Lanterne Rouge by Max Leonard

An amiable history of a largely unsung hero pays respects to the last-place finisher of the Tour de France.

lanterne

Even non-cycling fans recognize the Tour de France as the sport’s biggest annual event. Naturally, the attention of the press and the viewer is focused at the front of the race, where attacks, group sprints and winners are born. In Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France, Max Leonard directs overdue consideration to a different segment of the Tour, where he finds a less fairytale-like but very sincere story.

Ever since the Tour was founded in 1903, as a struggling newspaper’s publicity stunt, someone necessarily has come in last place. Cycling’s term for that someone dates back almost as far: based on his research, Leonard argues that it must have been in use before World War I. The usage of lanterne rouge, or red lantern, is generally accepted as having come from the railroad, where a red lantern lit the last car, letting signalmen know the line behind was clear. Over the last century and more, the lanterne has been variously a joke, a dishonor, an achievement to be sought after and a source of controversy, conflict and myth.

Importantly, the lanterne rouge achieves the accomplishment of finishing the race. The Tour has always had a high rate of attrition. Many men withdraw from the race over weeks of mountain passes, long days and severe weather; some years, Tour staff have pulled trailing riders from the race as well. The lanterne is the man who finishes last–but finishes, a respectable feat.

Leonard makes his passion easily felt as he follows his underappreciated subject. In his prologue (a word not only for a book’s introduction but also a preliminary time-trial stage of the Tour), he attempts to ride a mountain stage of the Tour, but DNF’s (“did not finish”), and his failure will haunt him for the rest of his research and writing process. He then spends nearly two years meeting with surviving lanternes and those who remember them, and searching French libraries for scraps of information about the earliest ones. For example, he pursues the legends of the first lanterne rouge, Arsène Millocheau of 1903 (but did he really finish the race?), and of Abdel-Kader Zaaf of 1951, whose story involves wine, naps, religious difference and colonial racism. Leonard studies the lanterne (and, somewhat resignedly, the leading yellow jersey as well) exhaustively, throughout history and through the race’s evolutions and rule changes. A chapter on drug and doping scandals rounds out any analysis of the Tour, and yes, some lanternes were involved.

Lanterne Rouge is an engaging, exhaustive survey of the last man in the Tour de France, a history, a collection of appealing anecdotes and a psychological consideration of winning and losing. An obvious choice for serious cycling fans, Leonard’s approachable study will also please general sports fans, history enthusiasts and those who root for the underdog.


This review originally ran in the June 12, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 bidons.

Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX by Ginny Gilder

The exertions of rowing crew under Title IX, as a means to overcoming one woman’s demons.

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Ginny Gilder made her way from a privileged Upper East Side life in New York City to Yale University in 1975, in the early years of Title IX, which legislated equal educational opportunities for both men and women in all areas, including athletics. Ginny had never been an athlete; her family instead emphasized business success and keeping up appearances. But she was drawn to the grace, beauty and seeming effortlessness of rowing, and against the coach’s instincts, joined the Yale crew. The story she tells in Course Correction of collegiate competition, gender discrimination, the long road to the Olympics and personal growth, also yields Ginny’s eventual healing from the emotional traumas of a well-concealed family history.

In four sections titled Catch, Drive, Release and Recovery–the four parts of a well-executed rowing stroke–Gilder details the corresponding segments of her life. Rowing captures her passion; she drives herself through injuries and health problems to an eventual Olympic medal; she learns to let go; she forms a successful family of her own, despite a damaged past.

Gilder’s prose is earnest, heartfelt, expressive and clearly strongly felt. Her narrative will appeal to sports fans and readers dedicated to memoirs of pain and redemption. Course Correction touches on the injustices that Title IX was designed to correct (including a memorable scene involving a nude protest), and portrays a painful, affecting and impressive athletic career. But it is centrally a story of one woman’s lengthy and hard-won coming-of-age and coming home.


This review originally ran in the April 24, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 ankle bracelets.

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis by Keija Parssinen

A lovely, thoughtful, disquieting story of the effects of small-town pressures on a remarkable young woman.

unraveling

Keija Parssinen’s (The Ruins of Us) The Unraveling of Mercy Louis depicts a young woman’s coming-of-age in small town peopled by complex, conflicted, ultimately sympathetic characters.

Port Sabine is a refinery town on the Texas Gulf Coast, depressed and parochial, built around oil, secrets and religion. Mercy Louis lives with her grandmother Maw Maw, a radical evangelical who prophesies the end of the world will come in Mercy’s senior year. A basketball prodigy, Mercy needs this senior year to show the scouts that she’s worth the investment, so she can go to college if Maw Maw is wrong. A discovery in a dumpster throws the town into upheaval and witch-hunting, even as Mercy begins to explore the secrets of her own past as well as the possibilities of her future.

The cast of characters includes Mercy’s best friend, Annie, riotously rebellious and rich; Mercy’s mother, absent until a mysterious letter arrives; and Illa, the manager of the basketball team and a hopeful sports photographer with troubles of her own, fixated upon Mercy in her camera’s lens. A new boy in Mercy’s life–the first–threatens to upturn her delicate balance: obedience to Maw Maw and the church, and the poetry she makes on the basketball court.

Although this is clearly Mercy’s story, many of these characters captivate and capture the imagination; Parssinen’s gift is in rendering the essences of both people and place. The Unraveling is suspenseful and disturbing, compassionate and tender, a thought-provoking experience for anyone who’s ever been young and wondered about the past, and the future.


This review originally ran in the March 20, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 points.

Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss

A perceptive, sensitive history of both basketball and desegregation in the late 1960s.

strong inside

Perry Wallace, Jr., was a quiet, respectful student from Nashville, Tenn., who excelled at school (especially in math and science), at playing the trumpet and on the basketball court. Though not a natural leader or revolutionary, when recruited by schools across the nation, he reluctantly “made the decision to attend Vanderbilt University not because of the fact that he would be a trailblazer, but in spite of it.” When he enrolled in 1966, Wallace became the first African American to play in the Southeastern Conference, thus desegregating Deep South athletics. At Vanderbilt, he played in the same gym where Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, Jr., participated in a speakers’ symposium during Wallace’s freshman year.

In his four years at “the Harvard of the South,” Wallace was harassed, spat upon, called names and assaulted on the court in a series of “fouls” that went uncalled. (His coach told him to “learn to duck.”) The away games in Mississippi were the worst, but even at Vanderbilt his classmates publicly ignored him, yet still cheered him on the court and furtively asked for his help with their homework.

Andrew Maraniss’s Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South deftly reveals the nuances of Wallace’s childhood, early education, groundbreaking career of torments and triumphs at Vanderbilt and the exceptional, well-rounded life that followed. A Vanderbilt alumnus, Maraniss shows great compassion and insight with a detailed narrative that is both broad and deep, covering the civil rights movement and college basketball with equal authority. Wallace’s story is powerfully moving and deservedly, beautifully told.


This review originally ran in the March 17, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 fouls not called.

book beginnings on Friday: Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX by Ginny Gilder

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

course

I’ve only just begun this one, but it’s good from the get-go. How about this opening paragraph:

A well-rowed shell is art in motion. It moves smoothly. Stroke after stroke, oars drop in the water and come out together. The rowers’ bodies swing back and forth in sync, performing the same motion of legs, backs, arms at the same instant; no extraneous shrug of shoulders, flick of the wrist, turn of the head, shift of the seat. The result – perfectly spaced swirls of water trailing the shell’s wake – offers the only visual cue of the speed these on-water dancers live to create.

I’m a sucker for poetic praise of athleticism, and it looks like this story has a few other points in its favor, too. Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

You’re Not Lost if You Can Still See the Truck: The Further Adventures of America’s Everyman Outdoorsman by Bill Heavey

Brief doses of amusing, thoughtful and compassionate reflections on outdoorsmanship.

not lost

In his third volume of collected works, You’re Not Lost If You Can Still See the Truck, Bill Heavey (It’s Only Slow Food Until You Try to Eat It) mainly draws from his work in Field & Stream, where he serves as editor at large. Spanning 26 years, these pieces focus largely on fishing, hunting and general outdoor antics, but occasionally touch on more personal subjects, such as fatherhood, divorce, grief, health and family. Self-deprecating humor is clearly Heavey’s greatest strength (especially refreshing, given the hyper-masculine hobbies under consideration), and the bulk of this collection is laugh-out-loud hilarious, but he demonstrates a distinct ability for gravity when called for, which adds a welcome note of complexity. For example, “Can I Tell You Something?” soberly explores the reasons some hunters and fishermen cease to enjoy certain aspects of their sports.

Heavey provides tongue-in-cheek critiques of the outdoor enthusiast’s retail market, tells charmingly and sometimes embarrassingly funny stories of his escapades and generally exhorts the reader (presumably an everyman or -woman like the author) not to take himself too seriously. His satisfyingly personal tone renders him a fully developed figure–a friend, even. The collection is more than the sum of its parts, tracing the arc of an amateur becoming a seasoned outdoorsman (though not an expert, as Heavey would be quick to point out), with examples of his persistent incompetence. Enjoyment of the entertaining result does not require a love of hunting or fishing.


This review originally ran in the December 30, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 packs of Rage Titanium two-blade expandables. (No, I don’t know what that is, either.)

Off Course: Inside the Mad, Muddy World of Obstacle Course Racing by Erin Beresini

One woman’s exhilarating experience in a strange extreme sport.

off course

Erin Beresini was a committed Ironman triathlete and endurance athlete facing overtraining injuries and burnout when she first heard about obstacle course racing (OCR). How silly, she thinks, and how divergent from her past efforts–perhaps just the thing to make new friends, find new motivation and relieve her overstressed muscles by working new ones. From her first mud run she is hooked, and gratifyingly exhausted. She jumps feet first into this bizarre new scene, undertaking a journey that culminates in racing the OCR world’s first marathon-length event, the Spartan Ultra Beast. In Off Course, she documents her labors.

Throughout Beresini’s often-funny personal story, she interjects details of the history and quirks of this recent trend in amateur athleticism. Characterized by mud, fire, ice and blood–and often involving broken bones, electric shocks, sadistic beatings and barbed wire–OCR strikes many as an insane way to chase fun and fitness. As it happens, millions have signed up for these events in recent years, in the United States and around the world. The sport draws “regimented military types and anti-organized sports rebels,” and shares a fan base with CrossFit and endurance athletics. Beresini also scrutinizes the compelling personalities (and controversies) behind the sport’s two main powerhouses, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder, as well as a handful of their participants. As weird as this tale is, it will appeal to both fans of sports narratives and readers who appreciate offbeat obsessions.


This review originally ran in the October 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 burpees.
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