Christmas books: Sport

Bouts of gore and glory
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The Independent Culture

Classic sports books often fall into one of two categories: those that are good because they are well-written; and those that deal with extremes of experience. Boxing tends to generate books that satisfy both requirements, and two of this year's best offerings seek to convey what it might be like to stand in a ring and confront a man whose mission is to remove your head in as bloody a manner as possible.

The starting point for Kevin Mitchell's War, Baby: the glamour of violence (Yellow Jersey, £10) is the 1995 super-middleweight title fight between Nigel Benn and the American Gerald McClennan, which set new standards for brutality. Observers like Mitchell were left profoundly unsettled; McClennan was left brain-damaged. Boxing is Mitchell's first love, but his book is so uncompromisingly gruesome it amounts almost to an abolitionists' charter.

In Looking for a Fight (Headline, £14.99), David Matthews's investigation of a pursuit some refuse to call a sport took a different avenue. This struggling hack and part-time lecturer decided to go the whole way and become a professional boxer, if only for one fight. By the time his "transition from thinking machine to fighting machine was almost complete", we have entered into the mind of a boxer – and terrifying it is, too.

Boxers have spoken about the intimacy they feel towards their opponent when the final bell has sounded; rugby players traditionally knock lumps out of the opposition, then drink them under the table. But the women's tennis tour makes a nest of vipers look like a club full of loved-up ravers, and Venus Envy (HarperCollins, £17.95) by the Sports Illustrated writer L Jon Wertheim, an account of a year with the Williams sisters and their deadly rivals, provides some breathtaking vignettes of viciousness.

Snooker, too, has its mind games and enmities, while seeming to speak of a more civil era. On Snooker (Yellow Jersey, £10) is the final work by the Canadian novelist, journalist and screenwriter Mordecai Richler, who died in July. Equally at ease discussing Gibbon and Griffiths, Hemingway and Hendry, at one point Richler mentions Cyril Connolly. Fittingly so, for a book that can lay claim to being snooker's version of The Unquiet Grave.

But if Christmas truly isn't Christmas unless you have to pick your jaw up off the floor a few times, then A Voyage for Madmen (Profile, £16.99) is the one for you. Peter Nichols recounts the remarkable story of the 1968 Golden Globe, the first non-stop single-handed round the world yacht race. Here be dragons, the old maps warned, and on the Golden Globe they were all in the mind. Out of a field of nine, one finished, while another didn't because he simply carried on, ending up in Tahiti. And two committed suicide. Nichols, whose Sea Change chronicled his solo transatlantic voyage, is well equipped to convey the bewildering intensity that comes with circumnavigating the globe. When Chay Blyth set out on the race, his entire sailing experience amounted to six miles in fine weather. A voyage for madmen, indeed.

Mitchell, Matthews and Nichols all made the William Hill Sports Book of the Year shortlist, which was won last week by Seabiscuit: the true story of three men and a racehorse (Fourth Estate, £16.99), a thrilling record of the legendary nag whose scarcely believable exploits gripped Depression America. Laura Hillenbrand's prose style, if slightly overcooked, is entirely suited to such an epic tale, and it comes as no surprise to learn that she is presently working as consultant on the movie adaptation.

Football books still swamp the market, though few can lay claim to any particular merit beyond satisfying ever smaller niches. The most widely noted book was Head to Head (CollinsWillow, £19.99) by the former Manchester United defender Jaap Stam, whose tabloid serialisation belay its status as an utterly conventional ghosted autobiography. Far better was Colin Shindler's Fathers, Sons and Football (Headline, £14.99), the well-told story of three generations of the Summerbee family (Mike was the best known, a brilliant winger for the great Manchester City side of the Sixties). Evocative and atmospheric, it serves as a mordant reminder that the Glory Game can also be a deeply tawdry game.

But also, too, according to the popular cliché, the People's Game. Football: the Golden Age (Cassell, £30) is a sumptuous work, full of magnificent photographs chosen by John Tennant from the game's beginnings to the 1980s. I went through it once, and then again, and still I couldn't find a wasted page. It must have been a pleasure to choose the images; it was certainly a pleasure to peruse them.