Can you enjoy Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game if you don’t listen to the Men in Blazers podcast? If you don’t have an opinion on the 1974 Netherlands (soccer, of course!) team? If you don’t instinctively root for Cameroon instead of Brazil because, well, we want an African team to get to the quarters?
Probably not, And that’s too bad because this exchange of letters between two soccer fans, one in Brazil during the 2014 World Cup and the other at home in Sweden is much more than just their opinions about Messi, Neymar, or the German soccer team (the last of which they respect, and hate). It mixes in their personal histories, the travails of a parent whose youngest cannot yet sleep through the night, and how teaching a teenager how to drive opens the door to good conversations (in the car). In other words, you are back in Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, mulling over life. If you are not a soccer fan, give this book to a soccer fan in your life.
You Will Know Me and its murder will get under your skin and keep you wondering about the next plot twist to the end, while offering a well-crafted immersion into the strange world of highly competitive sport (here, gymnastics) and its crazy parents. There is also a marvelously drawn little brother who keeps spouting tender and magically appropriate comments. That said, some of the clues are a little too obvious and mar the surprise of the whodunit.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics tells the inspiring story of how a team of undergraduates from the University of Washington beat all other college teams, including the vastly better funded East Coast ones, to quality for the Berlin Olympics and eventually win the event. While rowers may delight in the rowing descriptions, rowing is a pretty boring sport for outsiders, and the valiant efforts of the author could never lift the race descriptions from tedious status, at least for me. What makes the book are the personal stories of the rowers, most of whom came from extremely straightened circumstances during the Great Depression, as well as the story of the coach’s training method and the boat maker’s contributions to the team. It’s a good book to read during an Olympics year.
I found One Breath: Freediving, Death, And The Quest to Shatter Human Limits fascinating, but not because of the quality of the writing (pedestrian journalistic style) or the content (great swatches of athletes’ love lives, as boringly agitated as one can imagine them to be, interlaced with seriously boring detailed recitations of competitions that consist of waiting for someone to come up from the depths) — because of the topic. The mere idea of diving hundreds of meters underwater, risking a blackout, permanent lung damage, and, all to often, death, seems immensely dangerous, insane even, but it’s easy to understand the lure of non-competitive free diving, the pleasure of moving like a fish, without cumbersome scuba tanks. Too bad that competition has to spoil that.
Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes–and What We Can Learn from Them explores the methods and techniques used by coaches and athletes to meet the famous motto of the Olympic movement, Citius, Altius, Fortius. The book challenges some supposed “rules”, such as the need to practice for 10,000 hours to reach elite levels (true for violinist, not true for many athletes, and indeed young athletes should not over-practice), and shows how a more scientific approach to training is helping athletes practice less but more effectively.
A fun read for athletes, parents of athletes, and (I think) couch potatoes too!
In The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities, the author meticulously reconstructs the 2006 scandal when lacrosse players at Duke University were accused of raping a stripper they had hired for a boozy party, only to be exonerated, months later. He shows how the (mostly white) university’s fraught relationship with the (mostly African-American) city of Durham and its hands-off treatment of the sports teams (some would even say that the athletic directors set their own rules within the university) collided with a politically hungry district attorney who pressed charges that should not have been, charges that fanned protests by Duke faculty, students, and the general public, only to be withdrawn or disproved down the road.
If your idea of a good book is the day-by-day account of events, told several times, from several perspectives, and the line-by-line reading of interview and court case transcripts, you will be in heaven. Me, not so much! What I found fascinating is how this obvious legal error played out against rich, entitled young men, whose parents seem as concerned about a game being cancelled (hello! under-age players getting drunk and hiring strippers, let alone, perhaps assaulting them, are probably breaking the rules of conduct of the university, don’t you think?) as to whether they will be allowed to graduate in time to start their well-paid jobs on Wall Street. And these young men got millions of dollars from the university for the way they were treated. They were treated badly, no question, but millions? One cannot help but wonder about unjustly incarcerated individuals (of different colors and classes) who get a pittance when finally freed…
If we are ever tempted to think that today’s sports are strange, Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport reminds us that watching men (and a few women) walk around the clock for days on end was popular in the 1870s…. There were prizes, scandals, riots when eager spectators could not get into the venues, and deaths when shoddily-built balconies gave way under the weight of the crowd — all told with élan in this book.