Exploring audio books on foot: part two

Continuing…

Aside from feminist comediennes and sport-based biographies, mysteries are the audio books that keep my legs rolling forward.

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Me after finishing 19 miles… listening to an audio book, of course

A few months ago, I would have told you that mystery is not a genre I choose. This would have been a lie. Apparently, I’ve selectively remembered my childhood obsession with Nancy Drew (remind me to post my Nancy Drew shelves, where I’ve collected 90% of the original 56 tales with their classic covers) and my favourite recommendations from my days as a bookseller, which were, at their hearts, mysteries (The Thirteenth Tale, The Rule of Four, Gentlemen and Players). I should not have been surprised that I like mysteries so much. But I was. So much for self-awareness.

I started off with The Girl on the Train, because everybody seemed to love it. Mass appeal equals a relatively uncomplicated style plus a fast-paced plot: the perfect equation for an audio book whose primary purpose is distraction. I did not enjoy The Girl on the Train. I’m not sure why anyone does. It’s not suspenseful, it’s boring. It’s like only reading the second half of Gone Girl. I tried running to it twice and stopped because it was making me (or time) slower. I finished it while digging out new gardens in the front yard, the physical work thankfully distracting me from the book’s tedium (this is the polar opposite of its intended purpose). Not a successful first choice.

But I didn’t give up, mostly because when I continued to Google “best audio books for running,” a host of mystery novels kept popping up among Amy Poehler and Mindy Kaling and Born to Run. Sure, many lists recommended The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl (and these articles were quickly nixed), but one in particular suggested Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling.

jk-rowling-robert-galbraithNow, for all of you regular humans, Robert Galbraith is a pen name of the goddess J.K. Rowling, author of the much-lauded and world-shifting Harry Potter series. I, by consequence of being a bookworm, a fantasy nerd, a person with splendid taste, and someone who was born in 1988 and thus grew up with the characters as the series progressed, am a deeply committed Harry Potter fan. But I had never read any of J.K.’s adult fiction. There was no reason to believe that I wouldn’t like it, and there were many reasons to believe I would be highly diverted by her storytelling prowess, so I downloaded The Cuckoo’s Calling and introduced myself to Strike and Robin.

It was love. This was exactly the type of mystery made for running. Once I warmed to the characters, which, admittedly, took a good third of the novel, I enjoyed the dynamic plot. It’s a modern private eye novel, where ex-SIB investigator Cormoran Strike and his temp assistant Robin Ellacott look into the suspicious death of a tabloid-favourite model. I won’t give anything away (nor will I share any deep reflections on the next two books in the series, The Silkworm and Career of Evil, though I quickly downloaded and ran to those as well), but I will say the following: I love that Strike is better at his job than I am.

Part of the fun of a mystery is trying to get to the “whodunnit” before the characters do, but there’s also something deeply dissatisfying about anticipating the big reveal/twist. It’s irritating to get to the end already knowing who the killer is, or that a dead character is really alive, or that it was a memory all along, or whatever. Most of the time, Strike made connections more quickly than I could make predictions, and even when I figured out one element, the mysteries were layered enough (or convoluted enough in some cases) that not all was spoiled. Yay!

Another thing to enjoy about these novels is the relationship development between the characters. If we must give Rowling only one compliment, it’s that she’s great at writing characters who feel familiar. They are human, and we care about them.

 

— To be continued again —

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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 —

Read (not so) recently: Me Talk Pretty One Day

Read (not so) recently: Me Talk Pretty One Day

Title: Me Talk Pretty One Day
Author: David Sedaris
Published in 2000 by Little, Brown and Co.
Read sometime in 2007 and then July 2010
Recommended by: The staff at Chapters as a gift for me

Synopsis from Publisher’s Weekly:

Sedaris is Garrison Keillor’s evil twin: like the Minnesota humorist, Sedaris focuses on the icy patches that mar life’s sidewalk, though the ice in his work is much more slippery and the falls much more spectacularly funny than in Keillor’s. Many of the 27 short essays collected here (which appeared originally in the New Yorker, Esquire and elsewhere) deal with his father, Lou, to whom the book is dedicated.

Sedaris also writes here about the time he spent in France and the difficulty of learning another language. After several extended stays in a little Norman village and in Paris, Sedaris had progressed, he observes, “from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. ‘Is thems the thoughts of cows?’ I’d ask the butcher, pointing to the calves’ brains displayed in the front window.” But in English, Sedaris is nothing if not nimble: in one essay he goes from his cat’s cremation to his mother’s in a way that somehow manages to remain reverent to both of the departed. “Reliable sources” have told Sedaris that he has “tended to exhaust people,” and true to form, he will exhaust readers of this new book, too – with helpless laughter.

The good:

Sedaris’s stories are funny, intelligent, and dysfunctional. With writing both fresh and bitter, his semi-fictionalized personal snapshots put on display the horrifying, embarrassing, self-doubting, uncomfortable, and ultimately triumphant moments in his life. I predict you’ll be amused. And if you somehow fail to see parallels of yourself in some of his experiences, you’ve led a more charmed life than me.

The bad:

I can’t think of any reason not to read it. Maybe it won’t be to your taste, but don’t you take that risk with every book you choose?

The other:

The first time I read this book I flew through it. It felt light and humorous and not particularly memorable. The second time I read Me Talk Pretty One Day was a totally different experience. Jay and I were on a road trip. During a fourteen-hour driving day covering the blandest part of the Prairies, I chose to flip off the radio and read this book aloud. (Me Talk Pretty One Day – and really all of Sedaris’s oeuvre – benefit hugely from being read aloud. It allows the reader to pick up on the rhythm and timing of Sedaris’ comedic precision.) While reading the essay from which the title was plucked, Jay and I were laughing so much we were ugly crying. We nearly crashed.

Ever since, Sedaris has been Jay’s favourite author. Of the 15 books in our house that we say belong to Jay, three are by Sedaris.

Jay’s bookshelf, in no particular order:

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Leather by David Sedaris
– Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling three books
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Anchorboy by Jay Onrait
Kings of the Rings: 125 Years of the World’s Biggest Bonspiel by Sean Grassie
The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester
– two investing books
– a couple of childhood favourites

Not a bad selection, actually. For an accountant.

I got the chance to meet Sedaris when he was on a book tour for Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. Note: I don’t really care if fiction authors are likeable – but autobiography relies on building an affinity with the author/protagonist, and disliking him in person would tarnish his stories for me. I’m relieved to report that he’s almost precisely as charming and awkward in person as he is on paper (and presumably on the radio, although honestly American public radio is not part of my life). I couldn’t think of anything witty to say when he signed my book, but he wrote a flattering message anyway.

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 – it’s half the fun.

S.E. Lund