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

Blog Tour & Book Review: Girl Runner

girl runnerI’m delighted to be participating in the blog tour celebrating the release of an inspiring new novel: Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder.

Girl Runner is the story of Aganetha Smart, a Canadian farm girl who gains a brief moment in the spotlight when she wins gold for Canada running the 800 meter race in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.

When we first meeting Aganetha, however, she is 105 years old, living in a hazy dream-state in a nursing home, alone and forgotten by the world, having outlived her entire family and anyone who ever knew her. With the unexpected arrival of a young man and woman, Aganetha finds herself bundled up for a supposed family visit with these two strangers, who proceed to drive her to her family’s old farm.

As she travels the familiar roads, Aggie’s thoughts return to her early days. Bit by bit, we learn of her family’s tumultuous past, the sibling love and tensions that featured throughout her life, and that small period of time in which Aggie was a star.

From early childhood, Aggie ran so fast she was practically flying, and her need to run is a core piece of her soul. In fact, as she tells us through her fractured memories, Aggie kept running until midway through her 90s, when a final family tragedy seems to have sapped her of her drive to run once and for all.

Through Aggie’s reminiscences, we gain a picture of what life was like for young women in Canada in the 1920s, with a heady mix of independence in the big city, the glory of being selected for the national Olympic team, and the pain of love gone wrong and friendship betrayed.

As we move further into the story, Aggie reveals secrets upon secrets, until the deepest, darkest mystery of her lonely life is finally unearthed. Through her memories, we get a glimpse of the life of a strong woman who achieved great things yet never had what she most wanted.

Girl Runner is a moving story that seems simple at the outset, yet eventually moves into the complicated territory of a large family with criss-crossing needs, deceptions, joys, and shames. Each new memory unravels yet another thread in the mystery of Aganetha’s life and helps us understand how she lived so long and yet ended up so lost and alone.

I did find the time jumps somewhat distracting. The story bounces between modern-day Aggie, wheelchair bound in the nursing home, and her memories of the past — but her memories come in a jumble, not chronologically. I suppose this makes sense, in that we’re seeing the events of the past as they resurface in this very old woman’s confused mind — so of course, it’s not linear and neatly spelled out.

While this approach works in finally revealing the full story by the end of the book, it does make it a bit challenging for the reader to unknot the storylines and put together the pieces into a coherent, logical picture.

However, it’s worth sticking it out. While the narrative jumps take some getting used to, once the story hits its stride, it flows nicely and quickly. By the end, I couldn’t stop reading. I just had to know what really happened and how it all fit together.

Told in language that’s brisk but personal, Girl Runner is an intriguing family story as well as a tribute to pioneering girl athletes and the obstacles along their path to glory. Despite its long time arc, spanning about 90 years, Girl Runner is less than 300 pages in length. It’s not a long book, but it is deep and emotional, and I recommend it to anyone who might enjoy an historical novel built around a strong, enigmatic woman.

About the Author:

Carrie-SnyderCarrie Snyder’s Girl Runner is shortlisted for the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Her previous book, The Juliet Stories, was shortlisted for the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award and named one of the Globe and Mail‘s Top 100 Books of the Year. Her first book, the short story collection Hair Hat, was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award for Short Fiction. A mother of four, Carrie lives with her family in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

Find out more about Carrie at her website, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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The details:

Title: Girl Runner
Author: Carrie Snyder
Publisher: Harper
Publication date: February 3, 2015
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Adult fiction (contemporary/historical)
Source: Review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours

tlc logoFor further information, stop by TLC Book Tours to view other blog tour hosts.

Book Review: Gold

gold

When I first read a blurb about Chris Cleave’s new novel, Gold, my initial reaction was basically, “thanks, but no thanks.” A book about athletes? Olympic cycling competitions? Can you actually hear my brain melting?

Luckily, I ended up going with my second, more reasoned reaction, which was more along the lines of “Bicycling? Sounds boring, but… I did like Little Bee, so let’s give it a whirl.” Ha! A whirl! Funny me.

Gold is the story of two British bicycle racers, Zoe and Kate, who have been best friends and arch-rivals since meeting at age nineteen as they joined the elite prospects program of the British national cycling team. Zoe is a damaged soul, who copes with a childhood trauma by pouring everything she has into her competitions. On the track, she’s all power and focus. Off the track, she’s a mess. Kate is kinder and gentler, a fierce competitor but one who also allows herself to feel deeply. Both rise to the top of their sport, competing against each other in the international arena, year after year, to be the one who captures the gold.

Zoe’s extreme need to win is illustrated early on in Gold, when her coach tells her before a race that the worst that can happen is that she wins silver instead of gold, and Zoe responds, “I’d rather fucking die.”

Zoe becomes a superstar after winning four gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, while Kate stays home to take care of her infant daughter. Time and again, Kate misses her chance, and as Gold unfolds, the 2012 Olympics represent the final shot for both women – at age 32, Zoe needs to go out with a blaze of glory and Kate is desperate to claim the gold that has narrowly slipped through her fingers throughout her career.

The action in Gold takes place over three pivotal days in the April leading up to the London games. When the IOC makes a sudden rule change, Kate and Zoe’s competition reaches a boiling point, and it becomes clear that only one of them can walk away a winner. As they deal with their hopes, needs, and fears, and their burning thirst for gold, we’re treated to flashbacks that shed crucial light on their tortured past as competitors and friends.

This passage nicely sums up the central internal struggle for Gold‘s characters:

It would be harder for them than they realized, because outside those exalted two minutes of each race, they were condemned to be ordinary people burdened with minds and bodies and human sentimental attachments that were never designed to accelerate to such velocities. They would go through agonies of decompression, like divers returning too quickly from the deep.

Let me stay right up front that I could not put this book down. I started it on Friday night, and finished it on Sunday night right before the stroke of midnight. I stayed up way too late, and even gave up watching some critical TV because I just couldn’t go to bed without knowing how it all ended.

That said, I do have a few minor quibbles about Gold.

Quibble 1: Looming largest is the fact that Zoe is so damaged, so incapable of empathy and compassion, that I had a hard time believing that she and Kate had an actual friendship. Zoe does horrific things to Kate, on and off the track, in order to gain the psychological advantage in competition. Zoe is never “off”; everything she does comes from her need to win. Kate is a feeling, caring woman, and while she takes Zoe in and tries to nurture her, I didn’t quite buy that she would ever trust her.

Quibble 2: Kate is married to Jack, also a gold-medalist in cycling, and their daughter Sophie is an eight-year-old leukemia patient with a Star Wars fixation. I thought the Star Wars elements were a bit overdone; I get that this was supposed to be Sophie’s coping mechanism, but it got in the way of the drama at times and gave Sophie an internal voice that just didn’t ring true for a child her age.

Quibble 3: As an American reader, I wasn’t sure what to make of the superstardom of the British cycling champions. I’m sure I couldn’t name a single American athlete in this sport, and I had to wonder as I read whether cycling really is such a big deal in Britain (note: based on my quick and dirty internet research, the answer would be yes) and whether athletes such as Zoe and Kate really would become faces on billboards, hounded by paparazzi and plastered across tabloids. (This part I couldn’t quite figure out — I’d appreciate enlightenment!)

Quibble 4: The final 10 pages or so seemed a bit tacked on to me, as if the author reached the end and was just trying to tie it all up neatly and quickly. Still, I can’t complain too much. The fact is, I couldn’t stop reading, and once I got to within 50 pages of the end, there was no way I was going to unglue my eyes from this book until I’d read every last word.

Wrapping it all up:

I was concerned that I would be bored by, or at the very least uninterested in, the cycling focus of Gold. Fortunately, I was proven wrong. As a total newbie to the sport of competitive track cycling, I found the descriptions of training regimens, the extreme stress on the body, the physical and psychological strategizing of racing, and the adrenaline-pumping rush of competing in front of a crowd compelling indeed. Being a person whose main form of competition is the annual Goodreads reading challenge, I didn’t think I’d be able to relate to a story about hardcore athletes. Again, I was wrong, and the glimpse into a new world was for me quite fascinating.

I realize I’ve given short shrift in this review to Kate, Jack, and Sophie’s home life and daily struggles. Their family is arguably as much the centerpiece of Gold as the racing is, but I’ve avoided saying too much about this part of the book in order to avoid spoilers and possibly softening the impact of the family’s unfolding calamity for other readers.. Suffice it to say, the relationships were quite lovingly drawn, and I often felt the sorrows of the parents as a punch right to the stomach.

I must say that I wish I’d read Gold when it was released earlier this summer, prior to the London Olympics. I can only imagine how thrilling it would have been to read this book and then watch the real athletes pouring their hearts into their races. Even so, I found myself rushing to Google “Olympic cycling events”  immediately upon finishing this book, and I can tell already that four years from now, when the next Olympics roll around, I’ll be keeping an eye on a new sport.

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My favorite Olympic moment so far

Synchronized diving was way cool. And who doesn’t love a good beach volleyball match?

But my favorite moment so far? It’s obvious for the book lovers out there – click the link for the video:

J.K. Rowling at the Olympics

That giant Voldemort head was good and creepy, too. And my son was much more impressed with Kenneth Branagh’s participation once I muttered the words “Gilderoy Lockhart” to him.