Amazing Racers: The Story of America’s Greatest Running Team and its Revolutionary Coach by Marc Bloom

When a little-known high school cross-country team inexplicably explodes into national domination, a journalist asks why, and uncovers a coach and kids both amazing and remarkably ordinary.

Marc Bloom (Run with the Champions) was as astounded as anyone when the boys’ cross-country team from Fayetteville-Manlius High School, in upstate Manlius, N.Y., demolished the competition, including the far-and-away favorites, at a major regional race in 2004. Bloom followed F-M for more than a decade as it continued to dominate their sport. Like coaches, runners and fans everywhere, Bloom wondered: What are they doing up there in Manlius? In Amazing Racers: The Story of America’s Greatest Running Team and Its Revolutionary Coach, he examines the student athletes and their coach, Bill Aris, offering an answer to that question, if not a prescription to follow in their very fast footsteps.

A dogged marathoner and cross-country coach, Aris studied the methods of New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard, as well as philosophies from the ancient Greeks and classic rock-and-roll. But it was iconoclastic Australian coach Percy Cerutty who gave Aris his guiding philosophy: a lifestyle Cerutty dubbed Stotan, from a blending of stoic and Spartan. Stotan training is the surprisingly straightforward key to F-M’s astonishing success: clean eating, good sleep, hard work; an emphasis on teamwork, humility, harmony with nature and mind-body connection. F-M’s prodigies are “regular” kids, their accomplishments born not of technology or special talent but hard training, inspired by and devoted to their coach. In pep talks, Aris might make references to Jim Morrison or Churchill alongside Aristotle, Cerutty or the brilliant Australian miler Herb Elliott. His athletes sometimes tease him, sometimes compare him with God. And, indeed, Aris’s coaching style and super-close-knit team can feel a little cultish at times–at least to those of us on the outside.

Also exceptional is Aris’s approach to gender in sport: he ignores it. F-M’s girls undergo the exact same training, lifestyle expectations, radical honesty and tough love: “We’re not boys or girls. We’re athletes.” In 13 appearances at the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN), F-M’s girls won 11 championships, rounded out by second- and fourth-place finishes. The boys won eight top-five finishes in the same 13 years. F-M is the only team in the country to qualify for NXN every year since the race began. Beyond their athletic performances, these high school students exude calm and maturity when discussing selfless race tactics and the importance of clean living.

Amazing Racers is an inspiring illumination of a sensational team. Bloom’s consistent and sincerely awestruck tone drives home just how special this story is, celebrating both the dedicated young athletes and their leader. His close reading of races, often called in heart-racing play-by-plays, is supplemented by research in sports physiology and psychology, and the history of cross-country racing. This book is thorough in its studies as well as its praise. While readers looking for the secret to victory may be disappointed–the prescription is, basically, just hard work–there is much to inspire everyone from the armchair racer to the elite athlete in this heartfelt biography of running royalty.


This review originally ran in the July 15, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 peanut-butter sandwiches on whole wheat.

I Heart Oklahoma! by Roy Scranton

Legendary teenaged serial killers, the era of Trump and three dysfunctional artists combine in a phantasmagoric road trip across the United States in this strange, lively novel.

Roy Scranton (Learning to Die in the Anthropocene) flings an exceptionally odd, of-the-moment novel at Trump’s America with I Heart Oklahoma!, a fever-dream road trip featuring three shapeshifting central characters. Jim is a nonconformist bad-boy filmmaker out to record contemporary Americana with the help of his regular cameraperson, Remy. He hires Suzie to write his script, two pages a day as they drive the country in a lime-green 1971 Plymouth: “You could cram a Girl Scout troop in that trunk,” Jim brags, and only a few pages into his story, the reader believes he just might. Suzie is skeptical of the whole thing, and pretty repelled by Jim personally, but she needs the money, and wasn’t doing much else with her New York City apartment but feeding Steve the Cat. “She doesn’t take reality as it comes, but pumps it through a machine in her head that spits it out as stories she can control.” She sublets, and the eccentric threesome hits the road.

Early on, the novel reads as a coherent story: tensions hover at barely manageable levels between the prickly, offensive Jim, impatient Suzie and Remy, who aims to please and therefore displeases Suzie, who wants an ally against their shared boss, and maybe wants to sleep with Remy. Sex and violence are constant undercurrents in the Plymouth as in the country and culture they navigate, making fun and satirizing, for example in a memorable scene starring Suzie in a wedding dress moving in slow motion through the Oklahoma City bombing memorial. After one member of the team abandons the others, the narrative turns decidedly hallucinatory. The main characters morph into simulacra named Jack, Jane and Jesse (and eventually Jesse II), with Remy/Jesse’s pronouns turning gender-neutral. They are joined by Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Caitlyn Jenner, Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Trump and others. Among the book’s recurring cultural reference points are Caril Ann Fugate and Charlie Starkweather (who inspired Natural Born Killers).

Under the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, Tom Waits, Walt Whitman and others (according to his acknowledgements), Scranton loops and wheels through states of varying lucidity, sometimes employing a stream-of-consciousness prose style and sometimes more straightforward storytelling. “Bleach sun shuddering humid over endless yellow-sprouting cornfields, low green rows of soy, off-white box architecture, strip malls and highways, highways and parking lots, parking lots brilliant with the shine of two hundred sixty million gas-powered combustion-engine personal-transit devices….” This novel of sex, violence, apathy, despair and art offers a bizarre, lightning-paced excursion through the present. For those readers on board with its wild, winding style, I Heart Oklahoma! incisively parodies a weird time to be alive.


This review originally ran in the July 12, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 4 seemingly drug-addled meanderings.

(Not for me personally.)

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City by Anna Sherman

These lovely, understated ruminations on time and Tokyo will please those interested in Japanese culture, language or history–or lovers of any city, anywhere.

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City is Anna Sherman’s exploration of a city that is not originally her own, but her perspective is perhaps all the more closely attentive, thoughtful and serious. Through Tokyo’s Bells of Time, which rang out the hours for hundreds of years, Sherman examines many aspects of both city and time. Her prose is careful, contemplative, even solemn. The result is philosophy, travel writing, elegy and love letter.

“Tokyo is one vast timepiece,” begins Sherman. “Time is counted out in incense sticks; in LEDs; and in atomic lattice clocks,” and in so many other ways she will consider. Time is ignored, too, in this city where residents “have their eyes fixed on the future, and are impatient when a word is said of their past.” Sherman never states the reasons for her preoccupation with time, clocks and Tokyo’s past, but her book thrums with it. She views the first Bell of Time, at a former prison at Nihonbashi, and the smallest, in Akasaka; seeks the lost bell of Mejiro; meets the man who rings the bell at Ueno; and visits a widow surrounded by “an island of old clocks” in Nezu. She also consults with numerous sources, modern and ancient, and studies the Japanese language and its translations. This is a narrator deeply immersed and committed to her subject; Sherman’s bibliography and notes are extensive for such a slim book.

A point of stillness at the center is a special coffee shop where Sherman makes a friend. “Tokyo is a restless city, where everything changes and shifts, but not Daibo Coffee.” Daibo is the one character she returns to, and his influence is felt in her love for the city and in her questions.

“[Author and composer] Yoshimura believed that a temple bell’s sound was as much about silence as about its ringing.” Sherman’s writing similarly respects white space as much as it does words: her approach is lyric and minimalist, and respectful of the culture she studies. An American living in Japan, she is sensitive to her outsider status, as when writing about the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo: “Growing up, I was part of the old soldiers’ we. I had never thought about what we had done to them.” She is present for the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima reactor explosions that followed, and her writing about these events is spare: “I bought tickets… I wanted to see Daibo… I said nothing.” At times, Sherman slides into prose poetry. “Mirrors and clocks in love hotels and the time they tell, the translucent sheeting over building sites, the streetlamps, the slopes, the signs I can read and the ones I can’t.”

The Bells of Old Tokyo is an elegant series of musings, a beautifully written evocation of a place and a philosophical inquiry into the nature of time itself. Sherman has given the world, and one city in particular, an astonishing gift.


This review originally ran in the July 9, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 bowls of green tea.

The Asylum by John Harwood (audio)

This is a Victorian gothic mystery/psych thriller, and how it ended up in my iPod is another mystery which I cannot explain. I hit ‘play’ on it on a whim, and listened to the tracks from disc 1 and then there were no more. I was involved enough that I then went and paid for the audiobook (which I never do), and now I’m left unsatisfied with my purchase.

Georgina Ferrars wakes up in an asylum (a madhouse, she surmises, although the doctor in charge demurs at the term), with no memory of the past several weeks. She’s told she checked in under the name Lucy Ashton; her L.A.-monogrammed valise supports that claim. When Dr. Straker telegrams her uncle, the reply comes immediately: Georgina Ferrars is here at home. Your patient is an imposter.

It’s an engaging enough opening, and what unfolds from here continues to intrigue. It seems Miss Ferrars has a double, a new friend (or long-lost something-or-other?) named Lucia Ardent (note the initials), and the two look just alike. The question now is which is whom? Miss Ferrars is missing her two prized possessions: a dragonfly brooch that was a gift from her father to her mother; and a writing case, with her journal inside. If that journal could only be found, we might learn what happened in the missing weeks…

Solid plot so far, then. I found it a little bit exasperating to listen to the distraught young lady who (how Victorian) is wont to become faint at every shock, but okay, it’s part of the period setting. When the diary is located, we start learning more about the Ferrars/Ardent/Ashton history; here connections and plot lines get increasingly twisted, and I’m afraid Harwood got his threads a little entangled. There is a major reveal that just did not follow for me – I didn’t see how we made the logical leap – and, because I was listening to the audiobook while driving, I wonder if it was my fault, if I just missed a crucial moment. But I did go back and re-listen to some parts. And, too, a number of other readers on Goodreads were left confused as well. I’m inclined to think that if a larger portion of your readership missed something, maybe it’s on the writer and not the readers. (I have experienced this as a writer – I put the fact in, but everybody missed it – and even though I put the fact in, if they all missed it, I didn’t do my job properly.)

At any rate, the final third or so of the book – the protracted denouement – was far less compelling, and less believable, than what came before. Our heroine is alternately the fainting Victorian weakly woman, and a surprisingly scrappy, clever one; these quick shifts back and forth and back again did not ring true. The quickly complicating plot threads got too incredible for me. The final action scene, followed by the final proposal and answer, topped out the ridiculousness; it was a major letdown. Oh, and – spoilers in white text here; highlight to read – there’s a lesbian incest thread, for good measure.

Full credit for that first disc’s worth of tracks pulling me in; and more than half the book kept me engaged. After that, I was just hanging on out of increasingly incredulous curiosity about how this silliness would wrap up. Not particularly recommended. As I learned on Goodreads, Harwood has his fans, and some of them loved this book; some would recommend others of his over this one. I won’t be trying him again, but you’re welcome to.


Rating: 6 windows.

White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imaginationby Jess Row

This tough, serious essay collection considers whiteness in American fiction and culture, and the inextricableness of the two, with exhortations for change.

Jess Row (Your Face in Mine) takes on ambitious material with White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination. He points out a societal need for reparative writing, examining the role of imagination in real lives, both in “straight” fiction (novels, stories, films, plays) and, in a larger sense, “in which our collective life is a series of overlapping fictions, fantasies, dream states.” The first kind “reflects and sustains” the second, so that novels are never “just” novels, but rather serve to uphold institutions and ways of thinking that have consistently and systematically hurt nonwhite Americans. The title refers both to the real estate pattern of movement known as “white flight,” and also to flights of fancy, such as imagining that ignoring race and racism means they’ve gone away.

In seven essays, this book argues that imagination is as much part of the problem as real-world actions and prejudice. Its main concern is whiteness, in and out of fiction; when it examines specific marginalized groups, they tend to be African Americans and Native Americans. Row undertakes close readings of Marilynne Robinson, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Dillard, Richard Ford and more: these white writers may be among his own past literary heroes, but they nonetheless come under scrutiny for the whiteness, or sheer emptiness, of the spaces they create. On the other hand, he examines James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Chang-rae Lee, Colson Whitehead, Amiri Baraka and Ta-Nehisi Coates for the examples they offer of more inclusive fictional spaces. Row consults music and films, as well.

In challenging ways of writing–even, for white writers, the choice to write at all–Row is careful to acknowledge that, as a white man, he can merely ask questions and grope for progress, rather than offer a solution. He also mines personal material, including his childhood in the Black Hills of South Dakota, land that by treaty belongs to the Lakota and is illegally occupied by white people (like Row’s own family).

This intelligent collection is often deeply engaged in realms of philosophy and literary theory; it approaches an academic writing style. Its subject matter may be discomfiting for white readers and writers, and readers less familiar with Wittgenstein, Derrida or Edward T. Hall’s theory of proxemics will likely find this book challenging. There is something for every reader, however, in the message that fiction not only reflects but acts upon real life, and that each of us is obliged to act for justice, in reading and writing as in life.


This review originally ran in the July 2, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 references.

break for a personal update: on teaching

Whew. I’ve finished my first week teaching writing composition classes to freshman (and a couple of sophomores) at a little liberal arts college in West Virginia. This is a big change for me. Aside from Hops’s ugly shock at being left home alone for hours every day!, I’ve been wrestling with lesson plans, reading and writing assignments, and managing a class full of variously bored, overanxious, and sleepy 18-year-olds. It is simultaneously maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, and potentially one of the most rewarding.

For our second class meeting, I had all my students write me a letter of introduction, sharing as much of themselves as felt comfortable. This allowed me to judge the writing skills and grammar they entered with (not perfect, but often not terrible either), and see them as individuals with their own interests and concerns. I was touched at how much some of them did choose to share. And I learned how many of them are genuinely nervous about passing my class (with a C or better, required to move on to the next one). I’ve been trying to communicate to each of them that I’m here to help them pass – every last one of them – as long as they’re putting in the work and asking me for the help they need.

It feels kind of overwhelming, the idea of having readings, writing exercises, grammar lessons, and class discussions (etc.) ready for every class meeting between now and early December. All their faces and needy brains out there in a sea of challenge. Just learning their names! (I have my smallest class down; the next one, pretty much there; the last, still kind of a mess.) I am trying to remind myself that even though I’d like to be perfect every day, professional and polished, that’s not a realistic goal. I’ve pointed out to them that I’m not perfect, either, but I don’t want to overstress that point, lest they worry that I’m nearly as much at sea as they are!

At this point, for better or worse, I’m committed to the syllabus, schedule, and textbook I’ve set. So we’ll just venture out together, me and these 47 kids. Wish us luck.

I have scaled my book review work way, way back. But I also have a backlog of work ready for this blog into the month of November as of now. I think we’ll make it into the new year easily enough with a three-day-a-week schedule; come January, we’ll see. This work remains important to me, as I think it always will. But I obviously have some day-to-day priorities right now that take precedence.

And January sounds a long way off still. Lots of essays to shepherd and grade between now and then; lots of individual conferences and who knows what little crises to face. I’ll be out here learning as I go.

Teacher friends, if you have words of wisdom for me, I’d be grateful to take them in the comments below. Or just send me your good wishes. I’m headed back into reading my students’ words and figuring out what’s next…

reread: Still Life With Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty

This is my third review of this book – sorry if you’re getting bored! – and I’m probably close to ten times reading it, what with it being near the center of both my critical essay and my graduate seminar. Obviously a favorite. This time, I am motivated by Jessie van Eerden’s seminar, “Valley of Dry Bones: Bringing Non-Narrative Prose to Life” (see also Monday’s post). Because I’m traveling and almost all my books are in storage, I bought a fresh copy. (As I’m graduated and attending these seminars not for credit but for fun, Jessie encouraged me to skip the reread, but really.) It was a joyous adventure to mark up a clean copy: you may recall I rarely mark up books at all, but this one is special, and I went for it. I’m pretty sure my markings are very different this time around, which is an interesting story. When I have the two side-by-side one day, I will certainly compare them, which may make for a fourth blog post! Welcome to pagesofjulia, the Still Life With Oysters and Lemon blog… (First two posts here and here.)

This is an increasingly perfect book, at least for this reader, and as is the case with books like this, every read deepens it for me. On my first reading, I definitely didn’t get the full impact; I know the second was significantly more rewarding, but each time since, I see more through-lines and subtle echoes, and I am more appreciative of the lovely language and imagery. The narrator has just given a man a ride home:

On the front porch of the unpainted wooden shotgun house, his ancient wife sat reading her Bible aloud, Praise the Lord after every passage, and as Chris led me inside, she said, Chris, don’t you go gettin’ in that liquor in there, and though he said, Why no, Esther, I won’t do that, he led me right to the big Victorian armoire that concealed his treasure: beautiful glass jars of his own plum brandy, whole fruit preserved in pickled sleep, and poured each of us a shot of the most delicious brandy I’ve ever known, before or since, dusky, fiery, perfect.

And these lines have long been a special place for me in the book, but this is the first time they made me cry. A page later,

jars of plum brandy, whole fruit turning in their sleep like infants in the womb.

Whole fruit turning.

I marked many phrases like this, just a few words that made my heart sing: “floors sloped with fun-house abandon,” “what tugs at my sleeve and my sleep,” “that’s what we are, facts,” “not the thing itself but the way of seeing,” “if bodies could flower out.” “I feel possessed by the things of the day.” “There is nothing anywhere just like this.”

I marveled more than ever at the bodily, physical, intimate nature of all of Doty’s observations. I wondered, did I really never notice this before, how the “sexual presence, physicality, bodiliness” he ascribes to still life paintings of seashells is also inherent in everything else his eyes touch? Paul’s jacket, “shiny and blue-black,” and his black shoes “gleaming with droplets; his shoulder pushes against mine.” The men in the sauna, “these beautiful physical presences, all this skin, framed here–like works of art–by the little doorways.”

I noted again the repetition of a line of Cavafy’s poetry – “They must still be around somewhere, those old things.” But perhaps for the first time I saw its echo in the scent Doty recognizes in his mother-in-law’s house: “Is it still out there, in the houses of old women somewhere?”

I recalled but never before noted how perfect this description is:

An unfinished violin, of bird’s-eye maple, in two parts–the top carved out as a single piece, complete, and the violin-shaped block of uncarved wood that would have been the fiddle’s bottom half, the two parts together purchased for a dollar, and feeling, in the hand, like music emerging out of silence, or sculpture coming out of stone. A perpetual wooden emblem: something forever coming into being.

And I appreciated anew the (I will call it) theory of art he lays out, in saying that old things that belonged to someone else (the things you buy at an estate auction), or still life paintings, are beautiful because of what’s invested in these objects – stories, emotions – even when we don’t know what those stories or emotions are. It reminds me of Hemingway’s iceberg metaphor, or the idea that a novelist must know her characters’ backstories even when those backstories never enter the story on the page; the reader will feel them.

Also, having just suffered the loss of a friend, I was comforted in some small way by these lines:

Not that grief vanishes–far from it– but that it begins in time to coexist with pleasure; sorrow sits right beside the rediscovery of what is to be cherished in experience. Just when you think you’re done.

In short, it seems I concentrated on words and sentences this time around, having gotten more or less comfortable with the larger narrative (such as it is) and philosophies presented by the book as a whole. (Recall that this book is really a longform essay at just 70 pages.) I have struggled with the latter, with those philosophies, over multiple readings. This time I just let it feel good to read words and sentences.

I am terribly excited for Jessie to teach from this book. I’ve never had an outside guide to it before, and the subject of Jessie’s seminar is so close to my heart, and she feels so simpatico with my thinking and feeling in general; this will be a real treat. Reading this book is always a real treat. Also, I’m finally going to get around to reading Doty’s other memoirs, I swear it…


Rating: for me, a perfect 10 quinces.
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