Bryan Cranston's voice rumbles like wheels on gravel, like the quiet confession of a passenger during a long night drive. The star of "Breaking Bad" shows his versatility and insight in his narration of the sometimes wrenching and always affecting stories of the Vietnam War classic "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien.
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First published in 1990, the book was introduced on audio this fall by Playtone, the film and television production company founded by Tom Hanks and producer Gary Goetzman, in concert with the spoken-book giant Audible.com. O'Brien's book is among a group of war memoirs in the new series, which includes the World War II books "With the Old Breed" by E.B. Sledge and "Helmet for my Pillow" by Robert Leckie.
"The Things They Carried" tells the interlocking tales of a platoon in Vietnam. O'Brien is a Vietnam veteran, but he uses fiction to reveal the truths of combat, even casting a fictional version of himself in this metafictional account. Atop his gravelly narration, Cranston layers O'Brien's distinct characters: the lighter voiced, almost wistful Nathan Bowker describing a fellow soldier sinking into the muck on a rainy night; the adrenaline junkie Azar, who joins O'Brien in a practical joke only to call him "purely pitiful" and kick him in the head; and the desperate Lee Strunk, who begs his best friend not to kill him. It's easy to forget there is really only one voice along for this ride — but it's a powerful one.
"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt, narrated by David Pittu, Hachette Audio, 32:33, $45
If you are locked up with someone for 32 hours, he had better be diverting company. I had my doubts about narrator David Pittu at the opening of Donna Tartt's new novel, "The Goldfinch"; he already sounded faintly desperate. Thank goodness he settled down.
One of the pleasures of listening to books is observing how the narrator imagines the characters on the page. Would I have perceived the character differently if someone hadn't been whispering in my ear, giving voice to his words? Or is this one of those rare moments when the actor tells me something I would have missed on my own?
Pittu works just that magic with the character Boris, best friend to protagonist Theo Decker. Tartt's Boris is complex and challenging, and Pittu brings just the right energy to this beguiling mixture of youth, fate and joie de vivre. Pittu's other characters are fine, but Boris is something special. I wanted him back when he was off the page. I wanted him back when the book ended.
The "Goldfinch" of the title refers to a small painting by 17th century Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, a work admired by Theo's mother. When mother and son go to see it at a museum exhibition, a bomb explodes, the mother is killed, and Theo walks away with the painting. The explosion and the theft reshape Theo's life and bring him to the unlikely people, including Boris, who will help shape him.
"Jeeves and the Wedding Bells" by Sebastian Faulks, narrated by Julian Rhind-Tutt, Macmillan Audio, 6:55, $25.99
What should Jeeves sound like? Surely any reader of P.G. Wodehouse's humorous novels has answered that question for himself long ago, from the timbre of his voice to the uprightness of his carriage. In a pinch, however, one could consult any number of Jeeveses on audiobook; there are more than a half-dozen, including — shockingly — an American, which is just wrong.
Grab the Starbucks for Julian Rhind-Tutt's Jeeves. Though his Bertie Wooster is lively in this homage to Wodehouse, his Jeeves could use a blast of espresso. For all the delights of Faulks' tribute, every time the gentleman's gentleman creaks to center stage, the whole enterprise lumbers to a halt.
Still, there is ample wit ("If Hoad could be described as inert, Beeching, P. was about as ert as they come"), a sufficient number of daffy plot twists, and plenty of comic misunderstandings for any devoted Wodehouse fan when Bertie and Jeeves switch roles to help a broken-hearted friend.
Jenni Laidman is a frequent Printers Row Journal contributor.