A meaty memoir, a counterintuitive approach to self-help, and a story of “Urban Indians” trying to reconnect with tribal traditions.

By David Adams

Heavy by Kiese Laymon, read by the author

A stunning meditation on race, sexuality, obesity, violence, addiction, and the inseparable bond between an only child and a single mother, Heavy is one of the bravest works of art you’ll ever encounter. With fierce honesty and gorgeous language, Kiese Laymon lays bare the secrets that his mother, a professor of political science, expected him to keep: The gambling addiction she couldn’t get under control; the regular beatings she administered to her son for “not being perfect;” the fear that drove her to hide her true self from white people. Growing up in Mississippi and Maryland, Laymon developed an unhealthy relationship with food—by the time he was in 8th grade, he weighed more than 230 pounds. As he grew older, he found his disgust with his own body reflected in society’s twisted view of the black male body in general. By examining his private turmoil alongside public events such as the LAPD’s savage beating of Rodney King, Laymon diagnoses America’s ills with devastating candor. Listening to his engaging and vulnerable voice, it becomes clear that the truth will indeed set us free, but only at an enormous personal cost.


The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson, read by Roger Wayne

The title says it all in this New York Times-bestselling self-help guide that’s guaranteed to get the New Year off to the right start. Manson started his popular blog by giving dating advice that boils down to this insight: men are most attractive when they’re less concerned about figuring out what women want and are more concerned with living in a manner that aligns with their own personal values. Manson’s counterintuitive approach led him to the conclusion that self-help books preaching the power of positive thinking are off-base—they promise more than they can deliver and make people feel bad about themselves when they inevitably get frustrated with their lack of progress. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k upends the standard paradigm by delivering the news that sometimes you’re just going to have to grit your teeth and bear the inevitable frustrations and disappointments of living in a world that is frequently unfair and cruel. It helps to accept the things about yourself that you can’t change and to focus your efforts on the handful of areas that you really want to work on. Candid, funny, and frequently profane, this is a self-improvement guide that is as entertaining as it is (actually) helpful.


 

There There by Tommy Orange, read by Darrell Dennis, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Alma Cuervo, and Kyla Garcia

This acclaimed debut novel is one of the rare works of literary fiction that may actually be improved by the listening experience. The story follows twelve characters as they make separate journeys to attend the Big Oakland Powwow. For some of these “Urban Indians,” the event is a chance to reconnect with the tribal traditions they grew up with on the reservation. For others, including Orvil Red Feather, who plans to perform a ceremonial dance he learned from a YouTube video, it requires reckoning with an identity that has never seemed to truly belong to them. Motivated by joy, resentment, fear, hope, and the pursuit of self-knowledge, each character tries to connect with a mythical past while their feet are firmly planted in the gritty reality of Oakland’s present. Taking his title from Gertrude Stein’s comment that the Oakland she remembered from her childhood was gone forever (“There is no there there”), Tommy Orange has produced the definitive literary portrait of the Bay Area’s forgotten city, made all the more poignant by the fact that his characters are forever caught between two worlds and don’t feel at home in either. As performed by four excellent narrators, this multi-voiced, fiercely original story is an absolute must-listen.


 

Milkman by Anna Burns, read by Brid Brennan

Winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, this coming-of-age novel takes place in an unnamed city that bears a striking resemblance to 1970s Belfast, the author’s hometown. As befits a terrorist-ravaged city where everyone’s allegiances are under constant surveillance, and to be noticed is to be under threat, the characters are known only by their nicknames and assigned roles. The protagonist and narrator is middle sister, a young woman who reads incessantly to escape her surroundings, even as she walks down the street. This odd behavior catches the attention of the Milkman, a paramilitary leader whose moniker belies the air of menace that surrounds him. Middle sister hopes to keep the Milkman’s unwanted advances a secret, but her friends and family quickly become suspicious—nothing out of the ordinary ever goes unnoticed in this city under siege. The novel’s interior monologues are brilliantly performed by narrator Brid Brennan, bringing the character of middle sister—and all her anxiety, intelligence, and prickly charm—to vivid life. Surprising moments of tenderness and wit pierce through the gloom, making this one of the most original and compelling depictions of Northern Ireland’s Troubles in recent memory.


 

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks, read by the author

Who couldn’t do with a little more Tom Hanks in their life? The beloved Hollywood actor has gone from playing a Bosom Buddy to portraying the Hero of the Hudson, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, but his most surprising role might be the best-selling author of this delightful collection of short stories. Hanks reveals himself as a man of many talents and interests, including an obsession with antique manual typewriters. His personal collection figures prominently in these tales, each of which features a different typewriter. Grounded by that unifying trope, Hanks gives himself the freedom to explore a wide variety of characters and settings, including an actor on a press junket, a bowler who can’t stop rolling strikes, and an Eastern European immigrant escaping his war-torn country. A charming mixture of wit, nostalgia, and whimsy, Uncommon Type is a pleasant surprise made all the more enjoyable in the audio edition by Hanks’s warm and ingratiating voice.


 

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou, read by Will Damron

One of the biggest scandals in Silicon Valley history makes for a riveting listen in this account of the shocking downfall of biomedical startup Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. A Stanford dropout, Holmes told investors that her childhood fear of needles inspired her to develop Theranos’s proprietary technology—a device that could perform a full range of tests on just a pinprick of blood. Her pitch was so irresistible that a who’s who of tech investors poured more than $900 million into the company, which was once valued at $9 billion. But the whole thing was a fraud—the technology never actually worked as promised. Rather than risk disappointing her investors, Holmes rushed ahead anyway, partnering with Kmart and Walgreens to test tens of thousands of patients who had no idea that the results they were getting weren’t reliable. Employees who questioned Holmes’s decision-making were fired or sidelined, and those who remained took part in elaborate schemes—including a fake demonstration for former vice president Joe Biden—in order to cover up their boss’s lies. As read by veteran voiceover actor Will Damron, Bad Blood is both a gripping blend of true crime and a damning expose of the magical thinking on which Silicon Valley thrives.

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