Road Tripping with Eclectic Audiobooks [in The Booklist Reader]
Once upon a time, I was wary of audiobooks; I didn’t think they were “real” reading. How wrong I was!
Two sparked an obsession: Feed by M.T. Anderson, read by David Aaron Baker, with a full production complete with brain-fed ads and instant messages before I even knew what they were (!), and Shantaram by David Gregory Roberts, performed phenomenally by Humphrey Bower, who never, ever lagged during the 43 hours (not a typo!) of narration.
Then I quit my day job and started training for ultramarathons, and thousands of miles flew by with hundreds of audiobooks. (Might I crow over coming in third for old people in my last 50-miler?) These days, I review and judge audiobooks by the dozens, so that means every mundane chore gets enhanced with humor, murder, love, war, coming-of-age, world exploration and so much more.
Clearly, I’m not the only one who’s discovered the magic of aural reading. Audiobook sales are growing by double digits. Couple that with some of the lowest gas prices at this time of the year since 2005, and you’ve got the makings of a fabulous road trip. Ready to go? Here’s a baker’s dozen of chilling, thrilling, affecting audiobooks, all out this year, to send you on your merry way.
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay, read by Robin Miles
Experienced narrator Robin Miles is the ideal proxy for Gay’s short story collection, Difficult Women. Embodying various ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds, Miles adapts her rich voice with practiced ease. Some stories are complicated: identical twins like to switch places in “The Mark of Cain,” a daughter remembers her Saturday trips with her father in “In the Event of My Father’s Death.” Others are horrific: a pair of preteen sisters are enslaved for six weeks of sexual torture in “I Will Follow You,” and a young girl is brutally gang raped in “Strange Gods.” Some resemble fairy tales, like the waterlogged, not-quite-love story of “Water, All Its Weight” and “The Sacrifice of Darkness,” a story about the losing the sun. Some, like “Break All the Way Down,” about dealing with the loss of a child by inciting violence, and “La Negra Blanca,” about falling victim to repugnant white privilege, are numbingly tragic. Unrelenting, unrepentant, unflinching, Difficult Women never disappoints.
The Door by Magda Szabó, read by Siân Thomas
Originally published 30 years ago, The Door is one of only a few of the late Szabó’s titles available in English, even though he’s considered one of – if not the – most prominent Hungarian writer. The audio version debuted this year. The story seems simple: a writer and her husband hire a capable housekeeper to take care of the mundane details of their lives. The reality, however, is a multi-layered treatise about power, class, family, and secrets, all set against the backdrop of Hungary’s troubled political, socioeconomic, and cultural history. Disturbing, raw, and brutally revealing, Szabó’s literary achievement is further enhanced by Siân Thomas’ narration, whose reading is utterly visceral, alternating between biting control and emotional outbursts so vivid as to conjure the flying spittle of desperate dialogue.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, read by the author
“We are all migrants through time,” observes Man Booker Prize short-lister Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist). The impulses driving such movement, especially when rooted in violent conflict, is at the core of Hamid’s exceptional fourth novel, Exit West; that Mohsin narrates his own words underscores the urgency of his story. In an unnamed city (not dissimilar to the author’s native Lahore, Pakistan), Saeed and Nadia meet, find love, and expect to share a future, but a militant takeover forces them to flee their homeland. Hamid reveals their fraught journey from a dream-like distance – escape happens through doors only accessible via the right contact at the right price – that blends reality with fable. Although he focuses the narrative spotlight on these lovers on the run, Hamid regularly interrupts the couple’s peregrinations with snapshot interludes – a potential murder in Tokyo, a woman threatened in Vienna, an aging grandmother in Palo Alto – that serve as reminders that life (and death) continues for everyone else, everywhere else, every which way. Both mellifluous and jarring, Exit West is a profound meditation on the unpredictable temporality of human existence and the immeasurable cost of widespread enmity.
The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam, read by Deepti Gupta
Aslam (Maps for Lost Lovers, The Blind Man’s Garden) takes readers to a small stretch of Grand Trunk Road, Asia’s ancient thruway that links Bangladesh to Afghanistan, to the fictional town of Zamana in contemporary Pakistan. One spring morning, an American stops his car on the historical thoroughfare and starts shooting. Among the dead is Massud, a local famous architect and a Muslim. Without even time to mourn, government officials pressure Massud’s wife Nargis to publicly forgive the murderer – an alleged American diplomat – ostensibly to avoid an international incident. Nargis finds her greatest comfort in Helen, the daughter of the couple’s Christian housekeepers, whom she and Massud have nurtured, educated, and loved as their own. When Helen’s father Lily’s forbidden liaison with a Muslim widow is exposed, accusations of blasphemy – punishable by death – send Lily on the run. Helen and Nargis become targets by association and are forced to flee. In a moment of unexpected serendipity, Imran, a stranger linked to Massud, becomes the women’s self-appointed protector. Read with patient gravitas in a lilting South Asian accent by Deepti Gupta, Legend offers readers an unparalleled experience that both rightfully condemns and poignantly honors the worst and best of our shared humanity.
The Great Passage by Shion Miura, read by Brian Ishii
At 27, Majime – name means both “serious” and “diligent” – is recruited from sales by the Dictionary Editorial Department of Gembu Books to help compile The Great Passage, an überdictionary destined to guide users across a vast sea of words. Socially awkward Majime embarks on a journey of nearly two decades, during which he comes to understand the deepest meanings of friendship, dedication, and everlasting love. His coterie, which once included only his landlady and a tubby kitty, grows to include fellow eccentric linguaphiles, his soulmate chef, and other extraordinary colleagues. For English readers, this Japanese bestseller arrives in the U.S. as a symbiotic accomplishment: Miura provides the whimsical original, while Juliet Winters Carpenter has created an exceptional English rendering in what was surely a supremely challenging feat of translation, further magnified by the preciseness of her every word. In decoding the Japanese, Carpenter managed not to dampen the ineffable cleverness of the original. Swirling with witty enchantment, The Great Passage proves to be, well, utterly great. Narrator Brian Ishii – his voice slightly gravelly as if he, too, hasn’t quite slept enough (not unlike many of the characters) – ensures that readers will be sighing with satisfied admiration.
Mad Country by Samrat Upadhyay, read by Vikas Adams
Vikas Adams’s remarkably chameleonic range proves ideal for Upadhyay’s (Arresting God in Kathmandu) latest superb collection, set mostly in Nepal. Exceptionally gifted with accents, Adams could easily be mistaken for a multi-person cast – he’s effortlessly convincing as a disappointed father, a female inmate, a resigned protester, and so many others who populate Upadhyay’s eight stories, which explore politics, racism, family dysfunction, cultural chaos, and tourism. In the eponymous “Mad Country,” a high-powered businesswoman is imprisoned without cause; in “Fast Forward,” a newsmagazine’s founder becomes both famous and infamous when the government targets her publication. In “Beggar Boy,” the lonely son of a wealthy, absent father lives more in his imagination than reality; a young American woman reinvents herself as a part of a Nepali family in “Freak Street”; and a Nepali student in the U.S. finds himself in volatile Ferguson, Missouri in “America the Great Equalizer.” In the collection’s most inventive, disturbing story, “Dreaming of Ghana,” a man finds a naked, dark woman in the street and takes her home, losing her to his best friend. Both Upadhyay and Adam are stupendous creators. One writes, the other projects, and the result is a global aural treasure.
One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel, read by Gibson Frazier
At just three-and-a-half hours, Magariel’s debut novel is a quick listen, but this affecting, hypnotic tragedy will linger and haunt listeners long after. Narrator Gibson Frazier – pitch perfect in his characterization of two abused brothers – is especially chilling as a father who can go from buoyant to snarling without warning. In the tumultuous wake of his family’s acrimonious disintegration, the father takes his two sons from Kansas to New Mexico. The younger is just 12 and is coerced into being “one of the boys” by rejecting his mother. “We’ll all be kids again,” the father promises. The brothers adapt – enough – by proving talented on the basketball court. Their father, however, spirals out of control: his cigars are replaced by more debilitating substances, his hands (and almost anything they touch) become weapons, and his mind and heart are increasingly incapacitated. Trapped and desperate, the brothers know they won’t survive – but escape is a formidable risk.
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig, read by the author
Fifteen years after her first novel, The Good Men, Craig returns with an epic based on the lives of her Burmese mother and maternal grandparents. A former actor, Craig is clearly the ideal narrator to voice her family’s narrative as she guides readers through the little-known history of an ethnic minority, the Karen, targets of violence and persecution for decades, within the larger context of Burma’s colonial legacy and its rebirth as the autonomous nation of Myanmar. In 1939, Benny – a Jewish/British/Indian officer of “His [British] Majesty’s Customs Service” – falls in love with and marries Khin, a Karen native; orphaned since age 7, Benny is quickly absorbed into her extended community, despite their initial lack of a shared language. Their incongruous union adapts and survives decades through the horrors of war, torture, imprisonment, and betrayal. The oldest of their children, Louisa, will take the title of the eponymous “Miss Burma” and learn to navigate the difficult paths of being Burmese, Karen, and part of a new generation determined to achieve independence and freedom at almost any cost.
Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan, read by Lydia Look
Kwan’s third volume continues to expose – albeit with plenty of Schadenfreude-derived humor – the outrageous excesses and over-the-top machinations that began with his internationally bestselling, aptly titled debut, Crazy Rich Asians (currently in highly-anticipated celluloid production). Lydia Look – who voiced book two, China Rich Girlfriend – reprises her crisply clipped Singlish with unfailing enthusiasm and energetic aplomb, providing emphatic punctuation to the shenanigans of Kwan’s über-rich characters. In Manhattan, Nicholas and Rachel Young are temporarily detached from Nicky’s extended family in Singapore. When family matriarch Su Yi falls gravely ill, her Tyersall Park home – an unparalleled, legendary estate – swells with fawning well-wishers. Missing is her favorite grandson Nicky, from whom she’s been estranged ever since he chose Rachel over his family. The local drama, meanwhile, implodes. Cousin Astrid’s marriage has floundered, she’s re-involved with her less-than-appropriate first love, Charlie Wu, whose estranged wife is making headlines. Kitty Pong is now married to China’s second-wealthiest man, but her billions can’t buy satisfaction, especially when her new stepdaughter keeps stealing the spotlight. For that extra-long ride, make sure to take the whole trilogy along!
Selection Day by Aravind Adiga, read by Sartaj Garewal
Narrator Sartaj Garewal’s energy couldn’t be more rousingly infectious as he voices the unforgettable characters in Adiga’s (The White Tiger) latest. Raised in a Mumbai slum by a fiercely demanding father, the two Kumar brothers are destined to become cricket champions by the sheer will of their training-obsessed parent. Radha, the elder, is already a local celebrity, but Manju, now 14, is quickly gaining the attention of top talent scout Tommy Sir and local businessman Anand Mehta, who is convinced Manju just might be his next best investment. Caught in the whirlwind of other people’s expectations and demands, Manju has little time to consider what he wants and whom he wishes to be as he and his brother come to terms with unpredictable, uncertain futures. Garewal’s impressive range makes each character memorably distinct, from confident Radha and questioning Manju to their ambitious father and an enthralling cast of friends, followers, and detractors. His spirited presentation is an unflagging delight, enhancing an already stupendous narrative with even more gusto and charm.
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel, read by Gabra Zackman
Frankel’s third novel is her most personal: As the mother of a transgender daughter, she writes with clarity, truth, and heart. Rosie and Penn already have four sons when Claude arrives. A remarkable child by all accounts, Claude announces at age three that he wants to be a girl when he grows up. Cautious at first, the family creates a loving, nurturing world as Claude becomes Poppy. But even in the most accepting environments, living with secrets has challenges and consequences impossible to ignore. Narrator Gabra Zackman superbly endows each family member with distinctive personalities, but her characterization of Poppy – her curiosity, joy, devastation, and resolve – is especially affecting.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, read by the author
If anything about this sounds familiar, that might be because you may have already come across Nigerian-born Adichie’s TEDxEuston talk of the same name. Think of that as a highly successful test run, and consider investing a mere 45 minutes to listen to Adichie (again) in this extended version, as she explains why she is a “Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men and Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss and High Heels for Herself and Not for Men.” Adichie’s tone seems light, and she uses ironic humor brilliantly throughout – a childhood friend first called her a feminist at age 14 in “the same tone with which a person would say, ‘You’re a supporter of terrorism.'” But she doesn’t shy away from getting angry, dismantling stereotypes, exposing inequity, and demanding change. Adichie’s own definition of a feminist is simply empowering: “Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it, we must do better.”
The Windfall by Diksha Basu, read by Soneela Nankani
Mr. Jha, who not so long ago comfortably supported his family on a monthly salary equivalent to $200, sells his website for $20 million. That titular windfall transforms his life, as well as that of his family and friends. Money – who has it, how it’s spent, what it buys, what it can’t, what its true value is – drives Basu’s endearing and astute debut. Welcome to Delhi, where the have-enoughs and the have-too-muches live rather separate lives. Mr. and Mrs. Jha have spent the last 30 years in a housing complex in Mayur Palli in East Delhi. Moving just a few miles to Gurgaon, one of Delhi’s elite neighborhoods, is about more than just distance: “Mayur Palli felt like a different country that they had left behind and here, in this new country, Mrs. Jha did not know the language.” Ever-versatile Nankani enhances the global experience by narrating seamlessly in both American English and the more lyrical Indian English for conversations. Breezily entertaining enough to enthrall droves of this summer’s beach and poolside readers, Windfall also manages to seamlessly insert urgent, relevant themes of gender inequity, socioeconomic prejudice and aggression, familial expectations and constrictions, isolation, entitlement, and more.