The very human pleasure of being read

While many turn to audiobooks for convenience, there’s also a sense of comfort in spending hours with voice and story. For me, audiobooks come with a generous dose of nostalgia; a throwback to bedtime stories and the warm blur of being read. Three recent audiobooks have stuck with me not only for their content, but also for the delivery of the narrators.

Terry Pratchett’s beloved “Discworld” series is the definition of comfort reading to me. Pratchett mixes fantasy and satire, joke and depth, with singular skill. Unfortunately, audio versions of Pratchett’s work to date have been of inconsistent quality, remnants of a time when audiobooks were not at hand.

So far: A new production of Book 13 of the series, LITTLE GODS (Penguin Audio, 11 hours, 58 minutes), is part of a project by director Neil Gardner to re-record 40 Pratchett books, adding a new burst of production to the English writer’s audio canon, who died in 2015. First released in 1992, “Small Gods” is a hilarious meditation on dogma and organized religion, told through the story of the “Great God Om”, who, for lack of believers, was reduced to the form of a turtle. There’s also Brutha, a dimwitted novice monk with a photographic memory (yes, that’s Brother Brutha); and the sinister Vorbis, leader of a religious order known as the Quisition. Shapeshifting actor Andy Serkis (Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies and 2005’s “King Kong” star) narrates the book in varied tones that ignite the imagination: Deep and soaring, cracking and fragile, clueless and distant, Serkis does it all. Bill Nighy steps in with footnotes, and Peter Serafinowicz takes on the voice of death (think: the Grim Reaper, but funnier). Pratchett’s skills as a storyteller and comedian are on display in this perfectly crafted audiobook, which should introduce a new generation to the writer’s genius for one-liners like “The gods have risen and fallen like pieces.” of onion in a boiling soup”; and “He was so thin that even skeletons would say, ‘Isn’t he thin? “”

Sometimes a story hits harder when told in the voice of the person who lived it. This is the case with DID YOU HEAR MAMMY’S DEATH? A Memoir (Little, Brown, 5 hours), by the London Observer columnist Seamas O’Reilly, an equally light and deep examination of bereavement, family life and Northern Irish society in the context of the final years of the Troubles. As a young child, O’Reilly lost his mother to breast cancer, leaving the job of raising him and his 10 siblings (“my parents were terrifically—perhaps recklessly—Catholics “) to his father. “Did you hear that Mammy is dead?” flows freely through space and time, jumping between snapshots of O’Reilly’s bewilderment as a 5-year-old unable to fully grasp the permanence of death, and shifts in his relationships with his siblings and his father as he grew older.

It’s disarming to find yourself laughing amid discussions of death, but O’Reilly’s sense of humor lands with the finality of a fruitcake hitting the kitchen floor (a confectionery he finds “disgusting…the nutritional equivalent of a concussion”). In a legato Northern Irish timbre, O’Reilly nails the unreliability of memory (“treacherous…the way Irish meteorologists describe rainy roads or windy hills”), as well as the “class system” inherent in some large family dynamics: “Being a Big One was just different from being a Middle One, no matter how old you were.” When he cries for the first time in years, his childhood emotion “seemed like I was breathing in soup.” O’Reilly’s sketches are so visceral and intimate that you can almost imagine yourself as part of his tight-knit community.

For a very different kind of memoir told by the author, check out PIG YEARS (Random House Audio, 6 hours, 30 minutes), by Ellyn Gaydos. Falling in love with agriculture as a teenager, Gaydos explores what it means to dedicate himself entirely to the “raw work of shaping life to the channels of fertility”.

Set on pig and vegetable farms in upstate New York and Vermont, “Pig Years” is not the idyllic picture of rural life envisioned by some of us city-dwellers. Birth, life and death are ubiquitous, and often brutal. Gaydos describes in lyrical and inflexible detail the processes behind our food: the killing and butchering of pigs, the horrific work accidents suffered by farmhands, the farm cat with a penchant for catching and killing mice (“J ‘learn to sleep through the sounds of goose crunching bones’). These are not just stories about how food is made, but also about the people who make it: farm owners and seasonal farm workers who live by the whims of nature and luck. Gaydos tries to resist dating a man in New York because “how could you trade the sky, the water, or the mountains for one heart?” And she envisions future motherhood while spending all her time “keeping life without ever giving it away.” In Gaydos’ sweet and honest delivery, the struggles and joys of life – plant, human, animal – appear neither graphic nor gratuitous, but simply real.

About Ethel Nester

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