Audiobooks examine fame and history
Alec Baldwin’s “Nevertheless” is a Hollywood memoir of a familiar ilk: A young man from Tinseltown’s idea of nowhere (Massapequa, Long Island) falls into acting and succeeds through luck, dedication, talent and willingness to take advice. Baldwin is more self-flagellating than most celebrity memoirists, and, here, reading his own book, the familiar, slightly husky voice grows at times urgent with contrition. On the other hand, when he speaks of Hollywood’s “sweepstakes mentality,” or of tabloid journalists, or of a civillitigation lawyer, his voice becomes sharp with disdain. Having been the victim of much media savagery concerning his personal life, he is mum on the private affairs of others, though he is often critical of their ability and is free with tales of egregious professional backstabbing. Harrison Ford does not come out well (“a little man, short, scrawny, and wiry”), nor does theater critic Ben Brantley (“his writing is random, uninformed snark”). He is enthusiastically praiseful of the actors he admires and is adept at impersonating their voices and manner. Baldwin’s trained delivery, his air of candor and, above all, his engagement with what he is reading elevate this book above its printed form.
“In the Name of the Family” follows “Blood and Beauty” to conclude Sarah Dunant’s duo of novels rescuing Lucrezia Borgia from her reputation as a vengeful schemer, serial poisoner and incestuous libertine. The book, which can stand on its own, is an enthralling, historically convincing tale of Renaissance intrigue, domestic drama and internecine war. Nicholas Boulton delivers the general narration in a courteous, gentlemanly manner, a temperate foil to his virtuoso performance in capturing the extravagant, Renaissance personalities of the story’s many characters. He distinguishes men from women and age from youth with variations of pitch and timbre. Lucrezia has a light, often sorrowful voice. The aging potentate, Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), expresses his monumental will in rumbling, dark tones and an accent that retains traces of his Catalonian origins. His son, the coldblooded, military genius Cesare, is hardvoiced, thoroughly Italian and, eventually, fevered and megalomaniacal as syphilis eats away at his brain. Observing the play of power across “the chessboard of central Italy” is smooth and wary Machiavelli. Meanwhile, the voices of the desperate, hate-filled Orsini speak of the Borgias (those “poxy foreigners”) in tones dripping with venom. The general plot, which is to say, history, is well known, but Dunant brings it to life and provides an excellent afterword arguing for her interpretation of Lucrezia as a much maligned woman.
Hortensia James, one of the two elderly widows whose stories make up Yewande Omotoso’s superb second novel is — like her creator — a native of Barbados who has lived in Nigeria and now in South Africa. A wealthy businesswoman, Hortensia is the only black owner of a house in an upscale enclave in a Johannesburg suburb. For the last 20 years she has lived next door to Marion Agostino, a woman who has never reconciled herself to the idea of racial equality. The two strong-willed old relicts loathe each other. A freak accident leaves Hortensia with a broken leg and Marion temporarily homeless — and, of course, this being a novel, they end up living together. With that, however, the story takes off in surprising ways, sometimes to shocking effect as instances of racial cruelty are recalled, or upsetting at a different level, when the descendants of former slaves make a valid claim for restitution or when the existence of an unsuspected child is revealed. Adjoa Andoh gives a versatile performance to this multiracial, multinational set of characters, delivering convincing Barbadian, Nigerian and standard English speakers, although her white South Africans do wrestle out a very odd accent, one tinctured with cockney and, it seems, Yiddish. Still, the novel’s complex plot and convincing characters develop beautifully together and are lightened throughout with flashes of excellent comedy.
THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR By Yewande Omotoso Random House Audio. Unabridged, 8½ hours
IN THE NAME OF THE FAMILY By Sarah Dunant Random House Audio. Unabridged, 14¼ hours
NEVERTHELESS By Alec Baldwin HarperAudio. Unabridged, 8½ hours