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Posted August 12, 2013
Having read Walter Rhein’s fantasy novel The Bone Sword, I was more than willing to give his non-fiction book a go. I have to admit that I know very little about cross-country skiing, but Beyond Birkie Fever gave me a wonderful insight into what these athletes have to go through to prepare for such an exacting race. I enjoyed the way the author took me right back to his earliest experiences with skiing, as this set the tone very nicely for what clearly became an obsession. His easy, witty prose and highly amusing anecdotes had me laughing and gasping in turns as I learned what tolls the ‘Birkie’ takes on the novice (and even the professional!) skier. I am full of admiration for Walter Rhein and indeed anyone who has the determination and dedication to achieve the levels of fitness necessary to be competitive in events such as the Birkie. It is testament to Rhein’s talent as a writer that a non-skier like myself was able to experience something of the ‘Fever’ that the Birkie instils in those who come back year after year, trying to improve their times and move into the ‘elite wave’.
Both skiers and non-skiers alike will gain something from this fascinating book, which I can highly recommend.
Posted February 17, 2013
Skiing just is not my cup of tea. Of course, when served with charm, humor, and poignant human experiences, even what one may consider the most mundane of subjects – whatever the subject is – can be served up on a platter and served to the most judicious of book enthusiasts.
People, I am not a converted man where skiing is concerned, but I have seen something of the light. The mood I was left with by the end of this book: delighted and pleasantly surprised. I will tell you why in a moment.
First, an overview.
“Beyond Birkie Fever” is a recounting of the author Walter Rhein’s experience with the famed American Birkebeiner cross-country skiing race. It begins with an explanation of just what, exactly, the American Birkebeiner is, along with a word from ski-legend and Birkie founder, David Landgraf. Chapter I begins a satisfyingly humorous journey of self-discovery. From the small town of Belleville, Wisconsin to an international excursion on the Worldloppett Circuit, Walter weaves a wonderful tale of pushing through the pain and the literal remaking of himself, a gripping story of failure and triumph, of hope in the face of overwhelming odds, and of working from the ground up to achieve what you want to achieve.
When I saw that “Beyond Birkie Fever” was about skiing, I was very sure that I was not going to enjoy it. Even so, I already informed the author that I was getting to work on reading it so that I may review it. As I made my way through the introduction and David Landgraf’s accounting of the first Birkie, my apprehension grew. What could I possibly enjoy about skiing? Even worse, what could I enjoy about cross-country skiing? My answer: nothing at all.
Still I read on and, by the second page of the first chapter, Walter’s recollections of himself as a 7 or 8 year old and his first skiing experience had already pulled from my throat a much heartfelt, though grudging, laugh. I had judged Walter’s work too soon. Even though I was enthralled with the cover art, reading a book about skiing did not appear anywhere on the mental bucket list I keep. Of course, Walter proved my prejudgment an error, and much to my enjoyment. In short, I actually loved reading this book and I am willing to bet that you will, too.
First, while I was not overly fond of the introduction, it did provide a firm foundation for my understanding of the American Birkebeiner and that helped hugely because I had no idea such a sporting event existed. It was just right to put into perspective the prominence of the Birkie, thus giving the rest of the story sturdy legs to stand upon.
One thing I came to admire about Walter’s writing is that, even as I take his approach to setting building as something of a minimalist approach, he was able to transport me to where he was. Having an aversion to the cold, most of “Beyond Birkie Fever” had me shivering some, enhancing my want for hot coffee as I read. With attention paid to the emotions evoked by the setting and the interactions of the various characters, Walter did an excellent job of capturing, and keeping, my attention.
I cannot say enough about how witty this book is. From the antics of his grandfather - such as giving a couple of Austrian Berkie participants lessons on what not to do when driving on ice - to the daring of two long-training Birkie hopefuls finally making their way into the first wave of participants, becoming “real skiers” and subsequently demanding a sponsorship that should have gone the other way because of their approach, this work is full of moments that will have even the most persistent of humbugs rolling on the floor laughing. The quote I found most humorous: “I even listened to Rush Limbaugh for company for about five seconds before I realized silence was more profound.”
The fascinating thing about Walter’s book his how, in the course of reading, I began seeing the cards I have been dealt in a different light. “Beyond Birkie Fever” is not simply a story about the author’s participation in an event that many of us have likely never heard of; it is a story about making your mark, pushing yourself, accomplishing your dreams even though the steps to get there are as daunting and steep as the hills of the country wherein the Birkie took place. Walter shows us what we can do when we truly believe in ourselves and when we are willing to dedicate ourselves to our dreams. It brings to mind a quote from one of my favorite movies, Watchmen: “Never compromise, even in the face of Armageddon.”
Is this book the most intriguing book in the world? Given my love for the fantasy genre, I would be very hard pressed to say it is. Even so, I enjoyed this read. Anybody that can ever be said to have dreamed or set goals to better themselves will be sure to benefit from this book and feel as inspired as I did by the end. If you ski, I think it goes without saying that you would be doing yourself a service by reading this book.
My rating for “Beyond Birkie Fever”: 5 Stars out of 5, easily.
And the Cover?
Admittedly, while I actually find the cover art beautiful, at first I did not believe it meshed well with the contents of the book. Of course, I came to realize I was wrong. Cara’s execution of this work of art is, in my humble estimation, near flawless. I only have a technical issue with the cover and that is the text near the bottom of the cover. Some parts of it blend in with the lines of the illustration. Of course, I do not think that this in anyway takes away from the efficient creativity of the cover overall. It fits one of the main themes of the book, the Birkie itself and it is a pleasure to look at. I honestly believe that, at the very least, those who have an affinity for skiing would be quick to pick up this book just based on the cover. It may have little effect on those of us who do not know a thing about skiing unless we happen to appreciate cover art, in general.