Books

The Best Audiobooks of 2020

Book covers of A Promised Land, Shuggie Bain, Why Fish Don't Exist, and Vesper Flights.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos courtesy of Amazon.

Did you listen more or less in 2020? For every friend rhapsodizing about how she finally discovered audiobooks this year when walking outdoors replaced her gym time, there’s another who’s behind on all his podcasts because he’s no longer commuting. Some of us resorted to submerging ourselves in long Victorian novels narrated by top-drawer actors in order to escape the hair-raising news cycle, while others complained that they just couldn’t concentrate on anything longer than a TikTok. Nevertheless, the market for audiobooks continues to grow. These were the best to meet my own ears over the past 12 tumultuous months.

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The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, narrated by Marisa Tomei

Tomei elevates this lesser Ferrante novel into the stratosphere with an impassioned performance that captures the volatile emotions of the book’s narrator: Giovanna, on the verge of adolescence, overhears her father compare her to her reviled aunt, a sort of family boogeyman who embodies the chaotic, working-class Neapolitan life her genteel parents are determined to leave behind. The remark triggers an obsession in the girl, who insists on meeting the dreaded Vittoria and becomes embroiled in her aunt’s fascinating but perilous milieu.

The Lying Life of Adults

By Elena Ferrante. Narrated by Marisa Tomei.

The Book of Lamps and Banners by Elizabeth Hand, narrated by Carol Monda

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Onetime punk-rock photographer Cass Neary has been on a four-book-long bender of solving mysteries and scarfing down pretty much any drug she can get her hands on. “I’m like one of those artificial ecosystems that creates its own bad weather,” observes this harder-than-hard-boiled survivor, and in Hand’s latest installment, she’s chasing a fabulously rare book supposedly used by a programmer to create a smartphone app that drives users mad, a quest that takes her from London to rural Sweden. Monda is, as ever, the ideal Cass, with gravel in her throat and a core of indefatigable scrappiness.

The Book of Lamps and Banners

By Elizabeth Hand. Narrated by Carol Monda.

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter, narrated by multiple performers

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Led by Edoardo Ballerini—whose narration of Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is one of the most captivating audiobooks ever recorded—multiple narrators take on the chapters of Walter’s latest novel, told from the perspective of an assortment of characters involved in a labor uprising in early-20th-century Washington state. Two brothers, itinerate workers who dream of buying a small farm, encounter a firebrand female union organizer, a jaded private detective/hit man, a vaudeville showgirl who performs with a cougar, and a ruthless millionaire determined to stifle the simmering class war. Each narrator brings a distinct mood and tenor to their chapters, enriching the novel’s depiction of an outpost on the edge of the nation that nevertheless embodies all of the contradictions of America.

The Cold Millions

By Jess Walter. Multiple narrators.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, narrated by Angus King

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I confess that this Booker Prize–winning novel—a dark horse debut whose success was one of the surprises of 2020—defeated me in print. It’s remarkably bleak, the story of a young boy’s relationship to his alcoholic mother as he comes to realize his own homosexuality in 1980s, working-class Glasgow. But King’s reading finally got me through. The despair of poverty and isolation, the economic upheaval that wiped out thousands of jobs, the degradation of abuse and addiction—it was all still there, but the texture of Glaswegian life summoned by King’s accents, from blustery husbands to keening widows to jeering urchins, provided a vitality I hadn’t tapped into on the page. This performance left me transfixed and stricken.

Shuggie Bain

By Douglas Stuart. Narrated by Angus King.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama, narrated by Barack Obama

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The calm, good-humored, thoughtful voice of the author—who offers a fascinating account of his political career up to 2011—makes this memoir a prime candidate for bedtime listening. Set the sleep timer and doze off to the sound of someone who knows what he’s doing and cares about its effect on other people—what could be more soothing after the past four years of chaos and cruelty? Or, better yet, listen closely to obtain a one-time novice’s perspective on the executive branch and gain the understanding to hold the office’s next occupant to account.

A Promised Land

Written and narrated by Barack Obama

Likes by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, narrated by Jean Ann Douglass

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The jewellike stories in this collection offer funny, shrewd, wistful glimpses of life, along the lines of Lorrie Moore or Deborah Eisenberg. A single white mother and her Black daughter attend a Waldorf school festival, the narrative pinging between the perspectives of parent and child. Half of a lesbian couple in Hollywood reckons with adulthood by watching her neighbor, once an icon of Manhattan’s downtown club scene, cobble together a second act. A father puzzles over the alien language of his daughter’s Instagram feed. Douglass’ narration, intimate and bemused and every so often curling up with wryness at the end of a sentence, is a perfect match for Shun-lien Bynum’s delicate delights.

Likes

By Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. Narrated by Jean Ann Douglass.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman, performed by full cast

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The notion of turning a comic book—especially one as iconic as Gaiman’s game-changing Sandman series, which ran from 1989–96—into an audiobook seems absurd. What is Sandman without the visual contributions of Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Todd Klein, Robbie Busch, and Dave McKean? But this dramatization, featuring James McAvoy as the title character along with the likes of Michael Sheen, Samantha Morton, Andy Serkis, Riz Ahmed, and Bebe Neuwirth (in a cameo as a siamese cat), really works. With Gaiman himself providing much of the narration, the audiobook replicates his Scheherazade-like story-spinning gifts in this moody, epic horror-fantasy saga of an elemental being, the Lord of Dreams, as he regains his freedom and kingdom after being held hostage by meddling mortals.

Sandman

By Neil Gaiman. Multiple narrators.

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, narrated by Helen Macdonald

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One of the most eloquent naturalists writing today, Macdonald (author of 2014’s H Is for Hawk) is that rare author who is the ideal narrator of her own work, patient, soft-spoken, quietly compelling. This collection of essays lacks the overarching personal narrative of Hawk, but instead provides a cascade of ordinary encounters, mostly with birds, that act like trapdoors to wonder. The great theme of Macdonald’s work is the tension between her almost-religious belief in the otherness of animals and her own lifelong desire to find significance in that otherness, to seek lessons that pertain to herself and to humanity. Whether she finds herself joined, during a forlorn moment, by a strangely companionable swan or contemplating the “vast habitat full of life” that is the atmosphere above New York City, she always finds a way to make us see the world anew.

Vesper Flights

Written and narrated by Helen Macdonald

Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller, narrated by Lulu Miller

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In this delightfully oddball memoir, Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter Miller describes her long fascination with David Starr Jordan (1851–1931), the first president of Stanford University and a mighty taxonomist of living creatures; he discovered a full one-fifth of the varieties of fish known to science. Miller, who struggled to find purpose in a universe that her atheist father taught her was meaningless, and contemplated suicide at low points in her life, once saw Jordan as heroic in his efforts to detect the underlying order of life. But as she comes to understand that her own clinging to certainty was making her miserable, and simultaneously confronts the noxious ideas that sprung from Jordan’s own mistaken convictions about evolutionary hierarchies. As an experienced radio journalist, Miller expertly spins out this charming dual yarn for listeners—in fact, the audiobook may be its best form.

Why Fish Don’t Exist

Written and narrated by Lulu Miller

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May, narrated by Rebecca Lee

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Winter is the best time for walking, May insists in this wide-ranging rumination on the sere, dark, cold season. For May, who recalls a period in her life when she was beset by a strange ailment and forced to go on leave from a job to which she’d become addicted, winter is more than just a time of the year. It stands for convalescence, mourning, hunkering down after a failure or breakup, hibernation—and, presumably, quarantine. She argues that such times, if embraced, can become a vessel for contemplation and self-knowledge, but she goes about illustrating this in a paradoxically active way, seeking out cold-water swimming, the northern lights, advice from Finns, people with seasonal affective disorder, experts on dormouse behavior, and, most disastrously, saunas. (She almost passes out.)

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Lee slips so comfortably into May’s voice that I had to keep reminding myself that she wasn’t May, just the perfect narrator for a wander-y, cozy, and surprisingly profound meditation on the beauty and strength to be found in this fallow time. It might be the best book to listen to while you walk off the next few months.

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