(Published in the News and Observer, March 25, 2018
For me, listening to audio books is not just pleasurable, but critical. It’s not only that I’m print-weary, but there are mornings I’m so scattered that only listening to audios calms my imaginative right brain so that I can organize and move forward into my day.
I recently realized how audio books helped me get back to sleep, enjoy a long commute, and clean out 25 years of accumulation as we prepare our house for sale.
I know I’m not the only one to enjoy them. Just like podcasts, audio books are more popular than ever. Just this month, The New York Times announced it will start publishing Best-Seller Lists for the first time with the top 15 fiction and nonfiction lists based on the previous month’s sales. In the announcement, Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, said there’s a “a need for an impartial, reliable source for tracking and reporting the top-selling audiobooks across the country.”
So, what makes my best-of list? The same qualities that help me choose those for children. seek excellent narrators who add dimension to characters, strengthen evocative scenes, dramatize feelings and relationships, build tension and suspense, and invite listeners to join in the storytelling experience. Here are some great examples to listen to in your commute, your travels, or when you need to calm your brain, too.
“Anything is Possible”
By Elizabeth Strout. Narrated by Kimberly Farr (book and audio from Random House)
Elizabeth Strout’s sparseness of her 2016 “My Name is Lucy Barton” is complemented with this collection of narratives by natives from her birthplace of Amgash, Illinois. Kimberly Farr excels at all voices.
“The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying”
By Nina Riggs. Read by Cassandra Campbell and Kirby Heyborne (Simon and Schuster Audio)
Cassandra Campbell’s strong emotional timbre gives voice to the painful memoir of a young woman who lives vividly even as she faces stage 4 cancer. Nina Riggs’ writing has prose-filled similes, poignant detailing, meaningful meditations on life and gallows humor. These balance the horrors she faces as she watches her mother die of cancer and her own condition worsen.
Author and reader emphasize her sons’ love, her husband’s devotion and the tenderness she finds with and gives to her family. Somehow this proves to be soothing and alleviates the rawness of her treacherous journey. Never does this memoir grow sentimental. Rather it provokes thought philosophical interjections derived from her great-great-great grandfather Ralph Waldo Emerson and Michel de Montaigne. Her husband’s short afterwards is narrated by Kirby Heyborne.
“Legacy of Spies”
By John le Carré. Read by Tom Hollander (Random House Audio)
The 9th George Smiley espionage adventure features Peter Guillam, an agent under internal investigation by the British Secret Service for the events Carré related in “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.” Tom Hollander’s crisp narration knits together emotions and events of several decades so that one appreciates Carré’s writing, Guillam’s quandry, and never loses the sense of time and place.
“Lincoln in the Bardo”
By George Saunders, 166 narrators (Random House Audio)
This extraordinary cast represents the book’s many voices with a huge range of breadth and depth. The ensemble includes David Sedaris, Jeffrey Tambor, Don Cheadle, Susan Sarandon, the author, his parents, wife and daughters. It’s the perfect representation of what the author hoped for – “an American chorus.” As Abraham Lincoln sorrows over the death of his son, Willie, American citizens and ghosts who linger between death and rebirth comment on 19th century life from every vantage point, region, mood, class, background and accent imaginable.
“You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”
By Sherman Alexie. Read by the author (Hatchett audio)
Versatility of moods, rhythms and writing styles combine in a powerful memoir written after the death of Alexie’s mother. Poetry and prose describe a haunting grief delivered in the context of family stories, his unequal relationship with his mother, and his life on and off the reservation. Viscerally, he recounts losses of tribal languages as eloquently as those he experiences after brain surgery. Alexie goes from witty, philosophical, profane and sacred within sentences. His reading is as rhythmic as his written word.
“Sing Unburied Sing”
By Jesmyn Ward. Read by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chris Chalk, Rutina Wesley (Simon and Schuster Audio)
Strong readers are required for a book penned by an author with the gift for voice. The trio of narrators deliver Ward’s alternating chapters with a depth of characterization, the rhythms of the rural Mississippi setting, sensitivity to sensory details and appreciation for the lyrical word choices.
Thirteen-year-old Jojo cares for his 3-year-old sister Kayla. They find love and nurture from their beloved grandparents, Pop and Mam, who is dying of cancer. Their inconsistent addict mother, Leonie, is not so much of a caretaker. The depction of Jojo captures the transition from innocence to knowledge and his embracing of the real and spirit world around him. Rutina Wesley’s narration for Leonie is in turns cruel and cold, dreamy and regretful. The longing of the ghost Richie adds a haunting mood. Together the narrators become a chorus that witnesses the power of resilience and the horrors of racism’s legacy.
By Jennifer Egan. Read by Norbert Leo Butz, Heather Lind, Vincent Piazza (Simon and Schuster Audio)
Historical fiction, mystery and coming-of-age combine as beautifully as the three narrators’ voices. Heather Lind, representing 11-year-old Anna with a youthful voice, expresses the child’s adoration for her charming Depression-era gangster father who disappears in her youth soon after they meet. He’s the gruff, intimidating Dexter Styles, played by Vincent Pizza. This small encounter becomes the foundation of the novel.
Lind’s voice grows stronger as she becomes a determined young woman who is bent on becoming a World War II diver and solving the mystery of her father’s disappearance. Norbert Leo Butz’s emotive narration deftly weaves together the threads of time, theme and the complex characters in Egan’s elegantly written tale of discoveries.
“Be Frank with Me”
By Julia Claiborne Johnson. Read by Tavia Gilbert (HarperAudio)
Tavia Gilbert animates the fast-moving story about a publishing assistant sent to coax a new book from a reclusive author. Instead she becomes caretaker to the author’s high-functioning autistic child. Gilbert replicates a huge, and sometimes nuanced, emotional range.
“Gentleman in Moscow”
By Amor Towles. Read by Nicholas Guy Smith (Penguin Audio)
Nicholas Guy Smith reads the story of Russian aristocrat Alexander Ilyich Rostov. Rostov has been sentenced by the Bolshevicks in 1922 to house arrest in the attic of Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. Smith’s voice is as rich as Rostov’s background and makes vivid the poetry, political and philosophical bents of the hero. Smith also makes much of Towle’s ironic detailing. A bit of a slow start, but it picks up after the appearance of the brilliant, thoughtful spirited 9-year-old Nina who wishes training to be a princess. She, and later her daughter, revive Rostov’s spirit (and my listening pleasure).
“Days Without End”
By Sebastian Barry. Read by Aiden Kelly (Blackstone)
The Irish narrator adds believability and poignancy to a book that won the 2016 Costa Book of the Year. Thomas McNulty looks back 50 years to his youth in mid-19th century America, though he questions his own reliability for “the mind is a wild liar.”
By Ian McEwan. Read by Rory Kinnear (Recorded Books)
A perfect pairing of writer and narrator make a creative, convincing listen – told by Hamlet’s fetus.