Touring the western states behind the wheel of my camper van over the past months, I have listened to my share of audiobooks. Those that rise to the top combine excellent writing with compelling voice talent. I have three recommendations to share with you that are entertaining and enlightening: a crazy tale of urban crime, a psychological courtroom drama, and a swirling fantasy from post-civil war Florida.
The audio version of each book features stellar narration. The books also share a common theme of Black people living in modern America, yet they each address that theme from a unique perspective. Prepare for a blend of fun, engagement, and social enlightenment.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
James McBride combines his many talents as an award-winning author, musician, and screenwriter in this scintillating novel. He has composed a lyrical cascade of verbal dialogue and internal monologues that connect an unlikely menagerie of New York City characters in a comic, poignant, and mysterious tale.
Black, Italian, Puerto Rican, and Irish men and women cross each other’s lives through baseball, drug deals, police work, and religion. Sportcoat is our aging African American protagonist. A church deacon who is often imbibing in the homemade alcoholic King Kong that gives title to the book, Sportcoat is constantly bantering with companions, real and imaginary, as he navigates a course between salvation and drunken ruin. The Elephant is an Italian gangster, a principled romantic leading a brutal post-midnight crime life on the New York City docks. Sister G is the convention-conforming backbone for her Five Corners church who internally voices risky emotions and desires that transcend social and racial boundaries and lead us, as readers, into temptation. There are plenty more characters to spice the novel.
Unexpected storylines keep the reader and listener engaged and amazed; like the monthly anonymous delivery of savory cheese that has hungry residents lining up at a Brooklyn housing project, and the annual parade of ants that form their own long line through that same housing project. The author’s rare story inventions ultimately take us on a Maltese Falcon-like treasure hunt that bridges historical fact with fiction.
Dominic Hoffman, who has lent his voice to over 100 Audible titles, portrays a large cast of vastly different people throughout this twisting tale. Most of his renderings are clear and clever, yet there are times when I wish the characters were more distinct from one another. That said, the listening experience is wonderful and the book’s reviews on sites like Goodreads tell me that many have enjoyed reading the print version as well.
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Jodi Picoult has a knack for turning tough topics into bestsellers, and Small Great Things certainly follows suit. The tough topic is racism experienced in the health care system, and this book captivates the reader and listener from the opening sentence onward. Ruth Jackson is an African American labor and delivery nurse whose upbringing was influenced in part through her relationship with a wealthy, white family. Turk Bauer is a born-and-bred skinhead who, along with his wife, Brittany, blatantly communicates his racism while his baby is being delivered at the hospital where Ruth works. A series of confusing events lead to a complicated legal battle. Kennedy McQuarry, a white, female, public defender becomes involved in the case and is forced to assess her own empathy and understandings towards systemic racism as she seeks justice for her client, Ruth. The book is told through their three voices.
Three narrators deliver a stellar listening experience. Audra McDonald, a winner of six Tony Awards for her musical Broadway portrayals that include Bess (Porgie and Bess) and Billie Holiday, brings voice to Ruth, helping us to appreciate the complex realities in the life of an apparently successful Black woman. Ari Fliakos is a film and television actor-producer whose convincing performance places Turk’s violent thoughts, from his early childhood through today, squarely in our minds. Cassandra Campbell, who has lent her voice to hundreds of audiobooks, presents Kennedy’s range of wavering confidence, from privileged bravado to uncertain self-doubt.
This is a novel that reads with ease, even as it hits on hard topics with uncertain resolutions. The research that went into this novel delivers new insights on all fronts that increase our understanding of the complex fabric of American society, the nuances of the legal system, and the potential for racial conflict to escalate. Will justice prevail? Moreover, what does justice look like in this case? If it were easy to simply reverse racism, we probably would have conquered the beast some time ago. This book presents uneasy topics in a very accessible way.
This novel is a run-away hit with over 280,000 ratings on Goodreads. Take the plunge and you will see why.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
This masterpiece changed my life. It opened my eyes and ears to a language that was new to me and yet is fundamental to our country. Before I elaborate, I pose a question: When you read or listen to Shakespeare, what touches you the most, the plot line or the language? I predict that you chose “language.” The sounds of Shakespeare are compelling and unique, even if some people dismiss the dialect as too inaccessible. Shakespeare contributed over 1,700 new words to the English language as he (and his wife?) invented a form of expression still regarded as a high-water mark in literature and theater.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a tour-de-force that masterfully interweaves two languages: English and Southern Black dialect. Rich and flowing English descriptions of people and places lead the reader into conversations expressed in hypnotizing Southern Black dialect. Each individual character sounds like a unique Shakespearian creation. Hurston’s presentation of this dialect, however, is not her invention. Rather, it is her revelation. She was a cultural anthropologist who conducted ethnographic research, with a deep emphasis on language, while a student at Barnard College and Columbia University. She is simply presenting and revering the authentic language of her post-civil war Southern kin.
Ruby Dee, the Emmy and Grammy award-winning actress who starred in Raisin in the Sun and American Gangster, renders the personality-specific vernacular of each character with pitch patterns, pacing, and textures that sink the listener into the soul of each speaker. This book opened my mind to Southern Black dialect and invited me to listen anew to rap music, political discourse, and conversations on the street. I feel like I have a better understanding of millions of people.
Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of a strong, independent woman navigating through three marriages in the 1930s in the American South. It weaves descriptions of real places in a stream of events that reflect magical realism. One particular sequence involving a flood during a hurricane paints indelible fantasies that conjure images of The Life of Pi and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. Published in 1937, this book was largely overlooked by the mostly male leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, who were apparently put off by the use of Black dialect and the promotion of female strength. Today, the book and its author are both regarded as national treasures.
I read and listened to this book simultaneously. Each sentence was highlighted as it was read aloud using the Audible Narration feature built into the Kindle app on my Samsung tablet. My wife used the same features on her Kindle Paperwhite. This allowed me to hear Ruby Dee lend her resonance to the printed words and helped deliver a complete literary experience. I found my new Shakespeare, in a language that matters in my own country, every day.