Thoughts on a Book: “The Boys in the Boat”

I’ve been a little slack about blogging over the past couple of weeks. One reason is I’ve been more interested in planning an upcoming research trip to Mississippi than I have been about writing.

That and I’ve been a bit lazy.

Anyway, I wanted to tell you about a book I read recently, “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” by Daniel James Brown.

Husband John gave me the book as a Christmas gift. Actually, John gives me lots of books, which I really appreciate. This past Christmas, John and his mother gave me several books, and I’ve been working my way through them over the winter and spring.

“The Boys in the Boat,” as the subhead well indicates, tells the story of the eight-man rowing team (the ninth man is the coxswain) that represented the U.S. in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

While the author writes about all of the team’s members, their coaches and the Berlin Olympics in general, he focuses a lot on the life of rower Joe Rantz.

As the passage on the back of the book jacket describes him, Joe was “a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world.”

Joe, like the rest of the boys, was a member of the University of Washington’s rowing team. One might not think about the Pacific Northwest when one thinks about rowing — also called crew — but Washington has been a powerhouse in the sport of rowing for decades.

Like Joe, the other “Boys in the Boat” weren’t the sons of doctors, lawyers and titans of industry, like one might imagine their Ivy League counterparts to be. They were the sons of loggers, laborers and farmers who, like many people during the Great Depression, were struggling to make ends meet.

You can learn more about “The Boys in the Boat” on the PBS website. In 2016, the PBS series “American Experience” ran an episode on the team, and there are videos, photos and articles that tell more of its history and the history of rowing.

In addition to the history of this particular rowing team, by reading this book I also learned a lot about the sport of rowing and the history of the 1936 Olympic Games.

About rowing, among other things, I learned that one, six-minute race uses the same amount of energy a person would expend by playing two, 40-minute basketball games, back to back.

That kind of makes me want to take up rowing for its bang-for-your-buck quality, if nothing else.

About the 1936 Olympics, which occurred during the early years of Adolph Hitler’s reign, I learned about how the campaign against Germany’s Jewish population, which would eventually spread across Europe as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” was officially toned down for the Olympics.

The Berlin Olympics was Hitler’s chance to show off Nazi Germany, after all, and to normalize his regime in front of an international audience. Everything would look nice and pretty, all of the people visiting for the Games would have a good time, and Nazi Germany would look like an OK place to be.

Jesse Owens - LOC
Jesse Owens starts the 200 meter at the Berlin Olympics. Library of Congress.

So, I imagine it was extra satisfying for those spectators who didn’t fall for Hitler’s ruse to watch not only the Washington rowers defeat the German rowing team, but also to see Jesse Owens, an African-American sprinter and jumper, win four Olympic gold medals.

Regarding a completely different book — albeit one also set around World War II — I just finished reading, “A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy,” by Thomas Buergenthal.

You can read more about the author and his story here. The book was a quick and interesting read and I recommend it.

Thoughts on a Book: ‘American Uprising’

A few weeks ago, I was perusing the nonfiction section at the Lynchburg Public Library — truth be told, looking for a book about the Abraham Lincoln assassination — when I stumbled on a book titled, “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt.”

nat-turner-rebellion
A woodcut depicting the Nat Turner Rebellion, 1831. Library of Congress.

My first thought was it was a book about the Nat Turner rebellion, which occurred in Southampton County, Va., in 1831. After all, that’s probably the best-known slave uprising. Books have been written about it and at least one movie made, including the 2016 film, “The Birth of a Nation.”

As a side note, I thought calling a film about the Nat Turner rebellion “The Birth of a Nation” was brilliant because the last movie by that name — a silent film from 1915, originally titled, “The Clansman” — was sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan and contained all sorts of racist portrayals of African-American people. So, take that!

But “American Uprising,” written by Daniel Rasmussen, isn’t about the Nat Turner rebellion. It’s about a slave uprising that happened in 1811 on Louisiana’s German Coast, a stretch of sugar cane plantations along the east side of the Mississippi River, just north of New Orleans.

Husband John and I drove down what’s also called the River Road a couple of year ago, while in New Orleans for a family wedding. There are still a lot of plantation homes there and what looked like sugar cane fields, but there also are a lot of refineries and industrial sites.

Still, while reading “American Uprising,” it was nice to be able to see the German Coast in my head.

Destrehan Plantation figures prominently into the “American Uprising” story. Some of the approximately 500 slaves involved in the revolt were from Destrehan, a sugar cane plantation owned by Jean Noel Destrehan.

Also, after the revolt was put down by federal troops and local planters, one of the three trials condemning the rebels was held was at Destrehan.

slave-cabins-destrehan
Slave dwellings at Destrehan Plantation, circa 1938. Photographer: Russell Lee. Library of Congress.

Another thing I learned while reading “American Uprising,” something I’d never thought about before, was that some of the slaves who were brought from Africa had actually been soldiers in their homelands.

Tribes would war against each other and sometimes the losers were sold into slavery. At least two of the German Coast rebels fit into this category and had apparently been planning to revolt since they first touched American soil.

I also learned that the Haitian Revolution, which took place from 1791 to 1804 and ended slavery in what was then called Saint-Domingue, would have inspired fear in Louisiana planters and hope in their slaves.

You can watch a presentation by author Daniel Rasmussen here which talks more about that.

In the end, a handful of white planters and more than 100 slaves were killed, either during or after the revolt. As a deterrent to others who might consider taking up arms against their masters, the rebels’ decaying bodies were displayed along the Mississippi River for months.

Recently, I wrote about a slave revolt that happened along the James River near Lynchburg, Va. In that post, I mentioned a website where U.S. executions from the 1600s to the 1970s are listed. While not named, many of those executed after the 1811 German Coast revolt are included in that list.

The 2016 Book List

In tenth grade, I read “Gone with the Wind” during three weeks of classes. I remember sitting in my economics class — front row to boot — and my teacher saying, “Suzanne, put the book away.”

Looking back, regardless of the hot water I got into for ignoring my teachers for nearly a month, it was totally worth it.

A few years ago, I reread “Gone with the Wind,” revisiting the it’s 1,000-plus pages for the first time in 30 years. While I enjoyed Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War-era story the second time around, reading the book as an adult was quite a different experience.

To be honest, based on its negative stereotypes of African Americans, I’m pretty amazed “Gone with the Wind” hasn’t been torched in piles.

It was also during high school that my interest in history was piqued, perhaps by “Gone with the Wind,” but most likely by “Gizelle, Save the Children!”

The nonfiction book, which I checked out of the school library, was about a Hungarian Jewish girl named Gizelle whose mother implores her to save her siblings during the Holocaust.

“Gizelle, Save the Children!” was the first of many books I’ve read since then about the Holocaust and World War II. Most of these books have been biographical, centering on the experiences of specific individuals.

One I read this past year was fictional, but no less gripping.

All The Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr, tells two colliding stories — of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Warner, an orphaned German boy who longs to be an engineer. The story is set in France and Germany during World War II. So I don’t spoil the plot, I’ll just say I mourned a little when the last page was turned.

Here are the other 13 books I read during 2016:

A Walk in the Woods” (Bill Bryson)
The funny story of Bill Bryson’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. This life-affirming book made me believe that I, too, can attempt anything, even if it doesn’t work out exactly as planned.

“The Road to Wellville” (T. Coraghessan Boyle)
A novel set around the turn of the 20th century at the famous Kellogg sanatorium in Michigan. I blogged about this book a few months ago.

“True Grit” (Charles Portis)
The story of an Arkansas teenager determined to avenge the murder of her father in 1870s Indian Country. I also blogged about this book.

Dead Wake” (Erik Larson, who also wrote “Devil in the White City,” another good book.)
This book tells the story of the sinking of the Lusitania during World War I.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven” (Mitch Albom)
A novel about a man who learns lessons in the afterlife. I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did.

My Name is Asher Lev” (Chaim Potok)
The fictional story of a Hasidic Jewish boy who just wants to be a painter, and the struggles that result.

And The Dead Shall Rise” (Steve Oney)
About the 1913 Atlanta murder of Mary Phagan and the subsequent lynching of Leo Frank, the man accused of killing her. (While fascinating, this extremely well-researched tome took forever to read and I blame it for not achieving my 19-book goal this year.)

“The Prince of Tides” and “South of Broad” (Pat Conroy)
The former is my all-time favorite book, and as for the latter, I don’t know why I waited so long to read it. In each book, set in the South Carolina Lowcountry, the late-Pat Conroy tells the story of a dysfunctional family with secrets — and he does it in the most beautifully written way.

Sugar of the Crop: My Journey to Find the Children of Slaves” (Sana Butler)
In late 1990s through early 2000s, author Sana Butler was on a quest to interview the children of African-American slaves. And, yes, she finds several still alive.

For the Glory” (Duncan Hamilton)
A biography of Eric Liddell, the famous sprinter from the “Chariots of Fire” story.

Fast Girl” (Suzy Favor Hamilton)
Tells the true story of Olympic middle-distance runner turned Las Vegas call girl Suzy Favor Hamilton and her battle with bipolar disorder.

“The Coalwood Way” (Homer Hickam)
A memoir by NASA engineer Homer Hickam about growing up in West Virginia coal country.

navajo-riders-in-canon-de-chelly
Navajo riders in Canyon de Chelly, photographed by Edward S. Curtis (c. 1904). Published in “The North American Indian.” Library of Congress.

Currently, I’m reading, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” Timothy Egan’s biography of Edward S. Curtis. Curtis (1868-1952) is famous for his iconic photographs of Native Americans, such as the one pictured above.

The photographs were published in his 20-volume book series, “The North American Indian.” Curtis worked on the project for three decades. Photos from the series can be viewed on the Library of Congress website.

Also, I was given several books for Christmas — among them “The Boys in the Boat” and Colson Whitehead’s “Underground Railroad” — so 2017 should be a good year for reading.

Happy New Year and happy reading!

hector-and-books
My cat, Hector, tucked in beside one of our many bookshelves.

What the Hell is Jezebel sauce?  

What the Hell is Jezebel sauce?  

A few weeks ago, my sister, Theresa, and I went to Green Front Furniture in Farmville, Va. We go there every so often to look at and occasionally buy oriental rugs, one of the things Green Front is known for.

While I’m personally fond of finding my oriental rugs at antique or yard sales (or on the curb in the historic district), all of my new ones were purchased at Green Front.

bw-rug-cropped
This antique oriental rug, “sourced” curbside, now graces my entryway. It was thrown out with other “junk,” including a Griswold cast iron skillet, which I also picked up, re-seasoned and use to fry eggs. What’s that they say about one man’s trash?

In addition to rugs, Green Front sells a lot of furniture and home decor items. You also can find items I’d describe as “gifty,” like jars of Jezebel sauce.

You might ask, “What the Hell is Jezebel sauce?”

Jezebel sauce is a spicy-sweet condiment made from apple jelly, pineapple (or apricot) preserves, horseradish, dry mustard, black pepper and red pepper flakes. It can be used for lots of things, but one of the most popular uses for Jezebel sauce is to pour it over a block of cream cheese and eat it with crackers.

One might wonder why such a wonderful-sounding concoction is named for a biblical queen who, after being an utterly terrible person, was thrown from a window and eaten by stray dogs. I can’t answer that question.

Recently, I saw Jezebel sauce on the menu at Scratch Biscuit Company, a new biscuit restaurant in Roanoke. I’d heard about Scratch Biscuit a few months ago, but finally went there this past week with my friend, Adrienne.

I ordered the Jezebel Biscuit — of course — which consisted of a cat-head-sized biscuit filled with country ham, pimento cheese and Jezebel sauce.

dsc01654
The Jezebel Biscuit: a heavenly mixture of flaky, savory, sweet and spicy.

That biscuit was so good. Not being a food writer, I don’t quite know how to say it any better. Just so, so, so, so good. It was so worth the hour-long drive. Adrienne got the fried Cajun catfish biscuit and also declared it a winner.

Next time, I’ll try the catfish biscuit, topped with Scratch Biscuit’s special “Satan’s Snot” hot sauce. You’re right, “Satan’s snot” doesn’t sound very appetizing, but Adrienne thought it was a good complement to the catfish.

I didn’t buy that $4.50 jar of Jezebel sauce at Green Front, but I probably should have because it’ll likely cost me more to make it than to buy it. I did find a recipe for it, though, in my copy of “The Complete Southern Cookbook,” by Tammy Algood.

This is my favorite cookbook, although I obviously hadn’t perused it enough over the past few years to know it contained a recipe for Jezebel sauce. It’s organized by ingredient, A to Z, and includes many old southern standbys, among them a to-die-for coconut cake and a whole chapter on macaroni and cheese.

Here’s the recipe for Jezebel sauce:

Jezebel Sauce

Yield 1 1/2 cups

1 (5-ounce) jar apple jelly
1 (5-ounce) jar pineapple preserves
1/3 cup prepared horseradish
1/2 T. dry mustard
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper

Directions: In a medium bowl, whisk together the jelly, preserves, horseradish, mustard, black pepper and red pepper. Whisk until smooth. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Algood also wrote my second-favorite cookbook, “The Southern Slow Cooker Bible.” And since we’ve talked a lot about biscuits here, I’ll just go ahead and recommend “Southern Biscuits,” by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart. This book has every biscuit recipe imaginable, along with recipes for things to make out of, with and to serve atop biscuits.

By the way, Theresa and I also go to Farmville to eat at Walker’s Diner, which has a great eggs-and-bacon breakfast and a friendly staff, among other things.

The High Bridge Trail, a great place to bike, also runs through Farmville. Its namesake bridge was built in 1854, and apparently both Union and Confederate troops tried to burn it down during the Civil War.

Farmville also has a few cute antique shops, an art gallery and Longwood University, where the recent vice-presidential debates were held. It’s just an all-around nice place to visit.

Thoughts on a Book: ‘True Grit’

I recently finished the novel “True Grit,” by Charles Portis. It’s the story of Mattie Ross, a headstrong Arkansas teenager who heads off with two lawmen to avenge the murder of her father in 1870s “Indian Territory,” also known as Oklahoma.

The book was published in 1968 and has been made into two movies. The 1969 version starred Kim Darby as Mattie and John Wayne as one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. The 2010 remake, directed by the Coen Brothers, starred Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges in those roles.

I love Jeff Bridges. I would love to find myself sitting next to him on an airplane or at a bar someday. I loved his 2009 movie “Crazy Heart” and have been to that bar in Santa Fe, Evangelo’s, where part of it was filmed.

Evangelo’s is named for its founder, Angelo Klonis, subject of a famous World War II photo. Today, his son, Nick, runs the bar.

But back to the book.

Without spoiling anything, there were many words and phrases used by the author that I didn’t recognize. I imagined these were phrases used during the 1870s. So, I took some notes along the way, with the intention of looking them up later. Here’s what I found:

Blue-john — When talking about some milk that wasn’t up to her standards, Mattie calls it “blue-john.” According to the Urban Dictionary, she was referring to skim milk.

Pudding and tame — When Texas lawman LaBoeuf asks Mattie her name, she impertinently replies, “Pudding and tame.” An 1880 book with a near-eternal title, “Notes & Queries: A Medium of Communication for Literary Men, General Readers, etc.,” describes the phrase as part of a schoolyard rhyme: “What’s your name? Pudding and Tame; if you ask me again, I’ll tell you the same.”

Order of the Rainbow for Girls — Mattie refers to McAlester, Oklahoma, as “international headquarters of the Order of the Rainbow for Girls.” The International Order of the Rainbow for Girls is a Masonic organization founded in 1922, long after Mattie’s fictional adventure. Its headquarters wasn’t moved to McAlester until 1951, which would make Mattie near 100 years old when telling her story, but I guess it could happen. And it’s fiction.

Jay Gould — Mattie says, “They say Jay Gould had no heart!” in talking about a railroad man who was being a cheapskate. Apparently,  Jay Gould was “one of the most unscrupulous ‘robber barons’ of 19th-century American capitalism.” So, it’s understandable why Mattie would say this.

Jamaica ginger — Rooster talks about someone called “old Cook” who was “all bowed over and his neck was stiff from drinking Jamaica ginger.” I found several references to Jamaica ginger online, but most concerned Prohibition. Basically, it was a “medicine” that got you drunk and it had some pretty bad side effects, including making you walk funny.

Dogfall — Bad guy Lucky Ned Pepper asks Rooster, “Do you think one on four is a dogfall?” In rodeo terminology, a dogfall is an illegal steer-wrestling maneuver.

Varnish train — After her adventure, Mattie rides home to Dardanelle, Arkansas, on what she calls a “varnish train.” She was referring to the fancy, wooden passenger cars of the day that were heavily varnished.

As someone with “write a novel” on her bucket list, I often find myself admiring great lines written by other writers, or being jealous that I didn’t write them myself. In “True Grit,” when describing how a particular gunshot hit its target, Portis writes, “The ball flew to its mark like a martin to its gourd…”

Simple, but you can totally see it, right?

I also appreciated (and identified with) this quote from the book. It’s attributed to Rooster, a man who’s had a string of jobs but makes his living tracking down (and shooting) bad guys: “Nothing I like to do pays well.”

Kind of like writing! Oh well, happy reading!

Thoughts on a Book: ‘The Road to Wellville’

BattleCreekSanitorium - photo
Patients at “The San” do breathing exercises. Circa 1900. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

I recently finished an interesting novel, “The Road to Wellville,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle. It’s a quirky little book about Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan.

While fictional, it does give you a good idea of some of the crazy things people will do — and have done to them — in the name of good health, or “biologic living” as Dr. Kellogg called it.

John_Harvey_Kellogg_ggbain.15047
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, Library of Congress photo.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the rich and ailing flocked to the Battle Creek Sanitarium — also known as “The San” — for daily enemas and all sorts of therapies. Patients maintained a meatless diet, with no coffee or tea. Coffee was said to cause liver disease and diabetes, and tea, mental illness.

Dr. Kellogg, father to 40-some foster or adopted children, also thought sex — even with one’s spouse  — was harmful and should be avoided.

As a happily married coffee addict who likes a good hamburger now and then, I don’t think I would have enjoyed “The San” one bit.

The book was pretty good, however, and I recommend it.