Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Reading Bill Strickland's Ten Points

A little while back, someone suggested that I read Bill Strickland's Ten Points, and before I knew it I was interacting with Bill Strickland himself and he sent me a copy. When the book arrived, the cover alone induced a pre-emptive sense of nostalgia. A cyclist walking his bike into the fading sun, beneath the overhanging trees, as if savouring the sweet devastation of defeat. Of course this would be on the cover of Bill Strickland's memoir.

Bill Strickland is the editor of Bicycling Magazine. He lives in Pennsylvania. He races for Kapelmuur Independent. And he writes, a lot. Articles for various cycling and sometimes non-cycling magazines, a few books, blog posts. The first time I read something by him was maybe in Rouleur a year ago, and then I began following him online. I remember it initially surprised me that a person who wrote like Bill Strickland was the editor of Bicycling. Those guys are all about nutrition and training and race coverage and roadbike reviews. Strickland's writing is evocative and sensual and self-consciously sentimental. And that's just on his instagram account.

Ten Points is an unconventional memoir. It's inextricably tied to bicycle racing, but is not really about it. Bicycling is more of a metaphor, an explanation, a case study in magical thinking. At the start of the book, the author tells his little daughter that he will score 10 points during a single racing season, then proceeds to participate in criterium races and fail spectacularly week after week.

But this plot line merely serves as a trajectory for the real story - a story of surviving childhood abuse, emerging damaged, then wondering for the rest of your life whether you're human or a piece of garbage. In adulthood, the author considers himself cursed, a monster. He struggles to stay in control, but the past haunts him and he worries about being a fit parent and husband. He believes that cycling keeps the monster in him at bay. And winning 10 points for his daughter might just have the power to lift the curse entirely.

Reading the memoir and trying to process it as such, I must admit that I found the 10 points theme to be overbearing and at times distracting. The writing is good. Bill Strickland excels at creating a visceral sense of understanding between himself and the reader. Repeatedly I found myself lost in his past, in his life, in his very sensations. In contrast to this, the overarching storyline of the 10 points feels forced, packaged. Like maybe the author had written the book differently, and then some editor swooped in and tried to make it more marketable for those who like the "top 10 ways to tackle hills" types of articles. I don't know how else to explain it.

Could the story have been told without the 10 points theme being so overt? I honestly think that it could. The book is really a rich collection of snippets, flashbacks to various incidents in the writer's life, and there are other ways in which these could have been tied together. The narrative style is jewel-like, seductive, while somehow also managing to come across as sparse and reserved. It is part American Gothic, part John Updike, but replete with its own, uniquely Stricklandian, characteristics.

In a way Ten Points reads more like a novel than a memoir, and some characters feel more believable than others. The incidents from the past, despite how dramatic some of them are, read as believable, as do the parts about racing. But in the present-day dialogue with the wife and daughter, the things they say are sometimes too well-phrased, too conveniently meaningful. In those instances I could practically feel the author trying to wrangle them into the 10 points plot.

At his best, Bill Strickland is the sort of natural storyteller who can engage an audience with a description of an Idaho cornfield. He can stir the reader into alternating states of wistfulness and fear within a single paragraph. He is a master of subtle foreshadowing. I want more of all that, less meta-narrative.

Writing about this book, I find myself wishing I hadn't interacted with the author prior. Because now I am hyper-aware of him as a real person and nervous about how he will feel reading this. But maybe that's arrogant. After all, who the heck am I and what does it matter what I think. I am describing the book as a reader, not as a critic. And I continue to follow Bill Strickland's writing with interest.

25 comments:

  1. Sounds interesting,I'll have to check it out,thanks :)

    The Disabled Cyclist

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  2. The nakedness of his attempts in various texts to sustain his belief in a noted American cyclist who is strongly rumoured to dope is a powerful counterpoint to all the dissembling and dodging. A fine writer.

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    1. You have probably read this article, but for those who have not-
      http://www.bicycling.com/news/pro-cycling/lance-armstrongs-endgame
      I found it very powerful.

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    2. Thanks for posting the link. I am fairly neutral/skeptical about LA and the whole doping thing in general. But that article really made me understand what's at stake for his fans, emotionally, depending on the outcome of the whole mess.

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  3. I haven't read this book but have read Bill for years. There are times he nails it narratively and times he completely fails. Whereas a meta-narrative might be necessary for a novel, sometimes his short pieces suffer from being too fragmented and interior. But I do like the honesty of your review and wish you'd be more frank in your reviews of other publications.

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  4. I liked the 10 points as a narrative (and motivational device) and felt it kept the story moving forward and gave some shape and reason to having repeated passages about riding. I also think there's an authenticity to it being the kind of random thing you say to a kid, plus the kind of thing you would say to yourself to stoke your competitive fire—so it speaks to that desire to be a contender that burns in many riders. Take out the 10 Points and you have a collection of loosely connected essays and poems, which would be pure in a different way.

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    1. To clarify my thoughts on the 10 points theme: I am not saying that he should have omitted it. It works as a trajectory from which to tell the story. I just felt it was too overt and rigid for lack of better word; maybe it could have been subtler. But as readers we will all get different things out of books like this one. This was just my impression.

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    2. read the book a few months back and i agree with you

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  5. I plan to read this book over vacation. Thanks for the reminder to buy it and for the intriguing review!

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  6. There is a certain quality in some of your writing which reminds me of Bill's, so I'm glad to see your thoughts (I remember recommending the book). Having grown up in the area where Bill lives (also the area where Updike lived), I feel a certain sympathy to much of what he writes. As a father and a son, who struggles as we all do, there is a lot in this book that is very difficult, but important, to read. As you suggest, it is a book about a life with cycling, not about cycling. There's a broader potential readership outside of cycling, but obviously a cyclist will enjoy many parts more than a non-cyclist. I didn't find the 10 points to be as overbearing and forced as you did, and I agree with Anonymous above. I tend to think of Bill's long-form writing as less hallucinatory (as if in a dream/nightmare of cycling) than Krabbe's The Rider, with a strong dose of the mundane. Bill's snippets and posts, however, seem to me to go the other way, like waking up in the middle of someone's thoughts with all the weirdness that might bring. Both are, of course, from the same person, if not the same part of the same mind. Perhaps, that's going too far ... I'm reluctant to write words about someone who writes, and so well, for a living, which clearly I do not. You hit the nail on the head, that Bill always comes across as "a real person," and an interesting, talented, and generous one at that. Suffice it to say that I enjoy Bill's writing immensely, in whatever form, and am happy to see others do the same.

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    1. Thank you for recommending the book; I did not remember who it was!

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  7. Veloria, reading this and some of your other commentary on literature makes me wonder what sorts of things you read that are not bicycle related. A Lovely Bicycle reading list maybe?

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    1. Oh God, I wouldn't know where to start. A lot of different stuff spanning different genres. A topic outside the scope of this blog for sure.

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  8. As a regular reader of your blog I like the blurry edge you have created between Lovelybike and … I could name so many things here. I can understand how readers enjoy the invisible lines that you draw between Lovelybike and other affairs of life.

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  9. I finished the book several weeks ago and enjoyed the book as a whole. But I feel compelled to warn those that tend to be overly affected by descriptions of traumatic experiences others. I don’t want to give anything away, but I did find some of his experiences difficult to process. Velouria, having read it maybe you can better address my concern or maybe it was just me.
    Ted

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    1. It's not just you. There are a few instances with graphic descriptions of abuse that are not for the squeamish. This book is definitely "dark" and not a feel-good story about cycling.

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    2. I don't think it is necessary to warn readers about this. Your audience are not 5th graders. I've read the book and any mature adult can take it, IMO. Anyone who feels squeamish must remember that things like that actually happen to helpless children every day.

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    3. Very true, but at the same time it is understandable that some might want to choose when they read a heavy vs a lighthearted book. I think Ted has a point, that the book is darker than most of the summary blurbs let on.

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  10. I enjoy reading books by living authors, especially if they are approachable as Bill Strickland seems to be. It is an opportunity to ask questions about intent and inspiration that can never be asked once the author is gone.

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    1. Agreed in theory, but I find that I can't discuss books with their authors. One of my favourite writers is alive, and when I met her we discussed everything but her books!

      I do like reading interviews with writers though. Here is one with Bill Strickland where he discusses Ten Points.

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    2. Who was the writer?

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  11. I have to be honest, this is NOT the kind of review I expected to read. On a bicycling blog. This place never ceases to surprise me.

    Keep up the good work! I am off to pick up a copy of Ten Points.

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  12. "Ten Points is an unconventional memoir. It's inextricably tied to bicycle racing, but is not really about it. Bicycling is more of a metaphor, an explanation, a case study in magical thinking." Wow! What a passage. (Yes, I'm eager to read Ten Points now. But also would love to read more book thoughts from Velouria.)

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  13. Thanks for the review. I have always enjoyed Mr. Strickland's short essays. Having dealt with similar demons as his in my own head, and having used bicycling as an antidote, I guess I better read the book.

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