Book Review: In the City of Bikes

In the City of Bikes - Pete Jordan

If you’ve followed Pax Plena for any length of time, you probably know that I harbor a long-suffering interest in cycling. In good faith, I can’t call myself an avid cyclist having ridden all of 21 miles since I picked up a road bike here in New Zealand. But it is fair to say that I’m a cycling enthusiast. Naturally, when I received word about Pete Jordan’s somewhat autobiographical history of cycling in Amsterdam, well, it didn’t take long to catch my attention and post a review, once the book had traversed the Pacific.

I usually don’t review works of non-fiction, but Jordan’s book In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist (Publisher: Harper Perennial; On Sale: April 16, 2013; Cost: $15.99), was a pleasant exception to the stereotype of the somber historical tome. Jordan ably makes the history of cycling in Amsterdam an entertaining read. As a survivor of high school AP European History, lo, so many years ago, I can personally attest to the fact that making history ‘fun’ is not an easy task. I’m honestly not really sure why this is the case. In most situations, history/reality are more entertaining than even the best of fiction, as recent debacles involving the Obama Administration indicate.

Even so, Jordan opens the book with a bit of autobiography explaining his love of all things bike and his incipient, young hope of making American cities more cycling friendly. It’s all quaint really. Like most urban planning majors, Jordan was without a permanent place of employ upon graduation. And, having recently gotten married, it apparently seemed a swell adventure to fold up shop, under the thin auspices of a university study abroad program, and move to Amsterdam, Cycling Mecca of the World.

Once there, however, Jordan tacitly adopts a mistress as he falls head-over-heels in love with the Venice of the North. The rest of the book follows suit accordingly, mixing an abiding love for Amsterdam with the honestly fascinating history of the city’s own love affair with cycling. I realize, having described the work so far, that it would be easy to dismiss Mr. Jordan as an overly libidinous Bill Bryson. This is my fault, not Pete Jordan’s. His history of cycling in Amsterdam is actually quite poignant in its own right. Consider this brief excerpt from the book describing the end of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam: 

During their time in Holland, the Nazis had stolen everything that hadn’t been nailed down. If it had been nailed down, they got a crowbar, pried it free and stole it – then they stole the crowbar. Factories were picked clean of both finished products and the machinery itself. Hospitals, museums, laboratories, libraries, etc. were looted…and of the 4 million bicycles, only 2 million remained, most of which were – as one observe at the time put it – in “extremely poor condition.” p.237 – 238.

Though this excerpt isn’t exactly ‘fun,’ it is quite intriguing to gain such a pithy understanding of the depth and breath of the Nazi occupation of the Dutch and their principle means of transport. As Jordan describes the increasingly desperate situation of the Germans during WWII and the increasingly draconian regulations they placed on the Amsterdam cyclists, it’s quite easy to grasp and sympathize with their plight even though the events occurred some four generations ago. By the by, instances of history like this make me eminently thankful for America’s much maligned Second Amendment. 

Fortunately, not all of the history is entwined with the atrocities of World War II. Among Pete Jordan’s more autobiographical accounts, he explains his wife’s choice to cycle to the hospital to deliver their first-born son – who, incidentally, was not wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a bike basket:

Two weeks after the baby’s due date, we went to the hospital to have the labor induced. To get to the hospital, we could have taken a bus or a taxi. But since she’d been cycling pretty much every day since the baby’s conception – this day seemed no different – Amy Joy rode her bike to the hospital to give birth. Eventually…out came a baby boy. We named him Ferris. p.289.

Aside from the fact that his son enjoys a certifiably awesome name, the conversant style above is typical of the vast majority of the book. Readers not only gain a better understanding of the history of cycling in Amsterdam, but also a fine insight into the author and his family during what was surely a formative time in their lives. It’s enough to hope one can cycle down to the local pub and grab an Amstel Light with Jordan, et al. Well, certainly grabbing a brewski with Mr. Jordan at any rate. Amstel Light is crap beer. 

Book Review: Yesterday’s Sun

IMG 0184

Fate is a funny thing. In general, we tend to operate under the assumption that our decisions are freely made apart from some predetermined end – spare the errant Calvinist among us. But Amanda Brooke’s novel Yesterday’s Sun (Publisher: HarperCollins; On Sale: Feb. 12, 2013; Cost: $14.99) challenges this convention with an interesting story about human choice amid the reality of insight into a dark fate.

The bulk of the story focuses on Holly and Tom. The two newlyweds have just left the smoggy streets of London for the fresh air of the countryside. Tom dutifully works long hours as an investigative reporter for a local TV station. His assignments take him far and wide while Holly struggles at home as an artist of moderate renown. Naturally, the two never lack for money.

As the couple settle down for a life of country living, Holly finds herself in the unenviable position of trying to fit into a community with which she has no friends, no attachments and no genuine desire to change her situation. The malaise leaves Holly far more interested in settling into the new place than she should be. Eventually, her rummaging unearths a peculiar stone tucked away with a mysterious past and strange properties that give Holly a glance into a nightmarish future.

At this point, I’m a bit concerned at giving away too much of the plot. This is a concern I always have where novels have an element of mystery to contain. But it is sufficient to say that Holly finds a stone that reveals much of her future, providing answers to questions that she could never otherwise know, answers related to future children, her husband’s career, and even her own death. The whole revelation is poignantly written and leaves much for readers to consider. The best summary of the novel comes shortly after Holly discovers the stone’s prognosticatory properties:

“The choice of path isn’t free? What does that mean? Does it mean I have no free choice or does it mean something else? You said there was a price to pay.” p.175.

As I read Ms. Brooke’s novel three related questions came to mind and remained in my mind throughout. The first question involved whether such knowledge of the future is so powerful as to be altogether maddening. The second question was how such knowledge of the future might impact one’s life in the present. And the third question was how knowledge of another’s future might impact ones dealings with others. In sum, three classic questions, really, about the nature and utility of fate and its impacts on one’s relationship to the self and one’s relationship to others.

First, Holly’s discovery of the mystical moon stone provides clues and insights into her own death. This topic by definition is a morbid one; one we humans tend to avoid and when we cannot avoid the matter, it is one we tend to handle awkwardly, as recent diplomatic kerfuffles regarding the death of Lady Thatcher indicate.

But assuming it were possible to know one’s expiration date, so to speak, how would this impact life itself? It strikes me that it’d be quite difficult to enjoy much of anything – particularly as life’s end neared. Imagine waking up next to a spouse or partner and realizing day by day that the end was rapidly approaching. I suppose this accurately reflects our lot in life but the rub comes in the knowing – the day, time, and perhaps even manner of one’s end. This knowledge is at least deeply troubling, and even assuming it is not maddening, then it is certainly troublesome enough to turn one into a bit of a nihilist, which is its own special brand of mad.

Second, I suppose that knowledge of one’s mortality would also initiate a number of profound changes within an individual. It’s not difficult to imagine one with knowledge of their end who becomes a compulsive planner. For if nothing else, death sets the ultimate deadline of deadlines. Procrastination simply will not do. Knowledge of the day of one’s death might also have the effect of making an individual a superb manager. Envision being able to delegate tasks or manage one’s obligations with the crystal clear knowledge of whether the issue will matter in the end. Not interested in the afternoon, work social? Don’t go. It won’t matter when you’re dead. More inclined to take the trip than, save for retirement? Take the trip – or for that matter, don’t, depending upon the proximity of retirement and one’s untimely demise. 

And in many ways that’s the attitude Holly takes in the novel. Once she catches a glimpse into her future, she makes decisions based upon what she presumes to be inevitable. The result is that she transforms as a person. From one that is as self-centered as any young spouse without obligations might be, to one of abject selflessness as she considers the future of her husband and child rather than her own. She gains perspective. She reconsiders her priorities. Such is the clarity of mortality.

Finally, inner change is relatively uninteresting unless it is manifested in some external form, and indeed the novel abounds in examples of Holly reconfiguring her priorities in relationships with others. Rather than indulge the artistic whimsy of a wealthy client, Holly stands up to the client and asserts her own artistic expression. This is an important moment in the novel because Holly finally realizes that her inner principle of honesty is more important than any commission she might receive. I suppose this might be a bit Pollyanna-ish but the sentiment is easily mocked because so few of us live in a manner that is true to ourselves. 

The knowledge of her end also transform’s Holly’s interactions with her family and friends in a number of ways. With her husband, she begins to promptly encourage him to pursue his passions rather than weighing him down with admonitions. It’s remarkable, really, to see how their relationship transforms when this occurs, leaving one to wonder whether more marriages might be better off with an ounce of preventative encouragement than with a pound of curative apology. With family and others, Holly becomes much more open. With one friend, in particular, she allows herself to be much more vulnerable in sharing her secrets. The sense is that the burden of knowledge of the future is too much for any one person to bear and so Holly shares it with a person who is non-judgmental enough to listen. This is true of many of life’s burdens. The natural question that follows is why we try so hard to keep our problems hidden, rather than seeking the cathartic help we need. And I think these responses closely mirror what many others would do in a similar situation. Relationships with loved ones, friends – these things would all take precedence over a number of competing obligations, including professional ones. We also would probably be more apt to live lives of truth rather than lives that conform to perceived social mores.

When times becomes our most precious commodity, it’s amazing how one’s priorities can change. 

One of the great benefits of reading a work like Brooke’s is that it forces readers to reconsider their priorities. We may not know the day and date of our death, but it is within each of us to live this day as if it were our last. And that’s what Brooke’s work reminds us of. A moment spent with a friend, watching a baby jump in his bouncer, or having a drink with a spouse or partner, these simplicities make life worthwhile. And Ms. Brooke’s eminently readable novel brings that thought to the fore of a reader’s mind. 

Book Review: Canada

Canada - Richard Ford

Richard Ford’s Canada (Publisher: Ecco; On Sale: Jan. 22, 2013; Cost: $10.67) made its way to me upon the release of the paperback version in late January. The press release described the work as a “suspenseful story of misadventure and malevolence that explores large themes of identity, culpability, and the ineluctable bonds that tie us to the past.” After a double check of the word ineluctable (viz., unavoidable), I can’t say that I entirely agree with the characterization. 

Ford’s novel is fundamentally about families and choices. Granted, the family in this particular story is highly dysfunctional, dark and, in many respect, morbid. Then again, so are most families. But actual malevolence factors into the tale only tangentially. 

The story tracks the life of Dell Parsons a high school-age boy with a twin sister named Berner. The two are an eclectic mix of ethnicities for the 1960s, born to a Jewish mother and a “Scotch-Irish, Alabama backwoods,” Air Force veteran, father. Ford develops these disparate origins quite well in Dell’s telling of his life’s story. The mother is described as an intellectual with somewhat romantic dreams of self-betterment, while the father is described as having all charm and no commonsense – in other words, a prime candidate for elected office in today’s America. 

But the story occurs in the 1960s and times are hard in Great Falls, Montana. Obviously, the life choices the parents will make set the story on an ineluctable path toward familial disintegration. But what makes the story unique is the perspective of choice it takes as events unfold. The American dream, at least in a libertarian sense, envisions individuals possessing the freedom to make choices in life so that they can further their lot as an individual. One telling of the dream might include a person rising from modest origins, making good decisions that lead him to enter into a successful career of some sort. But what makes Ford’s story about choices unique is that he explores, in depth, the ramifications of individuals making poor choices, and how these choices shape the course of events for the next generations – in this case Dell and his sister Berner.  

The dust jacket reveals that Dell’s parents will ultimately rob a bank. So, sharing this bit of information will not give away a major part of the plot that a reader would not have otherwise known. But even more interesting than the robbery is the psychology that informs the parents’ decision-making. Ultimately, the process is as much tragic as it is comic: two perfectly reasonable people decide that the best way to mitigate their present difficulties is to rob a bank. The conclusion is inexplicable, and one might be tempted to criticize Ford for being overly dramatic – that is until the multitude of stupid decisions that people make on a daily basis are also considered. American prisons are full of people who made bad decisions along the way – and that merely represents the percentage of people who were caught and held accountable for their actions. 

In this way, Ford’s book is truly unique. It challenges Americans, in particular, to think about the faith we have in our perceptions of the American dream and whether human nature actually allows us to make the good decisions that the American dream depends on. Of course, the title of the novel is no mistake either. Only a novelist as clever as Ford would use our understated neighbors to the North to critique America’s understanding of itself. 

Of course, much more happens after the parents bank robbery, including an incident of incest and the separation of the twins as an indication of the very different life choices they would make. Dell winds up in Canada living with a suspect in a decades old murder back in Michigan, while Berner heads off for the urban temptations of San Francisco. Perhaps demonstrating a bit of wisdom, the story follows Dell and his life in the wilds of Saskatchewan, including his squalid living conditions and the shock of having no one in his life who really cares. 

But in honesty this reads like Ford’s attempt to bring some catharsis to the story, rather than an elemental aspect of the novel itself. It’s interesting, but not essential. Really, parts two and three read like a different novel entirely. Ford’s admittedly minimalist prose remains but the novel loses some of Dell’s introspection. The writing alone will be enough to keep readers turning to the end. But the meat of the novel is all in part one.

Ford’s novel isn’t a beach read. In fact, I wonder whether the novel will generate much of a popular following at all. As a culture we tend not to reward talents which make us confront realities and perceptions we find uncomfortable. Of course, Ford’s work causes us to question the very essence of American exceptionalism and opportunity, so it is fair to say the book creates questions that some might find irreverent, if not nationalistically blasphemous. And because of this intrepidity, I suspect Canada will help to further solidify Richard Ford’s reputation as a serious, thoughtful novelist – assuming his Pulitzer Prize didn’t already have the same effect. 

Book Review: Petroleum Venus

Petroleum Venus - Snegirev

In ye olden days of Mother Russia, Muscovites self-medicated away their nihilism with a bit of vodka and a trusty revolver. According to Alexander Snegirev’s latest novel Petroleum Venus (Publisher: Glas Publishing; On Sale: 5 Feb. 2013; Cost: $15.00), this has progressed to relentlessly mocking one’s Down syndrome child until feelings of parental fidelity bloom afresh. 

The novel traces the life of Fyodor Ovchinnikov, a high-flying architect who is bound for the beaches of Miami when his life is upended by his parents’ untimely demise. Their sudden death leaves Fyodor to care for the teenage son that he abandoned long ago. For anyone curious as to Fyodor’s moral dilemma regarding his son Vanya, Fyodor helpfully shares his deepest contradictions quite early on in the novel’s pages: 

I was totally confused: torn by love for my son, but hating him because he’d spoiled my life at the very outset. p.24

Seems rather forthright. But for those in search of greater depth to Fyodor’s character, Snegirev tends more toward candor than intellectual variances. The statement above sums up the entirety of Fyodor’s inner conflict – one that is somehow stretched for another 180+ pages.

To give Russia’s Debut Prize winner a bit more credit, Snegirev’s forthrightness actually comes across as an attempt at brutal honesty rather than a latent effort to make Fyodor’s character seem deliberately like a jerk. But given how predictable the plot is, the theme of honesty is really so overt as to be off-putting. Another example of Snegirev’s gratuitous attempt at shock value comes later in the novel where Fyodor’s love interest Sonya (could she be named anything else?) has a meeting with a client that is ruined by Vanya when he corrects the client’s description of him as a “retard.”

When the meeting implodes, Sonya berates Fyodor and Vanya:

“I’m a down!” she mimicked Vanya. “You’ve really got something to be proud of there!” p.141

SPOILER ALERT: Of course, Fyodor’s response to the outburst is to love Vanya all the more. But the emotional and intellectual transition in Fyodor’s character from “hating him” [Vanya] to loving him is too abrupt to seem feasible. Yet the schtick is reintroduced time and time again for the better part of the entire book – that is until Snegirev mercifully kills off Vanya’s character in the end.

Assuming my premonitions above are unpersuasive, know that on the plus side, the book is a quick read. Where his characters lack depth and his themes lack development, Snegirev’s writing eases the pain by taking readers between hither and yon at a swift pace.

Alas, that’s still two hours of my life that I’ll never get back.   

Book Review: The Colour of Milk

The Colour of Milk

I’m not typically keen on works that push the envelope of fiction. I tend to like my literature the way I like my music. Classic. Major keys. Straight out of the Great American Song Book. But I have to say that Nell Leyshon’s latest novella,The Colour of Milk (Publisher: Ecco; On Sale: January 2013; Cost: $14.95) is by far one of the more creatively written works I’ve read in recent months. And to Ms. Leyshon’s credit, it’s rather difficult to put down.

The novel traces the life of 15 year old Mary who is one of four girls born to a local farmer. Mary has the unfortunate luck of being both sharp-witted and physically disabled, a fact that makes her a liability in the eyes of her father who would rather have had a boy than a girl, and an able-bodied girl than a disabled one. Making matters even more frustrating for readers is the fact that Mary’s mother is a complete invertebrate, a passive soul who would rather see her three daughters severely punished than save them from a life of hardship and abuse. 

Mary’s elderly, invalid Grandfather is in a similar strait of ignominy amongst the family, spending his time in a cupboard beneath the stairs. Or perhaps that’s a different story. At any rate, theirs is the most honest and innocent relationship of the entire novel in that it’s not based upon any sort of quid pro quo. The grandfather loves his granddaughter unconditionally and the granddaughter loves her grandfather. Not to mention that she’s really the only person in the family to give a damn about the ailing old man.

Before the reader has the opportunity to get extremely upset with Mary’s parents, the poor lass is shipped off down the road to the local vicar’s house to tend to the minister’s dying wife. The arrangement is a hasty one, with the vicar paying Mary’s father a sum for her services as a housekeeper, whilst providing her room and board as she learns the trade of managing a household. Naturally, none of this occurs with even the facade of Mary’s consent.     

From this point, the story progresses rapidly when Mary begins to learn to read. Accordingly, the entire novel is written in lowercase, giving readers a true sense of Mary’s voice and the mental struggles she endures. In fact, it’s this theme of endurance that underpins much of the novel. Leyshon’s work challenges readers to consider their own limits in a situation of hardship – particularly the price one would be willing to pay for the gift of literacy (a gift that in most Western countries we take for granted). Mary’s lot in the story is very much imbued with this conundrum and the resolution of matters isn’t an obviously moral one.  

While I won’t reveal much more of the plot, I will add a word of caution for those interested. Mary’s situation could easily be read from the perspective of a modern, feminist social commentary on female opportunities in the 1830s. But, given that Jane Austen has more or less run the field in this sub-genre, a much better way of understanding Leyshon’s work is to appreciate the existential value it provides – think Camus’s The Stranger rather than Pride and Prejudice. Leyshon’s work requires that readers undertake a moral assessment at nearly every turn, underscoring how so much of life is lived in neither black nor white but in the monochrome of grey.

In all, it’s difficult not to recommend a novel that challenges one to question so many assumptions. Not to mention the fact that the work is well written and told from a truly unique perspective. All of the above, of course, is a tribute to this pithy author who manages to say much while writing fairly little.  

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad