12 April 2012

Now and Then: Nonfiction Audiobook Recommendations

A little-known fact about me: I love listening to nonfiction. In fact, I may prefer listening to biography and history than reading it. Audiobook nonfiction, however, comes with a negative: What about the maps and photos and other visuals often included in the print edition? I solve that problem by checking the book out of the library or buying it. I'm lucky because my father enjoys nonfiction, so I simply pass the print book to him when I'm done with the audio. The next best solution is to look for maps and photos online.

Whether you're new to nonfiction on audio or are looking for your next great listen, take a look at my suggestions. I can wholeheartedly recommend the following titles.

Earbud-Worthy Biography

One of my favorite books from 2011 was the Robert K. Massie's Catherine the Great. As I said in my review in December 2011, Massie "draws a complex portrait of the often-misunderstood empress. Relying on primary sources (including Catherine's diaries and letters) and firsthand accounts, Massie unveils the personal and private sides of one of Russia's strongest leaders." Catherine lived during a time of great transition—revolutions, the Enlightenment, and new technology were changing the face of the world—making her story both complex and compelling.

The unabridged audio edition (Random House Audio; 23 hr, 52 min) is read by Mark Deakins, whose pacing and inflections are well matched to Massie's prose. Listeners will appreciate Deakins's subtle changes in inflection to signal quotations and extracts. In addition, he handles the pronunciation of Russian, Latin, French, and German with ease. Catherine the Great is a highly readable biography that's made even more accessible with Deakins behind the mic.

Henry VII is suddenly becoming popular. The founder of the Tudor dynasty, who is has been called the uniter of England, is often overlooked in favor of his more famous descendants. Thomas Penn's Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England tells us the true story of the man who won a kingdom. Penn presents a well-rounded picture of Henry VII, who was a person of great contrasts. Although he could be cleverly shrewd, he also had bouts of obsessive craziness, instilling fear in even his most loyal subjects. Henry's rule was fraught with so much political scheming, acquisition of money, and manipulation of power, it's easy to forget Winter King is nonfiction.

The unabridged audio edition (Blackstone Audio, 14 hr, 34 min) is read by Simon Vance. Vance's expressive reading and careful pacing keep listeners fully engaged with Penn's well-researched biography. He varies his pitch and tone to differentiate between text and quotations and smoothly transitions among the several languages (English, Latin, and Spanish, in particular) found in the text. Vance's narration of Winter King is not to be missed.

On the Ocean Blue

You can hardly be unaware that this month marks the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking. As you compile your commemorative reading list, don't forget Richard Davenport-Hines's Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From. Davenport-Hines takes a unique approach, focusing on the people connected to the ship: the financiers, riveters, and sailors as well as all classes of passengers and crew. We learn how these individuals handled themselves from their first encounter with the Titanic as well as on the night of the sinking and in the days after the disaster. This is a fascinating and very personal look at the great ocean liner, from its birth to its death.

The unbridged audio edition (Harper Audio, 11 hr, 18 min) is read by veteran narrator Robin Sachs. Sachs's approach is to step back just a bit to allow listeners to form their own reactions to the interlinked stories of the people whose lives converged on the decks of the Titanic. Whether recounting the experiences of the second-class passengers, revealing the contents of the late John Jacob Astor's pockets, or discussing the training of the liner's sailors, Sach pulls listeners into the book. Don't miss Voyagers of the Titanic's fresh perspective, which includes little-known and newly discovered facts.

What do you know about the Atlantic Ocean? Probably not as much as you think you do. Simon Winchester's Atlantic offers both a historical overview and a more intimate look at the sea that has been a major player in Western civilization for millennia. As I mentioned in my January 2011 review, "The book covers quite a bit of material, but the organization of the text keeps the reader engaged. Rather than follow a strictly chronological path, Winchester breaks the ocean's story into different aspects." Thus each chapter is devoted to a single topic: fishing, trade, and the people who live on the ocean's shores, for example. Indeed, Atlantic lives up to its subtitle: Great Sea Battles Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories.

The unabridged audio edition (Harper Audio; 14 h, 30 m) is read by Simon Winchester himself. It can be a risky thing to choose a book read by its author, but Winchester's voice is clear and easy to listen to. His enthusiasm for the Atlantic is evident, but he in no way goes over the line to the dramatic. At the same time, he's a natural with pacing and expression, drawing listeners into the fascinating story of the great ocean. Winchester's Atlantic includes an enthralling mix of topics.

If there's interest I'll consider making this a sporadic feature. I've listened to quite a lot of nonfiction (in a variety of genres) over the years and am happy to share the memorable titles.


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea 4/12/12, 6:50 AM  

I enjoy non fiction as well from time to time. Quiet by Susan Cain was fascinating, in case the topic of introversion appeals to you.

Sandy Nawrot 4/12/12, 6:57 AM  

I'm right there with you. I just finished "Where Men Win Glory" by jon Krakauer on audio and I was completely sucked in. You know I still have Atlantic loaded on my iPod because of you? I just haven't gotten to it. I am so easily distracted. I love memoirs on audio, and have Life and the Steve Jobs book loaded and ready to go as well. I'm going to see if the library has Catherine the Great!

JoAnn 4/12/12, 7:42 AM  

Excellent post - please consider making nonfiction audio recommendations a semi-regular feature! I'm like you and prefer listening to nonfiction. For some reason, it better holds my attention. The lack of maps, photos, etc. is a downside, but I can always get it from the library or buy it for my husband (he almost never reads fiction).

The first two are on my wish list and I'll investigate the others. Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck and Stiff by Mary Roach have been two of my recent favorites.

Beth F 4/12/12, 7:49 AM  

Thanks all for the recommendations.

@Diane: I've heard good things about Quiet but you're the first to mention the audio edition. I'll definitely keep it in mind.

@Sandy: That's the one Krakauer I haven't read. I'll have to see if my library has it. I have both Life and Steve Jobs here ... now to find the time.

@JoAnn: STIFF was one of my favorite listens and now you have me thinking of rereading Travel with Charley on audio.

bermudaonion 4/12/12, 8:00 AM  

Nonfiction is great on audio with the right narrator. I'm jotting these titles down and would add Little Pink House to your list.

Tanya Patrice 4/12/12, 8:44 AM  

I'm an audiobook newbie, so I'm excited for this list. So far, I've only enjoyed fast paced fiction on audio - didn't enjoy classics using that medium. But I'll give non-fiction a try Thanks for the great starting point.

Jenn's Bookshelves 4/12/12, 10:07 AM  

Excellent recommendations, thank you! I'm attempting to increase the number of nonfiction books I read/listen to so I'm definitely adding these to my list!

Zibilee 4/12/12, 10:42 AM  

I have the Catherine book in print, but now I am thinking that I need to grab it in audio format. I also seem to have had a touch of Tudormania for the past few years, so the Henry book looks interesting as well. This set of reviews is really helpful to me because I am always looking for a good nonfiction read on audio, and sometimes have no idea where to start. Thanks!

Martha @ Hey, I want to read that 4/12/12, 11:48 AM  

I never thought of having the book along for photos and maps. What a great idea. Listening to non-fiction works better for me as well. I'm going to be adding these to my list.

dog eared copy 4/12/12, 12:16 PM  

One of my favorite non-fiction audiobooks is Columbine (by Dave Cullen; narrated by Don Leslie.)It is a very powerful and well researched book. You don't need maps or pictures or videos; but be forewarned that if you do go looking for them, you will find them :-/

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity 4/12/12, 1:51 PM  

Yup, I'd definitely be interested in a regular feature of NF audio titles. I tend to prefer nonfiction over fiction via audio. I already have Catherine the Great on my library wishlist. One of my favorite nonfiction titles on audio was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I also enjoyed the Bill Bryson (At Home) I listened to and look forward to more. And for the Simon Vance fans, Sex Lives of Cannibals was a fun listen.

Look forward to hearing more of your recommendations!

Leslie (Under My Apple Tree) 4/12/12, 6:42 PM  

I'm listening to Voyagers of the Titanic right now and enjoying the different perspective of this telling of the Titanic's tale.

I'm right with you on perfering to listen to non-fiction. I've also had to run to the library more than a few times to look at the photos, maps, etc. that don't usually come with the audio. However, I have received a few that had pdf files included with photos, etc, and that was nice to have.

Anonymous,  4/12/12, 9:17 PM  

I think Winter King is going to be my next listen. Thanks for mentioning it!

I'm listening to Walter Isaacson's Einstein right now. The personal stuff is fascinating. The science stuff is going right over my head.

Heidenkind 4/12/12, 11:47 PM  

I've never listened to non-fic on audio. I can read through it pretty fast, so I'm not sure listening to someone read it would work for me.

Julie P. 4/13/12, 7:25 AM  

Some great suggestions. I'm still not a big audio reader, but I'm trying. I tend to try memoirs so Non-fiction might work better for me.

Karen White 4/13/12, 10:25 AM  

Beth, I challenge you to listen to non-fiction written by women! Men are published more often than women anyway, but in this genre women are especially neglected.

Diane, I, too have heard great things about Quiet. The narrator Kathe Mazur is an old friend of mine and she said she really connected with the book so I am sure she did a great job.

Karen White 4/13/12, 10:26 AM  

That said, thank you for your ambassadorship for audiobooks!

Carrie K. 4/13/12, 10:31 AM  

I always mean to read more non-fiction, but it doesn't seem to happen. Non-fiction on audio has been hit and miss with me - loved some, like Lost in Shangri-la and Unbroken, but have had less luck with others, like In the Garden of Beasts. I've been wanting to read Atlantic, so maybe I'll give that one a try!

Beth F 4/13/12, 10:34 AM  

I read a ton of nonfiction written by both men and women. Today I picked four that were at the top of my brain. :)

Swapna 4/13/12, 11:36 AM  

You know I love listening to non-fiction on audio! And actually, BF does listen to a lot of women on audio - she's introduced me to a lot of female non-fiction.

Jenners 4/13/12, 1:55 PM  

I've actually listened to a fair amount of non-fiction on audio, which is kind of surprising to me. Right now, I'm listening to Game Change (about the 2008 presidential election) on audio, which is so much more interesting than I anticipated. Of course, the right narrator makes all the difference.

The Well Read Fish 4/13/12, 9:39 PM  

Not audiobook- but I heard Winchester speak last year and bought The Atlantic. I have it on my bookshelf to read. Think I'll move it up on the list now!

April (BooksandWine) 5/2/12, 10:34 AM  

I am a huge fan of listening to non-fiction as a way of varying my reading, plus learning while driving and cleaning. SO I am going to add ALL OF THESE to my audible wishlist and also my check and see if the library has it list.

Love these recs, and seriously my eye keeps darting to Winter King.

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