful to be reading with my ears instead of my eyes.
Tommy Orange set himself two tasks: to do justice to the lives of urban Native Americans and to write the great Oakland novel, paying tribute to the gritty Bay Area city that has long been the overlooked sibling of San Francisco and Berkeley. One of his characters is finishing a documentary film started by his late uncle, a kind of oral history in which Native American residents talk about how they came to live in Oakland, how they became the kind of people who “know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers.” There There is a similar project, a collection of portraits and stories, about characters with fiercely distinct identities, and I’d argue that the best way to appreciate it is in its audio incarnation, read by four great narrators who make the multivocal splendor of the book more vivid.
The remarkable theme of this odd, charming little book, a best-seller in Japan, is the happiness of a woman who has found her place in the world, even if it’s a place that most other people would prefer to visit briefly, if at all. Keiko Furukura works at the Japanese equivalent of a 7-Eleven and carefully mimics her co-workers’ mannerisms and clothes sense. The rote nature of her job and the straightforward goals of the store are what Keiko, who has no innate sense of how to interact socially, treasures about it. “This is the only way I can be a normal person,” she explains. Nancy Wu’s narration settles on exactly the right tone: bright, keen on all the details of correct convenience-store operations, and pragmatic, yet bewildered by the rest of humanity and its prerogatives.
Kiese Laymon’s memoir, addressed to his brilliant, bookish, and often cruel mother, is so personal and so painful it’s as if he’s tearing open his chest and exhibiting his wounds. While most writers who take this approach can’t make literature of the results, Laymon is the exception, his prose a rare fusion of the raw and elegant. Hardly anyone, he writes, “in this nation has any desire to reckon with the weight of where we’ve been.” For him the reckoning has to do with race, gender, family, and the various methods we use to smother the suffering they cause. In Laymon’s case, the drug of choice was food, and as a teenager he weighed over 300 pounds. Heavy begins by listing the kinds of book you might expect this one to be, informing you that such expectations will be thwarted in favor of a simple yet difficult dictum: Tell the truth. Can there be any doubt that this testimonial is best heard straight from Laymon himself? A few minutes under the spell of his impassioned narration will convince anyone.
Raised in a devout survivalist family on a mountain in Idaho, Tara Westover didn’t even have a birth certificate for most of her childhood. Her father read aloud from the Bible each night and taught his clan to shun the outside world and what he saw as its manifold attempts to control and corrupt them. Like a nightmare, modern-day version of Little House on the Prairie, Educated describes growing up with essentially no education (although Westover was taught to read), a childhood spent hungrily ferreting out knowledge wherever she could, usually when her father wasn’t looking. Astonishingly, Westover did well enough on the ACT to get into college, where she learned for the first time about, for example, the Holocaust, and ended up at Harvard. Yet she never discounts the beauty and grandeur of the place where she grew up. This is a memoir in the lyrical mode, and Julia Whelan’s narration is serene and confiding, the ideal companion in a journey from the edge of civilization back in.
In another of her outrageously enjoyable novelizations of classical mythology, Madeline Miller presents the sorceress who seduced Odysseus into lingering on her island and transformed his men into pigs. Daughter of Helios, the imperious sun god, and a spoiled, pretty nymph who never lets her forget her own lack of immortal beauty, Circe grows up as a minor figure in her father’s court, a function she serves in several Greek myths and legends as well. Here, she satisfyingly takes center stage, a Cinderella who prefers her witchcraft and her island redoubt to the unreliable love of princes and other men (though there’s a lot of that, too). Nevertheless, she is a princess, and Perdita Weeks’ plummy British accent and deliciously precise diction never let you forget that.
Will Damron’s narration of this densely and meticulously reported account of the Theranos fiasco is nothing fancy, but then it doesn’t need to be. Author John Carreyrou conveys a great deal of information while never losing his grip on his astonishing storyline. Founded by the titanically ambitious 19-year-old Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos, a biotech firm promising revolutionary new ways to test blood and administer medications, was valued at $10 billion in 2014. The next year, it all came tumbling down, when Carreyrou, reporting for the Wall Street Journal, investigated rumors that the technology the company had displayed to investors didn’t even work. You don’t want performative bells and whistles with material like this, just an understated, lucid transmission of the facts, and Damron excels at this.
by John Carreyrou. Narrated by Will Damron.
When Angela Carter died in 1992, she left behind a body of work whose influence can be seen in writers ranging from Kelly Link to Neil Gaiman to Carmen Maria Machado. The Bloody Chamber, 10 lushly written, often Gothic stories based on fairy tales and folklore, is her masterpiece. Emilia Fox and Richard Armitage take turns reading tales that accentuate the erotic, unruly, and atmospheric possibilities of Carter’s source material, and they make the most of it. Fox’s delivery is dulcet to the brink of breathiness (but no further), and Armitage broods and pines as magnificently as Heathcliff himself—except when he cuts loose as a bawdy, flamboyant Puss in Boots. Seven gorgeous hours of pure listening pleasure.
The voice Michael Crouch uses for his narration of this novel, set primarily in Chicago during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, is intelligent and nervy, the sound of a wit whose humor has been almost worn out by incessant loss. For a certain generation of gay men, the cohort of Rebecca Makkai’s characters, it might as well be the voice of the crisis—of an exhilarating freedom freshly attained, only to be ambushed by a brutal epidemic. The ’80s chapters follow a group of close friends and alternate with a present-day storyline involving one member of the group, now middle-aged, as she searches for her estranged daughter in Paris; her own depleting grief, a legacy of the worst of the plague years, has made it difficult for her to love her own child. Although Makkai herself isn’t old enough to have lived through the peak of the crisis, she achieves the impressive feat of making all of these characters feel both recognizable and entirely themselves.
Johann Hari’s argument in this book—that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, better known as antidepressants, are at best only marginally effective and that the medical profession has failed to adequately communicate this fact to the general public—has generated some controversy. He’s been accused, falsely, of urging patients to simply discontinue taking the drugs without consulting a doctor. But at heart, Lost Connections calls for a closer look at the root causes of depression and anxiety—and the acknowledgement that they are often understandable responses to the conditions of contemporary life, an affliction we ought to be facing full-on. What makes this audiobook so invigorating, however, is not just Hari’s ideas but his enthusiasm for them. Listening to Lost Connections feels like a late night at a bar with a brilliant friend who’s just made a series of life-changing discoveries and can barely contain his excitement over them. It’s hard to not get swept up in Hari’s bottomless curiosity and intellectual gusto, and I’d argue there’s no reason not to.
by Johann Hari. Narrated by the author.
Okorafor, a celebrated author of adult fantasy novels, delivers the first volume in a YA series that employs most of the familiar—and effective—tropes of the genre: a displaced young person introduced to a secret magical world, the discovery of the main character’s special powers, a crew of friends, a romantic triangle, and of course a great evil to battle. What makes it all fresh—besides Okorafor’s vivid images and fine prose—is the Nigerian setting and a mythology based on West African traditions and Igbo deities. The witches are “Leopard people,” and Sunny, Okorafor’s 12-year-old protagonist, gets initiated into their ranks with a spell that briefly reveals her spirit face—a spectacular living version of a tribal mask. You can double the pleasure of all this by listening to Yetide Badaki narrate the novel, expertly deploying a range of exuberant Nigerian accents.
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