Listen Up!

Chevy Chase LibraryStaff Picks

Listen Up!

Outstanding Audiobook Performances

I just began listening to audiobooks a couple of years ago and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed those early experiences with listening to fiction rather than reading it. I have listened to each of the titles on this list and they are among the best audio performances that I have encountered. This list is entirely subjective and gives no concern to the reputation of the individual who narrated these stories or whether or not these performances were nominated for awards. The titles on this list stood out among the audio books that I have listened to. No more, no less.

The Maltese Falcon (Dramatization) By  Dashiell Hammett
Cast: Michael Madsen, Sandra Oh, Edward Hermann, Special Mention: Laura Gardner / Produced by The Hollywood Theater of the Ear.

This edition of The Maltese Falcon is intended as a dramatization rather than as an audiobook. Think of old radio dramas and serials a cast of actors and sound effects such as creaking furniture, doors, audible pouring of drinks etc.The setting is Depression Era San Francisco and the world of Samuel Spade. This is a classic that helped change the way writers told detective stories. If Dashiell Hammett had written as many "Sam Spade" novels as Agatha Christie had Hercule Poirot novels, I'd read every one where Spade is featured. He has an interesting and peculiar morality that is uniquely his own.

Longbourn by Jo Baker
Narration by Emma Fielding / Produced by Random House Audio

Jane Austen's oeuvre is so popular that it has inspired a vast amount of fan fiction, much of it trash and a shameless attempt to cash in on her enduring popularity. Longbourn is one of the exceptions of JAFF (Jane Austen Fan Fiction) worth reading. The simple description is that the book is a retelling of "Pride and Prejudice" from the servants' point of view. But it goes deeper than just the usual retelling. Longbourn made the Bennet home come alive. The reader knows what time the housemaids got up to light the fires and draw the water; when the cook began to prepare dinner; how the linens were washed; and how muddy it is to walk to Meryton to get supplies. The reader even learns a few secrets about the housekeeper that will surprise Pride and Prejudice fans. Also, the cook/housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, is keenly worried about what will happen to the staff if the estate is entailed away to Mr. Collins-- a good reminder of how many people were “actually” affected by Mr. Bennet's lack of a male heir!
I should warn diehard P&P fans that if you're hoping to spend more time swooning over Mr. Darcy, you will be disappointed, because the men from P&P are only on the periphery of this story. You'll see more of the Bennet’s as the servants interact with them, but the "downstairs" plot takes center stage.

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Narration: Simon Prebble / Produced by Tantor Audio

Enjoyment of this book was enhanced and increased by listening to eAudio from the library instead of reading. There is something about hearing Stevens' (the main character and narrator) words spoken rather than "just" reading them.
This is one of the most beautifully mannered, subtle books I've read in a long, time. Ishiguro's command of prose is perfect; there was never a point where I felt that this book wasn't written by a consummate English butler. Remains of the Day is also one of the best examples of first person POV that I've read. Stevens' voice is always clear and distinct, and always used to frame the narrative in such a way that the reader is able to see things and guess things which the protagonist cannot. For all that Stevens himself agonizes over “banter” and “wit” and how to be “amusing”, this book is very funny itself in some places. The subtlety of it all, and Stevens often painful obliviousness to social cues really lends itself well to humor to be enjoyed by the reader.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Narration by Grover Garner / Produced by Blackstone Audio

I've never even seen the movie but I can totally see Jack Nicholson as the main character. “McMurphy” claims he “purposely” got himself admitted to a psychiatric ward to escape a work farm. He wages war on the ward with Miss Ratched, the head nurse. All sorts of mayhem ensue. It's a very serious subject—the abuse of authority--that is hard to take seriously because some of the stuff that happens is so funny you can't help laughing and then cringing. McMurphy is silly, but you just can't help rooting for him even as he messes with both patients and staff. Kesey begins his story with an almost lighthearted humorous view of McMurphy, the fly in Big Nurse's ointment, who can stir up the quiet of the men's ward at the state insane asylum. But, he rapidly takes us beyond that to a realization that McMurphy is treading a dangerous road and playing a game in which he doesn't truly understand the rules or recognize what is at stake.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Narration by Sissy Spacek / Produced by Harper Audio

Harper Lee explores values and prejudices that we sometimes don't examine closely in ourselves and the importance of courage and integrity. What begins as apparently, as an affectionate and humorous episodic narrative of life in a 1930’s era Alabama town, and the personalities and quirks of the people who live there, gradually evolves into an amazing and powerful read. A young girl called Scout becomes aware of her lawyer father's representation of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, and the town's general attitude about it, which spills over into their treatment of Scout and her brother by the community.
It is also interesting to note the differences in how courts handled trials in a small town during the depression, the speed and informality of the trial itself, and the African American spectators not unexpectedly relegated to the balconies of the courtroom to observe the proceedings.