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The best audiobooks for your summer drive

This summer holds out the promise of release from covid’s most onerous restrictions — and visions of road trips dance in our heads. The prospect of piling into the car and heading off for parts yonder is liberating. But then reality hits, in the shape of boredom or, if children are involved, something a little more gruesome. Here is a selection of roadworthy audiobooks tailored to fit different journeys and assorted travelers.

We shall begin with long books for long trips, starting with “The Long Ships” by Frans Bengtsson, one of the great unsung novels of the 20th century. First published in two parts, in 1941 and 1945, and gloriously translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer a decade later, the book comes in at 20¼ hours in audio form (HighBridge), narrated splendidly by Michael Page. If you are heading out from D.C., the book should get you deep into the heart of Texas or to and from Montreal, depending on traffic. This historically rich, very witty novel takes you on a journey of another kind, through the adventures of “Red Orm,” a Viking in the years around AD 1000 — when it was confidently predicted that the world would end. Michael Chabon provides an introduction in which he declares, quite truly, that this novel “stands ready, given the chance, to bring lasting pleasure to every single human being on the face of the earth.”

(Random House Audio)

But let’s say you’re driving from East Coast to West Coast, or the reverse, and want to stick with one book, then Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” should fill the bill handily at 66 hours (Random House Audio). Given Moses’s traffic-clogging legacy, those 66 hours might also — if you’re lucky — get you from the tip of Long Island into Manhattan. But there will never be a dull moment. Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book is a miracle of detail, written with flair, and is a revealing study of character and the exercise of power. Here you learn of Moses’s arrogance and his downright malevolent strategies to destroy New York’s public transportation system and to keep Black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers out of his — as he saw them — parks and swimming pools. Robertson Dean narrates this monumental work in a nicely paced, unflappable bass baritone.

Back in the age when people went places, a friend and I drove from Amherst, Mass., to New York City and back again a few days later — about six hours round trip. As fate would have it, this was precisely how long it took to listen to Paulette Jiles’s “News of the World” (Harper Audio), which we did, making it one of the best car rides in my life. Set in 1870, it’s the story of an elderly man (played by Tom Hanks in the 2020 movie version) taking a 10-year-old girl, an unwillingly “redeemed” captive of Native Americans, across Texas to her remaining relatives. Grover Gardner narrates this fast-paced, touching and often funny novel with his usual clarity and panache. Though written for adults, this is a book that can also be enjoyed by young people of high school age, maybe younger, as long as they don’t mind gunplay and dastardly villains.

(Random House Audio)
(Audible Studios)

Bill Bryson’s “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” (Random House) is also suitable for both adults and young people and is one of the funniest memoirs ever written and — in the voice of the narrating author — ever heard. It’s set chiefly in Des Moines in the 1950s, when America was perfect except for the threat of nuclear annihilation, racial oppression, the birth of unbridled consumerism and little Billy’s mother’s cooking.

At 7 ⅔ hours, the book is only going to get you halfway from the nation’s capital to Des Moines. For the rest of the way, listen to “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah reading his own “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” at 8 3/4 hours (Audible Studios). The book, among other things, will underscore how amazing it is that Noah, son of a Xhosa mother and a Swiss father in apartheid South Africa, is alive, much less a celebrity. Thank Noah’s determined, indefatigable mother. Making sacrifices for his education, she prepared him “to live a life of freedom long before we knew freedom would exist.” This is an inspiring story, scalding in its descriptions of apartheid, but also witty and truly exciting. (Audible is owned by Amazon, whose founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The Roald Dahl Audio Collection (Listening Library) consists of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach” and three other stories. The stories are ideal for short trips, and the collection will appeal to listeners from nonage to senectitude, as long as they enjoy justice meted out with merry malice. The stories are somewhat abridged, and at 3⅔ hours, the full collection is just enough, perhaps, to get you to the next pit stop. The tales are read by Dahl himself, and his sharp voice, swift delivery and air of relish in delivering comeuppance to bullies and other nasties adds to the pleasure of his dark genius.

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