After a break to dip into the One Book One Lincoln finalists, I’ve returned to the Notable Books List, and “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” by Daniel James Brown.
It’s the story of the 1936 Olympic rowing team, essentially the team from the University of Washington. Brown extensively interviewed rower Joe Rantz not long before Rantz died a few years ago, and it is Rantz who stands at the center of this story. Around him are his crewmates, his remarkable coach, Al Ulbrickson, and George Pocock, a boatbuilder and rowing guru. As as a group they exemplified how a successful team far exceeds the sum of its parts.
Brown creates the context of America in the Great Depression, and more specifically, the lives of working class people at that time. Rantz and several teammates worked back-breaking jobs to afford their classes, and Rantz was often teased about his ratty clothes. In addition, Rantz was abandoned by his father, learning to make his own way. Brown contrasts their situation with that of teams from the Ivy League or Europe.
The strong narrative thread of “The Boys in the Boat” helps it cross over for people who typically read fiction. Brown incorporates information about rowing, history, and politics without losing the thread of the plot. He builds credible characters from interviews and contemporary articles. This book employs a rhythm typical of sport stories, with background information framing descriptions of contests.
This team became magical at crucial moments, when all nine men in the boat pulled together, worked together, and won together. Brown explores Rantz’s decision to trust, truly trust, that his teammates would do what needed to be done even though his own family life taught him reasonably to trust only himself.
I’ll recommend this to a variety of readers, both of fiction and nonfiction. Fans of strong sports stories should dig into “The Boys in the Boat,” especially readers interested in the storied 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This makes an excellent book group choice, with its universal themes of history, purpose, and success against great odds.
“The Faraway Nearby” begins with apricots, picked from Solnit’s mother’s tree. The three boxes of apricots were too many to manage, her mother too far gone with Alzheimer’s to know. Solnit’s preservation of the fruit via jams, liqueurs, and other devices contributes one of the first metaphors in this rich book.
I was intrigued by the title, “The Faraway Nearby.” Here is what she says about that, “After years in New York City, Georgia O’Keeffe moved to rural New Mexico, from which she would sign her letters to the people she loved, ‘from the faraway nearby.'” (p. 108)
Solnit employs thirteen chapters, the first six leading to the seventh, “knot.” The remaining six mirror the first, going backwards to apricots once again, ending where she began. Within this firm structure, she rambles amid her mother’s story, her own cancer scare, and an artistic escape to Iceland. How she works in Che Guevara, arctic explorers, Scheherazade, Frankenstein, Buddhists, and others, is a wonder. And yet it feels like excellent conversation over coffee, how she goes from one story to another, linked by ideas. Throughout, she reflects on how we tell our stories. She considers how we work over the material in our past to create a promising future.
I found particular resonance in this excerpt, as she describes how her friends took her in hand through a serious health scare. “People gathered from all directions, and I was taken care of beautifully…Afterward, during my convalescence, I occasionally wished that life was always like this, that I was always being showered with flowers and assistance and solicitousness, but you only get it when you need it. If you’re lucky, you get it when you need it. To know that it was there when I needed it changed everything a little in the long run.” (p. 122) This perfectly describes my own experience when my husband died, and she’s right. It has changed everything a little.
At first, I was put off by MY wanting the action to move forward more quickly. I won’t recommend this to readers who want to march through a plot. It was worth slowing down to savor the extras that she brings to her story of herself. I do indeed recommend this to those who enjoy a lusciously long conversation through unexpected imagery and reflection, as if the coffee pot would never run dry.
The National Book Award finalists provide excellent reading suggestions, which is how I came across “Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields” by Wendy Lower.
I’d just recently finished the novel, “HHhH” by Laurent Binet, also set in the Eastern European areas taken over by the Nazi government. With that still in mind, I learned a good deal from “Hitler’s Furies” and found it readable despite its serous subject matter.
Wendy Lower is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, and a consultant for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Here she digs more deeply into the general understanding the the Final Solution depended on the participation or cooperation of the general German population. Half of that population was female, and yet the role of women has been seldom explored.
In “Hitler’s Furies” she tells the stories of particular women who fall into the categories of witnesses, accomplices, or perpetrators. Typically, these women were teachers, nurses, camp guards or wives of German officials. Many of them had moved to the countries to the east, where Germany was clearing space for the German people to live.
Lower begins with a chapter called “The Lost Generation of German Women” to set the context for the behavior she describes. This was key–looking back on this time we wonder how it ever could have happened. Lower tries to put the reader in the period before the Nazis rose to power, before Germany was defeated, when the Nazis seemed to offer the redemption of the country.
The narrative is steeped in the ongoing role of anti-Semitism. Lower describes how the existing prejudice was drilled and shaped into a pattern of brutal behavior. Also not be to ignored is the contrasting societal expectation that all women should be natural nurturers who would unite in their opposition to this behavior. Lower probes the intersection of these forces.
Lower writes as an academic. She’s careful to use reliable sources, and careful as well to draw limited conclusions. While she sometimes describes unbelievably violent behavior, she does so in exploration of understanding, not for sensation.
I’ll recommend this to readers interested in this era, or in the role of women, or those seeking a sense for how a country can create such an effective and horrific organization of death.
Over the weekend I finished “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America” by Gilbert King. I came across this title in the list of Pultizer Prize nominees–a goldmine of reading ideas.
Before he became a Supreme Court justice, and before he brought the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall’s work at the NAACP took him all over the southern United States where race was a factor in court cases. A general pattern in his work was that the goal was to set up a successful appeal of a conviction. An acquittal was an impossible dream in nearly all of his cases.
Such was his strategy in the case of the Groveland Boys–four black men accused of raping a young white woman near Groveland, Florida, in 1949. King introduces a host of characters in setting the stage for this story–from the remarkable Sheriff Willis McCall to a woman reporter for a local newspaper to the four accused black men to the governors of Florida to members of the Ku Klux Klan to members of the local NAACP. King works hard to place the actions in the context of the time, where one foot is squarely in a system that as a matter of course denies justice to black people, and the other is stepping toward landmark decisions such as Brown vs. Board of Education.
He traces a chronology of beatings, shootings, and palpable danger for the men in custody, and for the outsider attorneys who arrive in Florida in their defense. In the end, what justice looks like seems pretty unimpressive. What does impress is King’s ability to maintain the connection to context, and to weave a good deal of background information without losing the sense of story.
King’s focus on Thurgood Marshall further highlights context, knowing what we do of his later Supreme Court career. In terms of how the story works, the immense scope of his personality and impact balance the intensity of what happened at Groveland. From my vantage point in 2013, continual questions arose regarding how things have changed–or not–since 1949.
I’m a nonfiction fan generally, and especially seek well-told stories of American History. I’ve been recommending this to others who seek such a book, and especially to people with an interest in justice. I think this could be an excellent nonfiction choice for book groups who typically choose fiction. There is much to learn, and to discuss, in “Devil in the Grove.”
Finally, I’ve read “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. I’ve heard so many people comment on this nonficiton story of Louis Zamperini, a runner on the US Olympic team who became a World War II hero by surviving for weeks on a life raft, and months in Japanese Prisoner of War camps.
And it was good, one of the titles on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list.
Laura Hillenbrand (who has an interesting story of her own) follows up her stellar “Seabiscuit” with this compelling story. She tells it straightforwardly and chronologically. Hillenbrand has that gift for telling the story in a way that is clearly shaped and considered, for example, in how people are introduced and then brought back into the story, and yet her style gets out of the way of the story.
What I’ll remember from this book is both the evil behavior of many of the Japanese captors, and the survival of the prisoners. How DO people maintain their dignity and selfhood in the face of so many attempts to break them? In Zamperini’s case, he was made a target of beatings and cruelty because of his fame. Yet he survived. I knew that the sections set in the POW camps would be horrifying, but I found myself especially touched by Zamperini’s return to home. He was beloved, a hero, and yet he was falling apart, drinking himself nearly to death, before he turned himself around at a Billy Graham event.
I noticed how Hillenbrand goes out of her way not to judge the behavior the men who were stranded, or were prisoners. She works hard to set a context where every rule and every expectation are turned upside down, where people survive by doing things they never thought they could do. She also makes a point of developing characters, not allowing all Japanese or all American people to be presented a certain way.
I finished this book on Independence Day. It seemed an especially fitting day to reflect on the people who have been called the “greatest generation.” I’ll recommend this to a lot of people–fiction readers will appreciate the strong story, history fans will find sound information, and people who enjoy “extreme” stories of survival certainly will find much to value. I think that many people have avoided reading this because they shy away from the depictions of the camps, and I understand that. And yet I’d still encourage people to read this with open eyes and mind. The book’s subtitle, “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” reflects Hillenbrand’s success in showing that even out of this horror, goodness survived.