Looking for audiobooks to listen to while you wrap gifts, bake cookies, or drive around to stores for last-minute shopping? You could always go with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (I like the dramatization by Patrick Stewart, but there are plenty of other readings out there by big names in audio like Frank Muller, Simon Prebble, Simon Vance, Jonathan Winters, and Scott Brick.) but if you’re looking for something different – maybe a little darker or more contemporary, focusing on secular aspects of Christmas more than the religious, more caustic than cozy – you might try these.
A Christmas Blizzard by Garrison Keillor (HighBridge, 2009)
Narrated by Garrison Keillor
Humor with an undercurrent of sadness and satire is trademark Garrison Keillor, and his writing and narration of this short novel (5 CDs) is a good example. (If you’re a Prairie Home Companion listener, think of the News from Lake Woebegon segments, where radio host Keillor hints at the sublime by fondly and mildly ridiculing the inhabitants of a small Minnesotan town.) Mood music rises and falls in the background of the reading of this story about a wealthy man who wants to spend Christmas on his fabulous Hawaiian estate, Kuhikuhikapapa’-u’maumau, with his wife Joyce – away from everyone except for all the servants and personal assistants – while Joyce has more traditional ideas about how to spend Christmas.
The Christmas Companion (HighBridge, 2005)
Prairie Home Companion
Like listening to a couple of a Prairie Home Companion Christmas specials back to back, this compilation of stories, songs, and sketches from various years’ shows includes traditional, jazzy, and humorous Christmas songs (including a very funny Twelve Days of Christmas) and funny bits from the show, including a Guy Noir spoof about the noirish private eye tracking down the lactose-intolerant hate group (the Skimheads) that’s been terrorizing dairy-loving Minnesotans. This is a good audio to listen to while you’re busy doing other things because each segment is short, so it’s like having the radio on but being able to rewind if you miss a joke or a song!
Eight White Nights by André Aciman (Tantor, 2010)
Narrated by Paul Boehmer
This absolutely amazing reading by audiobook narrator Paul Boehmer blew me away, but the novel itself might induce claustrophobia in readers who prefer more action and less privileged Manhattanite self-examination. Eight White Nights is narrated by an intensely self-aware young man (left unnamed) who meets a beautiful young woman at a Christmas party and, as soon as he hears her voice, is stricken with desire. They both feel this instant connection, and spend the rest of the party saying clever things, ignoring the rest of the guests. Over the course of this long novel (17 hours on 14 CDs) the narrator obsesses over how to act with Clara (should he call her, when should he call her, what should he say if he calls her, maybe he’ll wait for her to call him, etc.) while maintaining a cool, self-assured exterior so as not to appear needy. This literary exploration of the workings of the human heart and brain cast a spell over me that lingered long after the book ended, so if the vivesection of a Manhattan love affair sounds appealing to you, try Eight White Nights for a change of pace during a frenetic holiday season.
Emily Alone by Stewart O’Nan (Recorded Books, 2011)
Narrated by Andrea Gallo
A follow-up to Wish You Were Here, this novel picks up the story of the widowed Emily Maxwell ten years later. Now in her late seventies, she is living quietly on her own, beginning to take stock of her life, its pleasures and disappointments, its routines and the changes she could make with or without consulting her two adult children, who are busy with their own lives and families. Emily Alone is true-to-life domestic fiction – Emily Maxwell doesn’t hare off to become a spy like Mrs. Pollifax or conduct a love affair à la Bridges of Madison County – and the heroine is thoroughly likeable, though imperfect. The parts of the story that take place from Thanksgiving to New Year’s may seem familiar to anyone who has navigated the treacherous terrain when separate family factions come together for the sake of the holidays, lugging all the baggage from the past with them.
Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard (Sound Library, now AudioGO, 2003)
Narrated by Mark Honan
The hero of Mr. Timothy is Tiny Tim Cratchit from A Christmas Carol, all grown up, sprung loose from the constrictions of his pious childhood and indulging in loose living until his benefactor, “Uncle” Ebenezer puts a hold on the funds, forcing him to make his own living and opening his eyes to new ways of looking at his past, present, and future. This is Dickens gone rogue, with Mr. Timothy taking up lodgings in a brothel and the f-word and c-word making an occasional appearance. It’s a dark London story with plenty of Dickensian characters like ragged orphans, shady villains, brothel keepers, and rough-talking river men with hearts of gold – and you will be rooting for Timothy after the first ten minutes. The novel’s first-person narration and colorful language are perfectly suited to audio, and the audio narration by Mark Honan is excellent!
NPR Holiday Favorites
Narrated by Susan Stamberg and many others
Introduced by Susan Stamberg, this is one of the few on this list that include Hanukkah- and Kwanzaa-themed stories along with Christmas ones, probably because it’s a mix of fiction and nonfiction segments that have been broadcast over the years on National Public Radio. A highlight, of course, is David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries about his (brief) stint as a Christmas elf, but there are also some seriously heartwarming pieces mingled with the humorous ones. This would make a great gift for an audiobook lover who loves the holiday season; it’s one you can pull out and listen to again each year.
Rumpole at Christmas by John Mortimer (BBC Audiobooks, now AudioGO, 2009)
Narrated by Bill Wallis
Even if you’re not familiar with the gruff English barrister known as Rumpole of the Bailey, these short, Christmas-themed stories will make for amusing, light holiday listening. Rumpole himself narrates the stories, and actor Bill Wallis captures perfectly the gruff pomposity and Colombo-like, deceptive bumbling of the sharp-eyed, skillful courtroom defender of London’s hoodlums and common thieves. The collection is made up of seven stand-alone tales of Horace Rumpole’s defense cases and home life with Hilda, his wife, known in Rumpole’s mind as “She Who Must Be Obeyed.” (Since Rumpole normally spends most of his time at the Bailey or drinking at Pommeroy’s wine bar across the street, home life around the holidays makes him more crotchety than usual, what with the courts closed and Hilda’s expecting him to celebrate instead of going to work.) Listen to a sample or download individual stories or the whole collection direct from AudioGo here.
Let me know what books to add to next year’s holiday listening list! (I’d especially like to add a couple of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa novels or short story collections for adults to this list, so please leave recommendations in the comments if you know some good ones.)