E-books and audiobooks

E-book and audiobook reviews: middle-aged surf wannabe gets on a Mexican wave

Forty-something writer Peter Heller learns to surf. Also this week: how famous authors faced death, and how to deal with depression

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 April, 2016, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 April, 2016, 10:00pm


by Peter Heller

Tantor Audio (audiobook)

3.5/5 stars

Middle-aged surfer-wannabes will derive vicarious thrills from Kook, which sees 45-year-old Peter Heller learning how to ride waves in California, first on an egg (an oval beginners’ board), from which he graduates to surfboards that take off at angles and allow their users to ride along the wave face. Heller’s obsession comes as he’s recovering from the exhaustion of having just completed a book (on a dangerous Tibetan expedition), and persists despite his encountering the kind of aggression not expected from laid-back surfer dudes. But, as he soon finds out, “dudes” is a term a decade out of date and peace on the seas evaporates if you cut someone off on a wave (anti-surf-rage ordinances in California ban aggressors from local waves). Heller, not yet married when we first meet him, and going through a mid-life crisis, is soon back on an adventure, this time through Mexico, with his girlfriend (soon-to-be wife). Through Heller, whose experiences are narrated by Mike Chamberlain, we learn why surfing is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports. We also see how surfing changes Heller from being a “kook” (surf lingo for beginner) – although not always for the better.

The Violet Hour

by Katie Roiphe

Virago (e-book)

4/5 stars

If you think you knew these writers because you’ve read their books, The Violet Hour brings home that literary personas can disguise what some of the greatest authors wanted for their own deaths. That’s assuming they were ready to go. Susan Sontag fought death believing she would be an exception to mortality, according to Katie Roiphe, whose personal book – she apparently developed an interest in death and dying at an early age after a bout of pneumonia – looks at the final months and years of five other writers: Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, James Salter and Maurice Sendak, who owned Keats’ death mask. Through her research, she comes to understand that you cannot learn how to die, or gain wisdom, although, she writes, “You can look at a death and be less afraid.” That said, few would probably want to confront death the way Freud did, which was to refuse any drugs that would cloud his thinking, despite his being in great pain. Much of this book will give you pause, including Roiphe’s belief that while almost everyone fantasises of a last conversation with the dying, very few have this final cathartic exchange.

How to Weep in Public

by Jacqueline Novak

Three Rivers Press (e-book)

3/5 stars

You might find this vaguely funny at the start, but the cynicism and Jacqueline Novak’s depressive take on life will probably get you down after a while. At times you might also wonder how helpful it is to laugh at depression. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe understanding requires not mincing around depression but looking at it in the eye. Novak takes us from her childhood years, when she was taught by her parents never to be afraid of ugly thoughts. One of many anecdotes includes her mother exhibiting the classic obsessive-compulsive-disorder impulse to stab herself with a kitchen knife. What did her mother’s parents do? They hid all the knives, instead of addressing the problem at hand. Drugs, sex and relationships all get wry assessments in the book; as does death via suicide. “Depressos” like Novak, who holed up at her parents’ place when things were at their bleakest, won’t snap out of their misery after reading this book. But it just might persuade them to leave the house, even though, as she says, “To the depressive, hell is fresh air.” If you feel like sharing, Novak has created the hashtag #weepinpublic.