RVA Book List: Reading Your Way Through the Summer Olympics 

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Olympic athletes soon converge in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the 31st summer games, perhaps motivating you to exercise more and pour sports drinks over your head in slow motion.

But wouldn’t it be more appropriate to prepare for opening ceremonies Aug. 5 with more couch-based activities?

Teenage Virginia gymnast Gabby Douglas wrote an autobiography, “Grace, Gold, and Glory: My Leap of Faith” about her drive to succeed in the 2012 Olympics, where she was nicknamed the Flying Squirrel (potential cross-promotion for Richmond’s baseball team?). Now 20, Douglas is back on the team this year and defending her all-around title and the team’s gold.

If you prefer your balance-beam routine with a little murder, mystery writer Megan Abbott has released a novel about an Olympic hopeful gymnast and her family. “You Will Know Me” is about ambition, family and sacrifice, but without the happy ending of the Gabby Douglas Lifetime biopic.

And then there’s “Michael Phelps: Beneath the Surface,” 2005’s premature autobiography of the swimmer at 19. Phelps also wrote a children’s book in 2009, “How to Train with a T. Rex and Win 8 Gold Medals.” It’s a good reminder that you’re only allowed to eat 10,000 calories a day if you’re a competitive swimmer training for the Olympics, not simply watching people swim on TV.

Revel in the Phelps mania of 2004 and 2008 before Henrico County swimmer Townley Haas steals all of his and Ryan Lochte’s glory. Remember Lochte? “Jeah.” Haas joins him and Phelps on the men’s swimming team this year.

Another Richmond athlete, Maria Elena Calle, will run the marathon in Rio for her home country of Ecuador. “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand is a gripping narrative history of Louis Zamperini, World War II prisoner and Olympic distance runner, providing insight into the minds of those folks who claim they like to run.

One of the best parts of the Olympics is the opening ceremony, where the host country produces an elaborate visual interpretation of its nation’s history and culture. London’s show featured Voldemort, Mary Poppins and a Spice Girls reunion.

But get to know Brazil, in all its multicultural vastness, through some of its fiction. Luiz Ruffato’s “There Were Many Horses” tells the story of Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, through a series of vignettes. Bernardo Kucinski’s “K” is a novel steeped in the reality of Brazil’s 1970s military dictatorship and the disappearance of Kucinski’s sister during that time.

“The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma” is the only English-translated book of Brazilian satirist Lima Barreto. The 1911 novel recounts a history of early Brazil through an idealistic civil servant. The tensions of nationalism and immigration, urban and rural, military and democracy serve as a fictional history lesson.

Clarice Lispector was raised in Rio, but spent many years abroad as a diplomat’s wife. Her most famous novel, 1964’s “The Passion According to G.H.,” begins with the death of a cockroach. Lispector died in 1977 but “The Complete Stories” were released in English last year because of the tireless efforts of her American biographer and translator. Much of her work is placeless, removed from Brazil, but you still should read her.

If you cry at emotionally manipulative Olympic-themed commercials — thanks, Proctor & Gamble Co. — there’s a new book to help remind you of the Olympics’ darker nature. “The Games: a Global History of the Olympics” by sportswriter David Goldblatt, will combat the rose-colored glow of Olympic sentiments with tales of sexism, racism and elitism from 1896 Athens, Greece, to the present day.

And worries about terrorism during the Rio games may lead you to David Clay Large’s “Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games,” a comprehensive account of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and the lax security measures that contributed to the tragedy.

For something more upbeat, there’s 2012’s “The Secret Olympian: the Inside Story of the Olympic Experience,” a series of anonymous interviews with athletes that spawned a number of delightful articles that summer about alcohol-soaked, sex-crazed parties at the London Olympic Village.

Yes, the athletes are converging. It’s not too late to book your ticket to Brazil. S


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