Deborah Mason

Charlie Barnes, the hero of Joshua Ferris' novel A Calling for Charlie Barnes (11.5 hours), has pancreatic cancer. Or maybe he doesn't. He is a shyster, a con man and a liar. Or perhaps he's a dreamer, a nobody who could be a somebody, if only the planets would align in his favor and grant him some grace. The task of discovering the true Charlie falls to his novelist son, Jake, the narrator of this hilarious and tragic story of love, failure and redemption.

Nick Offerman, best known as the laconic misanthrope Ron Swanson on "Parks and Recreation," delivers a powerful performance as Jake. His whiskey-soaked baritone swings effortlessly from world-weary cynicism to wickedly dry observations about siblings and stepmothers. Like his namesake in The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes is a flawed and vulnerable character, but Offerman's deft reading convinces the listener that Jake also has the strength necessary to understand and forgive the inexplicable and unforgivable.

Read our starred review of the print edition of 'A Calling for Charlie Barnes.'

Nick Offerman delivers a powerful performance as Jake Barnes, the narrator of Joshua Ferris’ hilarious and tragic story of love, failure and redemption.

We appear to be living in a golden age of crime stories, with podcasts and series galore, but this popular fascination is truly timeless, everlasting and ever evolving. L.R. Dorn's debut novel, The Anatomy of Desire (8 hours), updates Theodore Dreiser's classic 1925 crime drama, An American Tragedy, by using the documentary format to explore whether Instagram influencer Cleo Ray murdered her ex-girlfriend in the middle of a lake.

Dorn uses interview transcripts, director commentary and courtroom clips to strip away Cleo's "all-American girl" social media personality and expose the traumas fueling her relentless ambition. This narrative structure is perfect for the audiobook format, and it's compellingly and convincingly performed by a fine ensemble cast. Tony Award winner Santino Fontana stands out as the documentary director Duncan McMillan, and Marin Ireland portrays a formidable defense attorney, but Shelby Young absolutely shines as Cleo. From Cleo's chirpy pretrial Instagram posts to her gut-wrenching testimony, Young delivers a performance that is as vulnerable as it is ruthless, as loving as it is spiteful.

Make some popcorn, settle in, and get ready to devour an extremely enjoyable story.

The unique documentary format of L.R. Dorn’s crime novel makes for a winning audiobook, compellingly performed by a fine ensemble cast.

As art historian Catherine McCormack points out in Women in the Picture: What Culture Does With Female Bodies, galleries and museums are full of paintings and statues of women in various guises and genres. Indeed, there are so many that we rarely take time to consider the implications of how they are depicted. We see a Madonna, and we think, "That's a Madonna." Few question how the Madonna is depicted, or even why the Madonna is depicted.

McCormack wants us to ask these questions, but she also wants us to consider by whom and for whom an artwork was created. She examines four archetypes of women in Western European art—Venus, the Madonna, the damsel in distress and the monstrous woman—to examine their impact on not only how we look at art but also how we view women in general.

Because so much of this art was created by male artists for male clients, McCormack argues, we have become accustomed to viewing these images through male eyes. As a result, when we see Titian's "Rape of Europa," we see a technically brilliant, erotically charged depiction of a myth, not the terror and brutality of the rape that is about to take place. When we see a Madonna, we see an idealized vision of motherhood, not how that mother is trapped by her hearth and home. Sphinxes, witches and gorgons, McCormack believes, are not existential threats to male heroes but the projection of misogynistic fears of powerful women.

McCormack's purpose is twofold. First, rather than ditching Western European art, she wants us to engage with it critically, deliberately and honestly so that we can begin to recognize the impact of the male artist's perspective and reinterpret his art with fresh eyes. Second, she wants to encourage women artists to take these subjects and represent them in ways that expose their realities to future generations. As a result, Women in the Picture is a thought-provoking call to action for artists and viewers alike.

Catherine McCormack looks closely at four archetypes of women in art to examine not only how we look at art but also how we view women in general.

Thirteen-year-old Weldon Applegate (as remembered by 99-year-old Weldon Applegate) is the unlikely hero of Josh Ritter's The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All (7 hours). Set in Cordelia, Idaho, a lumber town at the end of the lumberjack era, and populated by ghosts, witches and demons, this rollicking tall tale is as true and honest as the honed edge of a jack's favorite ax.  

Ritter is a renowned singer-songwriter, and his language is exquisite, especially when describing the grandeur of a winter forest or the subtle evil of a greedy man. His nuanced narration gives an authentic voice to both young and ancient Weldon, endowing him with wisdom, humor and valor while never losing sight of the terrible beauty of his vanished world. Ritter's talents as a ballad singer make this audiobook, which includes an original song, a special pleasure.

Josh Ritter’s talents as a ballad singer make this audiobook, which includes an original song, a special pleasure.

A Spanish queen. A Florentine printer. An English wool merchant. A disgruntled German monk. A Genoese explorer. According to Patrick Wyman, author and narrator of The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World (11.5 hours), these are among the actors who gave birth to the modern world. Wyman argues that from 1490 to 1530, a series of economic, religious and state-building revolutions transformed Europe from a backwater into the dominant global power. And like the song says, it was money—in the form of increasingly available credit—that made the world go round.

Creator of the podcast series Tides of History and Fall of Rome, Wyman is a skilled performer with obvious enthusiasm for his subject. His reading is also enhanced by the book's structure: Each chapter focuses on a particular historical figure who in some way acted as a midwife to the new age, and Wyman's narration emphasizes their humanity, warts and all. As a result, he makes this economic history of Europe an entertaining and informative audiobook.

Podcaster Patrick Wyman skillfully narrates his engaging economic history of Europe.

All statues are raised, but relatively few are razed; when they are, somebody is always upset. In recent years, statues have been vandalized, pulled down by crowds and plucked from public plinths and placed in secret warehouses in the dead of night—to both applause and outcry. Whenever a statue is removed, the same questions arise: Are we erasing history? Wasn't he just a man of his time? Is this the beginning of a slippery slope?

In Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History, historian Alex von Tunzelmann addresses these questions by examining 12 different case histories of statues from around the world that fell (literally) out of favor. Tunzelmann makes the argument that statues are not history but rather representations of history. Josef Stalin's statues were propaganda to justify his grip on the Soviet Union, for example, not depictions of historical fact. The statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans was erected as part of a deliberate campaign to rewrite the history of the Civil War by self-avowed white supremacists.

It's clear from Fallen Idols that there are many reasons to tear down a statue. Removing Stalin's statue in Budapest was the start of a revolution. Pulling down Saddam Hussein's statue was a symbolic end to the Iraq War—a symbol that turned out to be disastrously wrong. Taking down a statue can also be an act of truth telling. Leopold II of Belgium was not a benevolent ruler of the Congo, for example, even though that's how monuments depict him. Even during his lifetime, he was widely condemned for his bloodthirsty exploitation and colonization of the Congolese. In cases like these, Tunzelmann finds that, far from erasing history, the eradication of a statue can actually illuminate it.

In discussing these and other statues, Tunzelmann invites us to consider all public monuments. What are these statues commemorating? What are they hiding? Are there other, better ways to depict history in public spaces without resorting to images of great men (or women)? Fallen Idols is an illuminating guide to a much-needed discussion about history and how it is represented.

Historian Alex von Tunzelmann examines 12 different case histories of statues from around the world that fell (literally) out of favor.

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