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.
Again.
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?

Addicted to the Biscuit

Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
3
words: inspiring, journalistic, vivid
Seabiscuit, where have you been all my
life?
Oh,
just sitting on a library shelf, being all obvious and popular with readers for
more than a decade.
I’m
telling you… there are books I know I’d like, and then I just don’t read them.
Until I get infected with horse fever after a visit to the Kentucky Derby
Museum.
And
then I spent the happiest days absorbed in the Depression-era story of an
unlikely winner and his troupe of humans.
Damn,
why can’t reading always be like this?
Seabiscuit
was a hugely famous horse whose name I’d never heard until the book was
released. But he was a cultural phenomenon in the late 1930s. And he’s one of 4
main characters in this doozy of a book. The others are humans: the trainer,
the jockey, and the owner.
Of the
humans, the trainer, Tom Smith, was probably my favorite. He looked like Truman
and spoke like (Silent Cal) Coolidge. Here’s a good quote:
 “‘Tom
Smith,’ wrote a reporter, ‘says almost nothing, constantly.’” (p. 204)
However,
later in the story:
“Seabiscuit,
sound, brilliantly fast, and impeccably prepared, had spoken on Smith’s
behalf.” (p. 237)
Smith
was laconic to the extreme, and he was a brilliant horseman. And he knew
exactly what to do to bring out the best in Seabiscuit. The two had a
connection.
“In
moments of uncertainty, the horse would pause and look for Smith. When he found
his trainer, the horse would relax.” (p. 104)
I
adore that.
Another
thing I found fascinating was the jockey-horse relationship, and the way the
two act as one on the racetrack. Seabiscuit’s primary jockey was Red Pollard, a
book-loving man who suffered serious injuries that would’ve halted a man less obsessed
with his work. He and Smith knew their horse, and Seabiscuit trusted them. It
really was a lovely thing.
“When
Pollard, who called the horse Pops, sat outside the stall, reading the paper
while Seabiscuit was cooled out, the horse would tug his hot walker off course
to snuffle his jockey’s hands.” (p. 104)

Seabiscuit himself is my favorite of anyone in the book. In looks he was compared to a plowhorse, he had legs that didn’t straighten, he was short, and his gait was ungainly. But the guy got the job done. He was a fierce competitor.

But he also suffered some serious
setbacks and injuries, and that makes the story even more inspiring. Seabiscuit
and his humans were masters of the comeback.

So the story by itself is fantastic, and then you throw in Hillenbrand’s lively writing, and this book becomes nearly perfect. 
 

The
description of the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral is some of the
best writing I’ve ever read. Here’s just one excerpt:
Seabiscuit
“cocked an ear toward his rival, listening to him, watching him. He refused to
let War Admiral pass. The battle was joined. The horses stretched out over the
track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch.
They rubbed shoulders and hips, heads snapping up and reaching out together,
legs gathering up and unfolding in unison.” (p. 272)
I read
that chapter as hungrily as I used to read as a child.
And
then, watching the footage of the race, at first it gave me chills. And then I
burst into tears. And continue to do so every time I watch the thing start to
finish.
I’m gathering some tissues; here it is:

And then there’s that Hollywood movie that I hear isn’t half bad. (Hesitant to see it: I liked the book too much!)

Take me out…

A Nice Little Place on the
North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred
by George F. Will
Recently
a wrong was righted at Wrigley.  
I’d
never been to Wrigley Field, and the Dear Man’s dear dad decided it was time we
took care of that.
So I
decided I’d better study up before the big day. I turned to George Will.
Like
his politics or not, I think most people would agree: the guy can write.
I was
delighted from the start:
“…in
1948, when I was still not as discerning as one should be when making
life-shaping decisions, I became a Cub fan. The Catholic Church thinks
seven-year-olds have reached an age of reasoning. The church might want to
rethink that.” (p. 12)
So
Will loves the Cubs, and he, like all Cub fans, suffers for it.
So he
set out to find out why so many people are so afflicted.
He looks
into psychology. He also researches architecture—and finds that Wrigley Field
may be partly to blame for the Cubs’ tendency to… not win so very often.
Here’s
the thing: If Wrigley Field weren’t so darn enticing a venue, people might stop
attending games when the Cubs are losing. But unlike other teams, whose
attendance decreases when they’re not doing well, the Cubs are impervious to
this effect. It seems that the magic of Wrigley Field overrides the need for
the home team to win.
And I
gotta say: the place is a delight. When I first emerged from the tunnel and saw
the field, I gasped. It was just that beautiful.
So I
felt happy to be there, and lucky to experience Wrigley Field in its 100th
year. This book—a mere 216 pages—was a nice little companion to the nice little
place on the North Side. 

Unruly Runner

No Need for Speed: A Beginner’s
Guide to the Joy of Running
by John Bingham

Reader becomes runner. 

How’s such a thing even happen?
Well, I’ll tell ya.
Back in college and grad school, I ran 2 to 3 miles and didn’t think much of it. Then I basically became a slacker and did the walking thing for years. (Fast. I walk fast. But still: walking.)
Then one day (not the good kind of day), out of nowhere: running. I was out on a walk, and I just burst out into a run. And I started running little short distances, but I was running, guys.  
And then a friend recommended this book. And since I’m readerly (way more readerly than runnerly—at least in normal times), I checked out the book from the library and started in.
I expected a training plan, but this book is more than that. In fact, this book isn’t really a training plan at all; it’s an inspiration instead, and that’s actually more important.
I mean, listen to this:
“Understanding that I could find joy in the activity itself, rather than in my level of proficiency, liberated me. Imagine the number of physical activities you might engage in if you didn’t care how good you were. Imagine the other goals you might pursue if you didn’t have to wait until you were ‘good at it’ to begin to enjoy the pursuit.” (p. 155)
I say Yes to that.
The main thing that surprised me (in a positive way) about the book is that much of it is the story of the author’s own rather unexpected road to running, which started in his early 40s when he was an overweight smoker. 
So already, if you aren’t overweight and/or a smoker, you’re thinking: If he can do this, I can do this…  (And if you are overweight and/or a smoker, you’re also thinking: If he can do this, I can do this…)
This book: It is a friendly book. It is encouraging and kind, and if you’re in the mood for it, it will help your life become a better thing.
So it wasn’t long before I was back to my 3-mile mark, and then—out of nowhere—I was at 5 miles—then 7 and gaining speed—and dang, I was feeling good.

I protest too much

Over Time by
Frank Deford
I’m thinking Frank Deford is partly to blame for my weird reading-sports-books behavior
The guy is smart and charming and funny, and
he’s on NPR (talking about sports) every Wednesday morning while I’m cruising
to work, so he’s part of my little world and I’ve become wickedly fond of him.
Even when he’s talking about athletes I’ve never heard of, or
sports I completely don’t care about (we’re talking: football, basketball,
baseball, tennis, soccer, golf… let’s just say: most sports), I’m always all
excited to hear what he has to say. He’s got that kind of talent.   
And guys! He wrote the novel Bliss Remembered, which I adored a couple of years ago.
This guy’s got it going on.

So when his memoir appeared, I was all over that.
And, true to form, he’s once again… smart and charming and funny.
And for all you NPR listeners who know his voice by heart, there’s
the added benefit of being able to hear his voice reading the book to you in
your head.
There’re plenty-o-sports celebrities in the book, and the one who
stands out to me most is Arthur Ashe. It’s refreshing to hear that some people
really are good people, in a world
where so many of the stories we hear are about the disappointments and lies.
(Roger Clemens, we’re looking at you.)
Deford also gives a sense of the life of a sports journalist, and
I love that stuff. It’s a very different work life from what most of us
experience, and it’s fascinating.  
So, yeah. Read this one, and then if you’re just aching for more,
give Robert Lipsyte’s An Accidental Sportswriter a whirl.  
These sportswriters? They can really write.

Yeah, sports again

An Accidental Sportswriter: A Memoir by Robert Lipsyte I’ll say it once again: I am no sports fan. But sports writing sometimes just gets to me. It’s often just so beautiful. So the title of this book kind of grabbed me, and then I saw something in a review about the book’s description of an “encounter” with Mickey Mantle. So it was no longer a choice—I had to place a hold. And, like the best books, the thing I went in for wasn’t even the very best it had to offer. It has descriptions of covering Muhammad Ali back when he was still Cassius Clay—when Clay beat Sonny Liston, here’s Lipsyte: “I began thinking of a lede. Then Liston sat down on his stool and wouldn’t get up, and it was over. Clay capered on the ring apron, yelling at the press, ‘Eat your words!’ And then it was my turn, minutes to deadline, banging out a paragraph on my little Olivetti, ripping out the page, handing it to the telegrapher at my side…” (p. 67) Man, that’s exciting. (I’m a total sucker for stories of journalists under tight deadline.) In between the anecdotes, there’s also a very real, very personal analysis of what it means to be a sportswriter. It’s more complex and interesting than it appears at first glance. For example, was Lipsyte right or wrong to point out—right after Mickey Mantle’s death—that Mantle probably jumped ahead in line for a new kidney, even though he was dying of cancer and should not have received a kidney at all? People want to think well of their heroes, but what if their heroes are doing crappy things? What’s a sportswriter to do? So this is a fine memoir. It’s personal in the best ways—Lipsyte’s describing his own journey, and it includes some great moments.One of my favorite parts was when he was assigned to cover NASCAR for the New York Times. All it took was a ride around the track with Mark Martin, and Lipsyte was hooked. He became a NASCAR junkie, and he wanted to drive one of them cars. So it got all arranged so he could drive a Petty car around the track a few times. It’s perfectly wonderful to read how the staid sportswriter turned into an animal behind the wheel. He writes that as he drove his rental car later that evening, he was feeling calm. “… I felt amused at and offended by road hogs, ragers, and show-offs. They couldn’t get to me anymore. I had driven at speed.” (pp. 193-194) That just makes me smile.So I love the deadpan wording, and I also love the way he describes how he learned that driving a race car is not as simple as pressing your foot to the floor and turning left. The book’s final chapter, about his dad, is re-readable. This is just a lovely book. When I read the last page, I stood up and just tried not to cry.

Baseball novel. I don’t think I’ve ever read such a thing before.


The Natural by Bernard Malamud
Yeah, so there’s this weird baseball reading thing going on with me these days.
(image credit: Library of Congress; image is of real guys; book is about fictional ones)
And this book was an early part of it.
I was trolling for an eAudiobook that I could listen to on my iPod, and I found the magical baseball/eAudiobook combo with The Natural. And the book wasn’t half bad, neither.
So this book. As I was listening, I was kind of aching to know if it’s a view into the male psyche. So I Googled it and found SparkNotes and learned that I’m badly, badly, badly un-edu-ma-cated. Apparently there are harkenings-back to all kinds of legends and lore, and blah blah blah.
But I was just listening to it as a story, and I kept wondering if the story was doing some sort of postmodern thing and starting itself over with Roy Hobbs entering the major leagues under different circumstances. (The answer is: No. It wasn’t doing that.)
And I also wondered why Roy was so darn dumb about women.
And I kept feeling very sorry for him, because bad and demoralizing crap just kept happening to him. Also because he seemed more like a boy than a man, even as the world was throwing all kinds of grown-up problems at him.
Apparently curses are a big old thing in baseball, and it sure seems that Roy Hobbs had one of them. This story is tragic.
Audiobook comments: Christopher Hurt read this audiobook, and he made it easy to hear. The narration didn’t knock my socks off, but nothing about it failed to work.
Number of hours: 6.75

Judging a book by its cover

The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood by Jane Leavy
It ain’t often that I go choosing a book because I’m instantly infatuated with the guy on the cover. But it ain’t every book that has the grinning Mickey Mantle looking back at you. Normally I’m not this bossy on the blog, but I need for you to do this:
Click this link to the book cover.
Then return here. OK? I’ll wait.
Now—see what I mean? Is that not the most alluring cover ever?

We’ve previously established that I’m no sports fan.*

In fact, last month, if you’d said, “Tell me what you know about Mickey Mantle,” I’d’ve said, “Baseball player. During the 1940s or ’50s, I think?” I’m not kidding you. That’s all I had, and part of it was part-wrong. (1950s-1960s was his era as a pro.)
So now I know lots more, and some of it is so good it makes a person get a little weepy. And some of it is so unpleasant it makes a person wish it weren’t true.
And all of it, as written by Jane Leavy, is even better than the book cover.
Leavy’s a former sports writer for the Washington Post, and her writing is pure wonderful.
Each chapter of this book addresses a significant date in Mantle’s life. At first, I was disappointed that this wasn’t the plain old biography treatment, and then, as I read on, I was really glad the author chose this format. It works.
The other thing that really makes this book amazing is that Leavy dices up her description of her 1983 (semi-disastrous) interview with Mantle, and sections of that story are scattered throughout the book.
While I was reading it, this was the book I didn’t want to put down, and for which I neglected the other books I was reading.
Yes, I’m talking about a sports biography.
Even if you care nothing for baseball, you can believe me when I say that this book is one of the best biographies of 2010.
Full disclosure: Then I had to haul out the old tape of That Touch of Mink, because this book told me that Mickey Mantle had a cameo in it. Who knew?!

* From this book, I learned what a switch hitter is. (Mickey Mantle was one.)


Memoir: smiley variety

Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Some books make me nostalgic for an era before my birth. This is one of those books.
Doris Kearns grew up in the ’50s, and she makes it sound pretty darn good. (Though—gotta say—my ’70s childhood is pretty sparkly from this vantage point, too…)
Now, this book often is described as a book about how the author became a lifelong baseball fan when she was a young girl (at age 6, to be exact).
But, not-a-sports-fan that I am, I can attest that there’s tons and tons and tons more to this book than baseball. However, if baseball is a requirement for happiness for you as a reader, you’ll find that Doris Kearns Goodwin’s delight in the sport proves that she’s on your team.
I know the current trend is for memoirs to be all about horrible childhoods. Lots of people really like reading that stuff. Me, I detest those books. They make me go into a protective crouch. (I’m not naming names—those people have already suffered enough, don’t you think?—but you know what books I’m talking about.)
I like the “I had a good—but still interesting—childhood” books, and this definitely qualifies.
The thing that makes this book worth reading is that Doris Kearns Goodwin can really tell a story. This isn’t just any old someone rambling about their shiny, happy childhood; this is Doris Kearns Goodwin telling us her story, and she and her family are charming and funny and decent. And the fact that the little girl in this story grew up to be Doris Kearns Goodwin, the charming and smiley political biographer… Really, how can a person resist her story?

I don’t care about sports.

The Beckham Experiment by Grant Wahl
Every year of late, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Lester Munson (of ESPN and Sports Illustrated fame) give a presentation. And following each such event, I have read at least one sports book.
Anyone who knows me will recognize that this is weird behavior. Indeed, for me, it is downright freakish.
Thus is the power of Lester Munson.
So this year, the result is that I picked up a soccer book. When Lester said, “Grant Wahl is the sweetest of writers,” I immediately decided to Read That Book, even though soccer leaves me cold.
Plus, David Beckham has one of the nicest faces ever to appear in my Us Weekly. I understand the appeal.
So first, I’ll confirm what Lester said: Grant Wahl is indeed a sweet writer. Even for the non-sports-fan reader—and I personally can attest to this—The Beckham Experiment is a pleasure to read. Wahl’s writing makes the reading effortless, and he spins a very fine narrative.
Mercifully, there’s relatively little actual soccer playing described in this book, and, when I needed to, I was able to skim over those sections and land on a nice summary sentence that told me what I needed to know. Though mostly I hung in there and tried to pick up some soccer terms, because it seemed the decent thing to do.
The book is much more about the people—their quirks and their relationships to one another; the enormous salary differences between the stars (in 2008, Beckham at $6.5 million, Donovan at $900K) and the newer, lesser-known players (earning as little as $12K—egads!); the weirdness of fame; the business side of things (the Beckham “brand,” underwear ads and all); and the quest to make soccer a huge spectator sport in the United States. (My prediction: ain’t never gonna happen.)
If you really want to think well of David Beckham, you may want to steer clear of this book. The last couple of chapters are rather damning, despite a general consensus that he is a good man—and I was left feeling a bit let down (because soccer means a whole lot to me. Right.) Really, it was that I wanted him to be better than he was/is.
See what happens when I read a sports book? Disillusionment, disenchantment, disappointment. No more.
Until next year.