Monday, September 2, 2013

Cluster Critiques

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

I cried at the end of this book. Not because it was sad, but rather because I didn’t want the book to end. I’d already purchased it, along with four others, but when my BFF described it as “endearing,” I put down what I was reading at the time and picked up The Boys In The Boat and I am glad  I did.

The Boys in the Boat is about nine young men at the University of Washington who overcame numerous odds to ruin Adolf Hitler’s day by winning the Gold metal in eight-oar rowing at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. These sons of loggers, shipyard workers and farmers took on and defeated the sons of bankers and senators rowing for elite eastern universities, and those of British aristocrats rowing for Oxford and Cambridge, to stun the Aryan sons of the Nazi state.

“Against the grim backdrop of the Great Depression, they reminded Americans of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together. And they provided hope that the ruthless might of the Nazis would not prevail over American grit, determination, and optimism.” - Daniel James Brown (pictured)

Described as “Chariots of Fire, with oars”, and compared to Unbroken and Seabiscuit, I predict that The Boys in the Boat will end 2013 as one of the top five books of the year. 

Not only is the story endearing, I also I found the athleticism of rowing surprising and fascinating. Physiologists calculate that rowing a two-thousand meter race takes the same toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back, in about six minutes. At top speed, the crew are rowing up to 46 stokes per minute – nearly one stroke per second. “It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.” - Daniel James Brown 

One of the stories within the story that made me want more was that of George Yeoman Pocock, the British builder of the boat of choice of all the top-rated rowing teams, and whose enchanting quotes began each chapter. For example: “Harmony, balance, rhythm.  There you have it.  That’s what life is all about.” - George Yeoman Pocock 

Read The Boys in the Boat

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

I don’t know if Sisterland author Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld goes by Curtis because she, like many female writers, felt she would be given more credit as a man, but in any case she is in good company with some other famous gals who adopted male pen names, including Joanne Rowling (J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter), Emily Brontë (Currer Bell - Jane Eyre), Alice Blixen (Isak Dinesen – Out of Africa), Louisa May Alcott (A.M. Barnard – Little Women), and Nelle Harper Lee (Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird).

In Sisterland, Sittenfeld (pictured) gives us identical twin sisters, Daisy and Violet Shramm who have almost nothing in common other than their on-again off-again psychic powers. Vi, the eccentric, milks her “gift” eventually nabbing a spot on the Today Show when it gets out that she has predicted a massive earthquake in the St. Louis area. Daisy, who has changed her name to Kate in an attempt to escape her “psychic” persona, just wants to be a good mother and wife. In fact, it seems they’ve dedicated their lives to being as unlike each other as possible.

In the end, the story of what happens really doesn’t matter because that is not what makes Sisterland worth the read. It is the emotional geography shared by Daisy/Kate and Violet - “sisterland” if you will. Sisters don’t have to be identical twins or psychics to read each other’s minds, and it is this territory in which Sittenfeld soars. The dialogue and dynamics between these sisters rings genuine, and that is what makes the meaningless story of Sisterland meaningful.

Is there an earthquake in St. Louse? Yes, of sorts. Read it if you want to find out, but go into it knowing it’s about sisterhood, not predicting disaster.

The Shape of the Eye: A Memoir, by George Estreich

This is the story of one family’s journey of giving birth to and raising a child with Down syndrome.  There are two things that make The Shape of the Eye by George Estreich special: (1) It is prose well written by an accomplished poet; and (2) It isn’t full of candy-coated platitudes.

One review I saw described this book as “emotionally honest,” and that is what I saw as well. When Laura is born to Theresa and George, they didn’t immediately perceive that their life was blessed, as reflected in the following excerpts:

“Nobody, so far as I know, finds out that a newborn child has Down syndrome, shrugs, and returns to decorating the nursery. We were undone by the news for a long time. If Down syndrome were ordinary in the world, if a common-sense view of dignity and personhood and capability prevailed, then perhaps our early days would have been easier. But Down syndrome is not ordinary in the world.”

“There were, it seemed, two kinds of stories told about my daughter. In one, she seemed to be a developing child. In the other, she seemed not even human. She was a defect, a tragedy, an abnormality. I did not see how she could be both. It was as if Theresa had given birth to a blur.”

As a stay-at-home dad, Estreich (pictured) stops writing poetry and starts writing prose, poetically, about life with Laura. In the process he reflects back on his strained relationship with his Asian mother, and her strained effort to accept her granddaughter. Here’s another excerpt to give you the tone of the book:

“Balloons arrived, flowers, baskets of jellybeans. There were phone calls, e-mails. Through it all, Down syndrome was there and not there, a tremor, a disturbance, a mirage. It was the universe a half step to the left, one we might enter, might not enter, had already entered. It was there in a phrase like simian crease—I thought, isn't that kind of, well, offensive? It was in the long pause as another doctor cradled our daughter's head in beefy hands, intent, compassionate, saying, ‘I notice the eyes are slightly almond-shaped’; and it was in my quick, already-automatic response, saying, ‘My mother is Japanese.’ I held up one generation against another. I held up what I was, against what she might be.”

If you have any interest in the lives of families with a child with Down syndrome, or if you think you don't, read The Shape of the Eye.

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

Between the years 1968 and 1985, sixteen gruesome murders were committed in Florence, Italy. Police believed the same killer (or killers) was (were) responsible for each crime, and the media quickly dubbed this person the Monster of Florence. The killings had numerous features in common: all were couples (so there were really just eight crime scenes), all were murdered while engaging in sex outdoors in cars or tents, and all the female victims were brutally mutilated postmortem. Forensic evidence suggested that the same type of scuba knife was used in all the crimes, and the victims were killed with the same .22 pistol.

This non-fiction accounting of the murders and investigation had every reason to be outstanding - a ton of gruesome things to describe, plenty of red herrings, the drama of the killings and the ensuing craziness. Unfortunately, it became more about the endless political details of the Italian investigation, and very much less about the murders and the victims. And because the crimes were never solved, all you get is a rambling, unsatisfying mess.

Preston (pictured) has also written nineteen books with Lee Child, which should tell you something! I wish I’d known this before I bought The Monster of Florence. I would have saved myself $12 and 12 hours. Don’t read it. 


  1. When I read that you had done a review of Sisterland, I deliberately held off reading it until I had finished the book - I was about halfway through. Finished it last night and loved your review. You are really good at boiling lots of words down to a few and saying what needs to be said, SueAnn. That is a real talent! Here's what I was expecting and you will find this crazy because...well, I thought that Jeremy and Courtney had really had an affair and that she was pregnant with his baby but terminated because she could not have a white baby. Oh, my gosh. Curtis Sittenfeld took a completely different turn! But it did hold interest right up to the end, huh? Am just starting Boys in the Boat because of your review. Have you read Big Brother by Lionel Shriver? It's gotten good reviews. You are a marvel, really, with all you do and the amount you read. Wow. Charlena

    1. Haven't read Big Brother - will check it out. I probably should have given Sisterland a little more credit, because, as you said, it did keep you reading. Always wonderful to receive your feedback. Wow back atcha! SueAnn