Nanette Donohue | Standout audiobooks for both avid listeners, beginners | Books

I recently finished my third year on the American Library Association’s Listen List Council, which highlights exceptional audiobooks for adult listeners. After 1,000-plus hours of listening, the six-person committee narrowed the list to 13 titles. Since I particularly love nonfiction audiobooks, here are three excellent titles that will appeal to both avid listeners and newcomers to the wonderful world of audiobooks.

  • “This is Ear Hustle” by Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods was my favorite audiobook of the year. I raced through its 10 hours in a period of two-and-a-half days, binge-listening at work, home, in the car and even in the shower.

Poor, a volunteer with the Prison University Project, and Woods, who was incarcerated at San Quentin Prison in California, developed the award-winning podcast “Ear Hustle” to tell the stories of people affected by incarceration. “This is Ear Hustle” tells the story of the podcast, as well as how Poor and Woods’ personal paths brought them to San Quentin. interspersed throughout the audiobook are a stories about prison life, the American prison system and challenges of producing a podcast inside of a prison.

Throughout the book, Woods shares his life story, telling how he ended up in prison under California’s three-strikes law, and his journey toward having his sentence commuted.

Both Poor and Woods are natural storytellers, and their rapport is exceptional. I felt a wide range of emotions while listening. Some stories are extraordinarily funny, while others are distressing, painful or infuriating. It is consistently compelling and will get listeners thinking about the prison system and the millions who are affected by it.

  • I’ve written about Ibram X. Kendi’s and Keisha N. Blain’s “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019” before. I loved the book, and the audiobook brings even more dimension to this collection of historical essays, personal reflections and poetry chronicling 400 years of Black history in America.

As an audiobook, “Four Hundred Souls” is a towering achievement — 87 different narrators, each bringing their own unique perspective and insight to their narration. Each piece is read by a different narrator, including audiobook greats Dion Graham, Bahni Turpin, Robin Miles and January LaVoy. Many of the authors read their own pieces, and it’s exciting to hear well-known historians, authors and activists read their own words. Because the chapters are brief and stand on their own, it works well for those looking for something for a short commute.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s “When Women Invented Television” is a riveting account of four of TV’s earliest pioneers and their enduring legacies.

University of Illinois grad Irna Phillips was the mother of the soap opera, with a career that began in radio and flourished for decades; Gertrude Berg transformed her radio show “The Goldbergs” into a small-screen hit, bringing the stories of a close-knit Jewish American family to viewers nationwide; and Hazel Scott shattered barriers as the first Black woman to host a prime-time TV variety show. Most of us know Betty White from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Golden Girls,” but in the 1950s, she was one of the hardest-working people in TV, hosting a five-hour afternoon talk show every day of the week and starring in her own sitcom.

This audiobook is narrated by actress and voiceover artist Nan McNamara, whose engaging narration adds dimension to this increasing book. She captures the spirit of women profiled in the book without shifting into imitation or mimicry. Listeners will be left wondering why Phillips, Berg and Scott have been forgotten and why Ella overshadowed her White’s later career extraordinary earlier accomplishments. It’s a must-listen for anyone with an interest in popular culture.

The full Listen List, as well as an archive of past honorees, is available atrusiaupdate.org/awards/the-listen-list/.

Nanette Donohue is the technical services manager at the Champaign Public Library.

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