Born to Run, Christopher McDougall

After finishing The Night Circus last week, I realized I was pretty well screwed. You can’t just read a book like that and expect to jump right into something else without a harsh comparison ruining the second one for you…or at least that’s what I’ve found; usually the book I try to read after an incredible story leaves me feeling bored and antsy.

On top of that, I came down with a nasty cold Thursday night that lasted well into Sunday. So there I was on Friday night, missing a poker party, missing the Circus, missing my husband (who was at the poker party), missing the ability to breathe through my nose – basically a grumpy, sore-throated mess – and a cover from my pile of “I swear I have the best intentions of getting to you” books caught my eye, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. The magic of The Night Circus, flowing in and out of a world of dreams as it does, was the perfect segue into this book, a story of a gentle, hidden tribe of people living in a place on earth very nearly as dream-like as fiction.

Two years ago on a drive across the country, David and I had heard McDougall interviewed about his book on NPR, and as a newbie runner, just weeks into the Couch to 5k, I was fascinated. He was talking about barefoot running, ultra-marathons, and a tribe in Mexico called the  Tarahumara, as well as concepts in running I couldn’t imagine performing myself but which I desperately strived for.

You see, I love to run. I’ve always wanted to be a runner, but I come from a family that loves, well, books. I was a terribly uncoordinated kid, and I didn’t like competitive sports. I always felt awkward and embarrassed in gym class. I was chubby, slow, and completely clueless about what true athleticism was. I would watch the Boston Marathon in college, calling in sick to work and skipping class to see how both the men and women’s races unfold. I was obsessed, always looking in at a world I wanted to belong to but never could.

In 2009 though, I quit my job teaching preschool to write full-time and decided to try a whole new life on for size. I started doing yoga (I am hilariously inflexible, but even I have found that practice makes…well, not perfect, but improvement) and I took on the C to 5K challenge. All the runners I knew were strong, lean, and long-legged. They never seemed to sweat. They looked effortless as they flew past me down the trails. I, on the other hand, sweat just thinking about running; my entire head gets flushed bright red after about five minutes, and I’m slow. The only thing I’ve got going for me is a natural mid-foot stride, a product, I assume, of the fact that I almost never wear shoes and consequently have strong, flexible feet. That, and, well, I absolutely stupid love it.

I don’t run because my doctor tells me to, or because I’m good at it. In fact, after a year and a half, I still average a 12 minute mile on my good days – a pace that has been referred to as “glacial,” “laughable,” and “pointless” on varying occasions. The thing is, I can run four and half miles at that glacial pace without my heart rate going over 160bpm and without stopping, and that makes me a runner, no matter what anyone else says. So when I picked up Born to Run, a book that’s been on my shelf since Christmas and on my mind for two years before that, I didn’t appreciate that I would be seeing on the page what has long been printed on my soul – that we are a running people and that we are ALL born to run.

When I was very young, I read Anne of Green Gables and was first introduced to the idea of a “kindred spirit,” of a person who could think and feel as I do. I’ve met several such people in my life, but I’d never found one who felt about running the way I do – that it’s not a job, not a way to lose weight or to compete, but rather that it’s about this explosive bodily joy that can’t be contained.

The men and women in this book are superb, world-renowned athletes. Even McDougall managed to train in the ways of the Tarahumara tribe and transform himself from an aging middle-of-the-packer with bad knees into the kind of runner who could complete a 50 mile death trail race in one of the most remote locations in the world. It’s all a little mysterious. There’s definitely a liberal sprinkling of magic in his story. But last night, while the rest of the country was watching the Superbowl, I couldn’t tear myself away from this story. I couldn’t stop myself from believing that with enough effort, I could become this kind of runner too – light, effortless, compassionate, and joyful…

Christopher McDougall can be found here: http://www.chrismcdougall.com/blog/

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

Something about the circus stirs their souls, and they ache for it when it is absent. They seek each other out, these people of such specific like mind. They tell of how they found the circus, how those first few steps were like magic. Like stepping into a fairy tale under a curtain of stars. They pontificate upon the fluffiness of the popcorn, the sweetness of the chocolate. They spend hours discussing the quality of the light, the heat of the bonfire. They sit over their drinks smiling like children and they relish being surrounded by kindred spirits, if only for an evening. When they depart, they shake hands and embrace like old friends, even if they have only just met, and as they their separate ways they feel less alone than they had before. (p 143) 

I want to visit the Night Circus. I want it more than I’ve wanted anything for a long time. I want it to be real, like The House on the Rock in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I want to be swept away by something so mysterious and possessing that it can only be called magic.

I’ve always loved magic. My friend’s father is a magician, and I still remember my unabashed delight at the first trick he ever performed for me years ago. We were at the Denver airport getting ready to fly back to Los Angeles, and I was trying to figure out how to ask him to show me some magic without succumbing to outright begging. I don’t remember why he relented, but I do recall standing in the loading zone with the car trunk open and our bags untouched inside. He asked for a quarter and then told me to write whatever I wanted on it. I chose Wyoming, because that was where my future in-laws lived, and I had never been, and it seemed appropriately portentous. He took the coin from me and when he gave it back a moment later, it was bent in half. I could see where I had written my word, and I could feel that the coin was unyieldingly changed. It wasn’t an illusion. He had shifted it from a flat piece of metal into the shape of a C. That’s what I saw, and that’s what I believe.

I have never had the slightest desire to see behind the curtain, to have magic’s greatest secrets revealed to me. I have no problem believing in God, or in the existence of aliens and fairies – why should magic be any less real? Because I can’t see it? Because someone tells me it’s just a trick, a subtle shift and redirection?

To me, magic, and the potential of and for magic is wonderful. It fills me in where the pieces of reality fail to come together. It comforts me on the days when I feel I’m walking through the world just slightly out of step with reality. The Night Circus (the tale) and the Night Circus (the circus) have lured me into an alternate universe where even those without any hint of magic can experience the most exquisite dreams come to life. It’s one of the most breathtaking transformations to me – the shaping of dreams into words on the page.

“It is important,” the man in the grey suit interrupts. “Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that.” He takes another sip of his wine. “There are many kinds of magic, after all.” (p 381)

You can follow Erin Morgenstern at http://erinmorgenstern.com/blog/ or on Twitter @erinmorgenstern

Odd and the Frost Giants, Neil Gaiman

I think we can all agree that the most pressing question at hand this morning is how have I made it a little over a month without reading, rereading, reviewing, or at least mentioning a book by Neil Gaiman? How?! He was my first foray into a brave new literary world back in the sixth grade when my best friend recommended I read Good Omens (Gaiman and Terry Pratchett). It’s still on my top ten list, and I’ve read it at least twelve times since then. I don’t even have the original copy I owned (a mass market paperback that was easy to hold and had my favorite cover of all the releases) because I’ve lent it out so many times (I think I might be on copy four actually). It’s a small price to pay to introduce others to an author who just keeps surprising me, and who brings a joy to storytelling that’s not just rare, it’s magical.

How many people do you know who write everything from picture books to YA and Middle Grade to adult fiction, and do it well (I mean, award-winningly well)? Oh, did I mention he’s also one of the foremost graphic novelists of our time (and I say that as someone who doesn’t enjoy reading graphic novels because the combination of text and pictures hurts my eyes)? Some of his books have even been made into wonderful films and musicals. I am not overstating his talents in the least when I say he has written something for everyone and if you’ve never had the pleasure, find someone who knows your taste and have them recommend something. Seriously. Because if you don’t, or haven’t, or think he has nothing to say to you, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say you’re wrong. Not that I have strong opinions about this…I’m just saying, brilliant storytellers come along so infrequently, it would be terrible for you to miss out.

Now, Odd is not my favorite, or even close to my favorite of his books, and I still love it. Also, it’s short, and between the visit from my mother and my desperate desire to finally finish watching The West Wing this weekend, I admittedly did not leave a lot of time for reading. I certainly didn’t leave enough time to give a new book the proper consideration it would deserve, so I took Odd out and spent a happy hour with him.

(I’ll warn you right now that I’ll be doing this from time to time – as much as I love to discover new authors and/or new books by already beloved authors, I also have a small collection of books that I love to reread. I can’t just abandon them, these dear friends of mine, so some weeks, you will have to endure my slightly wonky loving on a book that you might never have thought twice about.)

Odd and the Frost Giants is written as a Norwegian folktale, and truly, the quarter Norwegian in me can’t get enough of this sort of book (I recently read another, similarly styled excellent Norwegian tale called Icefall, by Matthew J Kirby, in case you’re into that sort of thing). It works well as a children’s story – simple, straightforward yet elegant language, and a protagonist who is both honorable and, well, odd – but it’s not a childish book. It reads like the best kind of fable, a story that will transport the reader to the icy fields of Norway, if only for a hundred or so pages.

So go ahead and get that cozy blanket out, stoke the fire against these last cold, dark days of January, and venture into a world where winter has settled deeply and seemingly without end…

Chapter 1

  There was a boy called Odd, and there was nothing strange or unusual about that, not in that time or place. Odd meant “tip of the blade,” and it was a lucky name. 

He was odd, though. At least, the other villagers thought so. But if there was one thing he wasn’t, it was lucky…(pg 1)

Neil Gaiman can be found on twitter @neilhimself or at www.neilgaiman.com

The Ninth Ward, Jewell Parker Rhodes

One of the things I’ve discovered about this project, even just these few weeks in, is that I so desperately need two manageable books a week, everything is fair game – that book my husband picked up on a whim at the used book store, the novel my friend’s cousin recommended, a list given to me by a friend who just became a middle school librarian…now that I’ve started asking, it seems like everyone has a book they love that I have to read, and that alone makes this worthwhile. So many well-loved stories crawling out of the woodwork! It’s literary Christmas!

The Ninth Ward is another recommendation from my mother; she was reviewing it for Audiophile magazine and told me the reader was so wonderful that she wasn’t sure if whether that had influenced her opinion on the story itself. Nevertheless, this book did win the Coretta Scott King award, and it’s about Hurricane Katrina, a catastrophic event that significantly affected the first decade of the new millennium, so I decided to give it a try.

Having never been to New Orleans, I don’t believe I can fully appreciate the treasure that was lost when the levees broke, but as a citizen of the world, I can’t help but be drawn to the destruction that has and can be wreaked by nature. I’m fascinated by stories that illustrate how fragile we are as human beings. This unassuming novel does just that.

I think quiet before the storm means it isn’t really quiet. Maybe it means only now you can hear birds flying, forming a V overhead. Or that the air has sound. That it whistles, low and deep, as a storm approaches. Quiet before a storm maybe means folks are done hammering wood across their windows and placing sand sacks beside their front doors. Or maybe it means there’s loneliness. A weird loneliness that is, yet isn’t, real. (loc 1058-1061)

I felt I was walking the streets of Lanesha’s neighborhood with her, slowly being introduced into a world of subsistence living that rises above desperation and instead champions, at its darkest moment, a tenacious twelve-year-old girl.

I wasn’t sure you were going to be all right. The world can be a hard place sometimes, Lanesha. You have to have heart. You have to be strong. Parents want their children to grow up to be strong. Not just any strong, mind you, but loving strong. Your testing should’ve come much, much later. But when it came, you shined with love and strength. (loc 1381-1383)

This story was so well-paced, so captivating, it allowed me to get past the fact that I didn’t love the protagonist’s voice. I doubt it would have worked in a longer novel, or with less compelling material, but I was able to gloss over certain stylistic choices that were made with the dialogue. I don’t argue that it may be realistic, even an appropriate choice, but I suspect The Ninth Ward works better as an audio book in that respect – it’s wonderful to listen to a well-rendered dialect – but reading to myself, it feels…stiff. Unnatural.

My feelings partially come from the recent realization that television, movies, and the internet have largely done away with the subtler dialects in this country. The friends I have from Tennessee or Georgia or Boston or Texas may occasionally slip into local slang, but the cadence of language has largely become homogeneous. Consequently, I can believe the older characters, such as Lanesha’s adopted grandmother, might sound this way, I have a harder time believing children do.

That being said, Rhodes does a wonderful job taking a recent historic event and turning it into a carefully plotted and not at all unbelievable adventure. It’s sweet and sad and frightening, a story the reader can easily imagine playing out a hundred different ways. I particularly loved the development of one of the supporting characters – an odd, isolated neighbor boy who, under just the right circumstances, is able to bring to life that singular essence of friendships in childhood.

He lifts his head and wipes his eyes. He looks far-off. For a minute, I think he’s going to be his quiet old self, and pretend to disappear. Then, he says softly, “Fortitude.” “Strength to endure.”

“That’s right. We’re going to show fortitude.”

TaShon and I scoot closer, our arms and legs touching. I put my arms around him; he puts his arms around me. Neither of us moves. I know we are both thinking, murmuring in our minds, over and over again, “Fortitude. Fortitude. Fortitude.” (loc 1819-1823)

To find out more about Jewell Parker Rhodes, check out http://jewellparkerrhodes.com/

The Magician King, Lev Grossman

I just finished reading Lev Grossman’s sequel to The Magicians – The Magician King (yes, another Scalzi rec – I’m sure I’ll get through them all soon, as long as he stops posting books I’m dying to read over at whatever.com) – and I am sad. No way around it. This book was only released in August, so even if he does to do a third, it will be years away. It wasn’t that he left this one hanging, per se…or well, no, he did. Let’s just go right out and say it. There I was, sobbing over my keyboard (yes I was reading it on the Kindle app on my computer – romantic, I know), in the middle of a really solid cathartic moment, when all of a sudden, poof. Done. Over.

It was like the door to absolute heartbreak (not the romantic type, but you know, the soul-rending kind) creaked open and hung there, and all of a sudden a gust of wind came by and slammed that thing shut. Abruptly. Right in my face. Just like it did for Quentin. And no, Grossman, I am not enjoying any ironic parallels at the moment (I might later, but right now – not so much).

“This isn’t how it ends!” Quentin said. “I am the hero of this goddamned story, Ember! Remember? And the hero gets the reward!”

“No, Quentin,” the ram said. “The hero pays the price.” (pg 396)

I absolutely do not want to think about how the emotional rug got pulled out from under me in precisely the same way it was for Grossman’s severely abused, at times completely idiotic, but somehow lovable Q. It’s literally making my brain stretch and curse at the inside of my head trying to make room for more story that does not yet exist. That may never exist.

Probably what salts the wound is that I don’t know anyone else who has read these books, who understands this particular frustration, with these particular imperfect and many times over detestable characters. And so, like Quentin, I came up from the icy waters…

He was alone. The stone square was silent. He felt dizzy, and not just because he’d hit his head. It was all crashing in on him now. He’d thought he’d known what his future looked like, but he’d been mistaken. His life would be something else now. He was starting over, only he didn’t think he had the strength to start over. He didn’t know if he could stand up. (p 399)

Bah humbug.

To read more about the author, check out levgrossman.com

The Shattering, Karen Healey

I haven’t noticed that I do this as much as an adult, but when I was a kid, and reading a completely engrossing book, I would often find myself, at the end of a chapter, with my face pressed against the pages. It was like I was trying to physically force the words into my body as fast and as hard as was humanly possible. Although I’m sure it’s happened many times since then, I can only clearly remember two occasions in recent history – the first time I read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and yesterday, when I read Karen Healey’s The Shattering.

This is another one of John Scalzi’s “Big Idea” recommended reads (whatever.scalzi.com), and it’s been on the kindle queue for at least two months. I’ve put off reading it because I knew it was a story about a girl whose older brother committed suicide – not exactly the light holiday reading I had been planning on. The protagonist, Keri, is an anxious child growing up to be an anxious woman dealing with a tragedy that she hasn’t figured out how to prepare for:

….it just seemed a good idea to be prepared. I hung a go-bag on my door in case of a fire or an earthquake and put a mini first-aid kit in my backpack, and I rehearsed possible disasters in my head, over and over, until I was sure I knew how to react.

I knew it sounded a little bit crazy, and I stopped telling anyone about it when Hemi Koroheke called me creepy and, with smug emphasis, neurotic, which was our Year Eight Word of the Day. But I did it anyway. I had plans for what eulogy to give if both my parents were hit by a car, how to escape or attract help if I were kidnapped, and how to survive if I were lost in the bush. It wasn’t as if I thought all these things were likely to happen. But I knew they could, and if they did, I wanted to be ready. In the end, it didn’t do me any good. Because I didn’t have a plan for what to do if my older brother put Dad’s shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his toes. 

My mistake. (pg 2-3)

Seeing myself so clearly written across the page was disturbing. My older brother is alive and well, thank goodness, but I don’t know how many times I have done what Keri has – tried to beat back the absolute worst, most terrifying unknowns with careful planning.

Three years ago, at Christmas, I was shopping with my mother at Barnes and Noble. She was looking for a book for my sister-in-law, something with vampires, I believe, in the YA section. I was teaching preschool at the time and had wandered into the parenting section to browse. When my mother came to find me, I was reading the first chapter of a book called How to Raise Your Anxious Child, and I jokingly told her she should have read this before she had either of her children.

Honestly though, I was intrigued – others are out there, I thought, others with these hidden, irrational fears? Of course they are, because none of us are actually alone in our crazy. Each of our crazy is, if not universal, at least shared with some portion of the population. In The Shattering, Healey does a subtly wonderful job of taking my worst nightmare and turning it into a book I wanted to force into my skin.

This is a novel I wish had been written about fifteen years ago. I think I might have become a slightly different person if I had read it then – if I had been forcefully reminded that there’s no way to hold on so tight to the things you hope will never change. That there is no way to be good enough, polite enough, or strong enough to keep bad things from happening. The real story is in how you choose to handle the bad things when they inevitable come…

Check out Karen Healey’s blog and other books at karenhealey.com