What We’re Listening To – July’s Picks

Summer for me means road trips and long lazy weekends outside or at my pottery studio, so it’s prime listening time. As my fellow producers are quick to point out, I’m not really the typical “beach read” type, even though I’m spending as much of July reading at the beach as I possibly can. But enjoying the sunshine doesn’t have to mean turning your heavy mental processors off! Here’s what’s been tickling my eardrums and my brain this month:

This book, you guys. THIS BOOK. I know it’s a bold comparison, but if you loved Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, you’ll inhale the gorgeous gut-punch that is My Absolute Darling. I stayed up way too late to finish it, making loud exclamations during its explosive ending that scared my dog. First-time novelist Tallent’s writing is so lush and precise and his characters so fully realized and weighty that not a single word in the book rings false, and I haven’t been able to get Turtle Alveston out of my head. Pair that with an intensely rich, vivid wilderness setting and Alex McKenna’s youthful, slightly raspy, vulnerable-tough narration, and you’ve got one hell of a riveting listening experience. It’s out August 29, just in time to ruin your Labor Day weekend. You’ll thank me later.

Jenny Zhang has the kind of singular, propulsive, addictive, continually surprising voice I’d follow anywhere, and it translates beautifully to the audio format. Read by a full cast of narrators, one for each point of view in this loosely interconnected collection of short stories, the audiobook captures a sense of texture and creates a chorus of girls, each telling her own unique, funny, gritty, gross, dark, tender, unsettling, relatable, intimate story about what it feels like to grow up, and specifically what it’s like to grow up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Zhang created a world in Sour Heart that, as she put it, “normalizes the extremely slippery linguistics of growing up bilingual with parents who may not be totally fluent in English”: her characters dip in and out of Chinese, English, and all manner of combinations of the two with total fluidity, which makes the narration a special treat. The author herself narrates one of the stories, and her surprisingly sweet, almost childlike voice juxtaposes beautifully with the salt and acid of her writing—but really, each of these stories and narrators shines, as does the collage as a whole.

This is a brilliant, lyrical, timely meditation on the relationship between violence and art, war and ways of seeing, and how acts of creation can mitigate acts of destruction. Author Sentilles introduces us to two men she happened upon by chance but became deeply connected to: a student named Miles, an Iraq War veteran once stationed at Abu Ghraib who is also a painter; and a lifelong conscientious objector named Howard, who taught himself to build a violin while he was imprisoned for refusing to fight in World War II. Draw Your Weapons uses the lives and experiences of Howard and Miles as lenses through which to examine profound questions about how best to confront our staggeringly imperfect and often painful world. Sentilles writes about atrocity unsentimentally and with clear eyes, but the deep compassion that grounds her work bubbles up in her narration, and her warm, sensitive, bell-like voice adds new layers of emotion to the audiobook. (Full disclosure: I got to direct Sarah’s narration, so this audiobook is extra close to my heart.)

Keeping up with US politics right now is not for the faint of heart, but it’s a little less painful if you let former Obama aides Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer, and Tommy Vietor help you digest the latest with Pod Save America, a self-described “political podcast for people not yet ready to give up or go insane.” The guys release a new podcast three times a week, and with the warp speed at which the current administration is lobbing grenades out of the White House and Congress, they could probably produce it daily and still have plenty to discuss. Jon, Jon, Dan, and Tommy are DC veterans and policy wonks who are great at parsing and prioritizing what’s going on, why, and how worried we should be about it. They bring on great guests, too: tons of senators, congressional reps, and other experts, including superstars like Kamala Harris. Okay, sometimes they can be a tad smug, but their expertise, sense of camaraderie, and their jovial, often very funny tone (especially Lovett’s) make it feel like you’re getting bad news from a friend—and if you’re going to get bad news, isn’t that the best way to get it?

I love Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson, and I love MoMA, so I’m basically foaming at the mouth over this new podcast. It’s the closest I’m ever going to get to hanging out with my dream BFF! Much like her character on Broad City, Abbi’s an artist, and A Piece of Work is her way of helping a wider audience find its way into the often-impenetrable world of modern art, with her warm, accessible, gloriously irreverent humor. Listening to her and Hannibal Buress talk in Episode 1 about funny art and how Marcel Duchamp essentially trolled the art-world establishment with his work, I was already sold, but the next few episodes only get better and deeper. When she and guest Samantha Irby lie on the floor admiring James Turrell’s Meeting, there’s an audible joy in their voices that punctures any stereotypes about modern art being stuffy. And eavesdropping on Abbi and her three-year-old niece discussing the scribbly work of Cy Twombly is just as delightful as the conversation with Questlove about Yves Klein’s monochrome paintings and the importance of quiet. Abbi’s genuine passion for art gives way to an earnestness that feels as safe and encouraging of exploration as a favorite teacher might. I love seeing this side of her, and it not only increases her dream-BFF factor, but reminds me why I love art, too. I can’t wait to see where this series goes!

Living in NYC, I rarely drive, and when I do, it’s a long haul out of this stinky trash town in a rental car headed toward nature, with lots and lots of music to belt along to in order to keep myself awake. Most of my road-trip sing-along music is deeply embarrassing and not remotely current and I will not tell you about it, but I will tell you about Aldous Harding’s new album, Party, because it’s fantastic, and if you have not yet listened to it, I get to look extremely cool by being the one to tell you about it. Aldous Harding is only twenty-seven, but she sings with the raw power and soul of someone who has been around a whole lot longer. Her smoky, elastic voice is a plaintive howl that channels Kate Bush with the blues and a sharp little knife between her teeth, and this album shares a producer with PJ Harvey and features guests like Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius, which should give you a good idea of what to expect. It’s a smart, spiky, catchy, haunting record that gets better and better with each listen. “Horizon” and “Imagining My Man” are good starting points, but just listen to the whole thing.