Just-right stories: The four best audiobooks of November 2020
In the mood for bite-sized entertainment? Essays about nature and outstanding short stories make for deep but quick listening this month.
Audiobooks are great company when you're doing chores or cooking in the kitchen, but they also reward dedicated listening time on the couch. If you're planning to stay inside (and who isn't these days?), check out these top picks: An evocative collection of essays about nature, some of the finest American short stories published this year, a fun novel about old Hollywood, and an odd but engaging story of three women overcoming tragedy.
“Vesper Flights” by Helen Macdonald
Read by the author; Recorded Books; 10 hours and 22 minutes
You would never know that British writer and naturalist Helen Macdonald (“H Is for Hawk”) is not a trained narrator, because while she may sound a bit careful and controlled, her diction is perfect and her inflection is emotive. Her voice rings with authenticity as she reads her collection of essays, which center on her own experiences in the natural world. “Vesper Flights” has 41 entries full of adventure, many of which are short enough to enjoy during a break in the day. They touch on subjects ranging from mushroom-hunting to wild pig encounters, as well as reflections on the naturalist’s career path. In both her writing and her delivery, Macdonald’s gentle style and sense of wonderment leave the listener feeling relaxed, educated, and entertained. Grade: A
“The Best American Short Stories 2020” edited by Curtis Sittenfeld and Heidi Pitlor
Various readers; HMH Audio; 16 hours and 18 minutes
Curtis Sittenfeld (“Rodham”), the 2020 guest editor of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s The Best American Series, begins with a lengthy explanation of her selection process for this collection, which is culled from magazines and literary journals. It’s a bit unpolished, but it gives the listener insights into her choices. The stories cover a range of settings and characters, including the lives of Venezuelan street children; the doings of a mystical godmother; a French businessman who thinks he’s tricked an elderly lady into giving up her lovely apartment (but has he?); and a Chinese demon that acts more human (and humanely) than she ought. Seasoned narrators invoke an array of voices, accents, and intonations as they lead us through other worlds, relationships, and lifestyles. Grade: A-
“The Heart of the Lion: A Novel of Irving Thalberg’s Hollywood” by Martin Turnbull
Read by Donald Davenport; Martin Turnbull; 13 hours and 48 minutes
Old Hollywood is conjured up in this historical novel based on the life of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer Irving Thalberg – the real-life wunderkind who helped establish the movie industry. The story is set in the time when talkies were just arriving in theaters and the studio system was in full play, covering up scandals and controlling careers. Author Martin Turnbull draws on a wealth of research to dig deep into Thalberg’s short life, his relationship with Louis B. Mayer, and his marriage to Norma Shearer. Narrator Donald Davenport’s impersonations are a bit off the mark, but he nicely evokes a time and an era that fairly sparkles with wit and creativity. Overall, it’s great fun. Grade: B+
“I Keep My Worries in My Teeth” by Anna Cox
Read by Amy McFadden, Janina Edwards, and Janet Varney; Brilliance Audio; five hours and 43 minutes
“I Keep My Worries in My Teeth” is a quirky book, and it will appeal to listeners interested in offbeat novels written with wry humor and imagination. Three young women, each voiced by a different narrator, face a series of challenging life events: One is injured during an explosion at her mother’s pencil factory, another must overcome the loss of her husband, and the third must contend with an eating disorder and unemployment. This is mature material that addresses sexuality and mental illness; it may be too intense for some listeners. Grade: B