It's never too early to get holiday gift lists in order so here are some ideas for audio aficionados that will provide hours of excellent, unabridged listening. Why not treat yourself to a few while you're at it?
Jhumpa Lahiri's much heralded first novel, The Namesake, has all the grace and poignancy that fans of her Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection (The Interpreter of Maladies) had hoped for. Focusing on a Bengali couple who move to Massachusetts and their American-born children, Lahiri makes the immigrant experience with all its complex cultural tugs knowable and real, and Sarita Choudhury's nuanced narration adds an extra, welcome dimension.
Someone has roughed up Father Jimmie Dolan, a New Orleans priest who fights injustice with fearless ferocity, and that makes Dave Robicheaux more than a little angry. So begins Last Car to Elysian Fields(14.5 hours), James Lee Burke's latest, read this time by Mark Hammer, whose voice conjures up the bayou setting and subtle shadings of its many accents. Burke has gone beyond the ordinary crime novel to create a genre of his own, a kind of lyrically narrated New Orleans/New Iberia noir, with deftly drawn characters who carry on in the shadow of Louisiana's long, troubled history. This is one of his very best.
She Is Me(8.5 hours), Cathleen Schine's quirky, clever, always entertaining new novel, should appeal to the women on your gift list. Schine uses her unerring eye and ear for contemporary life to create a lively, literary comedy of manners that captures the essence of love, understanding and misunderstanding among three generations of mothers and daughters. We have late-20-something Elizabeth, who leaves East Coast academe for L.A. to write a screenplay based on Madame Bovary; her 50-something mother, who may be leaving her long-settled, married life; and her ill but "still a pistol" grandmother, who isn't ready to leave just yet. Patricia Kalembar's narration doesn't miss a beat as she gives each woman a vibrancy of her own.
Edward P. Jones' highly acclaimed historical novel The Known World (15 hours) opened an unknown world for me, and I'd guess it will for many other listeners. Set on a small Virginia plantation in the 1850s, this is a world where Henry Townsend, a freed black man, owns slaves and though determined not to mirror the wrongs of white slave owners, does so in rather short order. Jones, using stories within stories, details a time when the bonds of slavery and the bonds of ownership marked every aspect of life for the residents of Manchester County, both black and white. Powerful, moving, provocative and effectively read here by Kevin Free.
And if you somehow missed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Listening Library, $45, 27 hours, ISBN 0807220280), with the inimitable Jim Dale reading, don't wait any longer, get it now! Note: All of the titles reviewed here are on audio cassette and unabridged; many are available in other formats as well.