“The Dog of the South,” by Charles Portis. Recorded Books. Unabridged, 8 hours.
Published almost 40 years ago, “The Dog of the South” still remains the funniest American road novel ever written. It is the story of Ray Midge’s pursuit of his wife, Norma, from Arkansas down through Mexico to Belize. She has gone off with Guy Dupree, a pathetic creep, the two traveling in Ray’s cherished Ford Torino, his precious recording of Dr. Buddy Casey’s lecture on the Siege of Vicksburg still in the tape player. (“No one could hope to keep the whole of that lecture in his head at once, such are its riches.”) David Aaron Baker, a Southerner himself, narrates this masterpiece of American deadpan comedy with the precise degree of exasperation, pedantry and cluelessness that are Ray’s governing moods.
“Less,” by Andrew Sean Greer. Hachette Audio. Unabridged, 8¼ hours.
Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a highly entertaining comedy of misadventure and, ultimately, a moving love story. At the start, Arthur Less is in a state of dire melancholy brought on by the approach of his 50th birthday, his publisher’s rejection of his latest novel and an invitation to the wedding of his onetime boyfriend. He simply cannot accept that last ordeal, so he escapes across the globe by accepting a handful of expense-paid writing and speaking gigs. These take him to Mexico, Italy, Germany, Egypt, Morocco, India and Japan. Robert Petkoff’s overall narration is calm, if occasionally and fittingly bewildered, and he delivers a virtuoso performance in rendering the story’s multitude of accents.
“The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey,” by Candice Millard. Books on Tape. Unabridged, 12¼ hours.
Nursing a “bruised spirit” after his unsuccessful presidential run in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt embarked a year later on an expedition into the rain forest of Brazil to explore the mysterious waterway known as the River of Doubt. The party included his son Kermit; a notoriously hapless quartermaster who equipped the group with Rhine wine and stuffed olives; an elderly, highly presumptive German priest; as well as a guide, bearers, oarsmen, oxen and mules. Millard, a master at evoking character, follows the adventures of this disaster-prone cavalcade as it confronts a treacherous river, alien terrain, disease and hostile Indians. Paul Michael narrates this great book in a rolling, engaged voice, evoking all its suspense and disastrous miscalculation.
“A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail,” by Bill Bryson. Random House Audio. Unabridged, 9¾ hours.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, Bill Bryson decided to break out of his “waddlesome sloth” and reacquaint himself with the grandeur of America by walking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail. Starting in the punishing aisles of an outdoor outfitter, he and a friend set out on a grueling, exhilarating 500-mile trek through snow, rain and heat. Beset by vicious insects and the occasional barbaric fellow trekker, the two travel from Georgia through North Carolina, West Virginia, to Front Royal, Va. Later, Bryson covers stretches of the northern trail and nearly loses his friend, who wanders away into the trackless Maine forest. Rob McQuay brings a fine Brysonesque note of self-deprecation, affront and finickiness to his reading of this extremely funny, informative account.
“Stormy Weather,” by Paulette Jiles. HarperAudio. Unabridged, 12 hours.
“Stormy Weather,” by Paulette Jiles — author of the 2016 National Book Award finalist “News of the World” — is the story of the Stoddards, a Depression-era family traveling through Texas from one oil field to the next. Jack — husband, father, drinker and incorrigible gambler — scratches out a meager living. After his death, his wife, three daughters and a beloved quarter-horse stallion move back to the maternal family farm, now derelict and blasted by drought. Middle daughter Jeanine, whom we follow from childhood to young womanhood, is the hero of this beautifully written tale of hard luck, resilience and determination. Colleen Delany brings a restrained Texas accent to the narration and a sense of urgency to horse races, white-knuckle rescues and the battle against maniacal weather.
Minnesota native Katherine A. Powers reviews for Newsday, the Star Tribune and elsewhere. She writes this column for the Washington Post.