Tag Archives: Olympic Games

Review: The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the Boat
By Daniel James Brown
Penguin Books, Paperback, 9780143125471, May 2014, 404pp.

The Short of It:

Nine young men from the University Washington’s rowing team go up against all odds to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The Rest of It:

A member from my book club said it best.

It’s not a story about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but the journey these young men took to get there.

Most of the book centers around Joe Rantz. As it turns out, his daughter lived next door to the author and approached him about documenting her father’s story. After sitting down with him, it was obvious to Brown that Joe’s story had to be told.

Joe came from a humble home. His mother died when he was fairly young. His father remarried a very young woman. A woman who did not take a liking to Joe. Probably because he was a constant reminder of his father’s first wife. Needless to say, the father packs up his bride and Joe’s other siblings and eventually leaves Joe to fend for himself.

As a child, Joe realized that in order to survive, he’d have to live off the land. He had shelter but food was something he never had enough of. When he got old enough to work and go to college, he found himself at the University of Washington’s shell house and decided to go out for the rowing team.

There, he met some notable people. Al Ulbrickson, his relentless coach and George Pocock, who designed the racing shells that Joe spent so much time in. Together, these two men had quite an impact on Joe. He already possessed a good work ethic, but the respect that he had for these two men was evident and it touched everything he did.

Much of the story is how they got to the Olympics and what they had to overcome to get there. There were financial struggles for most of the boys. They didn’t have the money that their East Coast counterparts had. They battled illness, too. Almost to the point of death. The logistics of who could be in the boat and where, was a constant challenge for the coaches.  They would re-position the boys daily in an attempt to find the perfect combination.  It was grueling and it kept all of the boys on their toes, knowing that they could get cut at anytime.

The author did an excellent job of introducing the terminology without being too technical. I had no trouble following along. Although I did want to know more about the Berlin Olympics, the author does not spend much time on that subject. You should know this up front.

That said, I really enjoyed it. The members of my book club seemed to enjoy it too. There is plenty to talk about between the sport itself, the coaching style, the personal lives of these young men and what was going on in the world at the time. I don’t read much non-fiction but this one was a nice surprise.

Source: Borrowed
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Review: Unbroken


By Laura Hillenbrand
(Random House, Hardcover, 9781400064168, November 2010, 496pp.)

The Short of It:

A remarkable, true story of survival and endurance but the execution of the story itself didn’t impress me.

The Rest of It:

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood.  Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared.  It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard.  So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

Louis Zamperini’s story is remarkable. Definitely not your average man. He competed in the Olympics in track and field and although he never won a medal, he defeated the odds, competing with injuries and finishing 8th in the 1936 Summer Olympics. Later, putting his Olympic career aside, he joined the Army and became a bombardier.

However, when his bomber crashes, he is forced to survive on a raft for 47 days on the open ocean. This is when I really got to know Louis and it’s also my favorite part of the story. No fresh water to drink, limited food, and the endless sun beating down upon them. Such conditions would break any man, but not Louis Zamperini.

This is truly an amazing story. However, I found that the story was bogged down by Zamperini’s childhood antics. A great deal of time was spent on his childhood and I just didn’t think it was needed. I slogged through this part of his life and it actually caused me to not like him for the first quarter of the book. Hillenbrand’s style was very matter-of-fact. This happened, and then this happened and then two years later…this happened. I was bored to tears.

It’s true that Zamperini was a challenging youth, but really, the way it was described, he just seemed like a spoiled little shit. I didn’t need to hear about that part of his life. He would have been just as wonderful come the end of the story had it not been included.

I will say this though, his time on the raft and his years as a POW more than made-up for the quibble I mentioned above. Those parts were riveting and at times, heartbreaking. I felt that Hillenbrand took great care with the telling of those events.  

When I was doing some research on Zamperini, I came across his memoir, Devil at my Heels. I think I’d like it better hearing it straight from him, instead of Hillenbrand’s re-telling of what he went through.

Overall, World War II buffs will enjoy the book. It’s a page-turner and his story is amazing.

Source: Borrowed

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