“Kristin Lavransdatter,” by Sigrid Undset, translated from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally. (Audible Studios. Unabridged, 45 hours.)
This all-absorbing masterpiece by Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset has finally entered the audiobook universe in a truly superb, sensitive performance by Erin Bennett. Published in Norwegian in the early 1920s as a trilogy, the book is set in 14th-century Norway and covers the life of Kristin Lavransdatter and her journey from childhood to death through “the perilous and beautiful world.” She is seduced at 16 by a heedless knight while betrothed to another man and conceives a child out of wedlock in a society that insists on the “honor” of women. And that’s just for a start.
Bennett’s voice captures Kristin’s rapidly changing moods, her transports of love and anguish, her guilt, courage and exhilarated wonder at nature’s immensity. The story twists and turns, taking on greater and greater psychological complexity. It is rich in its portrayal of 14th-century material life and of the strain between Christianity and ancient, deep-seated pagan beliefs. The version narrated here is Tiina Nunnally’s award-winning translation, a rendering that eliminates the faux-medieval contortions of the 1920s version and restores Undset’s crisp, direct prose style. This is a very long listen, but as you barrel down the final stretch, even as Black Death stalks the land and human sacrifice threatens, you will wish it went on forever.
“Bad Dreams and Other Stories,” by Tessa Hadley. (HarperAudio. Unabridged, 5¾ hours.)
Emma Gregory reads Tessa Hadley’s spare, slightly chilly stories, capturing the listener in 10 seconds flat. The first begins: “Jane Allsop was abducted when she was 15, and nobody noticed. This happened a long time ago, in Surrey, in the 1960s, when parents were more careless.” What follows in this story, “An Abduction,” is not horror, but unease, misunderstanding and a poignant depiction of a huge event in Jane’s life.
The title story strikes another unsettling note: A girl pulls a prank that her mother silently attributes to her husband, insidiously altering the tenor of their relationship.
Most of these 10 stories deliver cool shocks, but all are buoyed by an undercurrent of wry humor and pleasingly mellow irony. Gregory reads the stories’ general narration in a well-bred, caressing voice, a manner in keeping with Hadley’s way of setting up her characters for disturbing developments.
Hadley’s genius and Gregory’s splendid performance have given us an audiobook that can be listened to over and over again.
“The Switch,” by Joseph Finder. (Penguin Audio. Unabridged, 10 hours.)
Joseph Finder is the true master of the thriller in which your ordinary guy, going about his ordinary business, takes one wrong step and finds himself on the dark side. In this case, it’s nice Michael Tanner, coffee entrepreneur with a lot on his mind. Rushing to catch a plane, he picks up the wrong laptop after going through airport security. It belongs to a U.S. senator and contains top-secret files on a scheme for government mass surveillance. Tanner hangs onto it for reasons you will have to discover yourself.
Soon enough, he is pursued by heavies from the NSA, a thuggish Boston “problem solver,” a would-be Karl Rove and a Russian recruiter. Steven Kearney brings a voice that’s all business with a sharp lethal edge to this suspenseful, intricately plotted story. He distinguishes easily between men and women and handily executes accents that range from sinister Slavic through colloquial Bostonian to down-home Southern.
Katherine A. Powers, a native Minnesotan, reviews books for Newsday, the Star Tribune and more. She wrote this column for the Washington Post.