First things first – many thanks to Katherine Taylor for a terrific turn as guest blogger while we were off cavorting at BEA. If you'd like to meet Katherine in person and hear her read from her debut novel Rules for Saying Goodbye, do come by Book Soup on Wednesday evening. (See Readings sidebar at left.)
One of the inevitable effects of BEA – as we've noted before – is how overwhelmed it can make you feel. The mountain of new books demanding our attention every year can be exhausting and even a bit dispiriting, especially when you come home to piles of books like the one at right. One of the consequences of this has been that it's sometimes artificially forced us into feeling a need to keep current with all the new releases.
The downside of this – for us, at least – is twofold. First, it's where we become most sensitive to the notion that blogs risk becoming mere arms of publishing's marketing appartus. And second, it's simply not why we started this blog. Its purpose has always been to talk about all kinds of books, not just the newest titles out there.
Which is a long, inelegant way of introducing a new, semi-regular feature: Second Look (note the new sidebar), which will serve as an opportunity to give some closer consideration to a title that we might have missed the first time around, for any number of reasons. It also gives us a reason to dip into our deep pile of "To Reads" and extract a title we've been meaning to get to that has nothing to do with advance reading copies. We might even tout the occasional out-of-print title, as the mood strikes us.
The first title up for Second Look consideration is Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel The Rider, (148 pp) reissued by Bloomsbury in 2003. (The book was brought to our attention by NBCC president John Freeman, when we mentioned our cycling obsession. He asked if we'd read the book, which he described as a mile-by-mile account of a cyclist riding the Tour de France.) We were immediately intrigued, for reasons regular TEV readers will understand, and tracked down a copy. As it turned out, the book would become even more interesting for a number of reasons.
In addition to being a very successful amateur cyclist, it turns out Krabbé is also a chess player (another of our obsessions) of formidable standing. He's also a real writer, not a hobbyist who chose to lift a pen. His novels, which have earned him considerable renown in his native Holland, include The Vanishing and The Cave. But his most popular book is The Rider, and it's the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."
We assumed The Rider would be a novel but it is, in fact, a hybrid of fiction and memoir, a semi-autobiographical account (what we'd call "creative nonfiction" today) of the Tour de Mont Aigoual (not the Tour de France, although the mountain shows up in the Tour), a one-day race of 137 kilometers. Krabbé populates his race with memorable characters, including his former and vanquished nemesis Barthélemy and the nefarious wheel-sucker Reilhan, as he takes us through a kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world. He explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces, and he makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony:
Kilometer 111. Betrayal. "That this Krabbé still has the energy for that kind of thing." ""Co-operation is the only thing that can save us now." "Nothing can save us now."
I'm gone, I shift, I lean on it, this is the jump you can always make, the pain is a march by protestors who've forgotten to paint their signs.
But now everything is black. The woods are soundless and black. I drop back onto the saddle and hammer away. "Hoo!! Hoo!!" I yell. The wisp of daze is gone from my kicks.
A flash over the shoulder. No one's on my wheel. I did it. I really did it. I've given the Tour de Mont Aigoual its final decisive twist.
I ease up a little and shift back into nineteen. Up on the pedals one more time, back in the saddle. "OoOo!! OoOo!!" There's something struggling in my head, trying to punch my eyeballs out from the inside. "Hooob!" Let Roux get an earful of that, I'm in the process of recovery during effort, and this is how it goes. A flash over the shoulder, now I see Kléber at least a hundred meters behind me. I hawk, spit out a raindrop and slime. If I'm still alone when I get to the top of the Aigoual, I win.
Clearly, there are liberal doses of imagination at work here – no one could remember the step-by-step effort in such clarity, such detail, while still applying the necessary effort to be competitive – but every moment rings with the truth of Krabbé's hundreds of races. For anyone who has shook their head watching climbers groan their way up a French mountain and wondered why they do it, this is the book to explain it, to make it real – even tempting. Krabbé understands and conveys the mindset of the competitive cyclist beautifully, interspersing the climb's bee stings and freezing descents with anecdotes from cycling lore and his own "sporting history." He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read:
Kilometer 78. Lanuéjols. A village, appearing suddenly out of a wrinkle in the plateau. The smell of manure, farmers on a low wall, a dog that jumps around in its kennel and then begins a ferocious sprint in our direction, rudely interrupted by the tautening of its chain.