Monday, February 8, 2010

Post-China Reading, including a bicycle book

Whenever I return from a prolonged bicycle tour in a foreign land, I eagerly seek out books about the region--travelogues, histories, cultural studies, biographies--wishing to relive my recent experience, while seeking to gain a greater understanding of the place and its people. The reading also allows me to affirm my various impressions. China was no different, though I feared it might be difficult to find up-to-date studies, with it growing and evolving so fast, by a decade a year, some analysts say.

There were shelves and shelves of books on China at Chicago's Harold Washington Library, some quite recent with superlative commentary and insights. I devoured nine of them within a month of my return and had another half dozen laying around when I called a halt to this submergence, realizing it had become an obsession and that I needed to pursue other interests.

Among my reading were two biographies on Mao, including the highly entertaining and incisive "The Private Life of Chairman Mao" by Li Zhisui, Mao's personal physician the last 22 years of his life, making many revelations, particularly about his philandering. Equally readable was "China Road," a farewell journey by Robert Gifford after serving six years in China as a correspondent for NPR. He traveled 3,000 miles across the country retracing some of the roads I bicycled and making many similar observations. He knew the country quite well, and had much to share.

"Oracle Bones" by Peter Hessler, the "New Yorker's" representative in China, was another superlative study. Hessler traced the stories of a handful of Chinese he had come to know as close friends, including several who had been English students of his who he had written about in an earlier book. That book was on my to-read list when I decided to abort my Chinese reading. "When China Rules the World" by Martin Jacques was also very worthwhile. This freshly published book was a thorough and not alarming study of China's increasing influence and affluence.

I sought out "Fried Eggs with Chopsticks" by Polly Evans, as it had been recommended by Lonely Planet. Although the author, a young English-woman, had worked in Hong Kong for a spell as a journalist, this was a fairly superficial backpacker's travelogue full of complaints about the difficulties of traveling in China, while trying to make light of the experience as much as possible. The book's subtitle, "One woman's hilarious adventures into a country and culture not her own," was a strong warning that this book was meant more to be entertaining than informative. One thing I have learned over the years is to be wary of something described as "hilarious," particularly movies. "Hilarious" is a very subjective term, and generally means something is straining to be funny.

For me, the best part of picking up this book was discovering that this was Evan's second book and that her first one had been about a 1,000 mile bike tour of Spain. I'll read any book about bicycling. Obviously that first book was received well enough for her to find a publisher for a second book. I never would have guessed though that she was a cyclist from the reading of her book on China. She does rent a bike for a little exploration, but otherwise makes no reference to her cycling past, partially because she isn't much of a cyclist.

She choose to travel by bike in Spain mostly as a stunt, rather than as something she had a fondness for. She had hardly biked at all when she undertook her trip, so it is another of those books describing the early travails of biking up mountains and biking with a load and all that, while trying to amuse. But at least as a journalist, she does some research about bicycling. She gets credit for the title of her book, "It's Not About the Tapas," a play on the title of Lance's first autobiography. She pays occasional homage to the Spanish five-time winner of the Tour de France Miguel Indurain and mentions the Tour de France from time to time. She even brings up Willy Voet, the soigneur for the 1998 Festina Tour de France team that was kicked out of the race after he was caught with a car load of doping products on his way to the Tour start and then who wrote a book about it.

She all too often takes a bus or accepts rides when the going gets tough. I had hoped by the end of her tour she would be a fully committed convert to the bike who wouldn't want to stop riding. But no, she forces herself to get up to her goal of 1,000 miles and then finishes off her trip by bus. When her final bus was late in arriving, she had the chance to get back on her bike and enjoy a final 30 or 40 miles of cycling bliss. Unfortunately, she waits for the bus.

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