Slate’s Best Books of 2016 coverage:
Monday: Laura Miller’s favorite books of the year.
Tuesday: The best comics and the best book jackets of the year.
Wednesday: Katy Waldman’s favorite books of the year.
Thursday: Mark O’Connell’s favorite books of the year.
Friday: The best audiobooks of the year.
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During this long, ugly year of shouting there’s been something profoundly restorative about just listening: popping in a pair of earbuds, taking a long walk (or clearing out a neglected closet), and immersing yourself in a world of someone else’s making. Not all of the audiobooks I loved this year were fictional, but each was the enveloping work of an author who seemed more thoughtful and coherent than whoever jury-rigged the reality we’re currently inhabiting. Great narrators brought fresh life to old (sometimes very old) favorites and set new voices off to their best advantage. Here are 10 of the finest I heard in 2016.
Consequence: A Memoir by Eric Fair, narrated by Eric Fair
Not every author should narrate the audio version of his book—in fact, most of the time it’s a mistake. But this self-scalding memoir by a former interrogator at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison demands to be read by the man who wrote it. It is a confession. A former police officer employed by a civilian contractor, Fair found himself witnessing and doing things he knew were wrong, for an operation he could not respect. The effects of his own complicity, so at odds with his Christian faith, continue to torment him, and part of the expiation (which Fair never expects to complete) is to testify as forthrightly as possible. This isn’t an easy book to listen to, but hearing Fair out feels like an essential step in reckoning with America’s recent past.
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, narrated by Jayne Entwistle
Pym, who died in 1980, has a small, tenaciously passionate following, the kind of people who form societies just so they can talk for hours about the author’s strangely entrancing comic novels of tea-drinking, cardigan-wearing women in postwar England. This is the first of her books recorded and released in the U.S., the occasion for genteel hosannas; if we’re lucky, it will be the first of many. I could give you a synopsis, but it wouldn’t really do justice to the book. Suffice to say that it is full of wayward clergymen and obtuse anthropologists and is narrated by a bemused spinster, exquisitely portrayed by Jayne Entwistle, who observes from the sidelines with penetrating, if mild-mannered, wit.
Hard Light by Elizabeth Hand, narrated by Carol Monda
Monda has the type of tough, husky voice that gets you wondering where she’s been and what she’s seen. That makes her a shrewd choice to narrate Hand’s Cass Neary crime fiction. Cass, a photographer, veteran of New York’s punk scene in its prime, and omnivorous recreational drug aficionado (no Cass Neary novel is complete with a scene in which she raids an unsuspecting source’s medicine cabinet), goes careening from one atmospheric catastrophe to the next. This time, she stirs up the louche remnants of glam rock and decadent 1970s underground film, with a fascinating side trip through the illicit trade in prehistoric artifacts. I’d listen to Monda narrate just about anything, but Cass Neary novels are what I most want to hear her read.
Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride, narrated by Dominic Hoffman
McBride’s bid to reclaim the cultural and social legacy of the hardest working man in show business as a figure nearly as important “as, say, Harriet Tubman” is an idiosyncratic tribute with a thick autobiographical vein. McBride grew up near a house Brown owned and (on occasion) inhabited in Queens, and the day McBride’s sister worked up the nerve to knock on the door and meet the Godfather of Soul became family legend. Brown exhorted her to “stay in school,” and in fact he bequeathed his $100 million estate to the education of poor children, but his financial legacy remains tied up in court and, according to McBride, his cultural reputation has been tarnished by disrespectful and inaccurate white filmmakers and biographers. Dominic Hoffman’s been-around-the-block voice, while not especially versatile, is as pleasant to slip into as that favorite T-shirt you’ve washed a hundred times, the ideal compliment to McBride’s eloquence in defense of one of the nation’s musical geniuses.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith, narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
Ballerini does soulful better than any other audiobook narrator around, and that’s exactly what’s called for with this complex novel. The plot intertwines the life of a fictional 17th-century Dutch painter—a rare woman to find success in the profession—with a modern-day art historian who once forged the only surviving work by the artist. Add to that a subplot about a supposed curse attached to the spooky canvas, and Smith’s novel overflows with intriguing stories and themes. But it’s the evocation of the art itself, both the painting’s arresting image of a young girl hesitating at the outskirts of a dark forest and Smith’s descriptions the techniques used to create (and re-create) such works that lifts The Last Painting of Sara de Vos above the usual literary-historical pack. The words work beautifully on their own, but Ballerini’s silken delivery deepens their spell.
The Oedipus Plays by Sophocles (translated by Ian Johnston), performed by a full cast, starring Jamie Glover and Hayley Atwell
The Greek tragedies may be the cornerstones on which Western culture was founded, but they have a stark, elemental quality that doesn’t always transmit well from print; they were, after all, meant to be encountered on stage. This recording of Sophocles’s three Theban plays—Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone—makes the dramas three-dimensional, despite the absence of the visual element of the performance. It makes surprisingly little difference that you can’t see the actors. Each character is aurally distinct, and something about listening with earbuds in particular—the way that the device makes the voices seem to emanate from inside your head—fosters an archetypal intimacy that becomes entrancing.
The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carré, narrated by John le Carré
Le Carré has a well-established reputation as an excellent narrator of his own work, and this is no exception. It’s a memoir in the old-fashioned sense of that word, a collection of interesting reminiscences by someone who’s led a fascinating life, vignettes ranging from encounters with celebrities (including the night Alec Guinness met a former intelligence colleague of le Carré’s and made him the model for his legendary portrayal of George Smiley) to his years as a spy to his fraught relationship with his con-man father. Best of all are le Carré’s many reflections on writing and writers. He looks back over the years with a grace and an eloquent wisdom that are both hard-won (he’s 85) and still sharpened to a point. It’s impossible to imagine any other reader doing justice to it.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, narrated by Emma Thompson
This, one of the greatest short novels of all time, hinges on a flickering uncertainty: Is the unnamed narrator—a governess caring for two children at an isolated 19th-century country house—really seeing the ghost of her predecessor and her demon lover, or is she going mad? Once you realize the governess may not be entirely reliable, however, it can be difficult to restore to her the benefit of the doubt. Enter Emma Thompson, an actress who radiates sanity and common sense. Thompson renews the credibility to James’ heroine. She makes it possible to feel, even to believe, that the ghosts are real and that the governess fights a desperate battle for the souls of her charges.
Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, narrated by William DeMeritt
Set in an alternate-history version of the present, a universe in which the Civil War never happened and slavery persists in four American states, this hard-boiled detective story is narrated by a slave hunter coerced into his line of work by authorities with the power to reveal that he is an escaped slave himself. DeMeritt gives Victor the brooding, smoke-shrouded voice of a classic noir gumshoe. Yet when the time comes to shatter the character’s cynical shell, DeMeritt is equally good at communicating the rawness of Victor’s pain and confusion.
Version Control by Dexter Palmer, narrated by January LaVoy
Palmer’s novel, set in a fictional New Jersey college town in the near future, is a crafty hybrid of contemporary social novel and science fiction. Rebecca, who works as a customer service rep for a web-based dating service, is married to Philip, a physicist who has invented a device that he very much wishes the media would stop describing as a time machine. Palmer’s meticulously observed depiction of everyday life in such middle-class circles (he is remarkably good at female characters) gradually unravels as Rebecca begins to sense that her reality is being altered, subtly at first, then later markedly so. LaVoy’s ability to portray a diverse cast of characters—you sense that she’s worked out a full backstory for even the minor speaking parts—is unparalleled. She’s one of the best narrators working today, and with Version Control she’s in top form.
Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.
Check out this great listen on Audible.com. Academy Award, Golden Globe, and Emmy winner Emma Thompson lends her immense talent and experienced voice to Henry James' Gothic ghost tale, The Turn of the Screw. When a governess is hired to care for two children at a British country estate, she begin...