audiobook

Am I really “reading” an audiobook?

1188223_microphoneWith a busy semester work load ahead of me, my son demanding more of my attention, and my regular household responsibilities — the usual routine stuff — I find that I have little time for some of the more personal pleasures in my life, such as this blog; but, I imagine this is the case with most writers. It is about time management and priorities, after all. If I am not able to create, I can at least consume. Several months ago, I discovered the Overdrive Media Console app, which allows one to borrow and download audio- and eBooks from his or her local library, if such a service is rendered. When it comes to reading, I will always prefer a physical paper or cloth book over an eBook, but the audio format is proving to be most valuable during this busy time.  In fact, these book types are helping to fill what is otherwise a void in my reading habit. With my earphones jacked into my Samsung, I can listen to the audiobook while I do the dishes, for example, or while I drive the car to go to class (a word of caution here, though, as it is easy to be distracted), instead of listening to the radio which offers nothing worth listening to. I have also listened to my audiobook in the evenings, while I was bringing my son down for bed. I have found that there are many moments in my day which are lost to mundane tasks that can otherwise be supplemented with the narrations of an audio book reader. As a result of this discovery, I have read four novels in just under a month, which is quite an incredible feat for me.

But, this begs the question, am I really reading? This is a point I feel I have to ask myself, because it is not the same experience listening to an audiobook as it is to read the words off of the page for myself. Yet, the narrations are read out loud, using vocabulary from the text that is otherwise often excluded from any normal conversation or dialogue, words that one typically only finds in written form, so the narrator remains true to the text of the book. Another point about audio books worth mentioning is that I am just as involved with listening, taking in every word, the same way I would be committed to visualizing with my eyes the words that emerge from the page. The added advantage to this is that I can do other things, tasks that don’t require so much of my mental capacity to concentrate, while “reading” my book. A level of concentration is still needed, though, to register and process what I am listening to. In some cases, I miss certain points in the reading that I have to backtrack to in order to follow along with the narration, a part of listening to an audiobook that I don’t see any differently from jumping back a page or two to reference a point previously mentioned. This is one of the only drawbacks that I am noticing about “reading” an audiobook — that other senses are always competing for my attention, something that you may know from my previous posts can be problematic, what with my absent-mindedness, especially while driving. In fact, I drive a lot slower when I listen to an audiobook than when I do not. I usually reserve the audio book for any type of extended driving I have to do. If I am on the highway, the audio book comes out; it stays off if I am driving in town. The last thing I need is an accident.

The dangers of listening to audiobooks aside, I don’t feel like retention for what I am “reading” is a problem, as I am focused on the book being narrated, the reader’s voice often compelling and pragmatic. I have found myself adventuring with genres of books that I previously invested little of my efforts into. My focus in reading has often been with fiction, but I do not feel the same elation from listening to an audio work of fiction as I do with actually reading one. This is partly because of the figurative nature of literature that I enjoy so much, savoring an author’s use of symbolism and metaphor the same way a taster might relish a gourmet delicatessen. Non-fiction, the books I find myself listening to more, delves into another literary form on its own, one comprising of fact and personal account. While these works can take on creative twists in their own way, the primary purpose is to convey information about their given subject matter, so an author’s tone and use of syntax is arranged differently. I don’t think a book like The Satanic Verses with its fragments and colloquialisms would work as effectively in non-fiction form (or in an audio format, for that matter). After all, the poetic license afforded to a work of fiction like Rushdie’s novel is what gives fiction its unique appeal, something I feel I enjoy more when I have the chance to sit down and explore it more thoroughly, flipping back to previous pages to encounter the beautifully written prose over and over again. With audio books, this is not as easy to do. “Reading” an audiobook is solely for the sake of listening and learning in my opinion. Since the beginning of the year, I have read: two biographies — one about Jack London, the other regarding Carl von Stauffenberg; one band biography about Metallica; and a survey on the cultural history of rabies. The next in line is the autobiography on Gandhi.   All of these books have been easy to read because they are presenting information in more of a chronological manner. Fiction gets easily lost in the mental traps of its protagonists, so much so that it is easy to lose place, especially if multiple points of views are being expressed. I don’t know how an audio work of literature, say The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, would “read” if I were to listen to it. I don’t know that I would want to experience a classic work like this in audio form, anyway.

I guess I answer my question. While I am listening to someone else read aloud what has already been written, I am still encountering those same grammatical forms that distinguish writing from the dialogues of conversation. My concentration is still focused on the material as it is being presented to me, whether it be from the monologues of one reader or the voice-overs of each “character” in the book, much in the same way a radio theatrical production was done in the olden days — a form of reading, I might add, that I don’t really like, nor should the book include any musical score set to fill the space between chapters or to heighten dramatic effect. I prefer a single reader over many — a quietly edited book, if you will — since this is what mirrors my own mental voice as I read a physical book. When I allow my eyes to skim across the lines of words on a page, taking in their meaning and relating these words to one another, I don’t imagine the voices of children or women playing out their roles; rather, their voice is my own. Nor, do I imagine some underscore of violins amplifying the dramatic mood of a scene. The only thing that occupies my mind while I read are my thoughts. I am glad to have this technology to allow me to enjoy a good book, even if I do not really have the time to do so in any other form.

Image source: McNally, Victoria. “Recording your Audiobook, part 1: Setting up.” Bookworks: The Self-Publishers Association. WordPress.com. 04 Mar. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

Longing to read when books keep me from doing so…

Stack of booksBookstores are dangerous places for avid readers.  If you’re anyone like me, then you have a long list of books you’d like to read.  Compound this list with the new books you check out from the library or the books that arrive by mail from your late night online shopping spree, and your monster-of-a-list keeps growing.  I told myself at the start of the year that my resolution would be to read 10 books before I purchased anymore.  I tried, I really did, but I only read 8 books before I started purchasing the next to be lined up.  Like so many others, I face a dilemma.  My problem is not that life keeps me from finding the time to read; rather, my rate of consumption does not match the rate at which books accumulate on my shelves.  You see, I am a book addict.

Sure, I find myself working a lot more these days, now that I have to commute to my place of employment;  I also want to spend time with my family whenever I’m not working; I have to invest into the garden, too, since Spring is upon us; and I have to sleep from time to time.  This last one is usually forced on me, as I find myself rereading a lot of pages from the books I have started just before dozing off.  If only reading worked like osmosis.  But, these are not issues in the same way that other books are.

I always manage to find time to read.  One solution to compensate for life’s callings has been to listen to audio books.  I simply tune in to an audio book from the Overdrive Media Console while on my way to work.  This simple app allows me to download audio MP3 books from the library I check out books from, and I listen to them on my hourly commute to work.  It’s great because I get to read a book almost every week, depending on its length.

No, where the real problem lies is when I finish reading a physical book.  The decision on which to pick up and read first is almost always a daunting process. I can never decide on which book because I own so many.  Quite a few of the books I pick up with the intention to read get placed on hold for more immediate books that I have come into contact with, either from the free BargainBook box at the library or from what I buy at the various bookstores I frequent.  There’s a used book store I like to visit that almost always contains a gem-of-a-book whenever I shop there, which I always feel pressured, self-imposed no doubt, to read once I bring it home.

Some books are more engaging than others, though.  I usually read multiple books at any given time to compensate for those that require more attention.  I like to read short stories, so I’ll read a story here and there (one over a cup of coffee in the morning, perhaps).  I have several collections of essays that I enjoy reading through.  I have been reading The Oxford Book of Essays off and on for well over a year now, but I don’t feel pressured to read it in its entirety.  They’re essays, after all.  Then, there’s the book I read just before I go to bed.  This one takes the longest to work through for some reason.  I have my books I simply want to read to savor and enjoy; my poetry books that I like to read when time permits for such leisurely reading; my books I need to read for work; my books to help advance myself professionally; my books for the personal research I’m doing.  Looking at it like this, I think I need to focus my reading habits a bit more.

But then, there are books like this one.  I am very excited to start reading this one book, the book I ordered from Amazon before I finished my reading resolution for the year.  Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands by Rizzoli exlibris publishing, 2013, finally arrived by post and what a beautiful book it is; so much so that I want to share some of its more enticing features with you:

The book cover is by Thomas Cole from The Voyage of Life: Childhood (1842) located in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Eco book cover

The images throughout the book (shown below) are rendered in the most pristine quality, making their colors vibrant and an absolute pleasure to behold.

Eco page example

Here is another example of the beauty this book reveals.  This marvel of a work is from Gustave Dore The Celestial Rose (1867), out of The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, canto XXXI.

Eco page example 2This book will most certainly be a real treat, and I will likely move it up my reading list to start it right away.

I love books like this one by Eco, but they don’t help me make headway with those other books I’ve been collecting over the past couple of months.  No, these books, like so many others before them, will be placed on hold, so that my curiosity about legendary lands, places I’d often read about as a boy, may be sated.  Books like these only further my dilemma, but it is a dilemma I can learn to deal with.  I may be slow and methodical in the way I read, what with all of the other obligations keeping me from working through my reading list; I may also find myself curious about newer books that are being published (or older ones that were once forgotten), but I love to savor a good book, regardless of what life throws my way.  That, and I love to be surrounded by books, knowing full well that there will never be a dull moment in the near future.  After all, there’s always a good book to be read.

Review of “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala [Audio]

WaveI don’t know what compelled me to download this book to read it.  I remember how shocking it was to learn about Sri Lanka and many of the other islands devastated by a tsunami caused by the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake on 26 December, 2004.  I remember the shock and awe from watching  the news that Christmas holiday, as footage revealed beach-front homes being washed away in a matter of minutes.  One video that I remember was taken from the vantage point of a two-story building in the center of some town, where survivors of the rapidly advancing flood waters took cover in elevated places, watching and filming the street below as it channeled this massive and forceful current of muddy, oceanic water — cars and felled trees floating through the street with the slightest of resistance.  The vehement water took no notice to obstacles, destroying virtually everything in its path.  Those people caught in the aftermath, who weren’t drowned or killed by the suddenness of the tsunami, were displaced from their homes, traumatized by the experience of the Indian ocean assaulting the beachfront like an angry god, a conqueror, laying claim to the island for itself.

I think this is what intrigued me, lured me even, to Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir of those events.  I remember watching in disbelief as that force of nature devastated most of the coastal regions throughout that part of the Indian ocean and Indonesia.   Knowing this, and finding this book available at the library for download only set my curiosity in motion.  I had to read this book.  I wanted to know about this survivor, about what she endured, what she went through.  Reading the plot synopsis could have never prepared me for the vivid imagery of her experiences there in that beachfront hotel as the tsunami struck.  Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming account she tells of the ocean yanking her free of the jeep she rode to escape in with her family.  No — nothing could have warned me of the deep and awful pain of her loss, as she realizes that both of her parents, her two sons, and her husband — all of whom she was on vacation with for the holidays — would be lost to her forever.  This book, this memoir, has revealed something to me that no Gothic story could ever do:  ghosts do exist. They haunt through the memories of those who have suffered terrible and tragic loss from sudden and traumatic experiences.

I can understand why this heart-wrenching book was disliked by some readers, as this book is not for the faint of heart.  It is emotionally draining to think about her loss, and I feel this has a lot to do with the way the book has been seen by some readers.  To date, the social media website, Goodreads, reveals that this book was rated with 3-stars or less by 26 percent of readers within its community, from a pool totaling 4,917 people.  When singling out a few of those negative reviews, one reader saw it difficult to relate to the author, in saying that, “Wave is compelling, and extremely well written, but is just page after page of pain” (Greg).   Another reader confessed that “it’s hard to make a negative comment about this book without coming across as hard hearted…but I found it really hard to empathise with the author as she came across as cold, selfish and spoilt [sic]… I would hope that most people wouldn’t be as callous as she” (Avidreader).  Another commenter agreed with this reader, stating how, “I kept wondering throughout this admittedly well-written memoir how the thousands of others who lost families with less means made it through their grief…. I really liked and enjoyed the writing, but didn’t have much sympathy for the author because of this” (Lisa).  Some even go so far as to attribute Deraniyagala’s lack of empathy for those around her in the earlier parts of her memoir, when she was clearly in shock from her experiences, as a sign of her stature and wealthy status, what with her being a learned economics scholar from Cambridge and Oxford universities.  While I cannot attest to how this book will affect you, good reader, should you decide to pick it up and read it for yourself, I can say that the brutal honesty Deraniyagala writes in this book is not to appeal to you, as readers, in some way, but it is more for herself.   This memoir is about healing; it is about coming to terms with grief and living with those ghosts that haunt her.

Compound the loss of her entire family to that fateful Sunday morning with the traumatic experience of facing near death, herself, and you find this book is about expressing that which she cannot bring herself to express.  Throughout much of the memoir, she is reluctant to tell anyone of her experience, of her loss, for fear of letting too much reveal itself.  She doesn’t want to recall those painful memories, doesn’t want people to get too close to her, to pity her.  As Deraniyagala writes, “I am in the unthinkable situation that people cannot bear to contemplate.”  And she is right.  How can anyone imagine such a surreal tragedy?  How could anyone possibly endure such  terrible loss and still remain a sane person?  How can we as readers relate to her experience and say we truly understand her situation?  Unless you have personally suffered too, there is no way to do this.  If you read this book, you are merely along for the ride.  This is her struggle with grief and the trauma of her survival when all others failed to do so; you might even add a dash of survivor’s guilt because of this, as a few points in the book tend to reveal.

The imagery she weaves all throughout the memoir is haunting; the memories of her boys, of her husband, resonate all throughout the book, intermingling with her attempts to reminisce the life she once had.  Yet, she can never return to those moments before the tsunami.  As one critic for the New Yorker wrote: “‘Wave’ is really two stories in one.  The second story is about remembering the life of a family when they were happy.  The first is about the stunned horror of a woman who lost, in one moment, her past, present, and future” (Cole).  We get both experiences running parallel throughout the story as Deraniyagala asks herself questions like “Was I their mother?”  She tells us about other moments — intensely, emotionally rich moments, where she reveals insights into her previous life and what it was like to return to it:

I’ve pushed away thoughts of my children’s everyday hurts and fears, suggestions of their frailty and tenderness.  It’s easier to remember my boys with humor or to recall their cheek.  But now as I dare to peer more closely at them, they emerge more whole.

For years I’ve told myself it’s pointless to cherish my children’s personalities and their passions, for they are now dead.  But here in our home I am surrounded by proof of it all.  I unlock my mind a little and allow myself to know the wonder of them.

Deraniyagala repeatedly confides in her memorial to her family such revealing moments, where she seeks to come to terms with herself and the past she once had with her family.  The details she includes, ranging from the mud still on the doormat that would have been from her husband’s boots to the sounds of distant laughter resonating throughout a room, sounds from a time before the wave changed everything, seems to suggest what Cathy Caruth reveal as the enigmatic and confounding nature of trauma, in that we have not only confronted death, but we “hav[e] survived, precisely, without knowing it” (original emphasis, 64). Flashbacks from moments in the past return to haunt a survivor, often repeatedly, making it incomprehensible, she argues, to understand one’s own survival.  Linking this to Freud’s theory on the life and death drive, Caruth tells us that it is not the incomprehensibility of survival that creates an imposition for death, but a traumatic ‘awakening’ to life (64).  As a survivor, realizing one’s near-death experiences often leaves a person with little to no preparations for such moments, and the impact of this, the “failing to return to the moment of a [person’s] act of living” changes the future for that individual.  For Deraniyagala, her grief for the loss of family is what keeps her from moving on; it is the source of her personal trauma.  Her memories frequently haunt her, and the fact that she wrote this book nearly 9 years after-the-fact is a sign that she is still coming to terms with her loss but is nevertheless learning to live again.

There are moments in her writing where Deraniyagala tells us about shying away from or  utterly avoiding people who inquire about her family.  Only her closest friends know about her situation, and through them, she sees her boys grow older, the daughters of her London friends, an example of this.  She dreads their birthdays because the pain of knowing they’re no longer alive is too tormenting, always referring to each in the tense “would be.”  Whenever she is placed on the spot and someone asks about her family or her parents, she attempts to get out of answering their questions, a point she motions in the book as having caused a “pickle” when seeing the person a second time around.  “How are your parents?”  She would be asked, to which her response was “they’re fine,” always afraid to go into anymore detail than this.  But, this changes by the end of the book.  She confesses that it may have been the mojitos that loosened her up to reveal what she does, but she confides in a stranger, an inquisitive old Jewish man, asking about her family life, and this moment, much like the writing of this very book, is what reveals to us that she has found peace within herself and can move on with her life.  She tells us that it is becoming easier for her to live with the memories of her two boys and her husband, and that there is life beyond suffering.  One only has to endure to learn it.

I will be thinking about this woman’s story for a long time to come.  The use of the personal pronoun I not only makes it Deraniyagala’s story, but it makes it my own, and I cannot help but mourn the loss of her family with her, while celebrating the time I have now with my own.

Works Cited

Avidreader. Community Reviews [Comment]. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.” Goodreads.  Goodreads, Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.

Cole, Teju. “A Better Quality of Agony.”  The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Deraniyagala, Sonali. Wave. New York: A.A Knopf, division of Random House, Inc., 2013. Digital Media Library. Audiobook. 17 Mar. 2014.

Lisa. Community Reviews [Comment]. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.” Goodreads.  Goodreads, Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Review of “Birth School Metallica Death: Volume 1” by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood [Audio]

Birth School Metallica Death, Volume 1: The BiographyReminiscing about Metallica

There was hardly elbow room, that’s how packed with metal fans the open-air arena was — people with attitudes and a passion for good hard music.  The summer night was electric.  The anticipation for the Metallica Load tour to Indianapolis, Indiana, on 02 July, 1996, was unprecedented in our teenage minds.  Songs like “Sad but True” and “Wherever I May Roam” were on the tips of our tongues, waiting to be screamed out in unison with James Hetfield and other fans alike.  This 1996 tour was set at a time in Metallica’s career where their fan base was firmly and internationally in place.  I didn’t know a single person who had never heard a song off of the Black album, the frequency of “Enter Sandman” on Indy’s X103, the favored radio station for hard rockers at the time, contributing to this.  In fact, this was how my friends and I learned that Metallica was coming to Deer Creek.  We immediately went to the local Ticketmaster at Kroger’s and bought four tickets.  Like every metal fan going to their first concert, we worshiped those tickets on the altar of metal, and we banged our heads in acceptance of their awesome goodness.  The day finally arrived.  I had a car, so we all drove to the concert in my 1978 olive green Chevy “the beast” Malibu, listening to Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning all the way to Indy, which was a good three hour drive for us.  This little road trip mentally prepped us for the energy and excitement of seeing Metallica live, on stage, at the Deer Creek Music Center for the first time.  How could we have had any idea for the sheer magnitude of such an experience?

Aaron was the only one who had been to a concert before.  He had gone to see Pearl Jam, which as a band compared in no way to the show we were about to see.  Rumor had it that Metallica put on an epic show, that they knew how to entertain their audience.  We were about to find out.  The opening act was setting up their stage as we entered the arena.  Jerry Cantrell, known for his part in Alice in Chains, opened for them, which was a pleasant appetizer, but it did nothing really to prep us for what was coming.  Our thirst could only be quenched with songs like “Metal Militia” or “Whiplash.”  Cantrell, a musician of some renown even, didn’t really stand a chance.  It was a great experience seeing him perform live, but it was just not what we were there for.  Finally, everyone cheered for Cantrell and his exit.  The stage went dark.  The night had settled upon us, and Black and White Rock Handsthe crowd was buzzing with energy.  The smell of pot and booze was everywhere, the open-air pavilion doing little to clear out the heavy cloud looming over all of the smokers looking for a fix just before the show.  Out of the darkness, Hetfield’s voice bellowed loudly into the night, “So fucking what?”  Signs of the horns were held high by everyone in the crowd, as the stage lights flared into existence and metal filled the air, revealing the only thing between us and the stage to be a sea of long conditioned hair waving in perpetual motion set to the razor-edged rhythm of fast-paced guitar rifts and drum percussions.  The rumors were right; what a great show that was.

Getting to know the Band

Birth School Metallica Death, Volume 1 is the coming-of-age story of the band that I worshipped as a teenager.  It is safe to assume that by this point the band really needs no introduction in this review.  If you, good reader, don’t know who Metallica is, then I recommend picking up the Master of Puppets album (1986) to listen to “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” or the Black album (1991) for a sample of “The Unforgiven” to get a feel for what this band is like.  Hell, any song off of any album will be telling for their style of music.  The moment I learned about this biography, I jumped at the opportunity to read about the metal band that I followed so diligently during my teen years.  I downloaded an audio copy of this book with the same enthusiasm I had those so many years before when I waited in line at the Ticketmaster.  Metallica was about more than simply banging heads and marching around angrily.  It was about having a release for that anger, for being different, for being ourselves.  It meant knowing that we weren’t alone, that we were fans, belonging to a like-minded collective — a legion really — of people who saw in Metallica a way of fitting in, but, most of all, it was about being cool.  That Metallica, themselves, were much the same as their fans only made them all the more influential, all the more important to us.  We could relate to them some how.  It was part of being a teen to like them, at least in the circles that I ran around with, especially during the 90s when music and popular culture were taking a darker, more burlesque, more sinister theme. This had its appeal.  The decadence of the 90s was marked and inspired by musicians like Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson, Maynard James Keenan, Till Lindemann, Rob Zombie and Jonathan Davis, amongst others.  If it wasn’t dark, it simply wasn’t.  The undertones surrounding the 90s were dystopic; the millennium was approaching its end, and people were feeling jubilant (or morose) about the end of days.

Metallica always knew how to stand out from the crowd, though.  This biography, written by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood, music journalists both, sets that clear.  This book helped to explain a lot of the emotions I was experiencing for the band in the early 90s when the Load album was released.  Like so many other fans felt, Load took some getting used to.  The rifts were milder, more melodic, not the same high-tempo rifts as their previous works.  Many saw this album as a break away from the thrash metal scene that Master of Puppets and And Justice for All so skillfully represented, and it disappointed fans, including myself.  As Lars Ulrich states in the biography, which has been paraphrased here, thrash metal was a scene they ultimately wanted to distance themselves from.  There was no future in it for them (qtd. in Brannigan and Winwood).  It had been their desire to perform first and foremost for themselves that makes Metallica the remarkable band that they are, but I failed to see this back then.  The only thing that I knew was that they were changing their approach to music, maturing as performers even, and I felt betrayed by what I failed to understand.   I eventually came to love songs like “Until It Sleeps” or “Outlaw Torn.”  In fact, I listen to the Load  album with a great appreciation for many of its songs now.

Brannigan and Winwood reveal how this wasn’t the first time fans felt disappointed for a move Metallica made in their own interest, what with the song “Fade to Black” on the Ride to Lightning album, the second to be released by the band in 1984.  This song broke from the head-banging, stage-diving, moshing traditions that were often associated to thrash metal concerts, and some fans immediately distanced themselves from the band for it.  Metallica stuck it out, though, and played the song, regardless of reactions from their fans — and more importantly, from the reviews that followed.  While their passion for the music they wrote is clear, the turbulence that came with being a rock band filled with adolescent emotions amidst the public eye takes a different toll on their music, especially as they were seen breaking away from normal conventions, a point the biography captures well with personal anecdotes from band members, music journalists, producers, and other friends to the band.

Keeping a Distance

One thing the band sought to keep its distance from was the drama that was often associated with stardom.  In fact, the band didn’t really make a major name for themselves until almost a decade after their founding with the release of the Black album by Elektra Records, the first major label to back up their name.  Before this, Brannigan and Winwood remind us that they had a lot of great reviews.  They were even adored by fans on the British metal scene and their West coast home front, but they were striving to move away from the same gigs.  They toured arduously with bands like Ozzy Osbourne, serving as the opening act, in order to get as much stage time as possible.  But, while Metallica was focused on playing smaller venues and opening acts, building a name for themselves with fans who identified with their simple image, hair metal bands like Motley Crue, Def Leppard and Poison showed off the glamor and glitz that came more typically with being rock stars of the 80s (notice the comparison between the two bands here):

Picture of Metallica

Copyright Megaforce Records, Inc.

Picture of Poison

Like night and day, we see from the two pictures above how Metallica appears dressed in little more than their jean jackets with torn off sleeves and long hair; no adornments of any kinds, as opposed to Poison, who dresses themselves in leopard-skin prints, tight-fitting leather pants, head bands and other such accessories that were typical of the 80s hair metal genre.  We need no audio samples to tell from these two pictures how differently each group was to one another.

Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield, the two original founding members of Metallica, sought to keep as much distance from these types of bands as possible.  From reading the biography, one even gets the impression that Ulrich and Hetfield loathed these other bands.  And with good reason.  According to one anecdote in the book, Ulrich and Hetfield were promoting their up-coming concerts by personally handing out flyers to people in one club, while band members from Motley Crue were flaunting their lifestyles around with chics at their table.  When it came to performing, Brannigan and Winwood make it clear to the reader that Ulrich and Hetfield were all about work first, then play.  The performance, not the “show,” was what mattered.    The fact that they made it to billboard charts without the aid of MTV or any radio airplay in America is a testament to the hard work they invested into the promotion of their music.  Ulrich, the more ambitious of the two, was always looking for connections and leads to promote their name,  the book revealing quite a holistic look at the groundwork being laid during their earlier years.  But, for all it was worth to keep the band’s name away from drama, it was an inevitable part of their careers as rock stars that it should find them.

The relationship with Dave Mustaine, who later went on to create the band, Megadeth, is an example of such drama.  His excessive drinking and thirst for satisfying his ego, a true rock star’s calling card, was one of the earliest friction points in the band, his lifestyle a contradiction to their hardworking mentality. Ultimately, he was replaced by Kirk Hammett, who has since been the band’s lead guitarist (Brannigan and Winwood).  The book tells us how this happened midway through a tour, with Mustaine sent packing back to California, while Hammett flew overhead en route to where the band was to replace him.  Another account that led to the inspiration for “Fade to Black” was a robbery of their equipment just outside of Boston while touring for Kill ‘Em All.  This set-back was a major burden on their financial situation at the time.  On the verge of entering into recording for Ride the Lightning, their profits from sales were fully devoted to financing this label, even to the point of living modestly.  At the time, Metallica was a band that set themselves apart from other bands like them, holding to a discipline and rigor unlike any other in the industry, but they weren’t really making much money doing it.  While there are a number of reasons to attest to this, one can definitely say that things started to look up for Metallica once Cliff Burton, the sought-after bassist from San Francisco, joined them, creating for the band a unique harrowing sound that helped to make a more professionally driven Metallica as a result.  They knew what they were making was good.  In fact, his baselines are  what made him one of the greatest bass players the heavy metal world at that point had ever known.  Regrettably, he is the source of Metallica’s third mishap with unwanted drama.  While in Sweden on their And Justice for All European tour, Cliff Burton was crushed in an accident as their bus’s driver lost control of the vehicle due in part to black ice on the early-morning road.  Band members had little time to mourn, though, as business is business, and they departed on their Asian tour scheduled to take place as originally planned, only four weeks after his death.  This forced them to move on, and fans were largely sympathetic to them all for it.

About the Book

This biography is worth the read if you are looking to learn more about an international band that established its roots first in hard work and self-image.  Without having that sense of what they themselves wanted from their music careers, they would have ended up like many other metal bands of the 80s, distant memories of an iconic era.  Instead, Metallica challenged many of the conventions that defined heavy metal at the time and paved the way for many bands to follow in their wake.  By setting their own ambitions around their commitment and passion for heavy metal, instead of catering solely to their fan base, they were able to withstand the test of time and have become one of the planet’s most influential bands.  Birth School Metallica Death: Volume 1 is an excellent look at not just the founding of one of metal’s most famous bands, but at the making of a genre of music that has since never looked back.  If you’re a novice to the metal scene and would like to learn more about what this subculture has to offer, especially from the vantage point of the 1980s, then this book is a great start.  Volume 2 of this biography will be set from the Black album (1991) onwards and is pending release “in autumn 2014” (Perry).

Works Cited

Brannigan, Paul and Ian Winwood. Birth School Metallica Death: Volume 1.  Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2013. Audiobook.

Perry, Andrew. “Back to Black: Birth School Metallica Death, Volume 1, by Paul Brannigan & Ian Winwood, review.” The Telegraph Telegraph Media Group Limited, 20 Nov. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.

Review of “Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus” by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy [Audio]

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus

One fine afternoon, while walking with my son through the woods just down the road from where we live, we meandered our way down an overgrown path, just off the logger trail, to a hunting lodge,  where I found a sign posted outside the makeshift cabin warning of Tollwut, which means “Rabies” in German.  When I asked my father-in-law about the warning, he said it was something to watch out for in these parts of northern Bavaria where I live, just on the outskirts of the Steigerwald.  Curiosity about the disease seized me from that point on, where luck would have it that Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, husband and wife, journalist and veterinarian, wrote a book about the disease.  Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus was published by Viking Adult in 2012,  so I downloaded an audio version of the book from the Overdrive digital library to indulge my inquisitiveness.  What I found was a comprehensive and engaging look at the historical, the cultural and the empirical nature of this disease.  And it was a damn good read, too.

About the Book

Wasik, a senior editor for Wired, writes jointly with his veterinarian wife, Murphy, of accounts of attacks made on hapless, unsuspecting victims bitten by all manner of creatures, ranging from dogs to raccoons to bats, some with grueling imagery.  Yet, the book does more than recount these gruesome struggles for survival; it illustrates, rather effectively, how rabies as a virus has captivated our imagination over the centuries when scientific scrutiny offered no insight on the terrible nature of this illness, where people would often mistake its symptoms for demonic possession instead.  Wasik and Murphy take the reader on an exploration through pages of medieval texts, revealing how the virus has become more than that, but an inspiration for myth and legend.  One reviewer wrote that the book was “rather slow” during the earlier chapters where the authors build up their case for this mythical association, what with their “[description of] the potential for rabies as the disease that significantly contributed to vampire and werewolf legends,” but later yields that the “pace of the book picks up”  once Wasik and Murphy begin looking at the earlier works of  microbiologists and how the book directs its focus more on the scientific, microbial aspects of the disease (Boury).  It is safe to assume that with this review being published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, the reviewer may be a bit bias toward the more scientific inclinations of the book.  I do agree with her, though, when in the end, she concludes that “this book was both educational and entertaining and worth reading” (Boury).  I feel this book is well balanced  and offers a little something for all readers about the many facets of the disease.

While the book offers clear descriptive accounts for the symptomatic features of the virus, what with hydrophobia, the fear of water that is typically associated with patients or victims of the illness, there are a few areas I feel it could have been more convincing, namely in its attempts to tie rabies to some of today’s own popular culture.  I couldn’t help but feel that the authors were trying too hard to link the virus to popular themes seen in today’s media.  Yes, it ambitiously ties the associations of the disease found in many primeval texts to such folkloric myths as the werewolf and the vampire, which are the more convincing parts of the book, but it takes this even further still by linking rabies to the zombie narrative.  As it is referenced in the book, though, the zombie is somewhat suspect in having its origins rooted anywhere in the history of rabies, a redeeming point I must give back to the authors.  Be not mistaken, I do find the book’s rational for the werewolf myth to be very informative, especially in the accounts told in the earlier chapters of the book for the dog and its role as man’s best friend and servant, but also for being one of the predominant species that carries rabies in the world, thus revealing where a deeply rooted fear for the animal comes from.  Equally, the association made to the vampire and the appearance of the bat as one of the main carriers for the disease by modern science explains some of the myth stemming out of the nineteenth century, where closely linked ties between victims who would fall ill from the bites of bats were more than abundant. A hat tip to Bram Stoker with regard to this one.

About the Disease

The grim accounts told in the book to illustrate these points linking the disease to its mythical counterparts are not for the squeamish, but they do serve to show how those victims could easily be seen as that of the mythical monster, transforming upon a moment’s notice into a raging, uncontrolled beast, on account of the incubation period of the virus in the body.  Losing all control over themselves, the onset of hydrophobia would drive these victims into a raging frenzy, biting haplessly into the air, uncontrollable spasms racking the body as the nerves’ synopsis fail to inhibit their receptors, causing the victim to die rather terribly without the aid of a vaccine to reduce their symptoms.  An example of what rabies does to animals — namely dogs — may be found in this KOAT Action 7 News video, reporting on a case of rabies in a Valencia county animal shelter in New Mexico.  As the report indicates, footage in this video may be sensitive to some viewers.

 Regrettably, the 12 dogs in the kennel were euthanized as a result of the progressive state of the disease.  There was little that could be done for them.

Like any compelling analytical survey does, the book delivers a full account for the historical development of its topic, in this case the vaccine as it was developed in the 19th century by Louis Pasteur, a French chemist and self-taught microbiologist.  The trials and tribulations as Pasteur set to discover what he did not know about rabies at the time is one of the more remarkable parts of this book.  At one point, Wasik and Murphy account for why trained medical professionals from the 19th century  had such a profound lack of understanding for the disease, given that all the folklore and myth loosely based around the disease had undoubtedly compounded and misconstrued the truths behind the virus and its symptoms, so much so that 3rd century Grecian philosophers and their observations of rabid dogs were more telling about how rabies really was over these learned medical practitioners, some 1,500 years later.  It wasn’t until the discovery of the virus as a microbial organism that the dynamics for our understanding of rabies changed for the better.

Still, the modern world is not safe from this virus, as it kills many animals and even people from less stable regions around the globe each year.  In more remote regions  where government bodies lack an adequate infrastructure, rabies remains a deadly disease, to which even the Center for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges its danger.  The book discusses in its later chapters several threats that occurred across urban spaces in the United States during 2008 and even an outbreak of rabies amongst dogs on the island of Bali, where “the island’s first attempt to combat the outbreak was an unsuccessful culling campaign in which 100,000 dogs were killed” (Belford).  With these incidents happening as recently as 2010, there is little doubt to the magnitude this disease can have on an isolated population, whether it be an inner-city or an island.  One thing the book does well is that it ends with a hopeful look at what is being done in rabies research.

Raising Awareness

Regardless of the breakthroughs that have happened in the way we understand the virus, though, it still poses a threat to anyone who may be bitten by a rabid animal.  If someone is not immediately treated after having been bitten, the results could be terminal, grueling and painful.  The book does not offer a cure for the disease, but what it does offer is awareness.  For all of the book’s strengths — what in its ability to show the disease’s influence over our imagination — and its weaknesses — making associations it, itself, acknowledges as border-line ridiculous — it tells a compelling story of a disease that has haunted man with his tamed natural instinct for countless years.  The book has certainly got me thinking about that walk in the woods I frequently take.  While it hasn’t deterred me from going outside to enjoy nature, I remain vigilant to the signs that are out there, knowing that deep down there’s more to this virus than its own pathological origins.

Works Cited

Belford, Aubrey. “Dog-Loving Bali Tries to Tame Rabies Outbreak.” New York Times.  The New York Times Company, 29 Sep. 2010. Web. 08 Mar. 2014.

Boury, Nancy. “Review of: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus.” Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education 14.1 (2013): 139-140. PubMed. Web. 08 Mar. 2014.