Deborah Mason

There are times when only a gothic novel will do, and such times call for Gallant (7.5 hours) by V. E. Schwab, author of the Shades of Magic series. Everything you could possibly want is present in Schwab’s latest standalone: a mysterious manuscript, a haunted house (the titular Gallant) and an unlikely heroine in the form of Olivia Prior, the orphan who unravels Gallant’s secrets.

Actor Julian Rhind-Tutt delivers an outstanding performance as the audiobook narrator. As a veteran film and voice actor, he brings nuance and sensitivity to his reading, with a low, husky voice that makes listening to Gallant a unique pleasure. Rhind-Tutt sounds like he’s sitting with you in a darkened room, confiding a secret so profound that only you, his listener, can be trusted with it.

Read our review of the print edition of Gallant.

The low, husky voice of actor Julian Rhind-Tutt makes listening to V. E. Schwab’s Gallant a unique pleasure.

As we age, most of us will experience a debilitating or life-threatening illness at some point. Two nonfiction books take an unflinching look at this reality while painting a compassionate picture of how we and our health care providers could approach illness and death with more empathy, honesty and courage.

Healing

Cover of Healing by Theresa Brown

Healing: When a Nurse Becomes a Patient is Theresa Brown’s searingly honest and deeply personal account of her experiences as a breast cancer patient. Brown, a registered nurse with a Ph.D. in English literature, has written and lectured extensively about the American health care system. As a former oncology and hospice nurse, Brown knew that patients often got a raw deal, but only after her own diagnosis did she realize how needlessly cruel that deal could be.

Brown has profound gratitude for her family, friends and medical team, who all supported her as she recovered, but she is also angry. She faced a host of necessary evils during her treatment, including invasive diagnostic procedures, painful surgeries and debilitating side effects from chemotherapy. But in a series of devastating vignettes, Brown also details the many unnecessary evils she endured in a system that favors profit over the needs of the patient: Diagnoses were delayed, questions left unanswered, test results undelivered. She was even forced to negotiate byzantine regulations on her own because her health care providers were stretched too thin to ensure that these basic duties were fulfilled effectively or graciously. Even though Brown was a seasoned health professional with extensive knowledge and professional contacts, she had to fight to be treated humanely. One can only imagine the obstacles less experienced patients must face every day.

Healing is both a moving memoir and a clarion call to action. When health care becomes a profit-making industry, dominated by hedge funds and corporate interests, we all lose. Instead, Brown argues, we must return to a system where meeting the patient’s needs—physical, emotional and social—is the priority.

The Day I Die

Cover of The Day I Die by Anita Hannig

In The Day I Die: The Untold Story of Assisted Dying in America, anthropologist Anita Hannig takes a different but no less passionate approach to her examination of death and dying in America. After becoming interested in how Oregon’s assisted dying law worked, Hannig embedded herself in a volunteer group that helps terminally ill patients take advantage of the law. She soon realized that the law, with its many hoops and barriers, could be like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s girl with the curl on her forehead. When it works, the law is very good. Hannig’s case studies of patients who have enough luck and resources to meet the demands of the statute demonstrate that assisted death can be, paradoxically, life-affirming. Autonomy can be restored to patients who have long been at the mercy of their diseases, and knowing when one will die can be an opportunity for reconciliation, reunion and gratitude.

But when things go bad, the law can be horrid. It is reasonable to have strict conditions surrounding assisted dying to ensure that the decision to end one’s life is freely made. But those conditions can have devastating effects upon patients who desperately want to die but cannot meet the requirements. Patients with ALS, for example, might lose their ability to communicate their assent before the deadline. Advanced Alzheimer’s patients are categorically denied access to assisted dying because they have lost the ability to fully understand their decision. Hannig rigorously details these and other situations in which people’s physical or mental deterioration, lack of resources or sheer bad luck result in a painfully prolonged life and terrifying death.

In her introduction, Hannig acknowledges the anthropologist’s dilemma: The act of observation is an imperfect tool for research, since it can change both the observer and the observed. However, it can also change the reader, since it is impossible to read Hannig’s book without being moved. Regardless of your stance on assisted dying, The Day I Die will make you reconsider how dying could and should be.

The personal stories in these nonfiction books set a more humane benchmark for patients and providers.

In Of Blood and Sweat: Black Lives and the Making of White Power and Wealth, Clyde W. Ford confronts readers with a difficult truth about the current state of American affairs: Our politics, economy and social structure are inextricably linked to the enslavement of Black people. The freight trains and trucks that carry goods across the country follow the rail lines and roads built by enslaved people. Our insurance companies, banks and stock exchanges—in both the North and the South—are direct descendants of the institutions that financed and protected the slave trade and commodities produced with slave labor. Our Constitution is the result of compromises with slave-holding states, ensuring through the three-fifths clause, the Fugitive Slave Clause and the Electoral College that power remained in the hands of powerful white men and that slavery continued to flourish.

Ford wants readers to realize the lasting and severe harm that slavery has done to our country on both an intellectual level and a visceral, emotional one. There is no lack of evidence to support his argument, and his book is very well researched and documented. But unlike histories that are so loaded with documents, statistics and official accounts of proceedings that they numb the reader, transforming the tragedy of the past into mere abstraction, Of Blood and Sweat adroitly avoids these pitfalls. Instead, Ford weaves the stories of real people who lived through these times into his narrative, making the information feel immediate and alive. The author of 13 fiction and nonfiction books, including the memoir Think Black, Ford brings to life Antoney and Isabell, an Angolan couple who were among the first enslaved Africans brought to Virginia in 1619; Briton Hammon, an enslaved man whose New England owner permitted him to become a sailor; S.G.W. Dill, a white former Confederate soldier who became a passionate advocate for equality—and was murdered for it by white supremacists; and countless others, the sinners and the sinned against, whose lives illuminate not only what happened but why.

More importantly, Ford makes a clear case that the past is never over. The wounds inflicted by slavery have never healed, and he argues that they will continue to harm our country until we deal with them honestly. For many Americans, reading Of Blood and Sweat will be an excellent first step in that process.

Some histories are so loaded with documents and statistics that they numb the reader, but Clyde W. Ford’s Of Blood and Sweat feels immediate and alive.

In African Town (7 hours), co-authors Charles Waters and Irene Latham use a series of first-person narrative poems to tell the story of the Clotilda—the last American slave ship—and to reveal the fates of the enslaved passengers and their captors.

Each character’s perspective unfolds in a particular poetic structure that reflects their personality, and the audiobook cast members incorporate the cadence of these poems into their performances without ever sounding forced or contrived. Consequently, the listener experiences not only an epic story of terror, grief and heroism but also the unique humanity of each character, including the Clotilda—a ship that is infinitely more humane than her masters.

The accompanying downloadable PDF is packed with valuable information, including a glossary, timeline and additional information about the characters. African Town is an emotionally complex, searingly honest and extremely rewarding experience for teen and adult listeners alike.

Irene Latham and Charles Waters discuss ‘African Town,’ their novel in verse about the last group of Africans brought to America and enslaved.

African Town is an emotionally complex, searingly honest and extremely rewarding experience for listeners of all ages.

We all have one. That friend or relative who cannot hold a conversation without bringing up their pet conspiracy theory. The one who believes COVID-19 is a hoax or that a certain former secretary of state actually wore a mask made from the face of a dead child. The one who frightens and confuses you in equal measure, leaving you to wonder what happened to your dear friend or favorite uncle. The one you might be thinking about cutting off, because the mere thought of listening to one more lecture about the faked moon landing sends you around the bend.

Before you do, however, you really should read Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything by Daily Beast reporter Kelly Weill. Since starting at The Daily Beast in 2016, Weill has focused on how conspiracy theories flourish on social media. In Off the Edge, Weill uses flat-eartherism as a case study, documenting its surprising roots in a 19th-century socialist utopian commune, its truly astonishing endurance and popularity, and its links to other conspiracy theories, including QAnon. In addition to conducting meticulous research for her debut book, Weill had searching and substantive conversations with flat-earth believers that informed her understanding of how conspiracy theories evolve, grow and converge. She is especially critical of the role YouTube and Facebook have played in this history, but she is equally clear that the mainstream media, including some of her own articles, are also at fault.

Weill’s investigation of flat-eartherism makes clear that adherence to a conspiracy theory is not intellectual but emotional. Fear and uncertainty about the world and one’s place in it fuel a desperate desire for clarity—even if that clarity is rooted in a nonsensical worldview that drives a wedge between the believer and their loved ones. But there’s still hope for these broken relationships. Weill shows that people can and do recover from their fever dreams, but not through intellectual argumentation alone. If the exploitation of fear can divide us, only compassion and openheartedness can lay the groundwork to draw us together again.

Before you cut off a loved one who won’t shut up about their pet conspiracy theory, you really should read Kelly Weill’s extraordinary debut book, Off the Edge.

In 2019, the New York Times Magazine published 10 articles written by a team headed by Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones. Collectively known as the 1619 Project, these essays argue that the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia in 1619 ​​was a defining event for our nation, one that has affected basically every aspect of life in the centuries since. The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (19 hours) expands on this original work with additional essays and literary works.

The essays alone would have made compelling listening, but the pairing of historical analysis with artistic interpretation makes the audiobook especially moving. Some pieces are read with great passion, such as Hannah-Jones’ “Democracy.” Others, like Khalil Muhammed’s reading of “The Sugar Trade,” have a determined objectivity that underscores the human misery behind the historical fact. But nothing compares to the gut punches delivered by ZZ Packer’s short story “An Absolute Massacre” or Rita Dove’s poem “Youth Sunday.”

The audiobook’s variety of voices and styles allows the listener to understand American history on a profoundly human level. The result is a powerful lesson not only about what our history is but also how it feels.

Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘The 1619 Project.’

The variety of voices and styles in The 1619 Project audiobook allows the listener to understand American history on a profoundly human level.

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