Great Expectations (audio)

Great Expectations
was my first serious attempt at an audio book. I now have a long commute (more than an hour on the way home) and I decided something had to be done to make the time pass. I had my doubts. First of all, I’ve never liked being read to and that’s why I had never listened to an audio book all the way through before. More particularly, I once tried to read Great Expectations and was enjoying it so little that I bailed about a third of the way through. But I’m trying to live outside the box these days so I decided to give it a chance.

This was a great recording. Mark Smith, from Simpsonville, North Carolina, as he said at the start of each chapter, was a very skillful reader. With his help, I saw the humor I had missed on my last attempt at reading the book. I had no trouble following along and I really looked forward to the time I spent listening to it. My only complaint about the book was that the ending entailed having everyone conveniently die and all problems disappear in a puff of fortuitous smoke. But it was such a tangled web that I can’t imagine how Dickens could have untangled it any other way.

My only complaint about the audio book was that I didn’t know how to resume playback mid-chapter or fast forward or reverse within a chapter, so that limited me severely to listening to a chapter at a time, some of which were half an hour long. Since then, I’ve learned on the internet how to control my MP3 player better. I now know that if I turn the device off (rather than pause the track and let the device shut itself off from inactivity), then it does resume where I left off. This is so exactly the opposite of what you might expect that I’d never have guessed it myself.  I also learned that if I hold down the FF or REV buttons, instead of just pushing them, it forwards and reverses within the track as opposed to just moving to the next track. These are both very useful pieces of information. I thought I was going to have to buy some expensive MP3 player instead of my cheapo $14 one.

Lastly, Librivox is a great resource. I’m listening to another audio book now and the reader isn’t as good as Mark Smith, but all the books are free and easily downloaded without DRM in MP3 format. It’s only books in the public domain, obviously, but there are quite a few and this way I don’t have to worry about library policies or using iTunes or any other proprietary software. I’m quite happy with the solution.

Accidents in North American Mountaineering (ANAM) 2010

As I say every year, I read ANAM every year, though with less and less interest as the years pass. Eventually you feel like you’ve seen them all, although this year featured the most bizarre accident ever (a leader strangled by her gear sling when the trigger bar for a cam got caught on a horn–tragically implausible).

The theme this year was bad belaying. There were more “lowered off the end of the rope” accidents than usual and a couple of uncommon “belayer didn’t catch the fall” accidents. I’d almost gotten complacent enough to believe those didn’t happen.

Being in the process of teaching a beginner to climb, I’m rethinking some of my techniques. Monkey see, monkey do. And when you see the monkey do what you have (apparently) been doing all these years, it leaves a different impression. All excuses (I’m more experienced) and rationalizations (I haven’t dropped anyone yet) aside, I don’t ever want to reproach myself with having been less than the safest belayer possible if I’m ever involved in an accident. So I’m reviewing my own belay technique with an eye towards setting an example worthy of emulating. No more one-hand slide when taking in slack. From now on, I grab and go.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay was the third (and supposedly final) book in the Hunger Games Triology. Unlike some other young adult series, e.g. Harry Potter and Twilight, Hunger Games did not improve as it went on. Neither the author nor the books seemed to mature and the first book was probably the best. The final denouement was not the inevitable result of what had come before, the characters didn’t grow, and the ending was neither optimistic nor realistic. It was merely the end. However, all three books were enjoyable quick reads.

That’s Not What I Meant by Deborah Tannen

That’s Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships is an oldie but a goodie. It breaks down some of the reasons that what we mean to say is not what is heard. 

One problem is our conflicting needs for independence and solidarity. This is a struggle I can see myself fighting in my relationships.  I want to be part of a unit–to feel safe, secure, and understood–but at the same time I’m afraid of losing myself or appearing dependent.  This leads to couching conversations in terms of the one desire while secretly seeking out the other.  The old “What do you want to do?” is a landmine waiting to be set off by hidden agendas.  We can’t say what it is we want to do in explicit terms because explicitness contradicts solidarity, besides which stating exactly what we want comes off as either seeking approval (contradicting our own independence) or as dictating (contridicting the other person’s indpendence).  So we do the “I don’t know.  What do you want to do” dance.

The author also talks about meta-messages (the message behind the message) and how we assume the other person is getting the same meta-message we’re sending, although often they aren’t, which leads to the worst kind of miscommunications where everyone’s intentions are good and yet ill-feelings still result. 

A funny example of this happened shortly after I read the book.  John and I had a bunch of food in the car to snack on.  He was going through it and asked me “Do you want the apple?”  I didn’t.  In fact, I’d already said I wasn’t hungry and wasn’t going to have anything, but his specifically asking me about the apple made me think he wanted me to take it.  I thought his meta-message was “I’m confirming our solidarity by offering you what I think you’d like best.” So I said “sure.”  It then transpired that actually he wanted the apple.  His intended meta-message was “I’m going to eat the apple if you don’t mind.”  To him, when I took the apple, I was intentionally taking the one thing he’d said he wanted.

It was just like the examples in the book, many of which had seemed downright silly until I found myself caught in the middle of one.  Makes you wonder how often these types of miscommunications go undiscovered.  Luckily we caught this one and John got the apple.  I told him about this book and we had a good talk about mixed up meta-messages.    A few days later we were eating dinner and he asked me if I wanted more of something and then laughed and said he really meant it this time.

Since we (the larger we, not just me and John) aren’t likely to ever develop the ability to read other people’s meta-messages perfectly (this being akin to reading their minds), it’s important that we try to give each other credit for good intentions and not jump straight to the worst interpretation. 

How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else by Michael Gill

Ultimately, How Starbucks Saved My Life isn’t believable.  I was interested in the concept, and the book started well.  Gill has come down in life from being an advertising executive to being a long-time unemployed.  He’s also made a mess of his marriage and fathered an illigitimate child.  Now he needs health benefits and a paycheck.  So he goes to work at Starbucks as a barista where he finds that their corporate culture of respect for individuals coupled with manual labor inspires him to become a better person.

You can see how that might happen.  Trouble is, it seems to happen almost without a struggle.  From day one he’s proud to scrub the toilets well and afraid he won’t know how to make change.  He doesn’t try to get into a management role, nor is anyone interested in taking advantage of the skills he actually has.  He’s all welled up with pride in himself and respect for his co-workers despite claiming to have been a prejudiced, condenscending asshole up until this point. 

And this turnaround comes without him ever hitting any visible bottom.  He has moved into an attic apartment.  That’s about as pathetic as his life gets.  He’s not on the street; he has a tax accountant and a multitude of doctors; and he’s somehow keeping four children in college while paying child support to another woman.  He’s not doing any of that on a Starbucks salary, I’ll wager.  So there’s clearly another source of income there and the Starbucks job is either primarily for the health insurance, as he claims (although I question whether this insurance would really pay for an operation on a pre-existing tumor.  The Starbucks benefits may be good but I doubt they’re so good as to ignore industry best practices), or it’s for a book deal.

So I’m sorry to say that that’s my takeaway.  He came up with a concept–bigwig asshole works humble small-time job–and he sold it to a publisher and then he went and executed it.  Although he’s supposedly still working as a barista, the book is so pro-Starbucks in an unrealistically fawning way, that some kind of viral marketing kickback plan seems likely.  He works to be a tourist attraction is my guess.

Call me cynical.  Yeah,we can all change.  (I’ve changed considerably in the last nine months, but I’m still cynical.)  Honest labor certainly has redeeming value.  Starbucks might treat it’s minimum wage workers way better than Wal-Mart.  Gill may really have gotten a lot out of the experience.  But redemption isn’t an overnight miracle.  Hand someone a mop and hey, presto!  a lifetime of privilege fades away as he discovers the true meaning of life in balancing a cash register.  If only it were so easy.

Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzberg

Salzberg’s Lovingkindness is one of the most insipirational books I’ve ever read.  I’ve lent it to several people through the years and have read it three times myself.  It’s currently on loan with a waiting list. But Faith didn’t do nearly as much for me.  I had a hard time finding enough interest to finish it, though I eventually slogged through.  It’s written in her same, accessible style and is rife with examples from her own life.  It just didn’t resonate with me.

Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul by Tony Hendra

Father Joe is a sweet recounting of the author’s life, particularly as it touched a priest he met in early adolescence.  Tony Hendra, inspired by Father Joe, thought he had a calling to the priesthood but before he took vows, he detoured.  Despite going on to live a worldly life, he kept in touch with the man who had shaped his teen years.  Father Joe was his only touchstone with his former faith.  Eventually, with Father Joe’s help, Hendra finds his way back to a relationship with God.

Hendra, being a professional writer, has a smooth delivery and the message is warm.  Father Joe is lovingly rendered.  At times, the prose is overly florid but the genuine emotion behind the excessive adjectives comes through.

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

It’s been a while since I read a piece of fiction, or much of anything to tell the truth. My reading seems to come in spurts. I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately and I started reading a book on writing called The Weekend Novelist which uses The Accidental Tourist for its examples, so I got it from the library. Well, I really enjoyed it.

The other Anne Tyler I’ve read in the past is Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and my recollection of that is that it was well-written but depressing. This one seemed more hopeful, almost a book of redemption. Specifically you’re watching the lead character, Macon, emerge from the box he’s lived his life in. I’ve been working on getting out of my box too.

We all tend to define ourselves–I never do this, I always do that, I’m no good at such and such–as though these are physical absolutes, unchangeable laws of nature. But that’s an illusion. Macon finds himself walking out of his box without effort, finding that he doesn’t have to always this or never that. His character is more fluid than he’d ever believed. And I’ve been finding the same. All we have to do to change is stop labeling ourselves and say yes where we’ve always said no.

So I’m glad that The Accidental Tourist was placed in my line of sight and I’m glad that I said yes to it. Now back to the writing.

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

Good Morning, Midnight is the disjointed story of a woman drinking too much in Paris.  We can’t say, and she probably can’t either, whether the misery in her life has caused the drinking or the other way around.  She seems to have been always lost, now found only through the alcohol.  It’s a lovingly accurate portrait of a disintegrating alcoholic, but I have trouble with stories written in this vague literary style.  The anal-compulsive in me likes to understand exactly what is happening now, what happened then, and in what order and why.  But then, life isn’t really like that, is it? It’s also hard to like the main character–not hard to sympathize, but hard to like. She’s a bundle of unhappy memories and fears with no redeeming hope or joy. This is intentional, no doubt, but it makes for a sad book.

The Woods by Harlan Coben

The Woods is the second book I’ve read by Harlan Coben.  This one was just as entertaining but had fewer implausible coincidences so I enjoyed it even more.  The story centers around a crime that occurred 20 years in the past and a current day rape trial that is causing the past to resurface.  The rape trial, which starts the book, gets shuffled a little too much to the side for a while, but all the threads come together in the end.