online colorIt’s August and time for a new theme for the Online Reading Challenge! This month it’s Games We Play.

Now wait non-sports fans – don’t leave yet! There are some amazing books on this list and you don’t have to be a fan of competition to appreciate and enjoy them. In fact, in many of these books, sports are in the background, lending color and atmosphere but are not crucial to the story. As for other, more sports-focused titles, you’ll still find that the most important part of the story is the people.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown. I recommend this book to everyone, it’s that good. It will appeal to anyone, no matter what your interests. It’s impossible to not get caught up in the stories of the young men who became team that set out to earn the right to represent the United States in the 1936 Olympics. It’s about struggling against impossible odds brought about by the Great Depression, about creating a family when you no longer have your own, about working together for a common cause. There’s a lot of history woven into the story, a chilling glimpse of what the world would be up against with the Nazi’s and just enough dramatic description of the rowing to help you appreciate this elegant and demanding sport. A winner on many levels. Read it.

Seabiscuit: an American Legend by Lauren Hillenbrand. Hands down, one of my favorite books ever. Beautifully written, rich in atmosphere and history, this is not only the story of the scrappy little horse that won the hearts of the nation, it’s about the people surrounding and touched by this horse – his hard scrabble jockey, the taciturn trainer, the owners that took a chance. Against the backdrop of the grim struggles of the Great Depression, this underdog up against the rich and privileged is a classic American success story. Don’t miss it – for the history, for the colorful characters, for the charming little horse that took everything thrown at him and just kept going.

Mysteries by Dick Francis. The late Dick Francis wrote dozens of mysteries, all set at least on the fringes of horse racing. He was a master of succinct, economical writing, creating action and tension with understated elegance. Sometimes the racing is nearly irrelevant, sometimes it is more central and it is usually English steeplechase (racing over jumps). Francis, who was himself an award-winning jockey, brings authenticity to the books. I’ve read most of these mysteries; the earliest titles are grimmer and more violent while the later ones emphasize atmosphere (although they are no less suspenseful). My favorites are Break In and Bolt which follow the same main character (unusual for Francis) who, like Francis once was,  rides for the Queen Mother. I love the English racing scene he describes, the strategy of the racing and the skill of the jockeys and horses as well as the nearly unbearable tension as the mystery ratchets up. I’d recommend any of Francis’ mysteries for quick, enjoyable reads.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. This harrowing story of an attempt to summit Mt Everest explores a wide variety of issues and emotions – is pursuing this nearly impossible task irresponsible and selfish? What is it doing to the ecosystem of the mountain? How is it affecting the lives of the natives, the often unsung heroes of the expeditions? Is the risk worth the price many have paid? I read the original article that appeared in Outside magazine and could barely make it through those few pages – this is an intense, unforgettable adventure, if you’re up for it.

Some other titles worth looking at include A Good Walk Spoiled (golf) and A Season on the Brink (college basketball) both by John Feinstein, Friday Night Lights (high school football) by Buzz Bissinger and A River Runs Through It (fly fishing) by Norman MacLean. And if you didn’t read it for Magical Realism month, I highly recommend The Art of Racing in the Rain (auto racing) by Garth Stein.

This is a nice mix of fiction and non-fiction, interesting historical settings and lots of suspense. One of the characteristics of these books is the dedication and enthusiasm individuals bring to their chosen field and, no matter how you feel about sports, these are traits that are always interesting and engaging.

My choice for this month is The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, which follows a promising college baseball player and what happens when a routine throw goes wrong. The reviews are good and I’m looking forward to reading it!

Now, what about you? What are you going to read this August? Let us know in the comments!

Books mentioned in this post include:

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November 1958: the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Into the rarefied atmosphere of wealth and tradition comes the most unlikely of horses-a drab white former plow horse named Snowman-and his rider, Harry de Leyer. They were the longest of all longshots – and their win was the stuff of legend. The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts tells their extraordinary story.

Harry de Leyer first saw the horse he would name Snowman on a bleak winter afternoon between the slats of a rickety truck bound for the slaughterhouse. He recognized the spark in the eye of the beaten-up horse and bought him for eighty dollars. On Harry’s modest farm on Long Island, the horse thrived. But the recent Dutch immigrant and his growing family needed money, and Harry was always on the lookout for the perfect thoroughbred to train for the show-jumping circuit-so he reluctantly sold Snowman to a farm a few miles down the road.   But Snowman had other ideas about what Harry needed. When he turned up back at Harry’s barn, dragging an old tire and a broken fence board, Harry knew that he had misjudged the horse. And so he set about teaching this shaggy, easygoing horse how to fly.

One show at a time, against extraordinary odds and some of the most expensive thoroughbreds alive, the pair climbed to the very top of the sport of show jumping.   Here is the dramatic and inspiring rise to stardom of an unlikely duo, based on the insight and recollections of “the Flying Dutchman” himself. Their story captured the heart of Cold War–era America-a story of unstoppable hope, inconceivable dreams, and the chance to have it all. Elizabeth Letts’s message is simple: Never give up, even when the obstacles seem sky-high. There is something extraordinary in all of us. (provided by publisher)

breaking awayThere’s lots of bicycling in the news this week – RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) is at the halfway point and the Tour de France will finish on Sunday (can Lance Armstrong pull off his comeback?) Keep the bicycling theme going and check out the movie Breaking Away, one of the best sports movies ever made.

Set in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, four friends are caught in limbo after finishing high school, not know what they want to do next. The college kids derisively call them “cutters” (for the stone quarry where most of their blue-collar fathers work). Dave escapes into his dream of becoming a bicycle racer for the world champion Italian team by training rigorously and even learning to speak Italian (much to his father’s chagrin). After one dream is shattered, an unexpected opportunity opens when a local team (the “Cutters”, led by Dave) is allowed to compete in the famous Little 500 bicycle race at Indiana University. What follows will have you cheering for what’s possible against impossible odds.

Loosely based on a true story (there really is a Little 500 race at Indiana University) this heartwarming (in the best sense) movie is more than a story about a bicycle race – it’s also about family and home, about loyalty and friendship, about accepting and embracing change, about finding your perfect place in the world. Beautifully acted (Dennis Christopher, Paul Dooley, Daniel Stern, Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley, Barbara Barrie) this inspiring film will make you laugh, cry and cheer.

Cheerleaders are usually portrayed as air-headed and dumb, the sport is often the butt of jokes and in this age of equal rights, it’s considered anit-feminist to be part of a squad. The truth, of course, is very different.

It wasn’t that long ago (before Title IX in the 70s) that cheerleading was often the only organized sport available to high school and college women. Today, competitive cheerleading (not the silly dance steps performed by squads at professional football and basketball games) is a scholarship sport at hundreds of colleges, with National Championships held each year in April that are shown on ESPN. Like any college sport, it requires rigorous practices, learning specific skills, staying in excellent physical condition and game day situations. It is also plagued by the same problems – illegal drug use, often serious injuries and eating disorders.

Just in time for opening of college football. Cheer! by Kate Torgovnick takes you through a typical season with the squads from Stephen F Austin, Southern University and the University of Memphis. You’ll go behind the scenes, experience the hard times and the fun times and come to love the people of each squad. Well-researched and detailed, Cheer! will give you new insight into – and respect for – the world of cheerleading.