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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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.

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!

Read Recently: Extraordinary

Title: Extraordinary
Author: David Gilmour
Published in 2013 by Patrick Crean editions, a division of HarperCollinsCanada
Read on January 1, 2014
Recommended by: the Giller Prize award committee (long list)

Synopsis from the publisher:

“Over the course of one Saturday night, a man and his half-sister meet at her request to spend the evening preparing for her assisted death. They drink and reminisce fondly, sadly, amusingly about their lives and especially her children, both of whom have led dramatic and profoundly different lives. Extraordinary is a gentle consideration of assisted suicide, but it is also a story about siblings — about how brothers and sisters turn out so differently; about how little, in fact, turns out the way we expect. In the end, this is a novel about the extraordinary business of being alive.”

Review:

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll notice that I’m a fan of wordiness. I like the taste of lots of adjectives in a row, and I like listing things in multiples, but verbosity is not David Gilmour’s racket.

Sometimes, you read a book of such beautiful simplicity that it makes you understand what being a storyteller truly means. I’m certain one blog or another has made some wordplay witticism about the book living up to its title, so I’ll not put to much time into that endeavour here. Instead, I’ll tell you that Extraordinary is one of the loveliest pieces of literature I’ve read in a long time.

Now, this author got a lot of (deserved) flack recently for stating openly that he only teaches authors who are “serious heterosexual guys” (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/27/author-david-gilmour-female-writers). What a disappointment. However, my new knowledge of his prejudices haven’t erased my enjoyment of this book.

I was a bit surprised that the book didn’t make a more political statement about assisted suicide, but in the end I thought it stood well on the implied – let’s call it “pro-choice” – framing of the issue, without an overt endorsement. The assisted suicide, though the catalyst for the characters’ interactions, felt more like a supplementary story line to the relationship between brother and sister.

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 instead of an online retailer. (As a former bookseller, I must plead with you to keep those wondrous book havens alive). If at all possible, make it an independent bookstore, but in a pinch, even the giant corporate books/music/housewares/wrapping paper/Starbucks monstrosities will do.

S.E. Lund

Mmm. Unexpected book love.

My lovely sister came back from her month-long tour of Central America bringing with her an assortment of  gifts. Because she knows me, I received  a selection of jewelry (or as I said, “Oooh! Pretty foreign bobbles!”), a skirt/dress that is patiently waiting for April when I can wear it without getting a chill, and – as an afterthought – a book that she picked up and read in Mexico.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a book about books. Well, not quite. It’s a delicious Gothic mystery set in 1950s Barcelona. Here, have a Publisher’s Weekly synopsis:

Ruiz Zafón’s novel, a bestseller in his native Spain, takes the satanic touches from Angel Heart and stirs them into a bookish intrigue à la Foucault’s Pendulum. Daniel Sempere, the son of a widowed bookstore owner, is 10 when he discovers a novel, The Shadow of the Wind, by Julián Carax. The novel is rare, the author obscure, and rumors tell of a horribly disfigured man who has been burning every copy he can find of Carax’s novels. 

As he grows up, Daniel’s fascination with the mysterious Carax links him to a blind femme fatale with a “porcelain gaze,” Clara Barceló; another fan, a leftist jack-of-all-trades, Fermín Romero de Torres; his best friend’s sister, the delectable Beatriz Aguilar; and, as he begins investigating the life and death of Carax, a cast of characters with secrets to hide.

Though some reviews have accused Zafon of straining to dramatize his plot, I found his storytelling rich, gorgeous, and enthralling. His plot twists are a fair mix of predictable and surprising, and his description was simply wonderful.

Love from your reviewy friend.