The Unraveling of Mercy Louis by Keija Parssinen

A lovely, thoughtful, disquieting story of the effects of small-town pressures on a remarkable young woman.

unraveling

Keija Parssinen’s (The Ruins of Us) The Unraveling of Mercy Louis depicts a young woman’s coming-of-age in small town peopled by complex, conflicted, ultimately sympathetic characters.

Port Sabine is a refinery town on the Texas Gulf Coast, depressed and parochial, built around oil, secrets and religion. Mercy Louis lives with her grandmother Maw Maw, a radical evangelical who prophesies the end of the world will come in Mercy’s senior year. A basketball prodigy, Mercy needs this senior year to show the scouts that she’s worth the investment, so she can go to college if Maw Maw is wrong. A discovery in a dumpster throws the town into upheaval and witch-hunting, even as Mercy begins to explore the secrets of her own past as well as the possibilities of her future.

The cast of characters includes Mercy’s best friend, Annie, riotously rebellious and rich; Mercy’s mother, absent until a mysterious letter arrives; and Illa, the manager of the basketball team and a hopeful sports photographer with troubles of her own, fixated upon Mercy in her camera’s lens. A new boy in Mercy’s life–the first–threatens to upturn her delicate balance: obedience to Maw Maw and the church, and the poetry she makes on the basketball court.

Although this is clearly Mercy’s story, many of these characters captivate and capture the imagination; Parssinen’s gift is in rendering the essences of both people and place. The Unraveling is suspenseful and disturbing, compassionate and tender, a thought-provoking experience for anyone who’s ever been young and wondered about the past, and the future.


This review originally ran in the March 20, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 points.

Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss

A perceptive, sensitive history of both basketball and desegregation in the late 1960s.

strong inside

Perry Wallace, Jr., was a quiet, respectful student from Nashville, Tenn., who excelled at school (especially in math and science), at playing the trumpet and on the basketball court. Though not a natural leader or revolutionary, when recruited by schools across the nation, he reluctantly “made the decision to attend Vanderbilt University not because of the fact that he would be a trailblazer, but in spite of it.” When he enrolled in 1966, Wallace became the first African American to play in the Southeastern Conference, thus desegregating Deep South athletics. At Vanderbilt, he played in the same gym where Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, Jr., participated in a speakers’ symposium during Wallace’s freshman year.

In his four years at “the Harvard of the South,” Wallace was harassed, spat upon, called names and assaulted on the court in a series of “fouls” that went uncalled. (His coach told him to “learn to duck.”) The away games in Mississippi were the worst, but even at Vanderbilt his classmates publicly ignored him, yet still cheered him on the court and furtively asked for his help with their homework.

Andrew Maraniss’s Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South deftly reveals the nuances of Wallace’s childhood, early education, groundbreaking career of torments and triumphs at Vanderbilt and the exceptional, well-rounded life that followed. A Vanderbilt alumnus, Maraniss shows great compassion and insight with a detailed narrative that is both broad and deep, covering the civil rights movement and college basketball with equal authority. Wallace’s story is powerfully moving and deservedly, beautifully told.


This review originally ran in the March 17, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 fouls not called.

book beginnings on Friday: Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX by Ginny Gilder

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

course

I’ve only just begun this one, but it’s good from the get-go. How about this opening paragraph:

A well-rowed shell is art in motion. It moves smoothly. Stroke after stroke, oars drop in the water and come out together. The rowers’ bodies swing back and forth in sync, performing the same motion of legs, backs, arms at the same instant; no extraneous shrug of shoulders, flick of the wrist, turn of the head, shift of the seat. The result – perfectly spaced swirls of water trailing the shell’s wake – offers the only visual cue of the speed these on-water dancers live to create.

I’m a sucker for poetic praise of athleticism, and it looks like this story has a few other points in its favor, too. Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

You’re Not Lost if You Can Still See the Truck: The Further Adventures of America’s Everyman Outdoorsman by Bill Heavey

Brief doses of amusing, thoughtful and compassionate reflections on outdoorsmanship.

not lost

In his third volume of collected works, You’re Not Lost If You Can Still See the Truck, Bill Heavey (It’s Only Slow Food Until You Try to Eat It) mainly draws from his work in Field & Stream, where he serves as editor at large. Spanning 26 years, these pieces focus largely on fishing, hunting and general outdoor antics, but occasionally touch on more personal subjects, such as fatherhood, divorce, grief, health and family. Self-deprecating humor is clearly Heavey’s greatest strength (especially refreshing, given the hyper-masculine hobbies under consideration), and the bulk of this collection is laugh-out-loud hilarious, but he demonstrates a distinct ability for gravity when called for, which adds a welcome note of complexity. For example, “Can I Tell You Something?” soberly explores the reasons some hunters and fishermen cease to enjoy certain aspects of their sports.

Heavey provides tongue-in-cheek critiques of the outdoor enthusiast’s retail market, tells charmingly and sometimes embarrassingly funny stories of his escapades and generally exhorts the reader (presumably an everyman or -woman like the author) not to take himself too seriously. His satisfyingly personal tone renders him a fully developed figure–a friend, even. The collection is more than the sum of its parts, tracing the arc of an amateur becoming a seasoned outdoorsman (though not an expert, as Heavey would be quick to point out), with examples of his persistent incompetence. Enjoyment of the entertaining result does not require a love of hunting or fishing.


This review originally ran in the December 30, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 packs of Rage Titanium two-blade expandables. (No, I don’t know what that is, either.)

Off Course: Inside the Mad, Muddy World of Obstacle Course Racing by Erin Beresini

One woman’s exhilarating experience in a strange extreme sport.

off course

Erin Beresini was a committed Ironman triathlete and endurance athlete facing overtraining injuries and burnout when she first heard about obstacle course racing (OCR). How silly, she thinks, and how divergent from her past efforts–perhaps just the thing to make new friends, find new motivation and relieve her overstressed muscles by working new ones. From her first mud run she is hooked, and gratifyingly exhausted. She jumps feet first into this bizarre new scene, undertaking a journey that culminates in racing the OCR world’s first marathon-length event, the Spartan Ultra Beast. In Off Course, she documents her labors.

Throughout Beresini’s often-funny personal story, she interjects details of the history and quirks of this recent trend in amateur athleticism. Characterized by mud, fire, ice and blood–and often involving broken bones, electric shocks, sadistic beatings and barbed wire–OCR strikes many as an insane way to chase fun and fitness. As it happens, millions have signed up for these events in recent years, in the United States and around the world. The sport draws “regimented military types and anti-organized sports rebels,” and shares a fan base with CrossFit and endurance athletics. Beresini also scrutinizes the compelling personalities (and controversies) behind the sport’s two main powerhouses, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder, as well as a handful of their participants. As weird as this tale is, it will appeal to both fans of sports narratives and readers who appreciate offbeat obsessions.


This review originally ran in the October 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 burpees.

Older, Faster, Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer by Margaret Webb

An amiable and instructive memoir about achieving and maintaining competitive fitness at any age.

older

Margaret Webb (Apples to Oysters) was a successful young athlete and an active adult, but never suspected she might be a marathoner. Staring down her 50th birthday, she became curious about what she could accomplish. She knew there were competitive women runners several decades her senior; could she join their ranks? Older, Faster, Stronger covers what Webb calls her “super-fit year.” And as her subtitle states, the lessons she shares are valuable for men and women of all ages, in any sport.

With the luxury of being able to devote her time and energy primarily to training, Webb engages expert nutritionists, personal trainers, coaches, sports psychologists, aging specialists, physiologists and laboratory researchers. She has her maximal oxygen consumption tested (twice); adds cross-training, gym time and track workouts to her running schedule; travels; and brunches with world champion septua-, octo- and nonagenarian women. She sets goals: to qualify for the Boston Marathon under the fastest women’s standard (the qualifying time for 18-to-34-year-old women) and to be competitive in the half-marathon at the World Masters Games.

Webb is meticulous in applying her results stringently to her own life and documenting them for her readers. Her research appears thorough, although the more fastidious reader may be frustrated by the absence of citations. Older, Faster, Stronger is packed with statistics and studies, but is well explained, so the reader will find the science easily digestible. Athletes of any sex, age and discipline can benefit from–and be entertained by–Webb’s approachable investigation of becoming faster and stronger into advance age.


This review originally ran in the October 10, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 minutes.

book beginnings on Friday: Older, Faster, Stronger by Margaret Webb

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

older

I am well pleased with this current read, and want to share.

A year ago, at age 50, I set out on a journey to run my way into a younger self. Just as Henry David Thoreau set off for the wilds of Walden Pond to enter a solitary relationship with nature and understand how to live well, I wanted to enter a deeper relationship with my body and understand how to train it well.

These first two lines tell you what the book is about. This lucky woman spends a year studying on how to be the best marathon runner she can be, with all sorts of science & experts to back her up, and shares with her reader what she has learned. Stay tuned; I like it.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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