Journalistic Nonfiction in Review: Sidecountry

June 15, 2021 Uncategorized 9 ★★★★

Journalistic Nonfiction in Review: SidecountryTitle: Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports
Author: John Branch
Source: from publisher for review
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads
Rating:four-stars

Summary: Other than wanting more, I loved everything about this collection of stories about offbeat sports! It really appealed to the part of me that loves learning about unusual jobs.

With the recent exception of some motorsports, I’ve not ever been much of a sports fan. However, I am as susceptible as anyone to a heart-warming sports story. I also love the quirky and the offbeat. This collection of journalist John Branch’s favorite pieces promised to include plenty of both. Sports and competitions that are covered include everything from dog grooming to figure eight racing, horseshoes to rock climbing. Some of the sports I’d never even heard of. Others, I simply knew very little about. Many of the stories, especially the longer ones, were also really moving stories about people. There are a lot of emotions tied up in sports and the author captured this through detailed characterizations of the people involved.

I’ll lead with my only complaint about this collection – I wanted pretty much every piece to be longer! Always a good problem to have. I went in to this imagining it as an essay collection. In reality, it’s a collection of articles that have all been previously published in The New York Times. As such, there were a handful of pieces where the author was able to spend a long time unravelling a disaster (his Pulitzer prize winning opener on an avalanche, another on the retrieval of bodes from Mount Everest). There were also a few where he was able to revisit a team or a town multiple times (The Lady Jaguars team at a correctional institute, a town rebuilding after a hurricane). These pieces were my absolute favorites. I loved them. I was able to list them off for you without looking them up, because they all stuck with me. Even with many characters involved, as in the avalanche story, the author did a pretty good job helping me get to know and keep track of everyone. I think there was only one piece with significant repetition between segments because it was published in installments. Most of the longer pieces flowed as though they started life that way. Even in some of these longer pieces, I could have gone for some philosophical musings, a la Leslie Jamison, perhaps on the ethics of helping fellow climbers on Everest or on the role peer pressure played in the ski trip devastated by an avalanche.

The shorter pieces worked better for me than I expected they would though. Only one, on a man who died after bowling a perfect game, felt lacking. Only a few pages in length, I didn’t feel I got to know the people and the sport was well known to me. The other essays all accomplished a goal of the author’s – to write stories that people don’t know they want to read, but that they’ll be glad they did. (Oh, except I skipped the two articles on hunting, because I’m definitely not team human in those showdowns). I learned so much about so many incredible communities of athletes. I learned about interesting hobbies and passions. I met impressive and unconventional people. This particularly appealed to the same part of me that enjoys learning about jobs I’d never heard of. It’s was just such a cool glimpse into parts of the world I didn’t even know I wanted to know about. Honestly, the way my brain has been working lately, I also enjoyed that this came in digestible bites. I know some of you share my love of unusual jobs and many of you probably share my pandemic-exhausted brain. I recommend this to you particularly.

9 Responses to “Journalistic Nonfiction in Review: Sidecountry”

  1. Helen Murdoch

    This sounds like a book that would work well for me. Like you, I am not a huge sports fan, but give me a survival or underdog story and I am good to go. Adding this one to my TBR list.

    • DoingDewey

      Awesome! I’ve passed on some other sports related stories in the past (I think The Boys in the Boat may have been you enjoyed) and am thinking I should give them more of a chance šŸ™‚

  2. Liz

    This sounds like a great review. Iā€™m adding the title for my next library trip. Thanks!

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