Tis' the season for last-minute, panicked, gift shopping or, alternatively, a rare chance to calm yourself, dig into a book you've just got or having been meaning to read, and actually finish it.
To serve both those aims we're introducing First Up's first "10 sports-ish books you can give with confidence or spend some quality with" . The full list will be out by Christmas Eve so you can get your shopping done. Feel free to provide your own recommendations in the comments section or via twitter: @michaelgrange.
We'll be back with the usual fare in 2011.
10. Where Men Win Glory
This came out in 2009 but I just picked up the paperback version which was published this past summer. Jon Krakauer has made a career writing about principled obsessives seeking to test their limits in a world that that often asks too little of them. This story about Pat Tillman, the defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals who enlisted in the military after 9/11 and became a reluctant American icon for his sacrifice, certainly qualifies. That he was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan and - as Krakauer precisely demonstrates - the details of his death systematically and even fraudulently covered up is disillusioning to be sure. But as I read through the biographical aspects of Tillman's past I couldn't help but feel angry at him on behalf of the loved ones he left behind, because a significant part of Tillman's motivation (it seems) was to put his hand on the stove and find out how "hot" war is. He was badly burned and the loved ones he left behind suffer as a result.
9. Facing Ali
You could spend your entire holiday reading Stephen Brunt books, or giving Stephen Brunt books, and do just fine either way -- Gretzky's Tears; Searching for Bobby Orr, even Diamond Dreams, his 20-year anniversary book on the early history of the Toronto Blue Jays -- all are well worth your time and money. But my favourite of his is this 2002 entry about 15 men who fought Muhammad Ali the greatest star in boxing history and quite possibly the most famous athlete of our time. Anyone who has ever written a book or dreamed of writing a book has stumbled on the question of how -- how do you get from the blank page to the last one? Most of us stop right there. Brunt decided to write 15 loosely connected set pieces, profiling 15 varied opponents in the form of stars like George Foreman and afterthoughts like Tunney Hunsaker; Ali's first professional opponent. The journey through the opponents provides shape to the great man's career arc and provides readers a convenient and pleasing new way into a story you may have thought you knew already.
8. The Best American Sports Writing of the Century
This compilation is just as the title suggests: a collection of significant writing by those that have shaped how some of the biggest and smallest moments in sports are viewed again or seen for the first time. An off-shoot of the annual Best American Sport Writing series edited by Glenn Stout (which I buy every year and often give as gifts), the best of the century collection is cool because you can open it up at random and find yourself reading a newspaper column on the about Babe Ruth's death by Grantland Rice in 1950 or Tom Wolfe writing a near novel about NASCAR star Junior Johnson for the pages of Esquire in 1965 or Gary Smith's seminal profile of Tiger Woods -- or maybe Earl Woods? -- for Sports Illustrated in 1996 or a whole collection of pieces on Muhammad Ali. I just read Richard Ben Cramer's profile of an ageing Ted Williams again the other night. It was incredible.
7. The Last Shot
This is a basketball classic, and a sports literature classic as Darcy Frey spends a year embedded with the Coney Island's Finest -- the stars of the Abraham Lincoln High basketball team -- as they manouver to use the sport as a ticket out from an impoverished and remote corner of New York City. Published in 1994 it has lasting relevancy beyond it's overall quality because among the stars on that Lincoln High team werea baby-faced Stephon Marbury, whose own peculiar rise and fall are foreshadowed here. But the real focus for the book is the other members of the team and in particular Russell Thomas, the team's senior star who struggles mightily to get the minimum SAT scores he needs to get into a Division I school and study for a career in nursing. Spoiler alert here -- Frey wrote a follow up story on his teenage subjects for the New York Times called Betrayed by the Game that serves as sad epilogue.