The History of Swimming: A Memoir
by Kim Powers

Published: 2007-09-20
Paperback : 288 pages
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The History of Swimming details author Kim Powers' frantic search for his twin brother Tim -- his best friend, his greatest enemy -- who disappears from Manhattan one weekend in his late twenties. Kim -- almost mystically -- imagines that the clues to Tim's whereabouts have been planted in a series ...
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The History of Swimming details author Kim Powers' frantic search for his twin brother Tim -- his best friend, his greatest enemy -- who disappears from Manhattan one weekend in his late twenties. Kim -- almost mystically -- imagines that the clues to Tim's whereabouts have been planted in a series of letters written by Tim over the years, part of an ongoing cat-and-mouse game between the two brothers. Now, Kim uses the letters as a sort of roadmap that takes him back to Texas, the setting of their greatest triumphs and tragedies: their mother's death, Tim's nervous breakdown, first loves, coming out, a best friend's brutal rape. But is it a race against time for somebody still alive, or already dead?

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Discussion Questions

1. What do you think the title “The History of Swimming” means? Swimsuits through the ages? Does anybody actually go swimming? Do the characters go “swimming” in any place besides a pool? Can you go swimming - and stay perfectly dry?
2. Describe the characters of Tim and Kim that you’re left with after reading the book. How different are they - how similar? Do they fit your notion of twins? Is there something distinctive about their bond, or do they just seem like regular brothers?
3. Even though Tim isn’t a “present” character throughout the book - and exists mainly through flashbacks and his letters - do you still get as full a picture of him as you do Kim, who is telling the story? What was your response to Tim’s letters — do they help move things along, or do they slow down the action? Is it a valid way of creating a character in a book?
4. Imagine yourself as various incidental characters in the book - Stan, Sarah, Rob the swimmer who broke his back, Jess, the professors at Austin College. How would you feel if you picked up the book, not knowing you were in it, or even if you did, and started reading about yourself? In terms of memoirs, do you think authors have an obligation to tell their “characters” they will be ppearing in a book, or even to seek their approval?
5. In mythology, there’s a search known as “the hero’s quest” - where the main character’s search for something (the holy grail, or Dorothy searching for the witch’s broom in “The Wizard of Oz) is the driving force of the story. “The History of Swimming” certainly uses that device - Kim searching for Tim. Do you think that’s what gives the book its suspense and urgency - will Tim be found, dead or alive? Or do you think if the book had been written in a more straight-forward style, as more of a standard autobiography (we were born, we went to school, we went here, we went there) it would have had the same effect? In other words, is the power of the book the characters you’ve come to know by the end, or the specific way you get to know them?
6. Which character is in greater need of being found — Tim or Kim?
7. One of the thoughts Kim keeps coming back to time and again is the idea of being your brother’s keeper. Do you think it made him a prisoner to Tim in some way, the caretaking he imposed on their relationship, whether Tim asked him to or not?
8. Thomas Wolfe famously wrote, “You can’t go home again.” But was he right? Can you? Kim Powers certainly visits various “homes” he’s had along the way, in flashback if nothing else. What do you think Wolfe really meant by that phrase?
9. What do you think about the author’s decision to not really specify the date or year the “lost weekend” took place? Is it disconcerting - or liberating? What clues exist in the book, to give it a specific time setting? (And conversely: if the events took place today, with email and cell phones, how would they be different? Would they even be possilbe?)
10. Did you notice any symbolism in how the book was divided into three sections, three days - Friday, Saturday, Sunday? Do you think that was incidental, or is there some larger point to be reinforced by those specific days, and the fact that there are three of them?
11. Did the book successfully capture that feeling of an all-night road trip? The sensation of being hypnotized by the road, enveloped in a dark car, a coccoon, where you can tell your secrets, where you have nothing to do but talk, or reflect on the past? As Kim shares so much with Stan, the young college student he’s just met, were you reminded of times in your life when you struck up seemingly intimate conversations with strangers, because you assumed you’d never see them again? Is there something about that bond that makes it easier to tell your most private thoughts to virtual strangers, instead of to the people closest to you?
12. The book is primarily about twin brothers Tim and Kim, but did you feel you learned enough about the other members in their family - their mother, their father, their older brother Porky - to understand why the twins acted the way they day, to understand Tim’s sense, to some degree, of being an orphan?
13. Some readers have found the book to be very “spiritual”, however unlikely that might seem at first glance. What aspects of the book suggest it as a “spiritual” book — or do you think that’s not an appropriate adjective for it?
14. The book’s main two characters are gay, but did you feel it was a “gay book?” Many other issues are dealt with - family bonds, alcoholism, mental illness, co-dependency. Do you think there’s “something in it for everyone,” as the saying goes, or do you need to belong to one of those groups to “get it”?
15. What do you think about the author’s having told his own version of the twins’ story — essentially without giving Tim a chance to explain or “defend” himself? Is it “fair” that the book is more or less a one-sided version of events, or do you accept that as a given with any memoir you read? If Tim had been able to write his own version of this story - in first person - how might it have been different?
16. In various interviews, author Kim Powers has said the “afterward” to the book was something of an “afterthought” - that originally, the book had ended at the end of that three day weekend, with Tim found. Do you think the book would have had the same effect if you hadn’t been brought up to date on what happened to Tim and Porky after that long weekend?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Dear readers,

On Good Morning America, Diane Sawyer said, “I love this book,” and called it a “riveting memoir, sensitive, wise, and unsparing.” Adri Trigiani, whom many of you know from her “Big Stone Gap” trilogy, said, "Kim Powers has written a personal and powerful memoir about life with his twin…with unfettered honesty.”

I’m thrilled to say the book they’re writing about is my own, The History of Swimming, just out in paperback after its critically acclaimed first year. It has nothing to do with swimming pools or bathing suits, but everything to do with twin brothers whose ferocious love for each other almost drove them to destruction. I’m one of those twins – the one left to tell the all-too-real story of what happened when my twin brother Tim disappeared one weekend, and I moved heaven and earth to try and find him.

All sorts of groups have already discovered the book and been moved by its inspiring story of “swimming” together in the womb, and “swimming” in the very grown-up world of addiction and illness. (And believe it or not, there’s a lot of humor along the way!) I hope your book club will decide to “take the plunge” with the Powers twins, and visit my website kimpowersbooks.com, so I can enter you in a chance to win free books for your group!


Kim Powers

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "A memoir that leaves the reader with feelings of both admiration and pity for the author."by mtruhlik (see profile) 09/25/08

The History of Swimming essentially is part memoir and part biography, I found it more of an emotional mystery. I was drawn in and felt compelled to look over the author's literary shoulder ... (read more)

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