They didn’t come from privilege or prep school; the nine young men in the University of Washington scull who won gold in the 1936 Olympics, infuriating the Führer while the home crowd cheered, were the sons of farmers, loggers and longshoremen. And they came to epitomize American grit and grace. In The Boys in the Boat, who they were, how they became one of the greatest rowing teams ever, the challenges they faced and the victories they fought for become more than just an exciting sports story. Daniel James Brown’s strong, cinematic narrative puts it all in fascinating historical context: Seattle in the dark days of the Depression; Berlin, transformed by Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl to conceal Nazi brutality. Joe Rantz, an oarsman with an especially difficult background, is the emotional magnet, but his valiant compatriots, coaches and mentors get their due and our admiration. If you can get through Edward Herrmann’s absorbing performance without shedding tears of joy, you’re a lot tougher than I am.
THE SHANGHAI SLEEPER
It’s reassuring when a thriller is told in the first person—you know the narrator will make it out alive. The unnamed narrator—whom I grew to care about—of Charles McCarry’s latest, The Shanghai Factor, is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, from a “good” family and Ivy League schools, who speaks passable Mandarin. He’s in Shanghai as a sleeper for a shadowy U.S. intelligence agency, waiting for something to wake him up. When Mei, a beautiful young Chinese woman with unaccented Bostonian English, crashes into him on her bicycle, he’s sure it’s a setup, but that makes their intense sensual relationship over the next two years all the more exciting. After our guy in Shanghai worms his way into a large firm that may be a front for Guoanbu (China’s CIA), he’s called back to D.C. and told to act as a double agent, turning the probable Guoanbu operatives who are trying to turn him. It’s complicated and of the moment and, in McCarry’s masterful hands, becomes a fascinating study of spy tradecraft, where no one is as he or she seems and deception is the norm. No high-speed chases, no trendy technology; this is an intricately plotted tale of believable espionage that, read by Stephen Bowlby, becomes an intriguing audio.
TOP PICK IN AUDIO
Still Foolin’ ’Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?, Billy Crystal’s new memoir, is everything you’d expect from this acclaimed actor, writer, producer, film director and world-class comedian. Though the book is a great read, this audio version, performed by Crystal himself, is even better. His timing is perfect; he laughs, ad-libs a little and even chokes up as he talks about how much his wife of 43 years means to him. Now, 65 and astounded that he could have turned from “a hip, cool baby boomer into a Diane Arbus photograph,” Crystal muses on life, love, fatherhood, the ins and outs of his fabulous career, his beloved Yankees and the slippery slide down the geriatric slope. Outrageously public about his privates (and everyone else’s), his stand-up schtick on senior sex alone is worth the price of admission. But be careful! Listening while driving, treading on a treadmill or stirring up a stir-fry could be hazardous to life and limb—this is unredacted, laugh-out-loud humor, Billy Crystal at his bravura best.