Week 2 (Blaga): In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, by Pete Jordan

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Reader: Blaga

Topic #1: Read a book about sports.

Book: In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, by Pete Jordan (Harper Perennial, 2013)

In 2002, Pete Jordan decided to study urban planning at the University of Amsterdam, knowing, by his own admission, almost nothing about Holland’s history or culture except that the Dutch like bicycles. A self-professed “bike-nut, who had lived and cycled in cities all across America”, Jordan quickly fell in love and decided to permanently move to Amsterdam, soon joined by his wife and fellow cycling-lover Amy Joy.

In the City of Bikes is part memoir, part love letter to cycling, part history of Amsterdam and its cycling culture. When I say history, I mean from the late 1800s to present day, decade by decade. While recounting his own bike-related experiences from his first years of living in the Netherlands, Jordan tackles a wide range of topics such as – among others – bike theft (and its own history), terms – especially animal ones – with which Amsterdam cyclists have been described, and the role of cyclists in the army (there was an actual Cyclists Unit) and in the Resistance during the years of the Nazi Occupation. He also tries to understand how the bicycle lost its popularity in the United States, despite being widely used at the turn of the century (hint: cars and long distances play a large role, although naturally the reasons are more numerous and complicated than that – so much so that they have an entire chapter dedicated to them).

The book at times is heavy on data and quotations – certainly testimony to Jordan’s dedication and thorough research – and can therefore feel a bit dry. Just when you are ready to throw your hands up in frustration, however, Jordan manages to draw you back in by including an engaging anecdote. Thus, we get to learn, for example, a great deal about Queen Wilhelmina’s own love for riding her bike, especially among the people like any regular person. And, as this is a memoir, we get a glimpse of Jordan’s own life (his first job working as a janitor, his wife becoming a bicycle mechanic and eventually acquiring her own shop, the birth of their son and more) and his reflections on Amsterdam’s culture through the lens of cycling. His intelligent observations about the cultural differences between the Dutch and the Americans were something which I appreciated and connected to especially, being an immigrant myself.

Jordan seems to be at ease writing memoirs on seemingly odd topics, which provide interesting and poignant cultural commentary. His first book, Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States (Harper Perennial, 2007), based on the zine of the same title that he published under the pen name Dishwasher Pete, chronicles his experiences as he moved around a country for a decade trying to wash dishes in all 50 states. His first book was praised for its “exploration of the dishwashing subculture,” (Booklist). This book, I think, ought to be praised for its presentation of Amsterdam’s culture. Although a little dry at times, the book has something for everyone. This is a fantastic guide to understanding the city – and navigating it safely and efficiently. The author’s enthusiasm about bikes is clear and, frankly, contagious – no matter whether you cycle or not.

Personally, I have been to Amsterdam only once and for a very short period of time, so I haven’t managed to appreciate it fully just yet. After reading this book, I definitely want to go back, rent a bike and give the city the attention it deserves.

Week 1 (Sam) – “The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles” by Jon Bois

 Tim Tebowing aurora.pngImage by Jon Bois

Reader: Sam

Topic #1: Read a book about sports.

Book: The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles by Jon Bois

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Former-NFL quarterback Tim Tebow has just been fired from the Patriots and doesn’t know what to do. He loves American Football more than anything, but it seems as though his glory days–which were never that glorious anyway–are behind him. So, he signs a contract with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. He doesn’t really expect much from the job, just hopes that it will be a step toward something bigger and better. His hopes will not be in vain, because although he will only play one game as a CFL quarterback, he will look back on that game as the greatest that he–or anyone else, for that matter–has ever played.

For those who don’t know, Tim Tebow is a real former-NFL quarterback, and author Jon Bois draws on his legacy to form the emotional core of the story, before hurling us recklessly into a world of utter insanity, the result being among the funniest, most heartfelt, and most rewarding works of the absurd that I have ever read. Canada is a ludicrous fantasy world where cell phones have been replaced by city-wide networks of voice-pipes, where ordinary people have superhuman endurance and where games of football can–very occasionally–spill out from the stadiums and into the streets.

“Canada is weird” is hardly an original joke, but Bois gives it new life.This is partly because his imagination is so vibrant, but that’s only half of the story. Like in most great comedies, the jokes land so well because they are tied up in actual character drama. All Tim Tebow wants is someplace quiet to recuperate from his embarrassment in the NFL while he figures out what he’s going to do with his life. Instead, he’s thrown into headlong into a world he cannot understand, to play a game that resembles the football he knows, but is unimaginably different in unexpected ways. The result is hilarious, but also makes me feel for Tebow, whose anxieties are understated but very real.

The main draw of this book is the sheer madness of the game that they’re playing, as well as the strategies Tebow and his fellow Argonauts employ to adapt to it. Bois has a firm sense of fair play, and as preposterous as the rules are, they are rigidly defined for the most part. Occasionally, I had to look up a bit of football terminology, but even a football-layman like me could follow along as Tebow and his opponents try to take advantage of loopholes in the 250,000 page CFL rulebook.

Although the surreal jokes and the battles of wits are what pulled me into the story, what will stick with me more is what the story eventually becomes once the novelty wears out and an eerie loneliness takes hold of everything. When I noticed it, creeping in from the edges, I realized that it had always been there, just waiting for its chance. “What is the point of football?” the story asks, but there’s another, deeper, darker question underneath, one that it’s almost too frightened to ask: “What’s the point of being alive?”

Enough of the heavy stuff! Here are some quotes out of context:

“I buckle down, ready to fight. I don’t think anyone’s fought wolves in a football uniform, so what the Hell, let’s see what happens.”

“I pride myself on being the first player in the history of football to get drunk in the middle of the play.“

“The Toronto Argonauts have had their time. Untie me, present me with the ball, and accept your fate!”

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Final Grade: A

Wow! I gave an “A” to the very first book. I’m actually pretty surprised. Let’s hope for more books on this level.

The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles is a free web novella. You can find it right here.

 

Self-Introductions

Blaga:

I have always loved books – I live and breathe the narratives they contain, the worlds they present, and the characters that live within them. I am not absolutely certain whether I can really fit myself within several categories or motifs, but I tend to love fairy tales and books inspired by them; historical novels; biographies, especially ones of musical composers and writers; immigrant narratives; sometimes stories heavy in political intrigue. But really, above all, I would say that I love a good story – one written in a way that, even if I am unfamiliar with the setting or culture (be it real or fictional) I could find common ground with it in some way.

In 2016 I read only a handful of books for pleasure. I justified this development by telling myself that I was too tired to read. There was truth to that, of course, but I also eventually realized that tiredness was not the problem. People around me –  friends  and fellow classmates – made time to read, no matter how busy or tired they were.

I finished the fall semester of 2016 determined to make more time to read. If I pushed myself to read instead of watching television or movies during my down time, I thought, I would be able to relax just as much if not more. ‘Worst’ case scenario, a book can put me quickly to sleep, best case scenario, it could also keep me up late into the night, excited to find out what happens next. I did not have any particular plan in mind. I was browsing the lists of “best books” of 2016, trying to find something interesting to read, when I ran into Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge. I had never done a reading challenge before, but the idea appealed to me immediately.  Okay, but how do I stick to it and not give up within the first week? 2017 does not look any less busy than 2016 – more so, actually!

The ‘aha!’ moment came when Sam expressed interest in the challenge. What better way to keep yourself going, I thought, than having to be accountable to someone else? And, even better, accountable to a wider audience of people? And so, this project came to be! The project will truly be a challenge, and on many levels – not only the reading itself, but the fact that it will force me to step out of my comfort zone, and think creatively of ways in which to combine my own interests to the prompts. I genuinely look forward to navigating through some 24 books and reflecting upon them in the year to come.

Favorite book: The Iliad

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Sam:

When Blaga came to me with the idea of this blog, my immediate response was a fearless “Yes!” Now, granted, over the following few days, the part of my brain in charge of worrying about things gained some ground (“You’re going to forget to read a book one of those weeks!”), but my immediate reaction remains more characteristic of my attitude toward reading. As a writer, I should be reading lots of books anyway, right? As a writer, I should be thinking about the books I’ve read, right? So really, this blog consists only of things that I need to be doing anyway.

My overwhelming preoccupation as a reader and writer is the fantastic and impossible. Spells and spirits, time travel and space travel, cloning and curses, and so on. I see the use of fantastic elements like these as a metaphor for the strangeness that hides in plain sight in our own world. I will make an effort to include the fantastic and surreal a great deal on my list to satisfy my own taste.

Not that I will limit myself to only fantasy or science fiction. That’s not an option, especially not with the Read Harder Challenge, where the goal is to shake up our reading habits. Taking my cue from the challenge, I will not only discover works from underrepresented demographics, like women and people of color, but also in new genres and traditions of literature that I don’t already know about. It’s sure to be exciting!

I’m planning to grade each book I read on an A to F scale with pluses and minuses as needed.

A = Remarkable book, oozing with style. Has something special to say and the eloquence to say it well. I will give a book an “A” if it’s going to stick with me for a very long time.

B = Good book. Carefully written and thoughtfully planned. I will give a book a “B” if I had a great time reading it and I can’t think of any major problems, but it still doesn’t reach the lofty standards of “A”

C = Decent Book. I will give a book a “C” if its strengths fail to overshadow its weaknesses. A category mostly for books that have a great deal of unreached potential. Hypothetically, this would be the most common grade if I just read random books.

D = Bad Book. Poorly thought out, or poorly put together, or just unpleasant to read. I’ll give a book a “D” if I didn’t enjoy it at all. Maybe there’s an interesting idea or two buried in it somewhere. Then again, maybe not. Either way, it fails as a complete work.

F = Garbage Book for Babies. Just really, really, really bad. Startlingly bad. Bad in fresh and unexpected ways. I’ll give a book an “F” if it’s memorably awful and a true monument to bad writing.

I think that wraps things up. I’m looking forward to 48 more weeks!

Favorite book: Breakfast of Champions