5 Audiobooks with Complicated Parent-Child Relationships
James Tate Hill Does Not Recommend These as Gifts for Your Parents
“Great relationships make for bad stories,” writes Leslie Jamison in the new anthology What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About. Or as Tolstoy wrote, all happy families are the same, and who the hell wants to read about them?
But all parents, good or bad, are potentially fascinating. After all, these are the creators and caretakers of another life, who have to contend with their own dreams and desires. And we’re talking about Leslie Jamison, one of the finest essayists of her generation. Spoiler: She writes an enthralling essay about the mother with whom she has a great relationship.
Whatever your parental feelings, May and June bring those arbitrary celebrations of moms and dads and all their accompanying anxieties. To combat those anxieties, the Audio File takes a look at five new audiobooks about parents and parenthood. Warning: These are recommendations for you, not gift ideas for Mom or Dad. First off, Mother’s Day has passed. If you’re still looking for Mom’s gift, you should probably go way over budget. Secondly, the publishing industry tells us dads don’t really read. If we’re to trust the wisdom of greeting cards, go with some fishing lures or grill tongs.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
Narrated by Bahni Turpin
Random House/Random House Audio
10 hours and 50 minutes
Many of us think our moms are badasses, and we’re all correct. Most of our mothers, however, haven’t taken out an armed home intruder in the opening pages of a spy novel. Marie Mitchell, FBI agent and single mother of two, takes badass motherhood to a new level. She also redefines, or at least breathes new life into, the spy genre. The FBI considers Mitchell, a woman of color, the perfect candidate to join a clandestine scheme in Cold War-era Burkina Faso. Comparisons to John le Carré feel justified, but Wilkinson has plenty to say about race and gender not found in most Cold War novels.
If Wilkinson’s background doesn’t involve espionage, her research has been folded seamlessly into her debut. American Spy has the life-or-death drama and high-stakes political intrigue we associate with the genre, but the identity of the main character isn’t the only way it distinguishes itself. Written as an in-case-something-happens-to-me letter to her sons, Wilkinson’s narrative is a slow burn, as concerned with family dynamics as it is international relations.
“Our mother could pass,” writes Wilkinson, connecting her narrator’s past to present. “She could hide in plain sight. And then one day she suddenly left us. That is all a spy does.”
Narrator of the audiobook, Bahni Turpin, shifts deftly between the literary prose and tense confrontations. Her African, Caribbean, and American dialects ring particularly authentic. At times, passages with dialogue depart traditional narration for performance, so readers averse to theatrics in your audiobooks, be forewarned.
What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, edited by Michele Filgate
Narrated by Michele Filgate and others
Simon & Schuster/Simon & Schuster Audio
7 hours and 14 minutes
“Our stories are our greatest currency,” writes Julianna Baggott in “Nothing Left Unsaid,” her contribution to this new anthology of essays about mothers and who we need them to be. To extend the metaphor, what is the value of a relationship when certain stories are not, or cannot be, shared? This is the premise of What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, 15 essays by a diverse array of all-star writers. Curated by Michele Filgate, the collection begins with Filgate’s own moving piece about a mother’s refusal to acknowledge the abuse of her husband, the author’s stepfather.
Anthologies can be uneven in quality, but What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About offers 15 writers at the top of their game. The variety of themes and relationships is underscored by the voices of shifting narrators in the audiobook. Filgate reads the introduction, her own essay, and the acknowledgements with vulnerability and warmth. One occasionally misses that personal connection in the professional narrators who follow. The logistics of corralling 14 other authors into the studio, one imagines, would be formidable. I do hope more audiobooks will begin including the acknowledgements, which I’ve always found to be the perfect catharsis at the end of any book, a glaring omission from nearly every audio adaptation.
Readers will find their own favorites, but highlights for me included “My Mother’s Gatekeeper” by Cathy Hanauer, about a mother who seems content to live in her husband’s overbearing shadow; “Are You Listening?” by André Aciman, about the ways the author learns to communicate with his deaf mother; and “I Met Fear on the Hill” by Leslie Jamison, the author’s attempt to understand her mother by reading the unpublished novel of her hippie first husband. Each of these essays is about what we say and do not say, and each leaves us wondering, in different ways, about the people our mothers were before they became mothers. Brandon Taylor closes his wrenching essay “All about My Mother,” a remembrance of the sometimes cruel, sometimes funny woman from whom he was estranged when she died, “I wish I had gotten to know her better. I think we would have been great friends.”
Chasing Cosby: The Downfall of America’s Dad by Nicole Weisensee Egan
Narrated by Nicole Weisensee Egan
Seal Press/Hachette Audio
9 hours and 35 minutes
In 2005, a Father’s Day poll named Bill Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable the TV dad viewers of all age groups most wished had been their own father. The Cosby Show had been off the air since 1992, but the results were more surprising because Cosby had been recently accused of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman employed by his alma mater, Temple University. More than one woman, in fact, came forward to offer a similar story, but because charges were never filed and the victim’s civil suit was settled out of court, Cosby’s reputation suffered only slightly. Then a clip of a comedian calling Cosby a rapist exhumed those charges in 2014, along with myriad new ones. Now Cosby sits in prison, and Nicole Weisensee Egan has written a profound and riveting account of his crimes.
Egan’s meticulous research would be enough to make Chasing Cosby the definitive account of the comedian’s scandals, but her own connection to the story adds another layer to the book. She had been a reporter covering crime in Philadelphia for 14 years when Andrea Constand’s accusations surfaced in 2005. She continued covering the story for People a decade later, receiving periodic threats from Cosby’s legal team as she spoke to other Jane Does whose experiences matched Costand’s.
Egan reads the audiobook, and readers can hear the resolve and empathy in her narration. Her clear voice and polished enunciation, not to mention her deep understanding of the story, are on par with professional narrators. For anyone curious about the extent of her research, the audiobook also includes a PDF of detailed notes and sourcing for every chapter.
Chasing Cosby exposes “a monster who preyed on women, manipulating them into a false sense of security, drugging them and assaulting them, and masquerading as Cliff Huxtable, the personification of the family-oriented, warm comedy he’d been performing for decades.” It also examines, with an eye frequently focused on the media, why Cosby’s accusers didn’t command the same tier of publicity as other #MeToo victims. Why did it take a clip of a male comedian, years after the fact, to finally inspire district attorneys to file criminal charges? Egan’s reporting and analysis reveal so much we didn’t know and still need to understand.
The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making by Jared Yates Sexton
Narrated by Jared Yates Sexton
6 hours and 42 minutes
Jared Yates Sexton was a short story writer with an MFA and an academic teaching job when he began covering the 2016 presidential election. He reported on the frightening anger and misogyny he witnessed at Trump rallies, and his account of that campaign, The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters upon Your Shore, remains one of the most hair-raising books on how Trump ended up in the White House. Before that election, before the teaching and the writing, Sexton grew up in rural, working-class Indiana, where Trump signs would adorn many yards. Two thirds memoir and one third cultural study, The Man They Wanted Me to Be looks at male anger and toxic masculinity, personal and political, with Sexton and his estranged father as the primary lenses.
“As I played baseball and basketball, the other boys accepted me more,” Sexton writes after detailing a childhood of being picked on. “Very quickly I discovered the fraternity of masculinity was easy to enter as long as you didn’t mind changing everything about yourself and following the tenets mindlessly.”
Sexton supplements his own story with research in childhood development, sociology, and behavioral psychology, as well as a broader, cultural dive into the emotions that cause so many white men to support Donald Trump, “a tragically insecure person whose bragging fails to hide his neuroses.” Sexton’s book might be most valuable, however, for its unvarnished portrait of the author himself and his evolving relationship with his father, who departs from his macho façade in the years before his death.
The Man They Wanted Me to Be is the kind of book all parents should read. One also hopes it finds its way into the hands of men whose anger masks so poorly how lost they are. The tone of Sexton’s writing could not be more reasonable or empathetic, and his narration of the audiobook reveals a kind, Midwestern voice of reason and curiosity. Those disinclined to agree with him might find his words more convincing in his own gentle delivery.
Parkland: Birth of a Movement by Dave Cullen
Narrated by Dave Cullen and Robert Fass
10 hours and 10 minutes
Dave Cullen was leaving the CNN building, having offered his expertise after another school shooting, when he first saw the Parkland survivors on the news. Like most of the country, he was transfixed. Cullen’s expertise came from the decade of research that produced his indispensable Columbine, which chronicled the 1999 shooting that claimed 15 lives. Nearly two decades later, the Parkland gunman murdered 17, but Cullen saw something in the soon-to-become-famous Parkland students that seemed different from past tragedies.
Parkland: Birth of a Movement is Cullen’s profile of the Parkland kids as they became the March for Our Lives movement. Unlike with Columbine, which tracked every moment of the killers’ lives, Cullen vows with this book not to provide more than a cursory biography of the gunman, or even to name him. As one might expect of a book so contemporary, it reads like long-form journalism, with less hindsight than ten years of research would allow. That isn’t to say Cullen’s latest is any less necessary for its three-dimensional insight into public faces like Jaclyn Corin, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, and Emma González.
“Most girls give you what they want you to see. Their makeup, their hair. But [Emma] just gives you her eyes,” says one Parkland parent.
Cullen reads the introduction for the audiobook himself before stepping aside for professional narrator Robert Fass. This feels like the right move for reasons unrelated to Cullen’s jovial voice or elocution. Rather, it’s the survivors’ story, and despite occasional, first-person cameos by Cullen in the text, the shift to a more objective voice feels prudent.
“I’m so far away,” says one of the Parkland parents, recalling the terror of the shooting, “but all the parents are too far.” Sooner or later, parents are always too far to protect their child from the world, but Parkland is not a story of parents. It’s an account of children on their own and the ways they might be saving us all. In addition to raising awareness of gun violence, the tangible numbers of voters they’ve already helped register will widen some eyes. Reading Parkland, I cried more than once, but less for the tragedy than the hopeful will of these survivors.