Trish's Reviews > The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
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Jul 20, 13

bookshelves: adventure, nonfiction, sports
Read from July 16 to 19, 2013

If I told you one of the most propulsive reads you will experience this year is the non-fiction story of eight rowers and one coxswain training to attend the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, you may not believe me. But you’d need to back up your opinion by reading this book first, and you will thank me for it. Daniel James Brown has done something extraordinary here. We may already know the outcome of that Olympic race, but the pacing is exceptional. Brown juxtaposes descriptions of crew training in Seattle with national races against the IV League in Poughkeepsie; we see developments in a militarizing Germany paired with college competitions in depression-era United States; individual portraits of the “boys” (now dead) are placed alongside cameos of their coaches; he shares details of the early lives of a single oarsman, Joe Rantz, with details of his wife's parallel experiences.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin was the stuff of legend, when Jesse Owens swept four gold medals in field and track, but a Washington crew team won that summer also, against great odds. How that victory took place and how a group of great athletes became great competitors is something Daniel James Brown spent five years trying to articulate. Quotes from George Pocock, crafter of cedar shells, head each chapter, sharing his experience watching individual oarsmen become a team.

At various times I have heard sports like baseball or golf, and now crew, described as “the thinking man’s game.” I like to imagine that any sport, particularly a team sport, is best performed when one is thinking. Surely strategies and tactics are involved. But when a team sport is performed fast and in key, there is something organic in its growth and peak performance that transcends “thinking.”

For one thing, there is the sustained coordinated rhythm of many bodies performing as one, starting from zero and demanding as much as two hundred heartbeats per minute in a sprint, erasing the individual and coalescing into something much bigger than each individual effort could achieve. This particular crew overcame the usual and expected race-day catastrophes to deliver the sweetest win they or their coaches had ever experienced. It is a story at the time and on the level of the historic Seabiscuit: An American Legend victory: speaking of the horse, the race, and the book by Laura Hillenbrand.

One of the things about a great book is the energy one derives from having encountered it. Great teachers generate interest in a subject and Brown did that in this book. Even if you have no knowledge of or interest in rowing before you begin, you will be fascinated by the end. In addition, Brown tells us some things about the Third Reich and Leni Reifenstahl’s photography for Hitler and of the 1936 Olympics that makes me want to revisit that film record. Reifenstahl had taken pictures (after the event) of the rowing crews from inside their boats, among other things, and when the film Olympia came out two years later, it cemented her reputation as a great filmmaker. Of course she is best known for creating the great propaganda film, Triumph of the Will . She used camera angles and techniques that had never been used before and was extraordinarily successful in supporting the political machine that was Germany in the 1930s.

A film version of The Boys in the Boat is scheduled, reputedly with Kenneth Branagh directing, which is sure to capture further interest in this remarkable story. A radio interview with Daniel James Brown is available to download from San Francisco radio station KLLC (radioalice). In it Daniel James Brown shares a little of his narrative non-fiction technique of keeping readers dangling at critical moments and turning instead to talk of parallel events to keep the tension high. He does it better than almost anyone—writers take note!

I believe I can guarantee this title—either you or someone close to you will find this a riveting summer read. I am pleased to be able to offer a giveaway of this title through my blog, ending August 15, 2013-- just enough time to receive it and read it before summer ends. So all of you unsure whether nonfiction is your “thing,” put aside your reservations, add your name to the list, and see if this story doesn’t float your boat.
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Reading Progress

06/13/2013 marked as: to-read
07/16/2013 marked as: currently-reading
07/16/2013 page 50
12.0% "Strong writing, great research, good story. What more could a person ask?"
07/17/2013 page 140
33.0% "Uh-oh. This is addictive."
07/18/2013 page 331
79.0% "Ripping through this at the speed of the Boys in the Boat. All you out there, get this book. It's a GREAT read."
07/19/2013 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by Will (new)

Will Byrnes Great review, with excellent extras. You clearly have earned a gold medal with this one.


message 2: by Laura (new) - added it

Laura I do love this kind of book, great review. Thanks for sharing.


Trish Will wrote: "Great review, with excellent extras. You clearly have earned a gold medal with this one."

Thanks, Will. I wrote it kind of fast and have been revising it every time I look at it. Wanted to get it out before the summer ended! Such a great summer read. Hard to put down, and in the summer sometimes we can indulge ourselves.


message 4: by Trish (last edited Jul 20, 2013 06:24PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trish Laura wrote: "I do love this kind of book, great review. Thanks for sharing."

Me, too. One doesn't find books like this every day. It is a great title for non-fiction writers because he is sly sometimes in finding something that will keep our interest to the next chapter.


Nancy Oakes Okay, I was hedging,, but you sold me.


Trish Nancy wrote: "Okay, I was hedging,, but you sold me."

Ha! Actually, I had this in my hands for at least a month before I began--and then it took two days, with me not wanting to get up and do anything. I wished I had the audio so I could keep on keeping on. I am a sucker for non-fiction writers that get the pacing formula right. They can make paint drying seem interesting, e.g., John McPhee.


message 7: by Steve (new)

Steve Terrific review of what sounds like a very good book, Trish! You mentioned Seabiscuit and it reminded me that Hillenbrand's other popular seller, Unbroken, had a great section on the '36 Olympics, too.


Trish Steve wrote: "Terrific review of what sounds like a very good book, Trish! You mentioned Seabiscuit and it reminded me that Hillenbrand's other popular seller, Unbroken, had a great section on the '36 Olympics,..."

Yes, I tried Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. I listened on audio and couldn't do it. Had to put it aside. Something in the writing/tone: was too much disaster for me.


message 9: by Steve (new)

Steve Trish wrote: "too much disaster for me"

I can certainly see that point.


message 10: by Melanie (new)

Melanie Jones This is the story of the Husky Clipper, built by my Great-Great Uncle. It is an amazing story and I am so happy and proud that someone has written it. Just wish it had been me!


Trish Melanie wrote: "This is the story of the Husky Clipper, built by my Great-Great Uncle. It is an amazing story and I am so happy and proud that someone has written it. Just wish it had been me!"

Well, D.J. Brown certainly did a good job with the material. You should be pleased.


Donna Winslow-Arnove So far I hate and am bored to tears with this choice for book club. If it doesn't improve soon, I'm done. Too many actual good books to read to waste my time on this one.


Trish Donna Winslow-Arnove wrote: "So far I hate and am bored to tears with this choice for book club. If it doesn't improve soon, I'm done. Too many actual good books to read to waste my time on this one."

Sorry to hear that, Donna. Wonder what the rest of the book club thought.


Becky omg. A Kenneth Branagh directed film would be breathtaking, amazing, majestic, heartrending, everything. It would be so perfect. I really hope that materializes. Also, fantastic review, it was the best nonfiction book I think I've ever read.


Trish Becky wrote: "omg. A Kenneth Branagh directed film would be breathtaking, amazing, majestic, heartrending, everything. It would be so perfect. I really hope that materializes. Also, fantastic review, it was the ..."

So glad you liked it. And yes, Kenneth Branagh would be terrific!


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