Five Books to Read after a Biking Breakdown

Yesterday I took a bike ride.

I It was 88 degrees, but it has been so hot that it felt cool.  Although the trees have that frumpy end-of-summer look, it’s lovely to pedal through the woods.  But then, despite frequent breaks to guzzle water, I registered that I was riding unusually slowly. And so I took a coffee break in an air-conditioned cafe.  All better, I thought as I walked into the heat.  But I was so exhausted on a steep hill that I got off my bike and walked.  That NEVER happens.

It was a biking breakdown, obviously. Too hot, too long.   Once home, I sat on the couch and drank water for two hours. My husband went off to buy me a huge bottle of Diet Coke.  Did I get off the couch at all?  No, except to make dinner–just to prove I was not defeated.

I spent hours reading, but I discovered that you don’t want to read anything too demanding after an exercise breakdown.

So here’s a list of


1.  My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa MoshfeggOblomov meets Gogol in this dark comic novel about a young woman who decides to sleep for a year.

The narrator is beautiful, blond, and smart.  Everyone does her bidding because she is always the prettiest one in the room. Her best friend says she looks like Kate Moss.   But  her parents have died, her boyfriend doesn’t love her, she disdains her only friend,  and she has a ridiculous job as a receptionist at an art gallery.  When she inherits money, she decides she wants to sleep in her expensive Manhattan apartment for a year. A psychiatrist prescribes many drugs for her “anxiety,” most of which make her sleep.

The narrator is unsympathetic, but the book is very, very funny; at the same time horrifying and sad.  One of the drugs causes blackouts during which she wakes up to find she has shopped (where did she get the white fur coat?), gone to clubs, and ordered Thai food.  Things get darker, darker, and darker.

A very fast read by the winner of the PEN/Hemingway award for her first novel, Eileen.

2.  Something Happened by Joseph Heller.   Who can ever forget Catch-22, the satiric American classic about World War II? (If you like Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, you should enjoy Heller’s novel.)  But I used to swear that Heller’s second novel, Something Happened, published in 1974, was even better.  Was I right?

Heller satirizes the discontent of an  American middle-aged man, Bob Slocum, who is living a life of quiet desperation but at least has a sense of humor about it.   He would rather be at his horrible office than at home with his family, and isn’t that the American way?  Fans of Mad Men will love the atmosphere, but I have to warn you, NOTHING HAPPENS. It is essentially a monologue by the narrator Bob Slocum.  Kurt Vonnegut wrote in The New York Times in 1974:

“Something Happened” is so astonishingly pessimistic, in fact, that it can be called a daring experiment. Depictions of utter hopelessness in literature have been acceptable up to now only in small dose, in short-story form, as in Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or John D. MacDonald’s “The Hangover,” to name a treasured few. As far as I know, though, Joseph Heller is the first major American writer to deal with unrelieved misery at novel length. Even more rashly, he leaves his major character, Slocum, essentially unchanged at the end.

3. An Informal History of the Hugos:  A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000 by Jo Walton.  The Hugo Award is the only fan-voted and fan-administered science fiction award.  If you’re a literary award junkie, you will devour this even if you’re not an SF fan.  Walton, a brilliant writer, critic, and Hugo Award-winning SF writer, has an unusual approach to analyzing the process of nominations.  She criticizes not only the winners but looks at many great books that might have been equally deserving.

She writes in the introduction:

I don’t think the best novel always wins. I think it’s very hard to say what the best book of the year is. Most years, there’s no single obvious best. It’s much easier to say what the top five are. I thought it might be interesting to take a historical look at the individual years and consider what was nominated and what won, to look at what else could have been nominated and wasn’t, and how well the selected books have stood the test of time. I wanted to look at the nominees to see whether the Hugos were picking the best five books, not only at the winners. It’s easy to find consideration of Hugo winners. I wanted to do something different—to revisit the winners and nominees in context.

4.  They Walked Like Men by Clifford D. Simak.  To my knowledge, no one on Earth (maybe on Mars) ever reads this science fiction classic.  Originally published in 1962, it has been out of print since  1979.  This radical satiric novel questions the wisdom of urban sprawl, the cynical practices of real estate czars, and suburban flight to…well, nowhere.  Everybody should have a copy of They Walked Like Men. You never know when Earth will be taken over for its real estate.

5. This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart.  Set in Corfu, this brilliant Gothic is a homage to The Tempest. The narrator, Lucy,  an unemployed actress, decides to join her pregnant sister, Phyllida, the wife of a rich banker, on vacation at a villa in Corfu.  There is beautiful scenery but many strange events:  the maid’s son drowns on a boat trip with an English photographer, someone shoots at a dolphin while Lucy is swimming near it in the sea, and the moody behavior of a composer, Max, who lives in a villa up the hill, seems strange:  does he have something to hide?  But Max’s father, a retired actor she has always worshiped, is charming.  When Lucy learns about a smuggling ring, she makes some very smart decisions.  But are they smart enough?

Out of Fashion: Clifford D. Simak’s They Walked Like Men

Clifford Simak - They Walked Like Men_AVON 195 Jan EstevesClifford D. Simak’s They Walked Like Men is one of my favorite SF novels.  Originally published in 1962, it has been out of print since  1979.  This radical little satiric novel questions the wisdom of urban sprawl, the cynical practices of real estate czars, and suburban flight to…well, nowhere.  Everybody should have a copy of They Walked Like Men.

I wrote an enthusiastic book journal entry in 2009:

Aliens are taking over the world – but not by hackneyed means – they’re buying all the real estate on Earth. They look like bowling balls – and somehow combine with dolls to simulate human beings. The narrator, Parker Graves (love the last name!), is a newspaper science writer who investigates the aliens after he foils a trap they’ve set outside his apartment. He also discovers that all the real estate has been bought up by a mystery man – and that even wealthy people are homeless because once they sell their homes, there’s nowhere to go.

It’s typical that such a smart little satire would disappear.  Hardly the stuff of McCarthy blacklists, but perhaps thought better supressed?  (Yes!  Bowling balls are taking over the world!  Oooohhhh!). Perhaps I’m the only reader who thought the bowling balls were funny!

Simak (1904-1988) not only had great ideas, he was a pretty good writer.  He won three Hugo awards, a Nebula, and was named the third Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.  He is known for  “pastoral” science fiction, with an emphasis on humanity, rural areas, and the ecosystem rather than technology.

The novel begins like a noir pulp classic.  The  journalist narrator, Peter Graves, has the tough voice of a guy who knows how to find a story, and stop crime.  (Simak, too, was a journalist.)

It was Thursday night and I’d had too much to drink and the hall was dark and that was the only thing that saved me.  If i hadn’t stopped beneath the hall light just outside my door to sort the keys, I would have stepped into the trap sure as hell.

Its being Thursday night had nothing to do with it, actually, but that’s the way I write.  I’m a newspaperman, and newspapermen put the day of the week and the time of day and all the other pertinent information into everything they write.

The plot takes many bizarre twists and turns.  Eventually, Peter meets a talking Dog.  It’s the dog who tells Peter that the aliens don’t just buy cities.  They buy solar systems.

“I see you do not realize,” said the Dog, “exactly what you have.  There are, I must inform you, few planets such as this one you call Earth.  It is, you see, a regular dirt-type planet, and planets such as it are few and far between.  It is a place where the weary may rest their aching bones and solace their aching eyes with a gentle beauty such as one seldom comes across.  There have been built, in certain solar systems, orbiting constructions which seek to simulate such conditions as occur here naturally.  But the artificial can never quite approach the actual, and that is why this planet is so valuable as a playground and resort.”

They walked like men clifford d. simak 51Vzxyz853L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Simak knew all about the building of highways and the flight to the suburbs after World War II.   Today downtowns are deserted, the farmland is developed, and people buy  poorly-built houses on lots with no trees.  Earth has been devastated by human beings.  It has become a dystopian nightmare.

I have enjoyed many of Simak’s other books, especially the canine classic,  City, in which talklking dogs inhabit the cities abandoned by human beings. Eventually, humans are just a legend to the dogs.

Much as I like Simak, I must admit that I have abandoned a newly-published collection of Simak’s stories, I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories.   I was quite excited about it, but the writing is ghastly.  According to the preface, Simak was dissatisfied with the first story in the collection, “Installment Plan,” and it was a bad idea to open a collection with a bad story.