The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

Set during a weekend of pro football reenactment, this sidesplitting novel displays all the baggage of male middle age.

throwback special

The Throwback Special stars a group of middle-aged men gathering for the 16th annual reenactment of a memorable moment in professional football: the 1985 sack, by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, that resulted in a career-ending comminuted compound fracture of the leg for Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. In the hands of Chris Bachelder (Bear v. Shark), this is rich material, by turns poignant and droll.

The 22 men are expertly evoked as individuals, often pathetic but also sympathetic. “It could be said of each man, that he was the plant manager of a sophisticated psychological refinery, capable of converting vast quantities of crude ridicule into tiny, glittering nuggets of sentiment. And vice versa, as necessary.” This is Bachelder’s specialty: the intersection of the absurd with earnest emotion, neuroses lovingly portrayed. The Throwback Special is endlessly hilarious, ranging from the serious, even the existential–it is true of the play, like everything else, that “while it was happening it was ending”–to the shrewdly wise: a seven-page interior monologue about race relations by the group’s one person of color is surprisingly entertaining.

The book takes place over a single weekend, involving a certain amount of action but mostly focused on the men’s thoughts and reflections. In this brief window, Bachelder reveals the magic of professional sport spectating, the silliness and profundity of traditions, and the tender illogic of friendship. Obviously, this novel will attract football fans, but there is absolutely something for everyone (even the sports-averse) in this rollicking, irreverent but sweet human drama.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the March 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 ping pong balls.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

I have a fun one for you today.

throwback special

Chris Bachelder’s novel The Throwback Special had me laughing out loud in the strangest of places. What a gift! Also, this novel is about football – the American kind – a sport and pastime I have no knowledge of or enthusiasm for; and I still loved it. I guess that’s because even more than it’s about football, it’s about people: specifically a group of not-entirely-happy middle-aged men. They interact in some funny ways. I loved this line:

Charles, who counseled adolescent girls with eating disorders, wanted to tell Robert to put that thought in his worry box.

Keep your eyes open…

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

guest review: movie: Run Free, from Pops

Pops has been to see the documentary film Run Free, which handles the subject matter of Born to Run which he’s earlier reviewed for us. His review is below.


In follow-up to the Micah True, Caballo Blanco story introduced in McDougall’s book, I saw the just-released doc film by Seattle director Sterling Noren: Run Free. Noren began working on the general idea of a film after a chance meeting with True in Mexico in 2009. After Born to Run was published, True heard Hollywood was planning a film so he requested that Noren help tell the “real story” with his own film.

Noren’s film is wonderful; his work benefits from True’s cooperation and many interviews with central characters including McDougall, runner Scott Jurek and Luis Escobar, who also contributes great still photos taken over the years. It features the beautiful & magical Copper Canyon in Mexico, the special native towns there and of course the Tarahumara themselves – and True’s special relationship with the place & its people.

Filming includes the 2012 version of Caballo Blanco’s Copper Canyon ultra race; and then Noren’s crew was on hand for the immediate aftermath when True goes missing in the Gila Wilderness (as I related in my earlier book review.) McDougall’s fun & mythical tale as told in the book becomes starkly real in the film – both in the simplicity of Tarahumara subsistence culture, and the sad poetry of True’s final, fatal run.

The film’s narrative effectively invites us into the eccentric world of its main character & the close network of ultra runners, which makes their role in the wilderness search & subsequent memorial events all the more poignant. It’s a powerful story for those who can connect, from a number of perspectives. For this runner, four decades in, it was that and more.

Thanks, Pops. I’m glad – but not surprised – that you found it so powerful.

Lanterne Rouge by Max Leonard

An amiable history of a largely unsung hero pays respects to the last-place finisher of the Tour de France.

lanterne

Even non-cycling fans recognize the Tour de France as the sport’s biggest annual event. Naturally, the attention of the press and the viewer is focused at the front of the race, where attacks, group sprints and winners are born. In Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France, Max Leonard directs overdue consideration to a different segment of the Tour, where he finds a less fairytale-like but very sincere story.

Ever since the Tour was founded in 1903, as a struggling newspaper’s publicity stunt, someone necessarily has come in last place. Cycling’s term for that someone dates back almost as far: based on his research, Leonard argues that it must have been in use before World War I. The usage of lanterne rouge, or red lantern, is generally accepted as having come from the railroad, where a red lantern lit the last car, letting signalmen know the line behind was clear. Over the last century and more, the lanterne has been variously a joke, a dishonor, an achievement to be sought after and a source of controversy, conflict and myth.

Importantly, the lanterne rouge achieves the accomplishment of finishing the race. The Tour has always had a high rate of attrition. Many men withdraw from the race over weeks of mountain passes, long days and severe weather; some years, Tour staff have pulled trailing riders from the race as well. The lanterne is the man who finishes last–but finishes, a respectable feat.

Leonard makes his passion easily felt as he follows his underappreciated subject. In his prologue (a word not only for a book’s introduction but also a preliminary time-trial stage of the Tour), he attempts to ride a mountain stage of the Tour, but DNF’s (“did not finish”), and his failure will haunt him for the rest of his research and writing process. He then spends nearly two years meeting with surviving lanternes and those who remember them, and searching French libraries for scraps of information about the earliest ones. For example, he pursues the legends of the first lanterne rouge, Arsène Millocheau of 1903 (but did he really finish the race?), and of Abdel-Kader Zaaf of 1951, whose story involves wine, naps, religious difference and colonial racism. Leonard studies the lanterne (and, somewhat resignedly, the leading yellow jersey as well) exhaustively, throughout history and through the race’s evolutions and rule changes. A chapter on drug and doping scandals rounds out any analysis of the Tour, and yes, some lanternes were involved.

Lanterne Rouge is an engaging, exhaustive survey of the last man in the Tour de France, a history, a collection of appealing anecdotes and a psychological consideration of winning and losing. An obvious choice for serious cycling fans, Leonard’s approachable study will also please general sports fans, history enthusiasts and those who root for the underdog.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the June 12, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 bidons.

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

The exertions of rowing crew under Title IX, as a means to overcoming one woman’s demons.

course

Ginny Gilder made her way from a privileged Upper East Side life in New York City to Yale University in 1975, in the early years of Title IX, which legislated equal educational opportunities for both men and women in all areas, including athletics. Ginny had never been an athlete; her family instead emphasized business success and keeping up appearances. But she was drawn to the grace, beauty and seeming effortlessness of rowing, and against the coach’s instincts, joined the Yale crew. The story she tells in Course Correction of collegiate competition, gender discrimination, the long road to the Olympics and personal growth, also yields Ginny’s eventual healing from the emotional traumas of a well-concealed family history.

In four sections titled Catch, Drive, Release and Recovery–the four parts of a well-executed rowing stroke–Gilder details the corresponding segments of her life. Rowing captures her passion; she drives herself through injuries and health problems to an eventual Olympic medal; she learns to let go; she forms a successful family of her own, despite a damaged past.

Gilder’s prose is earnest, heartfelt, expressive and clearly strongly felt. Her narrative will appeal to sports fans and readers dedicated to memoirs of pain and redemption. Course Correction touches on the injustices that Title IX was designed to correct (including a memorable scene involving a nude protest), and portrays a painful, affecting and impressive athletic career. But it is centrally a story of one woman’s lengthy and hard-won coming-of-age and coming home.


This review originally ran in the April 24, 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: 7 ankle bracelets.

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.
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