:: Sports From Hell: My Search for the World's Dumbest Competition by Rick Reilly is a fun piece of sportswriting in which Reilly travels the world in search of really bizarre sports. The ones he finds are both familiar (the "Rock Paper Scissors" championships) and utterly unexpected (World Sauna Championships). Some of these he tries, some he only watches from afar, but all in all, the book is a funny and fascinating look into the world of organized competition. Despite having built a society, we humans still revere competition and have a biological need for it, so we'll end up competing in anything. Such as, who can sit in an extremely hot sauna (261 degrees) for the longest, or who can sit the longest at a poker table that's been set up in the middle of an arena into which an angry bull has just been released, or who can hold out the longest after having a ferret dropped into their pants and their belts and cuffs taped shut. Yes, that ferret-in-the-pants thing is real. It's the cover photo of the book.
Some of the sports are surreal not just for the events themselves, but for the context in which they are played. The bull poker, for example: that one takes place in a prison in Louisiana, and the competitors are inmates. The warden makes a case that allowing competitions like this gives inmates some form of dignity, but Reilly creates an interesting juxtaposition when, at the end of the chapter, after an inmate named Rocky has won the bull poker competition, he gives the reaction of the father of the girl whose murder Rocky is in the pen for in the first place. "I didn't know that someone who raped and murdered an innocent person would get to ride in a rodeo. That doesn't sound like hard labor to me."
My favorite chapter was the one on baseball. Not some kind of special baseball that they play in white-water rapids, or on top of a mountain, or something weird like that. Just regular old Major League Baseball. Now, I used to be as big a fan of baseball as anyone, but various things have sapped my enthusiasm for the game. First, my favorite team has sucked for almost two decades. Second, we haven't had cable in years, so following baseball is basically a "checking the boxscores online or in the paper" thing now. But third, really -- the game has become longer and longer and duller and duller. Hence Reilly's first complaint, that "Baseball is as dull as Amish porn." That whole chapter is as good a rant as I've read in a while. Here's a taste:
3. Writers somehow think baseball is male childbirth.
There's no bigger gap in any sport than the one between misty-eyed Jack Kerouac-quoting baseball writers and red-eyed Jack Daniels-drinking baseball players. Press-box poets like George Will are always waxing nostalgic about the game; everything is roses and sepia tones and tearstained "catches" with Dad. They'll see some rookie standing with some old vet in the outfield and say, "Imagine the lessons being handed down." And having been around the game my whole life, having played it, I can tell you the lessons. The old vet is saying, "You see the blonde with the rack sitting behind the dugout? She likes power tools."
:: Two space opera novels recently joined the ranks of...space opera novels I've read. Prophets by S. Andrew Swann (book one of a series called Apotheosis) was a fairly quick and breezy read. Not that it's a light book, by any means, but it's fairly short and it's divided into short chapters, which always helps the pacing along. The book posits a complex spacefaring human society in which there are several groups constantly vying for power (an Islamic Caliphate and the Roman Catholic Church among them) when the existence of a lost human colony, way out in space, is discovered. There's a race against time to get out there and see what's going on...and of course, there's a lot more going on than a simple lost colony.
This is, as noted above, the first book in a series, and from what I've gathered, this series is a sequel series to an earlier series by Swann, so I have some catch-up reading to do. This was a fun, fast-paced space adventure story.
:: Also fun, but not quite so fast-paced, but wildly adventurous, is Judas Unchained by Peter F. Hamilton. This is the sequel volume to his earlier Pandora's Star (previously discussed), and it's about as long -- 1000 pages of space opera goodness. I can't say too much about it, since it is literally the second half of a pretty massive story, but I did greatly appreciate how Hamilton is mostly able to bring all of the various storylines -- and there are a lot of them -- together in fairly convincing fashion. The pace really picks up in the last two hundred pages, leading to a nicely whiz-bang conclusion. The series also has lots of ideas and managed to keep me nervous about the fates of characters even in a universe in which death has been rendered an impermanent state. This duology is long, but it's very impressive. I'm already looking forward to The Dreaming Void, which kicks off a new series set in the same universe.