Mari Carlson

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The nine short stories in George Saunders’ Liberation Day (7 hours) prowl a spectrum of dystopian premises and fall into two categories: tales about families, co-workers and neighbors navigating their relationships amid troubling current events; and stories about future humans who are reprogrammed as automatons (with the robotic voices to match) under other people’s command.

In these disorienting worlds, downtrodden people who have become petty and grotesque find not revenge but poetic justice. After writing an essay that inspires a crime, the titular mother of “Mom of Bold Action” runs through a list of good deeds she would be likely to do, such as step into slush on someone else’s behalf. In “Ghoul,” an employee at an underground Hell-themed amusement park realizes that he’s in love and ready to die for his beloved. 

And yet, understated goodness shines through, and we witness victories both quotidian and experimental. Stories are narrated by Saunders and an all-star cast of comedians and actors: Tina Fey, Stephen Root, Michael McKean, Edi Patterson, Jenny Slate, Jack McBrayer and Melora Hardin. Saunders’ biting, clipped writing style, paired with these narrators’ parodying voices, results in a dark comedy triumph with a satirical yet redemptive twist.

Read our starred review of the print edition of Liberation Day.

George Saunders’ short story collection, narrated by an all-star cast of comedians and actors, is a dark comedy triumph with a satirical yet redemptive twist.
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Renowned filmmaker Werner Herzog has written more than a dozen books and screenplays, but The Twilight World (3.5 hours) is his first novel. Translated by Michael Hofmann and short enough to qualify as a novella, it’s the fictionalized story of Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, the real-life intelligence officer in the Imperial Japanese Army who defended Lubang Island in the Philippines for decades, unaware that World War II had ended. By zeroing in on Onoda’s singular pursuit, the novel explores the process and impact of globalization through one man’s story. 

Herzog narrates the novel in his iconic German accent—pronounced yet easy to understand, with an exacting, measured delivery that captures Onoda’s fierce, calculating character. The tension is highest when Onoda finds items in the jungle, such as a newspaper or supplies, and he approaches them with suspicion and an investigator’s prowess. Herzog’s lifelong fascination with the jungle serves him well here, as he captures the cricket sounds, humidity and overall density of the setting.

Werner Herzog narrates his debut novel with an exacting, measured delivery that captures Onoda's fierce, calculating character.
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In his enlightening Raising Raffi: The First Five Years (6 hours), journalist, translator, professor and novelist Keith Gessen shares how he’s been affected and changed by the process of raising his son. He discusses how his expectations of parenting have compared to the reality, evaluates the evolution of parenting literature and reflects on being a Russian immigrant. Thematic chapters make the book easy to read in installments. In one of the longest and most poignant sections, Gessen’s “bear dad” engages with the “tiger mom” phenomenon.

Gessen reads his own audiobook, bringing candor and self-awareness to the performance. His New York accent is punchy and quick when conveying the pressures placed on contemporary fathers. Ultimately, he brings a sense of reassurance to his book, which charts a new approach to fatherhood with clarity, humor and pathos.

Read our starred review of the print edition.

Keith Gessen's narration brings a sense of reassurance to his memoir, which charts a new brand of fatherhood with clarity, humor and pathos.
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In her new book of autobiographical essays, Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives (7 hours), Mary Laura Philpott writes with gusto and pathos about navigating two extremes: practicing for what will never happen and postponing the inevitable. From removing turtles from her doorstep to dealing with middle-of-the-night emergencies, from controlling cholesterol to shopping for cashmere, Philpott assembles a trustworthy menagerie of lessons for daily life.

Philpott reads her own audiobook with a Southern lilt, at times laughing or on the verge of tears, and she builds an easy connection with her reader as she details a variety of struggles and triumphs. When she describes coming to terms with being identified as “mom” in public, she is as real and reassuring as the best kind of parent.

Written as the author’s oldest child was getting ready to venture off to college, Bomb Shelter offers hope for a better future.

Read more: Mary Laura Philpott discusses her favorite bookstores, real or imagined.

Author Mary Laura Philpott reads her own audiobook with a Southern lilt, at times laughing or on the verge of tears.
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Spanning centuries past and present, on Earth as well as the moon, Sea of Tranquility (6 hours) by Emily St. John Mandel is as vast as an ocean and as ambitious as the determination to cross it. One awe-inspiring moment in a forest setting links its characters, which include a 19th-century British gentleman who is banished by his family to British Columbia, a 20th-century victim of a Ponzi scheme, a 22nd-century writer whose books about pandemics make her all too aware of another on the horizon and a 23rd-century investigator from the Time Institute who risks changing history with his findings. 

Narrators John Lee, Dylan Moore, Arthur Moorey and Kirsten Potter bring out the eeriness of the novel’s central coincidence. Their well-paced voices—sometimes aloof, sometimes deadpan—foreshadow crises like the calm before the storm. As the narrators’ voices bleed into different sections, rather than remaining relegated to an individual character, the audiobook becomes something like a stage play in an interdimensional theater. 

With dignified eloquence, Mandel’s literary sci-fi novel raises questions and offers hope about the future consequences of pandemics, colonization and technological advances.

Read our starred review of the print edition of Sea of Tranquility.

Through multiple audiobook narrators, Emily St. John Mandel’s novel transforms into a stage play in an interdimensional theater.
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Like a game of hide-and-seek, Kathryn Schulz’s memoir is both whimsical and a little terrifying. In three seemingly innocuous sections, titled “Lose,” “Find” and “And,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author develops a fugue, incorporating etymology, personal narrative, philosophy and even a meteorite. But the heart of Lost & Found (7.5 hours) is Schulz’s focus on herself, the father she loses and the partner she finds.

With the same exquisite precision as her New Yorker articles about the Pacific Northwest and other topics, Schulz explores settings ranging from Cleveland hospital rooms to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but her heart and mind are the real landscapes to discover, and she does so with tenderness, humor and aplomb. She reads her own audiobook, delivered with a slight lisp and certain breathlessness, and nearly every sentence comes through in a meditative, soothing cadence.

Schulz invites listeners into a bittersweetness that’s as mundane as it is cosmic. Like a childhood game, no one will want it to end.

Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘Lost & Found.’

In Lost & Found, read by author Kathryn Schulz, listeners are invited to discover a bittersweetness that’s as mundane as it is cosmic.
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In bestselling author Sarah Jio’s novel With Love From London (11.5 hours), a recently divorced Seattle librarian named Valentina heads to London to settle the estate of her late, estranged mother, Eloise. Valentina is unsure about both the inheritance and her feelings toward Eloise, but she gets drawn in by the quaint bookstore her mother owned in Primrose Hill, her mother’s friends and neighbors, and a scavenger hunt arranged by Eloise that references both points around London and literary works beloved by Valentina and her mother.

In chapters that alternate between Valentina’s experiences in 2013 and Eloise’s life from the 1960s to the ’90s, voice actors Brittany Pressley (Valentina) and Gabrielle Glaister (Eloise) animate daughter and mother with equal warmth and exuberance. Their American and British accents lead listeners into a cozy world that’s alive with intrigue, female camaraderie and the fellowship of book lovers. Eloise’s scavenger hunt not only directs the suspenseful plot but also points to the message at the heart of With Love From London: Books can act as portals to the human soul.

As Valentina finds a fulfilled life in Primrose Hill, readers find a retreat from a harried world.

In the audiobook With Love From London, voice actors Brittany Pressley and Gabrielle Glaister animate daughter and mother with equal warmth and exuberance.
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In Xochitl Gonzalez’s novel, Olga Dies Dreaming (11.5 hours), successful wedding planner Olga navigates the world of wealthy New Yorkers while pursuing answers about her Puerto Rican heritage, her mother’s history and her own future love.

Olga attends her cousin’s wedding while in love for the first time, but the ominous reappearance of her mother’s presence clouds the possibilities laid before her. Meanwhile, Olga’s congressman brother holds big stakes in a bill that addresses Puerto Rico’s debt to the United States.

Opposing forces—Puerto Rican and American identities, wealth and poverty, religion and activism—rule the narrative. Three bilingual actors of Puerto Rican descent—Almarie Guerra, Armando Riesco and Inés del Castillo—give voice to Olga, her brother and mother, their stories unfolding through a multifaceted plot layered with political, financial and personal dramas. The narrators’ accents and code-shifting create a vibrant auditory experience. In particular, Guerra’s luscious voice conveys Olga’s transformation from fighter to a compassionate woman as she overcomes dualities and finds wholeness within herself.

Xochitl Gonzalez unpacks her striking debut, ‘Olga Dies Dreaming.’

Three bilingual actors give voice to Xochitl Gonzalez’s multifaceted novel, which is layered with political, financial and personal drama.
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Actor and rapper Will Smith considered himself a coward for many years. As a boy, he was scared of his abusive, perfectionist dad from whom he wished he could protect his mom. He discovered that performing, both musically and as an actor, mitigated the risk of vulnerability with the chance to gain everything. His onstage humor, charm and originality won him worldwide fame and love—but also cost him. In Will (16.5 hours), Smith tells his incredible true story of rising, falling and discovering himself.

In the same way he studies his TV and film characters, Smith analyzes himself through vivid, theatrical anecdotes and stark metaphors. Rickety basement stairs become a descent into hell, and a game of Monopoly turns into a contest between success and death. Through his clear narration, Smith becomes not just a character but also himself, and the listener can easily “get” him.

As Smith relates his story of learning how to move beyond simply surviving to thriving, his delivery is spot on, with masterful imitations of family members, friends and colleagues. Musical interludes and background music create a soundscape from which epiphanies burst brilliantly. Smith’s autobiography is a hero myth for readers seeking self-awareness.

Will Smith’s autobiography is a hero myth for readers seeking self-awareness.
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Best known for his role as Ron Swanson on “Parks and Recreation,” Nick Offerman offers an escape from the grind with his latest audiobook, Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside (11.5 hours).

The book is a response to a challenge put to Offerman by agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry in 2018: to experience nature more like Aldo Leopold than John Muir. Instead of gazing upon pristine sights, Offerman’s project entails getting dirty, digging into the past and infusing daily life (including social media) with the gifts of the wilderness. He does so by way of three excursions: hiking in Glacier National Park with friends George Saunders and Jeff Tweedy; visiting British author Jeff Rebanks’ sheep farm; and traveling cross-country in an Airstream with his wife, actor Megan Mullally. Tales of pit stops, gear purchases and dangerous falls give the book a gritty, grassroots feel.

Offerman infuses this refreshing take on America’s environmental and social landscapes with disarming humor, and his husky voice is a perfect invitation to the great outdoors.

Read our review of the print edition of ‘Where the Deer and the Antelope Play.’

Nick Offerman’s husky narration of Where the Deer and the Antelope Play is a perfect invitation to the great outdoors.
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Like her hit 2020 debut, Migrations, Charlotte McConaghy’s second novel spirals into the recesses of the heart, exploring climate change and human behavior through the story of one woman’s fraught life.

In Once There Were Wolves (8.5 hours), Inti keeps more company with animals than with people. Her work involves releasing wolves into the Scottish Highlands, a controversial venture that arouses suspicion—and then violence—from farmers. The wolves’ presence will allow forests to regrow by forcing deer to keep moving, but the local villagers can’t see beyond the threat to their lives and livestock. Having grown up between a hardline, back-to-the-land father and a mother whose professional expertise is in domestic abuse, Inti’s nurtured cynicism competes with the kindness and goodness she experiences from her sister and a handful of other close relationships.

In the audiobook, master voice actor Saskia Maarleveld keeps the book’s intrigue high. Her breathless delivery captures Inti’s sensitivity and other characters’ misgivings of one another, heightening the tension between domesticity and wildness. Maarleveld also drives home the book’s global expanse through a medley of expert accents, including Canadian, Australian and Scottish.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘Once There Were Wolves’.

Master voice actor Saskia Maarleveld keeps the intrigue high in Charlotte McConaghy’s second novel, which spirals into the recesses of the heart.

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