The audiobook category is expanding every day, and I certainly can’t listen to everything. The goal of this monthly column is to steer us toward audiobooks that I hope will provide the best experiences, pop-culture value, and something to talk about on your next Zoom.
Length: 14 hrs, 49 mins
Read by: Santino Fontana
Speed you can listen: at least 1.8x
Since many dead bodies have already piled up in New York City and Los Angeles in the prior two installments (as fans of the Netflix show know), this third roll in the hay with the charismatically insane, book-loving stalker Joe Goldberg moves us to an idyllic island in the Pacific Northwest. Joe lands a job at a local library, where he develops a more-than-schoolboy crush on a librarian. This librarian not only has a pesky rock star of a husband to knock out of the way, but also a nutty daughter and an even loopier best friend. At almost 15 hours (longer than an entire Netflix season, where Joe is played by Penn Badgley), You Love Me is pretty baggy, especially considering its abrupt ending. But Fontana’s entirely-too-creepy narration — he played Hans in the movie Frozen, so he knows his way around the vocal intonations of a psychopath — provides genuine, over-the-top entertainment value.
Length: 10 hrs, 3 mins
Read by: the author
Speed you can listen: at least 1.6x, but switch to 1x for the songs that end each chapter
I listened to much of this new memoir, by the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, while swimming laps. I was testing a pair of waterproof Zygo headphones, and Carlile’s melodic lilt certainly enhanced my already meditative breaststroke. Broken Horses starts rather inauspiciously. As a young woman, she attempts to find her voice and questions her sexuality, her familial relationships, her religion, and whether all her earnings as a teenager should really be going to raise her pet stallion. Things get more interesting in later chapters with the love affairs, the pill-popping, and the calls from Elton John — he answers the phone pretending to be a Disney witch. A huge bonus: Carlile ends each chapter with acoustic covers of some of her catalog and favorite songs. I pictured her recording them during the pandemic in a small closet full of cowboy boots in the wee small hours of the morning, after her wife and kids had conked out, but now that I think about it, she probably has a music studio at home.
Length: 9 hrs, 10 mins
Read by: Cate Blanchett and the author
Speed you can listen: at least 1.5x
I’m very quick to say that I’d listen to Cate Blanchett read the phone book, but that’s not true. Even I couldn’t make myself watch Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Still, if Cate Blanchett is getting herself involved in an audiobook, that means I should at least pay attention. Apparently, one of my favorite actresses of all time became a fan of Hough after reading her essay “I Was a Cable Guy. I Saw the Worst of America.” Blanchett narrates that essay here, along with four others. (Hough acquits herself well enough on the additional six.) These pieces, on such topics as escaping the Children of God cult, leaving the U.S. Air Force, being locked in solitary confinement, and working as a bouncer at a gay bar, are a combination of totally direct and completely off-center. If anything, Blanchett’s dry, flat narration makes listening all the more absorbingly uncomfortable. I’m considering turning Blanchett’s line reading of the phrase “They’ll fucking care when I plow my van through the front of their building” into my new ringtone.
Length: 1 hour, 18 mins
Read by: the author
Speed you can listen: at least 1.2x
My mom died in the fall of 2018, and I’m still very much mourning her loss. Sometimes I think it helps to listen to books about grief. Sometimes I think it’s just another masochistic tendency I exhibit, like rereading mean emails Scott Rudin has sent me (not a joke). I found these two new memoirs (see the other one below) unexpectedly moving and cathartic. The less traditional one is by Mansbach, perhaps best known for the picture book Go the F**k to Sleep. His fever-dreamlike telling of the suicide of his brother features some ineffective sound effects and poorly chosen music, but I found his cadence so eerie, ephemeral, and potent that I started it a second time as soon as I’d finished the first.
Length: 7 hrs, 23 mins
Read by: the author
Speed you can listen: at least 1.6x
Zauner, who goes by the stage name Japanese Breakfast, is much more straightforward as she details the pain of watching her mother die of cancer, yet her specific experience crosses into the universal. She so effectively translates how the death of a parent changes the way you even stroll the aisles of a supermarket that, as I listened, I felt a little less alone in the world.
Length: 8 hrs, 18 mins
Read by: the author
Speed you can listen: at least 2.1x
Certain authors, like David Sedaris, were just made for audiobooks. Their speaking voice is more distinct and stranger than what pops off the page. Even knowing her back catalog, I still wouldn’t pick up and read a book by Lawson. Her books are designed for listening. She’s a Texan blogger who suffers from anxiety and depression and, well, many other things. Lawson definitely verges on the repetitive here, and there are times she goes way, way, way over the top. I wish, for instance, that I hadn’t heard her list of inappropriate sexual pitches to Shark Tank. But Lawson can be screamingly funny, especially in her rambling asides. I almost fell off my chair at a section that celebrates mortifying moments both she and her readers have had. (i.e., “Ate a cookie at Anthropologie. Halfway through, realized it was a decorative soap.”) And if ever you want to feel less neurotic, which I often do, Lawson’s an excellent distraction.
Length: 8 hrs, 36 mins
Read by: Kim Niemi
Speed you can listen: at least 1.9x
I accidentally stumbled on the first Poppy Harmon mystery when I was searching for something to listen to from the local library on Libby. The illustration on the cover looked cute, and I’ve been looking for a kooky-female-detective property to adapt for television. Much to my surprise, the first installment was kind of a hoot, so I quickly devoured the two follow-ups. Poppy is an aging, onetime C-list actress whose dead husband spent all her money. Now broke, she decides that the only way she can make some much-needed cash is by opening a detective agency in Palm Springs with her aging BFFs, Violet and Iris. (Elevator pitch: Hot in Cleveland meets Murder, She Wrote.) Part of the pleasure comes from Niemi’s very funny vocal takes on the litany of wacky, washed-up characters, but the references to ’80s Aaron Spelling-era television are equally spot-on.
Length: 5 hrs, 26 mins
Read by: the author
Speed you can listen: at least 1.7x
Speaking of wacky, kooky neuroses, I have a soft spot for Jonathan Ames. (For reference, he created Bored to Death on HBO.) Maybe that’s because we once second-acted Phantom of the Opera together. His writing can be a bit all over the map, but this new potboiler is just nifty fun. At five and a half hours, it’s also the perfect length for an audiobook. Happy Doll — yes, that’s his name — is probably the only detective in Los Angeles in analysis (he goes four days a week). Though said Freudian analyst could work on convincing his patient to carry a phone charger, Doll and his dog, George, make surprisingly enjoyable company as they prowl Silver Lake and Los Feliz. I remember Ames’s speaking voice as Sedaris-like quirky, but he performs this book in a pleasant, low register that’s very Raymond Chandler at Erewhon. I’m already chomping at the bit for the second Doll book, scheduled for 2022.
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