We are on the last month of summer and it’s time for another list. Another three books: two novels and one nonfiction title. I start off with Mitch Albom’s newest bestseller. The Stranger in the Lifeboat is his latest feel-good narrative. A group of strangers are stranded at sea, having survived a shipwreck. A man claims that he is Yahweh and the albatross reveals their true colours. Next was Jodi Picoult’s most recent work. Like Stranger, Wish You Were Here debuted on the Best Sellers list. The narrative deals with a young woman who was caught in the Galapagos during the COVID pandemic. This is a lighter take on humanity’s most recent epidemic. Finally, I tackle Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson. Also a bestseller upon release, the NBA’s winningest coach talks about his basketball experiences and his philosophy.
1. The Stranger in the Lifeboat (Albom). I’ve been looking forward to this read since first hearing about it during the lockdown. The book is typical Albom: breezy prose with a heartwarming central theme that makes us question ourselves. Usually short and hardbound, Albom’s writing offers insight into the human condition. In this one, he uses eleven survivors off the coast of Montserrat. Some of them are world beaters: a UN ambassador, an Olympic swimmer, a business magnate, and a model. The cluster also includes a cook and a deckhand, who is the narrator.
When the resources and the staples are not at hand, humans devolve and chaos appears. Without food and drinking water, the group turns against themselves. The alternative offered by God is too unreal for most of them; some openly condemn Him. Included in this group is a child named Alice. When food does appear, she gives her portion to the starving stranger. Like a horror movie, the group is diminished one by one. In a parallel narrative, an officer on the island discovers their life raft. He chances upon the account written by the narrator. Himself reeling from premature death of his daughter, he finds solace in the pages. He decides not to report the dinghy, but to solve the mystery as a one-man enterprise.
One line stuck with me: ‘I am the Lord. And I will never leave you.’ When all the other people, both good and bad, have gone, He reveals His true face. Two years after his last work, Albom’s newest was worth the wait. The book is twelve chapters long. Like most of his other material, the title is hardbound. At 270 pages, this is another undemanding effort. Five out of five for me.
2. Wish You Were Here (Picoult). We live in a COVID reality, so Jodi’s book was a welcome response. I’ve read many books that mention COVID but this title deals with the crisis head-on. At her young age, Diana O’Toole has her life all planned out. Having climbed the professional ladder, she is convinced that her surgeon boyfriend would propose to her during their Galapagos getaway. She has just had a big client renege on selling an expensive painting. She is then transported to nirvana, where iguanas roam free and the sea is a constant companion. There she meets Gabriel and Beatriz, his daughter. The latter struggles with a secret, which she is hesitant to share. Diana occupies a room in their place. The sojourn evolves in a dream like manner. In the Author’s Note, Picoult admits that she had been to the islands. After reading up on COVID, she was inspired to break her dry spell.
Picoult thrives in creating a vivid reality while juxtaposing it with the COVID universe. She says that the disease sees patients meeting relatives long gone and creating coping mechanisms. The human mind is an incredible force that constructs realities from suffering. Throughout her troubles, Diana has incredible support. She tries to make things right with her mum, who was barely in her life. As she won the Pulitzer for her trouble, her dad raised and supported Diana instead. However, she was unable to be by his side during his final moments. Thus, she was determined to do the opposite with her mum.
Finn, Diana’s partner, could be overbearing. He constantly fussed about minor details, determined to keep Diana safe. Jodi pointed out that Finn represented the medical professionals who took up the fight against COVID. They are our first line of defence against the virus. Throughout the work, depictions of a city in lockdown are underscored. New Yorkers are forced to stay at home and adapt to the new normal. Diana wonders if things would ever be the same again. She learns to appreciate the small victories and this is something we could second.
I would admit that this is not as easy as Albom, with much-longer chapters, lengthier sections, and drawn out description. I do like the little vignettes that colour the manuscript. Jodi is a master storyteller. Like most of her books, she confronts pertinent issues of our time. In all, the book is 317 pages long but does feel lengthier.
3. Eleven Rings (Phil Jackson). The former Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers coach shares his coaching philosophy and takes us deep inside his helming experience. He discusses his frontman position as the strategist behind hoops dynasties. Furthermore, he correlates these triumphs with Zen Buddhism, meditation, and a long reading list. This is more than just a Spalding book; it incorporates material from a vast array of fields. Jackson’s learning and erudition are highlighted. For instance, he describes hoops as ‘the game was a complex dance of moves and countermoves that made it much more alive than other sports I played.’
Without question, Jackson is unique among head coaches. He gave his players a book to read, whether they were Jordan or Dickey Simpkins. He always changed things up to give his guys a different perspective. He conducted practices in the dark and also in silence. Growing up, he had a much different background than most of his peers. He had dreamed of being a minister and starred at no-name North Dakota under the tutelage of Bill Fitch. He won two chips with the Knicks in the 70s. He knew how to get the most out of each player (see also: Derek Fisher). He calmed such firebrands as Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest.
One gets the sense that basketball alone does not define him. When the Mavs swept his team in 2011, he did not ruminate on this failure and took a hiatus. When Kobe did not have a supporting cast, it was the latter who asked for assistance, not him. His relationship with the Mamba was not always close but the latter turned into a formidable leader by their second run of titles. His main offensive scheme was the triangle offence. The late guru, Tex Winter, ably aided him. He was creative on defence. He often tinkered with the matchups, especially come playoffs. In Chicago, he utilised a big three guard lineup to suffocate the ball handler. The long-limbed trio could also easily switch on D. With the Lakers, he had an assortment of big men that could disrupt the opposition. He also had an all-defence member in Kobe.
The book clocks in at 384 pages. With the amount of other disciplines involved, this is a hybrid text. Thus, finishing the read in a few days would be tough. Eleven is more like an acquired taste. Being versed on the great basketball champions would also help. You would be familiar with Steve Kerr, the Boston Garden, Jerry West, and Tim Duncan. Otherwise, you would have a hard time keeping up – even with the index. He goes behind the scenes. He shares how BJ Armstrong wanted to be the Bulls’s starting point guard but he wasn’t ready enough. He told of Horace Grant’s envy of Jordan. He gives an account of Scottie’s inbounds drama in the 1994 NBA playoffs. He takes us into the Shaw-Kobe feud that tainted a glorious dynasty. The title refers to the eleven championship rings that Jackson got with the Bulls and the Lakers. This is not Jackson’s first book, and his flair for writing shows. If you liked The Last Dance doco, then this is the book for you.