Alden Mudge

Jody Rosen’s Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle is not an “early conception to modern-day racing and e-bikes” type of history book. How could it be? For Rosen, the bicycle is “the realization of a wish as ancient as the dream of flight.”

The history here emerges from the edges of the byways that Rosen follows in pursuit of his next ride. In one chapter, he manages to humiliate himself in front of the dazzling trick cyclist Danny MacAskill while on a mountain bike ride in Scotland, which leads to a brief, engaging history of stunt bicycling. In another chapter, Rosen writes about going to Bhutan to participate in a one-day, 166.5-mile road race, reputed to be the most difficult bike race in the world. He does not finish and does not, as he had hoped, meet Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the country’s fourth “dragon king,” who abdicated the throne in part to pursue his interest in mountain biking.

What develops out of these entertaining chapters is a story of the bicycle as a great disrupter. It was pedaless in its earliest form, like an adult-size Strider. In the 1700s, it became the plaything of dandies such as foppish Prince George of England, who offended the earthbound populace just as some lycra-clad weekend bike warriors do today. Later bicycles were decried by cart drivers and horse riders for disrupting the flow of traffic—but by World War I, bicycles were replacing horse cavalry in some battles. National bicycle organizations led the movement to grade and pave the roads motorists now believe are for their exclusive use. During the pandemic, stationary bikes “merged the old-fashioned act of bicycling with that quintessential twenty-first-century experience: staring at a screen.”

Bicycles also gave women greater freedom. One amusing chapter quotes 1890s newspaper editorials about the immorality and—gasp—implicit sexuality of bike riding. Girls and young women could pedal on their own, by themselves, away from the surveilling gazes of parents and community. Worse, they left their dresses behind and wore pantaloons!

In a chapter about his own bicycling experiences, Rosen says he’s not a gear head. “To this day, I can barely patch an inner tube,” he writes. But he is crazy about bicycles—“If the pedals turn, I’ll ride it”—and that love shines through in these pages. In fact, it glows so brightly that even a confirmed nonrider may give in to the urge to make her next grocery run on an e-bike.

Jody Rosen’s love of bikes shines through in this amusing, unconventional history of the bicycle as a great cultural disrupter.

In a note at the end of her masterful second novel, Vanessa Hua (A River of Stars) writes that “fiction flourishes where the official record ends.” Imagination fills in the details.

Forbidden City, the story of an impoverished peasant girl caught up in the tumult of Chairman Mao Zedong’s China, comes to life through the fullness of Hua’s imagination. In 1965, the novel’s narrator, Mei Xiang, is approaching 16 years old when a government official ventures into the countryside in search of young girls to join the chairman’s dance troupe.

Mei is not the prettiest girl or the best dancer in her desperately poor, rural town, but she is the smartest, wiliest and most ambitious, with dreams of becoming a revolutionary icon. She blackmails the town headman and is soon ensconced in the Lake Palaces, Mao’s residence in Peking, along with other comely young dancers recruited from across China.

Mei seizes the attention of the 72-year-old chairman with her aggressive intelligence and peasant wisdom. She becomes his confidant and relishes her special status. Mao teaches her to swim. He has an interest in ballroom dancing, foreign music and books. He is sometimes funny and appreciates her jokes. Except for the sex, she enjoys his company.

Mao also falls into fugue states. Mei witnesses his impassive lack of empathy for others and his depression about his semi-retirement. For a while, Mei believes she is cunning enough to avoid losing his interest. His affection for her incites envy from the other girls and concern from Madame Mao, his wife.

Hua brilliantly conveys the emotional and physical reverberations of the rivalries among the girls, who are more vulnerable and less worldly than they understand. Similarly, Hua keenly portrays the discord among Mao’s underlings, who fear, adore or loathe him. It is apparent that, soon enough, shivers of turmoil will burst forth in the brutal Cultural Revolution.

For her part, Mei eagerly participates in Mao’s plan to humiliate an important political rival, and this becomes the slow-burning match that ignites the national conflagration. It is Mei’s highest moment and just two steps away from her lowest.

By its end, Forbidden City has brought the reader into the beating heart of human history. It is literary historical fiction at its finest.

The story of an impoverished peasant girl caught up in the tumult of Chairman Mao’s China comes to life through the fullness of Vanessa Hua’s imagination.

Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s spirited first novel, Four Treasures of the Sky, follows a girl’s epic three-year journey from her provincial home in northern China to San Francisco’s Chinatown and then to the mountains of Idaho.

Born in the late 19th century, Daiyu is named for a mythological beauty who dies tragically when her lover is forced to marry another. Throughout her story, Daiyu struggles to overcome her namesake’s fatalism and discover a more purposeful, loving self. She must also cope with the poverty and prejudice that shape her daily existence.

After her parents abruptly disappear and her doting grandmother can no longer support her, 13-year-old Daiyu is sent to the city to fend for herself. She assumes the identity of a young boy, naming herself Feng, and scavenges for food and odd jobs. Eventually she is taken in by a calligraphy master, who teaches her the discipline of ink brush, ink stick, paper and inkstone—the Four Treasures of the Study, which are mirrored in the novel’s four main sections. The practice of calligraphy continues to inform Daiyu throughout her perilous journey, and a recurring pleasure of the novel is Daiyu’s meditations on the shape and meaning of Chinese ideograms as they apply to circumstances in her life.

Author Jenny Tinghui Zhang shares how her father’s spirit of exploration inspired this artfully crafted first novel.

In a food market one day, Daiyu is kidnapped. When the kidnapper discovers Daiyu’s female identity, he hides her in a barrel and ships her to a brothel in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The descriptions of this trip are terrifying. Equally as visceral are Zhang’s depictions of brothel life: the food, the feel of the rooms, the rivalries and friendships of the prostitutes, the subterfuges and cruel economics that make these places possible. In these moments, the author’s skill for sensory detail shines.

The brothel is the first place Daiyu comes face-to-face with American anti-immigrant racism. Recent laws have forbidden Chinese women from being admitted to the country, while male laborers are still allowed in, so a secret trade of trafficking young girls has emerged. Daiyu is eventually able to escape and, disguised as a boy once again, travels to Pierce, Idaho, where a coal-mining boom has attracted Chinese miners. There the novel comes to its startling conclusion.

Though Daiyu’s story is shaped by true historical inequities, Four Treasures of the Sky comes to life through her journey to self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s spirited first novel brings history to light through the story of a girl’s journey to self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Growing up, Liz Scheier’s mother, Judith, insisted that all parties be held in their Upper West Side, rent-controlled apartment and nowhere else, because you simply couldn’t trust other people. At first, Scheier thought her schoolmates’ moms accompanied them to these parties because these women were friends with her mother. Only later did she understand that the women were there because they didn’t trust her mother, who frequently screamed at their children and raged at and battered her own daughter.

Even as Scheier began to doubt everything her mother said—Had her father really died in a car accident? How could the two of them afford to live in their apartment when Judith had no means of support? Was everything Judith said a lie?—she worshiped her mother. “I loved her smoky cackle and her jokes. . . . I loved that she adored me above everything else on earth,” she writes.

In her teens and 20s, Scheier tried to separate from her loving, controlling, raging, truth-shading mother. After college, during her first job in publishing, she learned that Judith had been concealing a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. This knowledge didn’t protect Scheier from her mother’s incessant, desperate phone calls, but it did force her onto a wobbly identity quest. Scheier tracked down information about her deceased father, with help from her first girlfriend’s aunt. She found jobs that took her away from New York. She drank to excess. She refused her mother’s calls. Still, when Judith was threatened with eviction, Scheier sold her eggs to a fertility clinic to pay back rent. Even after Scheier got married, moved to Washington, D.C., and had two children, there seemed to be no escape from her mother.

This is just the beginning of the tense and heart-rending story Scheier tells in Never Simple, her memoir of growing up with her ”petite, stylish, sardonic mother.” In relating this story, Scheier is sometimes as sardonic as her mother, as well as funny and frequently clever. (For example, she titles the chapter describing her hookup with the man who became her husband “Switching Teams.”) The narrative sometimes feels undercooked, but ultimately Never Simple writhes with the sorrow and guilt only a deep and complicated love can arouse.

Liz Scheier’s memoir of growing up with her loving, controlling, raging mother writhes with the sorrow and guilt only a deep, complicated love can arouse.

Gayle Jessup White’s multilayered autobiography, Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Family’s Lasting Legacy, is divided into three parts. The first, most directly autobiographical part of Reclamation offers a fascinating look at Black life in a prosperous neighborhood in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s and ’70s—a neighborhood that has since been washed away in a wave of gentrification. White describes growing up in this neighborhood as the baby of her family. Her reserved father and acquisitive mother did not get along, but they protected and pampered White so that she did not experience “what racism felt like” until she was 13.

Part two is the heart of the book, documenting White’s scrupulous search to prove her family’s claim that they are Black descendants of Thomas Jefferson. White, who is now in her mid-60s, first heard that claim as a young teenager, from her much older sister. Her sister had heard it from Aunt Peachie, an elderly relative who died before White was born. Although she was fascinated almost to the point of obsession, White didn’t begin her genealogical search until much later.

The long process White went through to establish her lineage will be especially interesting to amateur genealogists. But it is also of great interest in general because of the subtle and not-so-subtle obstacles she faced as a Black person claiming to be a descendant of the author of the Declaration of Independence. In one chapter, White describes developing a relationship with a white Jefferson descendant, a poet and writer, only to end up feeling like her personal narrative had been appropriated and diminished by her would-be collaborator.

During her research, White developed a relationship with historians at Monticello, Jefferson’s home, which is the focus of the third part of the book. For a number of powerful reasons, White, who trained as a journalist and has worked as a TV reporter throughout the South, decided Monticello was where she wanted to work at the end of her career. Getting hired there required superhuman persistence, and after becoming Monticello’s first Community Engagement Officer, she was one of only a few Black employees and frequently faced criticism from her white co-workers. Overcoming the institution’s doubts about her, her work eventually transformed Monticello into a place committed to updating the ways it portrays the lives of people who were enslaved there.

As a Black person working to prove her family’s claim that they are descendants of Thomas Jefferson, Gayle Jessup White faced plenty of obstacles.

Lily King has been publishing fiction for more than 20 years, but in the last decade, she has earned a new level of acclaim and success with the two ravishing, highly praised novels Euphoria and Writers & Lovers. The latter landed on shelves two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down bookstores (and just about everything else in the world), so she was unable to do much in the way of promotion. She has greater hopes—and a scheduled book tour—for her collection of 10 startling short stories, Five Tuesdays in Winter

King’s new book takes the long view. The stories span the entirety of the 58-year-old writer’s career, and about half of them are new material, not previously published in magazines. In a call to her home in Maine, she explains that she fell in love with short stories in high school. She’s been keeping journals since fifth grade (and still has them all, lined up on three shelves in her office), but she didn’t dream of becoming a published writer until her discovery of the short story form. 

“I hadn’t had a happy childhood, I hadn’t loved the cold. But here I am.” 

“Short stories are much harder [to write] than novels,” she says. “They can be more satisfying because you get to the end faster and don’t have to carry the despair for years and years. If you don’t like them, you can walk away from them. But you can’t make the mistakes that you can make in a novel. You can’t have those weird little spasms that a novel allows.”

The stories here are layered, incisive, sometimes dark and often funny. The opening tale, “Creature,” is about 14-year-old Carol, a nascent writer who is hired by a wealthy woman who lives in a mansion on a rocky New England coastal promontory. For two or three weeks in summer, Carol is to be the live-in babysitter for the woman’s very young grandchildren. Carol’s services are meant to free up the children’s mother, Kay, to spend more time with her own mother. Even before the arrival of Kay’s ne’er-do-well brother, Hugh, Carol observes the silences between mother and daughter. 

“Creature” exposes the divisions within families, the flinty coldness and deliberate, doting blindness of a certain kind of parent. In its surprising conclusion we understand the hard shift in awareness that will inform Carol’s future as a writer. But is it autobiographical? 

Not quite, explains King, though it is set in the town where she grew up: Manchester, Massachusetts, renamed Manchester-by-the-Sea in 1989. “I feel I was straddling a lot of different worlds,” she says of those days. “My parents got divorced. My mother and I were in an apartment downtown without a lot of money. My father was up in the house on the point. Then my father remarried and remarried again. My mother remarried and we moved to a different part of town in a big house. I was both a babysitter trying to make money and then a person who sometimes lived in a big house.”

Read our starred review of Five Tuesdays in Winter.

King’s experiences with this class dichotomy burn through this story collection, as do strong impulses instilled by years of babysitting, which she began at age 11 and continued until she was 32. “You step into somebody else’s family, and you have to intuit their whole ethos,” she says. “I’m interested in fitting in and not fitting in. How a situation in a house becomes very fraught. About the power, about everybody’s dysfunction.”

For the past few years, King and her family have lived in Portland, Maine, but the pandemic hit shortly after their move, so she still doesn’t feel completely settled. They previously lived in the smaller town of Yarmouth, but when her older daughter went off to college, her younger daughter lobbied for the family to move to Portland, “the big city.” 

Now their house is on a hill, and King’s top-floor office gives her an expansive view of city rooftops and the Atlantic Ocean. Her husband, a writer and fine arts painter, has a studio on the top floor as well. His mother, also an artist, painted the vivid work that constitutes the cover art of Five Tuesdays in Winter. The full painting graces King’s living room. 

Even after 20-plus years in Maine, King still expresses surprise to be living in New England. “When I left Massachusetts at the age of 18, I thought I would never, ever live in New England again,” she says. “And I didn’t for a long time. But I just kept kind of circling back and then leaving again and coming back.”

King’s life has taken her all over the U.S. and even to Valencia, Spain, but starting a family with her husband helped her make the decision to return. “It just seemed that I had to raise my kids with seasons,” she says. “With winter, with snow. I didn’t think it could happen because I hadn’t had a happy childhood, I hadn’t loved the cold. But here I am.” 

The author of Euphoria and Writers & Lovers takes us into the memories that inspired a story in her terrific first collection.

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