I’m a sucker for a good story about athletes overcoming adversity.
A Most Beautiful Thing: A True Story of America’s First All-Black High School Rowing Team (Flatiron Books, 2020) did not disappoint. It was first published in 2015 under the title Suga Water by Wise Ink Creative Publishing. And it has been made into a movie, which I have not seen.
Author Arshay Cooper takes readers on a journey through what it was like growing up on the west side of Chicago in the late 1990s and the discovery of crew. While I learned a lot about the sport, what was more intriguing and gratifying was the transformation of these adolescents. It proves that a little help, faith, support, and opportunity can change lives.
Crew is traditionally a sport reserved for white people with money. As such, snide remarks were made about this all-black team by classmates, other teams, and adults. Even parents were skeptical and didn’t allow some of their off-spring to participate.
I didn’t look up the author until after I had read the book. I didn’t want to know his whole story beyond having written a book about such a pivotal point in his life. After all, many in Cooper’s neighborhood were in gangs, selling drugs, with a future that didn’t involve higher education or well-paying jobs. I felt connected to Cooper and his teammates; feeling like I was rooting from them with each turn of the page.
The book was incredibly inspirational.
Nora Ephron has yet to disappoint me. Her ability to turn the mundane into entertaining reading is artful. If only there could be more of her sassy, irreverence.
Her collection of thoughts in I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman (Heartburn Enterprises, 2006) was a delight to read. It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s fun. Ephron had such a gift for putting words together.
It’s hard to imagine men enjoying this book. And it really is geared to women of a certain age.
This particular book is about the issues women face as they age. Some topics are universal to nearly all women, others pertinent only to her. And, yet, all were relatable on some level.
Mostly this book made me smile.
It’s not a book about how to age gracefully. It’s not even a book that embraces age being a good thing. Instead, it’s a book about life told in a truthful, funny manner.
Plenty has been written about the men in the U.S. space program, but what about their wives?
After all, it was a prerequisite at the start of NASA’s space endeavors that the astronauts, who of course were all male at the time, be married. They were to exhibit what a perfect American family looks like. But we all know there is no such thing, no matter how hard one tries.
Lily Koppel takes readers on a journey to a land far, far away known as the United States starting in the late 1950s in her book The Astronaut Wives Club (Red Leather Diary, 2013). The book focuses on the original seven wives of the men in the Mercury program, then nine women who came on board with the Gemini program, and then the 14 who were part of the Gemini and Apollo missions, and the next 19 wives whose husbands were selected in 1966.
It’s not so simple being the wife of an astronaut—a profession that was brand new, and is still so limited in its numbers today.
Suddenly, with the Life magazine contract these women were obligated to open their homes to reporters and photographers in ways most people will never be subjected to. Then the masses of journalists infiltrated their lives when launches were about to happen, afterward, and when tragedy struck.
I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book. It gives more than a glimpse into what life was like for these women as they navigated this new terrain, and mostly while their husbands were gone for extended periods of time training. Financial issues, alcoholism, infidelity, jealousy between the men as well as the women, and the evolution of their lives fill the pages. Relationships with each other, their husbands, NASA are all fair game.
It’s a book that essentially tells the rest of the story. Stories many of the astronauts probably didn’t even know because they were so seldom home. It certainly gave me an appreciation for a group of women who I knew nothing about prior to this book.
My knowledge of native American history is dismal. It did not improve much after reading “There There” (Vintage Books, 2019) by Tommy Orange.
What it did do is it got me to realize I need to find some books to enlighten me beyond the limited education I received in school decades ago and what I have gathered since then. (Any suggestions?)
I chose the book because it is this year’s Book in Common at California State University, Chico.
According to Chico State, “The Book in Common is a shared, community read, designed to promote discussion and understanding of important issues facing the broader community. The Book in Common is chosen each year by a group of university faculty, staff, students and community members.”
The author spoke at the college on March 1. It was free to Chico State and Butte College students. I had a ticket, but something else came up. I’m guessing if I had been more impressed with the book, I would have attended.
One big issue I had with the book is that it is fiction. Of course I knew this going in, but I was still disappointed.
Another issue was Orange had 12 main characters. That was way too many. I had a hard time keeping them straight. This is never good.
I’m sure I expected too much considering the college picked it as the Book in Common.
While I can’t recommend this book, I write about it because the topic is of importance. And perhaps that will send you on your own quest to learn more about Native Americans, their history, and their stories.
Sobering. Educational. Disturbing. Enlightening. Thought-provoking. Difficult.
Those are just some of the words I would use to describe Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, 2020) by Isabel Wilkerson.
I had never thought of the United States of having a caste society until Wilkerson laid out the facts for me. I’ve used a lot of words, OK, maybe just a few to describe the inequities in our country. I just never used caste.
But it’s more than the choice of words. I really have to accept there is a tiered system in the United States; even today.
This is not an easy book to get through, but it is one I think everyone should read or listen to. It’s so powerful.
She primarily compares the castes of the United States, India and Nazi Germany. It was so alarming to learn how the Nazis used the United States as a model to oppress people, and that even some of what was going on here was too much for them to adopt.
Examples of the bigotry, hatred, racist, inhumane behavior are so hard to hear. (I listened to the book.) I forced myself to keep listening. It’s the least I could do. Clearly, we have not evolved much as a society.
One line in particular struck me when Wilkerson said so many people in the United States are willing to side with being white instead of siding with the Constitution. She said it a little more eloquently, but the sentiment is the same.
I know I have white privilege. It’s how I use it that matters. I want to work toward a world where no one’s skin color gives them a better or worse life than someone else.
While I’m not doing anything substantive to change the world, I do believe educating myself about the inequities, sharing what I’ve learned, and talking about it are at least a start. From there, perhaps I can help effect some positive change.
One day, though it won’t be in my lifetime, it would be wonderful if the caste system in the United States were abolished. It won’t happen, though, if those of us in the upper caste don’t start doing more, and doing it soon.
Exhaustive, but not exhausting. That is how I would sum up A Promised Land (Crown, 2020) by Barack Obama.
It’s one thing to live through history, it’s another to have the former president of the United States give his unabridged take on events.
For the most part, this is more of a political book than a personal one. Still, there are personal moments in it.
It’s going to take you a while to read or listen to. It is so long—768 pages. I got it as an audio book from the library. My 21-day rental was not long enough to hear it all, so I listened to it with a gap. Not a problem. It gave me time to digest some of it before finishing it by the next deadline. Obama reads the book, making it even more captivating.
I kept wanting to listen because there was such a depth to the stories, to the news of the time that either I had forgotten or never knew about or it wasn’t shared in the moment.
I think most people can agree the challenges of being president are daunting. Obama shares with his readers (and listeners) what it was like to make the tough decisions. He touts his successes, is willing to admit to failures, and shares insecurities and doubt. It’s also about so many of the people on both sides of the aisle who he was interacting with regularly.
If seemed like it was honest retelling of events. It didn’t sound like he was trying to rewrite history in his favor, as a memoir can often be.
A lot happened in those eight years of his presidency. It was educational to relive what he wanted to share and have it put in context.
I was fascinated by this book.
While it will be seen as partisan based on whose memoir this is, it would probably be more educational for those who didn’t vote for him to read this book in order to understand Obama’s choices and thinking.
While I knew a lot about Billie Jean King before I read her autobiography, there were plenty of new nuggets in this more than 400-page book.
All In (Alfred A. Knopf, 2021) is definitely comprehensive. It’s so much more than tennis, though.
When President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, he said it was for “all the off-the-court stuff.” It proves how multidimensional King is. She is still a huge advocate for women’s rights as well as the LGBTQ+ community.
King seems to leave no relevant topic untouched. The book is entertaining, enlightening and thought provoking. She doesn’t shy away from the difficulties the women had in achieving equality with the men. She doesn’t shy away from the self-conflict she had in defining her sexuality.
There is a depth to this book, which is why it’s so long.
I can see it being of interest to people who are not tennis fans, but doubt they will read it. There is just so much tennis—which as a fan and a player—was wonderful.
I have been a fan of King’s for decades. My junior racket was a Billie Jean King autograph. I wish I still had that wood stick.
When the book first came out last year the Los Angeles Times book club hosted her, which I listened to. It was great to hear her talk and not merely read her words.
King really is a living legend.
The American Dream seems like a pretty simple concept. We have this belief in the United States that if you work hard, your life will be on an economic upward trajectory that is likely to include a home, enough food and plenty of happiness.
It’s this dream that leads so many people—legally and illegally—to the United States.
“The Tortilla Curtain” (Penguin Publishing Group, 1996) by T.C. Boyle is as relevant today as when he wrote it.
It’s the story of the lives of Candido and America, a couple who crossed the border illegally with the desire to have a better life than the one they came from. It’s also about Delaney and Kyra, another couple, who are rather liberally minded.
The four are living in the canyons of Southern California, but only the natives have a conventional home.
All four lives intersect in ways they did not expect nor did they necessarily want. These interactions and their introspection keep the reader captivated. Boyle does a great job of not taking sides with one character to make that person the protagonist.
I could tell you, but I won’t, who I think was the better person of the four.
This novel could easily have been non-fiction, which is why it is so gripping. It’s not just a story of four lives. Boyle makes the reader think, to examine what she might do in the situation of each of the main characters.
It proves that life is neither black nor white; it’s a deep shade of gray that requires each of us to dig deeper for more understanding and less judgment.
I would be hard-pressed to put John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez (The Viking Press, 1951) into one genre. This, in part, it what is so captivating about the book.
This classic by the renowned author is definitely largely scientific. After all, it’s about the expedition to collect marine animals from the Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck’s friend marine biologist Ed Ricketts was the lead scientist aboard the vessel.
The descriptions of the specimens collected were both interesting and a bit too much science for my liking. Fortunately, the team’s approach to collecting them, preserving and studying them is mostly informative and entertaining.
This book is also a bit of a travelogue. Details of the land, the water, the people, the scenery were all vivid. Even so, in some ways it was hard to recognize the descriptions of the places in Baja that they visited. After all, they were there in 1940—long before much of the region became the tourist destination it is today.
This in turn made the book part historical.
It is definitely philosophical. That is the part I was not expecting. It’s also what gives it depth and connects all the tangents.
Steinbeck without question is an incredible storyteller. That is why this tale remains worthy all these decades later.
I’m in Italy sitting in a piazza, people watching as I eat my decadent gelato dreaming about what delightful food will grace my plate at the next meal.
Oh, the power of books.
Women in Sunlight (Penguin Random House, 2018), a novel by Frances Mayes, was the perfect trip I needed in December. (She also wrote Under the Tuscan Sun.) Listening to the book transported me, got me out of the gray, dreariness of Northern California, and into a world I’ve often dreamed about. A summer in Tuscany to write, eat incredible food, and drink luscious wine, well, it’s been on the to-do list longer than I’d like to admit. The book, unbeknownst to me at the start, attempted to satiate this dream of mine and stirred a renewed desire to make it come true.
It’s about four women from the United States who find themselves in Italy for various reasons. Three new friends travel there, having leased a house for a year. The other has lived there for 12 years.
Maybe it was relatable because the women are close to my age; not something one often finds in novels.
The book is about their lives in both countries, their friendships, and how life continues on after death and divorce. While this may seem like a simple premise for a book, we all know life is not simple. We are thrown curve balls that nearly wound us and others that we hit out of the park. Life is no different for these women and the people in their lives.
Plus, there are so many other characters to become acquainted with. While there is a large a entourage, it is not difficult to keep track of everyone.
Mayes is such a talented writer. Her descriptions riveting to the point it’s like you can smell and taste the food she describes, or clearly see whatever she recounts—whether it’s the scenery, the people, the art, even the joys and sadness of the people who soon feel like friends.
It’s one of those rare times I didn’t want the book to end, and I where I would most definitely like to indulge in the next chapter, so to speak, of their lives.