If you’re traveling this Thanksgiving (or anytime this holiday season) you’re going to have down time — in the car, on the train, in the airport. While there are lots of ways to keep yourself entertained, one good option is to have someone read you a good book.
The key to a great audiobook experience is a great text and a great reader, because, unfortunately, a lot of very interesting books are read in a very ordinary way. On the upside, however, it seems as if more and more good actors are doing crossover voice work, which means that there are some pretty interesting pairings out there. Here are a dozen, all of which are available at audible.com.
How about, for example, Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad’’) reading Tim O’Brien’s war novel, “The Things They Carried.’’ Cranston’s voice is gruffer and older-sounding than O’Brien’s narrator technically ought to be. But he sounds exactly the right age for a real Vietnam vet, which makes for a fitting sense of verisimilitude in this battlefield classic.
Or, another interesting match, John Malkovich (“Dangerous Liaisons’’) reading Kurt Vonnegut’s satire of Nixon-era America, “Breakfast of Champions.’’ Malkovich has a loose, laconic way of reading, which perfectly matches Vonnegut’s rambling, sardonic prose. In fact, Malkovich inhabits Vonnegut’s narrator so completely, you might almost think he’d written the book himself.
And speaking of laconic, how about Matthew McConaughey (“True Detective’’) reading one of the stories about the tangles of modern life from Kevin Morris’s “White Man’s Problems.’’ Not only does McConaughey have one of the great accents on the planet, he brings to this tale of ordinary people the same great unhurried pacing and stillness that make his acting so weirdly riveting.
For a completely different sort of listening experience, you could try one of the many great classics read by wonderful British actors. Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey’’) who is fast becoming one of my favorites, offers a fine, slightly Teutonic rendition of the title character in Mary Shelley’s gothic classic, “Frankenstein.’’
And can one ever have too much Jane Austen? I think not. There are lots of audio versions of Austen’s novels out there already, but Rosamund Pike’s sprightly upcoming “Pride and Prejudice,’’ in which the “Gone Girl’’ star does all the voices — not just Lizzy and her sisters, but Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Darcy, Wickham, and the rest — will be an entertaining addition to the fold when it is released Dec. 8.
Another nice match is Aiden Gillen, the Irish actor who plays Littlefinger in “Game of Thrones,’’ reading Sun Tzu’s classic, “The Art of War’’: “If forced to fight in a salt marsh, you should have water and grass near you, and get your back to a clump of trees.” A stroke of genius, really, bringing these two together.
Speaking of war, or at least of battle joined, consider “The Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, read by Andi Arndt. This story of the Supreme Court justice and her astonishing career is simply mesmerizing: “When the jabot with scalloped glass beads glitters flat against the top of RBG’s black robe, it’s bad news for liberals. That’s her dissent collar.”
Some audiobooks are performed not just by a single reader, but by an entire cast. This dramatic treatment works especially well for gothic fiction, like David Tennant (“Dr. Who’’) and Rose Leslie’s (“Game of Thrones’’) sexy, creepy adaptation of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s 19th-century vampire novella, “Carmilla.’’ Or the original epistolary novel “Dracula’’ by Bram Stoker, which is performed by Simon Vance — a veteran audiobook reader with hundreds of titles to his name, including the new book in the Millennium Series, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web’’ — along with Alan Cumming (“The Good Wife’’), Tim Curry (“The Rocky Horror Picture Show’’), and others.
But, wait, what if there are kids in the car? In that case, you might try that barnyard friendship classic “Charlotte’s Web,’’ read by author E.B. White in tandem with journalist and actor George Plimpton, in accents that many younger people have probably never heard. There is certainly a feeling of antiquity to this one, like newsreels before movies, or the trans-Atlantic diction of newsreaders on early TV.
For listeners who want something even more dramatic than a cast of actors reading different parts, there is a category of works known as audio originals, which is to say, basically, radio plays, complete with sound effects and music. Two works of this type that I can recommend are “Six Degrees of Assassination,’’ an MI-5 thriller by M.J. Arlidge, starring Andrew Scott (“Sherlock’’) and Freema Agyeman (“Dr. Who’’), and “The Starling Project’’ by Jeffrey Deaver, featuring Alfred Molina (“Chocolat’’) as war-crimes investigator Harold Middleton. Both full-cast audio dramas of some complexity — “The Starling Project’’ features no less than 30 actors playing 80 speaking roles — these are thoroughly entertaining ways to while away the tedious travel hours.
Christina Thompson is the author of “Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All’’ and the editor of Harvard Review.