Inside the Newsroom

News, commentary, insight on local happenings and fun from the staff of The Saline Reporter and Milan News-Leader.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Sports book recommendations

There's a reason the phrase "summer reading" has become a cliche--this is the season when even the best of active intentions can give way to sheer "Wow, it's hot" inactive responses. Despite what I wrote in that last blog post, I don't think it's really a problem to skip out on the occasional workout when the sun is high and the temperatures are punishing--particularly if said downtime is spent with a cold glass of iced tea and a good book.

Me being me, a "good book" in many cases means a book about sports. I wrote a column last summer recommending a few good sports book options, but I think it's time I offered a few more here:

1. The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro, by Joe McGinniss: McGinniss made his name as a true-crime author, and his eye for detail combined with the stunning twists and turns that befall the small-town Italian soccer team Castel Di Sangro over the course of the season McGinniss spends with the team create a supremely gripping read. There are many, many sports books that follow a team around for a season and end up straining to present run-of-the-mill results or everyday experiences as something profound or suspenseful because, hey, there's a book to write. The triumphs and tragedies that surround Castel Di Sangro during McGinniss's stay in Italy, however, need no such exaggeration--they are heartbreaking and uplifting in a way we wouldn't have expected them to be even if McGinniss had made them up.

One caveat: as terrific as the tale McGinniss has to tell is, it becomes clear over the course of the book that the author also has an ego big enough to encompass all of Italy. He repeatedly informs the (very successful) Castel Di Sangro coach of his mistakes and makes his own suggestions; he publicly abuses the Castel Di Sangro administration that has given him the unprecedented level of access that allowed him to write the book in the first place; and the book ends with McGinniss throwing a juvenile hissy-fit over what he perceives as wrongdoing on the part of the Castel Di Sangro players. The drama is so palpable you can't help but like the book; just don't expect to like the author.

2. To Hate Like This is To Be Happy Forever, by Will Blythe: Another account of one team's season, this time the North Carolina basketball team's title-winning campaign in 2004, though this time from the perspective of a fan--and with the added bonus of Blythe's examination of the bitter Duke-North Carolina basketball rivalry, which gives the book its excellent title.

As a whole, the book could maybe use a bit more focus: Blythe simultaneously covers the Tar Heels' season, offers in-depth portrayals of several of the UNC players, discusses the Duke rivalry at length, interviews several fans on either side of the divide, and also provides a series of family vignettes that show what the sport and the Tar Heels meant in to Blythe's relationship with his father and family. Occasionally, you might find yourself wishing Blythe had stuck with just two or three perspectives and/or topics rather than trying to juggle so many.

Though there's no question: Blythe juggles them extremely well. The intensity of his fandom comes in loud and clear off the page and makes for interesting reading no matter what subject he's strayed on to, and the family mmoir sections are particularly affecting. It might not be a book that's greater than the sum of its parts, but those parts are pretty doggone good.

3. Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer: Whether you want to consider mountain-climbing a sport or not--it certainly isn't as practiced by many of the vain and unprepared fools who journey up Mount Everest in Krakauer's bone-chilling account of a 1996 storm that saw eight people die on the slopes of the world's tallest mountain--there's no question Into Thin Air is the story of competition: Man vs. Nature, Caution vs. Stupidity, Life vs. Death. It remains perhaps the most suspenseful and terrifying book I've ever read, helped immensely by Krakauer's talents as a journalist and writer. We know from the start that Krakauer returns from the mountain, but you can't turn the pages fast enough to discover the fates of the rest of his party as they become trapped on the side of the slope. Read this ASAP.

4. College football preview magazines:
So these are a little bit different kind of summer reading, but I find myself splurging on at least a couple every year and pulling them out over lunch breaks, just before bedtime, with my morning coffee. If you're a hardcore college football fanatic, you have to get a copy of Phil Steele's annual, which packs more information per inch than government spreadsheets, even if it also occasionally reads like one. If you don't necessarily eat and breathe college football but still want a nice overview of the season, I'd recommend the straightforward-but-still-comprehensive book done by the Sporting News. And if you're a Michigan diehard who could really care less about those other 118 D-I teams, take a look at Hail to the Victors, which delves far deeper into the X's-and-O's of Wolverine football and the impact of the new coaching staff than you'd find elsewhere.

Happy reading!


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