December 31, 2008


Shape Up with the Slow Fat Triathlete: 50 Ways to Kick Butt on the Field, in the Pool, or at the Gym—No Matter What Your Size and Shape. By Jayne Williams. Da Capo. $15.95.

Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life. By Brian Raftery. Da Capo. $16.

     Both these books are, at their cores, about believing in yourself – being willing to put yourself “out there” without self-consciousness for the greater good of improved health or just plain fun. Shape Up with the Slow Fat Triathlete is a cut above many other “fitness recipe” books because it omits pictures of people whose bodies most readers will never attain and focuses on functional fitness. Its illustrations are small cartoon drawings of a woman who is clearly larger than those seen in most fitness books – but who is willing to move, push and sweat for the sake of her health and, Jayne Williams suggests, just to have a good time. Enjoyment is a big part of Williams’ attitude toward fitness, in this book as in her prior one, which was simply called Slow Fat Triathlete. In many ways, the best thing in this sequel is “The Imperfect Athlete’s Bill of Rights,” which appears early in the book and sets the tone for what follows. Among the provisions in this list are, “You have the right to wear Lycra, no matter what shape your body has,” and “You have the right to eat chocolate” – not, as Williams later explains, with the excuse that it contains antioxidants, but simply because it tastes great and is one of those little pleasures of life that you should not deny yourself. Williams argues that fitness is a pleasure, too: “We all get to be athletes if we want to, are willing to declare it, and are willing to put in sustained physical and mental work to reach our stated goal.” However – and there is a “however” – Williams, who is indeed a triathlete and a sports enthusiast despite being “a chunky, middle-aged woman,” often seems to protest too much when trying to be folksy while emphasizing the essentially egalitarian nature of athletics: “I ain’t about winning no competitions. (Though if I happen to do so, or even place third in the over-forty Athena division of a 180-person race, I’m just as delighted as the next person. Maybe even more so.)” Williams deserves considerable credit for trying to show couch potatoes (she says she used to be one) how to get themselves going – how many fitness books have a chapter entitled, “”Embrace the Awesome Power of Fun”? But no matter how often she says “your body is way cool,” she is writing from the perspective of someone who genuinely believes that – for the benefit of many people who don’t. And some of those people may have trouble sorting out a few of Williams’ ideas – which include “don’t hate” but do tap into aggressive impulses. “Movement is its own reward, in my book,” writes Williams – but that is not the case for many sedentary people, and Williams’ hopes and personal experiences cannot make it so.

     Brian Raftery’s personal experiences in Don’t Stop Believin’ are of a different type, but his prescriptions for would-be karaoke singers contain some of the same admonishments as Williams’ for would-be athletes. Don’t worry about what other people think, says Raftery – they are barely paying attention to you. Remember that even if the worst happens, whatever that might be, the strangers around you will soon forget it. And so on. But Raftery’s book is not just a guide to performing in karaoke joints – it is also his personal memoir of doing just that. As a result, the book is a little of this, a little of that – part travelogue, part history, part discussion of a social phenomenon, part how-to guide. Whether you enjoy it will depend largely on how much you like Raftery’s writing style. For example, he writes that, in a Japanese hotel, “I stared at the overworked neon outside my window and constantly checked an international cell phone that I’d borrowed from the magazine, just in case my ex decided to call me and get back together. No matter how many Ambiens I took, I could only get two to three hours of sleep at a time, and during the day, we walked around temples and ancient dojos.” Another example: “Dimples bills itself as ‘The First Karaoke Bar in the Western Hemisphere,’ a claim that’s impossible to either verify or refute, for there’s little documentation of the early-’80s karaoke scene in, say, Uruguay.” One more: “On the plane ride over [to a karaoke competition in Thailand], however, it occurred to me that I had no idea what ‘[One Night in] Bangkok’ was actually about. What if its lyrics were in reference to some civil war or unwanted foreign annexation? Was it just coincidence that [British actor and musician] Murray Head disappeared after the song’s release, or had he been abducted and flayed by a Thai mob?” Even from these short excerpts, it should be clear that Raftery is all over the place, literally in his round-the-world visits to karaoke spots and figuratively in trying to decide just what sort of book he is writing. If you enjoy both karaoke and Raftery’s freewheeling approach, you will find Don’t Stop Believin’ an enjoyable read – but only if you like both those elements in combination.

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