Curated by SARAH WHELAN
Here it is, the final Friday Reads of the decade! This month, we’re sharing the audiobooks that have entertained and challenged us this year. If you’d like even more listening material, check out The Common Online’s Poetry Recordings here.
Recommendations: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett; The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks; Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt; All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House; recommended by Jennifer Acker (Editor in Chief)
I’ve never been a Tom Hanks fan. Not when Big came out when I was 10. Not the Nora Ephron rom coms with Meg Ryan. Forrest Gump produced obligatory tears, but my eyes were rolling in their waterbaths. Hanks’s soft-featured All-Americanness bored me; there was no interesting angle to his nose or cheek or melancholic edge to his voice. So trust me when I tell you he’s a riveting narrator for Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. Hanks voices the character of Danny Conroy, whose mother leaves him, his older sister Maeve, and their father when Danny is 3. Maeve becomes his mother, his everything, and he’s in constant danger of losing her to complications of diabetes. Patchett excels at sibling relations, finding endless avenues to play out their foundational connections, and Danny and Maeve are devoted to each other their entire lives. Hanks’s energetic yet considerate narration is up to the task, effortlessly spanning their decades together. By now Hanks has developed some ruts and grooves in his voice, and his Danny is that of an adoring and pained younger brother who complies with his sister’s wishes and directions while quietly but determinedly making his own way. When Danny and Maeve are kicked out of their childhood home (known as “The Dutch House”) by a wicked stepmother, the two have to grow up quickly, and I loved how clear-eyed they are about their own failings. These self-deprecating moments are the ones in which Hanks truly shines. Danny is the least interesting character in the novel—somewhat pallid like Hanks himself–but he is observant, and a receptacle for the sharp observations and declarations of others. Hanks rightly doesn’t bother to dress up the voices of the book’s other characters, shifting into a deeply masculine voice for the father, for example, or a pinched, conniving voice for the stepmother; instead his genius is the rhythm, pacing, and inflection. The way Hanks lands hard on the “ay” in Maeve’s name becomes a kind of repeated devotion. The way he rushes and then relaxes through Danny’s trains of thought serves Patchett’s superbly plotted storyline. Danny and Hanks are both honest and honorable (how refreshing is that?), and they convince you this story of a fractured American family is not only true but inimitable, while also being much like you and me.
The first time I heard Caitlin Horrocks read from The Vexations, I knew only that it was about the life of French composer and pianist Erik Satie. But she read a section from the perspective of Suzanne Valadon, a beautiful artist’s model who would rather be painting than painted. It was playful, intimate, even funny—not anything I’d thought a novel about fin de siècle Paris could be. The audiobook, narrated by Marisa Calin, gives life to all the meticulous turns of Horrocks’s sentences, and puts points on the quiet moments a reader might otherwise miss. She even does accents!
Satie is the glue of the story, churning in his frustration on a bar stool or a piano stool, playing in cheap cabaret clubs. He and his poet friend Philippe can afford one nice suit to share between them, an extra button sewed on the waistband to accommodate their various middles. The story expands outward into Bohemian Montmartre, by way of Erik, Philippe, and Suzanne. The freedoms there—the trysts, fights, and salacious stage shows—contrast sharply with the life we see outside of Paris in first-person chapters from Louise, Erik’s sister. Propriety weighs on her and she chafes against it, gently, quietly. The delicate details that Horrocks chooses to create this sense keep far away from the broad and maudlin. When young Louise, raised by her strict great-uncle, is asked what she most wants in a husband, she answers, “One who lets me have a handbag.”
I couldn’t resist the beautifully researched minutiae of these lives. The careful settings and situations are too full and gritty to slip into some joyful excess, that Moulin Rouge high-kick flavor we often assign to Montmartre these days. And the heart of it is timeless, anyway—the push and pull of the world on a person, the ways we injure the ones we love accidentally and on purpose, the expectant agony of creating art that is new and not enough.
Listening to Frank McCourt’s lilting Irish voice read his 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir brought alive the complex, nuanced, and funny aspects of his impoverished childhood in Limerick, Ireland. I had started to read the book in print but struggled with the painful details. When I switched to the audio version, read by the author, the change in my experience was remarkable. McCourt’s wry perspective and sardonic humor came alive. Listening to his voice meant seeing these experiences as he did—instead of interpreting them through my female, middle class lens. One of the opening sentences, “It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while…,” spoken in his stoic, matter-of-fact tone, set the stage for viewing all the irony and dark humor in the forthcoming depictions of grim experiences: the alcoholic father drinking up the little dole money, caring for younger siblings continually crying from hunger, the scorn of neighbors and relatives, begging a pig’s head for Christmas dinner. Books read by their authors are often more intimate than those read by actors, but when the tale includes in-depth explorations of privation and hardship, the roundness and nuances of a voice can sometimes paint a picture more vibrant than black and white words on a page. I felt I was in the pub with Frank and his family, not only entertained but enlightened.
I should come clean and admit that this recommendation is secondhand—Emily Everett (whose wonderful review of The Vexations can be enjoyed above) patiently listened to me complain about my commute then generously responded with a long list of audiobooks to keep me company on my daily journey. Anthony’s Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See was her first suggestion and my first download, and I am so glad that I tuned in.
Read aloud by Zach Appelman, All the Light We Cannot See follows two children unable to escape the Nazi regime: blind Marie-Laure, who flees Paris with her father only to be orphaned in a remote town under German occupation, and Werner Pfennig, a German boy whose aptitude for repairing radios saves him from poverty but molds him into a lethal, khaki-clad pawn. Curiously, due to Marie-Laure’s visual impairment and Werner’s job tracking radio waves, both characters are keen listeners, and the rich aural environment of the novel lends itself well to the audiobook format. Indeed, their plot lines converge at Saint-Malo against the boom of an apocalyptic American bombing; as Marie-Laure hides, abandoned in her home, Werner huddles, trapped in a basement under the violent rubble. As a final means of comfort and communication, Marie-Laure illegally broadcasts her live reading of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a performance that is heard by Werner thanks to his ability to tap into her signal. When played through headphones on my way to work, the effect is deliriously meta; as Marie-Laure’s voice emboldens a buried-alive Werner, so is my claustrophobia on a crowded subway eased by Appelman’s measured, tender tone. When consumed sonically, All the Light We Cannot See triumphs as sounds cutting through the air provide a beacon of hope for its captive subjects.