Two great audios for the beach

Aug. 01, 2013 @ 10:37 AM

People talk about beach reading, but I think first of beach listening. My husband and I visited a friend on Okracoke, and I knew he’d be his usual serious self while driving---eyes on the road, watching for tailgaters, speeders, and lurking police cars. The last time we went, he worried about catching the ferry, disobeyed his own rules and caught a ticket before we made the boat. So I knew there would be no chitchat aside from my periodic plea for a bathroom stop, so I plugged into audios. 
The first was Khaled Hosseini’s newest, “And the Mountains Echoed,” read by the marvelous multiple voices of the author, Navid Negahban and Shohreh Aghdashloo (Penguin Audio, 14 hours). This book begins in 1952 as Saboor, a man with an obvious gift for storytelling, tells his children, Pari and Abdullah, a tale the night before they leave for a trip. His love for his children is just as obvious as the poor man in the story who must sacrifice one of his children to a cruel div, or demon, and is haunted is by his decision for the rest of his life.
I cared instantly about this father. What I did not realize was there was even more skillful artistry at work, for this was only the first in a series of many stories that were connected. It’s not long before the poor Saboor delivers Pari, his youngest, to a wealthy family in Kabul where his brother-in-law works. And before the next story is over, I cared deeply about Pari, the foster mother, her husband and Pari’s uncle. This pattern continues until the last story that brings the book full circle as a second-generation Pari cares for her father, Abdullah, in the U.S., years and miles away from that first childhood portrait of him. 
Every tale is gloriously told, each captivates, and all of them strengthen the others with fresh views and perspectives, all of them blending into a vibrant human portrait. At first, many of these connections are not always clear, and somehow that intrigued me, engaged my mind in puzzling, giving me just a touch of remove so that the sadness of each wasn’t emotionally devastating. Hosseini covers a vast amount of ground. Settings roam from the Afghan countryside to Paris to Greece, and time spans 1952 to present day. The nine protagonists differ in economics, circumstances and relationships. They all have some kind of Afghan beginning, and each searches for self amid struggles of war, loneliness or loss. By book’s end, a lovely overwhelm fills one … begs for a re-listen. 
Narrators enhance the experience. The author certainly brings his storytelling gift into his dramatization, but the professional readers are stunning. Both Iranian, Negahban has a rhythmic almost-whispery lilt that honors the writer’s poetry, his reading almost mournful tone at some points and at others they have a driving insistence. Aghdashloo’s deep rasp has a depth that benefits the stories’ richness, her voice also driving but in a more emotive way than Negahban’s. 
I changed pace by listening to a playful read recommended to me by two librarians.  Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (Hachette, 9.5 hours) has several of the magical ingredients of Hosseini’s novel, beginning with intriguing characters. Bernadette Fox is the mother of 15-year-old Bee. Bernadette, singular and eccentric, is disliked by other perfectionist mothers at her daughter’s private school. But she continually buoys and entertains Bee with her good spirits, odd habits, quirky prejudices and continual love. Bee doesn’t know her mother was once a celebrated young architect so talented she was given a MacArthur Award. Her father, a brilliant inventor at Microsoft, seems to have forgotten as well.
Bernadette is a comic character who easily laughs at herself and her strategies to get along in Seattle, a world she mocks constantly for its bizarre traffic patterns, weather and snobbery. Bernadette relieves her agoraphobia and fears about an upcoming family trip to Antarctica with a virtual assistant from Delhi Personal Assistants, the emails almost turn her into a friend as she arranges everything from dinner reservations to prescriptions. But all is not what it seems — this assistant is a Russian mafia front, and Bernadette is far from mad, as she goes missing right under everyone’s noses. 
Like the Hosseini novel, Semple’s builds curiously through linked bits, this time instead of individual characters’ stories there are emails, letters, magazine articles. Each of these cleverly build characterizations and plot and add to the witty, sometimes sarcastic voice of the author. Much of the book is focused on the mystery of Bernadette’s disappearance in a madcap romp. But the journey is the real fun — the tone is light, the plot preposterous, that absurdities apparent. And listeners may not be surprised that the author has contributed to “Arrested Development” scripts.    
Kathleen Wilhote is fabulous at copping attitudes, flying from one vignetted viewpoint to the next, tracking the madcap adventures, and giving a solid portrait of Bee as a loving daughter and Bernadette, a devoted mother.  
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.