Monthly Archives: May 2018

We Begin Our Ascent, by Joe Mungo Reed

We Begin Our Ascent coverI enjoyed this book so much! It’s perfect for me: a smart, thoughtful, well-written novel about cycling. I’m not sure what non-cycling readers will make of it: I can’t tell because an important part of the experience for me was reading great writing about what it’s like to ride and race, but my guess is they will find much to like in it too.

The novel (to be published on June 19th) tells the story of Sol, a rider in the Tour de France. It takes place over the course of a few days, with flashbacks to how he met his wife Liz, the birth of his infant son, the story of how he got into cycling, and what his years of training were like. Liz is a scientist trying to get some good results in the lab, and one thing I particularly liked about this book is how Reed makes connections between their two careers, both of them involving long hours of tedious work for an uncertain payoff. In both cases, people outside their respective fields don’t understand what they do. Nobody understands why Sol doesn’t try to win stages of the Tour — that’s not his job, which is to help their star climber win — and nobody really gets why Liz puts in such long hours for results that probably won’t revolutionize anything. Reed gets deeply into the nature of work, its meaning, its frustrations, its rituals and intricacies.

Reed’s descriptions of racing are fabulous. Of course, I have no idea what it’s like to ride in the Tour, but I’ve raced and ridden in a pack (the peloton, or the main group of riders), and he captures what it’s like to work together with your competitors, to navigate the elaborate etiquette of cycling: when you should help others (because that means you will be helped too) and when you should break from the pack and try to make a go of it by yourself, when it’s your turn to win the race and when you need to blow yourself up early so a stronger teammate can save crucial energy until the very end. I particularly loved how Reed uses the plural “we” to describe riding in the pack , as though it were a creature of its own, taking on different shapes as the race proceeds. The racing sequences got my heart rate up with the suspense, and I could feel the riders’ exhaustion as they pedaled toward the finish line with nothing left to give.

The novel is also about family life and what it’s like to be a professional couple with a brand new baby. I had to laugh at Sol and Liz’s confidence before the baby was born that they knew how their new life was going to be. The novel takes them in places they never expected to go, both personally and professionally.

Every cyclist who likes to read should pick this book up for sure, but it has a lot to offer for anyone interested in work, family, competition, and ambition, and for anyone who wants an absorbing, thought-provoking, exciting read.

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Sharp, by Michelle Dean

Michelle Dean Sharp coverMichelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion seems like the perfect book for me — I like reading about women’s history, women writers, literary history, and criticism, and I’m a fan of many of the writers she discusses. Her ten main subjects are Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm. Dean’s writing is lively and interesting, and she manages to be satisfyingly thorough in a relatively short book by focusing on the women’s writing careers rather than telling their whole biography, although you do get a sense of the shape of their lives. She points out connections among the women — similarities among their lives and the ways they knew each other — and although I found these less compelling than I expected, it didn’t matter because their stories as individuals were enough.

I kept thinking as I read about the fact that all Dean’s examples are white women. She does discuss Zora Neale Hurston briefly, but she’s not one of her featured subjects. She addresses the whiteness of the book briefly in her introduction, saying that because of racism women of color weren’t able to achieve the public status as critics that her chosen white women did. Her project is to look at women with successful careers as critics, and during her time period (basically the entire 20th century), whiteness was a requirement.

This argument makes a certain amount of sense, and I don’t believe it’s helpful to say that authors should have taken on different projects than they did, but, but, but … I would have liked to see more discussion of the racism that made this situation possible, and whether this changed at all as the century went on, at the very least. But even more so I wonder whether taking on a project that focuses on white people only is really a good idea. I can see shifting the terms of the project slightly to include Hurston (and maybe someone like Audre Lorde?) or perhaps extending it further into the 21st century to include Roxane Gay, for example. It’s easy for me to say, as someone who did not write this book, that her project should have been broader, but, as a reader, I can say that I felt the near-total exclusion of voices of color to be unsettling.

So I guess it’s not the perfect book for me, in the end, but I did love reading about Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, and Janet Malcolm, and seeing them in a different context than I’d seen them in before. And I liked learning more about the other writers whom I’m not so familiar with. I learned a lot about what it was like to be a critic in the 20th century and how tough it was to be an ambitious woman with talent. Things have changed for sure in the early part of the 21st century, but they have not changed nearly enough.

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Recent Reading: 5/1/2018

I’m in the middle of three books, all very different. The first is Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean. It’s a look at 10 mid-twentieth-century women critics, including Dorothy Parker, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm. I’m loving it so far, about a third of the way in, especially the section on Mary McCarthy. The focus is biographical, with particular attention to how these women’s careers and reputations as critics fared throughout their lives, and also the ways they were in contact with each other and in some cases, friends.

Next is The Leper of St. Giles by Ellis Peters for my mystery book group. This group has been going for ten years now! That’s pretty excellent for a book group, I think. I’ve never read Ellis Peters (I didn’t even realize she was a woman), and about halfway through I’m enjoying it very much. It’s fun to read about medieval England, even though I understand it may not be very historically accurate, and I like Brother Cadfael as a character. The story is fairly slow-moving in a way I like — it takes awhile for a murder to happen, but you have just the right amount of time to get absorbed into the world and the characters.

Finally, I’m listening on audio to Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, about her experiences growing up trans, figuring out her gender identity slowly over time, figuring out how to tell her family about that identity, and figuring out how to make her way in the world. It’s also about growing up poor, in a family that couldn’t always take care of her well, in Hawaii, mostly, and also California and Texas. It’s an interesting story, and the audio is particularly good, read by Mock herself. I’m trying to listen to more audiobooks; I spend a lot of my listening time with podcasts, but want to add more books to the mix.

Book Stack 5.1.2018

And then there’s this stack of books on the table next to my writing space. I’m not sure what I’ll read next, but possibly one of these. The stack includes gifts, books I’ve bought at my local indie, books I got from publishers, books I bought online (because my local store isn’t likely to carry them). Or quite possibly I will read none of these at all! I’m running out of book space and need to do some weeding, ASAP. Story of my life (and probably yours).

What are you reading these days?

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