Nonfiction November “Stranger than Fiction”: The Boys in the Boat
I’m taking a quick break from novellas coverage but keeping up the nonfiction focus with this week’s Nonfiction November prompt, “Stranger than Fiction,” hosted by Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks: “This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that almost don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.” I would also interpret this brief to refer to nonfiction that reads as fluently as a novel, and on both counts this book stands out.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown (2013)
We read this for my book club a couple of months ago, on the recommendation of one of our members’ spouses. I was dubious because I don’t read history books, and don’t enjoy playing or watching sports, so a sport + history book sounded like a real snoozefest, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Brown focuses on one of the University of Washington rowers, Joe Rantz, in effect making him the protagonist of a classic underdog story. The college team in general, and Rantz in particular, were unlikely champions. Rantz lost his mother young and, abandoned by his father multiple times, had to make a living by his wits in the Seattle area, sometimes resorting to illegal schemes like poaching and selling liquor during Prohibition, but also logging and working in dam construction. Even among the teammates who became his de facto family, he was bullied for coming from poverty and for his enthusiasm for folksy music. That we come to know and care deeply for Rantz testifies to how well Brown recreates his life story – largely via Rantz’s daughter’s reminiscences, though Brown did meet Rantz before his death.
Another central character is world-renowned boat designer George Pocock, an Englishman who set up shop on the Washington campus. Boatbuilding and rowing both come across as admirable skills involving hard physical labour, scientific precision and an artist’s mind. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading about the technical details of woodworking and rowing. Brown emphasizes the psychological as well as the physical challenges of rowing – “mind in boat” is a catchphrase reminding rowers to give their total attention for there to be harmony between teammates. Individual talent is only useful insomuch as it boosts collective performance, and there has to be a perfect balance between speed, power and technique. Often, it means going past the pain barrier: “Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment,” as the author sums it up.
(After reading the book, some of us went on a fieldtrip to see the boating club where the woman who recommended the book rows as an amateur. It wasn’t until I saw the rowers out on the Thames that I realized that only the coxswain – the one who sits at the back of the boat and calls out the orders – faces forward, while all the other rowers are facing backwards. That feels metaphorically significant, like you have to trust where the journey is taking you all together rather than relying on your own sight.)
All along, Brown subtly weaves in the historical background: Depression-era Seattle with its shantytowns, and the rise of Hitler in Germany. Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl were key propagandists, whitewashing the city in advance of the Olympics to make a good impression on foreign visitors. Some atrocities had already been committed, and purification policies were in place, yet the Nazis fooled many with a façade of efficiency and cleanliness.
I have deep admiration for books, fiction or non-, that can maintain suspense even though you know the outcome. The pacing really works here. Most of the action is pre-Berlin, which keeps the tension high. (The only times when my attention waned was in the blow-by-blow accounts of preliminary races.) There were so many mishaps associated with the Olympic race that it truly is amazing that the U.S. team pulled through to win – I’ll leave the specifics for future readers to discover. But there are a couple ‘stranger than fiction’ details of the book that I do want to pull out: Joe’s father and brother each married one sister from a set of twins; and actor Hugh Laurie’s father was on the Great Britain rowing team at the 1936 Olympics.
The fires and heatwave of 1936 felt familiar, as did the hairstyles and fashions in the black-and-white photos (but the ‘boys’ themselves look more like 35-year-olds than modern college students). In some ways it seemed that little has changed, but then other facts feel impossibly outdated – e.g., sperm whale oil was used to oil the boats.
This might seem like a ‘dad book’ – indeed, several of us passed the book on to our fathers/-in-law after reading – but in fact it has very broad appeal and is one I’d be likely to recommend to any big readers, even if they’re not keen on nonfiction. It’s one of my most memorable reads of the year so far. And whether you fancy reading the book or not, you may want to look out for the George Clooney-directed film, coming out next year. (Secondhand purchase)
Biography of the Month: Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig
The first book I ever reviewed on this blog, nearly three years ago, happened to be Jonathan Eig’s The Birth of the Pill. It was the strength of the writing in that offbeat work of history, as well as rave reviews for this 2017 biography of Muhammad Ali (1942–2016), that led me to pick up a sport-themed book. I’m the furthest thing from a sports fan you could imagine, but I approached this as a book about a cultural icon and read it with a spirit of curiosity about how Eig would shape this life story and separate the facts from the legend. It’s a riveting account of outliving segregation and developing a personal style and world-beating confidence; it’s a sobering tale of facing consequences and having your own body fail you. I loved it.
Today would have been Ali’s 76th birthday, so in honor of the occasion – and his tendency to spout off-the-cuff rhymes about his competitors’ shortfalls and his own greatness – I’ve turned his life story into a book review of sorts, in rhyming couplets.
Born into 1940s Kentucky,
this fine boy had decent luck – he
surpassed his angry, cheating father
though he shared his name; no bother –
he’d not be Cassius Clay much longer.
He knew he was so much stronger
than all those other boys. Racing
the bus with Rudy; embracing
the help of a white policeman,
his first boxing coach – this guardian
prepared him for Olympic gold
(the last time Cassius did as told?).
A self-promoter from the start, he
was no scholar but won hearts; he
hogged every crowd’s full attention
but his faults are worth a mention:
he hoarded Caddys and Royces
and made bad financial choices;
he went through one, two, three, four wives
and lots of other dames besides;
his kids – no closer than his fans –
hardly even got a chance.
Cameos from bin Laden, Trump,
Toni Morrison and more: jump
ahead and you’ll see an actor,
envoy, entrepreneur, preacher,
(though maybe things got out of hand).
Ali was all things to all men
and fitted in the life of ten
but though he tested a lot of walks,
mostly he just wanted to box.
The fights: Frazier, Foreman, Liston –
they’re all here, and the details stun.
Eig gives a vivid blow-by-blow
such that you will feel like you know
what it’s like to be in the ring:
dodge, jab, weave; hear that left hook sing
past your ear. Catch rest at the ropes
but don’t stay too long like a dope.
If, like Ali, you sting and float,
keep an eye on your age and bloat –
the young, slim ones will catch you out.
Bow out before too many bouts.
Ignore the signs if you so choose
(ain’t got many brain cells to lose –
these blows to the head ain’t no joke);
retirement talk ain’t foolin’ folk,
can’t you give up on earning dough
and think more about your own soul?
Just like Malcolm X always said
Allah laid a call on your head:
To raise up the black man’s status
and ask white men why they hate us;
to resist the Vietnam draft
though that nearly got you the shaft
and lost you your name, your title
and (close) your rank as an idol.
Was it all real, your piety?
Was it worth it in society?
Nation of Islam was your crew
but sure did leave you in the stew
with that Vietcong kerfuffle
and Malcolm/Muhammad shuffle.
Through U.S. missions (after 9/11)
you explained it ain’t about heaven
and who you’ll kill to get you there;
it’s about peace, being God’s heir.
Is this story all about race?
Eig believes it deserves its place
as the theme of Ali’s life: he
was born in segregation, see,
a black fighter in a white world,
but stereotypes he hurled
right back in their faces: Uncle
Tom Negro? Naw, even punch-drunk he’ll
smash your categories and crush
your expectations. You can flush
that flat dismissal down the john;
don’t think you know what’s going on.
Dupe, ego, clown, greedy, hero:
larger than life, Jesus or Nero?
How to see both, that’s the kicker;
Eig avoids ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stickers
but shows a life laid bare and
how win and lose ain’t fair and
history is of our making
and half of legacy is faking
and all you got to do is spin
the world round ’till it lets you in.
Biography’s all ’bout the arc
and though this story gets real dark,
there’s a glister to it all the same.
A man exists beyond the fame.
What do you know beneath the name?
Less, I’d make a bet, than you think.
Come over here and take a drink:
this is long, deep, satisfying;
you won’t escape without crying.
Based on 600 interviews,
this fresh account is full of news
and fit for all, not just sports fans.
Whew, let’s give it up for Eig, man.