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Barbarian Days

A Surfing Life
Written by: William Finnegan
Narrated by: William Finnegan
Length: 18 hrs and 8 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (34 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Pulitzer Prize, Biography, 2016

A deeply rendered self-portrait of a lifelong surfer by the acclaimed New Yorker writer.

Barbarian Days is William Finnegan's memoir of an obsession, a complex enchantment. Surfing only looks like a sport. To initiates it is something else entirely: a beautiful addiction, a demanding course of study, a morally dangerous pastime, a way of life.

Raised in California and Hawaii, Finnegan started surfing as a child. He has chased waves all over the world, wandering for years through the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, Africa. A bookish boy and then an excessively adventurous young man, he went on to become a distinguished writer and war reporter.

Barbarian Days takes us deep into unfamiliar worlds, some of them right under our noses - off the coasts of New York and San Francisco. It immerses the listener in the edgy camaraderie of close male friendships annealed in challenging waves. Finnegan shares stories of life in a whites-only gang in a tough school in Honolulu even while his closest friend was a Hawaiian surfer. He shows us a world turned upside down for kids and adults alike by the social upheavals of the 1960s. He details the intricacies of famous waves and his own apprenticeships to them. Youthful folly - he drops LSD while riding huge Honolua Bay on Maui - is served up with rueful humor. He and a buddy, their knapsacks crammed with reef charts, bushwhack through Polynesia. They discover, while camping on an uninhabited island in Fiji, one of the world's greatest waves.

As Finnegan's travels take him ever farther afield, he becomes an improbable anthropologist: unpicking the picturesque simplicity of a Samoan fishing village, dissecting the sexual politics of Tongan interactions with Americans and Japanese, navigating the Indonesian black market while nearly succumbing to malaria. Throughout, he surfs, carrying listeners with him on rides of harrowing, unprecedented lucidity.

©2015 William Finnegan (P)2015 Audible, Inc.

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • KP
  • 2019-09-19

I came in with high hopes...

Audio wise, the production was sub-par. Whoever did the sound engineering had the narrator cut in so often, small snippets of speech that did not gel with the rest of the audio. After 10 hours I got somewhat used to it, but I was surprised that an audible production was so low-quality... it sounded awkward and clumsy and unnatural.

As for the story, I’m not a surfer, but I appreciated this book. My only real critique is that it didn’t dive into the emotional depths that I need from a memoir. It felt very surface-level and focused more on description and facts. Personally, I don’t enjoy that type of writing. Also, it was entirely too long for my liking. Half the length would have been perfect for me.

Still, as a non-surfer, I found myself lost in his descriptions of waves and trips: it felt exciting at times!

1 person found this helpful

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An ode to surfing

this is not a surf story
its a story about surfing

remember to live with fear
not in it

1 person found this helpful

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Gripping and poignant

I am not a surfer but absolutely loved this book. The writing is so eloquent, I felt as though I were almost experiencing the act of surfing, the ocean and the waves. I loved that he transports the reader to places they would never otherwise have access to. I loved his travels and descriptions of the various far flung surf destinations around the world - before they became popular. I felt genuinely sad upon hearing how they had been developed and overrun with tourists, even though I had never been there myself. The final chapters about his physical limitations due to age are particularly poignant and a reminder to enjoy our passions while we can.

1 person found this helpful

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Tough slugging.

I thought this book would be interesting as I love listening to people’s stories. It was hard to listen to the author narrating this book. He is monotone and boring. The story would have been amazing with a narrator that had some influx from n his voice. I had a hard time relating to the insanity of these surfers but hey I guess it’s a thing. If you can get through it the story is incredible.

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You need to like surfing

A lot of the comments said that you could appreciate this book without knowledge of surfing. I disagree, this book is a drag if you don’t love surfing as much as the author. The performance is not consistent and there are very obvious breaks in the narration

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had me, til the last hour

ok, usually, even if I don't really like a book, if I get this close to the end, I'll finish. This one had a pretty serious issue for me however. So the story was pretty good. Some interesting parts, some not so. Some redundancy, but overall, cool life story.

I love surfing, having discovered it quite by accident on a trip to Costa Rica for some dental work. I was in my thirties at the time. I grew up in southern Ontario, far from any suitable waves. I've gone back to Costa Rica three times just to surf and am slowly gathering the gear and money to pay for surfing in the colder waters near me.

According to Bill, I shouldn't be surfing at all and I'm ruining it for the serious surfers who have put in the dedication and time.

You're pretty lucky Bill. you grew up in an area where you could reach surfable waves, you had some awareness of surfing and the money to get a board. I wish I had had similar circumstances. Your parents helped and encouraged your interests and helped you pay for gear. That's true dedication. It clearly wasn't luck and privilege that allowed you the ability to surf, surf often and have boards and wetsuits and wax and patch kits and a space to keep your board and work on it. Not that at all. This was obviously grit and dedication.

I'm not saying what he did in his life isn't impressive. But don't deny others discovering a passion and love for surfing, and the ocean because your situation gave you clear advantages. Loving surfing and the ocean often leads us to care more about what happens to it, and the earth. Which is something we desperately need right now.

I'm not bitter about others circumstances, but how dare you say that people who take up surfing later in life aren't as worthy of learning and continuing to learn. You speak about wanting to do something to bring awareness to issues facing those less fortunate, you make it seem like you have some self awareness and consciousness of the inequities around the world...... and then you say something stupid like that and ruin everything.

I recommend this book, I guess, if you happen to be a dedicated surfer and not a late starter or a casual one..... we clearly are not worthy of these passages, these thoughts, these words.

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  • Laura
  • 2016-02-01

An Amazing Performance by the Author

Any additional comments?

An important caveat about this book - it’s not just for those who surf. As someone who has never attempted this sport in her life, I thoroughly enjoyed William Finnegan’s lengthy memoir. A detailed, and nicely-paced story, Barbarian Days begins in 1960s’ Hawaii, and from there takes us on an adventure around the word. Finnegan’s memoir is more than just an ode to a past time – it’s a story of balancing an obsession with the inevitable responsibilities of adulthood. He reflects on his past with humor, panache, and of course, a reverence for the sport which profoundly shaped his life.

61 people found this helpful

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  • sunstan
  • 2015-09-03

Wishing for a never-end of this book

If you could sum up Barbarian Days in three words, what would they be?

perfect reminice, haunting

What other book might you compare Barbarian Days to and why?

Most of Russell Chatham's books on fishing. especially Dark Waters

Which scene was your favorite?

Loved every last page

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

A time and a place gone forever

Any additional comments?

I deeply loved this book. The Hawaii chapter took me back to my Kahala childhood of the 60's. It's all true, exactly as Finnegan wrote. I physically flinched at some of the really awful passages about local brutality to outsiders in those days. The surfing life of the 60's and 70's are perfectly captured in Finnegan's memories. I usually dislike author read audiobooks, but Finnegan's voice added so much to this book, making every sentence and remembrance come alive for me, the listener. This is a beautiful book. I found myself repeating paragraphs and sentences so that I could pull even more out of my first listen. I went on the buy the hard copy to be able to read and reread passages. In all of the surfing articles and books I have ever read, this book describes the ocean, the surfer and that surfing set of mind better than anyone. The reader does not even have to have ever touched the ocean to appreciate Finnegan's lucid descriptions of oceans and the world he traveled and surfed in. Amazing book. So glad he wrote it.
Hauolikaimana

52 people found this helpful

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  • Kaui
  • 2015-09-17

Read this book. You will enjoy it.

Any additional comments?

I thought this book was a masterpiece. I enjoy the genre of "adventure memoirs," of which this is definitely a lead member. Though it is not as thrilling as Lansing's Endurance, or as compelling as Krakauer's Into Thin Air, this book is an intense meditation about surfing and how it shaped William Finnegan's life. Reviews talk about how Finnegan explores themes like family. I did not think so. I think Finnegan explores surfing. In Hawaii. In Southern California. In Portugal. In Australia. In Northern California. In New York.

As he learns to appreciate the breaks, currents and tides of each locale, he invariably meets friends, lovers and forms a relationship to his world. In his case, Finnegan's world is at once very large (he travels around the world for several years) and small (he is driven by surfing. That is IT.) The narrative meanders, but compellingly so. I could FEEL the waves with him. Finnegan's writing is excellent, and he is a well-read fellow, sprinkling many literary references throughout. These, in my opinion, added a depth of deliciousness to an already very enjoyable book.

If you are from Hawaii, you have to read the first chapter; it is hysterical. If you are from Santa Cruz, or surf Ocean Beach, you must read about his SF days - they are... interesting. If you are from New York, you must read about his discovery of awesome surfing on Long Island and the Sound.

That I read this book during the summer months, that I am from Hawaii, live in the Bay Area and have a deep connection to Manhattan only served to expand this book's dimensional delightfulness further for me. Even without these personal connections, this book deserves the attention it is getting. My only thought is I wonder how Finnegan feels about the popularity of this book and how it compares to the popularity and reach of his political publications.

Either way, read this book. It is excellent.

35 people found this helpful

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  • Karen W. Lam
  • 2017-02-25

You Have to Love Surfing...

...which apparently, I don't. The book starts off with a bang, great writing but then becomes fairly repetitive unless you really love chasing waves with a self-absorbed chowder head.

33 people found this helpful

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  • Kris Cox
  • 2017-04-28

How about some serious editing?

The detail became monotonous after awhile.,
especially with the travels with Brian, and the redundant Ocean Beach episodes(to name a couple areas of many).
I would give this memoir surf story a much higher rating if it was reduced in length
by about 25%.
I think Finnegan's editor failed , not Finnegan.

15 people found this helpful

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  • JP
  • 2016-02-09

Top 5 Best Books I've Ever Read!!!

If you could sum up Barbarian Days in three words, what would they be?

Exciting, Descriptive, Breathtaking

What did you like best about this story?

I didn't want it to end. The way he describes each and every place he surfed and lived with such detail, really sucks you in. William Finnegan is such a great writer. It made me want to quite my job and travel the world surfing!

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

There were times when I was laughing out loud and also probably making some pretty intense faces while driving!

Any additional comments?

I've recommended this book to all of my friends that surf, including the ones that don't. Read this book!

7 people found this helpful

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  • Jennifer
  • 2017-02-21

Promising but Way too Long

What did you like best about Barbarian Days? What did you like least?

I enjoyed the first half of the book. The way the author described the waves, his young life and his family were all very interesting and well done.

What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?

The challenge with the story was that it was way too long. The more I listened the more I was amazed by William Finnegan's narcissism. The book goes on and on about his trips to surf through his adult life. It becomes very repetitious and boring. I had to stop listening about 3 hrs before it was over.

Did Barbarian Days inspire you to do anything?

no

20 people found this helpful

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  • Peter
  • 2016-02-10

Surfing Attitude

Was hoping more for something in the line of Boys in the Boat but rather got an egocentric ramble. Surfers may enjoy the jargon and the arrogance but its not for me. The early travels were entertaining but got to a stage where I was almost tempted to quit.

39 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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  • Kindle Customer
  • 2017-03-06

What a Jerk.

Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?

No. Finnegan spent 16 1/2 hours rambling about his surfing obsession and his self-absorbed life. In the last hour of the book, he bemoans how surfing is being ruined by the number of people who want to learn to surf and hog his waves. He complains of a private resort that blocks outsiders from the beach in front of the property. How DARE they? Wait. He just complained about people who are not devoted to surfing as he is ruining his favorite surfing spots then he gripes about a private surfing spot that keeps people from overrunning a favorite surfing spot. Well, of course he becomes a regular customer of the resort so he can surf there even though he despises the resort's concept.

What was your reaction to the ending? (No spoilers please!)

While I enjoy learning about alternative lifestyles and the experiences people had that are far different from mine, the ending made me sorry I wasted 17+ hours of my life listening to this audio book. Finnegan, you can have the surfing experience all to yourself. You made me hate it.

Would you listen to another book narrated by William Finnegan?

No

Do you think Barbarian Days needs a follow-up book? Why or why not?

Absolutely not.

Any additional comments?

So sorry I fell for the reviews and purchased this book.

58 people found this helpful

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  • Kathy in CA
  • 2016-02-15

11 Hours And No End In Sight

OK, so again, I am one of the few dissenters. I listened to 11 hours and decided I have no need to finish this book. Hours and hours of mostly detailed wave descriptions? And you might wonder just how many waves can you describe in that many hours? Endless numbers . . . too many. Believe me, a whole lot! No thank you.

While I did learn alot about surfing and have a greater understanding of its lure, I just cannot fathom spending 7 more hours listening to wave descriptions from a monotone author/narrator who, in addition, is exceedingly egocentric and self-centered.

Listening to this audiobook brings to my mind a favorite author Paul Theroux, who has also traveled extensively like Finnegan, but who, unlike Finnegan, genuinely enjoys meeting other people, is very interested in what their lives are about, and who does not make himself the center of the universe in his own travel books. I know Theroux has not written a surfing book! But he kayaked extensively in the South Pacific in many of the places Finnegan describes in this book. So what could it have hurt Mr. Finnegan to include descriptions of the various natives, his interactions with them, his take on their lifestyles considering there seemed to be lots of lulls between finding and describing the best waves? There IS a bit of that in this book, I will acknowledge, particularly about the apartheid problem in South Africa, but somehow, Finnegan makes himself the center of even that!

If Finnegan had been a more likable fellow, I would have finished this book. Many folks loved this book. Obviously, they are not as picky as me. If surfing interests you, go for it!

38 people found this helpful

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  • Céline T.
  • 2018-01-16

Great book, great author, great reading!

I felt like I was there at every surf description. The book answered some of my questions about the surfing world.