memoir

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.

Advertisements

A Country Doctor’s Notebook

Remember the Netflix show A Young Doctor’s Notebook I mentioned last time? Daniel Radcliffe plays a newly-minted doctor who is chucked into Middle-of-Nowhere, Russia, to run the hospital there. He faces syphilis, gangrene, and boredom and lives to tell the tale. It’s dark, dark humour, friends. Not for the faint of heart.

Well, when I realized that it was based on a real-life memoir (or stories-based-on-real-life, rather) , of course I had to read it. The show got over much too quickly for my liking and I wanted more stories about the horrible doctor Nika.

But- much to my dismay- the memoir was written in earnest by a sincere and competent doctor/author who lived and worked in Russia a hundred years ago. Imagine the guilt. A Country Doctor’s Notebook, by Mikhail Bulgakov is a short book but packs a punch.

A hundred years ago, Mikhail Bulgakov kept a journal about his experiences in a village hospital in Smolensk. In 1920, he published a compilation of short stories based on these years. Bulgakov comes across as an earnest young man, far from the show’s portrayal of him. The simplicity and humility of the narration (courtesy a Russian-English translator) reminded me of RK Narayan.

Unlike Malgudi Days, however, this book did not have me longing for a simpler time. It’s hard to feel nostalgic for the days of poor anaesthesia, disinfectants, and primitive amputations. Oh, and also the Russian Revolution. There is no romance, or comedy- only homesickness and desperation. It’s difficult to say any more about the stories for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that doctors back then had unimaginable struggles.

I’ll stick to my policy of not rating real-life stories, but be warned that this collection is not especially eventful or entertaining. Interestingly though, its original publication date of 1917 makes it one of the oldest books I’ve ever read (with the possible exception of ‘classics’).

Queen of the Court

This is a review of Queen of the Court, Serena Williams’s autobiography, penned with Daniel Paisner. She gives us rare insights into her childhood, training regimen, among other curious details in the life of a champion. The book was published in 2009, when she had “only” 11 Grand Slams to her name. Today she holds a record whopping 23!

When I picked the book up, the first thing that occurred to me was that I knew very little about what Serena Williams is made of; what kind of person is she? Is she as tortured as Agassi was, as hard on herself as Nadal, or as perfectly naturally athletic like Roger Federer? What is it about her, the sinew and guts, that make her the Queen of the court?

Legend has it that Serena and sister, Venus Williams, were born because of some happenstance by which their father was watching the 1978 French Open on TV. The announcer mentioned that the player, Virginia Ruzici, had just earned $40,000 during one week of tournament play, more than Serena’s father earned all year. He was stunned and inspired. The story goes that he went up their mother and said, “We need to make two more kids and make them into tennis superstars.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

They made tennis their life. The older Williams girls were trained along with the young potential protégées. In their household, every little game was about tennis, and every day, needless to say, was spent hitting balls, or practicing form, or watching a game. This tennis regimen involved a lot of homework for the parents, especially their dad, who was their coach in the formative years. For him, training the girls included learning the game, the tricks involved, game play, coaching methods and juggling his day job with the tennis-life. The focus with which the girls were brought up, and the up keep of that spirit – with love and respect for the game – is commendable to say the very least.

The Williamses’ dedication to the sport, bordering on religion, is almost unthinkable, given that they literally practiced in courts while next door there raged gun violence. They hopped from public court to public court, with an old car loaded with balls, racquets and brooms to clean the court (of dry leaves, if they’re lucky, and drug paraphernalia, if not). The girls themselves were driven and passionate, with abundant conviction and confidence, from the beginning, that they would be tennis stars one day. Their father kept the improbability of that away from them, though.

As a child, Serena sees herself as the spoilt brat in the family; the youngest one who is spoiled with love and affection, the one who hides under the shadow of the big sisters, and the one that gets away with all sorts of mischief. One such mischievous act got her career as a professional tennis player started. When Serena was 8, her sister Venus entered a professional 10-and-under tournament, as per her father-coach’s plan. Serena, who always wanted what Venus had (and who believed she was ready!), demanded that she be allowed to play too. Her father felt she was not ready yet, and so turned a deaf ear to her. Come tournament day, the family travelled together as usual, and Serena was tagging along with Venus and her father. When they reached the courts, however, Serena slipped away. Her father noticed, only a little later, that she had wandered off. He asked one of the referees if he’d seen Serena (who was a known face, there, being dark skinned and being a part of the Venus entourage and all). “She’s playing her match, out back in court number..” he said. Apparently, Serena had taken the liberty to enter the tournament by herself! And she proved her father’s fears wrong.

This spunky young lady, though, is besotted with self-doubt. But, due to the criticism of the nay-sayers, who had pinned her down to forever be no more than “Venus’s little sister”, or despite it, she rose through the ranks and held her own. She suffered through injury, the loss of a sister to gun violence, vicious hatred and racism on and off the court, and still came at the top of her game.

Although the book was a quick read, it dwells on many aspects of Serena’s life, from childhood to adulthood. It touches upon many facets too, from family to training to sponsorships to fashion. It also has some family pictures and some entries from her journal, which make the memoir all the more personal and stirring. (Although I would have liked very much if the textese were corrected.)

But the book didn’t fully satisfy the curiosity that I picked it out with. Now I know what she wrote in her little Match Book, one that she leafs through during matches, like, “U will not be afraid. It is not in your vocabulary. It is not in your nature. It is not in U, period. NO FEAR!!!” I also know how much she loved fashion and thrived on the looks she created for each tournament. I know, too, that she was moved by her visit to Africa (a Roots-esque visit, I’d say). But I don’t know how she really battled her poor self-image, how she remained efficient even as her haters grew louder, and I don’t know the little details of her practice and cross training, or diet, and I am fully blindsided on her childhood outside of the tennis courts, which, I reckon, made her into the tough lady we see on court.

Also, since the book was written in 2009, I had no way of learning about her journey since (duh), which has only been more inspiring than not.

In 2017, she won the Australian Open when she was in the first trimester of her pregnancy. What wouldn’t I give to know what she wrote in her Match Book for the finals? Here’s a picture of the Queen at the 2017 Australian Open –

serena.png

One of Serena’s Post-it mantra for success: “Hold serve, hold serve, hold serve. Focus, focus, focus. Be confident, be confident, be confident. Hold serve, hold, hold. Move up. Attack. Kill. Smile.”

For someone who plays tennis, Queen of the Court is a must read. 5/5. For the rest, who hope to learn how to hit a top-spin, the book is no good. For a tennis or sports fan, the book is worth a slow weekend. 3/5.

She’s a Killer Queen
Gunpowder, gelatine
Dynamite with a laser beam
Guaranteed to blow your mind
Anytime

(Queen, Killer Queen)

Showbiz

This is my review of Bossypants by Tina Fey, narrated by Tina Fey.

All right, yes, audiobooks are cheating. But Tina Fey’s a comedienne, so her narration is likely to be better than her prose, right?

Bossypants is a memoir of Tina Fey’s life and career (up until a few years ago). She starts off talking about her childhood and early career. This part was quite amusing, because she no doubt had several anecdotes to choose from, and it is evident from the narration that she is a very talented at comedy. One of my favourite quotes: “Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.”

It’s nearly impossible to go wrong with topics like this. Nearly every girl has memories of awkward adolescence. And the terrible first job, where you’re simultaneously incompetent and also infinitely superior to your coworkers. It stops being relatable when she begins her stint at SNL, though. Instead of juicy showbiz tales, she focuses on her (in)famous role as Sarah Palin and walking the fine line between humour and mockery. The section on starting off 30Rock is also disappointing.

The best part about this book is the complete lack of preachy-advice-for-young women. Fey acknowledges her relatively privileged upbringing and television success without seeming self deprecating or resorting to false modesty. She is talented, definitely, and spent years honing her skills in touring improv groups before hitting the bigtime. Her family life is also refreshingly ordinary, and she expresses genuine appreciation and respect for many of her colleagues. All in all, this is a very readable book, unlike other certain other memoirs *cough*.

3/5 from me, listen to the audiobook for amusing narration that doesn’t require (or provoke) too much thought.

What I particularly disliked was a section towards the end that seemed like a stream of consciousness discourse on the topic of whether or not she should have another child (she eventually did, Wikipedia says). I realize that motherhood is a life-altering event, and work-life balance, the biological clock, and childcare are all major issues for working women. However, as someone who cannot relate (and honestly, was just there for the comedy), this seemed like an almost awkwardly personal commentary. I would suggest just skipping it if you can.

Heroes in Habits

This is my review of Call the Midwife, a memoir by Jennifer Worth.

Not too long ago, when I was on my BBC bender, Netflix suggested a British television series named Call the Midwife. At first glance, I assumed it was a clever parody of other hospital dramas. After all, it’s about a group of nuns who deliver babies in the mid-twentieth century; and as we know, typical hospital series today basically involve a lot of sex in on-call rooms. But it’s a serious drama, and could not be more different from ER or Grey’s Anatomy. While I don’t particularly enjoy dramas without a tight plotline, some historical issues they brought up were interesting from a historical perspective. For instance, the thalidomide tragedy. So I looked up the memoir on which the series was based, hoping for some poignant anecdotes.

 

Jennifer Worth decided to take up midwifery, with all the idealism of youth. She joined a nursing group run by a Catholic organization and staffed mainly by nuns. They worked in London’s East End, a run-down, poverty-stricken area. From domestic abuse to poor hygiene to fatal ignorance, several events had the naive Jennifer questioning her decisions. But her ever-cheerful coworkers and the patient nuns inspired her to plough on through all-nighters and tragic losses.

I was a bit disappointed with this book. There were several anecdotes, as promised, but most of the challenges faced in the East End were sociological and not medical. It is, however, a stark reminder of how far we have come in terms of scientific progress and medical technology. At the time, anaesthetics were just being introduced; I cannot imagine how painful childbirth must have been back then.

Read this book if you’re looking for a historical memoir of a different kind. 3.5/5

Philosophizing Mortality

This is a review of two books that have changed the lives of the writers and readers in profound ways: Tuesdays With Morrie, by Mitch Albom, and When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi.

I have clubbed the two books together because they fall in the same genre of books; they both are incredibly insightful about life and its workings, in a way that perhaps only those who are literally facing mortality can perceive. The books are also vehicles of strength to the writers. For Morrie Schwartz, the Tuesdays he spent with Albom in writing Tuesdays With Morrie gave him the mental energy to go through ALS. Dr Paul Kalanithi, a successful neurosurgeon, wrote When Breathe Becomes Air so as to take the second road (of the Two roads (that) diverged in a wood..), to be the littérateur that he didn’t become; and in doing so, he fulfills a long held wish, even as he struggled through lung cancer.

Carpe Diem!

When Breathe Becomes Air speaks about how life can be defined and redefined by living courageously. Carpe Diem.

paul

When Paul Kalanithi (the handsome young man in the picture above) mailed a friend, upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer, he wrote, “The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” This kind of charm is hard not to fall for. Rendering a sobering account of death at the doorstep, to be inviting and friendly (and, with due respect, a page turner as well), is something only as skillful a writer, and as clear headed a man, could have done. Yes, I’m a fan of this fine doctor.

For another sample of his writing skill, take the example of how he employed motifs like nature. He uses his childhood in the Arizonian desert to also symbolise a terrifying lull in his life. Terrifying, because it included pleasant company like tarantulas, and a lull, because his family had relocated from the din of Manhattan. This lull was also meant to stand in for the exciting phase of the quiet before the storm, and in this case, a welcome one including academic success.

Kalanithi’s deliberate dissection of what it means to be a doctor is written with a sharp scalpel. To him, being a doctor was less about the job, and more about his own calling. He was about to take up a great job at Stanford before he was diagnosed with cancer.

After he reads the scan that confirmed his lung cancer, everything that was, ceased to be. But in a mark of great courage and dedication, after a short sabbatical for treatment, he goes back to being a surgeon to finish his residency, and to doing what he knew he was best at. Envisioning the future continued to confuse and trouble Paul, though. Sure, he could take life on, one day at a time, but when he didn’t know how many days were left, what could he do?

When Breath Becomes Air isn’t meant to be a self help book, so don’t read it if that’s what you expect of it. It’s an intimate account of a doctor’s realisation of what it feels like to face death and to deal with the central issue related to his confrontation with mortality – life. The ‘unfairness’ of Paul’s cancer is not easy to fathom. And the credit for that goes to Paul’s ability to transform the narrative from being a sob story to being one that stokes at the readers’ emotions – not with the fact that he’s dying, but by drawing the readers into his life – by showing them what he loves, his passion, and then by rudely swatting away their wishes for him. However, at an unseemly moment or two, a tiny part of me wondered how it is that he is so perfect. His profession was looking enviable by all accounts, he was a loving husband, a rational and affectionate doctor. There are only virtues. Is death his ultimate and only flaw?

As opposed to Paul’s book (carpe diem!), Tuesdays With Morrie asks us to pause life. To introspect. And to live well.

Live. Laugh. Love.

Tuesdays With Morrie exhorts you to make the right choices, in life and relationships. Albom tries to narrate how his life was spiritually transformed in the time he spent with Morrie, and since.

tuesdays

The most lovely part about Morrie’s book is Morrie himself. He’s a wise professor of Sociology, who has an aura of having understood life, in and out. Often, it seemed like he was speaking to me with a twinkle in his eye. The book flits between the past and present, and is a quick read. It’s also written well overall, but lacks flow of thought to suit the ideas that Morrie is trying to convey. Albom tries to be a wallflower interlocutor, but sprinkles the book with his regrets and feelings and fleeting images of his dreams. That was actually underdone in my opinion. I’d have liked to have read more about how Morrie changed his students’ lives.

Albom turns the book, which was supposed to be insightful to the uninitiated, into a self help book with too much indigestible fibrous life advice (“Love always wins”?). For all his assertions of spiritual transformation, Albom is highly guarded about what that transformation entailed, leaving me, as a reader, skeptical. Also, I thought the editors could have done a better job with compartmentalising the book by reducing the eccentric random insertion of chapters, which consisted of italicized text and no context. Or was that part of the beauty of the book?

Similar, yet so different

As I read the books and wrote this review, a question has gnawed at my brain – is it right to judge or review books that confront and philosophize mortality? (I did it anyway)

In Tuesdays, there is a the somewhat maudlin insistence that Morrie’s experiences and learnings must be taken to be biblical. Lessons from those experiences are pontificated as life lessons for everyone. On the other hand, Paul was more accommodating, in the sense that he didn’t seek to change anyone’s lives. He simply wanted to be heard – for his own and his family’s sake – and in the bargain, he moved us. The biggest, and possibly most irreverent, criticism against Tuesdays is that it felt bland after reading Paul’s memoir. (So don’t read it in that order). After Paul, one would want a personal memoir. But in Tuesdays, you get general advice about life and relationships, in crisp sentences which are not guaranteed to affect you personally or create a long lasting impression.

In a world of people who readily offer advice on life choices, Morrie’s advice came off as sermonizing, and Paul seemed like a friend whose advice you would read between the lines.

As I mentioned in the beginning of the review, the books belong to the same genre. But I’d hazard the opinion that they are appealing to different age groups. Kalanithi’s book is likely to have more takers among young and middle aged readers. Tuesdays with Morrie is more a book for the wisest among us who can understand and appreciate the gravity of what is written.


Treat Tuesdays With Morrie like the interview of a beloved teacher who has a great idealistic mantra to share with you. 2/5 if you’re not a Chicken Soup reader. I hear that the recordings of Morrie’s Tuesday sessions are highly rated.

Read When Breathe Becomes Air if you want to enjoy a well written book by a man who courageously reinvents his life, keeping in mind the fact that he has very little of it left. 4.5/5

PS: As Paul Kalanithi’s fan, I went looking for stuff he’d written. Here’s an excerpt from an essay he for The Washington Post –

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

No Stone-Throwing Here

This is my review of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

This is a memoir, and I hate ‘reviewing’ memoirs- who am I to rate a person’s life on a scale of 1-5? But I CAN recommend you read/skip a book, and that’s what I’ll do.

Jeannette Walls is a well-known journalist. Well, I hadn’t heard of her, but that just means that she isn’t internationally famous. This is a memoir of her very colourful childhood, which was spent in many towns and living conditions.

Walls’ parents were hippie-esque in their approach to child rearing. They believed that children learn through experience, and this resulted in serious physical injury in at least one instance. In addition, her father could not hold down a job and the family often faced poverty to the point of starvation. Oh, and both Jeannette and her brother are sexually abused… by members of their own family.

She experienced experienced enough neglect, poverty and abuse for half a dozen lifetimes of therapy. But despite (or maybe because of?) it all, she emerged a successful and content person. In particular, I appreciated the fact that she describes her parents in such a positive light despite their obvious flaws and questionable parenting technique. Some narratives reminded me of the hero worship that very young children have for their fathers. It’s touching to read about it through the eyes of a child, rather than those of a jaded, bitter adult.

But this isn’t a rags-to-riches pseudo inspiring story (those never inspire me, perhaps because I didn’t start from rags, but good quality hand-me-downs?). Walls is modest and open about her achievements, and describe her and her siblings’ adult lives as normal, successful but not exceptionally so, a few failed relationships and unfulfilling jobs leading to stable families and careers.

Okay, so clearly I was impressed by the perspective. Apart from that, there’s not much to draw you into the book. It’s not embellished or dramatized and the author has an annoying way of running her words together with no regard to hyphenation.

4/5

 

 

 

Graphic Memoirs Are Cool

This is my review of Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green. As the name implies, this memoir is primarily about the author’s struggles with eating disorders. Quite a bleak read.

To be honest, I picked up this book because it was right next to a fat, colourful Asterix compendium… that was in French. College libraries for the win! But I digress.

Despite my initial skepticism (largely because it wasn’t Asterix), I ended up finishing this fat 500+ page tome in one sitting. It draws you in with its simple illustrations and narrative.

Katie was always a picky eater. She talks about how she hid away unwanted food as a child, and speculates whether that was an early symptom of the illnesses that plagued her for over a decade. During her teen years, she became sensitive to comments on her appearance, triggering her spiral into anorexia. After a brief recovery, she falls ill again and takes the help of an alternative healer to get rid of her ‘negative energy’. Seemingly cured, she heads off to college for a degree in Biology.

Her demons creep up on her again, this time in the form of binge eating. She seeks help again- from a real therapist this time- and slowly but steadily works her way back to health. Armed with some insight into her thought patterns and feelings towards food, she faces her illness head on. Plus she switches careers and becomes an illustrator. This memoir is, interestingly, her first work.

I liked this book for its minimalist illustrations and simple ways of representing complex emotions. However, I think that the whole premise falls flat unless the reader can relate to eating disorders, or Katie’s way of thinking in general. It is so personal and introspective that a bystander must either share in the emotions or move along. Either way, Katie Green has great talent and I will definitely be looking her up in the future.

3.5/5