Paul Kim­mage

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - PAUL KIM­MAGE

What if the longlist con­tained 23 books? What if the books ar­rived on Oc­to­ber 31 and there were five to choose be­fore Novem­ber 23? What if most of the books weighed in at al­most 300 pages?

What I like best is a book that’s at least funny once in a while . . . What re­ally knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done read­ing it, you wish the au­thor that wrote it was a ter­rific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone when­ever you felt like it. That doesn’t hap­pen much, though.

JD Salinger, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’

THE late Frank De­ford was one of Amer­ica’s great­est sports­writers. A gifted broad­caster, screen­writer and nov­el­ist, he wrote a book once about the Miss Amer­ica pageant and his four years as a judge.

“I was a bit ner­vous about judg­ing,” he re­calls in his mem­oir, Over Time, “but then a won­der­ful Miss Amer­ica maven, Eleanor ‘Big Momma’ An­drews, ex­plained that it was re­ally very easy. ‘Honey,’ Big Momma told me, ‘don’t worry about it. All you have to know is that the women judges just vote for the girl that re­minds them most of them­selves, and the men judges just vote for the one they’d most like to sleep with.’”

This was my first thought when the books ar­rived at my door.

The in­vi­ta­tion to join the judg­ing panel for the eir sport Book of the Year had dropped in late Septem­ber. A long list of en­tries would be an­nounced in Oc­to­ber.

The mis­sion (should I choose to ac­cept) was to an­a­lyse the mer­its of each book, cast an ini­tial vote for my top five via email and then meet with the rest of the panel to dis­cuss a short­list of three.

Not rocket science.

But what if the longlist con­tained 23 books? What if the books ar­rived on Oc­to­ber 31 and there were five to choose be­fore Novem­ber 23? What if most of the books weighed in at al­most 300 pages? What if you nor­mally took three days to read a book and had been given 23 to ac­cess in 24 days?

Not easy.

Seven were scanned and culled im­me­di­ately: Great Mo­ments in Ir­ish Rugby from Sports­file was a pic­ture book; Hugh Cahill’s Win­ners had a lot more sub­stance but a sim­i­lar cof­fee-ta­ble ap­peal; Tom Hunt’s The Lit­tle Book of Ir­ish Ath­let­ics was speared by its ti­tle; Pat Bracken’s The Growth and Devel­op­ment of Sport in Tip­per­ary 1840-1880 was an aca­demic tome. John Scally’s 100 Great GAA Mo­ments was a GAA-man’s stock­ing-filler; Be­hind the Lines: Great Ir­ish Sports Sto­ries From the 42 did what it said on the tin and de­liv­ers some of the best pieces on sport pub­lished this year but it’s an an­thol­ogy; and I like Rory O’Con­nor but The Rory’s Sto­ries Guide to be­ing Ir­ish was never go­ing to be Book of the Year.

So now it’s five from 16.

My brother, Kevin, lec­tures in jour­nal­ism and agreed to re­view the eight I was un­sure or might be prej­u­diced against: Dark Arts (Mike Ross with Liam Hayes); Dream. Be­lieve. Achieve (Jonathan Rea); Driven (Rose­mary Smith and Ann In­gle); Dublin The Chaos Years (Neil Cotter); Le­gend: The Of­fi­cial Bi­og­ra­phy of Tony

Keady (Liam Hayes); Play it Again, Des

(Des Cahill with Mary Han­ni­gan); The Boys of ’93 (Ea­monn Cole­man with Maria McCourt); The Last Amateurs (Jonathan Bradley).

So that left eight for me:

At All Costs (Davy Fitzger­ald with Vin­cent Ho­gan); Game Changer (Cora Staunton with Mary White); The Fighter (Andy Lee with Niall Kelly); The Hurlers

(Paul Rouse); The Man Who Was Never Knocked Down (Rónán Mac Con Io­maire); The Lost Soul of Ea­monn Magee (Paul D

Gib­son); The Ob­ses­sion (Seán Ca­vanagh with Damian Lawlor); Tony 10 (De­clan

Lynch & Tony O’Reilly)

I pulled The Ob­ses­sion from the pile and placed it at num­ber one; it was the only book from the list I had read and a log­i­cal and wor­thy front-run­ner. The game now was who could move ahead.

What I was look­ing for was a read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence; some­thing that en­gaged or ex­cited or moved me; some­thing big or bold or brave that’s beyond the game and how it’s played.

The Cora book Game Changer — the first au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of a fe­male GAA star — is solid and well-writ­ten but lacks depth or re­flec­tion; per­haps be­cause the sub­ject is a com­plex woman de­ter­mined to keep us at arm’s length; per­haps be­cause she’s still play­ing and not ready for that yet. A less en­gag­ing read than the Ca­vanagh book.

Next up was the The Fighter the pret­ti­est of the pile with its stu­pen­dously glo­ri­ous cover and a nar­ra­tive that sur­prises and en­chants from the open­ing page. The sur­prise is that it’s not so much a mem­oir as a beau­ti­fully-crafted es­say on what it is to fight; the en­chant­ment is the hon­esty as the fighter finds love and re­flects on the things that mat­ter in life.

A seam­less col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Lee and his ghost­writer Niall Kelly — who had steered Philly McMa­hon to last year’s top prize — The Fighter set a stan­dard I was con­vinced would not be matched. Davy Fitzger­ald and Seán Man­nion — aka ‘The Man Who Was Never Knocked Down’ — couldn’t scratch it.

The pick of my brother’s batch — Rose­mary Smith and Dublin’s chaos years — were both en­joy­able reads but not in the same league. Paul Rouse’s The

Hurlers jus­ti­fied the glow­ing re­views and moved to num­ber two on my list in front of Driven, Dublin The Chaos Years and

The Ob­ses­sion. But the deal was done: The Fighter would not be caught.

Then some­thing ridicu­lous hap­pened.

Tony 10 had been col­lect­ing dust since it was sent to me last March. It had the worst cover I’d ever seen and would have been culled in the batch with ‘Rory’s Sto­ries’ — “The guy was a post­man! It’s not a sports book!” — were it not for the fact that I work with De­clan Lynch. I picked it up one Sun­day morn­ing and could not put it down. The Fighter or Tony 10? I couldn’t

choose.

The Lost Soul of Ea­monn Magee was one of the last on my list. I’d never heard of the au­thor and didn’t care for the sub­ject and ap­proached it with the same re­serve I’d had for Tony 10. And got the same re­sult — it ab­so­lutely blew my doors off. The day I fin­ished it was the launch of

On the Sev­enth Day — the Sun­day In­de­pen­dent an­thol­ogy — at Hodges Fig­gis in Dublin where I broached my en­thu­si­asm to a friend.

“You have got to read this book!” A few days later we swapped emails: Him: “I think a bet­ter name for this book would have been: Ea­monn Magee — Di­ary of a Scum­bag. Ob­vi­ously a bit less lyri­cal, but a lot more ac­cu­rate!”

Me: “Okay, so you didn’t like him. I didn’t like him. What did you think of the book?”

Him: “Well, I’m not en­joy­ing it be­cause I’m not en­joy­ing spend­ing so much time in the com­pany of a vi­o­lent thug with al­most no re­deem­ing fea­tures. I guess it re­in­forces the first prin­ci­ple of any book or film, which is that the reader/viewer should be able to find some sym­pa­thy with the main pro­tag­o­nist.”

Me: “How was that prin­ci­ple es­tab­lished? Where is it writ­ten down?”

Him: “No idea, but I guess it goes back to the start of sto­ry­telling it­self, which is to say back to the time when hu­mans first started talk­ing to each other . . . For what it’s worth, I think Andy Lee’s book is in a dif­fer­ent league.

“It has a lit­er­ary and in­tel­lec­tual qual­ity that is al­most en­tirely ab­sent from the Magee book.”

We agreed to dis­agree.

On Thurs­day, two days after the judges con­vened, the short­list for the eir sport Book of the Year was an­nounced: The Fighter. The Lost Soul of Ea­monn Magee. Tony 10. The win­ner will be an­nounced at a lun­cheon in Dublin on Thurs­day.

Photo: David Conachy

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