The Season is upon us, along with all it entails — cooking, cleaning, hours and hours of travel. But one person’s tedium is another’s opportunity to indulge in audiobooks, those perfect machines for exercising the brain while the body is otherwise engaged. Still, not all books make ideal companions for the long-haul drive or the preparation of dinner for 20. They need to be diverting and dynamic, distinctively voiced, but not so intellectually demanding that you become a danger to yourself and others or, god forbid, forget to baste the turkey. Below are seven new titles, arranged from shortest to longest, designed to take your mind off the stress of figuring out what to say to your weird uncle.
Mary is sure that the residents of the great towers in her city luxuriate in impossible wonders: jeweled roller coasters and golf courses made of cake. Like the Little Prince who inspired this story, Mary is wise in ways grown-ups can’t be, which is why she is able to see the golden snake with glittering ruby eyes in Kennedy’s sweet and sad story. The author, who moonlights as a stand-up comic, is the ideal narrator of her own tale; few could do such justice to a snake that’s “handsome, wise and agile … [with] a beautiful speaking voice.” Charming for all ages, including the squirmy kids in the back of the car.
When Mark Twain traveled through Europe in 1879, he missed American cuisine: raccoon, Illinois prairie chicken, San Francisco mussels. Nick Offerman, the rugged, deadpan veteran of Parks and Recreation (and recent National Book Awards host), joins Andrew Beahrs, author of the 2010 book of the same name, to hunt up Twain’s favorite foods for a feast prepared by Connecticut chef Tyler Anderson at the Mark Twain House in Hartford. The result is an often fascinating eight-episode podcast on food culture, environmental issues, and even race, served up with plenty of Twain lore. Of course, no one would risk a San Francisco Bay mussel today, and Illinois prairie chickens are endangered. Raccoon remains abundant, though it’s unlikely Sam Clemens would have recognized it the way Anderson prepares it — as sausage wrapped around wagyu beef.
Former English teacher Miles Platting has a brainstorm that makes him a rich man. Through his agency, Lingua Franca, based in the recently rebranded town of Stella Artois, he helps cities sell naming rights. But just as he’s about to close the deal to turn Barrow-in-Furness to Birdseye-in-Furness, Miles’s wife, Kendal, an English teacher who believes in tradition, leads a silent revolt. Thacker’s madcap tale is voiced with suitable sincerity by British voice artist Angus Freathy. Altogether, it’s delightfully silly.
Outrage will keep you wide awake behind the wheel while listening to American Prison. Journalist Bauer spent six months undercover as a guard in Winn Correctional Center, which was operated by Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America. (The company changed its name to CoreCivic after Bauer wrote about his experiences in Mother Jones.) In this real-world reenactment of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Bauer finds it nearly impossible to hold onto the empathy he brought with him to the $9-per-hour job. The for-profit prison environment dehumanizes everyone, even the author, who had already spent two years imprisoned in Iran.
Much as we enjoy clattering around among the amusing asides running through the brain of Juliet Armstrong, who works at the BBC after World War II, she’s only fully revealed, deftly and gradually, in the closing chapters of this latest novel from the genre-straddling Atkinson. There are hints of what’s to come (e.g., the pearls Juliet wears to work were taken from the body of a dead woman). She’s been up to more than transcribing the conversations of British Nazi sympathizers meeting with an officer of the Reich (or is he?). The warm, enfolding voice of British actress Fenella Woolgar is perfectly keyed to this gradual unveiling. Want to know a secret? it says. Wait.
The Beastie Boys Book shows where audiobooks can go. It’s more than just the cameo-rich cast of dozens; it’s the attempt to make the audiobook an entirely distinct experience. In place of the photos in the print version, we get Spike Jonze describing his 15 pictures — most, he assures us, “probably the best ever.” We get actress Crosby Fitzgerald rendering the character of “Barrel-Chested Randy” in a silly southern accent. Producer Philippe Zdar reads Wes Anderson’s Hörnblowér, the life story of Adam Yauch’s alter ego, while drummer YoshimiO recites her essay, “Stop Soba Violence,” in Japanese, with rock goddess Kim Gordon translating. It’s free-spirited and goofy and sonically unbound. Beastie fans will feel right at home.
A veteran narrator of some 800 titles, Scott Brick is a fountain of youth for Jack Reacher in Past Tense, Lee Child’s 23rd book in the always fun series about a retired Army MP roaming the country and taking care of business. This is Brick’s first at-bat as Reacher since Dick Hill stepped aside after voicing Reacher for 18 novels. In recent years, Hill’s increasingly creaky voice had listeners waiting for the Army tough guy to pull a linty butterscotch candy from his sweater pocket. (Tom Cruise can commiserate, having just been deemed too short to continue as Reacher in the TV reboot.) Child’s popular protagonist may be getting older — he’s about 58 by my reckoning — but Brick’s voice will never tell.