‘Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster’ by Jon Krakauer (1997)

I’m a huge fan of Jon Krakauer’s writing and all of his books – particularly Under the Banner of Heaven, his examination of Mormon Fundamentalism through the lens of an appalling double murder.

Into Thin Air is Krakauer’s deeply personal account of the May 1996 disaster on Mount Everest through his own first hand experience of being on the summit of the mountain at the time and losing members of the expedition he was travelling with.

Krakauer was on the mountain to write a story for Outside magazine on the commercialisation of Everest and also to satisfy his own desire to conquer Everest.  He joined a guided expedition led by experienced guide Rob Hall.  When I first read this book over 10 years ago, it was the first mountaineering book I had read.  I was shocked to discover that those climbing Everest weren’t all the world’s most amazing athletes but that fit and wealthy people could pay large sums to be guided up the mountain.  Krakauer was an experienced climber who struggled at times with feeling like a fraud for being on a guided expedition relying on guides and the labour of Sherpas.

The book is a fascinating examination of the challenges of mountaineering at high altitude and the mindset of those who risk life and limb to climb the world’s highest peaks.  It was fascinating to read the details of how the mountain is actually climbed and the difficulties and dangers of high altitude.  But this book is also about much more than that. It’s a story about guilt, about the fallibility of memory, about decision-making under pressure, and about small actions that can have huge consequences.

Some characters are painted in very unsympathetic light – Ian Woodall, the bolshy, arrogant leader of the South African expedition in particular is presented as a very unlikable guy whose own ego came ahead of anything else.

Anatoli Boukreev, a guide working for another expedition led by Scott Fischer, is at times painted as being selfish and failing to be a responsible guide, however by the end he is a redeemed figure who rescued fairly climbers at great personal risk.

There have been claims that Krakaeur’s version is not sufficiently substantiated and potentially inaccurate.  Many of the other climbers who survived have similarly written books covering the events including Bourkreev, Beck Weathers, Graham Ratcliffe and Lene Gammelgaard. However, to me the book feels honest and I believe it is the truth as Krakaeur can best establish it from his own memories and extensive interviews.

Krakaeur doesn’t shy away from discussing the decision points and actions where he deeply regrets his own words or actions and the contribution they played to the tragedy.  His inaccurate recollection of meeting guide Andy Harris on his way down may have contributed to the failure of any rescue attempt to locate Harris.

Overall it’s an intensely moving and thought-provoking book that stays with you well after you read it.  Krakaeur is an amazing storyteller who blends history and memory (his own and others) into a gripping, harrowing, horrifying, fascinating story.  It can at times have a ‘disaster porn’ feel to it – like how passing drivers stare at a car crash – the tragedy adds a voyeuristic appeal that keeps you gripped while making you feeling uncomfortable at the same time. However, as long as people continue to climb Everest, there will continue to be accidents and continue to books written about them.  It will be difficult for any of those books to top this one.

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Frankly Speaking by Frank Stapleton (1991)

Published in 1991, Frankly Speaking is a (kind of) autobiography of former Arsenal, Man Utd and Ireland striker Frank Stapleton.

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Stapleton seemed to be coming to end of his career when the book came out and his international career was over having been on the fringes of the squad during Italia ’90 having previously captained the team during Euro ’88.  He ended up playing four more years in the English lower leagues.

The book feels like half of an autobiography – it covers his football career with each season covered in a chapter and his club and international careers covered in separate halves of the book.  It’s focus is on entirely on Stapleton’s football career with almost no discussion of his life outside of football. The version of the book I found in the library has no summary on the front or back cover, no forward, no acknowledgements or any scene setter at all.  It just goes straight into his first few years at Arsenal.

One of the striking things is the amount of focus on the FA Cup over the team’s performance in the league.  This seems to be partly because the FA Cup still maintained its elevated status in the game and partly because Stapleton played in five Cup finals but never in a team that competed for the league title right to the end of the season.  The amount of replays in the cup is also striking.  You can see why penalties were eventually preferred to so many extra games.

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Stapleton rarely expresses his opinion on the various people he played or worked with outside of commenting on what they added to the team.  Ron Atkinson, his manager at United is the clear exception with Stapleton being pretty critical of Big Ron’s ego, love of the media, and lack of tactical nous.  His biggest praise is for coach Don Howe – a figure who seems to pop up in any biography of footballers who played in England in the 80’s and 90’s.

The material on Ireland was definitely the most interesting for me.  Stapleton gives a bit more background colour on the Euro ’88 and Italia ’90 campaigns and a decent sense of Jack Charlton’s management style.  I’d actually read all the most interesting bits before in the excellent ‘The Team That Jack Built’ by Paul Rowan (1994)

It’s a quick and easy read that has some interesting bits for any Arsenal, United or Ireland fan.  It feels like a book from a bygone era and was designed to be read at the time, when any reader would have none the main people mentioned. It’s also the first book I’ve reviewed that I couldn’t find on Goodreads (until I added it), giving some sense of how obscure it is at this stage!

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‘Touched By God: How We Won the Mexico 86 World Cup’ by Diego Maradona (2017)

You always assume books by footballers have ghostwriters.  While Daniel Arcucci is named on the book, I hope he was only a translator and that no one who calls themselves a writer put their name to this book.  Touched by God reads like a 3 or 4 hour long stream of Maradona’s consciousness as if someone asked him an open-ended question about the 1986 World Cup.

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Maradona’s telling of this story is designed to big up his friends in the team and downplay the role of manager Carlos Bilardo who he fell out with when Bilardo criticised Maradona as Argentina manager in 2010.  Considering almost all football fans acknowledge Maradona won the cup largely single-handed, its amazing he sees the need to be so critical and dismissive of Bilardo.  Mardaona claims that the players, and himself, deserve almost all the credit for the team being well prepared and for their fitness levels by actively railing against Bilardo’s original plans.

Maradona’s personality certainly shines through – ego, craziness and an amazing ability to hold a grudge.  At times it feels like half the book is score settling with Bilardo and former captain Daniel Passeralla – with a little bit of spite left over for ‘that heartless turkey’ Platini. He has some kind words for certain teammates in particularly Brown and Ruggeri.

Probably the biggest flaw in the book is that it makes so many assumptions that you know who and what Maradona is talking about.  If you don’t already know a huge amount about Maradona, Argentina, the players of that era and the ’86 World Cup you will be totally and utterly lost for the first chunk of the book.

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The book rambles around a lot at times covering random bits of Maradona’s life and a decent bit of detail about his time in Napoli where he was playing during the ’86 World Cup. He drops in complaints about Fifa, his love of Pope Francis and the bits of advice he gave Messi when he was Argentina manager.

There are interesting bits, some entertaining anecdotes and bits of genuine insight into the mindset of a great player as he faces the most important games of his life and plays at a level beyond compare.  However, the decent bits are totally drowned out by the terrible writing and rambling style.  You could read the section on the World Cup final and still have no idea what happened in the match bar Argentina winning, such is the rambling style.

Overall, I recommend giving this book a miss.  It’s almost as poor as his first memoir El Diego, poorly written, rambling and hard to read.  For a genuinely great book on Maradona, I’d recommend seeking out Hand of God by Jimmy Burns.

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‘Garrincha: the triumph and tragedy of Brazilian’s forgotten footballing hero’ by Ruy Castro & translated by Andrew Downie (2004)

“The most amateur footballer professionial football ever produced”

Garrincha was the epitome of the flawed sporting hero – the genius player whose personal demons led to an early death. Garrincha, the book, details his life from his childhood in Pau Grande through the length of his career and his eventual death from alcholism.  It captures his amazing talent, his playful charisma, his colourful personal life and his unique place in the hearts of Brazilian football fans.

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Born with crooked legs, he defied all expectations and became one of the most successful players in international football history, winning two World Cups and only once losing in a Brazilian shirt in 60 appearances.  Winning two world cups he became a cult legend in Brazil.

His life was incredible.  He lost his virginity to a goat, slept with hundreds of women and sired at least 14 children – his affair and subsequent marriage to the singer Elza Soares that caught the imagination of a nation and led to them both being vilified.  He was profligate with money, uninterested in football that he wasn’t playing in and totally incapable of being faithful.

By the age of forty-nine, Garrincha was dead, destroyed by the excesses that made him such a fascinating figure.  His downfall makes for depressing, but gripping reading.

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There is something that draws us to those genius sports stars who can’t conquer their demons and don’t get the change to live the post-retirement life they deserve.  Their flaws make them more relatable and more human. As an Irishman, you read the book feeling like its an alternate world story of George Best’s life or even how the great Paul McGrath’s life may have gone had he been born in Brazil.

Ruy Castro has written a thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating biography which is excellently translated by Andrew Downie.  It is a brilliant and detailed insight into a fascinating life of a genius player.  It is a comprehensive and worthy tribute to a footballer who had he played a few years later in the television era would be remembered as one of the all time greats.  The only downside for me was the lack of more detail on the social and cultural environment in which Garrincha lived – I feel I learned an incredible amount about Garrincha, but less than I expected about the Brazil of the 50’s and 60’s.

I first the read the book when the English translation came out in 2004 and I thoroughly enjoyed this reread.  I highly recommend it for any football fan and is a great companion book for watching Russia 2018.

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‘Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers’ by Nicholas Smith (2018)

While I’m no ‘sneakerhead’ and have appalling fashion sense, runners are the one item of clothing that I  can actually enjoy shopping for.  I’m also the kind of guy who wears black Asics walking to work and doesn’t bother putting on suit shoes unless a meeting is very important so my views on anything shoes or fashion related should probably be ignored. Kicks

I had to ask myself if Kicks qualified as a sports book but given the heavy focus on the history of sport and sports companies, it definitely does.  Kicks traces the story of how sneakers (the American term for runners, trainers, sports shoes or tackies) were first developed and grew from being a sports specific shoe to the ever-present default footwear choice of billions.

In telling the story, Smith traces the origins of numerous sports and even more sport shoe companies.  In particular he captures the rivalries that drove advances in technology and marketing as the sneaker business crossed over from sports wear to mainstream everyday wear.  From Converse v Keds, Addidas v Puma to Nike v Reebok, the battle to be number led to some much innovation and change in an ever growing market.   Each company would at some hit a gold mine – whether the Converse All-Star, the Reebok athletic shoe or Nike Air Jordan – before losing the lead as a competitor signed the next big name or launched the next must have shoe.

The book weaves together a lot of stories I already knew or was vaguely aware of.  I was surprised by how much of the source material I had read including Kenny Moore’s book on Bill Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, Phil Knight’s autobiography Shoe Dog (about Nike) and Pitch Invasion by Barbara Smit on the founding of Adidas and Puma.

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It also touches on the role non-sport elements popular culture, in particular Run DMC’s promoting of Adidas which landed them a $1 million endorsement deal, had on the marketing of sneakers. Finally, it talks about sneakerhead culture and the fan culture that the internet has enabled resulting in shoes selling for thousands online and sneaker theft becoming a worrying source of crime in US inner-cities. While it seems crazy to think of someone buying shoes they will likely never wear, I’m writing this looking at my library of 100’s of books I’m yet to read while I buy way more new books every year than I read.  I guess we all have a passion and for some people that passion is sneakers.

Overall it is a very interesting dive into the world of American sports shoes that becomes more interesting as you keep reading.  While the book could easily have become a boring repetition of facts, Smith’s writing style keeps it light and entertaining.

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‘The Soul of Basketball: The Epic Showdown Between LeBron, Kobe, Doc, and Dirk That Saved the NBA’ by Ian Thomsen (2018)

“Basketball is now the true sport of the American Dream”

The Soul of Basketball tells the story of the 2010-2011 NBA season – the season after LeBron James ‘Decision’ to move to Miami.  It paints that year as a pivotal season – the changing of the guard as LeBron’s generation seized control of the NBA.

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It isn’t simply a book about the season, but rather about the changing role of the NBA in American life as a new generation of players build on Jordan’s legacy and capture the public’s imagination.    The NBA was trying to find its way in the post-Jordan era but LeBron had turned himself into public enemy number 1 with his handling of the Decision and his promises of a decade of glory in Miami.  Players were arriving in the NBA already famous and already entitled.

Thomsen paints a compelling and illuminating portrait of the key individuals in that season’s NBA.   He takes readers inside the Heat, the Lakers, the Celtics, the Spurs, and the Mavericks and focuses on a key individual in each of those teams. For me the most compelling figures throughout the book are Dirk Nowitzki, Greg Popovich and Kobe Bryant.  Dirk Nowitzki was much less well-known to me and emerges as the most fascinating figure in the book.

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Thomsen shows us who the players, coaches, scouts and executives really are, what motivates and drives them to succeed.  Thomsen’s ability to get key people to open up and share revealing insights is a real asset to the book.  There is also extensive and fascinating detail on the inside workings of team’s front office. Thomsen also captures the between old-school owners and the newer generation of owners like Mark Cuban at the Mavericks.

It is arguable that LeBron is treated a bit harshly at times in the book although the epilogue does recognise his achievement in returning successfully to Cleveland.   By detailing LeBron’s toughest year, Thomsen attempts to show some of what LeBron went through before becoming a champion.

It’s a detailed, engrossing and brilliant read which I highly recommend.  If there has been a better book written about the modern NBA, I’d be delighted to find it.

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‘The Blueprint: LeBron James, Cleveland’s Deliverance, and the Making of the Modern NBA’ by Jason Lloyd (2017)

LeBron James is currently appearing in the NBA finals for the 8th year in a row.   The biggest superstar in a sport where superstars matter more than any other, James has been one of the biggest names in US sport since he was 18 years of age.

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After being drafted by his hometown Cleveland Cavilers, LeBron eventually got frustrated at never winning a title and joined Miami Heat in 2010 and combined with fellow stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade as part of Pat Riley’s ambitious plans to build a championship winning team.  Riley was able to get LeBron because he understood that winning a championship was what he wanted most – he had the fame, the endorsement and the money and knew Riley could help him get championship rings.

The Blueprint tells the story of what happened in Cleveland after LeBron’s ‘Decision’.  Once the grieving process was over, the Cleveland front office launched an ambitious plan to ensure they would be in a position to get LeBron back once he entered free agency in 2014.   The plan incorporated several losing seasons, some high-risk draft picks, and a long term plan to build a championship winning team.   It was a risky, ingenious and amazingly succesful plan which provided a new roadmap for how to build a championship team over time.  Unfortunately for Cav’s fans, it’s unlikely to be a dynasty with some key players from the 2016 championship team leaving and the Golden State Warriors continuously standing in the way.

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Llyod spent these and many other years as a reporter in Cleveland covering the NBA and the Cavs and couldn’t have been better positioned to write this book.   The book is also the story of Cleveland sports – the heartbreak and the tragic endings Lloyd takes us through all of the tragic endings that Cleveland sports die-hards had to endure since the Browns won the NFL championship in 1964.

Ultimately the book is primarily a testament to just how great LeBron James is.  More than anything, it highlights the transformative effect he had on both his teams. It paints a portrait of a player who learned from his mistakes, from being too brash and too arrogant in his public pronouncements.  Of a player who discovered what it takes to lead teams of all different talent levels.

The Blueprint is a very enjoyable and entertaining read. Llyod tells a fascinating story of  the relationship between a star and his city, of anguish and redemption and of how to build a championship winning team in the modern NBA.

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