Monday, August 10, 2015

"Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life", from William Finnegan

"Barbarian Days" is an entertaining book.  It is unequivocally a book about surfing.  It is also an autobiography of sorts built around that theme.  Finnegan is a long term staff writer for the New Yorker who is best known for his insightful investigations of conflicts around the world, particular in troubled areas of Africa, Central America, and Latin America.

Not being a surfer, it took some adjustment to read this book.  The first part of the book was "nothing but net", to use a basketball analogy that can be related to here, as he wrote about his early life and his family.  Almost all of the areas that he wrote about in the beginning were familiar from first hand experience here, from New York City, to many areas in the greater Los Angeles area, to Hawaii.  Then as the book evolved and Finnegan's travels did as well, the realization here was that this was indeed a hard core surfing story. The reading slowed down until an adjustment was made.  It was not necessary to understand every nuance of surfing.  Back up to speed, there were still parts where some of the detailed surfing stories actually became dramatic as the book had sucked me in, or under.

The life story includes his parent's and siblings tangential lives, his devotion to both creative writing and journalistic reporting from an early age, and his success as his first article was sent to the New Yorker in 1981 and it was published in the next issue after he sent it.  It was about what he observed in Nicaragua at the time.  After Finnegan worked on a railroad earning decent money in his late teens and early twenties, he spent all of that money and much of his mid-twenties traveling around the world to surfing locations, and his commentary beyond the surfing is often both informative and wry.  He ended up out of money in South Africa, so he picked up a job teaching in a high school there in a black area for a year.  That was an enlightening experience to him, and led to the first book of his that was published.  He was hired by the New Yorker in 1986.

His articles have been read and enjoyed here for many years, and "Barbarian Days" exhibits his usual fluid, observant, and straightforward writing style.  Whether this book works for everyone is unclear, but it sure did its job here.

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