Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler, narrated by Scott Shepherd, Ari Fliakos, Maggie Hoffman, Scott Sowers and Gary Wilmes, Macmillan, 9:58, $27.99
The South may be known for great storytelling, but Nickolas Butler ups the ante for the Great Lakes with "Shotgun Lovesongs," his debut tale of small-town friendships and love set in Little Wing, Wis. The cast assembled to narrate this book proves that listening to novels can be so much more than a distraction for a long commute.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos are the pillars in this cast. Shepherd, whose narrations are as distinctive as they are comfortable, was the voice of Peter McCullough, the disaffected son in Philipp Meyer's "The Son," and the narrator for the comic Southern family saga "Lookaway, Lookaway" by Wilton Barnhardt as well as Russell Banks' heartbreaking "Lost Memory of Skin." Shepherd may have been born and raised in the South, but he makes a convincing Midwesterner as Leland, the lonely rock star longing for his Wisconsin home.
Leland is the catalyst in the lives of his Little Wing friends, a lunar pull on the group's gravity with each of his comings and goings. Even Henry and Beth, childhood sweethearts now tending children, a few hundred acres and a few hundred cows, shift into a season of doubt in his wake. Fliakos is perfect as Henry, a man who seems just too solid to let anything sway him, and yet proves so vulnerable. Weaving the sweet and the sour of small-town life, Butler and these performers create a memorable tale.
Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr, narrated by John Rubinstein, Random House, 9:07, $28
The bar for nonfiction narration is not high, judging by the number of sleep-inducing narrators. So when a nonfiction narrator manages to create a sense of character, it's worth noting, and that's what John Rubinstein does ever-so-subtly in "Provence, 1970."
"Provence" is the story of what author Luke Barr says is a critical moment in recent culinary history. The way we eat today — the popularity of farmers markets, the farm-to-table restaurants, the democratization of careful preparation even among home cooks — began in 1970, when James Beard, Julia Child, Richard Olney and M.F.K. Fisher gathered and ate and cooked in Provence, France.
Barr, an editor at Travel + Leisure magazine, is the grandnephew of Fisher, and he had a trove of his aunt's letters and journals to guide him as he describes a pivotal shift from the traditionalism of French cooking among these chefs and writers — who had more than served their apprenticeships to that tradition. Heavily seasoned with detailed descriptions of meals, dishy gossip and catty critiques served up perfectly in Rubenstein's reading, the book certainly offers a modern celebrity treatment. Beard, Fisher, Olney and Child may not have known it, but in the future, every chef would be famous for 15 minutes.
Andrew's Brain by E.L. Doctorow, narrated by Doctorow, Random House, 3:52, $24.50
No doubt because authors clearly hear the voices of their characters in their head, a fair share of them decide that only they can re-create those voices for the listener. The results produced by these author/narrators are usually tolerable, but they are seldom stellar. Happily, they are also seldom stinkers.
E.L. Doctorow is the exception. Eighty-three-year-old Doctorow made the very unwise decision to narrate "Andrew's Brain," his first novel since "Homer & Langley" in 2009. His dusty voice strains and creaks, and in sections of dialogue, he provides no change in inflection to indicate a change in speakers; in fact, he barely pauses between speakers. The relative brevity of this book is its sole advantage for the listener, but the story's narrative structure — anything but traditional — adds another challenge.
A good reader could have made this work. I want to offer Doctorow a glass of water and ask him to start again — and this time, try to show an interest in the material. An author of Doctorow's skill and stature deserves better treatment than this; someone should have saved him from himself. (Full review of "Andrew's Brain")
Jenni Laidman is a frequent Printers Row Journal contributor.