“Nevertheless,” by Alec Baldwin. (HarperAudio. Unabridged, 8½ hours.)
Alec Baldwin’s “Nevertheless” is a Hollywood memoir of a familiar ilk: A young man from Tinseltown’s idea of nowhere (Massapequa, Long Island) falls into acting and succeeds through luck, dedication, talent and willingness to take advice. Baldwin is more self-flagellating than most celebrity memoirists, and, here, reading his own book, the familiar, slightly husky voice grows at times urgent with contrition. On the other hand, when he speaks of Hollywood’s “sweepstakes mentality,” or of tabloid journalists, or of a civil-litigation lawyer, his voice becomes sharp with disdain. Having been the victim of much media savagery concerning his personal life, he is mum on the private affairs of others, although he is often critical of their ability and is free with tales of egregious professional backstabbing. Harrison Ford does not come out well (“a little man, short, scrawny, and wiry”), nor does theater critic Ben Brantley (“his writing is random, uninformed snark”). Baldwin’s trained delivery, his air of candor and, above all, his engagement with what he is reading elevates this book above its printed form.
“In the Name of the Family,” by Sarah Dunant. (Random House Audio. Unabridged, 14¼ hours.)
“In the Name of the Family” follows “Blood and Beauty” to conclude Sarah Dunant’s duo of novels rescuing Lucrezia Borgia from her reputation as a vengeful schemer, serial poisoner and incestuous libertine. The book is an enthralling, historically convincing tale of Renaissance intrigue, domestic drama and war. Nicholas Boulton delivers the general narration in a courteous, gentlemanly manner, a temperate foil to his virtuoso performance in capturing the extravagant personalities of the story’s many characters. He distinguishes men from women and age from youth with variations of pitch and timbre. Lucrezia has a light, often sorrowful voice. Pope Alexander VI expresses his monumental will in rumbling, dark tones and an accent that retains traces of his Catalonian origins. His son, the coldblooded, military genius Cesare, is hard-voiced, thoroughly Italian and, eventually, fevered and megalomaniacal as syphilis eats away at his brain. The history is well known, but Dunant brings it to life and provides an excellent afterword arguing for her interpretation of Lucrezia as a much maligned woman.
“The Woman Next Door,” by Yewande Omotoso. (Random House Audio. Unabridged, 8½ hours.)
Hortensia James, one of the two elderly widows whose stories make up Yewande Omotoso’s superb second novel is — like her creator — a native of Barbados who has lived in Nigeria and now in South Africa. A wealthy businesswoman, Hortensia is the only black owner of a house in an upscale enclave in a Johannesburg suburb. For the past 20 years she has lived next door to Marion Agostino, who has never reconciled herself to the idea of racial equality. The two strong-willed old relicts loathe each other. A freak accident leaves Hortensia with a broken leg and Marion temporarily homeless — and, of course, this being a novel, they end up living together. With that, however, the story takes off in surprising ways. Adjoa Andoh gives a versatile performance to this multiracial, multinational set of characters, delivering convincing Barbadian, Nigerian and standard English speakers, although her white South Africans do wrestle out a very odd accent, one tinctured with cockney and, it seems, Yiddish. Still, the novel’s complex plot and convincing characters develop beautifully together and are lightened throughout with flashes of excellent comedy.
Katherine A. Powers grew up in Minnesota. She writes this column for the Washington Post.