March was a big month for audiobook fans, with both Audie Awards and the Grammys. Here are just a few of the highlights, and why they won.
Rachel Maddow’s intensely wonky “Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth” might not seem like a shoo-in for the best spoken word album Grammy, especially up against “Acid for the Children,” a sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll-laden memoir by Red Hot Chili Peppers founder Flea, Ronan Farrow’s “Catch and Kill,” or Alex Trebek’s memoir “The Answer Is …,” charmingly narrated by Jeopardy’s most celebrated contestant and Seattle local, Ken Jennings. Oh, and Meryl Streep reading “Charlotte’s Web”; I mean — who wins against Streep? That the prize went to a detailed discourse on the oil and gas industry’s devastating role in geopolitics and the climate crisis is not just testament to Maddow’s chops as an investigative journalist, but her knack for delivering piles of research with spirited immediacy and wit. Best taken in podcast-sized chunks, “Blowout” opens the listener’s ears and eyes to how we are living for better and mostly for worse in the world oil made, and what we might do about it.
The Audie award for audiobook of the year went to British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s extraordinary performance of Susanna Clarke’s existential tour de force, “Piranesi.” Profoundly strange, the world of Clarke’s tale may also feel familiar to anyone who has ever dreamed of wandering an ever-expanding house, or to everyone who has longed to awaken from the bad dream of a homebound year. Ejiofor anchors the hero’s explorations of a prodigious and seemingly infinite dwelling with remarkable specificity and nuance, cocreating with Clarke a deeply sympathetic hero capable of awakening our sense of wonder and dread, often in the same breath. It is a revelatory and moving performance in which Ejiofor’s Piranesi is both the explorer and the territory explored. (Note: This title has not yet been made available to the library market.)
Laurence Fishburne’s inspired performance of the unabridged debut of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (as told to Alex Haley) garnered two well-deserved Audie wins for best male narrator and autobiography/memoir. Haley’s 1965 account of Malcolm X’s journey from prison to courageous self-determination has influenced and inspired generations. Fishburne magnificently rises to the occasion, conveying the uncompromising eloquence of this complex and often misunderstood figure with requisite passion, wit and empathy. This long-overdue audiobook of a 20th-century classic makes an ideal introduction — or reintroduction — to a living text with the power to motivate personal and societal change, and to promote what the late John Lewis called “good trouble.”
Another irresistible memoir — Alicia Keys’ “More Myself” — won the Audie for narration by the author, although Keys gets enviable assists from the likes of Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Keys’ own mom in an audio production laced with music. With winning vulnerability and candor, Keys describes her own insecurities and artistic inspirations, her rapid rise through what Joni Mitchell termed “the star-maker machinery behind the popular song,” and her struggle to survive the not-inconsiderable challenges of success. The resulting medley is every bit as expressive and entertaining as one Keys’ many award-winning albums.
A favorite Audie category any year but especially this year is the award for humor, which went to Colin Jost’s “A Very Punchable Face.” Describing himself as “one of the whitest white people outside of “Frozen,” Jost raises self-deprecation to a high art, delivering a gut-clenching succession of laugh lines with the low-key delivery well known to viewers of the “Saturday Night Live” Weekend Update. Unlike on that show, this memoir gives Jost’s skill as a comedic writer room to run, resulting in smiles that turn to chuckles, building to embarrassingly loud guffaws before the bus has reached your stop. Likable and laughable, Jost’s memoir is just the elixir you need to get you through to your vaccination date.
You can find the list of winners and nominees posted in full at the Audio Publishers Association website.