“Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose,” by Joe Biden. (Audible Studios. Unabridged, 9 hours.)
Joe Biden reads his own memoir in his pleasantly husky voice. The book is an affecting account of his son Beau’s struggle with brain cancer and his eventual death at age 46. During that time, Biden was performing the myriad duties of vice president, aspects of which take up sections of the book, including dealing with the volatile situation in Ukraine. All the while, he was weighing whether to run for president in the 2016 election. He chose not to, partly on Obama’s advice — who saw Clinton as the shoo-in Democratic candidate — and partly on the advice of a friend who felt he should not take on the task of campaigning while he and his family were in deep mourning. Still, the title comes from Beau himself who had strongly urged his father to run and told him, “You got to promise me, Dad, that whatever happens, you’re going to be all right.” Biden says Beau meant he must continue to fulfill his obligations to the wider world, which includes running for the highest office. Though Biden keeps regret about the 2016 election out of his voice, there is a strong sense that he’s looking forward to 2020.
“Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” by Caroline Fraser. (Recorded Books. Unabridged, 21½ hours.)
Caroline Fraser’s magnificent biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder sets the author of the “Little House” novels firmly in her historical and ecological context. Fraser moves from the last years of the frontier and the brutal eviction of Native Americans, through the trials of homesteading, on to the drought, dust storms and economic devastation of the Great Depression and beyond to show Wilder’s role in shaping the story of the American West. The famous episodes that found fictional form in her novels are examined here, including the rigors of the long winter, plagues of locusts, wildfires and the family’s constant migration, the result of the father’s refusal to see that “his ambition for a profitable farm was irreconcilable with a love of untrammeled and unpopulated wilderness.” The book is also a biography of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a reckless chancer, opportunist and dark begrudger. As a daughter, she was hard work, but as an editor of her mother’s books, she was invaluable, and her contributions were crucial to the novels’ success, the work of each woman creating “a transcendent whole.” Christina Moore reads the book in a warm, engaging, mid-American voice and is notably deft and unobtrusive in altering the cadence of her delivery in distinguishing between general narration and quoted passages.
“Improvement,” by Joan Silber. (Blackstone Audio. Unabridged, 6 hours.)
Spanning the 1970s to the near present, Joan Silber’s quietly brilliant novel “Improvement” weaves an intricate, zigzagging pattern out of the lives of a dozen people, and six well-chosen narrators provide the voices. The novel begins and ends with Reyna, a young single mother, whose chapters are delivered by the kindly voiced Cassandra Campbell. From her, we learn of Reyna’s boyfriend, who has a get-rich scheme to smuggle cigarettes from Virginia into New York — an endeavor in which Reyna wisely refuses to take part. But her decision has fatal consequences. The multiplicity of voices in this production gives a wonderful aural dimension to the weave of three inadvertently interlocked lives.
Minnesota native Katherine A. Powers reviews books for the Star Tribune, Newsday and elsewhere. She writes this column for the Washington Post.