Guess what! You can read more of my weird commentaries on my personal blog! What’s that you say, you have better things to do? Well…tough…read it anyway! (Here at the Scruffy Rube)
Running is a writer’s world. Alone with the sound of your breath and the pounding of your feet against pavement, you have all the time in the world to imagine and create stories, legends and myths. You can take your time to chronicle each and every alteration of the weather and the body until you have a big pile of overwrought imagery and irrelevant symbolism.
Jeremy Schaap cuts through a lot of the running falderal with his book about the Track and Field battles during the 1936 Olympic Games. Naturally the focal point is Jesse Owens, and he devotes most of the book to both illuminating and complicating the Buckeye Bullet for readers who know him only as a name from the history books. Owens is a reluctant father and an uneasy political figure who has no choice but to accept his position in the athletic pantheon. At times, he seems to be little more than a cliche spouting, anti-septic athlete, but that has less to do with Schaap’s writing and more with the carefully reassembled hodgepodge of quotes given to sportswriters of the day (making the plethora of cliches much more understandable). And a fair amount of time is spent reflecting on the Nazi ne’er-do-wells whose dreams of a demonstration of aryan supremacy were foiled by Owens, including Goerbles, Goering, Leinie Reifenstahl and, of course, Hitler himself. Their villainy is despicable to be sure, but in the context of their political standing, not wholly different from how the Olympics are sought after today.
Triumph is at its best when it focuses on Owens’ interactions with lesser known luminaries of his time, including AAU chairman and manipulative mastermind Avery Brundage, sprinting rivals Ralph Metcalf and Uliss Peacock, coaches Charles Riley and Larry Snider and the reluctant Nazi/Owens-ally-to-be Lutz Long. The audiobook’s narrator (Michael Kramer) doesn’t ape accents, but offers subtle variations on a slow, well measured drawl, to give each quote a degree of gravitas. There are some characters (including several inconsequential sportswriters and the utterly irrelevant Eleanor Holm-Jarrett) who bog down the story rather than support it, but those are minor complaints of a broadly interesting and honest look at a defining moment in American sports history.
As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Printz Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)
Another realistic and truly genuine teenager…the only problem is that in creating him Andrew Smith created a genuine teenage voice: one that is by turns immature and absurdly irritating. While the book jacket is laden with praise for how marvelous the main character/narrator, Ryan Dean West is, I couldn’t help but think he was the most egotistical whiner since Harry Potter in book 5 (without an ounce of Harry’s heroism), and the most gratingly obnoxious snot since Holden Caufield (though at least Holden owned his profanity).
Smith’s reliance on giving his narrator a limited vocabulary is primarily responsible for this. Sure, most teenage boys have a limited vocabulary and turn almost any situation into a homophobic slur, but doing it again and again despite the West’s repeated claims that he’s not homophobic (and that he’s the smartest kid in the whole school) just seems hypocritcal. Sure, teenagers struggle to change, but when West spends almost 400 pages turning every image of a woman into an instant sexual fantasy, the final 50 pages of maturity is a little underwhelming. And the less said about the Ryan-Dean-Hyper-Hyphenated-Scales-of-Irritatingly-Punctuated-Asshattery the better.
I will admit, Smith is spot on in his portrayal of boarding school culture, so much so that I found myself missing my old stomping grounds in India, despite the irritatingly pompous protagonist. And one of the final lines contains a kernel of truth that almost redeems the rest of the reading experience: “almost nothing at all is ever about sex, unless you never grow up, that is. It’s about love, and maybe, not having it.” But ultimately, no matter how brave it is to write a brutally honest teenage character, if you fail to balance a teen’s maturity with his immaturity, you will alienate the reader as much as an average teenager alienates their neighborhood.
It’s time for some turbo-charged book reviews, complete with recommendations for those who care for them. They’ll be up here day by day, or if you want to gorge yourself check out my separate blog
For those who wish Matt Christopher wrote about bigger stages: The Final Four
When I was a kid the biggest thing going in boys literature (for those too squeamish for Goosebumps), was Matt Christopher’s interminable series of books about young boys going out for a local sports team and trying to win a local championship and…well…doing it.
I loved books then, I love books now. I loved sports then, and I love sports now. But I outgrew Matt Christopher in about 4th grade. Still, I was intrigued when one of my students cracked open Paul Volponi’s book one day after my class. It had all the trappings of a regular sports novel with a grander sensibility: forget the local kid and the local game and the local problem, let’s deal with the Final Four, let’s deal with money and war and fame and power and romance and the media.
Part of Volponi’s work captures those principles well, in particular his central protagonists (a pair of point guards with tragic histories but totally different mindsets) give voice to a set of sincere concerns about injustices done to “student athletes” and law abiding citizens. It’s clear which of the two most people would root for, but it’s also clear that the less-likable player has understandable reasons for his behavior.
It’s unfortunate, therefore, that the other half of Volponi’s book is given over to “role-player” characters who balance out the stars, but offer very little depth to the situation instead hitting on those old sports book tropes (getting-the-girl and rising-to-the-occasion respectively). Sadder still, the descriptions of the game are accurate but not terribly riveting (despite the fact that the game goes into quadruple overtime).
I admire Volponi’s effort, but I hope that there’s a way to write about those bigger stages without succumbing to the long standing tropes we nerdy sports fans already know.
I was immediately drawn in by the cover of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (2013) by Daniel James Brown, on display at my local bookstore. I’ve never gone to a school that had a rowing team, known the experience of rowing on the water, or even seen a rowing race in person, but my ex-boyfriend was a very serious rower for quite some time. In fact, he taught me good rowing technique on the rowing machines at the gym. So, even though the sport of rowing is foreign to me, reading this story still felt very personal–like I was getting a better understanding of the life my ex had before I met him.
Although my ex may have been one reason why I picked up The Boys in the Boat, the reason I kept reading was because it was fascinating–exactly the kind of non-fiction book that I love to read. It was detailed, historical, and well-researched, but with a page-turning flow and focus on the real lives and struggles of regular people.
For how this review of more modern London living relates back to the tried-and-true Rumpole and other classic British monuments, look at my regular blog: The Scruffy Rube
I was happy to find in Hornby ‘s work a memoir for a thinking sports fan (something I aspire to be on two other websites). It’s a great guide for academics who want to see exactly what drives an otherwise sane man to spend a large portion of his weekend (not to mention his salary) supporting a collection of athletes who don’t really know that he exists. Hornsby’s passion sears the pages, his concern and elation for formations and strategies of his beloved Arsenal eleven are apparent from the first word to the last. It shows how, in a city as teeming and varied as London, you can still create an identity through a community, even if it’s just one that wears the same jersey as you on match days.
Unfortunately for Hornby, and–I imagine–many other fans, the sporting community of twenty years ago has changed. Arsenal no longer play at Hornsby’s beloved Highbury, but at a gargantuan beast of a place called “Air Emirates Stadium” a mile away. The old 1-0 grind out Gunners that Hornsby found an affection for have been replaced by a whirling collection of international stars (I recall Indian students complaining that the numerous French players on Arsenal made it less of an English team than a French one). Hornsby’s sincere admiration for fans of less dominant teams (your Nottingham Forests, Cambridge Uniteds and Wolverhamptons) is positively quaint in an age when, walking into sports shops throughout the country I could only see jerseys for Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City.
Hornby’s book, though academically intriguing is limited by the greatest limitation a sports fan has: sometimes the rest of the world thinks you’re speaking an alien language. Even I, a would be serious futbol fan, was utterly clueless about who on earth he was referring to for most of the book (just as Hornsby would be dumbfounded if I spent pages debating the relative worth of Brendan Harris versus Al Newman–give yourself credit if you know either of those two men). Sports fans thrive on sharing their community with others, but when writing about it, we risk shuttering the doors against anyone who’s not already part of the community. Worse still, those of us who relish the chance to discuss our community’s past are often held captive as time marches on and the community around us changes too. When that happens (as it does with Fever Pitch) you’re robbed of connecting the past to the present and learning what it all means and how it all relates.
I’m a fan, of English literature, and English culture, and English sports. But that doesn’t mean I understand what it is to be English as intimately and personally as those who actually are English. A little help from a smart writer like Mr. Hornby, will always be appreciated. A little more help will always be required.
I’ll preface this review by admitting I have very little interest in professional, organized sports. Perhaps due to my complete athletic inability, I have no desire to watch or read about sports of any kind. This being the case, Andre Agassi’s Open was probably the best sports memoir for me to read. Despite being written by one of the biggest names in one of the most popular spectator sports, Agassi’s memoir is less about trying to succeed as a professional athlete than it is about trying to survive life in spite of athletic success.
Agassi, as the title would suggest, is utterly candid about both the professional and personal aspects of his life in Open. The most surprising of these revelations is Agassi’s tumultuous and fraught relationship with the sport that made him famous. Forced into tennis from the time he could swing a racket by his demanding, and at times, abusive father who was determined to mold him into the ‘number one tennis player in the world.’ This early conditioning, as well as Agassi’s natural aptitude for the sport, destined him to take on ‘boy wonder’ status. At age 13 he moved from his Las Vegas home to live and practice under famous tennis svengali Nick Bollettieri at his Tennis Academy in Florida. But as he was pushed down the narrow pathway to tennis success, Agassi resisted through rebellious behavior throughout his teen years (this resulted in the rock star look that he would become famous for later in his career). Continue reading
Sports movies rock. I even think the reason I like Babe so much is because it’s essentially a sports movie. An under-dog winning against the odds? A charismatic sportsman following his dream despite disappointments and nay-sayers? Bring it on. So I was mad about the movie Moneyball, it delivers on every level. And then I read the book, and was totally blown away. Wow. It’s so great.
The received wisdom in baseball is that money will buy success, and that without money any success you have is a fluke. Moneyball tells the story of the cash-strapped Oakland A’s and their General Manager Billy Beane, who clearly didn’t get that email. In 2002 they broke an American League record when they won 20 games in a row on their way to the playoffs. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The book is a fascinating thesis on a new way to look at baseball, a way to read stats and challenge convention that has lead Beane and his team to success the rulebook says should be impossible. I’m not a baseball fan, in fact before reading The Art of Fielding I had next to no idea of the rules of the game. When you’re in the grips of Moneyball though, that doesn’t matter. The psychology of players, the unexpected things that add up to success, the passion and vision of Billy Beane are utterly engrossing, whether you’re a sports fan or not. Read this book!