“Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race,” by Lara Prior-Palmer. (HighBridge, unabridged, 7½ hours)
In 2013, Lara Prior-Palmer, a 19-year-old Englishwoman, entered herself in the Mongol Derby, the world’s longest horse race at 1,000 kilometers. The course follows the one taken by Genghis Khan’s messengers some 800 years ago. Prior-Palmer’s account of this grueling trek on half-wild Mongolian horses has all the ingredients of a novel, including a villain (of sorts) in the person of another young rider, a 20-year-old American woman whose overbearing assertiveness serves as a goad to Lara — the first woman and youngest person ever to win the race. Although we know she will triumph, Lara’s trials are daunting as she makes her way across the Mongolian steppe, enduring miserable heat and rain, treacherous marshes, unfriendly dogs, obstinate horses and assorted other hazards.
On the other hand, she receives great kindness and hospitality from nomadic families and beholds, with awe, pristine landscapes and spectacular, star-spangled night skies. Henrietta Meire delivers the narrative superbly with a fine command of accents and manner.
“Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss,” by Rajeev Balasubramanyam. (Random House Audio, unabridged, 10 hours)
Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s novel combines tart social satire with a journey of self-understanding. At its center is an Indian-born economist, Prof. Chandra of Cambridge University. He is 69 and lonely, having alienated his children and lost his wife to another man — a laid-back American called Steve. After suffering a minor heart attack, Chandra seeks sunshine and secures a visiting teaching post in California, outside a town that “revealed itself to be a giant retail outlet with shops the size of airport terminals.”
He travels to Colorado to see his daughter, who’s living with her mother and Steve. After losing his cool and punching Steve in the nose, Chandra agrees to a three-day session at the Esalen Institute — a true concession for a man who considers yoga “the greatest evil of modern life” and believes that “meditation was best suited to those with less mind to be mindful of: sociologists, for example.” Ramon Tikaram narrates this vastly amusing, ultimately moving story in a superb medley of accents: British Indian, Northern English and West Coast American.
“Life on the Mississippi,” by Mark Twain. (Blackstone, unabridged, 13 hours)
There are at least half a dozen audiobook versions of Mark Twain’s greatest work of nonfiction, his account of his time on the Mississippi River as a riverboat apprentice and pilot and, later, as a witness to change. Veteran narrator Grover Gardner, with his fine exuberant voice, comic pacing and sense of mordant irony, gives us the very best rendition. The book begins with its constant theme — the Mississippi’s lawless ways, its mobility and perversity — and goes on to its “discovery” by Europeans, paying caustic attention to the invaders’ appetite for other people’s land.
From then on, the book rambles through Twain’s often chastening experiences, the rise and decline of steamship riverboating and the manners, mores and eccentricities of river towns and people. Above all, this is a book about travel. Setting out as a young man, a high-spirited Sam Clemens feels the exhilaration of every traveler: “I became a new being, and the subject of my own admiration. I was a traveler! … and I was able to look down and pity the untraveled with a compassion that had hardly a trace of contempt in it.”
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, reviews for the Wall Street Journal, the Star Tribune and elsewhere. She writes this column for the Washington Post.