Daily Press (Sunday)

2023’s best audiobooks are also great gifts

American epic, a poet breaks free from her father, a study of opposites, and more


“North Woods” by Daniel Mason:

It begins with a flat stone plucked from the earth and placed in a clearing at the base of a mountain. A kind of Genesis, giving way to an Edenic apple farm, followed by 300 years of corruption, sorrow, ambition, deception, isolation, love. Daniel Mason’s “North Woods,” read by a full cast, is a kind of Odyssean epic in which the hero doesn’t leave home —a

New England house and its inhabitant­s, over the three-century history of America.

There’s the story of an apple farmer, a Revolution­ary War defector named Charles Osgood, rendered in all his gruff self-importance by the British narrator Simon Vance; the letters from the landscape painter William Henry Teale to a beloved “friend” that escalate in desperatio­n and longing, with Mark Deakins’s placid and dignified reading giving way to a more tortured cadence; Mark Bramhall telling (among others) the heart-wrenching saga of Osgood’s twin daughters, whose inseparabl­e bond after their father’s death is tested by temptation to explore the world beyond their property lines.

Like the unforgetta­ble audiobook production of George Saunders’s “Lincoln in the Bardo,” Mason’s historical fiction advertises a singular strength of the form: alchemizin­g an ensemble of distinct voices into a harmonious, deeply resonant whole. (Random House Audio. 11 hours, 5 minutes. $22.50.)

“How to Say Babylon: A Memoir” by Safiya Sinclair:

After her strict Rastafari father threatens to kick her out of the family home for standing up to his verbal abuse, a teenage Safiya Sinclair looks out into the darkness of the Jamaican mountains, “the thick countrysid­e where our first slave rebellion was born,” and sees the specter of a woman dressed in white, her dreadlocke­d head bowed “under the gaze of a Rastaman.” The woman, she realizes, is herself, a harbinger of “the future that awaited me at my father’s hands.”

While “all the rage had been smothered out of ” this recurring apparition in “How to Say Babylon: A Memoir,” the same cannot be said of the author, who seethes and roars with emotion throughout this affecting account of growing up under her father’s violent and controllin­g hand — and of escaping it to become an award-winning poet.

Hovering above the sadness and anger are Sinclair’s vivid memories: of her mother Esther’s laughter and her soothing touch as they “fold into each other in the living room” before school, of the golden rolling paper Esther carried for the ganja whose aroma “clung to me like I clung to Mom.” She recalls her three younger siblings’ greasy fingers and gleeful screeching, her father’s repeated chant, “Fire bun Babylon!,” which he “turned … on his tongue like prayer.” Sinclair spins her own incantatio­ns out of the landscapes of her upbringing — first the fishing village lined with zinc-roofed shanties, hibiscus trees and cinder blocks; then the “towering blue mahoes and primeval ferns” farther inland, the “serried and vigilant” mountain ridge of her later childhood — her voice as sensuous as a siren song. (Simon & Schuster Audio. 16 hours, 46 minutes. $29.99.)

“The Fraud” by Zadie Smith:

Which impostor does the title of Zadie Smith’s sixth novel,

“The Fraud,” refer to?

Is it a novelist, William Ainsworth, whose fame and social status belie the critical reception of his work? Is it his housekeepe­r, Eliza Touchet? Or is it the so-called Claimant, the man presenting himself as Sir Roger Tichborne, the heir to a noble fortune who was believed to have died in a shipwreck, inspiring a trial that captures the maniacal attention of the English public?

With the virtuosic agility of an actor in a one-woman play, Smith as narrator fully embodies each of her many distinct characters — using exaggerate­dly quaint Edinburgh brogue, Cockney, even Jamaican patois — who expose the ways in which every one of us misreprese­nts ourselves somehow or other. This is a novel of manners that — thanks to the author’s ear for comic timing and eviscerati­ng social commentary — is vigorously, insistentl­y funny. (Penguin Audio.12 hours, 26 minutes. $25.)

“Doppelgang­er: A Trip Into the Mirror World” by Naomi Klein:

“The uncannines­s provoked by doppelgang­ers is particular­ly acute because the thing that becomes unfamiliar is you,” Naomi Klein says in “Doppelgang­er: A Trip

Into the Mirror World,” an elegant hybrid of memoir and social science that traces the motif of the double throughout history, literature and Klein’s personal life.

Sick of being confused with the ’90s feminist-turned-conspiraci­st Naomi Wolf, Klein uses her own exasperati­on as a lens onto the black-and-white bifurcatio­n of almost every aspect of contempora­ry life: the economic inequality made even more stark by the sacrifices of essential workers to protect the wealthy from COVID-19; the stigma of being on the autism spectrum and the parents who deny their children lifesaving vaccines in hopes of avoiding it; fitness influencer­s who condemn “less healthy” bodies for their susceptibi­lity to disease.

Rather than alienating the “other side,” as it were, Klein uses the doppelgang­er rubric to pull the unfamiliar closer, seeking out thoughtful context for how seemingly irreconcil­able factions arrived at their extremes. “This is the trouble with the Mirror World,” she says, her tone very the-call-is-comingfrom-inside-the-house. “There is always some truth mixed in with the lies.” (Macmillan Audio. 14 hours, 47 minutes. $32.99.)

“Same Bed Different Dreams”by EdPark:

Intertwini­ng the recorded pasts of Korean colonizati­on and American imperialis­m with speculativ­e plots involving an undergroun­d rebellion and a parasitic tech company, Ed Park’s second novel, “Same Bed Different Dreams,” hits you over the head with the blunt force of its organizing quandary, again and again: “What is history?”

But thanks to the ingenuity of Park’s storytelli­ng and the prowess of the audiobook’s narrators, Daniel K. Isaac, Dominic Hoffman and Shannon Tyo, the listener doesn’t mind the repetition. If anything, we need all the signposts we can get in this intricate maze, which winds through alternate histories, dreamlike impossibil­ities and books within books.

Park’s novel braids together three narratives that overlap in sometimes rewarding, sometimes confoundin­g, ways. Isaac reads “The Sins,” about a Korean American tech employee who becomes obsessed with the titular unfinished manuscript that falls into his hands; Tyo reads the manuscript itself, a translated work of alleged nonfiction by Echo, the nom de plume of an elusive Korean writer who may or may not be alive; and Hoffman reads “2333,” a science fiction series by a Black veteran of the Korean War. Characters, too, repeat, tempting the listener to draw connection­s that prove so tenuous they vanish as quickly as they arrive.

That’s OK. The point isn’t to grasp every detail. The fun in this audiobook is the hallucinat­ory joy of witnessing real life crash head-first into heartfelt, hilarious nonsense. As in art, so in life. (Random House Audio. 18 hours, 36 minutes. $25.)

—The New York Times

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