blaise's book feast

Un amuse bouche de la litterature

The Boys in the Boat


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

This is a phenomenally well written tome about the tribulations and triumphs that took the University of Washington Men’s team to Olympic Gold in Berlin. The narrative largely focuses on Joe Rantz, a boy abandoned by his family, who had the temerity to attend UW, where he promptly fell in love with rowing.  His teammates, most of whom had never rowed before, were strong kids from logging camps and fishing boats; skills that would translate well into the grace and power that a shell exacts from its’ rowers.

I think that this book was particularly poignant to me because I am a Pacific Northwest rower who has lived in Seattle for many years, and this book does an exceptional job of weaving in early Seattle history and University history, within the context of the greater societal pressures taking place around the country and the world.  The book also details Mr. Pocock, a quiet boat builder from England who came to Seattle and made the fastest, most advanced boats conceivable, giving the UW teams an extra edge.  To this day, having rowed Vespolis, Empachers, Aldens, Resolutes and WinTechs myself, my experience in a Pocock shell is unparalleled.

The boys train beyond what they think are the limits of their physical capacity in rain and sleet and snow, and after some harrowing wins to other more well recognized (and well funded) universities, the boys have a chance to take their boats across the Atlantic to compete and win on German turf in 1936.

If you are from Seattle, if you are a rower anywhere, if you have a interest in German-American relations leading up to the 1936 Olympiad, then this book is for you.


Other Ephemera From 2014

Two Thousand Fourteen found me re-reading several books that I’ve read in the past, but I squeezed in several new ones as well.  

Home is the Sailor and Fingal O’Reilly, Irish Doctor by Patrick Taylor. Dr. Taylor writes the Irish Country series, which are light-hearted tales of an older doctor, his younger partner, and the often hilarious undertakings of the villagers of Ballybucklebo, Ireland.  The series spans decades, with several books focusing on Dr. O’Reilly’s early days in practice in the 1930s, and other books detail the development of more modern medicine in the 1960s.  All of the books are great, and you can start anywhere in the series without feeling lost.

The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness.  This is the third in a trilogy involving a witch and a vampire (I know, I know), and is the best in the trilogy. This isn’t your average vampire romance though, and Ms. Harkness takes well-researched forays into biology, chemistry, religion and history.  I would recommend starting at the beginning with her first book, A Discovery of Witches, followed by Shadow of Night and then The Book of Life. You’ll be hard pressed to put any of them down.

The Charm School by Nelson Demille.  Mr. Demille is a previous combat veteran who went on to receive a degree in Political Science and History.  His impressive bibliography includes thrilling tales, usually related to a fearless cop or service member.  The Charm School is by far my favorite of his books, which details Intelligence Officer Hollis’s mission to find a secretive KGB training camp outside of Moscow, in the throes of the cold war.  He is assisted by the charming Lisa Rhodes, an embassy attache, and Seth Alevy, a CIA mastermind.  The KGB training site winds up being a camp where American fliers captured by the North Vietnamese are forced to teach KGB officers how to “become” American so that they may infiltrate US neighborhoods, government jobs, etc. to fullfill their goal of anihillating America. Fortunately, through some insane plans from Alevy and Hollis, the Charm School’s days are numbered.  A jaw dropping helicopter scene at the end of the novel still has me thinking about the book.  Demille’s recent and also great books are The Lion and The Panther, which deal with the American Anti-Terrorist Task Force battleing a Middle Eastern Terrorist.

Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins.  This was a re-read for me this year.  I think I read all of his books available at the time, when I was studying abroad in Australia ten years ago. His books are a delight, and I usually describe them as adult fairytales on LSD.  Villa Incognito starts out with an unusual Japanese yarn about a Badger-like “Tanuki” who can shift into human form and seduce young women.  The thick of the book eventually gets back to this unusual beginning, but focuses on three lost airmen who have been running drugs for the past 30 years since their plane crashed in the Vietnam war. I can’t even begin to describe the way that Robbins writes, except to say that its like slowly swarming orbs of electricity in his head at times rocket down to his fingertips and frission the page with unbelievable epithets. My other favorite book of his is Jitterbug Perfume.