Book Club: Heroes of the water

"Why We Swim" author Bonnie Tsui after swimming in San Francisco Bay without a wetsuit.
“Why We Swim” author Bonnie Tsui after swimming in San Francisco Bay without a wetsuit.
(Bonnie Tsui )

Good morning, and welcome to the L.A. Times Book Club newsletter.

This month’s book club read, “Why We Swim,” offers a welcome respite from our daily tribulations. Part memoir and part sports travelogue, Bonnie Tsui’s latest book glides from the California coast to Iceland’s swim culture to childhood memories splashing on Long Island’s Jones Beach. There’s an unexpected dip in Saddam Hussein’s palace pool and a dive into the magic of Hainan island, the “Chinese Hawaii” perched on the South China Sea.

Along the way, “Why We Swim” unfolds the extraordinary stories of the long-distance swimmers — and what drives them to brave extreme cold, vicious currents, sharks and other hazards.


When you immerse yourself in water, Tsui says, you experience an “existential shift.” “You quite literally change the way you are in the world. It’s not about swimming a mile or pushing yourself; it’s about a change in perspective. And don’t we need that now? Isn’t it wonderful to be able to do that?”

A Bay Area journalist, surfer and former competitive swimmer, Tsui joins Times readers on July 28 at 7 p.m. for a conversation with reporter James Rainey.

The book talk will be livestreamed on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Skylight Books has signed copies available for the event.

Sign up to join us here. Then check out this handy update from travel writer Christopher Reynolds about what pools are open in Southern California.

Bonnie Tsui is the author of "Why We Swim."
(Lynsay Skiba / Algonquin Books)

Best beaches and more

Ahead of her book club visit, Tsui shared the inspiration for her book and revealed a few choice swims and reads.

Favorite book about swimming or surfing: “Barbarian Days” by William Finnegan. The way he describes mood and the dance of boards on waves is just sublime.

Last book that kept you up at night: Louise Erdrich’s “The Night Watchman.” Hoo boy. But honestly all her books keep me up at night.

Inspiration behind “Why We Swim”: There are so many books about running — the history of it, the evolutionary biology of it, how to do it better. Chris McDougall’s “Born to Run” has a bit of all of that, wrapped up in a narrative story with big characters. I wanted to write a book that did that for swimming.

The biggest surprise during your book research: That Guðlaugur Friðþórsson and I would become friends.

Must-watch TV: I love “Insecure.” I could watch Issa Rae’s face all day. And I just finished “Giri/Haji” on Netflix. It’s a British series about a family torn apart by yakuza-police relationships on the Tokyo-London nexus. So good.

Favorite music right now: Leon Bridges, anything from his “Coming Home” album.

Something surprising you’ve discovered in quarantine: Kombucha. I was not a kombucha person. But mix it with seltzer and a ton of ice, and it is something refreshing and entertaining to drink that is not alcohol.

Favorite place to swim: Tunnels Beach on the North Shore of Kauai.

Favorite beach in SoCal: Point Dume. An afternoon there more than a decade ago was what finally convinced me to take up surfing back home in San Francisco.

Scariest moment in the water: The first time I swam out into San Francisco Bay from the protected waters of Aquatic Park. The currents were insane. I could easily see myself being swept out to sea.

Next project: We’re finalizing the art for my first children’s book, “Sarah & the Big Wave.” It’s about Sarah Gerhardt, the first woman to surf Mavericks, and I’m so freaking excited about it. The artist Sophie Diao is making the pictures, and they are gorgeous.

Enjoying this newsletter? Consider subscribing to the Los Angeles Times

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Become a subscriber.

Keep reading

Beach books: On a recent episode of “The Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown,” film critic Justin Chang revisited Peter Benchley’s 1984 “Jaws,” the novel that spawned a blockbuster summer film and terrified generations of beachgoers. Chang and his guests, columnist Mary McNamara and film writer Mark Olsen, also shared their pandemic must-reads (toward the end of the show) and Zoomed in on their bookshelves too.

Bookstores and diversity: Across L.A., a thriving indie ecosystem is engaged in conversations about inclusiveness in bookselling.

Family secrets: Mary L. Trump published “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man” this week and sold a whopping 950,000 copies in just one day.

What’s at stake: “The newspaper ties a region together, helps it make sense of itself … serves as a village square whose boundaries transcend Facebook’s filter bubble,” Margaret Sullivan writes in “Ghosting the News.” Sewell Chan reviewed this important new book about the state of local news.

Writers who cook: L.A. author Alex Espinoza has been baking since the pandemic began. “If a disaster’s coming, I told myself, I’m going to sweeten it up just a little bit,” he says. In the latest installment of PEN America’s food series, Espinoza skips the chips and goes all in on “Ooey Gooey Chewy Chocolate Chunk Cookies.”