Olympic Rowers, King Tut Lessons and More Books to Read This Month

Also out in June: the math of life and the lives of astronauts’ wives

The Boys in the Boat
Daniel James Brown's book juxtaposes the coming together of the Washington crew team against the Nazis' preparations for the Olympics in 1936. Courtesy The Viking Press

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
by Daniel James Brown
“This book,” the author begins, “was born on a cold, drizzly, late spring day when I clambered over the split-rail cedar fence that surrounds my pasture and made my way through the wet woods to the modest frame house where Joe Rantz lay dying.” That sentence is a fitting summation of this fairy-tale-like meander through the wet scenery of the Pacific Northwest with a stunning story waiting at the other end. Although the subtitle promises to tell of nine Americans, it is really Joe Rantz—perhaps the unlikeliest Olympian to end up with a gold medal around his neck—who is its tender center. Raised amid dire, Depression-era deprivation in Spokane and shunted across the country and back, penniless Joe somehow made his way to the University of Washington and into a boat that would make it all the way to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Those Olympics, of course, have special significance in retrospect: a fateful moment when much of the world bought into the shiny PR spectacle of a modernized, highly efficient Germany and overlooked the darker motivations at the heart of the Nazi regime. Brown’s book juxtaposes the coming together of the Washington crew team against the Nazis’ preparations for the Games, weaving together a history that feels both intimately personal and weighty in its larger historical implications. This book has already been bought for cinematic development, and it’s easy to see why: When Brown, a Seattle-based nonfiction writer, describes a race, you feel the splash as the oars slice the water, the burning in the young men’s muscles and the incredible drive that propelled these rowers to glory.

The Shadow King
by Jo Marchant
Good luck to those who disturb the tomb of King Tutankhamen. A curse felled Lord Carnarvon, the wealthy British noble who financed the initial exploration, within months of the tomb’s unveiling in 1922. Legend had it that the mummy’s bandages were soaked with cyanide extracted from peach pits to poison anyone who touched them . Within the tomb itself, booby traps supposedly abounded. At least, those are the kinds of myths that stuck to the story of the excavation of King Tut’s tomb over the years—often (unsurprisingly) gaining more attention than the actual facts. Journalist Jo Marchant’s thoughtful account of the post-unearthing life of the famous royal dispels some of these tales. (A more likely culprit than evil spirits for Lord Carnarvon’s untimely death: a fungus found in bat guano; it’s hard to say where the poison-drenched bandage tall tale originated.) “Egyptology,” Marchant writes, “as sold to the public, is sometimes not so far from show business,” and while she’s in this business herself—writing an entertaining, lively book—she also injects common sense, science and authentic history into her account. Spanning the period just before the discovery of the tomb in the early 20th century up to the recent political upheavals in Egypt, Marchant explains the various trends and attitudes that have affected our understanding of the king. But it’s not as dry as all that; Marchant doesn’t skimp on the details that made this, as she put it, “the most amazing archaeological discovery of all time”: the moment when the light hit the sarcophagus for the first time in more than three millennia, the solid gold mask that covered the mummy’s entire head and shoulders and the less glamorous, but humanizing fact that Tut suffered from an impacted wisdom tooth. She brings the reader almost flush with current events in her final chapters, explaining the impact of the 2011 revolution and speculating about the new Egyptian state. “What many researchers dream of now is a new beginning for Egyptology,” she writes. In the context of Marchant’s book, the initial discovery fades: Real insight lies in the layers that time and new technologies reveal about the king and his nation.

Thinking in Numbers
by Daniel Tammet
The author of Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir (subtitled “Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant”), Tammet describes his new book as “a collection of twenty-five essays on the ‘math of life,’” but that is both too vague and not encompassing enough. Tammet’s essays are the product of a truly eclectic mind—the kind of mind that can gracefully link a Tolstoy short story, a maxim from Seneca and contemporary economic inequality. Mathematicians, Tammet writes in another essay, are “tourists in every place,” and it’s this wide-eyed, free-ranging attitude that the author applies to his study of the underlying ratios, percentages, probabilities and plain old digits that rule our lives. He never gives the sense, however, that he’s out to prove a turgid point; rather, there’s a lovely casualness to his writing that makes his drift from one topic to another seem natural and instinctive. One moment he’s detailing how the Brothers Grimm instructed him in the concept of infinity, the next he’s describing the endless variation of the snowflake. Perhaps the most exciting chapter in this mostly meditative book comes when Tammet discusses the day on which he broke the European record for the greatest number of digits of pi recited from memory. Over the course of five hours and nine minutes, as if in a fever dream, Tammet chanted 22,514 digits . At moments like this in Thinking in Numbers, you realize that no matter how personable the author or how elegantly breezy his tone, he is not like us. What a pleasure it is, however, to peer inside his utterly singular mind .

The Astronaut Wives Club
by Lily Koppel
If you wanted to be an astronaut in the 1960s, you had to measure up in a number of ways: strength, stamina, intelligence, skill and—perhaps most important of all—a happy home life. When NASA started sending men into space, they knew that they weren’t just giving some ambitious pilots the biggest promotion of their lives, they were minting celebrities who would also be symbols of American success. Lily Koppel’s history tells the story of the women behind the astronauts, from Project Mercury—which launched the first American into space in 1961—to the Apollo program, which landed a man on the Moon eight years later. Focusing on this tight-knit sisterhood offers a new window into America’s ambitious age of exploration. It’s a fairly comprehensive overview—to both its credit and detriment. While Koppel’s thoroughness is impressive, the book often barely skims the surface of these women’s lives, and there are so many characters that it’s hard to keep them straight. But even more irksome is the strange stance of the book. On the one hand, it wants to celebrate these women as individuals, even feminists: “The Astronaut Wives Club was the closest thing the space burbs had to a NOW chapter,” Koppel writes. On the other, their ability to keep a clean, welcoming and harmonious house seems their greatest asset. Koppel, of course, is trying to show how the women were perceived and venerated in their day. Life magazine, for instance, handed out cushy contracts to many of the wives for exclusive insight into their domestic science. But the proliferation of ’60s housewife stereotypes—Jell-O molds, “perfectly applied lipstick” and shirtdresses—freezes Koppel’s characters in time. “Astronauts get along so well because they don’t talk,” Koppel quotes one of the wives as saying. “Women, of course,” she goes on to write with a dash of casual sexism, “have to talk.” Occasionally a sense of the women’s steely strength cuts through, but there’s an awful lot of fluff in the way.

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