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?

Alternate Histories: Jo Walton’s My Real Children & Bryce Zabel’s Surrounded by Enemies: What If Kennedy Survived Dallas?

Jo Walton's My Real ChildrenI have read several alternate histories this summer.

Jo Walton’s stunning new novel, My Real Children, is one of the best.  She is a literary science fiction writer who won the Nebula Award and  the Hugo Award in 2012 for her novel Among Others.  Her latest novel should appeal to readers of literature as well as science fiction fans.

The plot is as follows:  In 2015, the heroine, Patricia, is in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s disease.  She remembers two pasts:  in one she writes travel guidebooks in  Italy, spends every summer in Florence, and raises three children with her lesbian lover, Bee; in the other she is Tricia, the wife of a closeted gay man and mother of four who does not discover her vocation as a teacher or a satisfying heterosexual relationship until her husband leaves her.

Patricia is confused, the nurses say.

It was when she thought of her children that she was most truly confused. Sometimes she knew with solid certainty that she had four children, and five more stillbirths:  nine times giving birth in floods of blood and pain, and of those, four surviving.  At other times she knew equally well that she had two children, both born by caesarean section late in her life after she had given up hope.  Two children of her body, and another, a stepchild, dearest of them all.  When any of them visited she knew them, knew how many there were, and the other knowledge felt like a dream.  She couldn’t understand how she could be so muddled.

The novel spans her life from her childhood in the 1930s to the present.  After her father and brother die in World War II, she wins a scholarship to Oxford, where she makes friends in the Christian Union.  When a girl in the Union is falsely accused of having a lesbian relationship with a girl who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, Patty defends her.

The worlds diverge when Patty, teaching at a girl’s school, gets a call from her boyfriend Mark Anston, who has done very poorly in his exams. He says they must get married right away or end the relationship. In one timeline she says yes, in the other no. The one who says yes becomes known as Tricia, and her life is complicated and unhappy; the one who says no is Pat, and she has a happy, fulfilled life..

Even their worlds are different.  In one world Kennedy is assassinated, and in another he declines to run for a second term after the Cuban missile crisis.  In one world, one of Tricia’s children gets married on the moon;  in the other, Pat is frustrated because gay marriage is forbidden and the world is threatened by nukes and thyroid cancer.

A fascinating novel about two lives, different children and mothering styles, and different histories.

Surrounded by Enemies-  What If Kennedy... bryce zabelI am reading Bryce Zabel’s self-published novel, Surrounded by Enemies: What If Kennedy Survived Dallas?, which is nominated for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History.

Many, if not all, science fiction awards are now open to self-published novels.  Will any self-published books be included on the Man Booker Prize list?  I doubt it.

The premise of Zabel’s novel is that JFK survived the assassination attempt in Dallas. Zabel writes in a journalistic style:   the novel takes the form of a book based on articles from a fictitious magazine, Top Story.  Zabel, a TV producer, director, writer, and former CNN correspondent, perfectly mimics the slightly tabloid-like style.  (I know it well, because JFK meant so much to Catholics in the ’60s that my mother ordered every book about JFK.  Our favorite was The Torch Is Passed, by the Associated Press.)

In the introduction, Zabel explains,

Because Kennedy was the most mediagenic political figure of his time, and possibly of all time, I have created a media vehicle uniquely suited to tell his story.  Top Story magazine was, in this alternative historical reality, a struggling newsweekly routinely getting its lunch eaten by the publishing powers-that-used-to-be until it hitched its wagon to the charismatic young President’s star-crossed descent into scandal.

The scene of the attempted assassination is riveting, with its description of Secret Service Special Agent Clinton J. Hill’s leap into the car and throwing himself across JFK’s and Jackie’s bodies to protect them. In the book, he is hit and died; but in real life, Hill survived and jumped onto the back of limousine to escort them Parkland Memorial Hospital .)

Zabel writes,

As the presidential motorcade turned into Dealey Plaza, Secret Service Special Agent Clinton J. Hill did not like what he saw.  To the left of the President’s car was an open, landscaped area of the western end of downtown Dallas.  Hill, riding on the left running board of the follow-up car, felt his stomach tighten at the sight of so much open space. On the right, he saw the Texas School Book Depository, toward which the President was waving.  Hill glances up to the building’s higher floors.  The bodyguard’s reflex changed the course of history.

I am fascinated by the speculation about who plotted the assassination.  Kennedy had enemies in Cuba and the Soviet Union, the FBI, CIA, the Mafia, the Secret Service, everywhere.

In the novel, Kennedy’s secretary recalls that his first words to Robert when he came back were,

“We have to hit back, Bobby,” said the President.  “Whose side is Hoover on?”

At a private conference on the Kennedy compound with just a few trusted men, they decide to go along with with the cover-up accusation of Lee Harvey Oswald, because investigating the other leads could end in a military coup, a civil war, or a lost election.

This clever, solid, reasonably well-written novel will doubtless fascinate Kennedy fans, and though I am not a historian, I am certainly very interested in the details of the (fictional) cover-up. At the Kennedy Center last year on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, we milled and thronged in the lobby, looked at Kennedy’s rather overwhelming bust, and chatted about what Kennedy had meant to us and where we had been when he was shot.  We walked home from school early, a bit bewildered; then we sat in front of the TV for hours, and my grandfather gave us one of those lists of the similarities between Kennedy and Lincoln.  I had Jackie and Caroline paper dolls, which I was allowed to play with only in my room.

N.B.  I did not accept free copies of Surrounded by Enemies or D. J. Taylor’s outstanding novel, The Windsor Faction, also nominated for the Sidewise Award.   All for none, or none for all!  (Well, that’s not quite what I mean.)  I hope my ethics make sense to you.