Monthly Archives: March 2011

Bike Racing!

This year has been all over the place as far as riding is concerned. I rode steadily for the first few weeks of the year, and then really awful weather hit, and I stopped riding entirely for almost four weeks. Then I started, then I stopped, and now I’ve started again. And today was my first race! No, I was not really prepared for it. I’m in the worst shape for March that I’ve been in in a long time. But the race went okay anyway. It was 20 laps long, and the pack stayed together most of the way. I stayed with the rest of the riders until lap 18, and then I dropped back a bit climbing the short hill on the course, and I couldn’t catch back on. I finished, but I did the last two laps on my own.

I know I could have done better if I had ridden smarter. Bike racing is just as much about tactics and positioning as it is about fitness, and I’m not good at all at tactics and positioning. So when my fitness is just so-so, I’m kind of screwed. I spent most of the race at or near the back of the pack, which puts me in danger of getting dropped, especially on the hill, where lack of fitness really shows. If I had been closer to the front of the pack, slowing down on the hill wouldn’t have mattered as much because I would still have been with the rest of the riders and wouldn’t have had to catch up. It’s having to catch up that’s a problem.

The thing is, I dislike racing enough that I’m not motivated to work on tactics and positioning. I had three teammates to ride with today, and one other woman who is sort of an honorary teammate, plus a bunch of other women from other teams that I am acquaintances with, and all that is fun. The social aspect is the real reason to race, I think — that, along with gaining fitness. I don’t do it because I’m driven to win. So … I stay at the back of the pack. Whatever.

I am excited about getting strong again, though. The real, real reason to race is to get strong so that I can do fast group rides. For me, that’s where the fun lies: riding the cupcake loop, the Lake Waramaug loop, the ridiculous 150-mile Massachusetts loop, and doing these rides with friends. There’s little that’s more fun than riding fast with a bunch of friends, full of adrenaline, laughing and joking, enjoying the Connecticut countryside. I’m hoping for a lot of rides like that this year.

Here’s a picture of my teammates and I at the start line shortly before the race started. I’m second from the right.


Filed under Cycling

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is already fading a bit from memory, since immediately after it I read Mrs. Ames by E.F. Benson, and the two books have some major similarities. They are both about English village life, they are both examples of the novel of manners, and they are both extremely readable with charming and gently ironic narrative voices. More on Mrs. Ames later.

Simonson’s book tells the story of Major Pettigrew and his friendship with Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani woman who owns a shop in town. It’s the type of small town society we’ve all heard about if not lived in ourselves, where everybody knows everybody’s business and the life of the town revolves around social events and gossip. Being a novel of English small town life, it’s very much about class and also about race. As Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali begin to spend more time together, the gossip begins and some ugly attitudes emerge.

The novel is also about family dynamics. As the story begins, Major Pettigrew has just lost his brother Bertie; once the funeral is over, it’s time to start thinking about what will happen to Bertie’s antique Churchill gun, one of a matched pair, the other of which the Major owns. It’s no surprise to learn that while the Major’s father clearly wished the pair to be reunited upon the death of one of the brothers, the new widow is reluctant to give the valuable weapon up. Conflicts ensue.

The story is a pleasurable one; Simonson handles the romance between the Major and Mrs. Ali very well, and she brings her characters together in entertainingly dramatic scenes. What I enjoyed most, though, is the narrative voice. Simonson is excellent at creating an understated, quiet, but nonetheless very funny satirical tone. The Major’s son Roger is particularly ridiculous: he is obsessed with appearances and social climbing and he and his American girlfriend (yes, the Americans in this book are the horrible clueless Americans of the stereotype) are self-absorbed, rude, and generally awful. For example, in this passage Roger asks the Major whether he will vouch for him as he and his girlfriend try to rent a cottage. Roger says:

“The issue is the widowed Mrs. Augerspier. She wants to sell the cottage to the ‘right’ people. I need you to come with us and be your most distinguished and charming self.”

“So you would like me to come and kiss the hand of the poor widow like some continental gigolo until she is confused into accepting your meager offer for a property that probably represents her entire nest egg?” asked the Major.

“Exactly,” said Roger. “Is Thursday at two good for you?”

Simonson is also particularly good at handling the issues of race and colonialism that underlie the story. The Major is a little out of his depth as he meets Mrs. Ali’s extended family, but his politeness gets him through his encounters with an unfamiliar culture. Mrs. Ali shows grace and patience as she deals with the clueless and rude townspeople who don’t quite manage to acknowledge her as a real person with thoughts and feelings. Simonson deals with the colonialism issue partly by having the Major and Mrs. Ali read Kipling together. As they discuss him, they delicately touch on the colonial legacy that shaped both of their lives:

“I used to consider myself a bit of a Kipling enthusiast,” said the Major. “I’m afraid he’s rather an unfashionable choice these days, isn’t he?”

“You mean not popular among us, the angry former natives”? she asked with an arch of one eyebrow.

“No, of course not …” said the Major, not feeling equipped to respond to such a direct remark …

“I did give [Kipling] up for many decades,” she said. “He seemed such a part of those who refuse to reconsider what the Empire meant. But as I get older, I find myself insisting on my right to be philosophically sloppy. It’s so hard to maintain that rigor of youth, isn’t it?”

“I applaud your logic,” said the Major, swallowing any urge to defend the Empire his father had proudly served. “Personally, I have no patience with all this analyzing of writers’ politics. “The man wrote some thirty-five books — let them analyze the prose.”

The Major and Mrs. Ali are such charming characters. I’ll confess that I got some of the minor ones confused now and then, but the Major and Mrs. Ali are wonderful company to keep while reading a novel. There is much to admire and enjoy in this book, particularly if a quiet love story and a book about small town conflicts appeals to you. Simonson does an excellent job with her material.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live

I think I’m going to be behind in my usual blog business — responding to comments, reading other people’s blogs — for a while, but thank goodness spring break is coming up next week. I will be back in the swing of things very soon.

In the meantime, I’d like to point out my review of Sarah Bakewell’s book How to Live: or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which is over at the Quarterly Conversation. The short version of my review: I liked it very much. If you’d like to read more, the review is here.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

The bad and the good

I almost decided to write a little post about needing a blog break for a week or so, but then I decided that maybe I wouldn’t. My spring break begins in just another few days, so maybe I can make it that far without having to go to such extreme measures. It’s just that last week was a particularly bad one. My mother became seriously ill, and while she’s doing well, I’m worried about her. This weekend I drove up to the Rochester area to visit my parents and help out a bit, and I was glad to help, but this is my first serious brush with my parents’ mortality, and I do not like it one bit. Not at all. But my mother is recovering and will soon be well again, so that’s good.

So instead of taking a blog break, I thought I’d cheer myself up by writing about some things I’m really enthusiastic about these days. Distraction can work wonderfully, can’t it? I spent part of my drive this weekend listening to podcasts, and I have to say I love them. A few months ago, I read this article from The New York Review of Books about all the excellent radio available these days, and I finally got myself over to iTunes to figure out how to download shows. Since then, I’ve heard tons of author interviews on shows like The Leonard Lopate Show and The Brian Lehrer Show both on WNYC, and Radio Open Source where the host talks to his guests for almost an hour. I just heard an amazing interview on this show with Andre Dubus III, whose book Townie I will be reading soon. I’ve also recently heard interviews with Jaimy Gordon, Rana Dasgupta, and Lydia Davis. Also Joseph O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Aminatta Forna, Zadie Smith, Maxine Hong Kingston, Adam Gopnik, and Carlos Fuentes (most of this list comes from The Leonard Lopate Show). It’s so fun to learn a little bit about new books and authors this way.

I also listen to This American Life, where the stories are almost always fascinating, and Fresh Air, which I listen to whenever Terry Gross has interesting guests. Also Studio 360 now and then, and Radiolab. Some of these shows I listened to on the radio in the old fashioned way, but only when the timing was right, which was rare. Now I listen to them whenever I want, most often in the car on my way to work.

The downside to this is that I’ve stopped listening to audiobooks, which is what I used to do during my commute, when I wasn’t listening to music or the news. Commute time is turning out to be precious time, although I don’t want it to be any longer than it is. But there are more things to do with it than I realized. I may go back to audiobooks at some point, but for now, I’m too eager to keep up with my podcasts.

And on to another enthusiasm: have I mentioned how much I love Twitter? For a while I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to use it, but, no surprise, I’ve begun to follow mostly bookish people, whether it’s fellow bloggers, authors, booksellers, or publishers. It’s been so much fun to carry on conversations about books with bloggers, of whom there are too many to list, but you can see who I’m following here. Twitter is also a good source of information on new books from publishers. Their feeds are all about marketing, of course, but it’s marketing news I’d like to hear, and there are often interesting people behind the feeds.

And then there are authors who tweet. My favorite is Colson Whitehead, whose tweets are often hilarious. There’s also Margaret Atwood, Ian Rankin, and Sara Paretsky. Pepys is also on twitter, or at least someone posts bits from his diary now and then. Also, Rosanne Cash’s tweets are awesome; she tweeted about the Super Bowl and the Oscars in the style of Jane Austen, and the results were delightful. And then sometimes super fun things happen like when I tweeted about how much I liked Deb Olin Unferth’s book Revolution, and she tweeted me back saying thank you!

It’s just so much fun. It can be a time suck, but it’s a great way to get news, keep in touch with people and learn about new things. I use Facebook, but Twitter is much cooler.

Okay, that makes me feel better!


Filed under Books, Life

Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution

I’ve had very good luck with nonfiction so far this year, including Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne, Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story, Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed, and now Deb Olin Unferth’s book Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War. I loved every moment of this all-too-short book (a very fast 200 pages). It’s exactly what a memoir should be: entertaining, thoughtful, smart, funny, self-reflective, and even self-critical, with exactly the right kind of self-absorption, the kind that manages to say interesting things about the writer but also about a whole lot more. It tells the story of how during her freshman year in college in the 1980s Unferth met and fell in love with George, an unusual young man, a Christian with counter-cultural leanings. The two of them dropped out of school to go to Central America and join the revolutions fomenting there.

The book is extremely well-written. I’ve been trying to put into words exactly what I like about its style, and it’s been hard. Somehow Unferth manages to say a lot more than just what’s on the page. Her sentences are short and simple, with hardly a word wasted. She’s great at moving towards a larger meaning, hinting at it, and then leaving you to take the final leap. I usually prefer a more maximalist, wordy style, but this version of minimalism worked for me because it managed to say more than it seemed to. The book is written in short chapters, sometimes only a page long, each telling a story or vignette or exploring an idea. It holds together as a coherent whole, but the short chapters give it a fractured feeling that somehow makes everything more believable. It’s not a seamless narrative, but instead the chapters offer glimpses of or angles into the story. It’s a method that doesn’t promise to fit everything together neatly, because such a thing is impossible.

The story is not told in chronological order. In fact, she starts by telling us the ending, how she and her boyfriend returned from their travels in Central America and all she wanted to do was go to McDonald’s. Then, in chapter 2, she tells the whole story in just a few lines. The next 199 pages or so merely fill in the details:

My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.

We couldn’t find the first revolution.

The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.

We went to the other revolutions in the area — there were several — but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.

We ran out of money and at last we came home.

I was eighteen. That’s the whole story.

From there, the narrative moves back to the beginning of the trip in Mexico, when Unferth and her boyfriend find themselves in a shantytown outside Mexico City and panic when they get lost. From there, there is steady progress through the various countries they visited, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, to give the story some narrative momentum, but interspersed among these present-action sections are flashbacks to Unferth’s college days when she first met George and converted to Christianity, and also to her younger years with her family. The narrative also moves forward now and then to tell about what happened after the trip was over, about the difficulty she had readjusting to life in the U.S. and about what happened to her relationship with George. All this back and forth movement works. There’s the potential for it to be confusing, but it never is, except in the way our memories can sometimes be confusing; instead, the structure evokes the sense of what it is like for Unferth to look back on that time of her life, to remember all the details and think about their larger significance.

Let me close by giving you a short chapter in its entirety to give you a sense of her style:

Years later I heard that the Sandinistas referred to us as Sandalistas, not Internacionalistas. We wore Birkenstocks, right? A bunch of hippies, ha, ha. I don’t recall hearing that during the revolution, only after. I believe the Nicaraguans called us Sandalistas behind our backs.

That’s okay. I can take (or be) a joke.

In fact I did wear sandals. I brought on the trip my smartest pair, not Birkenstocks, but a strappy affair. It turned out the revolution was going to involve a lot of walking. A week into Mexico my feet were blistered and my sandals were broken. I bought a new pair for five dollars and I wore those until they broke too. I bought another pair and another. Finally George said I couldn’t keep buying new pairs. I had to make the pair I had last. At that point I had a pair that cost about three dollars. The sandals stretched after a few days and fell off my feet as I walked. I took some string and tied them to my feet. When the string broke, I tied knots in it and tied my sandals back on and kept walking until the soles wore through to the ground. Why didn’t I bring a pair of damn Birkenstocks? I thought. But I’d wanted to look nice, you know, cute for the revolution.

This passage captures so much: Unferth’s mildly ironic, bemused attitude toward herself, her total misunderstanding as an 18-year-old of what she was in for on this trip, her boyfriend’s controlling tendencies, and the way we get a double-perspective on the book’s events: both the eighteen-year-old view and the older woman’s commentary on that view.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction