Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography, Neil Patrick Harris

The biggest problem with going on a three-week vacation in October is that when November rolls around, and I’m once again buried in pre-holiday deadlines and extra NaNoWriMo word count, I don’t feel like I can phone it in. If you look in the archives, November is traditionally my laziest month of reviews because it’s hard to hack a thousand words about someone else’s book when my own projects are keeping me up late every night! And then waking me early! When it’s still dark! It’s almost like the writer in me doesn’t realize that hibernation has officially started…

But here’s the thing – there’s a solution to what I’ve started calling the “November is hell” problem. And that solution is audiobooks. Yes. Audiobooks. Usually the bane of my existence (I have almost zero ability to concentrate auditorily), this month, the audiobook is my saving grace. I can listen while cooking dinner (or cleaning up the kitchen from a week’s worth of dinners). I can have it on while I’m in the shower or running errands or waiting to pick my husband up after work. As an added bonus, I can listen to NPH at double speed and get through his jokes in almost half the time! Seven hour book listened to in four? Win!

I suspect it wouldn’t be easy for me to pull this off with a novel, which is why I almost never listen to them, instead choosing memoirs or biographies that don’t require following a complex plot. Nothing slows down a speed read listen like having to constantly rewind to catch up on what transpired while I was multitasking. I’ve found this is especially effective when listening to books written and read by comedians, like Harris (or Fey or Kaling). I’m so used to the rhythm of his speech from years of watching How I Met Your Mother and Doogie Howser, MD that it’s more like a one-sided conversation with an old friend than a book.

It was surprising too, when I told friends I was reading it, that when they inevitably asked whether it was hilarious, I had to stop and say…well, yes. Sort of. But also, no. Which they then took to mean he didn’t successfully execute his jokes, but which actually meant that his story is set up less for laughs than it could have been. Instead, he’s sincere, and sweet, and somehow both self-deprecating and vain. Harris is witty, but also surprisingly vulnerable.

It’s possible it’s just a side effect of listening to a person’s life story told in their own voice, but it’s hard not to root for Harris, to celebrate the birth of his children with him, and to recoil in anger at the discrimination he’s experienced. The format has an empathetic effect on its listener. The fourth wall comes down, and for a few busy hours, it’s possible to be a part of his world.


For more about Neil Patrick Harris, head here.

Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell

I listened to almost all of Eleanor and Park while I was training for my race this spring. I had a little over an hour of it left after I came back from Colorado, and I eventually got around to listening to it last week while I was making dinner.

It felt strange to play it while I was indoors, to take it from the paths where I had run, feet pounding, brain half engaged with the story and half with the pull of my breath.The story made less sense to me there, in the kitchen, then it had in the hot sunlight of Saturday mornings. Park and Eleanor were more real when I was pushing myself to go just a little further, a little faster. In that vulnerable state, running more than I ever had before, a part of me opened up to their story. The mix tapes and their awkward conversations seemed familiar. I could remember high school the way it really was, sharp and exciting and new, rather than the way it seems when I look at pictures, or listen to songs I used to play on endless repeat in my car. 

In two days, I’m going to be spending a week with thirteen high schoolers. We’re going on a mission trip to work with an organization that is trying to put an end to human trafficking, and even though I’ve known these kids for two years, listening to this book reminds me of how much space exists between us. When I look in the mirror, it sometimes seems like I could still be seventeen, but when I sit and talk with them, I’m just…old. The heady rush of emotion that Rowell writes so well is always just under the surface for them; I can’t believe how big everything seems. SATs. Prom. Pop quizzes in Spanish class. Everything is in technicolor when they tell me about it, as though the world is constantly imploding around them every day.

It’s exhausting. I try to keep up with what they like, and who they like, but in the end, it doesn’t matter because a book like Eleanor and Park reminds me that, emotionally at least, I’m much closer to being the parent of a teenager than I am a teenager myself. It’s not that I don’t feel things deeply, but there is a contained element, even to my eruptions. There’s been a sanding down of intensity that happened so slowly, so subtly, I didn’t even realized it until my edges were soft.

That may be one of the reasons I love books like this. It reminds me of what it feels like to be on the verge of exploding out of my own skin. Of being young and in love and frightened of how little is controllable. These kids, when I’m with them, they’re in constant motion, even when they strive to be still. I listen to the rush of them all around me and wonder if every person who knew me at fifteen felt like this, like a rock in the stream of my life.


For more about Rainbow Rowell, go here.

Beekeeping for Beginners, Laurie R King

After my successful experience with the audiobook Bossypants, I decided I should try out some more authors before I committed to downloading a few for the two fourteen hour flights I have in October. Since I had to go to San Diego last weekend anyway, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore my options. I called my mother (she used to write reviews for the magazine AudioFile and has been an avid listener for fifteen years at least) to get some advice, and although I couldn’t find all of the titles she recommended either at the library (why does the library make it so difficult to download audio books?!) or through iTunes, I did manage to pick a few, including a short story about Sherlock Holmes by King.

King has written quite a few of these stories, and the one recommended to me was more of a background piece than a stand-alone novel; however, the fortunate thing about Sherlock Holmes is that, given all the interpretations on the original character, it isn’t too difficult to pick up anywhere and follow along. The only real necessity is familiarity with the characters, and thanks to the recent fascination with Holmes on big screen and small, many people who have never read the original text have a solid background in that regard.

I have to admit that both the BBC’s brilliant version and the more comical Downey/Law interpretation have piqued my interest right along with the masses, and although I generally don’t have much interest in detective stories, I now find myself drawn into the stories of Sherlock Holmes’ compelling intellect. One of things I find especially interesting, and which is particularly relevant to my experience listening to Beekeeping for Beginners (which introduces a woman named Mary Russell as his apprentice, and apparently, a later love interest) is how differently Holmes is painted, not as a detective, but as a romantic character by different writers.

My own fascination with this part of his personality has only increased after the most recent depictions of Holmes lean hard on the idea that his relationship with Watson is more than friendship. Fans, especially of the BBC show, are intensely invested in these two men as a couple, and although I certainly see what they see (the tenderness exhibited by both Watson and Holmes, the love and protection and support provided by each at unexpected moments, the enjoyment in each other’s company over all others), I love even more the idea of Sherlock as a man uninterested in romantic attachments of any kind.

Perhaps it’s because I have a number of friends with little to no interest in finding a life partner that I find it almost offensive that we place desires in Holmes simply because, I believe, we want him to be a little more relatable.  People are marginalized in many ways because of who they want to love and how they want to love them, but it’s also true that we shun the idea that anyone might want a life without sexual attachments. This doesn’t mean such people don’t seek deep friendships or work just as hard to build community – it’s just that a part of them also chooses to remain separate.

My experiences working with children on the Autistic spectrum has given me continuous insight into the complexity of the ability to develop “typical” relationships. Please understand I’m not suggesting that people uninterested in romantic relationships are on that spectrum, but rather, that working with those children opened my mind to the huge number of possibilities outside of my own narrow band of experiences. When I read or watch stories about Sherlock Holmes, I often feel, as I did a bit in Beekeeping for Beginners, that we are trying to project a softness in him that simply doesn’t exist. The magic of the character is, for me at least, in his highly rational, unparalleled intellect. Those uncanny deductions that allow writers to create complex mysteries around him also keep Holmes apart from the rest of the world.

I finally went to Wikipedia to see if I could confirm any of my own impressions about the man, and here is what I found under “Relationships”:

Although Holmes appears to show initial interest in some female clients, Watson says he inevitably “manifested no further interest in the client when once she had ceased to be the centre of one of his problems”. Holmes finds their youth, beauty, and energy (and the cases they bring him) invigorating, distinct from any romantic interest. These episodes show Holmes possesses a degree of charm; yet apart from the case of Irene Adler (“A Scandal in Bohemia”), there is no indication of a serious or long-term interest. Watson states that Holmes has an “aversion to women” but “a peculiarly ingratiating way with [them]”. Holmes states, “I am not a whole-souled admirer of womankind”; in fact, he finds “the motives of women… so inscrutable…. How can you build on such quicksand? Their most trivial actions may mean volumes;… their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin”.

Since the person fans most suspect Sherlock of being in love with is, in fact, Watson, this understanding of his relationships with women makes sense. If he is in love with another man, of course he wouldn’t pursue these characters (although King certainly believes that he could and would do so). Why though, does he have to be in love with Watson? Why can he not just be grateful (and a little off-balance) at the appearance of a devoted friend in his life?

I think it all comes back to our desire to relate more intimately with this brilliant and remote character. We do this with every book we read, with every experience we hear about – everything and everyone means more to us when we can find a connection to ourselves – but Holmes is meant to be an enigma. We are supposed to relate to Watson or to Mrs. Hudson, and through them, we experience the fascination and frustrations that come with caring about a person like Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes acts without warning, experiences deep depressions, uses drugs to alleviate his distress, and can be infuriating when on a case. He is truthful to a fault and has a brain that works at such an unpredictably deep level that for most people he encounters (and this includes us as readers), we will be put off, whether we intend to be or not. He is a difficult, brilliant man and even when he is voiced by the warm-throated Robert Ian MacKenzie, he is not the chap you meet up with at a pub. He is a deeply flawed super hero with the ability to protect us from horrors we might not ever see coming. We need men and women like that, but we don’t always need to make those people exactly like us.

Learn more about Laurie R King here.