Games of Deception – Basketball and History on the Brink of War

Lynn: Did you know the championship game of the first Olympic Basketball game was played on a converted tennis court and so much rain fell, the court looked like a “kiddie swimming pool?” Or that the inventor of the game, James Naismith, came to the Olympics but was refused admission to the first game? Or that while the male athletes had luxurious quarters with fantastic plentiful food, the female athletes were housed in a dormitory and fed on a sparse diet of boiled cabbage and sausage?

Andrew Maraniss packs¬†Games of Deception: The True Story of the First U.S. Olympic Basketball Team at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany (Penguin/Philomel 2019) with fascinating sports tidbits like this and provides a breathless sense of being an eye-witness at these pivotal games. While the sports information is terrific, Maraniss is doing a lot more than historical play-by-play. The modern Olympics have always given us a window on the social and political events of their time but the 1936 games especially so. A crippling economic depression still gripped the world, Germany was preparing for war, the forces of racial, religious and gender prejudices and systemic discrimination afflicted people everywhere and the growing fanaticism of nationalistic hatred was intensifying. The Germans deliberately used the games to create a benign image of Nazism and while many were fooled, the truth was seen by a worried minority.

Maraniss does an excellent job of providing the complicated background of this intense and fraught period of history for young people, including information on the political, social, and economic situation as well as the origins of the game of basketball, the state of the game, and its inclusion in the Olympic games as a medal sport. And in a subject that will stand out to teen readers, he paints a horrifying picture of a state deliberately manipulating the truth to deceive the entire world.

With a broad array of primary sources, Maraniss includes the recollections of the team members, coaches, other athletes, and sportswriters of the day and their stories add a lively personal touch to the book. Often humorous, sometimes rueful, these accounts do a wonderful job of giving readers a sense of the attitudes and experiences of the moment. And in important concluding chapters, Maraniss also includes the stories of what happened to the athletes when they returned home. I especially enjoyed the Afterword chapter where the author writes about the origins of the book and his extensive research. Back matter includes excellent documentation and statistics.

This fascinating book will interest a wide range of readers, celebrating the first Olympic basketball competition, and placing it vividly in a critical moment of history.

Bringing Down a President – A History for Today’s Teens

Lynn: With the term impeachment on everyone’s minds, Bringing Down a President: The Watergate Scandal¬†(Roaring Brook, 2019) by Andrea Balis and Elizabeth Levy couldn’t be more timely!

In chronological order, the authors take readers step-by-step through the events of the unfolding Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Nixon. Beginning with the day Nixon installed the secret recording devices in the White House that became so pivotal, the authors then move to the break-in of the Democratic headquarters and follow the chain of events that brought down a presidency. The narrative device used by the authors called “Fly on the Wall” is chatty and irreverent but it clearly distinguishes between actual quotations and clarifying expositions that will help teen readers to sort through the convoluted issues of what was said in public, what was said in secret, and what lay at the heart of the actions of the Nixon staff.

For all of its light approach, the book is very clear on the moral and constitutional elements at the heart of the scandal and it is startling how many of these same elements are in play today on the national scene. Nixon’s statement that “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal” is strongly disputed here with a legal and constitutional basis for this contention. Balis and Levy do an excellent job of presenting a clear accounting of who did what when and why it mattered. Having lived through this unfolding scandal, I remember the confusion, doubt, and fear that afflicted most of us and I think the authors do an excellent job of conveying the prevailing culture of public trust in the government that had mostly existed at the time and the impact of the scandal both then and on today’s cynical climate of distrust and suspicion.

Back matter includes a terrific Timeline (how I wish I’d had THIS at the time) and outstanding Source Notes. Throughout the book, the authors make it clear why accurate sources are critical to the accounting and in this time of political ambiguity, the authors are also clear on what is morally and legally right and what is not. Wonderful black and white illustration add to this lively you-are-there accounting. Fascinating and important!