“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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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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“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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“Message in the Closet”

pasted image 0Books on Tap read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood at  Champion Brewery on November 2. The book, originally published in 1985, is being read again both because of the current political climate and the Hulu television adaptation (many JMRL book clubs have read the book this year). The novel is based on the taped diary of Offred, a women living in the Republic of Gilead (one the United States), a monotheocracy where women are only valued for their reproductive potential. It is #37 on ALA’s frequently challenged list and #34 in PBS’ The Great American Read.

Book club members liked Atwood’s writing style, although the story itself was creepy. Those of us who have seen the movie or tv adaptations said their strong visual styling replaced their own mental images. We also thought that they story was believable; her Gilead was recognizably America. Why she never explains how the theocracy gains total power, Atwood has said repeatedly that none of the restrictions and oppressions in the book are invented. Everything that happens in Gilead happened on earth prior to 1986. The near-future setting allowed us to wonder what we would do in similar circumstances, and is clearly resonating with others today, like those have been dressing as handmaids at recent protests. While Atwood was writing about fundamentalism, evangelicals and environmental disasters specific to the mid 1980s, history repeats and keeps this story current.

Offred serves as a handmaid, a reproductive surrogate, for the Commander and his wife Serena Joy. While Offred had been an educated, caring woman before the establishment of Gilead, her current isolation dampens her personality. She once had friends, a child and a partner. Now, she only speaks with another handmaid on her weekly shopping trips and secretly both plays Scrabble with the Commander and meets with his chauffeur, Nick.

The isolation works to tamp down a small resistance movement. Communication is difficult. Ofglen, another handmaid, has to hide a message to Offred in a closet. The murdered bodies of resistors are displayed in public. Offred at first thought her husband could protect her from Gilead’s restrictions and then laid low in hopes of protecting her daughter. She seemed resigned at the hanging she witnesses, possibly due to Stockholm syndrome.

Rationalization was possible because Gilead’s policies didn’t touch anyone Offred knew at first. Then, women policed each other, saving themselves but reinforcing the patriarchy. While people must have believed in the religion at some point, it is now used as a weapon. Those not practicing face peer pressure and family alienation. The only way to integrate in the culture is to participate in the religion.

The epilogue revealed that the bulk of the story is taken from an incomplete set of of tapes of Offred’s oral history. It’s hard to judge if Offred is an unreliable narrator or if missing parts of the story are captured on the yet-to-be discovered tapes. Offred, whose true name is never known, is further sidelined from her own story by the male academics presenting a paper on her edited tapes. They care so little about her humanity that the reader is left wondering: did she escape?

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Gilead in the Bible

The Great American Read #1 is To Kill a Mockingbird. #100 is Dona Barbara.

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