Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of
book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works they
enjoyed most over the previous month. Pull up a chair, order your
cappuccino and join in the fun. If you wish to add your own review to
the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.
Title: Seabiscuit: An American Legend
Author: Laura Hillenbrand
I think of Seabiscuit
as being a recent publication but 2001 was 14 years ago. It was the rare sports book that transcends genre, setting a new standard for a thoroughly researched, fully engaging non-fiction work, easily accessible to someone who knows nothing about the sport in question. A publishing sensation, it vaulted from the New York Times
bestseller list to the big screen. The film, starring Tobey Maguire was a critical and commercial success in its own right. I finally got around to reading the book this month.
Seabiscuit was one of the most famous racehorses in American history and easily the most famous who never won a Triple Crown race. In 1938, according to Hillenbrand, more newspaper space was devoted to this extraordinary thoroughbred than to President Roosevelt. He was a late bloomer, too old for the Kentucky Derby by the time he came into his own, yet he bested every major rival of his era, most famously War Admiral, 1937's Triple Crown winner. Underestimated by the eastern establishment, Seabiscuit put California racing on the map and was the perfect underdog symbol of a depressed nation in desperate need of inspiring heroes.
The horse and his supporting cast are vividly drawn. Larger than life owner Charles Howard contrasts with trainer Tom Smith who spoke only when absolutely necessary. Jockeys Red Pollard and George Woolf are both daring and more than a little crazy. The stallion himself, though, is the star - proud, fiercely competitive and displaying evidence of a playful sense of humor. Early temperament issues were subdued by expert handling, his success as much a product of nurture as nature.
I grew up in Maryland, one of the most important horse racing states in the country. Yet I've never been to the track nor placed a bet on a horse. But off and on, I've been drawn to the sport as a casual fan. The Black Stallion
movies certainly fueled my imagination as a child. Hillenbrand balances the excitement and the dangers of racing well. Horse racing was a far more popular sport in the age of radio than it is now but the jockeys were also more vulnerable. Pollard himself was instrumental in establishing the Jockeys' Guild, essentially the profession's first labor union.
There are many interesting parallels with Daniel James Brown's chronicle of the University of Washington crew of the same era, The Boys in the Boat
(my review here
). Both books examine sports more popular in the '30s. Both address the bias of East Coast media against West Coast teams and athletes - a perception still alive and well in 2015. Seabiscuit and the Washington crew employed similar race strategies, letting others set the pace before pulling ahead in the home stretch. Each book references the subject of the other. The Boys in the Boat
makes several references to Seabiscuit's celebrity and Hillenbrand's book acknowledges the inspiration Tom Smith drew from the Washington crew's strict diet in guiding his horse's eating habits.
is easily enjoyed by the non-fan, I think. I have yet to see the movie, though My Wife and I did watch the excellent American Experience
documentary profile. The book has certainly piqued my own interest in the sport, particularly the 20th century's two most celebrated champions: Man O'War (Seabiscuit's grandsire) and Secretariat.
Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past
month. This month's link list is below. I'll keep it open until the
end of the day. I'll post October's tomorrow. Meetings are the last
Friday of each month. Next gathering is October 30th.