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.

Boys on Bikes

Inside the Postal Bus: My Ride with Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Cycling Team by Michael Barry

I’m a total sucker for behind-the-scenes books, so reading this one was a sure thing. 

The place where Barry excels is in giving a sense of the life of a professional cyclist. And while, yes, this book could have used some more editing (because it didn’t always flow well), I was sufficiently wrapped up in the behind-the-scenes story that I was able to get past the rough patches.

Speaking of rough—this is a sport where athletes get hit by motorcycles, open their eyes to see the motorcycle on their chest, and then get back on the bike to finish the day’s stage. It’s crazy like that. (This exact thing happened to Barry in the 2002 Vuelta a España. Those skinny dudes are tough.)
This account focuses on the 2004 season for U.S. Postal. But I’ll confess that my favorite section of the book was the chapter near the end, titled “A Day in Spain.” It’s a day in the life of a professional cyclist, and it’s pretty fascinating. You could pick up the book and read only this chapter, which reads like a nicely crafted essay.
Other highlights:
I’m heartened to find that professional cyclists do things like this: “…Max was still talking about the race. He had been talking about it for longer than the actual race lasted.” (p. 116) 
Barry is generous in including more photos of his teammates than of himself. You have to actually search in this book to find out what the guy looks like, which I’m reading as humility, which I like lots.
And, finally, my number one favorite passage in the book (thank you, Michael Barry!) is this one: “The Spanish guys on the team wear pajamas whenever they get a chance… They love pajamas printed with little bears or other animals. José has a wicked pair of blue PJs with white ghosts all over them.” (p. 28) I simply adore this image: big, tough, world-class cyclists in their animal jammies. Thus is the allure of the behind-the-scenes account…

Reading about the Cold during the Dog Days of Summer

Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer by Lynne Cox

I completely expected this to be one of those books where I wonder throughout: How can this person choose this crazy pursuit? Fortunately, Lynne Cox is nearly as good at weaving a tale as she is at swimming at high speed in ice-cold-freezing water – so she tells us how she developed her overwhelming love of swimming in open water, even (especially?) under tough conditions. Her description of being 11 years old and choosing to swim for 3 hours in the midst of a hail storm rather than do 2 hours of calisthenics is just plain beautiful. And the part where she’s crossing a New Zealand strait accompanied by dolphins… I confess I felt a twinge of envy that made me realize all that training could result in some mighty lovely moments. You still won’t find me swimming in water where there be sharks, but Lynne Cox’s writing helps me understand why she would.

Bike Cult

Lance Armstrong’s War: One Man’s Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France by Daniel Coyle

Who knew professional cyclists were as touchy-feely as senators? But while the politicos tend to keep the grasping and back-slapping above the waist, the cyclists aim right for the mid-section… and below. It turns out they like to check out the competition by pinching and prodding to determine their rivals’ gluteal muscle tone. But really, this book is about Lance Armstrong… and his enormous ego, remarkable natural athletic ability, unparalleled work ethic, determination to live life to the fullest after cancer, and the temperament that both makes him a winner and makes him exceedingly difficult to deal with. Plus, the small, fascinating world of professional cycling; and doping; and team dynamics; and, yes, Sheryl Crow; and Tyler Hamilton, Jan Ullrich, Iban Mayo, Floyd Landis (before he won the Tour and popped positive for le dopage), Alexandre Vinokourov, and the other racers of the 2004 season. Coyle was an editor for Outside magazine, which is one of those magazines whose writers (Jon Krakauer, Sebastian Junger, Hampton Sides, Randy Wayne White – to name a few) are just plain amazing. So this book, like Into Thin Air, The Perfect Storm, and others written by the Outside crew – has appeal beyond the core audience who would seek it out because of the subject matter. In other words, this is the type of nonfiction that’s simply good writing that sucks you in like a vortex.