YOU WILL LIKE "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand. It's about an Olympic distance runner named Louie Zamperini who becomes an Air Force bombardier on a rickety B-24. Crash-lands in the Pacific, scrambles onto a life raft, the start of a grim nightmare, bedeviled by ruthless sharks, most of them human.

Hillenbrand is the talented woman who wrote "Seabiscuit," a brilliant book about a charismatic racehorse. Her ear is keen, her writing crisp, the story memorable.

You will like "Making Words Dance," reflections on Red Smith, the unforgettable choreographer/wordsmith. And you will like the anthology of Gay Talese's essays, "The Silent Season of a Hero."

Recent years, I searched for books you would love. Always found at least one ("When Pride Still Mattered," "Heart of the Game"). This year, it wasn't until November that I read a book I thought I could tout wholeheartedly, "The Last Boy" by Jane Leavy.

And then, nagging thoughts. It's the painful biography of Mickey Mantle, a quintessential warts-and-all portrait of the Yankees slugger. You might love it as the story of an athlete playing all those years on one good leg, his right knee ravaged by injuries and botched surgeries. And then again, you might hate it, for all the revelations about his drinking, his womanizing, his bleak lifestyle fostered by his belief that he would die young.

If your kids are 16 and under you may not want them reading the book. Not unless you're ready to answer some tough questions about sports heroes and the lives they lead. If you're a loyal Yankees fan, you might feel anger, cheated out of seeing a superstar at his best, bitter for having rooted for a whiskey-swilling, skirt-chasing adolescent.

You may squirm at the tawdry episodes, but you will keep reading because Leavy has done her homework, interviewing 563 people. His teammates loved him, women adored him, writers glorified him. There was an inner core of kindness there.

I'm not sure what attracted me to Jay-Z's book, "Decoded." I have often wondered about hip-hop's appeal, about the best of the rappers, about the mystery surrounding the deaths of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. And, yes, about the lyrics and their inner meaning.

It is not a sports book, but Jay-Z does own a piece of the Nets, and he did name his club 40/40 after that elusive achievement of 40 homers and 40 steals in the same season.

If I ever get to sit down with Jay-Z, I will ask him how he feels about the first three 40/40 major leaguers, Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, all of them linked to performance-enhancing drugs.

At one point in the fascinating book, Jay-Z says, "There's a lot to be learned from elite athletes . . . Athletes aren't just fascinating for their physical skills, but for what their performances tell us about human potential and character."

And he does deliver a message comparing music and sports. "There's unquestionably magic involved in great music, songwriting, and performances - like those nights when a star athlete is totally in the zone and can't miss. But there's also work. Without the work, the magic won't come."

It's enlightening to read a rap song boiling with anger on one page and Jay-Z's clear, concise "translation" on the facing page. You may argue with the message, but you can't help but admire the messenger who scuffled from street-corner drug-dealer to culture-changing, superstar performer.

The last of the love it or hate it recommendations is "Lord of Misrule" a gritty racetrack novel written by Jaimy Gordon. It is written mainly in Backstretch, a dusty slanguage of hope and desperation as grunted by grooms, hot walkers and trainers.

Gordon narrates a heart-wrenching story with such glittering style that forces you to stop and reread whole paragraphs to savor the fragrance. You may not relate to the dreamers and schemers at this rundown racetrack, but can't escape the silky threads Gordon weaves to keep you ensnared in the web of the story.

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