By Jim Dent
Thomas Dunne Books, $24.95
In the 1950s, the University of Oklahoma won 47 consecutive football games, and that record has never been seriously challenged. Jim Dent’s account of the streak, The Undefeated, would be worth reading strictly for the close games and the tough, compelling personalities. But the story of the streak is about a lot more than touchdowns and goal line stands. Football was a way out for the state of Oklahoma after the hard Dust Bowl and Depression years — a time when people there felt stigmatized by John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, and the term “Okie” was an epithet.
Some Oklahomans with money were determined that the state, through its university and its football program, would rise up and succeed, and were prepared, at the least, to make sure it didn’t fail for lack of capital. At a board of regents meeting, one of them put it plainly: “Men, there is only one way to get this state back on track, and that’s football, football, football.” Bud Wilkinson, a young, articulate, and dapper coach, became their perfect instrument, so good at what he did that his immediate boss once said he hoped “to build a university the football team can be proud of.” Dent has captured a bygone era with great skill in a book that gets very close to the American bone. — G.N.
OUR READ We predict V-I-C-T-O-R-Y for this book.
HOW CAN WE KEEP FROM SINGING
By Joan Oliver Goldsmith
W.W. Norton & Company, $22.95
More than 20 million Americans sing in choirs, choral societies, or barbershop quartets. Heaven knows how many more sing in the shower, at the wheels of our cars, or when we happen to find ourselves alone, in need of uplift or a calming voice.
Voice, the “invisible instrument,” reminds us that we are vibrating, breathing beings, Goldsmith writes. Professionally trained as a singer, she gave up music for marriage and the corporate life. When both failed, she auditioned for the 150-voice Minnesota Chorale. Despite eight years without practice or lessons, they took her in.
This is more than a book about the joy of music-making. It is a book about those who lead the music and those who follow, full of shrewd ob-servations on crea-tivity, friendship, and love. A book, in other words, about life. —
OUR READ A voice worth listening to on a subject worth examining.
PEACE LIKE A RIVER
By Leif Enger
Atlantic Monthly Press, $24
Once upon a time, playwrights who got their characters into impossible situations would lower some god or another on a rope from the loft to work a miracle and save the last act.
This author, a Minnesota farmer and public radio producer, does not drop a deity into his last chapter quite so crudely. But without divine intervention, the characters certainly would come to a different end. And that would be too bad, because they’re an engaging bunch, a miracle-working father and his children: asthmatic Reuben, the 11-year-old narrator; Swede, his precocious little sister; and 16-year-old Davy, pursued for a murder that, under the circumstances, seems perfectly reasonable.
Readers who like a well-wrought plot and action that proceeds from plausible situations should move on. This is a landscape of myth and miracles. —
OUR READ A story with heart and soul
By Reginald McKnight
Henry Holt & Company, $23
A fecund little novel set mostly in Senegal, He Sleeps is the story of a black American who has traveled there as his marriage to a white woman is failing, perhaps to “start over.”
He is an academic — with all the emotional detachment and fondness for reason that this implies — gathering material on modern folklore or “urban legends.” Initially, he treats Africa with a kind of remote curiosity. Gradually, Africa overwhelms him emotionally, and then, when he is more or less arrested, tried, and punished, it overwhelms him physically. But in his ordeal is a kind of liberation.
McKnight writes wonderful prose, and he is master of his material, of the slow enlightenment of his character. There are moments of very hard beauty in this book, as when the protagonist visits an old slave station. His imagination runs free as he views the dungeons and an arch called The Door of No Return. McKnight takes his character — and his readers — through several such doors in this exceptional book. — G.N.
OUR READ Intensely told and felt.