American

Finding Ultra

This is a review of the book, Finding Ultra, Revised and Updated Edition: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself, by Rich Roll. Rich Roll describes himself on his website as a “Plantpowered Wellness Advocate, Bestselling Author, Ultra-Athlete”. Credibility, established.

The story is great, the narrative poor. Read the book to know how the guy transforms his life and competes in Ultraman Championships and Ironman Championships. And if you’re listening to the audiobook, listen to it at *2 speed.

I think every runner can relate to portions of the book, like the description of pain while training, the laziness that creeps in, poor training methodology (do you know what a Z2 zone of training is? Ha!), the gluttonous monster within us all (somewhat like the Blerch), etc.

Unlike other books in the genre of running (Eat and Run, The Perfect Mile, Born to Run), though, this book is not an essential book for people who enjoy the sport, or for people who are looking to improve by fixing some chink in their armour. For Roll, the suffering is all mental, the physical struggles are easily surpassed. Poof. Unlike most of us, Rich is able to run a 10 miler right off the bat, within months of feeling dizzy while climbing a flight of stairs; he is able to stick to a diet without any problems; he is also able to manage his personal life and professional life without too many gliches; and he has a support system that sounds like it’s pulled right off the “Ideal Boy”/”Ideal Family”charts. Good for him, but it made me feel alien.

Rich Roll’s story is peppered with way too many references to plant-based eating (which even Jurek mentions in his book, but not so obsessively). Plantpowered still sounds corny to me, despite the infinite number of times it’s mentioned int he book. Plantpowered, really! Also, this book is a little too preachy for my liking. From page 270 – when I thought the book was set on a tangent to describing more insane endurance sports – it became all self-help (a genre I dislike). There’s also a part where he lambasts the government (of USA) for its agricultural subsidy policy. If you were me, you’d stop right where he finishes five Ironman distances in less than seven days. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get better after that.

Overall, the book is a quick and decent read for anyone who is into endurance sports; and especially so if one is looking for inspiration to turn one’s life around. Bottomline: If a severely alcoholic and obese person can become an Ultraman and more, you can roll out of bed and do that 5k this Sunday.

It’s a 3/5 from me. If you have checked his podcast out, please feel free drop a message about it!

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Shoe Dog

Phil Knight, the founder of Nike Inc., opens Shoe Dog with the description of a morning run. With that, he instantly connects with the average runner; a sense of camaraderie sets in, and lasts till the last page of the memoir. He’s up at an ungodly hour, laces up, stretches, feels his muscles groan and wake up, and hits the road; basking in the inimitable runners high. On his run, he consolidates his thoughts on what will turn out to be the most important decision of his and scores of runners’ lives, down the years. He decides to talk to his father, his only financier, about starting a company for running shoes. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Phil Knight’s partner was the legendary track coach, Bill Bowerman, who coached Phil at University of Oregon, as well as several Olympians, including the great Prefontaine. The company was built on the sweat and blood of shoe dogs, people who are passionate and borderline obsessed with shoes. About running shoes.

For years, this company that Phil Knight founded in 1963 was called Blue Ribbon. The story of the change of name to Nike and the design of the logo, the Swoosh, are parts of the memoir that are best left to the reader to enjoy afresh. The company was, essentially, an importer of running shoes from Japan. Onitsuka (ASICS today) was the manufacturer of these shoes. They were, however, conceptualised in America by Bill Bowerman, and later, Johnson, a salesman par excellence, with the help of many a running enthusiast, including stars and rookies in university tracks.

The path to self sufficiency in manufacturing shoes is studded with supply troubles and manic enthusiasm of the coterie that formed the core team of the company. It is safe to say that this team that nurtured Nike through its initial days, was built around the onslaught of liquidity crunches and multiple court cases, all of which were life-threatening to the company. For instance, Onitsuka sued Nike in Japan, and Nike sued back in America for breach of contract and trademark infringement. Daily affair for huge companies today, but it could have broken everything that Phil had built. The bad times at Nike went so far as to be notified to the FBI for fraud. This brush with law enforcement was cringe-worthy for anyone rooting for the company (or just for running shoes).

As a leader, Phil is disparaging in his take on his role, as he recounts his non-response to enthusiastic members of his team even when they demonstrated utmost dedication to the cause of Nike. Some of them maintained a ledger of the likes of customers, and also went so far as to not cash-in their paychecks. Phil is deeply grateful, though, through negotiations, court cases, and the biannual meetings called Buttface (thus christened to establish how non-conforming to the then corporate standards they were). It would have helped the reader to surmise the same had he described their lives more in depth, though.

Of the people that helped to make Nike possible, the role of Phil’s wife, who was their first accountant, is greatly underplayed. She is portrayed as a Mary Sue, with no say whatsoever in any matters. Also, due, in part, to this lack of regard for her part in Phil’s life, or for that matter, for the role that his family may have played, it would be apt to categorise this book as an account of the company, Nike, rather than as a memoir of its founder.

In the last chapter, Phil writes about why he wrote the memoir. After all, who really wants to know about the birth and growth of a company that sells “sports stuff”? In a candid couple of pages, he writes that his life’s purpose that has been somewhat realised through Nike, which he sees not as a profit making enterprise, but as a movement towards excellence. The memoir is thus meant to inspire people to start up, believe in their maniacal desires, pursue a calling, and the like. The everyday and the epic in the book, like the daily and personal struggles of the team members, or the geometric year on year increase in annual revenue, prove, surely, that pursuing one’s calling is the the most worthy thing to do.

The book gives us the tale of Nike from 1962 to 2006. Some years, however, have unfortunately been brushed over. Today Nike is worth much more than the $8000 annual turn over in 1963. In a way, it’s the story of a do-gooder capitalist, who stands as testament to all that’s well with free markets. One of the most saddening parts of the book, though, was the narration of the “so-called sweatshop” controversy, regarding the abysmal condition of Nike factories in China, Bangladesh. It is outrightly disregarded with deep contempt, rather than acknowledging the humanitarian issue that needed addressing. Nevertheless, since, Nike has risen to become the gold standard of factories in the East. A good comeback, that.

As the audience to the book, the slightly more initiated was given far too little to chew on. This is not a quintessential book for runners. Indeed, what would a shoe dog not have given to know more about the shoe designs, or to skim through pictures of the earliest prototypes and products! Neither is the book one for biography buffs. Though the fashionable modernist writing style of writing aided its readability and added to the spark of the book, it felt like it nourished more sound-bites than material.

That said, Shoe Dog is an entertaining page-turner for anyone that is willing to engage in a passionate memoir. It widens our understanding of today’s corporate giants. The book is at once the story of the company that tells us that there is no finish line, and a story about winning – with clinical precision and an enduring belief in one’s calling. Just like a professor of the jungle.

Water for Elephants

This is a review of the book, Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. It’s a story set in the 1930s in America, during the Great Depression. The narrator, our protagonist, is Jacob Jankowski, a ninety or ninety three year old man who wants, more than anything else, to sink his teeth in apples and to be able to walk independently. He tells us about his life, a good life, a big life.

Back in 1931, a couple of days before Jacob was to appear for his veterinary science final exams at Cornell, he gets a telephone call from home – his parents have met with a fatal car accident, and he is called to identify their bodies. His world crumbles under his feet. The house and his father’s veterinary practice are taken away by the bank, due to the mortgage that they had drawn for Jacob’s tuition fees. Homeless, he returns to Cornell to write his exams, only to undergo a mental breakdown and walk out of the exam hall without writing a word. There was no turning back for him.

Hours of walking leads him to a railway track, where he realises he’s penniless, without a degree, homeless and has nothing to lose. From the dark veil of the night comes the train carrying the Benzini Brother’s Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a circus. He gets on to it, and thus begins the story.

Water for Elephants is a heartrending tale about how circuses are (were?) run. There’s class-ism, murder, systemic brutality, torture, love, fear, madness and passion. But it is also a heartening tale about the success and joys of a team of people dependent on each other for their daily bread and for their boost of ego.

At Benzini Brothers, Jacob is taken in as the resident veterinarian. There, he falls in love with Marlena, the wife of the boss, August, a paranoid schizophrenic. The circus grows during the time Jacob is with them, to acquire a bull (elephant) called Rosie, who August has to train (which he does in the most dastardly fashion). Rosie doesn’t understand a word of what August says, and August doesn’t try harder than to strike at her with the bullhook. Over time, Benzini Bros run out of food and a good deal of humanity as well, as losses strike. In the meantime, the charming love affair between Jacob and Marlena grows.

One of the quirks of being a part of the circus is that there’s a hierarchy of statuses – the workmen come last, after the animals, and the bosses come first, above God. At times of adversity, the workmen who can be disposed of, are disposed off of, by throwing them off of running trains. Jacob discovers that this fate is not limited to workmen alone, though, and is open to be used on anyone who dares anger the bosses. As Jacob and Marlena fall in love, Jacob sets himself to be the best man to be thrown off the train and down a gorge. But Jacob is smart, Marlena sharp and Rosie, the Bull, is hilariously and cunningly terrific.

Rosie is a delight, the star attraction of the book – she steals from people’s backyards, steals all the water and lemonade, drinks alcohol like a skunk, and doesn’t understand a word of English. As August vents out his misgivings about Jacob and Marlena, the failings of the show, he harms Rosie in vengeance, going so far as to throw a lit cigarette into her mouth. And in the end, Rosie has her own smart ass way of getting back at him, and how!

The only issue I have with the book is that the character of Marlena was under developed and, worse still, she turns out to be a Mary Sue. Tsk. The best part, however, is that some of the scenes that stand out in the book are borrowed from true stories, like those of Rosie’s adventures.

I’d give Water for Elephants a 4/5 for being such a thoroughly enjoyable book, an almost perfect page turner meant for a long weekend. You might give it a higher rating if you visited a circus, or rode a horse, or even touched an elephant’s tough skin, while reading the book.

PS: The movie that goes by the same name does not hold a candle to the book.

The Sellout, a sell out

This is a review of The Sellout by Paul Beatty.

The novel is a political satire that can come off as a disturbing and disparaging reflection of the society. It’s about a black man, identified only as ‘Me’ or ‘The Sellout’, who is amused and angry with the American society for pretending not to be racist, and for forcing integration that many apparently would rather not be a part of. It hence provides a sharp reflection of the American society that has failed to become a society of equals.

His father, who home schooled him through unorthodox sociological and psychological conditioning methods, is killed in a police shootout. Soon after, his city, Dickens, is struck out of maps and left unidentified. Aghast, he tries to reclaim the identity of the city and figure his own identity out in the process. So, first, he goes about painting a rough boundary across the region to mark his city. Also, Hominy, a friend and a former side actor in TV shows, surrenders himself to Me as a slave (because “true freedom includes the right to be a slave”)! The Sellout then segregates his girlfriend’s bus, with a “whites only” sign. When he does it, the number of fights and complaints, typical to the bus, falls drastically. And what’s more, people try to reproduce such segregation in other parts of the ‘city’. Crime rates drop and people are nicer. Even the city’s elementary school is segregated with the help of Me and Hominy the Slave, leading to better performance of the students.

Eventually the State catches on, and a case is filed against Me. The case is escalated to the Supreme Court, where the Judge asks, finally, “whether a violation of civil rights law that results in the very same achievement these heretofore mentioned statutes were meant to promote, yet have failed to achieve, is in fact a breach of said civil rights.” This is the crux of the book. Is forced integration, which is mostly pointless and often debases a man, the right thing to do? Is it not better to not enforce integration if that’s what the people concerned want? Or as Hominy asks, “are we missing the forest for the trees”?

This review may make The Sellout seem like it’s a serious and highly political novel. But it’s also hilarious. At many instances, you’ll find yourself smiling at the genius. And you’ll be astounded by what is happening too. Beatty continuously disturbs, offends and jokes, through passages imbued with too much meaning to be called merely comedy.

My only real and major grouse with the book is that I didn’t follow some of the American popular culture references. The novel doesn’t really have a plot, but rides along just fine with the help of the biting humor. It also rolls like a speeding truck, from one crack of dry sarcasm to another, so it gives you little time to breathe between the lines.

Beatty incessantly pokes fun at literature, movies, etc., for selling out to the majoritarian views of the society. That made me wonder, now that The Sellout is as world famous and is being sold out at bookstores due to its apparent conformity to the majority of the buyers’ views, does that make this book a sellout too?

The final verdict: The Sellout is meant to be re-read till one is tired by the irony of the world one lives in.

4/5.

Here’s an excerpt (that I thought needs to be written in bold, underlined and italicized):

“What does that mean, I’m offended?”… “It’s not even an emotion. What does being offended say about how you feel?”… “If I ever were to be offended, I wouldn’t know what to do. If I’m sad, I cry. If I’m happy, I laugh. If I’m offended, what do I do, state in a clear and sober voice that I’m offended, then walk away in a huff so I can write a letter to the mayor?”

A Black Widow?

This is my review of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

My second Great-American-Novel-type book in a row. And I don’t mean it in an awestruck GREAT-American-Novel!!! kind of way. I mean it as a genre of fiction that offers a lot in terms of insights into culture, but not much in terms of plot. For instance, The Great Gatsby is certainly well written, and afforded a peek into the culture of partying and bootlegging that I knew nothing about. But strip away the novelty and you have a confusing tangle of plot, with some unrequited love and an unsatisfying ending. The same applies to Jacob I Have Loved, to a certain extent.

The themes of this book are (in the trendy hashtag style) #feminism #blackpower #womenempowerment #everglades (?). The story is narrated by Janie, a close to middle-aged woman who returns to her hometown after being away for several years. Her neighbours don’t know why she has returned and accuse her of vaguely immoral things, since she was recently married to Tea Cake (the origin of this name goes unexplained), a man much younger than herself.

Janie is misunderstood, though. As a teenager, she was married to a much older man, mostly because there was no one else to look after her. Her second marriage also failed- he saw her as a trophy wife and didn’t treat her with respect. It was her third marriage to Tea Cake that showed her what a healthy relationship should be. They move away and set up a business, but a hurricane strikes.

This book definitely takes you to a different time and place, with its black dialect and culture. But the ending is a little too strange compared to the bleak portrait that had been painted earlier. If you like this novel, try out The Color Purple, which is also about the struggles of black women in the time of racial segregation.

3/5.

Grown-up children

This is my review of Jacob I Have Loved by Katherine Paterson.

Have you read Bridge to Terabithia? It’s impossible to get through it without tearing up- I dare you! Katherine Paterson is clearly an author who knows how to bring depth and emotion to the shortest, lightest stories. So I picked up Jacob I Have Loved with high expectations. To be honest, I was let down.

The protagonist of the story is Sara Louise “Wheeze” Bradshaw, who believes that her twin sister, Caroline, gets a lot more attention than she does. Which is probably true- Caroline is a musical prodigy, while Wheeze spends most of her time fishing. But this isn’t ordinary sibling rivalry; Wheeze has nightmares of killing her sister. The situation worsens when Caroline gets a generous scholarship to pursue music lessons at a boarding school. Wheeze drops out of school and helps her father with his fishing. Eventually she works up the courage to leave her tiny town and build a life for herself elsewhere.

I had several problems with this story. Firstly, it’s quite dated and uninspiring. Wheeze studies hard to complete her high school exams and begin college, where she decides to pursue a degree in medicine. Her professor tells her that medicine is a difficult career for a woman and encourages her to switch to nursing instead… Which she does, without a second thought or regret. Secondly, I felt that Wheeze “settling down” was itself unbelievable. She spends so much time in the book struggling with her ambitions and frustration with being stuck in a small town, that I found it hard to accept that she was satisfied in another small town, even if she did have a loving family and rewarding career. Her animosity towards Caroline didn’t get closure either. The same for her inappropriate crush on a family friend who is older than her father.

The book is not all bad though. It is a good coming of age story and in a strange way reminded me that teenage angst often simply fades away, however overwhelming your troubles seem. Like in Bridge to Terabithia, Paterson shows that she can take children seriously, and that’s a rare quality in an author.

3.5/5 from me.