Midweek books: Rich boys, poor boys and their boats

On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.

When the first words one reads about a new book are that it’s “the kind of nonfiction book that reads like a novel,” I hold my breath and prepare my skeptic’s brain.

boys in the boatIt’s an easy copy-and-paste phrase that abounds in the publishing and review industries, and it’s been firmly affixed to an early pronouncement about Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat.” Published in June, this is his recreation of the tale of the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team’s shocking gold medal performance.

I haven’t picked up the book myself, so I’ll give the reviewer the benefit of the doubt. From everything I have read about the book, “The Boys in the Boat” is bound for wide critical acclaim, and not just because of the drama of the subject matter. Or the fact that Kenneth Branagh is set to direct a film adaptation of Brown’s work.

The nine working-class American young men who made up this team — all were members of the University of Washington’s early Depression-era rowing team — give Brown ample storytelling material, and other early reviews are generally effusive. Here’s one example:

Daniel James Brown’s account of how blue-collar oarsmen with roots in lumber mills, dairy farms, shipyards and mining camps prevailed over teams from elite Eastern colleges and went on to the Olympics is set against the grim realities of the Great Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany. This riveting and inspiring saga evokes that of Seabiscuit, another upstart that came out of the West.

More reviews from USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Seattle Times.

In rounding up a wide collection of rowing-related books, Alex Beam of The Boston Globe writes that the trouble with them is that they “are so much alike.” Even David Halberstam’s “The Amateurs,” one of the celebrated author’s most celebrated sports books:

The book showcases everything that was wrong about Halberstam. The story is a complete mare’s nest, attempting to follow four separate scullers seeking medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. (Inconveniently for Halberstam, only one of them lands a medal, but in a double shell, not in a scull.) Tiff Wood, the book’s most engaging character, doesn’t even race in Los Angeles.

And yet:

For writing passion, no one matches Halberstam. An amateur rower himself, he brings it on every page. He’s like the fierce competitor Wood: angry, driven, obsessed by the task of writing, and good at it.

* * * * * * * * *

The America’s Cup begins in San Francisco in early September, with the challenge races continuing. The winner awaits the Larry Ellison crew, and the story of how the Silicon Valley entrepreneur won in Spain three years ago is the subject of a different kind of boating book.

San Francisco Chronicle reporter Julian Guthrie’s “The Billionaire and the Mechanic” explains how Ellison, the founder of the Oracle Corp., teamed up with Norbert Bajurin, a car radiator mechanic and member of the working-class Golden Gate Yacht Club.billionaire mechanic

It’s an association that’s a decade old now, as they came up short that year and in 2007 before capturing the Cup in 2010. As longtime yachting journalist Angus Phillips writes in a review of the book for The Wall Street Journal, Ellison’s desires stretch back before that, and led him to an unlikely place to find a club sponsor:

She (yes, Julian is a she) clearly had exceptional access to the generally media-shy billionaire and provides detailed descriptions of Mr. Ellison’s living spaces, work habits, tennis pals like Rafael Nadal and Jimmy Connors, best friend and neighbor Steve Jobs, his many airplanes, cars, boats and houses, his clothing tastes, even his food preferences. She paints a picture of a modern contrarian who delights in bucking convention, which is how he wound up at Golden Gate.

While Ellison may not fit the colorful mold of Ted Turner’s Captain Courageous, this is a rather compelling tale, and Guthrie’s telling is getting quite a bit of praise.

Here’s a book excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle.

How the America’s Cup has changed since Turner’s feats in the 1970s is quite different and requires a new-fangled tycoon, as David Browne writes in Men’s Journal:

Ellison – who buys a Hawaiian island in the course of Guthrie’s book – has suffered setbacks on the road to the next America’s Cup. . . . One of his boats capsized during a training run, and another crashed. But he remains steadfast in his pursuit. “It’s become a business,” Guthrie says of Ellison’s chase for a second America’s Cup, “not just a hobby.”

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