Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

On the morning of April 28, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.

In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.

Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.

Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.

After that lengthy synopsis, I’m not sure what else there is to say, other than to talk about my experience reading this book.

The short version is — I loved it.

Susan Orlean is a brilliant writer, new to me, although I’ve been hearing about The Orchid Thief for years and always meant to get to it (and after finishing The Library Book, finally bought myself a copy). The story here is fascinating and multi-layered. The framing device of the book is the 1986 Los Angeles library fire, which is devastating and horrifying to read about, as the author takes us practically minute by minute through the fire’s path and shows us the awful damage done during those terrible hours.

Interspersed with the story of the fire is a history of the role of libraries in society, focusing mainly (but not exclusively) on the history of the library in Los Angeles, showing the library as a reflection of the society it serves, its challenges and its triumphs. We see how public libraries have evolved over time, and how those who work in libraries are devoted both to serving the public and to keeping public libraries vital and vibrant, even as society and technology constantly change and provide fresh challenges to the concept of what a library actually is.

We also meet amazing people, past and present, who played a part in the Los Angeles library, from head librarians to architects to security guards. It’s amazing to see the incredible talent and intelligence and humor of the people who helped build the library system and who continue to keep it relevant and important.

The story of Harry Peak is the most puzzling piece of the book — an unsuccessful actor who was suspected of the arson, but whose constantly shifting stories and alibis made any sort of case against him questionable at best. He’s an odd person, and so much is uncertain — but it’s interesting to see how his strange life intersected with such a major civic disaster.

Susan Orlean’s writing is gorgeous. Like the best non-fiction, it flows and captivates, and I never for a moment felt bored or like I was reading a dusty, dry history book.

On visiting a boarded-up, abandoned branch library:

This building made the permanence of libraries feel forsaken. This was a shrine to being forgotten; to memories sprinkled like salt; ideas vaporized as if they never had been formed; stories evaporated as if they had no substance and no weight keeping them bound to the earth and to each of us, and most of all, to the yet-unfolded future.

Other memorable (or just entertaining) lines and passages:

In times of trouble, libraries are sanctuaries.

In the year leading up to Prohibition, when the ban on alcohol seemed inevitable, every book about how to make liquor at home was checked out, and most were never returned.

[Althea] Warren was probably the most avid reader who ever ran the library. She believed librarians’ single greatest responsibility was to read voraciously. Perhaps she advocated this in order to be sure librarians knew their books, but for Warren, this directive was based in emotion and philosophy: She wanted librarians to simply adore the act of reading for its own sake, and perhaps, as a collateral benefit, they could inspire their patrons to read with a similarly insatiable appetite. As she said in a speech to a library association in 1935, librarians should “read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training, but because they’d rather do it than anything else in the world.”

The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.

The Library Book is simply a delicious read, perfect for anyone who appreciates finely detailed research, expressive writing, and a passion for books and libraries. I loved this book, and can’t wait to give copies to a whole bunch of book-obsessed friends.

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The details:

Title: The Library Book
Author: Susan Orlean
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 317 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Source: Gift (yay!)

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Audiobook Review: The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland


When 38 jetliners bound for the United States were forced to land at Gander International Airport in Canada by the closing of U.S. airspace on September 11, the population of this small town on Newfoundland Island swelled from 10,300 to nearly 17,000. The citizens of Gander met the stranded passengers with an overwhelming display of friendship and goodwill. As the passengers stepped from the airplanes, exhausted, hungry and distraught after being held on board for nearly 24 hours while security checked all of the baggage, they were greeted with a feast prepared by the townspeople. Local bus drivers who had been on strike came off the picket lines to transport the passengers to the various shelters set up in local schools and churches. Linens and toiletries were bought and donated. A middle school provided showers, as well as access to computers, email, and televisions, allowing the passengers to stay in touch with family and follow the news.

Over the course of those four days, many of the passengers developed friendships with Gander residents that they expect to last a lifetime. As a show of thanks, scholarship funds for the children of Gander have been formed and donations have been made to provide new computers for the schools. This book recounts the inspiring story of the residents of Gander, Canada, whose acts of kindness have touched the lives of thousands of people and been an example of humanity and goodwill.

I can’t say enough good things about this moving, uplifting book. It documents human goodness and kindness in the face of tragedy, and is, pure and simple, a marvelous listening experience.

As the book opens, we meet an assortment of passengers and crew members from the 38 planes, as well as some of the locals in Gander. The initial chapters recount the start of these flights from Europe to various points in the United States, and the slowly spreading news that some sort of catastrophe in the US has forced a closure of all US airspace, requiring all planes in the air to land elsewhere. Gradually, the pilots and then the passengers start to learn about the terrorist attacks. The fear and disbelief and outrage are palpable, as is the very real fear that — given all the unknowns of events still occurring — there could be terrorists on board any of the planes still in the air.

As the planes land in Gander, we see the amazing efforts and generosity of the townspeople, both those in official capacities as mayor or police officer or customs official, and those who are simply people whose hearts are open to the strangers who arrive by the thousands in their small town.

The acts of kindness are beautiful to hear described. Townspeople drop off towels and linens by the carload at the shelters, with no thought of getting them back. Local pharmacists work round the clock to contact passengers’ physicians around the globe so that they can get copies of their prescriptions and make sure they have their needed medications. Local animal shelter volunteers care for the stranded animals who’d been in transit in the airplane cargo holds. A local retailer is instructed by headquarters to give the “plane people” everything they need, no money necessary. Toys are delivered, so that every single child from the planes has a new toy to play with. When it’s discovered that two Orthodox Jews are among the passengers, extraordinary efforts are made to make sure kosher food is delivered for them. The care and love, given so freely to complete strangers, is just beautiful.

Two of the most moving stories are about passengers going through extreme stress in an already stressful situation. First, there’s the couple returning from visiting relatives abroad whose son is a New York firefighter. They know he was likely one of the first responders who entered the towers, and through the time of their stay in Gander, his fate remained unknown. Second, there’s a couple from Texas on the way home from weeks in Kazakhstan where they’d just adopted a daughter. What should have been her first entry into the US and an introduction to her new life turns into an extended stay in a shelter with parents she barely knows. In both cases, as with really everyone there, the support they receive is heartwarming and unforgettable.

The book is filled with story after story of the amazing interactions between the “plane people” and the “Newfies”. The book was published just about a year after 9/11, and the author includes some follow-up in the epilogue to let us know how certain people’s lives changed since those fateful days. I’d love to know now, so many years later, how they’re doing, and whether the bonds formed in Gander have stayed strong over the years.

The Day the World Came to Town is an amazing listen. No matter how many years have gone by, the images from 9/11 remain indelible. and I found it particularly chilling to listen to the chapters which described the initial attacks and the various ways in which the passengers and flight crews heard the news. Despite the sorrow of the tragedy, this book is a lovely reminder of the good that exists in the world and the huge difference small acts can make.

Side notes:

First, a big thank you to author Dana Stabenow, whose review of this book on her blog is what made me find a copy in the first place!

Second, the musical Come From Away, now on Broadway, is also based on the events in Gander during the week of 9/11. I’ve heard such wonderful things about the show! I really hope to get to New York in the coming year — and if I do, seeing Come From Away will be high on my “must” list!

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The details:

Title: The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland
Author: Jim DeFede
Narrator: Ray Porter
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: September 3, 2002
Length (print): 256 pages
Length (audiobook): 6 hours, 27 minutes
Genre: Non-fiction
Source: Purchased (Audible)

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Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

From New Yorker staff writer David Grann, #1 New York Times best-selling author of The Lost City of Z, a twisting, haunting true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history

In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.

In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. The book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, as each step in the investigation reveals a series of sinister secrets and reversals. But more than that, it is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward Native Americans that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long. Killers of the Flower Moon is utterly riveting, but also emotionally devastating.

It seems we’ll never run out of shameful chapters from America’s past. In Killers of the Flower Moon, writer David Grann explores the “Reign of Terror” waged against the Osage tribe in Oklahoma during the 1920s. The murder epidemic itself is horrifying, and so too are the years that came before in Osage history. For starters, when the Osage were forced off of their previously held land, they ended up settling in a rocky area of Oklahoma clearly unsuited for farming, feeling that it would be a stable home since the land was worthless and wouldn’t be taken over by white men. The irony, of course, is that under the land were undiscovered oil deposits that would soon turn the Osage into millionaires.

The members of the Osage tribe were allotted “headrights” — basically, a share of the oil and mineral ownership — and these headrights could not be sold, only passed on through family members. At the same time, the government considered the Native Americans incapable of managing their own affairs, and adult Osage who were deemed incompetent (and most were) were required to have white guardians to manage their money.

As we see in Killers of the Flower Moon, there was a lot to be gained by finding ways to either manipulate the Osage through shady business dealings and corrupt guardianships, or more directly, by murder. Mollie Burkhart is the initial focus of the book, and we see as her entire family is wiped out, one at a time, through violent murder or insidious poisonings. Between the crimes themselves and the bungling and corruption of the investigation, Mollie and her tribe lived in terror and with a very real threat hanging over their heads.

Part I of the book explores the crimes, and Part II traces the involvement of the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI), as well as the early stages of the Bureau’s investigative approach and its evolution under J. Edgar Hoover. We see the lawmen tasked with investigating the murders, and follow them all the way through to the eventual arrests and convictions of the men involved. In Part III, the author describes his research and what he uncovered in historical archives, through which he finally unearthed evidence that helped some descendants of the victims find a sense of resolution.

The subject matter of Killers of the Flower Moon is fascinating and very, very disturbing. However, I did find myself losing interest at various points, especially in Part II, as the sections about the Bureau and its processes just didn’t grab me as much as the parts focusing on the Osage tribe members and their experiences. I also wished that I’d felt a more personal connection to some of the people involved. While we learn what happened to Mollie and her family, Mollie herself often seems unknowable. Granted, this is history, not a dramatization, but I still wish there was some way to get more of a glimpse beneath the individuals’ surfaces.

I recognize too that my lack of interest or focus in certain parts of the story may say more about me as a reader than about the actual book itself. I can be easily distracted when reading non-fiction, and I might not have always been in the right frame of mind to truly appreciate what I was reading.

That said, I do feel that Killers of the Flower Moon is a powerful and compelling book. It’s astonishing to me that the history of the Osage in Oklahoma isn’t better known, and I’m sure that this book will change that. (I understand that a film version is planned, and will be a Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio venture — something to look forward to!)

Even people (like me) who tend not to read a lot of non-fiction will find themselves absorbed by the story once they pick up Killers of the Flower Moon. Highly recommended.

For more on the movie, go here.
To read the New York Times review of the book, go here.

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The details:

Title: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
Author: David Grann
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: April 18, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/true crime
Source: Library

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Reading Reaction: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

I did it! I finally finished reading the mammoth biography, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

It’s no secret by now that this 800+ page history book is the inspiration for the Broadway musical Hamilton. And — oh yeah — let me just mention right here that I have tickets to the show FOR THIS WEEKEND!

Once I actually got the tickets, I became firm in my resolution to read the book. I was not giving away my shot to learn more about the ten-dollar founding father without a father. And so, in early April, I dug in. First, I started with the audiobook — a 36 hour audiobook! — figuring I’d make slow but steady progress. And I did — but took a break to listen to a couple of other things, and then couldn’t get back into the flow.

Next, I turned to the Kindle edition, with a vague plan to treat it as a serial read — maybe I’d devote 10 – 15 minutes a day, and sooner or later I’d get through the book.

I had to finish it.

After all, there were a million things I hadn’t known.

But it turns out, I just couldn’t wait.

Pretty soon, I was reading like I was running out of time.

(Sorry. I’ll stop. Soon.)

But seriously, I’m glad I stuck with it. Alexander Hamilton is a brilliant, LONG, minutely detailed, and exhausting book — but emphasis on the brilliant.

Sadly, it also made me realize that while I thought I’d gotten a pretty decent education when it came to US history, apparently my teachers skipped quite a bit. I was fairly good on the Revolutionary War and Civil War, but this book showed me how little I knew about the early, post-war years of our country, the political factions and their intense rivalries and scorching hatreds, and the incredible animosity between Hamilton and, well, so many of the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. I actually had only the slightest clue about the process of the creation of the Constitution and Hamilton’s role in it. The book is eye-opening in the extreme — and while said eyes did actually glaze over a bit, especially during the chapters on Hamilton’s economic plans, national debt, banking, etc — I learned a tremendous amount that was new to me and/or gave me new perspective on political discord and the origins of controversies that linger to this day.

The writing in Alexander Hamilton is quite wonderful and never dull, and I loved how, thanks to Hamilton’s compulsion toward the written word, so much of his own written record is incorporated into the book. It’s enlightening as well to see writings of George Washington and other historical figures, and particularly moving to see the written record of the love and affection between Hamilton and Eliza.

The behind the scenes look at Hamilton’s time on Washington’s staff during during the war, the maneuvering and struggling to get the Constitution ratified, the deeply bloodthirsty political battles — all are written so vividly, and with such great use of language from the historical record of correspondence, newspaper articles, and personal memoirs — that I often felt like I was in the room where it happened.

So how is it that an 800-page history book can bring a woman of the 21st century to tears?

Adieu, best of wives and best of women. Embrace all my darling children for me.

Easy. By the time the duel with Aaron Burr rolled around, I was ready to put the book in the freezer. (Yes, that’s a Joey Tribbiani reference. Always appropriate.) I didn’t want it to happen. Make it stop! It feels especially silly getting emotional over events that (a) are carved in stone and actually happened and (b) happened over 200 years ago. Kind of similar to how I felt reading Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel — I wanted to somehow have the story work out differently so that Anne Boleyn could keep her head, but damn history! It happens anyway, despite my feels.

There are places where Hamilton’s writing and Chernow’s analysis are startlingly relevant. I’ll just leave a few bits here:

After a protracted inquiry into Hamilton’s conduct as Treasury Secretary which resulted in a finding that all charges were baseless:

Nevertheless, it frustrated him that after this exhaustive investigation his opponents still rehashed the stale charges of misconduct. He had learned a lesson about propaganda in politics and mused wearily that “no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false.” If a charge was made often enough, people assumed in the end “that a person so often accused cannot be entirely innocent.”

Hmmm. (But her emails…)

Or hey, how about how a President selects key advisers?

Washington had always shown great care and humility in soliciting the views of his cabinet. Adams, in contrast, often disregarded his cabinet and enlisted friends and family, especially Abigail, as trusted advisers.

Lest we think political discourse was more genteel and polite back in ye olden days…

On October 1, he sent a follow-up note to Adams, calling the allegations against him “a base, wicked, and cruel calumny, destitute even of a plausible pretext to excuse the folly or mask the depravity which must have dictated it.”

And then there’s this commentary on a document about Adams published by Hamilton:

“And, if true, surely it must be admitted that Mr. Adams is not fit to be president and his unfitness should be made known to the electors and the public. I conceive it a species of treason to conceal from the public his incapacity.”

I ended up highlighting a LOT as I was reading — either wonderfully phrased words from Hamilton himself or interesting bits about the customs of the day or insightful hints of how Hamilton and his friends, family, and foes thought, as gleaned from their journals and letters.

I may not be all that young, scrappy, or hungry, but I did end up devouring this book once I got into its rhythms. Again, it’s weird to say that a book about history, some of it quite well-known, can be suspenseful, yet that’s how it felt. The author manages to take the events and people of the historical record and make them feel alive, and writes with a flair for capturing the intensity and drama of Hamilton’s life, as well as the emotions and experiences of Eliza, Angelica (the Schuyler sisters!), and Hamilton’s closest friends and harshest critics and enemies.

Okay, and I did come away from the book despising Aaron Burr (the damn fool who shot him), because it seems clear that Hamilton went to the duel determined not to shoot Burr, but Burr went there planning to shoot to kill, if he could.

Beyond the dramatic ending, I gained a huge amount of knowledge about Alexander Hamilton, the man who grew up impoverished and of questionable birth, who grew into one of our nation’s finest thinkers and leaders. What an amazing reading experience!

Yes, just about everyone has fallen in love with the Hamilton musical. (I admit, I was very late to the party myself, but have been doing my best to catch up!) If you’re someone who mainly knows the story of Hamilton courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda, I encourage you to give this book a shot. It’s worth the effort, and gives a whole new meaning to all those amazing lyrics that we all quote at random times. (Right? Not just me? Thanks.)

It’ll probably be a while before I venture back to the non-fiction shelf to pick up a history book or political biography… but Alexander Hamilton has proved to me once again that reading non-fiction can be just as much of a thrill as reading a great novel, when done well and in the hands of a gifted writer.

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Shelf Control #57: Firehouse

Shelves final

Welcome to the newest weekly feature here at Bookshelf Fantasies… Shelf Control!

Shelf Control is all about the books we want to read — and already own! Consider this a variation of a Wishing & Waiting post… but looking at books already available, and in most cases, sitting right there on our shelves and e-readers.

Want to join in? See the guidelines and linky at the bottom of the post, and jump on board! Let’s take control of our shelves!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

firehouseTitle: Firehouse
Author: David Halberstam
Published: 2003
Length: 208 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

“In the firehouse, the men not only live and eat with each other, they play sports together, go off to drink together, help repair one another’s houses, and, most important, share terrifying risks; their loyalties to each other must, by the demands of the dangers they face, be instinctive and absolute.”

So writes David Halberstam, one of America’s most distinguished reporters and historians, in this stunning New York Times bestselling book about Engine 40, Ladder 35, located on the West Side of Manhattan near Lincoln Center. On the morning of September 11, 2001, two rigs carrying thirteen men set out from this firehouse: twelve of them would never return.

Firehouse takes us to the epicenter of the tragedy. Through the kind of intimate portraits that are Halberstam’s trademark, we watch the day unfold–the men called to duty while their families wait anxiously for news of them. In addition, we come to understand the culture of the firehouse itself: why gifted men do this; why, in so many instances, they are eager to follow in their fathers’ footsteps and serve in so dangerous a profession; and why, more than anything else, it is not just a job, but a calling.

This is journalism-as-history at its best, the story of what happens when one small institution gets caught in an apocalyptic day. Firehouse is a book that will move readers as few others have in our time.

How I got it:

I found it at a library sale.

When I got it:

About 3 – 4 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

To be honest, the cover caught my eye while I was browsing the sale. At the time, I didn’t realize this book was focusing on 9/11 — I saw Halberstam’s name, and remembering reading one of his books during college, so I picked it up. I’m not usually much of a non-fiction reader, but given the subject matter, the author, and the relatively short length of the book, this is one that I think I really do need to make time to read, and soon.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link below!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and have fun!

For more on why I’ve started Shelf Control, check out my introductory post here, or read all about my out-of-control book inventory, here.

And if you’d like to post a Shelf Control button on your own blog, here’s an image to download (with my gratitude, of course!):

Shelf Control

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Audiobook Review: The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the BoatThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics tells the inspirational true story of the US men’s rowing team who won gold, against all odds, in what was then one of the most popular sports world-wide.

The book follows one of the team members, Joe Rantz, from his childhood during the Depression through his years of college rowing, culminating in the victory in Berlin. Joe came from a poor family, with a stepmother who disliked him so intensely that he was abandoned at a young age and left to fend for himself. From an incredible inner core of strength, Joe made it to college at the University of Washington and joined the freshman crew program.

At that time, Washington was in hot competition with the Cal crew to dominate not just the West Coast, but all of the US colleges in national regattas, and from the start, Joe’s freshman boat showed remarkable promise. As they won their freshman races and then competed for the varsity seats, Joe and the boys in his boat faced ongoing struggles with financial hardships, family complications, and the sheer bodily torture that is needed to persevere and make it as a rower.

Rowing is a sport of skill and strength, and The Boys in the Boat shows us step by step what it takes to train, to master the physical requirements, and to gain the mental focus and determination to excel. By following Joe and his teammates, we see boys of a variety of backgrounds, mostly working class and struggling to get by, throw themselves into a punishing sport and come together to overcome every obstacle.

team photo

Early on, in the prologue, the author describes meeting Joe Rantz as an old man. Joe tells him of his childhood and family, and about memories of the Olympics in Berlin:

It was when he tried to talk about “the boat” that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes.

He goes on to define what so moved Joe:

Finally, watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that “the boat” was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both — it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience — a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.

The Boys in the Boat captures beautifully the open-hearted nature of the boys, their essential earnestness and deep friendship, and their passion for the boat, their school, their coaches, and their shared goals.

Woven throughout are chilling sections describing the Nazi rise to power and the role of Nazi propaganda in the 1936 Olympics, showing how Germany used the games to present a whitewashed version of the Nazi regime to a global audience. It’s truly disturbing to hear or read the parts of the book that describe the gleaming stadiums, the omnipresent swastikas, and the fates of those driven out or disposed of in order to present a pretty picture to the world.

I should pause for a moment to note that I am not at all a sports fan, and I never would have suspected that a book about a rowing team could grab my attention the way it did. Granted, I learned a lot more about rowing that I ever thought I’d need to know, and occasionally the narrative goes so deeply into times, techniques, strokes, and boat-building methods that I got a littly antsy waiting for the action to continue. However, the author does such a terrific job of intercutting the personal stories of the boys and the happenings of the greater world into the narrative of the sport that the whole is simply fascinating.

The audiobook is narrated by Edward Herrmann, whose narration I loved when I listened to Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand last year. (In fact, it tickled me when Louis Zamperini gets a one-sentence mention in this book.)  Edward Herrmann’s deep voice has a folksy rhythm to it as he narrates The Boys in the Boat, so that I often felt like I was sitting around listening to a good-humored old gent telling me stories. (I have no idea about the narrator’s age or personality, but listening, I couldn’t help but envision a grandfatherly type, wearing a sweater, sitting in an armchair by a fireplace. I guess I need visuals when I listen to an audiobook!)

In reading or listening to a work centered on historical events, it’s no secret what the outcome will be. Just look at the cover and you’ll know that the boys did in fact win gold. You might expect there to be a lack of drama, knowing the end result, but in The Boys in the Boat, that’s simply not the case. The writing is so well-crafted that by the time I got to the actual Olympic race toward the end of the book, I had to remind myself to keep breathing while listening to the detailed description of how the US boat made it from start to finish, detailing practically every stroke along the way.

The epilogue is quite touching as well, covering the experiences of each of the team members immediately after Berlin, their war experiences in the years that followed, and what happened to each over the course of his lifetime. Perhaps most moving is the fact that the nine teammates came together and kept their connection alive for the rest of their lives, even doing anniversary rows together every ten years until they were all in their seventies.

I can’t say enough about how wonderful this book is, whether in print or via audio. The story is truly inspirational, and I’ve found myself unable or unwilling to shake off the images of this group of strong, determined athletes and what their boat meant to them. I strongly recommend this book — and no, you do not have to be a sports fan or rowing enthusiast to enjoy it.

A quick suggestion for those who listen to the audiobook: If possible, keep a copy of the physical book or e-book on hand as well, as you won’t want to miss the photos that go with the story. For some reason, the author’s notes at the end of the book are not included in the audiobook, so be sure to read those as well.

A final note: There are quite a few different videos available about the US Olympic rowing team, including footage filmed by Nazi propagandist and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Here’s a video that gives a great overview of the achievement of this remarkable nine-man crew from Washington:

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The details:

Title: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Author: Daniel James Brown
Narrator: Edward Herrmann
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: June 4, 2013
Audiobook length: 14 hours, 25 minutes
Printed book length: 416 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/history
Source: Audible

Audiobook Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d’état of the missionaries’ sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode “Aloha ‘Oe” serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.

My Thoughts:

Unfamiliar Fishes has been on my to-read list for a few years now. I’m fascinated by Hawaiian history, and have heard all sorts of good things about the author, Sarah Vowell. Since I’m rarely in the mood to sit down with a non-fiction book when there are ALL THE NOVELS to be read, I thought the idea of listening to the audiobook was rather brilliant on my part.

Sadly, the audiobook was a big disappointment, in several ways.

First of all, the content: Unfamiliar Fishes can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be history, social commentary, or personal travelogue. The historical facts and interpretations are there, sure, but mixed in are the author’s narrative of hikes, visits to Hawaii with her nephew, and other random observations. The history is presented chronologically — except when it’s not. So, for example, we may learn about a school founded by missionaries, then jump to President Obama’s school days and quotes from his memoir, before hearing from a modern-day descendant of native Hawaiians on her thoughts about the school, before returning to the historical record.

The narrative jumps from King Kamehameha to the last queen of Hawaii, Queen Liliʻuokalani — a jump of at least 80 years. When a section about the whaling industry and its impact on Hawaii gets underway, we have all sorts of digressions about Herman Melville and Moby Dick, as well as a visit to the Melville museums and tourist attractions in Massachusetts.

The story is all over the place, and particularly in an audiobook, this makes it hard to follow. Without being able to flip back to the last place where the history left off in pursuit of other digressions, it’s practically impossible to keep track of the various missionaries, chiefs, and Hawaiian royalty.

Second, the narration of the audiobook: Most of the audiobook is read by Sarah Vowell herself. To say that she has an odd voice is putting it mildly. Her voice is quirky and sounds as though every line is expected to produce a reaction, so that it’s hard to take it entirely seriously, even when dealing with serious matters. (Of course, some will love this kind of thing. I found it hard to listen to.)

What was even harder for me, and rather puzzling, was the use of some big-name comedians and actors to read sections of the books where there are quotes. According to the audiobook description, narrators include Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph, and John Slattery. Impressive? Well, not if their voices are unrecognizable. Listening to the book, it just sounded like random people. Not all quotes were read by these folks — some are just done by Sarah Vowell as part of her narration. But every once in a while, when there’s a quote from a missionary’s memoir or a document written by some other historical feature, one of these random voices pops in to read it. It makes for a very weird and disjointed listening experience, and is distracting too. I found myself losing focus on the context and thinking instead, “Should I know who’s speaking right now?”

Having these people as the voice of the missionaries also seems to imply that we should view everything the missionaries wrote as funny or mock-worthy, and I’m not convinced that the actual content of their writing supports that interpretation. It’s certainly an odd approach to historical documents.

True confession time: I didn’t finish this audiobook. By about the 50% mark, I knew I was struggling. I tried to force myself to continue — I even took the advice of a Twitter friend who suggested listening at 1.5x speed to get through it faster! (Believe me, the higher speed did nothing for the quality of the narration.) Finally, I quit at about 67%. I wasn’t enjoying it, I was fighting to pay attention, and it just wasn’t working.

This was a sad DNF for me. As I mentioned, I do really enjoy learning about Hawaii, but this experience taught me very little except that I should find myself a more traditional history of the islands to read. Unfamiliar Fishes couldn’t seem to decide if it was serious or snarky, and in the end, it ends up somewhere in the muddy middle, not successfully achieving either.

I’ve heard from friends that two other books by Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates and Assassination Vacation, are worth checking out. Based on my experience with Unfamiliar Fishes, I’m not inclined to read more by this author — but if you’ve have a positive experience with her books, please tell me so!

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The details:

Title: Unfamiliar Fishes
Author: Sarah Vowell
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication date: March 22, 2011
Audiobook length: 7 hours, 28 minutes
Printed book length: 258 pages
Genre: History/social commentary (non-fiction)
Source: Library (audio download)