“The Vietnam War: An Intimate History,” by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns. (Random House Audio. Unabridged. 31 ¼ hours; Abridged, 10 ¼ hours.)
In addition to the 18-hour television series and 600-plus-page book, “The Vietnam War” also comes in two very different audiobook editions. Co-director Ken Burns reads the abridged version, which is interspersed with a number of the voices from the documentary, among them veterans, some of them former prisoners of war, relatives of a young soldier killed in action, and war protesters.
In the unabridged version, Burns reads only the introduction, leaving Brian Corrigan to deliver the full text, which he narrates in a clear, straightforward manner with subtle modifications in quoting speech: Nixon, for instance, gets a slightly jowly clump, and Kissinger a Germanic torque.
Fred Sanders brings a low, calm voice to the book’s five supplementary essays. The abridged version hits all the essential aspects — the courage and sacrifice of soldiers on all sides, the folly and coldblooded calculation of politicians — but does not possess the complete book’s depth nor convey as unremittingly the callous squander of lives and the full horror of this American calamity and Vietnamese catastrophe.
“A Column of Fire,” by Ken Follett. (Penguin Audio. Unabridged, 30 1/3 hours; Abridged, 12 ¼ hours.)
Although part of a series, “A Column of Fire” stands on its own. Two centuries separate it from its predecessor, “World Without End”— itself set two centuries after “The Pillars of the Earth,” which introduced countless readers (and listeners) to the English Cathedral town of Kingsbridge.
Beginning in the final months of Bloody Mary’s rule, the story continues through Elizabeth’s 45-year reign and into that of James I and the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. This is a tale of thwarted love, sexual violation and every species of betrayal set amid religious conflict and persecution, espionage and treason, assassination, massacre and thrilling sea battles.
Narrator John Lee’s rhythmic storytelling voice does justice to Follett’s gift for maintaining narrative momentum over hundreds of pages, and his special talent for conveying arrogance and villainy — so satisfyingly abundant here — is on full display. The abridged version hits the high spots but is no match for the all-encompassing original.
“Sourdough,” by Robin Sloan. (Macmillan Audio. Unabridged, 6 3/4 hours.)
Robin Sloan’s second novel is an entertaining concoction of probiotic and high-tech ingredients. It’s inspired by the age-old fantasy of becoming the baker of the world’s most celebrated bread. Lois Clary, a 20-something techie, has recently moved to San Francisco and a highly paid, emotionally deadening job. She has been subsisting on a diet of “Slurry,” a “fully dystopian” nutritive gel. On a desperate whim, she picks up the menu from the Clement Street Soup and Sourdough and orders the soup-and-sandwich combo. Her world changes.
The owners, it emerges, are brothers belonging to the Mazg, an obscure ethnic group whose history is bound up with its sourdough starter. They present Lois with a pot of it, and the goop quickly takes over her life. Bread made with this volatile starter leads Lois into the cutthroat world of farmers markets, whose gatekeepers appear to be “a committee of harvest gods drawn from all the pantheons.”
This is a funny, effervescent book given full range by Therese Plummer, whose youthful voice captures the matter-of-fact nature of Lois’s unjaded, scientific temperament and the dizzying ups and downs of her spirits.
Minnesota native Katherine A. Powers reviews for Barnes & Noble, the Star Tribune, and elsewhere. She wrote this column for the Washington Post.