Sunday 25 December 2016

Top 10 Sports Books

I don't think I've ever posted on Christmas Day before, but my friend Debbie has clearly given up hope of the top 10 sports books post I promised to write for her back in... let's say July. Definitely not April. Honestly. So I thought I'd surprise her by getting it uploaded today. A couple of these are books I originally reviewed for The Bookbag - if the title is a hyperlink, it will take you to my review on that site.

I've limited myself to one book per author and one book per sport (mainly because it would be rather baseball-heavy otherwise!)

Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn (baseball) - One of my all-time favourite reads, this tells the story of author Roger Kahn's childhood growing up in Brooklyn, and his days working for the Herald Tribune. It follows the great Dodgers team of the early 1950s, which included Jackie Robinson, the first black player to play in MLB since the 1880s. The book takes us up to their World Series win - telling the story in thrilling detail, as well as looking at the abuse Robinson suffered and the way he became a legend of the game despite the vicious hatred he dealt with. It then catches up with the Dodgers team over a decade later, showing their varied lives after baseball. This is a lyrical and sentimental look at a fascinating sport and an outstanding team.

The Last Amateurs by John Feinstein (basketball) - Feinstein is perhaps my favourite sports writer of all; this is definitely the book of his I love most. It chronicles the 1999-2000 season in the Patriot League, where colleges look for genuine student-athletes rather than compete for great players regardless of their academic ability. There are so many wonderful characters here - Holy Cross's Chris Spitler, self-described as "the worst Division I basketball player in the country" but an inspirational leader never the less, especially stands out.

Born To Run by Christopher McDougall (running) - Christopher McDougall's book about endurance running, building up to a 50km race and diving into both the history of running - from the times of the Neanderthals to the invention of the modern trainer - and the culture and history of the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico is a fascinating and hugely entertaining read. Packed full of great characters it's a quick and engaging book to get through but the impact it made has definitely stayed with me.

We Could be Heroes: One Van, Two Blokes and Twelve World Championships by Tom Fordyce and Ben Dirs (general) - This is a hilariously eccentric story of BBC journalists Ben Dirs and Tom Fordyce, whose attempt to win a World championship leads them to try sports including shin kicking, wife carrying, and racing snails. There's a rich cast of characters, including comedian Rory McGrath, also keen to be crowned the world's best shin kicker, and a pea shooter who glumly complains that the sport is turning into F1, with the emphasis being on who has the best shooter. It's a really fun read which is perfect for fans of Bill Bryson!

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka (cricket) - I was planning on sticking to non-fiction recommendations here but snuck this in as it's one of my favourite adult novels for years. The story of a dying Sri Lankan sports journalist who, after cricket's 1996 World Cup, sets out to make a documentary on the sport, is lyrical and completely intriguing. Narrator WG Karunasera wants to focus on Pradeep Mathew, the 80s spin bowler he considers one of the game's greatest ever players. But Mathew has disappeared and every time WG tries to track him down, something gets in the way... The jaded narrator is a wonderful character here and this is a phenomenal novel which looks at cricket, Sri Lanka, and so much more.

There's A Golden Sky: How 20 years of the Premier League has changed football forever by Ian Ridley - 20 years after the seminal Season in the Cold, Ridley releases an absolute masterpiece which shows the way the cash injection into the top flight has changed English football forever. Interviews with a wide range of people, from Gazza to Truro City chairman Kevin Heaney, and from Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck to the calamitous Spencer Trethewy, still loathed in Aldershot for his part in their downfall, make this a must read for football fans. 

Breaking Vegas by Ben Mezrich (blackjack) Yes, ok, it's probably something of a stretch to count blackjack as a sport, but how can I resist Ben Mezrich, my favourite writer of narrative non-fiction? While his Bringing Down The House (filmed as 21) is the more famous of his gambling books, this one is slightly superior for my money. Mezrich takes the true story of Semyon Dukach, the MIT student who used three techniques to clean out the blackjack tables on the strip. He writes thrillers which just happen to be non-fiction - the excitement levels in this one could give Dan Brown et al a real run for their money.

Tilting At Windmills: How I Tried To Stop Worrying And Love Sport by Andy Miller (general/mini golf) - The tale of a self-confessed 'sports atheist' trying to find out what everyone else seems to love about sports, culminating in an unlikely trip as a player to the European Championships of mini golf, is another hilarious read. 

The Greatest Game Ever Played by Mark Frost (golf) - Lots of interesting background about the birth of golf here, but the major part of the book is devoted to young American amateur Francis Ouimet - aided by truant-playing 10-year-old caddy Eddie Lowery - taking on British titans Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the 1913 US Open. Told as a dramatised version of events - with some fictionalised dialogue, but extremely accurate details of the shots played - it brilliantly brings the three players to life (especially Ouimet and Vardon) and is a massively exciting read.

You Grunt, I'll Groan by Jackie Pallo (professional wrestling) - Not sure if this is more or less of a reach to include in a sports post than the blackjack one is! UK legend Jackie Pallo's take on professional wrestling - written in the 80s when there was at least the pretence that the competition was real - is an entertaining and nostalgic look back to the heyday of the UK's wrestling scene in the 70s. Pallo clearly wasn't worried about alienating people when he wrote this, exposing lots of things people would rather he'd kept secret, and it's a fascinating read.

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