More early winter (2022) reads

For this month’s inventory, two nonfiction bestsellers and Grisham’s latest are up. I started off with Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s gripping account of the 1996 Everest disaster. The author is a recent find and I look forward to perusing more of his work. Mirin Fader’s Giannis is next. A candid portrait of the global NBA star, the writer goes beyond basketball. She offers a socio-politically charged narrative that traces the cager’s humble beginnings to his eventual ascent to the NBA throne. Finally, Sparring Partners was the first fiction book I read in a month. Debuting at number one on the Best Sellers chart, Grisham offers three stories that include some familiar faces.

1. Into Thin Air (Krakauer). I first heard about the author while watching Into The Wild, which was adapted into film. Krakauer has since written nine books in total, all of them nonfiction. Gauging from his tale, Krakauer was at the right place at the wrong time. He made the correct move to go with the most experienced guide, Rob Hall, the Kiwi. Hall had summited Everest four previous times. Jon had always dreamed of conquering Everest. Outside magazine gave him the perfect assignment to report on the increasing commercialisation of the peak. Jon had been an avid mountaineer and for months, he had prepared for this ascent.

Upon barging onto the slopes, he counted about ten groups who were working on the ascent. One of them was a hypocritical South African squad. Even in dire situations, they weren’t helpful. Jon realised that he was fitter than most of his team. During their trek, he was always at the lead. He details his experience by breaking it into smaller stories. For instance, a chapter is dedicated to Base Camp, Lhotse Face, Camp One, Southeast Ridge, and so on. He begins his chapters with relatable quotes from earlier mountaineers. He struggled with the altitude, just as much as his companions. Above 25,000 feet was the ‘death zone’.

Before the fateful day, there were already some ominous signs. On the day itself, there was a conga line to the top. The groups had previously agreed to summit on separate time frames. However, some of the others were overzealous and this delayed everyone. When Jon summited at 2pm, there were dark clouds on the horizon. However, no one would’ve predicted how bad the storm would be. Five members of Jon’s group fell asleep. In the aftermath of the deadly debacle, twelve people went to heaven.

Controversy followed Krakauer even when his book was published. As a result, he added an epilogue in the second edition. Other members of the expedition soon followed him, releasing their own accounts. Among them was Beck Weathers, who almost died but was severely frostbitten. Both Hall and Scott Fischer, his rival, perished on the snow. At the time, this was the deadliest season in Everest history. At 315 pages, Jon’s writing is smooth and riveting. Hence, his is the most acclaimed of his group. Air stands as one of the best Everest books ever, if not of mountaineering.

Rating: 4.77/5

2. Giannis (Mirin Fader). I’ve had my eye on this bio for a while. I finally got the ebook in mid June and swept through it in six days. For basketball junkies, there isn’t a great helpful of NBA action. If you’re expecting something like The Last Dance, then this book isn’t for you. Indeed, other scribes have compared Giannis to the book on basketball: Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game. In her debut, Fader dedicates long stretches to Giannis’s impoverished early life. How they had to starve and fight for survival. How they were too proud to accept handouts from friends. How Giannis used to be a soccer player, like his Dad, before an amateur coach spotted him. Eventually, Giannis’s ceiling would inspire NBA scouts and GM’s to head to his subpar gym. Interestingly, local powerhouses were unable to sign him as he did not have his papers.

He was born to Nigerian immigrants, the middle of five children. They used to sell trinkets on the streets. Though he lived all his life in Greece, he was subject to discrimination. As he chased his American dream, he was finally granted Greek citizenship. Later, the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks took a particularly keen interest in him. They flew him to the ATL and he worked out for them. Giannis was sure that they’d pick him. However, the Milwaukee Bucks had other plans and selected him with the fifteenth overall pick. As a rookie, he was in coach Larry Drew’s rotation and played through his mistakes. Even as a neophyte, he always looked forward to matching up with the best. Though the Bucks missed the postseason, he saw Drew as a father figure. He may have been a millionaire, but he felt homesick as he waited for his family in Greece. They were a close-knit bunch.

The next year, they made the playoffs under new bench boss, Jason Kidd, only to be eliminated by fifty points in Game 6. Giannis was tossed early. Kidd tasked the team with keeping a notebook handy. The forward would become ‘obsessed’ with the journal, taking it everywhere he went. Whether in the gym, in training, or while snacking Giannis would always whip out his pages. He wanted the best scoop from his forebears. While in the US, he would become more aware of the race situation even as he became accustomed to the consumer culture. However, he remained rather frugal in spite of his millions. He had no illusions about his newfound fortune.

He would eventually win Most Improved in 2017 while also filling up his body. He now stood 6-11 and weighed 242 pounds. It was not until Coach Mike arrived that Giannis would reach his full potential. He was an All-Star game captain in 2019. He was back to back MVP in 2019 and 2020 as well as defensive player of the year. The next year, they would make a run to the Finals, where Giannis competed in spite of a hyperextended knee. Milwaukee fans have seen stars leave, the owner unwilling to spend and content with mediocrity. For thirty years, they utilised the same arena, which was rarely packed. With Giannis inking a supermax extension in 2020, he gave them hope. A well-written, intriguing portrait of a truly unique story. This is the kind of ‘struggle street’ tale that sports fans need right now.

Rating: 4.8/5

3. Sparring partners (Grisham). As mentioned, the author’s first collection of novellas mark the third leg of the tripod. The legal thriller maestro starts off with Homecoming. This tale is set in Ford County, site of many of his narratives. Jake Brigance is back. He famously appeared in A Time to Kill, Grisham’s debut novel. The story is set in 1991. He hears from Mack Stafford, a former colleague who fell off the face of the earth. Rumour had it that he stole people’s money. Jake gets a letter from Stafford, who invites him to Costa Rica. There, they learned that he’s been hopping around Central America and that he indeed fleeced his clients. He wants to return and reconnect with his two daughters, especially since his ex wife was dying. He ultimately links with Margot, his eldest. However, the authorities get wind of his return and slowly put two and two together. Being used to hiding, doing a runner seems like the obvious option here. Probably the strongest of the three, with free flowing writing and relatable characters.

Strawberry Moon is second. It details Cody Wallace’s last hours before he is executed in jail. We find that he’s incarcerated as a teenager and he lost his older brother. Together, they would break and enter into people’s homes, until they found their match. Wallace basically grew up in prison, where a friendly lady sent him two thousand paperbacks. The reading was a welcome distraction from a heretofore dreary existence. He also had an empathetic lawyer at his side, who fought for him till the very end. Marvin, the death row boss, was kind to him. As a last request, he asks Marvin to escort him outside as he hadn’t seen the stars in years. He relates that they once nicked a telescope and he adored it and was soon able to name all the stars. Upon ogling the strawberry moon, Cody explains that this event occurs when there’s a full moon on the first day of summer. ‘Because in late spring and early summer the strawberries…fully ripen. The Indians gave it the name….’

The titular novella, Sparring Partners, rounds out the Grisham threesome. The partners are Kirk and Rusty, who are polar opposites. They divide the office, which their jailhouse father left them. They seldom interact with each other. Rusty is the brash, courtroom brawler while Kirk specialises in lower key litigation. Both Malloys got their bachelor’s degrees from Notre Dame. Rusty read Law at Georgetown University, while Kirk did likewise at Northwestern. Diantha, the unofficial third partner, acts as a bridge between them. Both Homecoming and Sparring involve some stolen loot. This time, a tobacco coup worth millions is the hidden treasure. In pursuit of the riches, both brothers would go to great lengths. I can guess why some people were tepid towards this book. Sparring does have some implausible subplots. The pardon buying trope was unreal enough, with shades of the visa buying scheme (and chartered flight) in Sooley. However, Sparring tops this as it had this bribe to undo the purchased pardon. Definitely not your everyday twist. However, the book hits the sweet spot at 306 pages. All in all, I still enjoyed this legal detour.

Rating: 4.05/5

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