Book diary – February 2012

‘Drama City’ by George Pelecanos

Tuesday 31st January – Saturday 4th February

‘The Turnaround’ by George Pelecanos

Saturday 4th February – Thursday 9th February

‘Moneyball’ by Michael Lewis

Friday 10th February – Wednesday 15th February

Michael Lewis’s ‘Moneyball – The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game’

This was a fascinating book about the battle between the accepted wisdom in sports (specifically baseball in this case, though I would imagine that many football fans would find some familiar themes here) and those who wish to break free of the well-trodden paths and exploit the old wisdom’s flaws to their own advantage armed with nothing more than cold, hard evidence to prove themselves right.

Despite the book focusing on the disproportionate success enjoyed by the Oakland A’s relative to their budget, for me, there was also an element of sadness that even though they were punching well above their weight, they still didn’t win anything. I know that this misses the point of the book to a great extent – or rather falls victim of the traditional thinking that the subjects of the book were keen to reject, as they were treating the game as a business in which efficient use of the money available was the target, not on-pitch success – but as a fan of competitive sport, I am also aware that in a couple of generations’ time all the record books will show is that the Oakland A’s lost in baseball’s end of season play-offs. They almost certainly won’t recall that they overperformed to such an extent that they qualified for the play-offs by finishing top of their division despite having the smallest budget, and as such the magnitude of their achievement will be lost.

This contradiction is something that interests me greatly – the idea that as sport moves towards business, the original idea of sporting contest is lost. It stops being feasible for anyone outside of a small group to win trophies and as such the staff at the club have different targets and priorities from the fans. Ultimately, who is right? Or more right than the other?

‘What it Was’ by George Pelecanos

Thursday 16th February – Monday 20th February

This is GP’s latest book (in fact, I pre-ordered it, so by the time I finished reading it, it had only been published for ten days), and I’m going to commit a kind of personal heresy now.

I found it a little underwhelming.

That’s not to say I am normally overwhelmed by George’s books, but I usually enjoy them more. Maybe it was a little bit of Pelecanos Fatigue, having read five of his books in the last eight weeks, but I don’t think it can be put down to that alone.

It’s worth mentioning for those who are unfamiliar with George Pelecanos that he is a crime writer (that perhaps should have capital letters to signify that it works pretty well as a title as well as a description) and as such his books follow the formula which will be familiar to anyone who has read a crime novel. You meet a good guy, there’s a bad guy lurking, stuff happens, it gets personal for the good guy and in the final chapter they meet in a bloody showdown in which – 99% of the time – the bad guy gets his comeuppance and the good guy maybe learns something about himself which makes him an even better person. Obviously, this is a crude reduction, 250+ pages boiled down to a couple of dozen words, but I’d like to think it’s a pretty accurate summary.

What sets George Pelecanos’ books apart is his use of this superficially familiar structure to illustrate a certain theme about everyday urban life in his home town of Washington DC. As such, ‘Drama City’ is not about a dog catcher with a dubious past but the struggles of ex-offenders to reintegrate into society, particularly when they’ve gone back to the same neighbourhood in which they grew up and found trouble originally.

George Pelecanos has also spoken of his desire to chronicle DC life so that in a century or so, people will be able to pick up his books and hold a mini-time capsule in their hands. This is a lofty ambition, but one I think he can fulfill – he is frequently praised for the accuracy of his dialogue and he researches the eras in which he sets his books carefully to ensure that his pop-culture references are accurate.

And this brings me back to my original theme, ‘What It Was’. Aside from a record of DC in the summer of 1972 as seen through the eyes of the ordinary people, I can’t really see much point in the book. It’s very readable (as always), but I don’t think that there is anything really there beyond the superficial story. There seems to be no underlying theme, and even the foreword seems to indicate that it was simply a filling-in exercise – spawned from a chat with a fellow writer for The Wire and written to elaborate on a fictionalised version of a legend hinted at in ‘The Night Gardener’. Clearly, GP can write exactly what he wants, and I am loathe to criticise him too much, but to me the book felt somewhat self-indulgent, as if he wrote it because he wanted to say something rather than because he had something to say.

‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ (audiobook) – John le Carré (read by Michael Jayston)

Wednesday 22nd February – Tuesday 28th February

It’s a long time since I listened to an audiobook, and I’m inclined to believe that this is the first one since my childhood. I had tried to read the book itself some months ago, but gave up after a couple of pages, finding the style rather dated. As the audiobook went  on (listening in the car being somewhat less demanding than actually reading), I began to wonder if I had been too harsh, and that the dated nature of the text was a deliberate ploy to give a sense of the time in which it was set, and also to add to the feeling that the men involved were becoming outdated themselves.

The story itself was familiar due to the fact that I had been to see the film last autumn when it was in the cinema. Despite knowing what was going to happen, I enjoyed listening, and listened to as much as my time allowed – an aural page-turner, if you like.

There is an ongoing debate on Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s film review show on Five Live about whether or not ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ is about spying, or whether it is about men, betrayal and relationships, among other things. Having listened to the story, as well as having seen the film, I am leaning towards Mark’s claims of the latter. I felt genuinely sad as the story wound to a close; as it became clear that throughout the story small and subtle betrayals were happening frequently, while the internal conflict of George Smiley and Peter Guillam as they came to terms with their findings was brilliantly expressed.

I have accumulated a number of John le Carré audiobooks (thanks to the Guardian’s promotion around the time of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”s release, and will certainly listen to them over the coming months.

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