Olympics books are so tricky. They have such a short window to be featured, and afterwards, it’s a rare thing when they backlist well. The media hits don’t continue, leaving even a strong selling title little momentum to stay on bestseller lists. And then there’s the other conundrum for bookstores—where to shelve them. Most go in general sports, some in the specific sport, the rest in history.
And that said, who can resist publishing an Olympics-themed book? Or at least enough for a nice-sized blog post and an interview on Lake Effect. That interview would be airing today at 10 am; I’ll have a link for it as soon as its posted.
The most high-profile tie-in is of course Chris Cleave’s Gold (Simon and Schuster). Several of the reviews have pondered the fortuitous coincidence of writing an Olympics-themed book during the Olympics. It doesn’t seem that difficult to me; you write the book and then wait for the Olympics to release it. I guess people are still fascinated by Incendiary, his first novel, being released during the London subway bombing. I assure you, that was not on purpose. The new book’s bicycle racing plot is surprisingly compelling. As I’ve mentioned, races do a lot to drive plot momentum and they also, in this case, reinforce some of the themes running through the story. We’ve now got Halley and Jane behind the book, in addition to me. You’re going to kick yourself* if you don’t come hear Chris Cleave next Monday, July 16, 7 pm, at Boswell. Tickets are $5; you can buy them here.
I couldn’t think of too many other new Olympics-themed novels. I did come across John Feintein’s Rush for the Gold: Mystery at the Olympics (Knopf Book for Young Readers). What is it about sportswriters that draws them to kids’ fiction? Mike Lupica also comes to mind. Susan Carol Anderson is a swimmer whose growth spurt takes her to Olympic-range competitiveness. The media has a field day, what with this tall, attractive, young woman breaking records. Her parents need the money and fall for some sponsorship pitches. But Susan Carol’s boyfriend Steve, her fellow reporter at the school paper, discovers a nefarious scheme. The advance reads are good, and of course Feinstein knows how to write authentic sports details and backstory.
Another kids’ book that deserves attention is A Passion for Victory: The story of the Olympics in Ancient and Early Modern Times, by Benson Bobrick (also a Knopf Book for Young Readers). Bobrick writes history for all age ranges. In fact, his next book for adults, The Calilph’s Splendor, lands in August. Bobrick’s history is a very readable history of the Olympics games, from ancient times to the decision to renew the Olympic spirit in 1896, to modern times. All three advance reviews were good, with Booklist offering it as “entertaining, informative, stocked with telling photos and reproduced artwork, and sourced with detailed notes and a deep bibliography.” And it’s not positioned so young that an adult couldn’t enjoy it either, as it attractively doubles as a coffee table book.
Speaking of 1896, Jim Reisler chronicles the first Olympics team in Igniting the Flame (Lyons Press). In the first modern games, the United States fielded a team of 14 American men. The guys mostly excelled in track and field; there was one swimmer, one shooter. A Princeton classics professor, William Mulligan Sloane, was influential in launching the modern Olympics and the first team would be classified as Ivy League, though it should be noted that there was no such term in use at the time. Reisler, whose written a number of other sports histories including A Great Day in Cooperstown, is said to do a nice job of chronicling the games’ rebirth. I’m deferring to Kirkus here for the record.
Now of course if I’m going to compile a list of books, I have to have at least one title that leans towards the erudite, because that is of course a great way to imply that I am smart. (If you don’t know, one of my mantras for the store is “smart but not snotty.”) I am attracted to Olympic Visions: Images of the Games through History (Reaktion) from Mike O’Mahony, which explores how painters, photographers, filmmakers, architects, and designers have interpreted the games and even changed the way we view the games. Iconic photos, official posters, magazine covers, commemorative sculptures, and Olympic architecture are all surveyed. Some time is spent with perhaps the most controversial piece of Olympics art, Leni Reifenstahl’s film, “Olympia.” It received raves at the time, but it later became apparent that the film espoused Nazi principles.
No Olympic round up is complete without one nonfiction narrative (and by that I mean Olympic-themed story that attempts to read like a novel), and this year’s major entry is Jack McCallum’s Dream Team (Ballantine). A long-term Sports Illustrated staffer turned contributor (like many journalists, he took the buyout), McCallum was well-equipped to document the story of how Coach Daly pulled together Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, and the rest of the gang into “the greatest team of all time.” One can note that a team like this was not possible in the past because Olympic rules only started allowing professional athletes to officially compete in 1986. Remember Jim Thorpe? I guess the 2008 team, also comprised of all stars, was The Redeemed Team. The 2004, which took only bronze? The We Wuz Creamed Team, I suppose.
One of the featured titles of 2008’s Olympic season, David Maraniss’s Rome 1960 (Simon and Schuster), is back on display at Boswell (or will be as soon as our order arrives—it was out of stock for a bit), partly because Maraniss will be at the Milwaukee Public Library’s Centennial Hall on Wednesday, July 18, 7 pm. (Nice plug, right?) Maraniss contends that the 1960 Games were as important to history as 1936 and 1972. It was the first Olympiad with television and it changed the games forever.
Even more numerous than the barrage of Olympics titles are the onslaught of London-themed books. Why so many more of these? Because unlike the Olympics books, these actually can backlist well. Our favorite might well be Pop-Up London (Candlewick) from Jennie Maizels. Filled with iconic sights, Maizel’s book features the paper engineering of Richard Ferguson (there are not too many talented paper engineers out there, at least ones getting substantial amounts of work) and unlike many, works with 360 degree vistas. Maizels has also has a lot of fun information packed into the spreads, but of course the main event is the wow factor, with the additional amusing lift the flaps and pull here opportunities. Maizels website also offers some cool gift wrap. Alas, I can’t figure out where to source that at the moment.
And finally, my favorite book, the one that I really think we can sell piles of at the impulse table (Jason, take note) is How to Watch the Olympic Games: The Essential Guide to the Rules, Statistics, Heroes and Zeroes of Every Sport (Penguin). In the past, we could pretty much only watch what American television thought we wanted, but Beijing 2008 opened up the world for us and now if you want handball, you can probably find it. As someone who grew up with ubiquitous handball courts, I think of handball being in America’s pocket but glory actually belongs to France. And though archery was dominated by the United States for decades, now South Korea is generally the country to beat, despite many rounds of arrow shootin' in my childhood at Jones Beach.
This book is organized by sport, and includes not just rules, but strategy, history, and gossip too. In canoeing alone, I learned the difference between spring and slalom canoeing and why canoe courses have to be equally different for left and right handed people, but kayak courses don’t. Can you answer that one? Judo, table tennis, volleyball, fencing, and yes, bicycling. Why is basketball still an Olympic sport anyway, but baseball is no longer? And learn the story behind the dropped sports, such as polo, cricket, and tug of war. Even experts will find something to learn David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton. And even someone who doesn’t much pay attention can have some fun while the rest of the family is staring at the TV or immersed in various feeds.
The opening ceremonies start Friday, July 27. Let’s hope I didn’t book an event during a particularly exciting moment. If so, please tape it for later. And speaking of events, don't forget that Lake Effect's Mitch Teich will be at Boswell interviewing Alexandra (Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness) Fuller tonight, July 10, 7 pm, at Boswell.
*Not an Olympic sport.