July 10, 2017

Recent Reads

70. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Book blurb: The story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.

I'm a fan of sport histories, regularly attend the Head of the Charles Regatta (the largest 2-day regatta in the world, with 11,000 athletes rowing in over 1,900 boats in 61 events), and actually spent a day once in a single person scull, so I fully expected to enjoy this book.

The premise is outlined in the blurb above, and this book is an example of narrative non-fiction that is a page turner of a read. I really liked learning about lives of the boys, their families, the boat builder, and the coaches. Anyone who has played a sport knows full well that the work, commitment, and sheer grit needed to be a world class athlete is beyond most of us, and in this book we get some insight into why. As much I enjoyed the buildup to, and the races, I really appreciated that the author placed these individual successes and failures against the larger national and international context. So many dots connected, and new interesting avenues to explore. I docked a star because there was a tad too much repetition for my taste. Also, while I got a fairly clear image of certain people, there were nine boys in that boat, and each did not get the same amount of airtime. I understand why the author did that, but some of the key people in this story are rather weakly fleshed out.

Right after completing the book I watched the PBS documentary titled The Boys of '36, which I would also highly recommend as it contains actual footage of the people and events discussed in the book.

I listened to the audiobook, which is superbly narrated by Edward Herrmann, and if you plan on reading this one, I'd highly recommend the audio. Rating: 4 stars.

71. Exit West
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) there are 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, 22.5 million refugees, 10 million stateless people, and 189,300 refugees settled in 2016.

Take a second and let those numbers sink in.

How to make sense of these numbers? Yes, one can read about it, watch news stories or documentaries, and this book is one lit match held up in the darkness to help shed some much needed light.

This is the story of two young Muslims, in an un-named country on the brink of civil war. As thing get progressively worse, they discover there are ways they could leave and start anew someplace else.

I admire the author, and so wanted to love this book, but it fell short in some significant ways for me. I really liked the writing; very simple and short sentences can capture entire experiences for example. I really liked that so much is un-named. It's interesting to juxtapose those nameless people and places with things that are named, and I really liked the exploration of the power of names. I really liked the exploration of what is lost and what is gained when you are forced to leave your home, and how well one immerses oneself, or not, in a new culture. I really liked the exploration of what home means, and where it can be found.

And yet. There was something missing in the reading of this for me. There was too much emotional distance for starters. Maybe that was intentional as many readers might not want to be sucked into the horrors of these experiences, and keeping things on a lighter level might make this a more popular read. Maybe what I was experiencing was reading about people with PTSD, as that might also explain the lack of emotion in the telling of this tale. Either way, I found the lack of emotional connection jarring considering the subject matter.

I think the use of magical realism was an interesting choice. It prevents the story from getting bogged down in transport minutiae and helps really compress time and movement, but the use of this device also hides the reality of what is actually involved when one flees.

I listened to the audiobook, which was well narrated by the author, but this felt like the longest book I've listened to, and it was less than 5 hours. It seemed to go on forever for such a slim book. So, I'm mixed about this one. I appreciate that it reaches readers who might otherwise not be exposed to these issues and that is no small thing, but it just didn't work as well for me. Rating: 3 stars.

72. The Butcher's Hook
From the author's note: I was fascinated by the idea that, three hundred years ago, an undereducated young woman with a smart mind and febrile imagination would have very little to go on when it came to making sense of, and dealing with, her world. She'd have hardly any conversation with anyone, there'd be precious little communication with her peer group and the impositions of her rank and gender meant that she'd have to find a way of coping with what happened to her ... and that way turned out to be highly unusual and idiosyncratic.

This debut novel showcases a wonderful new talent, and yet I cannot give it a higher rating. I loved the premise of this story, enjoyed the historical fiction setting, and liked the exploration of a young woman's agency in a world that seeks to confine her. The author has a wonderful way of capturing moments. As an example: I lift my skirts a little as I enter the room as if crossing shallow water. It is the moat of my father's constant disapproval that I try and avoid, for it wets so much and stinks when it dries.

There are nuggets like that throughout this book, and for the first quarter I thought this might actually be a five star read. Then events occur that were unbelievable, and once I could not suspend disbelief the story lost much of its power. Let me illustrate my point without spoilers. When I was an older teen I spent a year in boarding school in India. One day my cousins and I skipped class and went to watch a movie and explore the sights. Now this was not a large city, nor a small one, and when I went home that very evening my grandfather asked me how I had liked the movie. Turns out someone saw me and wasted no time in letting my Appacha know that I was up to no good. Why do I share this story? Because there is no way in hell that young Anne Jacob left her house and roamed around 1763 London without tongues wagging. And that's just the tip of the unbelievable iceberg. Events unfold that don't make sense, let alone for a 14 year old girl, and yet the book blurb states that Anne is 19. So, there's that disconnect. This coming of age story is a dark one, and made me ponder the nature versus nurture debate.

Inspite of its shortcomings, the writing is really good, and there are scenes I won't be forgetting soon. I can't wait to see what this author releases next. Rating: 3 stars.

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