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Nonfiction Review: Sidecountry by John Branch

Title: SideCountry: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports

Author: John Branch

Year Published: 2021

Category: Adult nonfiction
Pages: 368
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location (my 2021 Google Reading map)USA (CA, OH, MI, IN, NJ, TN, AL, MT, IA, UT), Mount Everest (Nepal/Tibet)

Summary (from Amazon): New York Times reporter John Branch’s riveting, humane pieces about ordinary people doing extraordinary things at the edges of the sporting world have won nearly every major journalism prize. Sidecountry gathers the best of Branch’s work for the first time, featuring 20 of his favorites from the more than 2,000 pieces he has published in the paper.

Branch is renowned for covering the offbeat in the sporting world, from alligator hunting to wingsuit flying. Sidecountry features such classic Branch pieces, including “Snow Fall,” about downhill skiers caught in an avalanche in Washington state, and “Dawn Wall,” about rock climbers trying to scale Yosemite’s famed El Capitan. In other articles, Branch introduces people whose dedication and decency transcend their sporting lives, including a revered football coach rebuilding his tornado-devastated town in Iowa and a girls’ basketball team in Tennessee that plays on despite never winning a game. The book culminates with his moving personal pieces, including “Children of the Cube,” about the surprising drama of Rubik’s Cube competitions as seen through the eyes of Branch’s own sports-hating son, and “The Girl in the No. 8 Jersey,” about a mother killed in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting whose daughter happens to play on Branch’s daughter’s soccer team.

John Branch has been hailed for writing “American portraiture at its best” (Susan Orlean) and for covering sports “the way Lyle Lovett writes country music―a fresh turn on a time-honored pleasure” (Nicholas Dawidoff). Sidecountry is the work of a master reporter at the top of his game.

Review: I was in the mood for a nonfiction book and this one called to me from my TBR shelf. I figured it is a series of essays/articles so I could read a bit, put it down, and come back to it. But, I read half of it in one night because it's so interesting.

In the introduction to this book, Branch says he doesn't tell the sports stories of the big names or the important games, but that he looks to the side(country) to see the human story. I love this. It's easy to read about who scored a touchdown or won or lost a game, but I am not really interested in that aspect of sports as much as the human side of it all and that's what this book offers.

The author also says he tells the story that you didn't even realize you cared about. So true again! If you asked if I wanted to read about an avalanche, I'd say no, yet the first series of articles in the book is about just that and they were really interesting. I leaned about a topic that is new to me and heard stories of heartbreak, friendship, and yes, sport. It's the literary equivalent of those documentaries that I find fascinating (think: Free Solo or Meru, etc).

At first it feels that the book will be only about climbing, but we also get stories about soccer, bowling, BASE jumping, basketball, and more. But really, it's about people who go to extraordinary lengths to achieve their dreams. Unfortunately, death and destruction are often results in these stories, but there is also hope, resilience, and wonder. 

Challenges for which this counts: 
  • Literary Escapes--New Jersey, Nepal, Tibet

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