Exploring audio books on foot: part one

I originally decided to try out audio books for running and road trips. With the latter, I found even the most compelling story made me sleepy. When driving from Calgary to Winnipeg in one go (1325 km or about 13 hours with food breaks), I need peppy, bouncy, soulless pop music from the 90’s and 00’s to keep me alert and able. Slight clarification: it’s a completely different experience if me or my road trip mate are reading aloud. Perhaps I’m just wired to pay more attention to someone I can see. Anyhow…

runner with headphonesListening to an audio book while running took some experimentation. I began by downloading books I thought would be inspiring (Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall), energizing (Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing), diverting (Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling), and comforting (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen). Some of these were favourites and some of these were new, but with every attempt I came closer to finding the type of book I knew would be effective in keeping me going over the building mileage in my marathon training.

Obviously Born to Run was going to be a good one. I’d read the paper version twice, but I think I enjoyed the story in my ear even more as I ran the tree-lined streets of my neighborhood, pushing beyond my easy pace and playing with my running form as Fred Sanders (the narrator) explained how my body was made for this motion. Unfortunately, I can’t just listen to that book again and again. It’s only 11 hours… which sounds like a lot but isn’t when you’re averaging 25-30 miles a week. I’ve since downloaded Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running but haven’t taken it out on the roads or trails yet. I feel like it’s going to be atmospheric, and I think I’m waiting for the winter to experience Murakami’s phrasing in my mind.

Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me, even shorter at a paltry 5 hours, was a joy. I’ve come to think all memoirs/autobiographies/essays by comedians should be experienced as audio books. I’m sure it’s funny on paper, but funnier when Mindy Kaling is telling you her stories with her own timing, cadence, and inflections. The same goes for Amy Poehler’s Yes Please!, which has the added secret value of guest narrators like Patrick Stewart and Seth Meyers and moments of laughter and improvisation that you won’t find in the bound version. This category of badass-successful-feminist-female comedians definitely works for me. I get to feel powerful and feminine, entertained and empowered, and it’s the right amount of diversion and lightness for 3-6 mile recovery runs. Right now, Caitlin Moran is making me laugh and wince as she develops her first adult feelings about – of all people – Chevy Chase, and tries to find the right names for her “bathing suit areas” in How To Be A Woman. Her stories are embarrassing, not for their content, but for their familiarity.

I’m also trying to enjoy Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, but aside from the interest I have in the actual journey, and the appreciation I have of her story-worthy, atypical life, I don’t like her. I wish she’d hurry up and get her shit together. It’s not entertaining to me to listen to her cheat on her husband and do a lot of heroin. It’s physically painful to me to imagine not thinking about the weight of a hiking pack… or attempting to pack it… prior to embarking on this massive expedition. She’s an incomprehensible mix of determination and complete lack of foresight. But I think I could get over that if they’d chosen a different narrator. I’m sorry Bernadette Dunne. You are totally great at your job. I have no problem with you or your style at all. BUT you sound like you’re in your 50s, and Cheryl at the time of this journey was in her 20s. It’s distracting.

— To be continued —

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Fringing my heart out

Hey all! Here are some simple reviews of the 24 Winnipeg Fringe Festival performances I’ve seen so far, as posted on Instagram in reverse chronological order:

And now to @uofwinnipeg (school 2 for the day) for science… or rather #ScientistTurnedComedian @timxlee at #WpgFringe. A stand-up act deserves a venue with beer, but there was something consistent about the academic setting from the PhD comedian. 3.5 endangered vaquita (look them up!) out of 5.

Back to school at @redrivercollege for #SexEd at #WpgFringe. I’ve been waiting for a show that has a deep-down, meaningful effect on me, and today I found it! @kipema is funny, honest, brave, and so genius. I’d like to be her new BFF so someone will finally do Disney karaoke with me. 5 Bulldog Balls out of 5.

Want to see talented people do weird, creative, and musical things that you never would have dreamed up? #FruitFliesLikeABanana by @thefourthwallensemble is your Fringe show. 4.5 “bloodlusty” oceanic tunes out of 5.

@peternchris deliver laughs, fights, and reconciliation (not to mention physicality, showmanship, puns, acting…) in the silly and delightful #PeterVsChris. 4 man slips out of 5.

#SwordPlayAPlayOfSwords by @sextrexcomedy is all action, nerdiness, and fun. 4 informative sound effects out of 5.

@soundandfurycomedy’s #DoctorWhom is an hour of relaxed goofiness from three performers who are quick, imaginative, and made to have an audience. 4 TARDIS onesies out of 5.

David Eliot’s #AMAZE has too many dad jokes and mediocre comedic timing, but the magic is great. 3 lemon nesting dolls out of 5.

#RapGuideToConsciousness was impressive, eye-opening, fun, and… cool 😎. Rap and neuroscience are strange and beautiful bedfellows. Look out @edfringe, @bababrinkman is coming for you. 5 panpsychic octopi out of 5.

#Josephine. What to say? Tymisha Harris is a goddess. Actually worth 10x the paltry ticket fee. This’ll get 5 erotic Jazz Age banana dances out of 5, but is really in a class of its own.

A tight show, fun audience participation, and solid acting make #FearForest a good choice at #WpgFringe. 3 park ranger manuals out of 5.

Happy I sugar-loaded on a @cake_ology ice cream sammie before #ThePlacesWeGo at #WpgFringe. It was 34 min (oddly), but so slow that it felt like an hour. If you’ve never seen shadow puppetry before, it was probably cool, but if you’ve seen awesome shadow puppetry before (lookin’ at you @mysticalpuppetcompany), #ThePlacesWeGo only deserves 2.5 chickadee sidekicks out of 5.

Honest and thankfully not awkward, #LaurenAndAmandaDoIt at #WpgFringe is a funny, sexy, and relaxed talk show. 4 Mona Lisa Moments out of 5. (Plus, I got to spin the BIG WHEEL!!)

#HotterThanPotter with the captivating @keithhbrown is a must-see at #WpgFringe. 5 coloured-in cakes out of 5.

If you’re interested in zombie philosophy, #MrFlubbersUndeadLegions at #WpgFringe is worth a view. But otherwise… this gets 2.5 paper mâché bananas out of 5.

#ComedyIsFunnyAgain is charming wittiness. 4 vaudeville ghosts out of 5.

@ottoandastrid #Eurosmash is predictably hilarious, loud, & physical. 4.5 bags of salt & vinegar chips out of 5.

#TheCanadaShow from @monstertheatre is as good as hoped… which is saying something. 4 drunk John A MacDonalds out of 5.

#TheInventorOfAllThings from Jem Rolls is how I wish all history was taught in schools (so much energy! So much intrigue!). 4 pompous physicists out of 5.

Missed out on my “planned” show, and wandered into #FlightThePlay instead. Simple storytelling and beautiful dancing make this a gorgeous 45 minutes. 5 tamed turtles out of 5.

#OliveCopperbottom at #WpgFringe! This Dickensian musical comedy is hilarious, and Penny Ashton is an awe-inspiring chameleon. 5 bawdy tavern songs out of 5. Even better than #PromiseAndPromiscuity

#SchrodingersCat at #WpgFringe was ridiculous, goofy, and entertaining. 3.5 Zeus bosons out of 5.

Me & the fam check out #DangerousMagic at #WpgFringe. A prop malfunction made the “big” trick a no-go, so gotta give this only 3 different sized ropes out of 5. But worth a see for the next audience!

Unfortunately, the best word to describe #YesterdayReImagined at #wpgfringe is… clunky. The actors might improve if they relax into the roles, but there’s nothing to be done about that script. 1.5 cheating husbands out of 5.

Punderful and pleasantly weird, #TheBalladOfFrankAllen by @weepingspoon gets 3.5 heavy metal mermaids out of 5.

The fraught experience of reading Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead was one of a stack of books that my parents gave me as a high school graduation gift. Its fellows were 1984, Me Talk Pretty One Day, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird among others. I’ve always been a passionate reader, but this gift was meant to help round out my library and my way of thinking about the world.

So I read The Fountainhead that summer and then Atlas Shrugged soon after. I enjoyed them, and not because I believe capitalism is the answer to all of society’s problems or because Ayn Rand is the best writer in the world (that 30 page manifesto voiced by John Galt, while impressive, is a challenge to power through for even the most determined of readers). No, on first reading I enjoyed them for some reasons that I will detail below, perhaps the first of which is I hadn’t yet learned that reading Ayn Rand was a political statement.

I went to a pretty liberal university. Liberal, politically. Of the two major universities in my city, mine has a certain reputation for being the home of hippies and hipsters, which made it a great place to protest things or buy hemp products but a difficult place to read Ayn Rand.

I was a 17-year old freshman, educated but sheltered. It took me a while to learn not to talk about Rand at all. Forget actually talking about the content of her argument, somehow even mentioning you’d read her books was off-limits. It was a strange experience. I hadn’t known Rand was associated with extreme-right Republicans, spouting selective snippets of her novels to explain why greed is good. I hadn’t known her books were second on the corporate asshole reading list and first on the liberal feminist list of books to vilify. (Let’s be clear here that I am a liberal feminist. But it’s in university that many of us first learn to look upon the baked-in injustices and institutional prejudices to which we were previously completely blind, and so on my first reading of these novels, I skated over the disastrous consent issues in the rape-fantasy scenes with a vague sense of discomfort, not yet able to fully conceptualize the implications and dangers of Rand’s message.)

Though people hear The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged and think of angry, white, privileged, middle-aged men who have a lot of money and zero compassion, I had the chance to read the books without those associations.

There were obvious flaws in her philosophy. I could see them with only a bit of effort. The most major, in my opinion, was: yeah it’s great if everyone just works as hard as they can and the most talented win out… but for that system to truly work, everyone would have to start on equal footing and receive equal access to opportunities (obviously a far, far cry from any human society I can think of and unthinkable in Rand’s “self first” ideology). However, I thought Rand made some good points – and I will intentionally say “Rand” instead of “Rand’s characters” since there seems to be no difference. Here’s a random sampling, from my memory:

  • She thought everyone should work their hardest at whatever they do and everyone who is willing to work should have a job
  • She thought the people who are the best should be rewarded regardless of their connections
  • She thought people should make their own decisions and not rely on advertising or popular opinion, only on reason and fact
  • She thought quality shouldn’t be sacrificed in the name of placating people’s feelings
  • She was a little mixed on women… but she wrote certain female characters equal to their male counterparts in power, intelligence and business acumen, which is pretty good for the decades in which she was writing
  • She thought women should be in control of their own bodies
  • She thought religion was harmful and “holy men” were frauds; same with public relations people
  • She thought people shouldn’t be afraid of something new (and that we shouldn’t fall back into a certain behavior simply because that’s how something has always been done)
  • She thought architecture should suit its surroundings
  • She thought people should be passionate about what they do and what they believe
  • She was completely opposed to war, calling it the second-greatest evil humankind can perpetuate

In fact, I doubt she’d think very highly of any of the politicians who I’ve recently heard quote her novels and who use her name as a Republican secret handshake. Is money the only interest they actually share with Rand? If we put aside the typical American political-right positions on foreign policy, religion, public relations, and women’s health, money seems to be the only thing that remains. And who knows if Rand’s love of capitalism would have held out in today’s world? Her mid twentieth-century vision of capitalism had a purity to it. The formula was basically: hard work = more money. To my knowledge, it didn’t conceive of hedge funds or securities trading or David Li’s Gaussian copula formula.

By all accounts Ayn Rand was a smart, opinionated woman who wasn’t afraid to tell powerful people that they were destroying the world. I doubt she would look at the current presidential candidates (regardless of party) and give any of them a thumbs up because they sort of adhere to some portion of her philosophy. She’d probably be their most vocal critic.

I am definitely left-of-centre, politically. I should add, Canadian left-of-centre, to clarify to my American readers why I don’t use the term “Democrat.”

Anyway, I’m thankful for the “socialist” benefits that allow me to live a healthy, educated life. I believe pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps is ridiculous, and that those who have lots should give a shit about those who have nothing. I think there should be a basic human imperative to help others, and if I have to sacrifice a chunk of what I earn to ensure that all of my neighbors can have access to food, housing, education, healthcare, employment, and a decent standard of living, I will do that without complaint. It seems obvious to me that a community, city, or country where the least fortunate residents are given access to these fundamental needs will be a place that breeds happiness, collaboration, and kindness. And maybe even wealth.

(This is not to say that Canada does a great job at this, especially when it comes to supporting and creating opportunities for our aboriginal population, but we are better than some.)

I say all this not to try to encourage you politically one way or another – to each his/her own – but to prove something about people who read Rand as opposed to people who use her books as self-promoting dogma.

There’s no way Rand and I would be on the same page politically, but that doesn’t mean her ideas are worthless, or that my time reading her books was wasted. Reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (more than once, I should mention), helped me think critically about my government, about capitalism, and about how we define value, for the first time. I don’t have to agree with the message to enjoy the books, and in fact my belief in my own positions was formulated and strengthened through understanding Rand’s contrary arguments.

It comes down to this: I had the singular experience of reading a highly politicized author while being blissfully unaware of her significance. In the years after exploring her ideas, the reading of them hasn’t spoiled my compassion or increased my greed. Rather, the reading of her ideas has brought as much, if not more, value to my way of reasoning and thinking critically as any other books I have read.

Belated Fringe reviews for your reading pleasure

Hi, friends.

I know it may look like I went to the Winnipeg Fringe and never returned, but that was not quite  the case. I did see an awful lot of shows (but thankfully, not a lot of awful shows). I shattered my previous Fringing record. Here are my brief reviews of those experiences:

Burning Hearts: a skillfully told and atmospheric one-man show. 4 inspirational ghosts out of 5.

The Telephone: a bit hammy for my taste, but the singalong was cute. At the very least, you should leave with a smile. I give it 2 rotary phones out of 5.

White Pants from Hip.Bang: 4 spilled glasses of wine out of 5. Everything you need from a sketch show. Highlights? Cooool Tips and the “clothes fastener” improv.

Three Men in a Boat: 3 Britishisms out of 5. The actors were incredible, but I’d rather see them in a different play.

Channeling Kevin Spacey: Solid, well-acted and funny (esp. if you’re a Spacey or Pacino fan). 3.8 gold chains out of 5 from JT. Round down for me.

For Body and Light presents Coming and Going: Moody and damp contemporary dance and spoken word poetry. 2.5 rubber boots out of 5 for neato concept and lighting but strange execution. (5 yeses out of 5 for local poet Chimwemwe Undi’s opener.)

Hey ’90’s Kids, You’re Old: 5 Baby Bottle Pops out of 5. Delivers the perfect balance of nostalgic warmth and legit teasing. Highlight is Where’s Waldo and Carmen San Diego online dating, but every sketch is strong. Best for those born in the 80s (obvs).

Die Roten Puntkte: Best Band in the World: With lyrics like “You’re like a verb, always doing things to me” Die Roten Puntkte really is the best. 5 bananas out of 5.

The Orchid and the Crow at Fringe was excellent. Funny, sad, and smart. I give it 4.5 yellow jerseys out of 5.

Saw Snafu Dance’s Snack Music and loved the skittles and the puppetry. It’s too bad the audience didn’t provide much improv help. 3.5 out-of-tune zithers out of 5.

ViVA Dance Company’s Dreamscape kept getting stronger with each piece. I give it 4 barefoot pirouettes out of 5.

Major Matt Mason Collective’s Air was incredible. I left with numb fingers from the anxious fists I made. I give it 5 doubling cubes out of 5 (and a bag of chips). ***My favourite of the whole Fringe, ever***

Spotlight: Short performance which the moody, anxiety-ridden creative types will find familiar. Patchy casting (ironic) with a couple bright spots. 3 last chances out of 5.

How to Talk to Human Beings: witty, dialogue-heavy script with solid acting (Gilmore-esque with more neuroses). 4 polite Canadians at the end of their ropes out of 5.

Read recently: The Martian by Andy Weir

Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Published: serial blog turned self-published e-book in 2011 turned physical from by Crown Publishers in 2014
Read: July 1 & 2, 2015
Recommended by: someone online

Synopsis (from Andy Weir’s website)
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.

After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

Review
First, maybe I’m crazy, but I assumed something called The Martian would be shelved in science fiction.

For a reason I can’t quite understand, it was shelved in fiction/literature. I had an interesting time trying to track it down. I know that’s not the book’s fault, but it was an inauspicious start to the reading experience.

There are a lot of things to enjoy about this book: the main character’s sarcasm (which made me laugh out loud on a few occasions), the absence of a romantic story arc (which is a refreshing change from everything else I’ve watched or read lately), the not-so-subtle jabs at bureaucracy (which are necessary with a book that involves a government agency with an $18 billion budget)… all good stuff.

But the thing I loved about this book? It was basically a giant high-five to all the big-brained something-ists (astrophysic-, botan-, chem-, etc.) out there. It’s a book about heroic, interesting  scientists. Look, I don’t know anything more than the average person about physics, engineering, or astronomy, but The Martian reads as if the author knows about all of these things, and it’s impressive.

This is a novel where the science drives the story, and while that should be dry, instead it’s just interesting and different. Yay!

I’m a bit nervous about it becoming a movie (coming out on October 2, 2015 starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, etc., etc.). Yes, there’s plenty of action, and I’m sure Ridley Scott and his cinematographers, designers, and special effects peeps will have a splendid time creating an impactful visual experience of the surface of Mars… it could be an exciting and stimulating film… but the SCIENCE. I think the film will have to cut out all of the technical details that I felt made the story special. I guess we’ll see.

As always: If you’re a friend, I’ll lend it to you. If you’re not, please visit one of your charming, musty, local libraries. If you want to own it for yourself, try your hardest to GO TO A BOOKSTORE (and preferably an independent bookstore) instead of an online retailer — though as The Martian was originally written and released online and then as an e-book, maybe this time I can get off my paper-loving high horse.

S.E. Lund

Re-reading binge

I borrowed the first book in Jack Whyte’s Dream of Eagles cycle from my mum on Sunday. I’ve read the series maybe three times before. The books are long — I believe all are over 600 pages; some significantly more than that — and including all of the companion books, there are nine in total. Nine. Even though I love them, I usually get tired around book five, because it’s a lot of time spent in that world (generations upon generations, in fact).

It’s historical fiction, though often shelved in fantasy, which has always bothered me. Sure, it’s about King Arthur and Camulod, but it’s an historical imagining of the “real” people behind the legend. There’s no magic in it. That’s the point.

It’s Thursday now, and I’m well into the third book, The Eagles’ Brood. It’s the one where the narrator changes from Publius to Merlyn, and it always takes me a bit to get over the fact I won’t be experiencing the world through Publius’s eyes any longer. It’s like when The Doctor re-generates. It takes me a while to give the new one a chance. (You too, Whovians?)

Anyway, I truly love these books. They’re well written and the research is super impressive. For a while after I re-read them, I know a lot about the decline of Rome. I know several of the dates of significant invasions in Britain. I know quite a bit about the military structure of the Roman Legions. I know a smidgen about early Christianity. These are all things I learned on previous readings (and, in part, in World History classes), but they come flooding back, and it’s nice to feel like I’m re-visiting and refreshing my knowledge.

These books are also pretty “R-rated.” Lots of sex; lots of death. Not quite to the level of GoT (because, let’s be honest, George R.R. Martin has set that bar shockingly high), but certainly more than your average novel.

If you enjoy historical fiction or books about war or series’ that go on forever or King Arthur stories or Canadian authors or layered and flawed heroes, I would recommend these books. The Skystone is first. Enjoy!

I’m so jealous of future people

Have you heard about the Future Library (“Framtidsbiblioteket”) art project by Katie Paterson? Basically, one writer every year until 2114 will contribute a text to the Future Library, with the writings held unpublished until then.

A thousand trees have been planted in Nordmarka, a forest just outside Oslo, which will supply the paper for the special anthology of books of the writings  to be printed in one hundred years time. As per the website: “Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the 100-year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.”

Margaret Atwood was asked to be the inaugural writer for Future Library which is fitting, I suppose, since her most popular works have been speculative fiction. I’m just jealous of the future humans who get to read her contribution.

I love this idea, though I would love it a lot more if someone would have started it, say, 50 years ago, so I could have a chance of reading the anthology.