“Olive, Again,” by Elizabeth Strout (Random House Audio, Unabridged, 12¼ hours)
Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge of Crosby, Maine, is back, once again presiding over — though not always present in — 13 linked stories. Still bossy and blunt to the point of obnoxiousness, Olive has found the ideal narrator in Kimberly Farr, who captures her peremptory manner and brutal honesty to a “T.” We learn that Olive is now a widow in her 70s, but as the seasons pass, she marries again, is widowed again, and is 86 years old when we leave her, as she’s going off to supper at the senior living facility where she now lives. In the interim we are treated to revelatory episodes, some sad, some droll, including a ghastly baby shower. Strout has an extraordinary gift of emotional precision in showing loneliness, miscommunication and self-doubt in such a stark yet compassionate way. What should be depressing is refreshing. Farr’s performance is perfectly in tune with the prevailing mood of these stories, a spirit summed up by Olive herself: “Well, that’s life. Nothing you can do about it.”
“Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War,” by T.J. Stiles (Brilliance Audio, Unabridged, 18½ hours)
T.J. Stiles’ award-winning biography of one of America’s most notorious outlaws has at last been released as an audiobook, read clearly and at an easily comprehensible pace by Christopher Lane. More than a biography, the book is also a history of the Civil War in Missouri, its aftermath and the uses to which the Lost Cause of the Confederacy was put to celebrate a bandit and a killer. The brutal occupation by federal troops of Missouri, a state more mixed in its Northern and Southern sympathies than any other, did much to incite anti-Union feeling; at the forefront were the brothers Frank and Jesse James and their sharp-tongued, iron-willed mother, Zerelda. Jesse James’ exploits were cast as heroic by newspaperman and Confederate propagandist John Newman Edwards, who, in covering his exploits as a bushwhacker and beyond, made him a star, though one who descended into paranoia — well placed, as it happens. James was assassinated by an infiltrator of his gang at age 34. The book, one of the great American biographies, is profound, huge in scope, and fast-paced.
“A Door in the Earth,” by Amy Waldman (Hachette, Unabridged, 12½ hours)
Amy Waldman’s second novel is set in a mountain village in Afghanistan in 2009. Parveen, a young Afghan-American woman and nascent anthropologist, has been inspired by the writings and reputation of an American doctor (and onetime embezzler), Gideon Crane, to study and help Afghan women. Crane is responsible for the village’s modern clinic, which, however, turns out to be useless for lack of female medical professionals. Soon Parveen discovers that Crane’s book is a self-aggrandizing fabric of lies. Worse, it has brought the village the unwanted attention of the occupying American military force whose “kind power” has lethal consequences. She also discovers the unrecognized power of translators, the ability to communicate unwarranted good news in order to retain the job that supports their families. Roxanna Hope Radja delivers the general narration at an easy pace in a sweet young-sounding voice and gives the various characters distinguishing accents and timbre that complement the story. Clear-eyed but uncynical, this engrossing novel delves deep into personal motivation, naive belief and moral confusion.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, reviews for the Star Tribune, Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. She writes this column for the Washington Post.