BRAVE DRAGONS by JIM YARDLEY

Before I even start writing the review – disclosure time.

I am in book club in Delhi with the author’s wife, Theo.  So I am not totally impartial, especially since we were all privy to some of the labour pains involved in the final stages of this fascinating book.  I cyber-followed Jim’s book tour earlier this year with great interest, and we ladies of book club were all happy that Theo could join him for part of it.

Secondly, I am not in the least a sports fan, know absolutely nothing about basketball, and have never even watched a single match, not even on TV.

So, I approached this book from a different perspective, to be honest, much more intent on the culture clashing promised on the title page than the ins and outs of basketball.

Right.

Review time.

First things first – loved the look and the feel of the book – a nice hardback, and those slightly uneven, rough-cut pages were reassuringly solid and real, if that makes any sense.

Mr. Yardley – oh what the heck, may I call you Jim ? –  so Jim Yardley, clearly a basketball fan of serious note, used to live in China, where he was the foreign correspondent for the New York Times.

His book chronicles the ups and downs and oftentimes downright bizarreness of a not very good Chinese basketball team that employs an American coach.

Culture clash doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The author spends lots of time with the team and the looser entourage of translators, coaches, and trainers in the unattractive, gritty, highly polluted industrial city of Taiyuan.  He stays in Taiyuan, he travels with the team throughout China, and is clearly both a sounding board and a listening post for both the Chinese and the handful of Americans caught up in the world of the “Shanxi Brave Dragons.”

Jim Yardley’s approach to the story of the Brave Dragons, the sometimes hapless team whose fortunes form the core story of the book, is to chat around and about the subject of basketball and the games, and then through this prism, introduce us to background sporting history, his thoughts on Chinese politics, and his wry, often hilarious observations of Chinese society.

It was the latter that made the book for me.

Sure, I was happy that the Brave Dragons ended the season ranked 10th (surely not a plot spoiler ?) but the whole sporty aspect of the book didn’t enthuse me as much as the author’s often beautiful writing about China.

You see, the trouble for me with the basketball bits was, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t really follow the nuances.

Some of it was almost impenetrable :

 

 

 

 

I have no idea what an alley oop dunk is, but it does sounds amazing, I have to say :

 

Where Jim Yardley is unsurpassed is when he describes the China in which he lives, a country evolving every day, eager for change yet sometimes afraid of it. Anxious to understand American culture and oftentimes failing totally –  which is more than can be said for most of the American players who appear disinterested by China and the Chinese, intent only on money and winning the game their way, and with no interest whatsoever in trying to learn any of the language of their host country.

The author’s descriptions of the smoky, dirty, noisy city of Yaiyuan bring the place to life, warts and all :

He has a fine eye for people, both their appearance and their conversation.  Garrison Guo  –  a translator –  is one of the nicest people in this cast of amazing characters and from the first moment he walks into the pages of the book, I was hooked :

A soufflé of 1970s hair –  now how gorgeous a description is that ?

 Guo’s English is good, and this is – amazingly –  why :

We presume Garrison didn’t learn English the “Crazy Emglish” way :

 

There is a certain amount –  no, correction – lots of linguistic tangles, but these are so well handled by Jim Yardley that you laugh along with the Chinese players, never laugh at them.  The author writes with a sensitive helping hand.  The hilarious “groove” moment is a case in point :

 

Jim Yardley is equally perceptive when it comes to his fellow ex-pats, closel guarding their hard-earned China expertise :

During a noisy taxi ride along shockingly awful roads with Garrison, the latter asks Jim Yardley a question.  The author’s answer is, in essence, the explanation of why he wrote the book :

 

These cultural tangles, the author’s attempts to understand them himself and then explain them to us are the backbone of this funny, informative look at politics, economy, history –  and, of course, his beloved basketball –  alley oop dunks included.

 

The hardback edition of “Brave Dragons” was published by Knopf in 2012 and sells for US$ 26.95

If, after reading this, you would like to but the book, simply click on the link below :

EVERY LAST ONE by ANNA QUINDLEN

There are books that move you, there are books that make you cry, and then there is “Every Last One”.  This book made the reviewer sob and cry more than any other book ever read.  Ever.  Great sobs of anguish and heart-wrenching emotion.

It is a novel to be cherished, and relished, both for the story-line and the writing.  It is beautifully, fabulously written, and if you are a parent, especially a mother, you spend much of the book saying “Yes, oh yes, I know exactly what she means, I know exactly how she feels.”

Reviewing without spoiling the book by revealing too much means, naturally, that only part of the plot can be shared here.  “Every Last One” is a minute, highly detailed, extra-ordinarily loving portrait of family life. Mary Beth Latham is the mother of 3 teenage children whom she loves passionately, and is not afraid of showing it, tip-toeing into her 14 year old twins’ bedroom  in the morning, to “bury my nose into their necks, beginning to smell the slightly pungent scent of male beneath the sweetness of child.”

Mary Beth, in a word, lives for her family.

She has put her own life and career pretty much on hold, to devote herself to her husband and children.  The book is a chronicle of sibling rivalry and growing pains, of the issues of handling twins who are very different, one a popular extrovert, one a secretive introvert.  There are friends, school-friends, and neighbours, and the children of neighbours, and Mary Beth’s oldest friend from college, and she cares about them all in varying degrees of exhaustion, as she tries to keep everything together and harmonious.

Her home is also a home from home for her pretty daughter’s oldest friend, Kiernan.  Ruby and Kiernan have been friends since they were pre-schoolers, and now they are a little bit in love –  or rather, Kiernan is besotted with Ruby, who knows he is.  At the outset, Ruby quite likes the adoration, and the attention.  Kiernan takes beautiful photos of the the beautiful Ruby, buys her gifts, leaves her little surprises in her own home, which is his 2nd home.  He spends much of his time there, and since May Beth loves him, and knows his distinctly dis-functional family life, she allows him to be part of her family, and meal times, and festivities.

The life of an average American family unfolds.

School, sports, camp, Halloween, Thanksgiving, thinking about college applications.  Prom dress shopping, step-parents, glasses of wine with the mothers after school. Cooking, supermarket, divorced neighbours, even a tragic drowning in a pool, an event which sends ripples of black misery through the book.  All the threads that make up the fabric of small-town, East coast family life are there.

There is a wonderful portrait of Alice, Mary Beth’s friend from her college days, who is an older, unmarried mother, having had her son Liam using donor sperm.  Alice phones regularly from New York to ask Mary Beth’s advice.  “I am not one of those crazy older mothers” is her leitmotiv, to which Mary Beth always says to herself, “She is one of those crazy older mothers.”

Alice and Liam’s visit to stay with the Lathams is lovely.  3 year old Liam trots happily away with the twins, preferring to hang out with them rather than with his slightly disappointed mother. While the teenage boys negoitate diapers, Ruby drinks with her godmother and mother, the latter a little discomfited by the obvious bond of trust between her daughter and her own best friend.

All of these family and friend vignettes are so familiar in essence, that the book is almost like reading a diary, but all along there is a slight, way-below-the-surface suspicion that it is all a tad too perfect, too loving.  Then comes what the back-cover blurb describes as “a shocking act of violence” and the second half of this powerful novel describes the aftermath of this act, and how Mary Beth and her family deal with it.

To say any more would be a spoiler.

Read.

Enjoy.

Be prepared to cry and gasp out loud with pain at times, and at the end, to sit, as this reviewer did, dazed with emotion.

An unequivocal 10/10.

“Every Last One” is published by Hutchinson and sells in India for Rs 550.

If you wish to buy the book –  and it is an amazing read –  simply click on the link below.  Couldn’t be easier :