Au­dio­books that take you to apartheid, the space race, Iraq

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY KATHER­INE A. POW­ERS book­world@wash­post.com Kather­ine A. Pow­ers re­views au­dio­books ev­ery month for The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Trevor Noah, co­me­dian and host of “The Daily Show,” reads his own en­gag­ing, sub­stan­tive ac­count of grow­ing up in Jo­han­nes­burg un­der apartheid and the years fol­low­ing.

Noah is the son of a Xhosa mother and a Swiss fa­ther — both of whom could have been im­pris­oned for the crime of in­ter­ra­cial sex­ual re­la­tions.

A so­cial mis­fit, Noah made his way out of poverty and some dan­ger through en­trepreneurial in­ge­nu­ity, comic ge­nius and an ability to speak a num­ber of tribal lan­guages, which he gives marvelous voice to here.

Above all, Noah owes his suc­cess to the un­fail­ing sup­port of his mother, the real hero of the book. Forg­ing her own small in­de­pen­dence against all odds, she in­sisted that Noah learn English, and she sac­ri­ficed her small wages for his ed­u­ca­tion: “She was pre­par­ing me to live a life of free­dom long be­fore we knew free­dom would ex­ist.”

Noah com­bines per­sonal sto­ries with po­lit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal ob­ser­va­tions, bring­ing his own acute judg­ment, sar­donic hu­mor and sense of the ab­surd to bear on both. The sto­ries vary from de­scrip­tions of sick­en­ing in­jus­tice and bru­tal­ity to his youth­ful awk­ward­ness with girls and high-spir­ited ad­ven­tures.

The author’s gift for vo­cal im­per­son­ation el­e­vates the au­dio ver­sion into some­thing even more splen­did than an al­ready ter­rific mem­oir.

Mar­got Lee-Shet­terly’s “Hid­den Fig­ures” — the book be­hind the award­win­ning movie star­ring Taraji P. Henson, Oc­tavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe — fo­cuses on the lives of five African Amer­i­can fe­male math­e­ma­ti­cians who worked in a seg­re­gated divi­sion of the Lan­g­ley Re­search Cen­ter in Vir­ginia.

Per­form­ing myr­iad cal­cu­la­tions for aero­nau­ti­cal re­search at NACA (later NASA), they all played im­por­tant, in­vis­i­ble roles in U.S. air and space flight. Most mon­u­men­tally, one of them, Kather­ine Goble John­son, was key in cal­cu­lat­ing the tra­jec­to­ries for John Glenn’s or­bital space­flight.

The as­tro­naut trusted her over ma­chines, say­ing, “I want this human com­puter to check the out­put of the elec­tronic com­puter, and if she says they’re good, I’m good to go.”

Robin Miles reads the book in a well-paced, ex­cep­tion­ally pleas­ant voice. Although some of the ini­tial tech­no­log­i­cal de­tails are a lit­tle dif­fi­cult to fol­low by ear, the per­sonal lives of these gifted, de­ter­mined women and the greater Amer­i­can story comes through loud and clear.

The book cov­ers the in­jus­tices and in­dig­ni­ties of seg­re­ga­tion in the work­place and in ed­u­ca­tion and hous­ing. Shet­ter­ley shows, too, how the Sovi­ets’ galling suc­cess with Sput­nik was a factor in break­ing racial and gen­der bar­ri­ers in the sci­ences.

Derek B. Miller’s sec­ond novel begins in 1991 in Iraq near the Kuwait border, and, although the Gulf War has of­fi­cially ended, the killing has not.

Among the dead is a Shi­ite girl in a green dress, shot by an Iraqi of­fi­cer in front of Bri­tish jour­nal­ist Thomas Ben­ton and U.S. Army Pvt. Ar­wood Hobbes.

More than two decades later, Ben­ton gets a call from Hobbes claim­ing to have just seen the same girl in a video of a re­cent mor­tar at­tack in Kur­dis­tan.

The two men set off to res­cue this im­pos­si­ble fig­ure, and from that im­prob­a­ble beginning comes a ter­rif­i­cally sus­pense­ful and darkly satiric tale of peo­ple caught in the ever-mu­tat­ing con­flicts of the Mid­dle East.

Will Dam­ron’s gen­eral nar­ra­tion is kindly and calm in dead­pan jux­ta­po­si­tion to the scenes of mad­ness that he de­scribes. He gives the novel’s multi­na­tional cast suit­able ac­cents and dis­po­si­tions rang­ing through Bri­tish, South­ern-Amer­i­can mil­i­tary, Swedish and Iraqi/Syr­ian/Kur­dish.

True, his Rus­sian sounds like a Nazi and his French­man — as one char­ac­ter notes — like “Pepé Le Pew smok­ing weed.” Still, we know who ev­ery­one is in this heart-rend­ing, of­ten bleakly funny novel.

BORN A CRIME Sto­ries from a South African Child­hood By Trevor Noah Audi­ble Stu­dios. Unabridged, 8¾ hours HID­DEN FIG­URES By Mar­got Lee Shet­terly HarperAu­dio. Unabridged, 10¾ hours THE GIRL IN GREEN Derek B. Miller HighBridge. Unabridged, 12½ hours

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