“The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth” by Josh Levin. (Hachette Audio, unabridged, 12¾ hours, includes PDF of photographs)
Josh Levin’s account of the bizarre life of the woman who became known as “the welfare queen” is a triumph of research, insight and evenhandedness. Though she went by many names, Linda Taylor rose to ignominious fame during the 1976 presidential campaign when Ronald Reagan held her up as an example of the luxurious life of welfare recipients, branding women receiving public assistance as cheats and con artists.
Levin’s engrossing book shows that Taylor was something more complicated: She was a thief, impostor, scammer, bigamist and possibly a kidnapper and murderer. She preyed upon countless people, including children, but was, as Levin also shows, the unhappy product of a racist America.
Born in 1926 in Tennessee to a white mother and unknown black father, she was ostracized for the color of her skin and reinvented herself continuously. January LaVoy narrates this multilayered biography with clarity and compassion.
“The Unpassing” by Chia-Chia Lin. (Macmillan Audio, unabridged, 8 hours)
Chia-Chia Lin’s first novel is a brilliant, heart-wrenching story of 10-year-old Gavin, who lives in Alaska with his Taiwanese immigrant family. In January 1986, the boy is struck by meningitis and by the time he has recovered, two unimaginable tragedies have occurred: the space shuttle Challenger has exploded and his little sister has died.
Gavin’s sense of grief, guilt and dread color his understanding of his family — and the world. Told in the first person, the story is narrated by Feodor Chin, whose smooth, matter-of-fact voice perfectly suits Gavin’s descriptions of the family’s junky house; his ineffectual, mistake-prone father; his seething mother; and a persistent sense of not belonging.
Lin’s gifts of minute observation and psychological acuity, and the precision and nuance of her writing, redeem what would otherwise be an unbearably sad novel.
“Diary of a Dead Man on Leave” by David Downing. (Recorded Books, unabridged, 9¾ hours)
David Downing’s novel comes in the form of a secret diary of a German presenting himself as Josef Hofmann, who has just returned from Argentina in patriotic solidarity with the Fatherland in 1938. In fact, he is an agent of the Soviet-controlled Comintern, intent on organizing railway workers of the city of Hamm.
He finds lodgings run by a widow, Anna Gersdorff, whose youngest son, Walter, is skeptical of Nazi propaganda. Despite being forbidden to form personal ties, Hofmann is drawn to this family, and he begins to forsake ideology for human involvement as communism under Stalin loses its idealistic luster and a Nazi toady endangers Anna and Walter.
David de Vries reads both introduction and epilogue, while Paul Woodson delivers the main story, superbly conveying the desolation of a man embattled by various kinds of treachery.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, reviews books for the Wall Street Journal, the Star Tribune and elsewhere. She writes this column for the Washington Post.