When you have many hours of driving ahead of you — especially the monotonous, highway kind of driving — what could be better than an immersive, informative audiobook to help make the trip pass more quickly? The seven books below, all released in 2021, make for great reading, but are especially entertaining for listening thanks to top-notch narration.
Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood
Written and narrated by Danny Trejo
“I’ve always been in a gang of some sort,” says Mexican American actor and restauranteur Danny Trejo, 77, “even if it was five- and six-year-old girls.” He opens his memoir, cowritten by Donal Logue, with a story about himself, his female cousins, and a dead cat, then notes that he and the girls — like everyone in his family — ended up in prison at some point in their lives. A troubled kid growing up in Los Angeles, Trejo got hooked on heroin at age 12, and caught up in violence and crime that led to years in and out of hard-core prisons like Folsom and San Quentin. He recounts these inauspicious beginnings ("I always figured I'd die in prison," he says), as well as his journey to acting success. Now sober for 53 years and "the most killed actor in Hollywood history," thanks to the many bad-guy roles he's aced (Heat, Machete, From Dusk Till Dawn), he's devoted to helping others recover from addiction, including his two adult children. Narrating in his gravely voice, he offers a remarkably candid and often inspiring life story.
Listening time: 13 hours, 19 minutes (hear a sample below)
The Woman They Couldn’t Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear
Written and narrated by Kate Moore
The author of 2017's best-selling Radium Girls, about the female workers at a World War I radium factory who fought for safer working conditions, returns with another absorbing account of women finding their voices. The story's hero is Elizabeth Packard, who was committed to an insane asylum in the 1860s. But Packard, a mother of six, was far from mentally ill. Her preacher husband Theophilus signed her into the Illinois State Hospital to rid himself of an outspoken wife who questioned his ideas and authority (if she didn't conform, he warned her, "I shall put you into the asylum!" according to Moore). Once inside, Packard discovered she was not alone: She met woman after woman who'd been forcibly and needlessly incarcerated there by family members or spouses to keep them quiet and out of sight. She decided to fight back against the system that made this possible (including the hospital's cruel overseer, Andrew McFarland), and successfully challenged the laws that allowed for such gross injustice. It’s a riveting and well-researched book that reads like a suspenseful novel, narrated by the author in a brisk British accent.
Listening time: 14 hours, 36 minutes
Just As I Am: A Memoir
Written by Cicely Tyson, narrated by Tyson, Viola Davis and Robin Miles
The stage and film and television actor Cicely Tyson — "an observer of human nature and the dreamer of audacious dreams," in her own words — passed away at age 96 last January, just two days after the release of this beautifully written book. She’d said she wanted to be remembered for having “done my best,” and, as she describes her accomplishments here, it’s clear she’s done that and then some. Besides winning a 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom and offering decades of stellar performances (in 2011's The Help and the 1974 film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, to name just two), she had a colorful personal life that included marriage to jazz great Miles Davis. It's all poetically described by Tyson, who sometimes lightens her stories with laughter. Actresses Viola Davis and Robin Miles contribute to her narration.
Listening time: 16 hours, 8 minutes
This Is Your Mind on Plants
Written and narrated by Michael Pollan
For those expecting a book about a vegetable-based diet (Pollan’s the Food Rules guy, after all!), his focus here may come as a surprise. This Is Your Mind on Plants is about three psychoactive substances found in the natural world: opium, caffeine and mescaline. The first is derived from an article he wrote 24 years ago for Harper’s, and includes his own attempts at growing poppies; the second is from a separate audiobook released in 2020 called “Caffeine,” where he goes cold turkey on coffee-drinking (it’s not pretty); and the last, which is new, involves his experimenting with peyote. Always an engaging narrator, Pollan dives deep into these subjects, offering cultural critiques and scientific insights that will make you think hard about why one plant is considered benign while another is criminalized. (Read AARP’s interview with Pollan for more.)
Listening time: 7 hours, 37 minutes
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Crying in H-Mart: A Memoir
Written and narrated by Michelle Zauner
Author Zauner, 32, the lead singer of the indie band Japanese Breakfast, has transformed her compelling 2018 essay in The New Yorker, “Crying in H-Mart,” into a bestselling memoir centered around her relationship with her late Korean mother, who'd prepare traditional dishes such as jjigae and gimbap for her family in rural Oregon, sometimes making do without access to the ingredients she needed. She communicated her love through food, which is why Zauner sometimes breaks down crying at H Mart, a supermarket specializing in Asian food, remembering the attention her mother lavished on her meals. The author, who also writes about challenges she faced growing up Korean American, describes the shock she felt at age 25 when her mom is diagnosed with terminal cancer and lingering grief — sometimes manifesting as sudden waves of anger she'll feel when seeing, for instance, an older Korean woman eating seafood noodles at a food court ("Why is she here slurping up spicy jjamppong noodles and my mom isn't?). It’s an engrossing personal story about a complicated bond. Don't be surprised if it makes you cry.
Listening time: 7 hours, 23 minutes
Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside
Written and narrated by Nick Offerman
Parks and Recreation actor Offerman's latest book (others have included Paddle Your Own Canoe and Good Clean Fun, about woodworking) is a charming, humorous and appropriately rambling collection of musings about his travels in the outdoors. His wonderful deep voice, recognized by fans of his Parks and Rec character Ron Swanson, enhance his descriptions of visiting Glacier National Park with musician Jeff Tweedy and author George Saunders; a long stay in Northwest England with another pal, the writer and sheep farmer James Rebanks; and a mid-pandemic multistate Airstream journey with his equally comedic wife, the actress Megan Mullally. The author, 51, offers some “deep-ish” musings about conservation, recreation and the preciousness of our public lands, and isn't shy about criticizing certain conservative policies, but generally keeps the mood light and breezy.
Listening time: 11 hours, 43 minutes
The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War
Written and narrated by Malcolm Gladwell
This well-produced listen for World War II-history buffs is the latest from Gladwell, the New Yorker writer known for his dives into pop-sociology and psychology with giant bestsellers like Blink and The Tipping Point. Here he packs every chapter with enthusiasm about his subject: The multinational group of characters involved in developing U.S. air power in the World War II era, including British physicist Frederick Lindemann and American Air Force General Curtis LeMay — men who were obsessed with the potential of precision bombing as a way to crush American enemies with efficient force (a topic the author has also explored in his "Revisionist History" podcast). It was a pragmatic calculus that raised some serious ethical questions. Gladwell, who can sometimes go a little too deep into the details, weaves in archival recordings of the men involved, as well as the sound of airplanes and bombs and dramatic background music, to help bring the history alive.
Listening time: 5 hours, 14 minutes
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance book critic. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, NPR Books, and others.
Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.