Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The Boys In The Boat by Daniel James Brown

During the depths of the Great Depression, Hitler decided to host the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin.  He used it as a means of showcasing Germany as a modern, clean, great place to live and, by the way, that he was not a crazy man bent on taking over Europe.  For a short time, he pulled it off.  Coincidentally, the U.S. west coast men's 8-oar crew teams were starting to take over ascendancy in the sport from the elite east coast schools.  Cal had represented the U.S. in 1932 and won and now Washington was looking to do the same in 1936. This is the story of that Washington team.

I can not praise this book enough.  It is so well written and researched that it pulls you deep into the sport and the difficult times in which the participants lived.  "Hard times" does not come close to describing many of their lives, especially the featured team member, Joe Rantz.  You feel as if you've experienced his life and some of the lives of those in that era.  At least as important, you really like these guys.  When the author takes you on the boat and starts you down the 2, 3, or 4000 yards to the finish, you almost feel like you're rowing with the team.  The closest book comparison is "Seabiscuit" by Laura Hillenbrand.  Mr. Brown may have done her one better, and that's saying something.  In the end, I'm not a good enough writer to give this book its proper due.  You can't go wrong reading this tale.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs & Michael Duffy

Some historical books I've written about have a disclaimer that some of it needs to be skimmed before getting to the good stuff.  If any of you actually read the books after that, you must be die-hard history buffs.  Good for you for keeping at it.

It is not the case with this book.  Two Time Magazine writers tackled the premise that U.S. presidents have relied on their retired peers since the time of Truman to help them navigate the hugely difficult task of being president.  They don't plow new ground in describing the presidencies nor their interactions with past presidents, but it presents a reasonably unbiased view of those presidencies and provides a context as to the dilemmas they faced that is a compelling bit of story-telling.

I was born during the Truman era and so remember at least snippets of the described events from Eisenhower onward and have formed opinions about each of them, regardless of how much I knew about their complete time in office.  That is probably true for us all.  Now that I've read this book, there's been a little rearranging in the list of best to worst presidents and a greater appreciation for all of them, regardless of flaws and failures.

This is not hard reading and in no way like most text books.  It moves right along and provides enough interesting history and context to be worth your while.  If you like history at all, you should like this book.

Friday, March 14, 2014

"The Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin

So I read this book a few years ago and dove in, absorbed the info, and was like “I’m totally going to do this!” And, like with most things, 98% of it got forgotten and/or ignored, but I slowly started to implement little things here and there that would help me stay grounded, healthy, centered, and all that other good, Zen-like stuff that sounds granola-y and ridiculous until you actually try it.

Coincidentally, I’m currently going through books I’ve read in the past and have enjoyed and am re-reading this one next. I do this every once in a while – not because I just don’t want to discover new things, authors, ideas, etc. – but because I sometimes need to remind myself of the previous new things, authors, and ideas I’ve already enjoyed. And since I didn’t blog about this book the first time around, I thought I’d pop it onto here now and maybe we can have a little virtual book club and read it together (again or for the first time!)

Basically, "The Happiness Project" is written by a woman who spent a year learning how to be “happier,” for lack of a better word. And to be honest, it’s not like she was going through a bout of despair or anything – she’s married with two kids, a writing career in New York, and an overall stable life. Which is why I liked it so much.

And I’ll admit that it spoke directly to my nature – a very methodical, yet humorous, approach to happiness, complete with small, concrete things she could do to be more centered, focused, relaxed, and content month by month (i.e “go to bed earlier” – which obviously is right up my alley – and reminders to herself not to let the “perfect” be the enemy of the good. Which sometimes gets to me as well!) And at only a little over 300 pages, you can probably knock this one out in a pretty short period of time - which makes everyone happy! (pun intended. I mean, it was laying right there). 

Plus, don’t be fooled by reviews that refer to it as a “self-help” book. I mean, I suppose it technically is, but not in the way we all traditionally think of “self-help.” It’s just an honest portrayal of one woman’s journey through trying to figure it out.

I actually recommend this to pretty much anyone, and encourage you guys to pick it up and read along with me in the coming weeks! 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Arc Of Justice by Kevin Boyle

Race in America keeps raising its head and this book gives you some good background into why that is the case.  It centers on a famous trial in the 1920's involving a black doctor (Dr. Sweet) who bought a home in Detroit in a neighborhood who's occupants were all white.  A mob formed in front of the house, the occupants inside the house fired on the crowd and killed a man.  All the occupants were then tried for murder.

The newly-formed NAACP was looking for an incident that could move the deteriorating race relations in America towards greater justice for blacks and decided to put most of its resources behind winning an acquittal for the home owners.  They hired Clarence Darrow, among others, to take the case and it became a headline-making event.

The story itself is interesting but the book reads almost as if there were two authors.  In the first 100 pages or so, Boyle tells the same story repeatedly and speculates way too many times as to what Dr. Sweet must have been thinking or feeling at a particular time.  Skim that part.  Once past that, the story focuses on the history of the KKK, the NAACP, Clarence Darrow, the major trials of the era, and culminates in a good depiction of the trials that resulted from the incident.  All of that was interesting and well told.

This is a worthwhile read, if for no other reason than to better understand forces that are still with us today to varying degrees throughout the country.  Those forces are having an impact on current laws and practices, even as we believe the past is the past and no longer relevant.  It is.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sycamore Row by John Grisham

I really needed a change of pace after the last few books I've read and Jackie recommended John Grisham's latest.  Good call.  It takes you to three years after the end of his first book, A Time To Kill, and dives into another plot involving race, twists in emotions and flow, lots of lawyers and another trial as memorable as the first one.

In this instance, a rich man kills himself to end the pain of cancer right after making a new will that removes his heirs from any inheritance.  To make matters more difficult in this rural Mississippi town, he left most of it to his black house keeper of 3 years. That his family contests the new will is a no-brainer.  Jake Brigance is the one picked by the deceased, even though the two never met.  The central question of why would the deceased do such a thing is the focus of the trial.

The plot is an excellent follow-up to A Time To Kill and satisfies on a number of levels, from a host of interesting characters, a number of dirty tricks, and an ending believable enough to be satisfying.  If you liked ATTK, you'll like this as well.

Friday, February 14, 2014

"The Round House" by Louise Erdrich

I read "The Round House" while home over Christmas and I think I finished it in about two days. Partially because there were several inches (feet?) of snow on the ground, I was on vacation, and cozying up by the fire to read good books is one of my favorite things. But it's also because the way in which Louise Erdrich unfolds this troubling and compelling story of a family in peril is really captivating.

Basically, the story takes place in the 1980s on a North Dakota reservation and the main character, Joe, learns that his mother has been brutalized. However, she won't retell the story in order to help have the crime solved, so we watch as a family comes near the brink of falling apart while trying desperately to put the pieces back together and figure out who is responsible for the attack.

I don't want to give too much away, but this is a beautifully told story with a few twists and turns that make the hours fly by. I definitely recommend this to pretty much anyone, and owe my mom and dad for recommending it to me!

Monday, February 03, 2014

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

If you have read Ms. Hillenbrand's previous book, "Seabiscuit," then you know she has a real talent for taking an historical figure and painting a well-researched and interesting story of that life.  In the earlier instance, it was of a remarkable horse and the people around him.  In "Unbroken" she once again takes an historical figure and presents a story of a man with tremendous courage and tenacity who most people today have never heard of but can never forget once they are introduced.

He is Louis Zamperini, a man who started out as a troublesome kid and eventually settled into becoming one of the premier distance runners just prior to WWII.  He was so good he went to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics and was on pace to break the 4 minute mile by the time of the 1940 games when war broke out and thoughts of international games were put on hold.

He became a flier and his plane crashed in the Pacific.  The story thereafter was of his long voyage in a raft, followed by being captured by the Japanese, which in turn spiraled downward into a different long distance story of torture and survival.  It takes nothing away from the story to know that he lived through that and his subsequent struggle to adjust once he returned to civilian life.  The tale is well told and compelling, one of those books that is read in long sittings.  It makes you marvel at Zamperini's accomplishments and endurance and at Hillenbrand's skill to tell the story so well.  It should be a heck of a movie when it comes out this year.