“Lincoln in the Bardo,” by George Saunders. (Random House Audio. Unabridged, 7½ hours.)
The audio version of George Saunders’ first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” is a gabfest of 166 voices, among them Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon and Carrie Brownstein, and luminaries from the audiobook world, including Cassandra Campbell, Robertson Dean and Mark Bramhall. Many of Saunders’ associates, friends and family members also pipe up. The novel is set in 1862 in a Georgetown cemetery, whose most recent tenant is Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s beloved son Willie. The place teems with disconsolate souls governed by arcane rules and is dominated by three chief speakers, masters of cerements, as it were: Hans Vollman, who suffers a drastic case of postmortem priapism and is given a somber, old-dog voice by Nick Offerman (who also affects a convincing, grieving Lincoln); Roger Bevins III, a suicide who now sports supernumerary body parts and has the nice, brushy voice of David Sedaris, and the Rev. Everly Thomas, the only one here who realizes he’s dead, played by Saunders himself. This is a rambunctious, often scatological book, and very sad, too. It differs from the printed version in that obscene language is uttered rather than indicated by blanks and asterisks. It’s a little hard to keep track of who’s who in the beginning, and the whole production improves greatly on a second listen.
“The Lost City of the Monkey God,” by Douglas Preston. (Hachette Audio. Unabridged, 10½ hours.)
Bill Mumy narrates Douglas Preston’s engaging, firsthand account of a perilous expedition into the jungle of Honduras to find relics of a vanished civilization. Preston and his fellow seekers confront nigh-impenetrable vegetation, man-swallowing mud pits, jaguars, lethal vipers and a multitude of biting insects carrying a medley of parasites, among them the flesh-eating leishmania. Plentiful, horrifying details are supplied, occasionally to comic effect: “Hey, guys,” moans Mumy, conveying Preston’s dismay as his flashlight illuminates a 6-foot, head-swaying fer-de-lance, “there’s a giant snake here.” One old hand remarks unhelpfully, “There’s rarely just one.” This superb, many-layered book includes entertaining accounts of previous attempts — real and fraudulent — to find the city, but it’s more than the story of archaeological expeditions. It is also an ecological treatise, historical inquiry, epidemiological inquest and a tale of tooth-and-nail infighting among scholars.
“Norse Mythology,” by Neil Gaiman. (HarperAudio. Unabridged, 6½ hours.)
Neil Gaiman delivers his own retelling of 15 Norse legends in “Norse Mythology” with a strong, resonant voice, exactly the sort to tackle the gods, to say nothing of frost and mountain giants, trolls, ogres and sundry monsters. There never was an abundance of sweetness and light in the Norse myths. Not only does the cycle end in calamity and death in Ragnarok, but throughout it’s pretty much one damned thing after another: shoddy workmanship, stolen hammer, stolen hair, stolen golden apples, broken contracts, bait-and-switch scams, unchecked aging, ravening wolves, ill-tempered giants and, of course, the shape-shifting Loki, handsome trickster and arch begrudger (“the sniveling little weasel,” in Thor’s words). Yes, these tales are wonderful. In his telling and in his voice, Gaiman indulges in simple, clod-godly humor. But also, when warranted, he rises to capture the majesty and horror of the dark forces against which these characters are pitted. This is a fine reading and revamping of legends that have survived for some thousand years.
Minnesota native Katherine Powers writes frequently for the Washington Post and the Star Tribune. She lives in Massachusetts.