Once each year for almost a quarter of a century, Seattle readers have all belonged to the same book club, an annual celebration hosted by Seattle Public Library, much imitated in cities around the globe, called Seattle Reads. This year’s selection is Luis Alberto Urrea’s moving and immensely entertaining novel “The House of Broken Angels.” This October, the author will be visiting locations around the city to read from and discuss his work in Spanish and English, but audiobook fans need not wait until then to enjoy Urrea’s gifts as a storyteller.
Urrea’s heartfelt, expressive narration of a boisterous, bittersweet account of a family gathering that might be subtitled “Two Funerals and a Birthday” captures the passion, regret and longing in the ruminations of the dying patriarch “Big Angel” de la Cruz and his alienated gringo half-brother “Little Angel,” a professor of literature living in Seattle. But Urrea truly soars in the cacophonous interactions of the rest of the de la Cruz clan. Hearing Urrea narrate the Cookie-Monstrous utterances of nephew and death metal bandleader Marcos — aka “the satanic Hispanic” — are worth the price of admission alone. I can think of no better way to experience the lyricism, grit, humor and pathos of this big-hearted novel than through its author’s spirited performance.
When the original One City, One Book program premiered in 1998, it bore the longish but highly descriptive and aspirational title, “If All Seattle Read the Same Book.” That year the book that all Seattle residents were invited to read packed a wallop. Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter,” the compelling story of a tragic school bus accident and its aftermath in a small upstate New York town, had recently been made into an award-winning film, but listeners had to wait until 2020 for the excellent audiobook version. Four narrators keep us on edge with feelings of dread, sympathy and hope: Chris Andrew Ciulla, amiable and lost as hapless grieving parent Billy Ansel; Dominic Hoffman, clipped and upright with a bitter edge as the righteous tort lawyer Mitchell Stephens; Jesse Vilinsky as disabled teen accident survivor Nichole Burnell; and especially Dawn Harvey’s relatable performance of bus driver Dolores Driscoll, whose story frames the others with plain-spoken emotional eloquence.
By 2005, the program was called Seattle Reads, and Seattle was reading “When the Emperor Was Divine,” Julie Otsuka’s spare, haunting evocation of the lives of Japanese Americans uprooted from their lives and sent to prison camps during the Second World War. Elaina Erika Davis’ poised narration is a model of restraint, perfectly suited to Otsuka’s deceptively slim, powerful novella. Peeling back the readers’ defenses with minutely observed details and subtle wit, Otsuka and Davis reveal glimpses of the anguish, terror and loss of four unjustly incarcerated individuals roiling beneath the serene surface of the prose. It is a masterful performance.
In 2009, we featured our first local author, reading “My Jim” by Nancy Rawles, in which Sadie Watson, the wife of Huckleberry Finn’s enslaved traveling companion Jim, tells her story. Sadie’s heart-rending account of her tempestuous life is rendered in a dialect suggestive of Mark Twain’s, albeit more dignified and authentic. Narrators Brenda Pressley and Lizzy Cooper Davis inspirit cadences that feel both historical and contemporary, breathed with a sense of longing and forlorn hope passed down through the generations to Sadie’s granddaughter Marianne, born a freewoman but never truly free. “My Jim” has proved the perfect companion to Twain’s brilliant but problematic classic, and the audio production captures the inspired orality of Rawles’ writing.
In 2011, our book was Chris Cleave’s “Little Bee,” a riveting psychological drama of first- and third-world problems, told in the alternating voices of Nigerian refugee and asylum-seeker Little Bee, and newly widowed British magazine editor Sarah. Nowadays, one might expect the audio version to feature two performers; a sensible choice perhaps, but one that would have denied us Anne Flosnik’s stunning solo reading. More than any other medium, audiobook narration often requires true vocal chameleons, and Flosnik’s skill with Little Bee’s Nigerian accent is such that one soon stops noticing the manner of her speech, focusing on the heart and mind of this unforgettable character. Flosnik serves the lyricism and pathos of Cleave’s writing perfectly.
Any one of these audiobooks would still work well for your audiobook discussion group.