Journalist Tsui (American Chinatown) opens her eclectic, well-crafted survey with a fascinating story about an Icelandic fisherman who swam six kilometers in 41 degree water after his boat capsized. He survived thanks to a “biological quirk”—an unusually thick layer of body fat, more comparable to a seal’s than to the average human’s. From this starting point, Tsui looks at five different reasons swimming is important to humans, dedicating a section to each: survival, well-being, community, competition, and “flow” (the pursuit of the sublime). Characters like the opening chapter’s “real-life selkie”—a folkloric creature halfway between a human and a seal—and marathon swimmer Kim Chambers, who took up the sport after almost losing a leg to injury, appear throughout, along with scientific facts, personal stories, and social history. Tsui shares her own history as a swimmer, and swimming’s place in her family history—her parents’ Hollywood-worthy first meeting was at a Hong Kong swimming pool in 1968, she a “bikini-clad beauty,” he a “bronzed lifeguard.” In a chapter about the mindset of champion swimmers, she writes, “The view from within is what I’m after.” Her overarching question is about “our human relationship to water” and “how immersion can open our imaginations.” Readers will enjoy getting to know the people and the facts presented in this fascinating book. (Apr.)
With lyrical and descriptive writing, Tsui (American Chinatown) shares different stories about our relationship with water, beginning with her own experiences swimming in the Bay Area. The book is similar to a collection of essays, wherein Tsui shares stories about others and intertwines her own voice, including recollections about going to the beach while growing up in New York. The author writes about a wide range of topics, including the history of humans swimming, from early times to the success of marathon open-water swimmer Kimberley Chambers and even a Baghdad swim club that uses Saddam Hussein's palace pool. Throughout, Tsui references literature, history, and science without overwhelming readers, who will walk away from the book learning an incredible amount of information, yet in an easy-to-digest way. VERDICT Tsui's beautifully written book will appeal to a wider audience beyond sports fans. Readers who are also interested in science and nature will appreciate this highly recommended narrative work about a therapeutic sport.—Pamela Calfo, Bridgeville P.L., PA
A study of swimming as sport, survival method, basis for community, and route to physical and mental well-being.
For Bay Area writer Tsui (American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods, 2009), swimming is in her blood. As she recounts, her parents met in a Hong Kong swimming pool, and she often visited the beach as a child and competed on a swim team in high school. Midway through the engaging narrative, the author explains how she rejoined the team at age 40, just as her 6-year-old was signing up for the first time. Chronicling her interviews with scientists and swimmers alike, Tsui notes the many health benefits of swimming, some of which are mental. Swimmers often achieve the "flow" state and get their best ideas while in the water. Her travels took her from the California coast, where she dove for abalone and swam from Alcatraz back to San Francisco, to Tokyo, where she heard about the "samurai swimming" martial arts tradition. In Iceland, she met Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, a local celebrity who, in 1984, survived six hours in a winter sea after his fishing vessel capsized, earning him the nickname "the human seal." Although humans are generally adapted to life on land, the author discovered that some have extra advantages in the water. The Bajau people of Indonesia, for instance, can do 10-minute free dives while hunting because their spleens are 50% larger than average. For most, though, it's simply a matter of practice. Tsui discussed swimming with Dara Torres, who became the oldest Olympic swimmer at age 41, and swam with Kim Chambers, one of the few people to complete the daunting Oceans Seven marathon swim challenge. Drawing on personal experience, history, biology, and social science, the author conveys the appeal of "an unflinching giving-over to an element" and makes a convincing case for broader access to swimming education (372,000 people still drown annually).
An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans' relationship with the water.
“[An] enthusiastic and thoughtful work mixing history, journalism and elements of memoir . . . Tsui sets out to answer her title’s question with a compassionate understanding of how that mind game stops some and a curiosity about how and why it seduces others . . . Tsui endears herself to the reader as well. Her universal query is also one of self, and her articulations of what she learns are moving.” —New York Times Book Review "Tsui’s history of the human relationship with water is compelling and profound, in writing so fluid it mimics the flow of her subject . . . It captivated me from start to finish." —BuzzFeed, "24 Books We Couldn't Put Down" “A thoughtful inquiry into human nature." —Bustle, "The 18 Most Anticipated Books Of April 2020" “Bonnie Tsui captures the joy, peril and utility of swimming, within her family and across civilizations . . . The breadth of her reporting and grace of her writing make the elements of Why We Swim move harmoniously as one." —The San Francisco Chronicle “Former competitive swimmer and current do-it-all writer Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim . . . explores our relationship with a sport that quite literally represents quiet and flow (something we could use more of, no?) by offering a look at a grab bag of eclectic examples, like swimming samurais and an Icelandic shipwreck survivor.” —Outside Magazine “This fascinating look at the positive impact swimming has had on our lives throughout history might leave most readers eager to get back in the water as soon as possible.” —Booklist, starred review “Drawing on personal experience, history, biology, and social science, the author conveys the appeal of ‘an unflinching giving-over to an element’ and makes a convincing case for broader access to swimming education (372,000 people still drown annually). An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.”—Kirkus Reviews “Tsui opens her eclectic, well-crafted survey with a fascinating story about an Icelandic fisherman who swam six kilometers in 41 degree water after his boat capsized . . . Readers will enjoy getting to know the people and the facts presented in this fascinating book.”—Publishers Weekly "Tsui is a poetic writer whose flowing, immersive prose and colorful storytelling will hold significant appeal for readers—especially swimmers—of all curiosities.”—Shelf Awareness “Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim is a love letter to swimming . . . In the tradition of memoir writers like Rebecca Solnit, Tsui examines the history of swimming as a sport, a survival skill, and even a martial art . . . Her hybrid memoir and history book traces swimming’s roots around the globe while also looking at how a swim can be a meditative, transformative, and deeply personal activity.”—Alta “Why We Swim is a celebration of the many varieties of joy that swimming brings to our oxygen-breathing species.” —Foreword Reviews “A beautifully written love letter to water and a fascinating story. I was enchanted.” —Rebecca Skloot, bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks “The only thing better than reading Bonnie Tsui’s writing about swimming is swimming itself—and both are sublime. Why We Swim is an aquatic tour de force, a captivating story filled with adventure, meditation, and celebration.”—Susan Casey, New York Times bestselling author of The Wave and Voices in the Ocean “This is a jewel of a book, a paean to the wonders of water and our place within it.” —James Nestor, author of Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves “Magnificent. Only a truly great story can hold my attention and Why We Swim had me nailed to the chair . . . I love this book." —Christopher McDougall, bestselling author of Born to Run and Natural Born Heroes “Why We Swim is a gorgeous hybrid of a book. Bonnie Tsui combines fascinating reporting about some of the world's most remarkable swimmers with delightful meditations about what it means for us naked apes to leap in the water for no apparent reason. You won't regret diving in.”—Carl Zimmer, author of She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity