5 Audiobooks to Help With Those End-of-Summer Blues
From Anderson Cooper to the World of Truffles, and More
Every book is a journey, promised one of those 1980s reading posters in our elementary school library. Decades later, I’ve forgotten which athlete or sitcom star grinned beneath those words, open book in hand, but books remain my most frequent form of travel. Snapshots of what you’re reading might not make your Facebook friends as jealous as pics of Venice, but books are a lot less hassle. No novel has ever given me an airport pat-down before I read it. Books also run a little cheaper than the average plane ticket.
Summer is winding down, and if you’ve not yet taken a summer vacation—or you’re ready for another—this month’s audiobook recommendations have you covered. Let’s call them staycation books. They travel so we don’t have to.
Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring
Narrated by Kevin Stillwell
Little, Brown and Company/Hachette Audio
16 hours and 15 minutes
Few authors travel as many miles for a book as Tom O’Neill, who took an assignment to write about the Manson Family on the 30th anniversary of the murders for which they were convicted. After 20 years, hundreds of interviews, half a million dollars of personal debt, and the cancellation of his initial book contract, O’Neill delivers a reexamination of the case as compelling for its search as its findings.
O’Neill’s title comes from the Lyndon Johnson-approved, CIA-authorized domestic surveillance program designed, in part, to quell anti-war protests and student activism. The CIA figures often, if mysteriously, in O’Neill’s interviews, as do the government’s LSD experiments, Hollywood orgies, possible suborned perjury by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, and revelatory tapes, possibly destroyed but recalled with clarity by a retired LAPD detective.
“You’re not gonna like this,” O’Neill writes to his literary agent at a point when his project has already become a runaway train, “but I think the JFK assassination is involved.”
To O’Neill’s credit, his own skepticism remains front and center, and the audiobook’s narrator, Kevin Stillwell, is a fine surrogate for the author’s curiosity, hopefulness, and frustration. For dialogue, instead of assigning voices to speakers, Stillwell lets statements convey their own tone, a welcome approach for a book so careful to avoid assumptions and insinuations.
One quibble with the audiobook’s production: The chapters are divided into sections with titles, which would benefit from a longer pause before and after the section’s content. At times, I had to insert my own pause to catch my breath between sections.
Readers looking for clear-cut answers and tidily rewritten history might be better served by Quentin Tarantino’s recent foray into the Manson story. If Chaos dabbles in conspiracy theories, it primarily reveals the complexity of history. The deeper O’Neill digs, the more connections he finds, and his investigation might be most satisfying as the memoir of obsession it gradually becomes.
We Love Anderson Cooper: Short Stories by R.L. Maizes
Narrated by Barrie Kreinik
Celadon Books/Macmillan Audio
4 hours and 57 minutes
Take a trip to New York City, Miami Beach, the Jersey Shore, and the mountains of Colorado with the wise and funny stories of R.L. Maizes’s debut collection, We Love Anderson Cooper. The title comes from a line of dialogue in the opening story, after a gay teenager’s plan to out himself at his bar mitzvah doesn’t go as planned. He hoped his speech would lead to a viral video, but it only leads to an awkward car ride home, his parents hurt that he didn’t tell them first. “We would have understood,” his mother says. “We love Anderson Cooper.”
Maizes populates her stories with a cast of diverse ages, genders, and ethnicities, all of them perfectly captured by the rich, rounded voice of narrator Barrie Kreinik. In dialogue, Kreinik shifts pitch with subtlety, letting the author’s words do the heavy lifting. Latino accents in the story titled “Collections” are handled with a lighter touch. Accents in “Yiddish Lessons” are more exaggerated, but the broader voices feel true to that story’s characters.
Maizes has a talent for creating strange situations without straining credulity. In “Tattoo,” a disfigured tattoo artist makes lifelike alterations to cancer patients, “[inking] three-dimensional nipple tattoos more real than the real thing.” In “A Cat Called Grievous,” a new mother in a strained marriage seems overly devoted to her mercurial, occasionally hostile cat. Listening to her infant daughter scream, she thinks “how much easier it was to love a creature whose habit was silence.” Maizes finds humor in these unexpected places, but never at the expense of her characters.
It might be a legal requirement when recommending a short story collection to argue on behalf of the poor, beleaguered short story, always respected and less frequently purchased. To that ongoing save-the-short-story campaign, I will add that audiobooks should bring new readers to story collections. Audiobook apps list the running times of individual stories, allowing readers to make selections based on the length of commutes or walks. Going for a run? Why not give your course a narrative arc rather than a time limit?
Turbulence: A Novel by David Szalay
Narrated by Gabra Zackman
Scribner/Simon & Schuster Audio
2 hours and 29 minutes
If an audiobook clocks more miles per hour than David Szalay’s Turbulence, a novel whose brief running time belies its broad ambitions, I can’t think of what it might be. A Canadian-born writer shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his linked story collection All That Man Is, Szalay titles his 12 chapters with international airport codes, letting us know where we’ve been and where we’re going. Each section is linked to the next by a character from the one preceding it, most of them strangers to one another. If this summary feels like a gimmick, the novel is far more than its structure.
“How easy it was these days to acquire a plane ticket, to travel around,” thinks the middle-aged mother of an ill son, watching in awe as he makes her flight arrangements with a series of clicks. In the next chapter, her confusion shifts to a passenger beside her on the plane, a man whose initial aloofness is soon explained by his own tragedy.
The narrative baton is passed seamlessly with each chapter, from pilot to reporter, reporter to revered author, revered author to married woman having an affair with a much younger doctor. “It wasn’t so much a matter of deciding between her husband and the doctor. It was a matter of deciding whether the fact that she had fallen overwhelmingly in love with the doctor somehow in itself annulled her marriage.”
Some chapters stand on their own as short stories, but all resonate more deeply as parts of the whole. Narrator Gabra Zackman holds the collective pieces together even more tightly than they might fit in print. She reads with empathy and dexterity, shifting nationalities and gender countless times, often multiple times on the same page. If in dialogue some characters sound similar, it’s probably due to the large cast and the novel’s slim confines.
Some readers might wonder, as this one did, about the implications of accents in a novel where most characters, it is understood and occasionally stated, are not speaking English. The breadth of accents helps us imagine the constantly changing locales, but in a novel that shows so well how connected we all are, the shift between accented dialogue and unaccented exposition accidentally otherizes many characters.
“People have no sense of geography,” a pilot tells a reporter on the way to the airport. Szalay’s two-and-a-half-hour whirlwind might not rectify this, but it’s astounding how small the globe comes to feel after such a short period of time.
The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World’s Most Expensive Fungus by Ryan Jacobs
Narrated by Ari Fliakos
Clarkson Potter/Random House Audio
7 hours and 50 minutes
Part culinary exploration, part history, and part true crime, reporter Ryan Jacobs takes readers to France, Italy, and the Pacific Northwest in The Truffle Underground. “Even without criminal interference, the truffle’s journey from spore to plate is so fraught with biological uncertainty, economic competition, and logistical headaches that a single shaving could be understood as a testament to the wonder of human civilization.” Truffles are often referred to as diamonds, and the violent crime Jacobs’s chronicles reinforces that comparison.
“Asking even seasoned chefs and truffle-industry insiders to describe what the fungus tastes or smells like,” Jacobs writes, “is a bit like asking a priest why he believes in God.” Readers not familiar with the pungent, one-of-a-kind flavor will come away even more intrigued. Those of us whose most frequent encounter with the fabled fungus is through truffle oil will also be disappointed. As Jacobs discovers, nearly all truffle butter and truffle oil sold in America is manufactured using chemicals rather than the real thing.
The Truffle Underground also examines the unique personalities who depend on truffles for their livelihood. From foragers to chefs, criminals to botanists, the assorted and sordid figures of the truffle industry come to life in the dexterous narration of Ari Fliakos. French and Italian accents, most of them understated, transport audiobook readers to the restaurants and forests of Western Europe. Outside quotation marks, Fliakos narrates with an appealing baritone that will prompt some readers to seek out other books he’s narrated.
Animals are also integral to the business of truffles. The most successful foragers train truffle dogs to do most of the work, and some of the most heartbreaking brutality in the book involves the kidnapping and poisoning of these dogs by rival hunters. It might be fitting that a food so hard to describe has such a complicated journey from forest to table.
Rules for Visiting: A Novel by Jessica Francis Kane
Narrated by Emily Rankin
Penguin Press/Penguin Audio
6 hours and 34 minutes
At first glance, Jessica Francis Kane’s latest novel looks like a book about travel. University gardener May Addaway receives an unexpected month of paid vacation when a faculty poet wins a major prize for a poem about a tree she planted on campus. Forty, single, childless, and still living with her father in the house where she grew up, May decides to visit four friends from whom she has grown so recognizably distant in the age of social media. With each trip, Rules for Visiting expands more widely into a moving, witty, quietly captivating story of friendship and time.
“I was not interested in finding out who I was alone,” May tells us at the start of her vacation. “I knew that person, and I was tired of her. I was interested in finding out who I was with other people and why that person was hard to be.”
May Attaway might be tired of her own company, but she makes for a charming narrator. Likewise, Emily Rankin narrates the audiobook with all the subtle wit and endearing self-doubt of Kane’s protagonist. Novels written in the first person need narrators who can speak convincingly as their fictional counterparts, and Rankin locates May’s intelligence, warmth, and humor throughout.
Returning from one of her trips, May sees her friend has posted about their reunion on social media. “What would it mean if I didn’t comment, or post my own picture and reflection? In just one minute scrolling through the rest of my feed, I found myself wondering: Is my dining room table that pretty? Do I miss my cat that much when I’m away? Am I cool enough to dance to 80s music and bake banana bread at the same time?”
If Rules for Visiting doesn’t answer these questions, it offers rare insights about the ways vacations do and do not change us. When she comes home from her final visit, May understands her unhappiness had less to do with who she is than where she was willing to go.
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