Conversations Across America

Loya, Kari. Conversations Across America: a Father and Son, Alzheimer’s, and 300 Conversations Along the TransAmerican Bike Trail that Capture the Soul of America. XK Productions, 2022.

Reason read: as a member of the Early Review Program for LibraryThing, I occasionally review books. This was a December pick that I am just getting around to reading now.

Father and son embark on a 73 day, 4,200 mile adventure from Virginia to Oregon,
My favorite part in the entire book was when Kari’s life rolled by as if it were a memory from a movie.
From the moment I opened Conversations on my laptop I regretted not having the coffee table version Kari mentioned. Some of the landscape photography is absolutely gorgeous. However, here is what you need to know two-thirds of the book are photographs of ordinary people with their accompanying “stories.” Some of the stories are interesting or even heartfelt, but a great deal of them are exclamations about Merv’s age or the number of miles they are trying to bike. Wow is a common refrain.
My only detractor? The sheer volume of stories or conversations overshadowed the beauty of the father/son narrative. I tracked how many pages were dedicated to Loya’s personal journey compared to the pages of “conversations” and the ratio was 1:3. Additionally, the same “conversation” is in the narrative so I felt like I was reading the passages twice.
My favorite section of the book was the end where Loya included a partial list of the gear they carried, their itinerary of the different stages, and the half-time report about dogs and meals.

As an aside, were there really 2,000 filing cabinets? The bit about the trampoline was funny. I also felt Loya was a little judgmental about AT hikers. That’s acceptable if he has hiked the Appalachian Trail in its entity himself and can make a comparison based on his experiences.

Author fact: Kari was trying to sell his home in New Jersey while trying to bike across America with his father.

Book trivia: there is a ton of beautiful photography in Conversations.

Playlist: “New York” by Frank Sinatra, Chariots of Fire, Beach Boys, Def Leppard, Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, Quincy Jones, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Vivaldi, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Jack Johnson (Hawaiian music).

French Revolutions

Moore, Tim. French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France. Read by Andrew Wincott.  Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, 2009.

Funny. Funny. Funny. I like that Moore’s writing is unapologetic snarky. If you are sensitive to sarcasm and foul language, stay away! This book is lightly peppered with words only a hearty rant could benefit from. Take a slightly out-of-shape, thirty something year old British guy who gets it into his head he can ride the Tour-de-France. Outfit him with a bike and ridiculous clothes and the fact he has no idea what he’s doing. Suddenly you’ve got a beyond hilarious story. Tim Moore ignores all common sense reason and sets out to bike all 2,256 miles of the race before the actual professionals take the stage. Each chapter is a different leg of the Tour and what’s great about Moore’s account (aside from his incessant bellyaching) is the historical perspective he gives along the way. He isn’t shy about providing graphic descriptions of the trials and tribulations of the male body after eight to ten hours in the saddle, either. I could open French Revolutions any page and find something hysterically funny, and more often than not, off color.

Quotes: As I said, nearly every page had something worthwhile and funny, but here are just a few of my favorites: “Sadly, Dennis was an awful boy who cheated at Monopoly and avenged yet another Belgian victory in that year’s race by running amok in our flower-beds with the big lawnmower, so I did not at the time ascribe positive attributes to the focus of his obsession” (p 5), “I didn’t know whether to be glad or sad when I looked down while grabbing for a towel and saw that the elemental rigours of the day had apparently inspired my genitals to eat themselves” (p 116), and “The blathering torrent of self-pity was by this stage a staple of our telephonic encounters, and she listened patiently, as, dispensing with respiration or punctuation, I stated that I was in a town with no hotels, that she had the hotel book, and that having cycled 94,000 miles I had forgotten how to speak French” (p 255).

As an aside, I don’t know why all my audio books are read by people with accents.

Reason read: May is Bicycle Month…so go out there and ride!

Author fact: Moore has an incredibly patient and understanding wife named Birna.

Book trivia: Moore makes mention of taking photographs while “on tour” but sadly, none of them make the book. Not even one of himself.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Bicycling” (p 35). Simple and to the point.

It’s Not About the Bike

Armstrong, Lance. It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life.New York: Berkley Books, 2001.

I read this in one sitting, again as a passenger on a trip from Maine. I had the luck (?) of traffic on my side so instead of the usual 4.5 hours to get home it took us over six.

I will be 100% honest. I don’t know what to think about this book. When I first finished it I was expecting some sort of lesson to be learned, some sort of moral to the story. Instead I found the ending as well, an ending. The end. I’m not sure why it wasn’t more for me. I guess it’s because in comparison with Matthew Long’s recovery back to athletics Long’s process was more drawn out, more detailed. I felt that Long’s experience was more painful and not as easy to cope with emotionally. I think that was due, in part, to how little time Armstrong spent describing his road to recovery. In comparison to Long, Armstrong made it a much simpler process with much less emotion. To be fair, one man was hit by a bus and another was hit by cancer in three different areas of his body. Only two similarities really rise between the two men. Both men were ordained by doctors to die and both had an insane willpower to defy all odds and, ultimately, get back to the sports they loved so much.

Everyone knows Lance Armstrong’s story – man with cancer defies the odds and wins the Tour de France a shocking seven consecutive times. But, as the title of Armstrong’s story suggests it’s not about the bike. Instead it is about a different kind of competition. Fighting cancer. Ultimately, as near death moments will do, cancer changed him. It woke him up to the possibilities of a fuller, more meaningful life. He never would have become a philanthropist without the experience of personal pain. It’s Not about the Bike is that journey from hotshot cyclist to a powerhouse with a greater purpose.

Favorite lines: “If there is a defining characteristic of a man as opposed to a boy, maybe it’s patience” (p 65). “During our lives we’re faced with so many different elements as well, we experience so many setbacks, and fight such hand-to-hand battle with failure, head down in the rain, just trying to stay upright and to have a little hope” (p 69). Finally, “We watched the World Series and tried to act like we were interested in the outcome – as much as anybody really cares about baseball before brain surgery” (p 110 – 111).

Author fact(s): Two of my favorite details about Armstrong as the person (and not the writer) is he is also a marathoner (three times) and allegedly agnostic.

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called “Best for Teens” (p 23)

May 2011 was…

May was a month of deja vu. The Just Cause walk. Wanting to go home. Same old, same old. Nearly everything I read this month reminded me of something else I have already read. Out of Control by Suzanne Brockmann reminded me of The Defiant Hero by the same author was the most obvious because the plot and characters were very similar. Almost too similar. To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite reminded me of Educating Esme by Esme Raji Codell. They had similar plot lines: taking on a difficult classroom of students as a new teacher. Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham reminded me of Where the Pavement Ends by Erika Warmbrunn. Two stories about traveling through difficult, foreign terrain by bicycle.

So, here’s the list:

  • To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite ~ in honor of National Education Month. This was a really quick (but good) read. Read in one day.
  • Catfish and Mandala: a Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam by Andrew X. Pham ~ in honor of May’s Memorial Day. This was probably my favorite book on the list.
  • Out of Control by Suzanne Brockmann ~ in honor of Brockmann’s birth month. I have mixed feelings about this book (as my review pointed out). Read in one day.
  • A Child’s Life and Other Stories by Phoebe Gloeckner ~ in honor of May being Graphic Novel month. This was super hard to “read.” Read in one day.
  • Antigone the play by Sophocles ~ in honor of May being the best time to visit Greece. I keep forgetting this plot so it was good to read it again. Read in one day.
  • Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong ~ in honor of Asian-American Heritage month. Read over a weekend. This was one of my favorites.
  • Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery ~ in honor of Eeyore’s birth month. This was an audio book and very different than everything else I have listened to so far.
  • Seabiscuit: an American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand ~ in honor of the Kentucky Derby.
  • The Dean’s List by Jon Hassler ~ in honor of Minnesota becoming a state in May. This reminded me a little too much of my own work place!
  • A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters From the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward edited by Isaac Metzker. Read in two days.
  • City of Light by Lauren Belfer ~ in honor of history month. Interesting story about Niagara Falls and the advancement of electricity at the turn of the century.
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi ~ in honor of May being the best time to visit Iran. This was amazing. Can’t wait for part II. 
  • Friday the Rabbi Slept Late by Harry Kemelman ~ in honor of Prayer Day being the first Thursday in May. This was a fun murder mystery. Read in one car ride home.

I didn’t get to three books on my orginal list: China, To Me, House on the Lagoon, and, Art and Madness. I forgot to pack them and ended up finding Persepolis and Friday the Rabbi Slept Late at home.

May was also the month for crazy travel. I slept no more than two nights at a time in Bolton, Concord, Boston, Chicopee, Peaks Island, Rockland and Monhegan all in eleven days time. I took two boats, one bus and three different cars. Walked over 75 miles. Saw family. Saw friends. Breathed in the woods. Inhaled the ocean. I enjoyed every second of it.

Catfish and Mandala

Pham, Andrew X. Catfish and Mandala: a Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam. New York: Farrar. Straus and Giroux, 1999.

It has been several years since I read a bicycle memoir (the last being Where the Pavement Ends by Erika Warmbrunn). I was very excited to start Catfish and Mandala. So much so that I started it two days before May began. Even though May is Bicycle Month I read this for Memorial Day. I’m glad I went that route because it’s not really about the bike.

Catfish and Mandala is more than an adventure story about biking across Vietnam. It’s a cultural exploration and by turn, an explanation. Comparing American versus Vietnamese differing viewpoints on mundane topics like when a child should move out of his parent’s home after reaching adulthood. And yet. Noticing similarities: we all want our fathers to be proud of us, in any culture.
The story of Pham’s father’s imprisonment in the Labor Camp is brief, but heartbreaking just the same. After reading pages 16-20 I will never look at catfish the same.
Pham’s ability to weave past with present is brilliant. He recaptures his family’s flight from Vietnam to the U.S. when he was a small child seamlessly while recounting his own journey from the U.S. back to Vietnam as an adult. His confusion over what he remembers is intertwined with his inability to articulate what he is really looking for. Pham finds himself asking “what am I doing here?” time and time again. As he faces prejudice and violence and corruption I asked the same question.

Favorite lines: “Somehow they got by on love and rice” (p 17),” Everything could shift, and nothing could change” (p 107), “I have an urge to kick myself in the head” (p 158), and “A stray mutt curls up at my feet and shares his fleas with my ankles” (p 200).

Author Fact: I have to start of by flirting. Pham is a good looking guy! My next fact is actually a question – how can you be a “starving” restaurant critic?
Book Trivia: Catfish and Mandala is Pham’s first book.

Things that need further explanation: what, exactly, are “angry egg-eyes”, and what do they look like? Pham mentions five different types of bananas. Now I want to know their names and characteristics.

Pham mentions Miles From Nowhere by Barbara Savage. I’m so excited it’s actually on my list. Sad to say I won’t be reading it until probably May 2016 though!

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “Bicycling” (p 36). Simple enough.

ps~ I enjoyed Catfish and Mandala so much that I added Pham as a favorite author on LibraryThing.