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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the ultimate super bowl bookThe Ultimate Super Bowl Book: A Complete Reference to the Stats, Stars, and Stories behind Football’s Biggest Game — And Why the Best Team Won is more than a book about the history of the Super Bowl, AKA the throw-down between the two best football teams in the United States. Want to learn some facts and secrets about over 40 years of Super Bowls? Check out this book. The author, Bob McGinn, has won numerous awards and has covered more than twenty Super Bowls as a sportswriters for two different newspapers.

McGinn delves beyond the traditional football statistics to present readers with interviews from over 150 people from coaches to players to scouts. Interested in what happened behind the scenes? Read along as McGinn dissects the game plans, strategies, and game-time decisions that he learned from studying hours upon hours of game day footage. McGinn pairs the statistical and factual right alongside the stories of the big mistakes, big break-throughs, and the match-ups that led to some of the best rivalry Super Bowl games since they began. McGinn has collected a wealth of knowledge from complete statistics to lists of all people involved in each game to break-downs of the decisive plays.

This book is perfect for football beginners who feel like they should know some trivia before the big game, as well as those football lovers who want to expand their knowledge base.

ping pongThe spring of 1971 heralded the greatest geopolitical realignment in a generation. After twenty-two years of antagonism, China and the United States suddenly moved toward a détente achieved not by politicians but by Ping-Pong players.

The Western press delighted in the absurdity of the moment and branded it “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” But for the Chinese, Ping-Pong was always political, a strategic cog in Mao Zedong’s foreign policy. Nicholas Griffin proves that the organized game, from its first breath, was tied to Communism thanks to its founder, Ivor Montagu, son of a wealthy English baron and spy for the Soviet Union. Ping-Pong Diplomacy traces a crucial inter-section of sports and society. Griffin tells the strange and tragic story of how the game was manipulated at the highest levels; how the Chinese government helped cover up the death of 36 million peasants by holding the World Table Tennis Championships during the Great Famine; how championship players were driven to their deaths during the Cultural Revolution; and, finally, how the survivors were reconvened in 1971 and ordered to reach out to their American counterparts.

Through a cast of eccentric characters, from spies to hippies and Ping-Pong-obsessed generals to atom-bomb survivors, Griffin explores how a neglected sport was used to help realign the balance of worldwide power. (description from publisher)

The Art of Fielding follows the tale of Henry Skrimshander, a naturally gifted shortstop, blessed with a powerful throw, catlike reflexes, and an almost supernatural gift for seeing the ball’s path as it comes off the bat. But when his can’t-miss aim misses, breaking the cheekbone of a teammate, Henry’s life – and the lives of his teammates and friends at Westish College – is thrown into chaos.

This novel has generated a lot of buzz and was mentioned on a lot of ‘best-of 2011’ lists. The hype, for the most part, is justified. Multidimensional characters and a lot of pretty language are the strong points; baseball may be boring, but Harbach’s sentences describing it are not. The weaknesses (occasional point of view problems, a plot that requires some definite leaps of faith, and just tons of baseball) are minor. The best thing about it may be the setting: Westish College, a fictional Wisconsin liberal arts school, feels very like Augustana (my alma mater), and a campus novel is always a treat.*

Westish and its people share a near-obsessive devotion to Herman Melville, who (in the fictional universe of this novel) visited the school late in his life and gave a speech. That visit turns Westish into an unlikely center of Melville scholarship, and an adoptee of a new mascot – The Harpooner – in honor of the author. If you’re a fan of Herman Melville and Moby-Dick, you’re going to love the packed house of literary allusions: if not, rest easy. Luckily for most of us, you don’t need to be a Melville scholar (or a baseball fanatic) to enjoy this novel.

*If, like me, you enjoy reading about campus life, by all means check out the novels of David Lodge, especially Small World. Jane Smiley’s Moo and Richard Russo’s Straight Man are also excellent choices.

On an overcast September day in 1993, Jim Abbott took the mound at Yankee Stadium and threw one of the most dramatic no-hitters in major-league history. The game was the crowning achievement in an unlikely success story, unseen in the annals of professional sports. In Imperfect, the one-time big league ace retraces his remarkable journey.

Born without a right hand, Jim Abbott as a boy dreamed of being a great athlete. Raised in Flint, Michigan, by parents who saw in his condition not a disability but an extraordinary opportunity, Jim became a two-sport standout in high school, then an ace pitcher for the University of Michigan.   But his journey was only beginning.   As a nineteen-year-old, Jim beat the vaunted Cuban National Team. By twenty-one, he’d won the gold medal game at the 1988 Olympics and – without spending a day in the minor leagues – cracked the starting rotation of the California Angels. In 1991, he would finish third in the voting for the Cy Young Award. Two years later, he would don Yankee pinstripes and deliver a one-of-a-kind no-hitter.

It wouldn’t always be so good. After a season full of difficult losses – some of them by football scores – Jim was released, cut off from the game he loved. Unable to say good-bye so soon, Jim tried to come back, pushing himself to the limit-and through one of the loneliest experiences an athlete can have. But always, even then, there were children and their parents waiting for him outside the clubhouse doors, many of them with disabilities like his, seeking consolation and advice. These obligations became Jim’s greatest honor.

In this honest and insightful memoir, Jim Abbott reveals the insecurities of a life spent as the different one, how he habitually hid his disability in his right front pocket, and why he chose an occupation in which the uniform provided no front pockets. With a riveting pitch-by-pitch account of his no-hitter providing the ideal frame for his story, this unique athlete offers readers an extraordinary and unforgettable memoir. (provided by the publisher)

Whether or not you think it’s a big deal, it kind of is. Halas versus Lombardi.
For 180 minutes this weekend, typical genteel Midwestern politeness will be suspended and (gasp!) unpleasantries may be exchanged as the Bears host the Packers for the NFC championship.

The last time these two storied rivals tussled for the big one? One week after Pearl Harbor on a frosty day back in ’41. Chicago won and though they are 3.5pt underdogs heading into Sunday, they’ll find a way to extend that tradition an additional 70 years.

Be sure to stop in to the downtown reference desk during the game and feed Bill scores.

January 4

Dinner for Schmucks –  Steve Carell, Paul Rudd

Tim is a guy on the verge of having it all. The only thing standing between him and total career success is finding the perfect guest to bring to his boss’ annual Dinner for Extraordinary People, an event where the winner of the evening brings the most eccentric character as his guest. Enter Barry, a guy with a passion for dressing mice up in tiny outfits to recreate great works of art. When the duo shows up to dine, the lunacy kicks into high gear.

Catfish– Henry Joost

In late 2007, filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost sensed a story unfolding as they began to film the life of Ariel’s brother, Nev. They had no idea that their project would lead to the most exhilarating and unsettling months of their lives. A reality thriller that is a shocking product of our times, Catfish is a riveting story of love, deception, and grace within a labyrinth of online intrigue.

Big Love – Season 4 – Bill Paxton, Jeanne Triplehorn

For years, Bill Henrickson wished for a world free from the corrupt ‘Prophet’ of Juniper Creek, Roman Grant. Now that Roman appears to be out of the picture, Bill and his family can breathe easily, or can they? Season 4 continues the Henricksons’ story, as Bill launches another business venture: a Mormon-friendly casino. At the same time, Bill eschews a chance to seize the Prophet mantle at Juniper Creek in favor of an even more high-profile calling: running for State Senate in Utah.

January 11

Piranha – Jerry O’Connell, Elisabeth Shue

A group of strangers on Lake Victoria must band together to survive after a sudden underwater tremor sets free prehistoric man-eating fish

January 18

Justified – Season 1 – Timothy Olyphant

Due to his old-school style, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is reassigned from Miami to his childhood home in the poor, rural coal-mining towns in Eastern Kentucky. Lawman Givens is a tough, soft-spoken gentleman who never gives an inch. Contained are thirteen episodes, such as: Fire in the Hole; Riverbrook; Fixer; Long in the Tooth; and more.

January 25

The Girl that Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Swedish) – Noomi Rapace

The final installment of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Lisbeth Salander is fighting for her life in more ways than one. In an intensive care unit and charged with three murders, she will have to not only prove her innocence, but also identify and denounce the same corruptgovernment institutions that nearly destroyed her life. Once upon a time, she was a victim. Now, Lisbeth Salander is fighting back.

Secretariat –  Diane Lane, John Malkovich

Behind every legend lies an impossible dream. Witness the spectacular journey of an incredible horse named Secretariat and the moving story of his unlikely owner, a housewife who risked everything to make him a champion.

Looking for a uniquely Iowa activity this summer? The 2010 Hooverball National Championships will be Saturday, August 7th.

For the uninitiated, Hooverball is similar to volleyball and played with a four or six pound medicine ball (women’s and men’s versions respectively).

“Catching one of these balls is like catching a bag of concrete mix dropped off a freeway overpass,” according to CBS Sunday Morning.  The speed and grueling nature of the game made it a fast and efficient way to exercise all one’s muscles, which was the appeal for President Hoover and his doctor. During his presidency, Hoover lost 25 pounds which they attributed to his regular morning Hooverball games.

Teams were made up of Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices. Every day but Sunday, they played on the front lawn unless the weather drove them down to the White House basement.

West Branch may be the only town in the world with it’s own Hoover-Ball courts on  Main Street. Other Hooverfest activities are fireworks at dusk, a band, food tents and a beer tent.

Read more about Hoover in the recent biography, Herbert Hoover by William Leuchtenburg.

May 11

Daybreakers – Willem Defoe, Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill

In the year 2019, an unknown plague has transformed the world’s population into vampires. As the human population nears extinction, so does the blood supply. Now the vampires must find a blood substitute before time runs out. Researcher Edward Dalton and a clandestine group of vampires have made a remarkable discovery, one which has the power to save the human race.

May 18

Extraordinary Measures – Harrison Ford, Brendan Fraser

On the fast track and ready to taste the success of corporate America, John Crowley walks away from it all in hopes of finding a cure for two of his fatally ill children. With his wife Aileen by his side, he teams up with brilliant but unconventional scientist Dr. Robert Stonehill, and together they form a company to develop a life-saving drug. But just when it appears that a solution may be found, the relationship between the men is tested and the fate of John’s children is at stake.

Invictus – Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon

Nominated for two Oscars

Newly elected President Mandela knows his nation remains racially and economically divided in the wake of apartheid. Believing he can bring his people together through the universal language of sport, Mandela rallies South Africa’s underdog rugby team as they make an unlikely run to the 1995 World Cup Championship match.

Inspired by the great performances of the Olympic athletes? Interested in trying one of those winter sports? The library has lots of books to inspire and instruct!

Hockey for Everybody by Cam Neely

Cross-Country Skiing : a Complete Guide by Brian Cazeneuve

Learn Downhill Skiing in a Weekend by Konrad Bartelski

Figure Skating for Dummies by Kristi Yamaguchi

Winter Adventure : Complete Guide to Winter Sports by Peter Stark

Snowboarding Skills by Cindy Kleh

And don’t forget about the great local resources available in our area from the Quad Cities Sports Center to the pond at VanderVeer Park.

You’re on your own for aerial ski jumping and luge!