This winter we’ll spend even more time indoors than usual, making this the ideal season to combine crafting, baking or puzzling with a long, leisurely audiobook. Here are some outstanding epic listens that you can fully immerse yourself in for many hours.
Although I’d been meaning to read Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s marathon 11th-century classic “The Tale of Genji” for many years, I’ve lacked the fortitude that its 1,300 pages require. Then the early sunsets, a particularly enervating 3,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and Brian Nishii’s artful new unabridged narration of Dennis Washburn’s translation combined to carry me across the finish line in a mere 73 hours. And what a journey! Hour after hour, I was carried away from our screen-preoccupied culture, traveling back a millennium to a rarefied life behind shoji screens. The book lays forth the episodic conquests of the “shining prince” Genji, a futon-hopping Don Juan drifting through the floating world of Heian Japan, an elaborate courtly demimonde that makes the marriage maneuvers of Jane Austen’s novels seem off-the-cuff by comparison. Nishii unlocks Japanese pronunciations that would have challenged me, while exercising fitting restraint when relating the delicate aestheticism and emotional ambivalence of this incomparable work, generally regarded as the world’s earliest novel.
Victorian thriller writer Wilkie Collins knew all about how to craft epic and taut yet unhurried potboilers to warm up a long winter’s night. Listeners may already be familiar with the oft-recorded “The Woman in White” and “The Moonstone,” but a pair of Collins’ lesser-known novels have recently been released by Naxos Audiobooks. In Collins’ 1862 novel “No Name,” hapless daughters Norah and Magdalen find themselves suddenly orphaned and bereft, their inheritance dropped into the grasping hands of a vindictive uncle. The deviously intricate succession of twists and turns that await the pair, one patient and virtuous and the other dexterous and ambitious, as they are forced to make their own way in an indifferent world is narrated with crisp, authoritative eloquence by Nicholas Boulton, heading a talented cast who impersonate Collins’ diverse and delicious cast of characters. This same approach is especially helpful for Collins’ subsequent novel “Armadale,” a tale of murder, marriage and money that contains no less than four different characters named Allan Armadale, together with dozens of colorful supporting characters and a captivating, multidimensional anti-heroine, Lydia Gwilt. To describe these novels as Dickensian is a disservice to Collins, who easily rivals his friend and colleague Dickens for psychological complexity, while exemplifying the episodic cliff-hanging suspense of serialized fiction that makes it so binge-worthy to this day.
A century later, the most popular kinds of pulp fiction flourished as briefer tales and novellas. “The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps” offers an embarrassment of these ephemeral riches, containing over 73 hours of sensational hard-boiled stories from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. True greats such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain rub elbows with more obscure pulpsters drawn from the pages of Black Mask and Dime Detective magazines, like the wry, rollicking crime farce of Norbert Davis (“You’ll Die Laughing”), or the tough, clipped prose of Paul Cain (“Pigeon Blood”). For all their grit, these lurid crime stories have their own distinctly American aesthetic that is in its rough-hewn manner every bit as elaborately mannered as Lady Murasaki’s.
During the last decades of the 20th century, Gore Vidal published a sequence of seven historical novels spanning American history, the first six of which were recorded by audiobook grandmaster Grover Gardner. Fans of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” will have ample reason to dig into “Burr,” the first book in the series in which the lives, deeds and misdeeds of the Founding Fathers are told with revealing candor by the aged Aaron Burr, including a scandalous twist on how he came to shoot the insufferable Alexander Hamilton in that infamous duel. While Vidal does not want for invention, much of the detail is drawn directly from Burr’s own memoirs. “Burr” is followed by “Lincoln,” with a captivating and complex impression of the enigmatic statesman, as seen by the friends and enemies who surrounded him. Legendary narrator Gardner’s homespun charm is the perfect foil for Vidal’s erudition. Later installments take you through Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, the Great War and postwar boom years, a journey of 150 years in 130 hours.