Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How I Kept My Brain Warm During the Winter Months

Now that -- too use a cliché' -- spring has sprung, my winter reading list recap is overdue. I don’t make new year’s resolutions, but some time ago, I did resolve to try and read at least one book a month. When you are the business of brevity and bare bones facts – which TV writing often is – I find it helps to be constantly reading something of substance. It’s easier to see the big picture on everything when you examine all the pixels on a regular basis. That makes sense right? This is also an attempt to prove that I do, in fact, know how to read. Although there is no proof but my word that I actually completed the following books.

Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man’s Journey to Climb Farther Than the Eye Can See (Erik Weihenmayer)

I wonder why anyone would want to climb Mt. Everest let alone a man who is completely blind. Yet, Erik Weihenmayer makes a pretty strong case. Actually, this book is less about his climb on Everest than it is about the training it took to get there and other death-defying climbing adventures. Fortunately for the reader, Weihenmayer could see as a child so he is able to paint vivid pictures of his experiences based on the perception he got from his other senses. Admittedly, the only thing I knew about this guy before I picked up Lauren’s signed copy of his book was the embarrassing TV blooper involving his live appearance on a Tuscon television station.

Life on the Run: The Wit, Wisdom, and Insights of a Road Racing Icon (Bart Yasso)

I met Bart Yasso at the marathon expo in Richmond. Before then, he was someone I never really got excited about meeting nor did I understand the reason for his fame in the running community. After spending a couple of minutes with him, my opinion changed. Yasso was genuinely interested in who I was, the Charlotte Running Club and my goals for the next day’s race. When I saw him on the course at mile 20, he cheered for me enthusiastically. His book is a much lighter read than Weihenmayer’s, but still very interesting. Yasso is a true ambassador for the sport, and the fact that he is a not a 2:10 marathoner is a big part of the reason why. I enjoyed and related to his adventures, was fascinated by his transition from alcoholic smoker to marathon runner and took note of the mature way he is handling not being able to run anymore as he ages. This book won’t be winning a Pulitzer, but it’s one every runner should have on their shelf.

Into Thin Air (John Krakauer)

Oddly, before reading this book, I had read Krakauer’s other three subsequent books (“Under the Banner of Heaven”, ‘Into the Wild” & “Where Men Win Glory”). I had been itching to read this one, but had trouble finding it in the book store. I got it from Kristy for Christmas and started reading it on a plane two days later. Despite having no desire at all to climb mountains, I am strangely drawn to books about those who do. This story of a tragic summit of Mount Everest strengthened my convictions to stay relatively close to sea level, but I could not put it down. Krakauer, who was involved in an ascent that killed 11 people, tells the story with such page-turning suspense and detail that I would have read it all in one sitting if I had a day to dedicate to the book. Now, many of the details of Krakauer’s account are disputed by fellow climbers. The late Anatoli Boukreev wrote his own version of the disaster which openly questions and calls out Krakauer. But, raw emotion, anger and grief clearly played a big role in Krakauer’s storytelling (“Into Thin Air” was written just months after the deaths on Everest) and I could understand how in such tragic and long chain of events people could remember things differently. What I don’t like about the book is the blame game that takes place in the afterword, Krakhauer responding to Boukreev’s book. I still want to read “The Climb”, but Everest books are on hold for a while.

In the President’s Secret Service (Ronald Kessler)

This behind the scenes account of the presidential security detail was interesting, but overly political. Kessler, who is a conservative pundit, doesn’t hide his personal disdain for every Democratic president he writes about. While I am sure not all of them were saints, I refuse to believe that every one of them was an inconsiderate, rude and condescending person. I also refuse to believe that the only presidents that had extra-marital affairs were Democrats. What makes it harder to believe is his contrasting practical canonization of every Republican President. The elephant d-bag to donkey d-bag ratio must be a little more balanced. Still, as someone who is intrigued by the goings-on at the nation’s most famous address, I did find some value and interest in this book. Also, Kessler’s bi-partisan message is clear: if we continue to cut the funding for the training and resources of the men and women tasked with protecting our president, we can only assume there will be a disaster.

Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand)

Let me start by saying that when I finished this book, I declared it to be the best I have ever read. Granted, there are a lot of books that I have not read, but this book was simply fantastic. I asked for it for Christmas because I knew it was about an Olympic runner who ended up a prisoner of war in World War II. It turns out not be about running at all and instead the most gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring story of human spirit and survival you will ever read. Louis Zamperini may not be a household name, but what he endured in the name of this country ranks up there with the greats. His life was meticulously researched and told by Laura Hillenbrand who’s ability to tell a story is unparalleled (see “Seabiscuit”). One of the things I really liked about this book is that just when I thought it had reached a crescendo, there was a whole new struggle for the book’s central character. Not surprisingly, a major movie studio has bought the rights to this book and it won’t be long before it hits the big screen. Do yourself a favor and read it first because there is no way any director can capture the magnitude of this story like Laura Hillenbrand did.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Aaron Ralston)

For being a stubborn, selfish idiot with a silver spoon stuck between his lips, Aaron Ralston is a pretty decent writer. That is assuming his book detailing the time he spent wedged under a rock wasn’t ghost written. I wanted to read this book before I saw the movie (“127 Hours”) because in my experience the book is always better than the movie (exceptions: “To Kill a Mockingbird” & “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” are at least equally as good as their written predecessors). Not that I needed the tale of another tragic accident to deter me from climbing/hiking/spelunking, but this book did just that. It is as much of a story about someone who is unprepared as it is about someone who gets caught (literally) in an area so far off the grid that no one would ever possibly find him. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going and didn’t bring nearly enough food. I’m not spoiling it by telling you Ralston cuts his arm off to escape. Everyone knows that. Yet, it’s still a tough part to read – very graphic. I am not sure if I was supposed to come away from the book liking Aaron Ralston, but I didn’t. Not that I wish this sort of experience on anyone, but with a past of putting innocent people in very dangerous situations, he sort of had it coming to him. Then again, he’s probably made millions of dollars off his story. I still haven’t seen the movie.

Again to Carthage (John L. Parker Jr.)

“Once a Runner” is the bible for anyone who ever ran a competitive race in high school or college. It’s the tale of Quenton Cassidy and his quest for Olympic gold. Not long ago, the book was out of print and runners desperate for a copy were either stealing it or paying big bucks for it on eBay. So, it’s surprising that its sequel, “Again to Carthage” was released with little fanfare. Some friends had warned me that it wasn’t nearly as good, but I wanted to see for myself. About 150 pages in, I was ready to agree. Basically, it was a book about a guy who used to run and now makes a lot of money being a lawyer in West Palm Beach. He does young single lawyer things like drive his boat to the Bahamas to skin dive, eat fancy lunches outside and have sex with single women who are attracted to a young fit guy who is not only an eligible lawyer, but also an Olympic silver medalist. However, the second half of this book more than makes up for the first half. In fact, it justifies it. Quenton decides he wants to make a run at the Olympic Marathon Trials. But, without knowing how far removed he is from the sport, you don’t really understand the magnitude of his endeavor. Once he starts training again, that “Once a Runner” magic comes back. The long runs, the workouts that sound superhuman, even an injury. The description of the actual race is the best fictional description of a marathon I have ever read, and the feelings and thoughts Parker writes about are as accurate as it gets. The book has a twist of an ending that wraps up these beloved characters well. I was sad to know that I was saying goodbye to them for the final time.

Profiles in Courage (John F. Kennedy)

John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning book had been sitting on my book shelf for two-and-a-half years before I finally pushed myself to read it. I am glad I did. It was a good lesson in American history and a look at how the senate has evolved at least from the time of our founding fathers to the time JFK served in the 1950s. I have been constantly frustrated over the inability of our lawmakers to compromise and the perception that they are campaigning from the second they are elected. It was slightly comforting to know that this practice has been happening since Daniel Webster served. Webster is just one of the eight courageous Senators Kennedy claims stepped outside the political boundaries and voted for what was right and not what was popular. The issues these eight men sacrificed their careers for ranged from relations with England to succession in the years leading up to the Civil War and the reconstruction in the years following. It’s a sad reality of our political process. Just because you make the right choice does not mean you’ll be hailed as a hero immediately or even years later in history. Some of the names in the book are names I had never heard before and probably will never hear again. While I think this is an important book, a warning: it’s not a page turner. I fell asleep reading this a couple of times. Fortunately, it is segmented well and when you reach the end of one story, you start anew. My only other problem with this book is that it is a bit insincere. In all likelihood, Kennedy wrote very little of it. In fact, one of his speech writers admits to accepting a large sum of money to do all the work. For me, that taints it as a piece of work only released to enhance Kennedy’s chances of winning the presidency. Ironically this is a complete contradiction to the honesty and courage Kennedy, rather his speech writer, preaches. JFK may be the only person to win a Pulitzer Prize for a book he didn’t write.

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