The Boys in the Boat: An Epic True-Life Journey to the Heart of Hitler’s Berlin, by Daniel James Brown, Macmillan, RRP£20, 320 pages
Like Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit and Michael Lewis’s Moneyball before it, The Boys in the Boat has all the ingredients for a film adaptation. Written with cinematic precision, it tells the true story of Joe Rantz, who grows up in obscurity during the Great Depression only to triumph over adversity as one of the US rowing crew that won gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Alongside Rantz is a memorable cast including dust-bowl itinerants, a terse, monosyllabic and enigmatic young coach and a well-spoken Englishman with a genius for boatbuilding. There’s a backdrop of Hooverville shanty towns, a national obsession with rowing (this was a time when great oarsmen would feature on the cover of Time magazine) and the dark threat of Nazism on the horizon.
Daniel James Brown deftly handles the various strands of his story, weaving a moving, enlightening and gripping tale. Read it now before the inevitable Oscar-winning movie is made.
Review by Carl Wilkinson
The World is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village, by Anna Badkhen, Riverhead Books, RRP£17.70/$26.95, 288 pages
In her account of life in Oqa, a rural village in northern Afghanistan so remote that even Google Earth can’t find it, journalist Anna Badkhen is the latest chronicler to show how great beauty can come out of great deprivation.
Like their ancestors, Oqa’s villagers survive by weaving carpets. The best carpets have a density of 240 knots per square inch; these will be sold in the west for large sums – even though the weavers will be paid only a pittance. Over the course of a year Badkhen painstakingly charts the lives of ordinary Afghans, as every knot is tied and a carpet slowly appears.
Men smoking opium dream of escape and discuss the wars that have plagued Afghanistan. Women, at their looms, interrupt their work to exchange raunchy jokes or fill in for wedding musicians frightened off by the Taliban.
Badkhen’s intense language is sometimes wilfully abstruse but occasionally borders on the sublime. The World is a Carpet is a well-spun tale of a remote world we rarely see.
Review by Charlie McCann