In concert with the release of Evelyn Waugh’s works as e-books, Hachette presents audio versions of most of them read by an array of accomplished narrators. Among them are Simon Prebble and Christian Rodska reading Waugh’s great World War II trilogy, “The Sword of Honour”:“Men at Arms,” “Officers and Gentlemen” and “Unconditional Surrender.” Prebble gives a capable, stiff-upper-lipped performance and is excellent, as usual, in conveying British class tension. Rodska, however, is master of a preternaturally large range of mid-20th-century British accents and voices. He offers a brilliant vocal manifestation of Waugh’s acidly comic world.
Authors do not usually make the best readers of their own works. George Saunders is an exception. He delivers his celebrated stories with the empathy of a creator and the command of an actor. The 10 stories in “Tenth of December” are set in a world that is modestly surreal, extrapolated from our own state of consumerism, neuroscience and managed existence. Most of his characters are below the median in everything but still accept a chilly and oppressive corporate standard to which they can never measure up. Saunders imbues his earnest, all-American voice with his characters’ pride, hopefulness, disappointment and resignation, and he shows without melodramatic excess their flashes of noncompliance. The author’s matter-of-fact manner serves as a guide to understanding the stories, convincing us that they are not merely fantastical high jinks, but poignant storiesabout human beings in a land not far removed from our own.
It is most appropriate for a novel whose denouement involves an audiobook to appear in that form. In Robin Sloan’s “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” Ari Fliakos takes on a range of voices to portray the seekers engaged in penetrating the mysteries of an ancient volume. Chief among these characters is the nerdish-sounding narrator, a laid-off Web designer who is working in a 100-year-old bookshop owned by the elderly, wise-sounding Mr. Penumbra. Also spouting off is the snappish-voiced leader of a cult devoted to breaking the book’s code and various other fuddy-duddies and zealots, including a beautiful Googlista, the prime female component in this engaging, newfangled quest.
To celebrate the publication of “Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories,” the Library of America is offering 10 of the stories as a free download. Two are read by Charles Baxter, and the rest by Deborah Eisenberg, Robert Boswell, Patricia Hampl, Siri Hustvedt , Rick Moody and others. This makes a valuable introduction to this great American writer.
Powers regularly reviews books and audiobooks for The Washington Post.
MR. PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE
By Robin Sloan
Macmillan Audio, 7 ¾ hours
By Sherwood Anderson
Library of America, 3 ½ hours
TENTH OF DECEMBER
By George Saunders
Random House/Books on Tape, 5 ¾ hours
THE SWORD OF HONOUR
By Evelyn Waugh
Hachette. Single vol.: 24 ½ hours; individual vols.: 8 ¼-8 ½ hours