This year I’ve been listening to more audiobooks. The Michigan winter, along with the imposed confinement of the pandemic, was beginning to take a toll. I needed something to motivate me out the door and into the fresh but frigid air. Below are my quick takes on a few of the books I’ve enjoyed while walking in recent months.
Tenth of December, by George Saunders
George Saunders is one of my favorite authors. If there ever was a quirky-as-all-get-out genius who was able to transmit his shrewd perspectives and unbridled imagination to the written page, it’s Saunders. Tenth of December, is a collection of his short stories. I listened and re-listened to several of them during long walks in February. After reading Lincoln in the Bardo, a few years ago, I have found that I have to be patient with this man to fully absorb his brilliance.
Most of the stories in Tenth of December examine the lives of average North American citizens. The writing is dense, however, and suddenly something may take place that seems incongruent. Upon taking a second look, however, it all holds together beautifully. Saunders’ compassion for others, his keen observations about society, and his sharp sense of humor buttress every storyline. I often found myself laughing out loud and praising his sensibilities.
This was the third book I’ve read by Saunders. If you prefer nonfiction, I highly recommend The Braindead Megaphone, which I enjoyed even more.
Too Much and Never Enough, by Mary Trump
I almost hate to admit to downloading Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough sometime in January. Biden had just taken office, Donald Trump’s twitter feed was canceled, and the 24-hour cable news networks were finally starting to cover other stories. I’d begun using the Libby library app to borrow audiobooks but that day, my searches for several titles proved fruitless. So, I asked Libby to show me what was currently available in nonfiction. Too Much and Never Enough popped up.
After considering a few other possibilities, my baser instincts brought me back to Trump’s book. I decided to give it a try. Assuming that I already knew a lot about Donald Trump’s life and that this book would provide no new information, I expected to stop listening well before I reached the end. The account, however, was surprisingly informative and I ended up finishing it.
Mary Trump is obviously not an unbiased witness to her uncle’s disturbing childhood and the narcissistic behaviors that sprang from it. However, the book is packed with anecdotes that she collected from dozens of people who knew Donald Trump well—at least as well as anyone gets to know Donald Trump because he confides in almost no one.
I can’t say I’d recommend Too Much and Never Enough because I feel as if most of us want to focus on the future and not revisit a personality that was hashed and re-hashed sans arrêt for the last 5 years. However, if you’re still curious about what makes Donald Trump tick, this book provides a close family member’s credible perspective.
Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand
The full title of this nonfiction account by Laura Hillenbrand is Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Unbroken tells the unimaginable life story of Louis Zamperini, an American Olympian who became a World War II airman. After soaring success as a track athlete, Zamperini’s luck changed when he joined the airforce. Early in the war, he fell victim to faulty mechanics when the search plane holding his 11-person crew crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Only 3 of the airmen survived the crash. Only Zamperini and the pilot, Allen Phillips, went on to survive the next 47 days, adrift at sea with almost no survival gear to sustain them.
The story of those 47 days afloat is enthralling by itself. If the book had ended with Zamperini’s rescue, I would have been perfectly satisfied to have learned about this amazing tale of survival. However, Zamperini was not rescued. His rubber raft eventually reached the Marshall Islands where he and Phillips were spotted by the enemy and hauled off to a Japanese prison camp.
I’ve long heard it said that the Japanese POW camps were unbearable. However, I didn’t appreciate the extent of the suffering until absorbing Hillenbrand’s narrative like an ill-equipped sparring partner absorbs punches to the gut. I have no words to adequately characterize the extent of the cruelty on the part of the Japanese, nor the magnitude of the resilience required to withstand it.
Zamparini managed to survive the physical and mental punishment and returned home as a hero at the war’s end. His nightmare, however, was far from over. Today, we recognize the many destructive facets of PTSD but it was not well-understood and went untreated at the time. Zamparini’s road to redemption came after his wife convinced him to attend a revival, conducted by Billy Graham.
Unbroken reminds me of what I like so much about nonfiction. If this story had unfolded in a novel, I would have been tempted to dismiss it, finding it too unbelievable. Hillenbrand is good at producing bestsellers. Perhaps some of the details are skewed in Zamparini’s favor, but overall, I found it to be an excellent story. I now have a much better understanding of what American airmen and their families endured during WWII, even those who were never captured.
Calypso, by David Sedaris
I want to start by saying that I’m a huge fan of David Sedaris. If you’ve given his writing a try, and it’s not your cup of tea, I doubt this book will change your mind. Sedaris’ humorous stories about his twisted family ties have formed the basis for many of his bestsellers. Calypso is another autobiographical suite of essays that examines his relationships with his long-time partner, Hugh, his siblings, and his parents.
In typical Sedaris fashion, his narration of Calypso provoked uncontrollable laughter on a number of occasions. I worried that I might be questioned by a police officer a few times—after my gate was reduced to an errant stagger. Unlike most authors, who greatly benefit when professional actors read their writing, I find Sedaris to be the best person to narrate Sedaris.
Calypso, however, is different than his previous books. There are some very serious and touching moments interspersed among the frivolous and satirical passages. Sedaris is willing to reveal all. Not just the quirky habits of his dysfunctional family members, but his own idiosyncrasies, hang-ups, and regrettable behaviors.
He’s a contemporary of mine so many of his observations hit home. Subjects such as middle age, mortality, leisure, remorse, and joie de vivre, permeate the pages. Nothing in the book was more poignant to me than his essays about his mother’s and father’s decline. I found myself, pausing the narrative and then walking a mile or more in silence, reflecting on the painful yet precious final years that preceded each of my parents’ deaths.
Sedaris is a master at opening up the reader’s imagination. He’ll spin a sub-thread into a story, inserting all kinds of details that you would have never anticipated. Then he abruptly returns to the main plot, leaving you to gasp or laugh or wince as you imagine how that sub-thread wound up. Of all the books I’ve listed, Calypso is the one I hope to read or listen to again.