BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Reading for pleasure? Our writers choose the titles they most admired and enjoyed this year; on the next few pages, a wide range of ideas about what to give this Christmas
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The Independent Culture
SPORT Most books about sport are still very bad. Not as fireside reminders of the last season's Test Matches, or as the fan's frayed reference to exactly when Robbie Fowler scored his hat-trick against Arsenal, but as writing worth anything on its own. When Fever Pitch began piling out of bookshops in 1992, publishers promised a great wave of new writing. What readers have got since Nick Hornby's book is a literate sportswriting ripple, carried, as usual, on deeper currents of score-keeping and hagiography.

Motty's Diary: A Year In The Life (Virgin pounds 12.99) is as bafflingly banal as books by and for enthusiasts tend to be. Off-air, John Motson's life is a loop of football grounds, conversations about football, and speeches about football ("Canon Copiers asked me to host an exhibition of theirs in Crawley today"); he's a schoolboy condemned to live forever within his pre-teenage fantasy - and loving it. Only two revelations are unexpected. First, Motson's wife collects the statistics he pours out during matches (although "Annie does not often offer up theories on the game"); second, this professional watcher's diary contains no memorable moments of football at all.

Like rock critics, sportswriters often avoid their subject to concentrate on the crowd, the history, the post-match quotes. Through The Covers: An Anthology of Cricket Writing (OUP pounds 17.99) manages well this way. Its introduction is refreshingly tart: "The history of the game is full of cant, dishonesty, and doubtful conduct." That history - beginning "about 1340" if you share the book's interpretation of The Romance of Alexander, an illustrated manuscript featuring a monk with a curved stick and four others in catching positions - is promptly mocked by Siegfried Sassoon in "The Blues At Lord's": "For, though the Government has gone vermilion / And, as a whole, is weak in Greek and Latin, / The fogies harboured by the august Pavilion / Sit strangely similar ... "

Six pages from C L R James's Beyond a Boundary take cricket's tendency to snobbery more seriously. With his usual angry elegance, James explains that the Trinidadian clubs of his playing youth graded skin tone, in finer-layered imitation of the Empire's discrimination. "Dark" teams like Shannon aimed, in return, to revenge themselves on paler opponents. Yet the very fact of playing against each other at all undermined the divide as much as it symbolised it. The dark-skinned James himself, "nursed on Dickens" and more radical critics of social brutality, was nevertheless invited to join a light-skinned team - and accepted. He never mastered Shannon's leg- spinner, though.

James's foremost - perhaps only - modern disciple is Mike Marqusee, a Jewish New Yorker of near-Marxist politics, whose books are praised through gritted teeth by the cricket-writing establishment as "challenging" and "cleverly written". War Minus The Shooting: A Journey Through South Asia During Cricket's World Cup (Heinemann pounds 12.99) follows the 1996 tournament as a serious political, economic and cultural event, with the sport threaded gaudily through.

Early on, Marqusee quotes the Indian writer Ashis Nandy: "Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English." The frenzy he finds in South Asia - sponsorship by Coca-Cola, players turned into sex symbols, pop songs demanding victory - backs Marqusee's perceptive claim that the game's centre of gravity has shifted east. His attitude to this new excess slips from anti-corporate scorn to awe as he travels, and the match narratives develop adjectives as his favourite Sri Lankans smite their way to the final. But he still slips in the word "autarchists" on page 62.

In writing about the same competition, Robert Winder suffered the vast disadvantage of travelling with the England team. His Hell For Leather: A Modern Cricket Journey (Gollancz pounds 17.99) trundles through hundreds of dusty overs, but the surly, familiar mediocrity of his main subjects defeats every ingenious angle of enquiry. There are small victories: Ray Illingworth, the England manager, mutters tight-lipped that "there's no way anyone can tell me something I don't know about cricket", as his batsmen panic once more in the cold wash of the floodlights. Yet, like the England team themselves, Winder never quite picks up the careering pace of the Cup; at one point, he writes sadly about the captain Mike Atherton's "squiffy back". No Indian sports journalist would say that.

British football, and those who cover it, have less of a modernity problem. Awash, like Asian cricket, with television money and the promise (if not yet the reality) of international success, the sport almost deafens the rest of popular culture. It even out-shouts hip Scottishness: despite brisk short stories by Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, and four streetwise others, Children of Albion Rovers (Rebel Inc pounds 8.99) feels compelled to don mock-football strip - author playing cards and all - to advertise its virtually sport-free tales.

All Quiet On The Hooligan Front (Mainstream pounds 12.99) and England, My England (Headline pounds 6.99) also fly flags of current cultural convenience. Colin Ward and the Brimson brothers, Dougie and Eddy, have pretended to write books of responsible analysis, explaining, respectively, how football supporters have calmed down or remained, covertly, as granny-scaring as ever. They have done nothing of the sort. Ward's book is undiluted fan- memoir, not the sweet Hornby kind but raw lager-chucking sectarianism on the Caledonian Road, hoarse with the stiffly macho catchphrases - "top boys", "on form", "steaming in" - of men used to violence.

The Brimsons' book is queasier reading still. One page, they're calling for a "battle to defeat the hooligans", fighting on at grounds too small for the media radar; the next, they're giving space to the British National Party, or enjoying a riot a little too much in the remembering. The guilty thrill of their story of a Scottish fan, taking part in the famous Wembley rampage of 1977, shows their real sympathies. Telling mum he's going out to buy some Polo mints, the teenager jumps on the train at Glasgow, helps tear up the pitch after the match, bellows in Trafalgar Square, and then sneaks off to Euston to call his worried mum. His dad grabs the phone: "Have you got a piece of Wembley for the garden then?"

Mariah Burton Nelson knows the source of all this manly desperation. The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football (Women's Press pounds 8.99) is a rare sports book, partly because it's not by a man, and, more importantly, because it looks at the great unspoken: the effect of sport on society. America is her subject, with its near-hysterical sporting culture of statistic-gathering and violent dominance - the slam dunk in basketball, the sacks and hits of football - so her findings seem a little alarmist. Yet Nelson, once a professional basketball player, piles up her evidence with the relentlessness of Susan Faludi's Backlash. One chilling example: men who play college football or basketball are 38 per cent more likely to be reported for sexual assault. Maybe the quality of sports books is not the thing to be worrying about.

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