Saturday, November 3, 2018

Ponder Post: The Furies

In the airport waiting for my flights home from my Minneapolis trip I was very near completing the reading material I'd brought with me and knew I'd need another book before touching down at home. In walking the long length of the terminal, stretching my legs and battling boredom by browsing, I spotted a handful of hardback books tucked away on a cart selling mostly jewelry and scarves, on sale for $10 each. I could not decide between two and bought both, unsure what my inclination would be when it was time to start one. That choice was ultimately decided the only rational way when it came  time. After reading the front flaps and flipping each book open, I chose the one with the larger font and wider spaced lines. It was The Furies by Natalie Haynes ©2014.


The Furies is about a woman, Alex Morris, who moves from London to Edinburgh after the tragic death of her fiancé. Formerly a director, she takes on the job as teacher of a classroom of teenagers with troubled pasts, difficult personalities, and behavioral issues who have been expelled from other schools. Rather than art, or music, or dance, or any of those more stereotypical therapy paths, she explores the Greek plays with them. I found this premise highly unlikely but then reconsidered maybe not so. Isn't West Side Story based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet? The students are able to relate these classics to their personal lives at some level. Several moral issues are raised that spark some heated classroom discussions.

Alex is given limited information in each of the five students' files so as not to bias her when she meets them. Some of the students in turn want to dig deep and learn Alex's background and why she would take such a job with them. That bit of intrigue, the mutual curiosity both ways, lends interest to the novel. Student sporadic outbursts, when something said inadvertently triggers an out of proportion and sometimes violent response, inject surprises into the book that startle the heroine and also the reader.

The novel was different from many I've read. The Furies was full of angst. It was an unusual type of pager turner, unveiling characters and plot as a psychological mystery. So engaging was it that I completed it within a day and a half of arriving home. It was outside my normal genre of books, though I admit, if asked to describe what my genre is, I'd be forced to sheepishly admit "eclectic". Besides, in reading this book, I in turn learned a bit about some Greek plays, many for which I have certainly heard the titles but would be fairly hard pressed to summarize their plots. Perhaps after reading this novel I may be able to answer a few more questions that arise on the television game show Jeopardy. When writing this post I checked out the author's website at www.nataliehaynes.com and learned she is dedicated to preserving the Greek classics. It made sense she would weave them into her novel and do so in a very plausible manner. I rate The Furies three stars.

I end this post with a puzzle. This is the dedication in the book. Any ideas what it means?  Frank and I had fun trying to decipher it. Yes, bad pun, but, "It's all Greek to me".

Friday, November 2, 2018

Ponder Post: The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown is the story of the nine Americans who won the gold medal in crew in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I committed to read The Boys in the Boat because my daughter-in-law really liked it and suggested I would too; I felt an obligation to give it a chance. I was skeptical. I do not like history. I do not like sports. I detest when my husband Frank watches documentaries about wartime Germany. I find the Great Depression – well ... depressing. I even already knew how the book ended.


I brought the book The Boys in the Boat along with me to read on a week’s vacation in Minneapolis within college friends. I was having trouble slogging my way through it and I reasoned that on a plane I would be a captive audience and be forced to stick with it. I must apologize to my housemates because throughout my time with them, I repeatedly bitched and moaned about how boring and depressing I found the book. Honesty is the best policy and so is admitting when you are wrong.


Having finished the book I must change my tune drastically. Before boarding my final flight home to California I was positively glued to the final chapters, racing to complete them before I was compelled to stop and manipulate carryons and listen to safety announcements. I was so invested in that solid, dedicated team of nine boys that I cared, truly cared, about their stories. All from poor beginnings, they surmounted many, many obstacles to reach a common goal. Once home I re-read the final three chapters and I very rarely do that with a book.

In the prologue, when the author Daniel James Brown was interviewing one of the oarsman, Joe Rantz, for the book, Joe agreed to provide information and background only if the author wrote, not about Joe individually, but about the boat. The boat refers not to the physical craft, but rather to the collective of the eight oarsmen and coxswain who worked together as a well-tuned, mutually devoted team. There is a point in the book where Joe confides that he felt he was the weakest link in the team but was determined not to let the others down. It is later revealed that every single man in the boat felt that same way. All of these men came from impoverished, humble beginnings and yet, through pure grit, they surmounted all odds to excel, while remaining self-effacing in the process. What a very refreshing sentiment I found that to be after being repeatedly exposed to modern day “stars” or politicians who act so arrogant and entitled. The boat represents an ideal of strong faith, unwavering trust, dogged determination, and unselfish effort.

So after the bleakness of the beginning of the book, I was won over by several aspects. A hard work ethic was prevalent throughout. Hard work not only in the sports workouts under often harsh weather conditions but also in the summer efforts of each crewman to make enough money for another year of college. None of them got a free ride. The engineer in me, and the artist I am trying to cultivate in my later life, appreciated the passages describing the crafting of the racing shells and the reverent respect the boat designer and builder George Yeoman Pocock had for the wood he selected and the tools he meticulously chose. The psychology used in the actual races was fascinating and the strong role that the coxswain played in that was impressed upon me. The acknowledgment made that each man’s mental state, background, and attitude played as large a role in success as his sheer brawn, was insightful. This team was clearly the underfunded, under privileged, underdog who came out on top.

I was initially overwhelmed by all the characters in this book, most of them introduced in the first chapter so I had trouble keeping them all straight. There were the coaches, the oarsmen, and the oarsmen's family members. As I read on, each character became real to me and, as I matched the jumble of names to individuals, I became absorbed in the story and was able to let go of my bookkeeping obsession. The descriptions of the positions within the scull intrigued me but I struggled to get them straight and achieve a visual image in my mind of the role each oarsman played.  Per a Wikipedia reference on rowing (and also in scattered explanations throughout the text of the book) 
In an 8+ [rowing shell] the stern pair [7&8] are responsible for setting the stroke rate and rhythm for the rest of the boat to follow. The middle four (sometimes called the "engine room" or "power house") [3,4,5&6] are usually the less technical, but more powerful rowers in the crew, whilst the bow pair [1&2] are the more technical and generally regarded as the pair to set up the balance of the boat.
A simple diagram would have helped. I provide it here for convenience in case others choose to read this book. I added the name of each team member at his seat position as they were ultimately configured when they won Olympic Gold in their shell Husky Clipper.


I must admit that an author of repeated best sellers most likely has a better editing sense that I do. I eventually realized that the parts I did not like were there because they were necessary to make a point or set an environment. First, why at the beginning of the book does the the author paint such a bleak picture of the dark era experienced by those raised in the age of the Great Depression? People made tough choices that were sometimes unconscionable and unfathomable to us from our framework of comparatively more prosperous times. Those choices have a profound effect on actions and perceptions of involved survivors throughout their lives. I had a tough time dealing with Joe Rantz's treatment during his childhood and teen years.

Second, why are there passages describing the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and her Nazi propaganda films? They distracted me from the story of the boys I was interested in. I suppose the boat story became all the more meaningful when placed in context amongst the prevailing challenges; cooperation was contrasted with domination. Third, my abhorrence of Germany documentaries was exercised in passages about Joseph Goebbels and his role in promoting Hitler's atrocities. I still say my enjoyment of the book would have been greater had these second and third aspects been absent. These diversions contributed to my initial distaste for The Boys in the Boat. Sometimes I am just happier with an ostrich's head in the sand attitude. Is it reasonable for me to justify my attitude under the premise that I am reading for pleasure?


By the way, I found an interested article about hoaxes at a site called wafflesatnoon.com that debunks a popular myth claiming that ostriches bury their heads in the sand in order to avoid conflict. It describes how this misconception could have arisen.

One aspect of the book that was perhaps up there among my favorites was that the author follows up on where the nine men went in their lives after the Olympic triumph. They all remained friends and their families grew to know each other through periodic get togethers. The Notes appendix at the end of the book is worth reading. Many of the boys kept journals that allowed a glimpse into their inner thoughts. Many also told stories to their wives and children so a verbal legacy was passed on. The author tapped these source of data. If you are ever fortunate enough to tour the boat house of the University of Washington beside Lake Washington in Seattle you will be treated to a display of the Husky Clipper, the very shell that crossed the finish line first in Berlinand be regaled with a proud re-telling of the story of the boat.

I recommend you give this book a chance. If you need further enticement, watch a You Tube summary video of the book also accessible from the www.danieljamesbrown.com web page. I rate this book four stars.