Rebecca Renner narrates the introduction to her dazzling debut, Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades (Macmillan Audio, 12 hours and 2 minutes), explaining how a student in her small-town Florida literature class first told her this wild-sounding tale about a sting operation that had brought down a poaching racket in the Everglades. John Pirhalla takes over the reading when the main narrative begins, proving himself a master of the various drawls and twangs that bring to life Renner’s compelling characterizations of people on both sides of the law. At the center is Jeff Babauta, a wildlife officer who went undercover for more than a year as a dude named Curtis Blackledge. Using an imaginary trust fund to open an alligator farm outside the town of Arcadia, Blackledge befriended the local players and accompanied them on their illicit journeys into the swamp, using hidden cameras, hat-brim recorders, and even invisible ink to gather evidence while nearly being unmasked. Renner illuminates the roles played by development, tourism, and economic hardship, showing us that the line between heroes and bad guys is not easy to draw.
Devoted readers of the New York Times will quickly find themselves obsessed with The Times: How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism, by Adam Nagourney (Penguin Random House Audio, 18 hours and 53 minutes). This history of the paper, 1976-2016, written independently by one of the Times' finest reporters, is enlivened by you-are-there scenes in the newsroom, in hotel bars, and at the Hudson Valley corporate retreat center, and by revealing excerpts from private correspondence and journals. Robert Petkoff’s lucid voicing of the story lets the listener discover, alongside Nagourney, the shocking twists of fate, betrayals, and ego-driven mistakes that lay behind the rise and fall of Jayson Blair, Howell Raines, Jill Abramson, Judith Miller, and others. Delving into the paper’s struggles with institutional racism and sexism and the challenges of the digital era (including backstory on the popular Cooking app), the narrative traces a throughline of great aspirations—and the hubris that goes with them.
“What a talent, what a career, what a life, and what a treat to relive it all with this most down-to-earth of demigods,” gushed our reviewer in response to My Name Is Barbra (Penguin Random House Audio, 48 hours and 13 minutes), recorded by its superstar author with audio-only enhancements that mean you may have to take a week off to absorb the whole megillah! For the diva’s fans, that won’t be too long to immerse themselves in her wonderfully throaty, famously Brooklyn-accented storytelling. In fact, the truly faithful will probably buy the book as well, just so they can gain access to the photo section. The audio has over 50 ad libs and bonus elements—from a chance to hear the author/narrator illustrate her problems with the lyrics of Laura Nyro’s “Stoney End” by playing an excerpt from the recording (“What did ‘going down the stoney end’ even mean?” she demands), to substantial additions to the histories of other signature songs. For “The Way We Were,” for example, she includes clips from a documentary about the film so we hear the original tune played by the composer on the piano and recordings of different versions of the melody and lyrics. Too much? Never!
Marion Winik hosts the NPR podcast The Weekly Reader.