Au­dio­books ex­am­ine fame and his­tory

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

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

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