“Sometimes, you will feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are now rowing among the stars.”

200px-theboysintheboatBooks on Tap read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown at  Champion Brewery on January 3. This non-fiction choice follows the University of Washington crew team in the run-up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. These nine working-class amateurs not only had to beat the elite East Coast Ivy League teams, they then had to face the semi-professional and naval European teams. While the book is rich in detail and we meet many characters, the heart of the story is Joe Rantz, who joins the team as a mistrustful, essentially homeless teenager. We follow along during the cold, grueling training mornings, the back-breaking summer jobs Joe takes on to earn enough money to stay in school and the exhilarating race days. The close cooperation Joe and his family provided the author enhances the depth of the story without sacrificing accuracy (at least through Joe’s eyes). Joe’s story line also kept us from being bogged down in the arcane rowing details and the many incidental historical figures introduced.

And what historical figures! Some readers were captivated by this turning point in history, from the depths of the Great Depression to the run-up to World War II. We were struck by the lengths the Nazis went to clear areas of Berlin and to advance their standing on the world stage via propaganda while hiding their genocidal intentions. The teammates certainly didn’t know the full extent of the atrocities and in fact coxswain Bobby Moch may not have found out that his family was Jewish had his father not revealed it to him on the eve of Bobby’s trip to Berlin.  In an interesting side note, the rowers present at our discussion agreed that it takes a particular personality to be a successful coxswain and that these bold men often go on to coach.

We also discussed the ongoing clearances that happen in Olympic hosts cities and that hosting does not usually produce long-term benefits for the host city. We wondered if the Olympics are not as popular as they were decades ago because of doping scandals, boycotts, more access to all sports online and increased professional participation but we agreed that we still get sucked in every two years.

The author sets the team up as underdogs and while they weren’t as highly regarded or supported as their competition, they did have advantages. They had access to George Pocock, a premier boatbuilder and rowing devotee. Their coaches were committed to sending a boat to the Olympics and tinkered with the lineup for years. Rowing was a national sport at the time and the city of Seattle pinned their hopes on the team. Ultimately, as rowers in our group pointed out, it comes down to the day of the race and having luck and balance on your side.  The balance was most evident with Joe, a boy who was all but abandoned as a ten year old who had to learn to trust his teammates and find the ineffable swing that would make them champions.

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Movie update
The Summer Olympics were cancelled during World War II. In 1948 the so-called Austerity Olympics were held in London (the US won the men’s eights once again).

Read Alikes:
The Amateurs by David Halberstam
In the Garden of Beasts and The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Native American Son: The Life and and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe by Kate Buford
Seabiscuit: an American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
Note by Note: the Making of Steinway L1037
Rudy
Jesse Owens film at Northside Library, February 26

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Brown Bagger’s Book Club Selections

bookstack_112044239The Brown Baggers met on December 20 to select books for the upcoming months. Many new and classic titles were suggested by members, but after only one exciting round of voting there were some clear winners. Upcoming titles that the group will read include both fiction and nonfiction books.

Here are the upcoming titles for July 2019- May 2020:
The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe 
A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza 
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan
Educated by Tara Westover
There There by Tommy Orange
The Soul of America by Jon Meacham

If you’re interested in joining the Brown Baggers Book Group, you’re welcome to come to the Central Library on the third Thursday of the month from 12-1pm and participate in our lively discussion. You can call 434.979.7151 ext. 4 for more information or send an email. Also, check out JMRL’s wiki for the book club picks from previous years.

The Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, January 17 at 12pm to discuss Friends Divided by Gordon S. Wood.

“Just Go Knock on the Door!”

81E84+ww+YLBooks on Tap read Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak at  Champion Brewery on December 6. Hornak, a journalist, got the germ of the plot from a friend who underwent a voluntary 30 day quarantine after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. In her novel, it’s older daughter Olivia who forces her family into a week’s quarantine over Christmas when she returns from treating the fictional Haag virus. Her sister Phoebe resents the parties she’s missing with posh new fiance George; Emma is thrilled to have everyone back at the estate she’s inherited despite her hidden health problem and father Andrew’s love child is about to make himself known. A soapy holiday drama, the story nevertheless reminds us of our own family dynamics and was a quick read for the busy end of the year.

Hornak’s characterizations are pretty thin but her dialog and descriptions spot-on. She describes the family estate so well that it becomes a (cold, cluttered) character itself and it’s easy to imagine a movie adaptation. While the family members were one-dimensional, they all seemed to have grown at the tidy conclusion. Giving each character his or her own chapter kept any one’s grievances from becoming overbearing. The various subplots and coincidences, like the “gay intrigue” were a bit much, but generally we all liked this big-hearted family story.

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Read Alikes:
A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
“The Dead” by James Joyce
Get Out

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