On a long road trip, the right audio offers a magic elixir of voice and story. It can mitigate irritation over snarled traffic, remedy boredom and, on occasion, lighten the mood if the atmosphere in the minivan resembles the Donner Party minutes before the knives came out.
Here is a sampling of great listens, whether you are traveling solo, paired, with pals, or hauling the whole tribe. If you have little ones, exert a bit of caution. My older son fondly recalls my desperate swerve to hit pause during a particularly inappropriate sex and drugs anecdote featured in Anthony Bourdain's splendid reading of his 2000 tell-all memoir, Kitchen Confidential (Random House Audio, $20). Very funny, but for big-boy ears only.
Family 'Potter' time
(All seven books in digital audio: $242.94 on Pottermore. Complete seven-audio Listening Library set on CD from Amazon.com, $286.52)
Whether you loved the seven Harry Potter books or never read a one, you'll adore the unabridged audios. The marvelous actor Jim Dale reads J.K. Rowling's magical books about the boy wizard with the wand. A Brit by birth who spent decades in the USA, Dale proved the perfect choice because his accent wasn't too strong for American children. He created more than 250 different voices for the Potter audios - 146 alone for 2007's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which set a Guinness World Record.
Another suggestion: Listen as a family to your child's assigned summer reading. For example, Sissy Spacek's narration of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (Caedmon/HarperAudio, $34.99) does quiet justice to the 1960 classic.
New roads, new 'Immortal' topics
(Random House Audio, $35)
From the opening, you know The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is no ordinary work of non-fiction. It tells the story of a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks, today known as HeLa. Her cells were taken in 1951 without her knowledge as the Baltimore mother of five was dying of cervical cancer. HeLa cells have helped in medical breakthroughs such as the polio vaccine, cloning and gene mapping. But Lacks' children and grandchildren can't afford health insurance. Read by well-known narrator Cassandra Campbell and actress Bahni Turpin, the audio raises powerful questions about money, race and science.
Divine silliness with the 'Woosters'
P.G. Wodehouse's immortal The Code of the Woosters sparkles with wit and humor. And the British narrator, Jonathan Cecil, is truly "touched by the divine fire" as Wodehouse describes the book's French cook Anatole. (Avoid the other audio editions, because Cecil is "the voice.") The 1938 comic novel centers on rich feckless British aristocrat "Bertie" Wooster, who must be rescued from bullies, bossy aunts and unsuitable fiancées by his suave valet, Jeeves. It is almost impossible to convey the enduring appeal of Wodehouse because his plots sound ridiculous and the characters vapid. Yet this and other Wodehouse audios have embedded themselves in my heart for over a decade.
Prepare for 'World War Z'
(Random House Audio, $14.99)
You'll never again dismiss the walking dead as silly once you've heard Max Brooks' unforgettable World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Think Mad Max meets The Hot Zone. The novel's premise: A virus has created flesh-devouring zombie hordes who roam the earth, hunting down and infecting the living. Governments, armies, doctors and economies collapse in turn. For older teens, it's Apocalypse Now, pandemic-style, told through interviews with the survivors. The audio features a multi-actor cast that includes Alan Alda, Mark Hamill, Carl Reiner and John Turturro. (Brad Pitt stars in the upcoming 2013 movie.)
Solitary musings on 'Organizing'
(Simon & Schuster, $19.95)
Self-help audios are perhaps best listened to alone, since one rarely enjoys a choir chiming in about one's flaws. If you struggle with clutter and disorganization, there is help to be heard: Julie Morgenstern's Organizing From the Inside Out. In clear, compassionate language, Morgenstern - herself a recovered slob - gives sensible tips and, more importantly, astute insights about the psychological reasons why some people find keeping things in order hard.
Help on health and 'Happiness'
If reading about all the things you should do but don't gives you the vapors, schedule an audio house call with Andrew Weil's Spontaneous Happiness. A leading figure in integrating alternative and traditional medicine, the Arizona doctor will perk you right up. From the beginning of his career, Weil has always advocated for the simple: real food, deep sleep, good friends, exercise, mindfulness. It's his wise, calm, human-to-human delivery that empowers the listener to make changes.
Voices from the past in 'Stalingrad'
(Available as a download from Audible.com, $11.95)
This August marks the 70th anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad, one of the most brutal struggles in history. It began on Aug. 23, 1942, when the German army attacked the city, and raged until Feb. 2, 1943, when the remnants of the German army surrendered. Antony Beevor's Stalingrad is a history classic read by a master narrator, George Guidall, one of Audiofile magazine's "Golden Voices."