For podcast fans considering whether to make the jump to audiobooks, short stories could provide the perfect gateway. And unlike some podcasts, there are no annoying ads or time-filling banter. Usually clocking in at less than an hour, these potent collections are just long enough to transport you through one of our slow Seattle commutes or to read you off to sleep, nudging your dreams in new directions.
Why not start with the best? An annual fixture since its 1915 debut, “The Best American Short Stories” just crossed a major milestone: its first full-length audiobook edition of the 2019 anthology. Producer Tommy Herron has cast an all-star team of audiobook narrators, giving each of these 20 stories its own distinct voice. Don’t expect to equally enjoy every story gathered here. As noted by this year’s guest editor, novelist and memoirist Anthony Doerr (“All the Light We Cannot See”), these stories are by turns “provocative, weird, dazzling, dark, bright, serious and hilarious,” making this an adventuresome listen. Yet, somehow, having each story skillfully interpreted by a fresh voice eases us through this anthology’s stylistic transitions while highlighting its impressive variety.
The value of an expert reader is made clear from the very first entry in this alphabetically arranged collection, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s challenging dystopian tale, “The Era.” Narrator Kevin R. Free’s tenuous, measured reading perfectly conveys the uncanny sensation of an overengineered, post-post-truth society that strips its youth of any pretense of empathy or civility, a wounded world without birthday cake or dad jokes. Contrast this with the next tale, Kathleen Alcott’s introspective “Natural Light,” in which reader Gabra Zackman beautifully captures the subtle emotional gradations and layers of memory stirred up when a woman happens upon a revealing photograph from her dead mother’s wild youth hanging in a New York gallery, prompting her to revisit her own life choices. This is followed by the charming, seasoned rasp of raconteur Scott Shepherd as he spins out the delicious Southern circumlocutions of Wendell Berry’s “The Great Interruption,” a wry and wistful story about storytelling itself.
Roxana Ortega’s softly cadenced rendition of Manuel Muñoz’s “Anyone Can Do It,” the tale of an uneasy partnership between two vulnerable women, feels both tragic and somehow comforting, bespeaking the vast patience and resilience of those with few options. Emily Woo Zeller’s taut narration perfectly captures the implicit tension of Weike Wang’s “Omokase,” its heroine maddeningly trapped between limiting stereotypes. Saskia Maarleveld perfectly captures the catastrophizing immediacy of adolescence in Ella Martinsen Gorham’s “Protozoa,” a devastating immersion in the self-commodifying viral vulnerability of 21st-century teen life that should be required listening for all parents. There isn’t a single narration here that doesn’t effectively (and often brilliantly) serve its story.
Among the better-known authors in this year’s collection are Jeffrey Eugenides, Nicole Krauss, Sigrid Nunez, Karen Russell and Jim Shepard. Most poignant of all is the late Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Pity and Shame,” a longer tale about a mining engineer almost killed in a cave-in and the woman who helps nurse him back to life. The story fairly aches to have become a novel. Le Guin’s words are polished smooth as river rocks, and narrator Robin Miles gives each its full weight and significance in her unhurried, wonderfully evocative reading. She’s the perfect choice for a tale that itself celebrates the transformative power of words and stories. One can only hope the idea catches on, and that other titles in the “Best American” franchise — which includes annual anthologies of mystery, science fiction and fantasy, plus various nonfiction genres — may get a similar treatment in years to come.
Another interesting and thought-provoking recent audio anthology is “A People’s Future of the United States,” a collection of futuristic and often dystopian stories that cast light on the current realities and concerns of marginalized peoples. The resulting prophetic cri de cœur is often enervating, occasionally inspiring and anything but escapist. The 25 authors collected here include some of the most respected voices in speculative fiction today, such as N.K. Jemisin, Charles Yu, Daniel José Older, Charlie Jane Anders and G. Willow Wilson, brought to life by more than a dozen equally talented narrators, including Soneela Nankani, Darrell Dennis, Dani Martineck and Adenrele Ojo.
Among the many other excellent, recent short-story collections for listeners to choose from: a long overdue recording of Lorrie Moore’s witty 1998 story collection “Birds of America,” smartly and sardonically voiced by Natasha Soudek; Samanta Schweblin’s surreal and sometimes shocking “Mouthful of Birds,” narrated by a full cast; “Sing To It,” Amy Hempel’s long-awaited new collection of enigmatic minimasterpieces, beautifully and transparently narrated by the author; and “At The End of the Century,” a comprehensive survey of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s elegant and beautifully observed stories spanning 50 years and two continents, voiced by a suitably cosmopolitan array of readers. These and other audio short-story collections are binge-worthy listening at its most rewarding.