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AUDIO REVIEWS: A memoir, socialites, a muckraker and survivors

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By Saturday, Aug 4, 2018 Arts & Entertainment

An unforgettable memoir, badly behaved socialites, a muckraker and survivors from World War II are all part of this week’s audiobooks.

When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi; read by Sunil Malhotra and Cassandra Campbell
Penguin Random House Audio; five CDs; five hours and 30 minutes; $30/www.audible.com download; $28

Heartbreaking, illuminating, unforgettable. Paul Kalanithi was a brilliant polymath, a neurosurgeon, scholar, husband, father and cancer patient who died at age 37. This memoir, brief and well-written, details first the life of a medical resident and then that of a patient, followed by an epilogue written by his widow, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi. Thankfully, both narrators approached this with the same lack of sentimentality found in the prose. Malhotra captures the audiobook’s straightforward manner, though he subtly underscores its humor and more emotional passages. Campbell, reading the epilogue, will most likely bring you to tears with the understated grief in her voice. Grade: A

The Swans of Fifth Avenue
Melanie Benjamin; read by Cassandra Campbell, Paul Boehmer
Random House Audio; 10 CDs; 13 hours; $45/www.audible.com download; $35

At first this seems a snarky, gossipy account of real people cloaked in fiction, but it plays out as a perfect summer audiobook. Clever and fun, it details the lives of Truman Capote and his “swans,” the socialites who fluttered around him for 20 years until he published a roman à clef that literally (literarily?) aired the ladies’ dirty laundry. Extravagant lifestyles and illicit romances are enjoyable, but more intriguing are the inner lives of these women as imagined by Benjamin. Campbell maintains different and believable voices for the ladies who lunch but is less successful when reading Capote’s lines. Boehmer’s Capote is more believable but uneven. Grade: A-minus

Coal River
Ellen Marie Wiseman; read by C.S.E. Cooney
Tantor Audio; nine CDs; 11 hours and 30 minutes; $42.99/www.audible.com download; $30.09

In 1912, 19-year-old Emma Malloy is taken in by grasping, vindictive relatives after her parents are killed in a fire. Coal River, Pennsylvania, is a bleak and filthy town run by a disreputable mining company and Emma naively assumes she can help the miners. This lacks the poignancy and realism of Wiseman’s weightier “What She Left Behind,” as the characters appear plucked from central casting and the ending is neatly tied up in happy little bows. Cooney does a commendable job of narrating the young protagonist, but falters with male voices that sometimes sound arch and unreal. Grade B-minus

Unspeakable Things
Kathleen Spivack; read by Suzanne Toren
Brilliance Audio; nine CDs; 10 hours and 26 minutes $29.99/www.audible.com download; $10.49

This is a strange story told with passages that are often brilliant and filled with magical realism, descriptive heartache and things of which we should not speak. Living in New York in the 1940s, Herbert, a former Austrian civil servant, is coping with his wife’s madness while helping refugees who’ve escaped the Nazis. Felix, a former Nazi and current NYC pediatrician, is as mad a scientist as ever existed in literature. Lives intermingle as dramas play out amid beautiful prose and heinous acts. Sometimes hazy and definitely twisted, this is not for everyone. Toren, a 30-year audiobook veteran, is in top form, delivering energetic dialogue coupled with precise pronunciation. Grade: B

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