That sports book that’s way more

Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian by Anthony Ervin and Constantine Markides

3 words: introspective, unflinchingly honest, surprising

The book I can’t stop talking about? It’s this one.

Ervin and Markides have written themselves one doozy of a memoir / biography mash-up.

This book’s got in goin’ on in multiple ways.

First, the structure is fascinating. If you like books with multiple viewpoints, you’re gonna love this thing. Ervin and Markides share the storytelling, and the story is so much more interesting than it would’ve been with only one viewpoint. Ervin tells his story in his own words, which brings an intimacy and an immediacy to the narrative. But Markides’s writing about Ervin is equally fascinating, because we see him from two angles.

Second, Ervin’s story is so outrageous and complex, it’s only believable because it’s actually true. No way you’d get me to buy this story if it were fiction.

Dude won the gold medal in 50 meter freestyle at the 2000 Olympics, then fell off the face of the Earth.

Except really, he fell into and out of school, drug abuse, homelessness, tattooing, rock & roll, cigarette smoking, nearly every type of high-risk behavior imaginable, and all kinds of different belief systems. He nearly wrecked himself.

Then, in 2011, he started swimming again.

And by 2012, he qualified for the Olympic team.


It’s pretty stunning.

Roll in there, the fact that he has Tourette’s, is half African-American and half Jewish (but doesn’t particularly identify with either group), and is training for the 2016 Olympics right this minute, and People, We’ve Got Ourselves a Story Here.

This book is a very intriguing look inside the mind of an elite athlete who’s also a philosopher.

And the book contains remarkable descriptions of Ervin’s form as a swimmer. Markides had me breathless when I read these words:

“It was strange to reconcile the unhurried, cerebral Ervin I knew with the swift aquatic creature slicing toward me. But it wasn’t even his speed that astonished me so much as the way in which he traveled through the water–although ‘through’ isn’t even exactly right. There was something in his swimming I’d never seen before: he seemed to swim not through the water but over it.” (95)

Yowser, guys. That’s some good stuff there.


(He’s the one in mint green.)


So yeah. This book, I couldn’t put it down. It’s not the usual heroic sports story; it’s way more more nuanced than that.

I’m grateful to Ervin for “torching his soul” to write this book, and to Markides for writing such a stunning, close third-person view of Ervin’s story thus far.

Anyone else gonna be watching the Olympic trials to look for the guy with the sleeves?


Nixon, we hardly knew ye

Reflecting pool at the Nixon Presidential Library…
for the man who was totally *not* into self-reflection
Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas
3 words: psychological, fascinating, insightful
So this was a weird one. I read a review of this book last year, thought I might like it, saw the page count (619), and thought, “Yeah, I think I’ll pass…”
Then it showed up on some “best books of the year” lists, and I felt bad for skipping it. But still not enticed.
Then one day we were in a bookstore and I picked up a copy and told the Dear Man, “Yeah, I’m feeling guilty about not reading this book…”
And as soon as I opened the book, I was hooked.
It was the typeface.
And here’s the thing: I’m not a typeface snob. 

I’ve always found it weird when books announce their typeface at the end of the book. But in this book’s case, man, it made a difference. (In case you’re wondering, the typeface was Sabon.)

There was also really beautiful spacing on the pages.
And a photo at the beginning of each chapter.
My friends, I read this book.
And from page xi, on which the author describes Nixon’s adoration of the movie Around the World in 80 Days and the way he’d get all enthusiastic about the scene with the elephant… I was a goner.
But the thing that most delighted me about this book is how sad it made me.
I know that sounds nuts. But stay with me, guys.
Because of my mild Watergate obsession, I’ve read me a book or two about Nixon. And many of these books have explored his psyche.
But none of them were like this.
This book delved deep into the contradictions in Nixon’s character, ambitions, and view of himself. And man, it’s nothing but fascinating.
He strove to be inspiring and positive and joyful.
And mostly he just wasn’t any of those things at all.
It kind of breaks my heart.

I have new sympathy for the man. 

This book breaks new ground, and it’s that rarest of rare things: a true original in a packed field. 

Supremely fun

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik

3 words: smart, inspiring, fun

I’m pretty sure Shakespeare was anticipating Ruth Bader Ginsburg when he wrote, “And though she be but little, she is fierce.” 
This woman is tough, people.
One of my favorite anecdotes from this book shows RBG, only days after having a stent put in her heart, saying, “Tell them I’ll be back doing pushups in a few days.”
(Her workout includes 20 pushups. No joke.)
Gotta admire that.
This book is like a playground for Supreme Court geeks. And if you’re inclined to like Justice Ginsburg even before reading this book, afterward you’re probably gonna want to tattoo yourself with her image.
(Or maybe not.)
So: playground!
Beyond zippy, fascinating stories about RBG’s life (and she’s led a fascinating one; I especially love reading about her nearly 60-year marriage, which was a true partnership), this book contains tons of color photos, entertaining illustrations, timelines, and annotated court decisions and dissents.
It’s the kind of book that makes you smarter while you’re having fun.
Seriously, the book’s format is happy-making. All that visual interest really makes it a lovely book to hold in your hands, and then it’s packed with stories like the one about RBG wearing her special dissent collar when she’s going to read an oral dissent from the bench.
And you can keep on living the dream on Tumblr, where the book’s seed sprouted.

Totally inspired, and also perfectly entertained. A wonderful reading experience.

Me & LBJ

Indomitable Will:
LBJ in the Presidency
by Mark K. Updegrove
LBJ, signing the 1968 Civil Rights Bill
(photo credit: Library of Congress Prints
and Photographs Division)
OK, first: the author of this book has one of the coolest jobs in
the world. He’s the director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum (a
place I want to visit so bad it hurts).
And he’s put together a terrific book.
I guess this style of book is sometimes called an oral biography
(which is such an unfortunate
phrase), but I think in this case it’s not an accurate description, because it
also involves print sources. This one is a mix of snippets from interviews,
memoirs, and biographies, all strung together to create a cohesive narrative.*
So, on one page, for example, we have a section from an LBJ
interview, followed by an excerpt from a Barry Goldwater interview, then a
paragraph from a book quoting Warren Rogers (bureau chief for Hearst
Newspapers), followed by a Ted Kennedy interview snippet—all dealing with the
complex relationship between LBJ and the Kennedy family.
This style of book—you can pick it up and read a little bit, and
then put it down, knowing that you can dive right back in again where you left
off. (Some books require a running start to resume reading them; this kind
doesn’t.) So for a reader who’s feeling scattered, I highly recommend this
And with this book, I experienced that thing that happens with
biographies: the feeling of dread as I reached the end of the book—because the
person dies. And at the end of this
book, I was blinking back tears. Of course, I already knew LBJ has the power to make me weepy. 
And it happened again with this book. Here’s how:
After leaving the presidency, LBJ spoke of a story he’d been told
by one of the Apollo 8 astronauts, who said that he went into his backyard and
looked up at the moon and wondered if could be true that he had really been
there. LBJ said he’d told that story to some friends and said, “Perhaps… the
time would come when I would look back on the majesty and the power and
splendor of the presidency and find it hard to believe I had actually been
there.” Of the first night back on his ranch, he said, “But on this night I
knew I had been there. And I knew that I had given it everything that was in
me.” (p. 322)
Reading these words (that last part!) just a few pages before the
end of the book, and then reading the final words about LBJ being buried near
an oak tree on his ranch—it just did me in.
[Let’s pause, as I collect myself…                      Hang on, it’ll be just a moment…
All right. Now we may proceed.]
This portrait of LBJ paints out a few of the unpleasantnesses, and
as long as a person recognizes that, I think it’s OK. But there also are some
surprises here, and one of the big ones (BIG!) is that LBJ made the transfer of
power (from himself to Nixon) go very smoothly. He was generous. In the words
of Walt Rostow: “[The transition] was a magnificent performance to observe. But
I think it goes back to a strand in President Johnson that I think is important
and hasn’t been caught much, which is that he is a man of government—politics.”
(p. 315) 
A simply wonderful look at Lyndon Johnson’s presidential years,
told by those who were there.
*Some other fine examples of this style of book:
Live from New York: An Uncensored
History of Saturday Night Live, as Told by Its Stars, Writers and Guests
Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller
Truman Capote: In
Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His
Turbulent Career
by George Plimpton

Yup, he’s still my favorite

Jack Kennedy:
Elusive Hero
by Chris Matthews

Chris Matthews, along with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, are
heavily responsible for that political science degree of mine. Matthews’ Hardball and Woodstein’s All the President’s Men were too good
to resist. I needed more.
It’s been a year or two since that first semester of college
[understatement, anyone?], and I’m still hooked on this stuff.
So this new book, by Matthews, about my favorite president (even
though yes, I know: Lincoln
was nobler) was beyond irresistible.
It’s a glowing portrait of JFK, and I’m OK with that. 

Here’s a
sense of Matthews’ take: “In searching for Jack Kennedy, I found a fighting
prince never free from pain, never far from trouble, never accepting the world
he found, never wanting to be his father’s son. He was a far greater hero than
he ever wished us to know.” (p. 11)

Given that I’m already a Kennedyophile, those two sentences nearly
did me in.  
Plus, Matthews has a fine writing style that flows right along,
and you gotta like that.
Also, it was a comfort to me to read the old story* again. I’ve
known the basics of JFK’s life story since way back when I was still playing
with Barbies (yeah, so 4th grade was maybe a little old for dolls,
but hey). Back in those days, once I’d planted the Barbies in their dream
house, I’d head for the presidential and First Lady biographies. And JFK was my
fave back then, too.
So, yeah, I know the bio. Boyhood illnesses and bookishness:
check. PT-109: check. Malaria and back surgeries: check. “Irish Mafia”: check.
So, I gotta say, there wasn’t too much new information here.
But—the thing that sets this book apart is that Matthews incorporates snippets
of interviews and memoirs of those who knew Kennedy well, and that makes it
feel very fresh and somehow current.
So if you’re in the mood for an adoring biography of JFK, this book’s
probably gonna do it for you.

OK. Hymn flashback here. The phrase “the old, old story” kept running through
my head while I was reading this book, which launched my brain’s secret stereo
into this fine number imprinted on me during my younger years. It’s a grand old hymn that really demands
to be belted out with some gusto. In keeping with the 4th grade
Barbie recollections, we’re going to hear it from the Oak Ridge Boys. Hello¸early ’80s!

(But guys? I am not suggesting that we compare JFK to Jesus. That really doesn’t work.)

Merry Christmas! Let’s talk about the Nixons…

Mrs. Nixon by
Ann Beattie
If you like your books to be all one thing, cut and dried (perfectly
fictional, or perfectly nonfictional), then this book will drive you straight
up the wall.
For the rest of us, who maybe are intrigued by the occasional
mash-up: Splendor!
(Though. If I owned a copy of this book, I’d have to put it in
nonfiction for 6 months of the year, and then move it to fiction for the
remaining 6 months. There’s a small element of literary/shelving stress here.)
Beattie does some zany stuff in this book, including writing an
entire chapter in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s style, about two characters who haven’t
appeared before in the Nixon narrative. The man is writing a love letter to the
woman. Turns out, we learn at the end of the chapter that the text of the love
letter was the actual text of a letter Richard Nixon wrote to Pat. The rest of
it is all made up, characters and all.
This book is interesting,
You turn the page, and you don’t know if you’re going to get a
literary interpretation of the short story “The Necklace” or social commentary
in Pat Nixon’s voice or the author’s musings on why she felt drawn to write
about Pat Nixon of all people. (She
even writes a false version of events to explain why she chose this subject.
Then confesses immediately that the previous chapter was A Lie.)
And it all ties together.
There were several moments while reading this book that I gave
thanks to my 18-year-old self, who knew that majoring in English would have
been a bad idea for me. There was just enough literary analysis in this book to
remind me that I just don’t like doing that stuff. (Hello, readers! You ain’t gonna find nothing deep on this here book blog.)
Anyway. Pat Nixon. She’s one of those
so-placid-she’s-nearly-invisible political wives. So that’s actually pretty
intriguing, because you know she was having secret
inside that perfectly-coiffed head of hers. So why not have a
novelist imagine what those thoughts were? And also, she was married to Richard Nixon! So there’s some built-in
tragedy there.
I’ll say it again: This book is interesting.
to NetGalley and Scribner for the ARC.

BAND August Discussion

The Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees topic for this month is:

How did you get into nonfiction? Do you remember your first nonfiction book or subject? If so, do you still read those subjects?

Who: Unruly What: got hooked on nonfiction Where: in small town Iowa When: in 3rd grade Why: because of biographies.

Yes, biography was the gateway, and I remember it vividly.

First, there were the biographies of the Presidents and First Ladies. There’re whole sets of biographies of all of them, written just for kids, and I just may have read them all. (Type A 3rd grader? Yes.)

Beginning that year, anything that was a biography—I would read it.

Yes, I’m talking biographies of Evel Knievel, Harriet Tubman, Leif Garrett (though that was serious research, because I intended to marry him), Eli Whitney, Amelia Earhart, Thomas Edison, and Barry Manilow.

This biography thing has stuck. I’ve branched out into other nonfiction reading, but the biographies maintain their stronghold. Of the nonfiction books I own (because I can’t live without them—that’s my criterion for book-buying) the biggest category is biography.

You know how they say that looking at a child at age 7 is the best predictor of the adult that child will become? Well, a wide swath of the reading I do now is freakishly similar to the stuff I was reading way back at age 9 or so: biographies of presidents, aviators, and the occasional celebrity.

We’re gonna hope that’s because the die was cast and I am who I am. (Either that, or I’m just stuck at age 9 for life. Though I have gone off Leif Garrett. Sorry, Leif. I had to go and change on you.)

Celebrity book extravaganza

Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead: Journeys into Fame and Madness by Neil Strauss
This is the summer of the celebrity books. Or maybe it’s just my summer of such stuff. But I think it’s a bigger thing — it’s even hit the news. At any rate, I’ve been devouring them like they’re going out of business.
During the same weeks I was listening to Life by Keith Richards on audio, I was reading this book, which consists of the best parts of celebrity—mainly rock star—interviews. Pretty fascinating.
Neil Strauss has written for Rolling Stone and the New York Times, and he’s interviewed some crazy-*** people.
The way this book is structured is kind of weird, and I mean good-weird. Lots of the interviews are diced up and then scattered throughout the book, which is arranged in “Acts” that key off a theme. (e.g., “Act Three, or, Mean Guys with Long Hair”)
The result is that you read segments of interviews that flow naturally into the topic of the interview that follows; the transitions are really smooth. Which is strange and surprising, especially when you have Russell Brand following Ryan Adams. And Lionel Richie following N.W.A. (Yeah, I didn’t know who N.W.A. was till I read this.)
Lots of people come off sounding pretty darn crazy. And some (Jay Leno, Bruce Springsteen) leave you with a good feeling overall.
Some of the most interesting interviews are actually with people I’ve never heard of, or people who aren’t even famous. When Strauss talked with a roadie, interesting.
In addition to being surprisingly satisfying to read, this book also is forgiving if you decide to do a serious skim of a section or two or seven. You can just skip over the interviews that don’t grab you, and then you can dive back into the next one. No harm, no foul. The librarian says so.

The young LBJ

The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1)

Guys! I just read the 750+ page first volume of a 3-volume biography of LBJ, and I’m having bliss-out fits over it.

I know.
You’re fleeing from the blog, and I kinda sorta understand.
But wait.
Let me explain.
(photo credit: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum)
This book is so ding-dang good I nearly got weepy at several points. And once my heart almost burst in joy.
That, my friends, is a sign of good writing. Robert A. Caro is a pure marvel.
We’ll begin with the sentence that darn-near caused a heart explosion. Here ’tis:
“And as Lyndon Johnson came up Capitol Hill in the morning, he would be running.” (p. 217)
So, the context. Caro spends the long first paragraph of that chapter describing the scenery—the columns and pillars of the Capitol—witnessed by the 23-year-old LBJ as he walked (ran!) to his office when he worked as an aide to a Congressman. That glorious sentence ends the paragraph, and it’s the perfect capstone. I even made someone else read that page because I couldn’t hoard it all for myself. Literary perfection.
The weepy thing happened when I read about how LBJ, as a young Congressman during the Great Depression, helped bring electricity to the Texas Hill Country from whence he came. After reading the description of the lives people led before electricity, it makes sense that it was during this time that people began naming their sons for Lyndon Johnson. Caro describes how farm women could see the workers coming toward her house with the line of electrical poles, and when the workers arrived, they’d find the finest meal the family could provide, served on their best dishes.
We get a good view of Lady Bird here, and one is given to believe that she truly was as sainted as Margaret Truman suggested in First Ladies. Despite her innate goodness, still (thankfully) she’s interesting. One of my favoritest quotes of all time is this, by Lady Bird to a friend: “Lyndon and I committed matrimony last night.” (p. 302) Doesn’t it just sound innocently naughty?
This book is detailed, in the best way. So you get a solid sense of who the supporting characters are. For years now, I’ve been saying the words “Rayburn House Office Building” in response to library patrons’ requests for the addresses of their representatives in Congress. And only in this book did I learn who Sam Rayburn was. And I confess now I adore him just a lot. He was honest. Need I say more? Yet I will. Here (we’ll let Caro say it): “Years later, when someone mentioned that Rayburn’s father had not left him much of an inheritance, Rayburn quickly corrected him—his father, he said, ‘gave me my untarnished name.’” (p. 301) He was as honest as LBJ was fluid with the truth.
This book covers Johnson’s early years—from birth to age 36. His ambition is striking. It’s exhausting even to read about.
The 3-volume Caro biography (with the 4th volume in the works) is known as the warts-and-all version of LBJ’s life story. I’m doing OK with it. I’ve known forever that the guy was earthy, and why sugarcoat the truth?
Also, gotta confess: major (major!) authorcrush on Mr. Caro. Not only is he a genius, but he’s also cute as a button.

Next up: Volume 2!

He fought the law…

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts by Julian Rubinstein
The delightfully-told tale of a whiskey-addled hockey player/bank robber who became a Hungarian folk hero in the 1990s.

I was truly doubtful I’d like this book, which was chosen by our book club, but by halfway through I was reasonably engrossed with the story. For me as a reader, the thing that made this book work was Rubinstein’s writing, which is pretty darn snappy and smart.
Also, it’s the kind of story that’s almost too weird to be true—which is exactly how you *know* it’s true.
Attila (I’m serious—that’s the guy’s name) sneaked across the border from Romania to Hungary, started smuggling pelts, played hockey on a pro team (but was never paid for doing so), and took to robbing banks while wearing ridiculous wigs. Then he’d go spend the stolen money on extravagances and have to rob another bank.
Hungary during those years doesn’t sound like an easy place to live, so no wonder people tuned in to hear about his escapades and considered him a Robin Hood type of hero. (Though, guys! He kept all the money for himself and went scuba diving!)
Kudos to Rubinstein for making even this here curmudgeonly firstborn rule-follower feel a little tiny bit sympathetic toward the (anti-)hero.