Book Diary – January 2014

‘The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro’ by Joe McGinniss

Sunday 29th December 2013 – Monday 6th January 2014

On the face of it, this should be an ideal book. It would appeal to my British love of the underdog, contains a story of mid-nineties football and is based in Italy. What’s not to love?

Well, the author for a start. Maybe it’s a limitation on my part, but for me to fully embrace a book, I have to like the narrator. In fact, I think I have to believe that I am them (this could explain why I find it hard to really enjoy books with female main characters). However, Joe McGinniss wastes little time in outing himself as an arrogant buffoon. This is a man who only became interested in football in time for the World Cup in 1994 and therefore by the time of the book has been a fan for only three years, and sees nothing wrong with being overcome by the urge to offer his tactical advice to an extremely experienced manager or suggesting that the chairman and owner are being naive in their spending (or lack of it). He readily ignores their advice and suggestions, because after all, he knows best(!) He couldn’t possibly stay in the nice hotel they have chosen for him because it’s in the next town, oh no, he’s got to go and stay in the horrendously bad local hotel because he couldn’t possibly not stay in the town about whose football team he is writing.

It is a very good story and I did enjoy it, but the author does get in the way. There are many more occasions when he feels the club could benefit from his limitless wisdom, and he seems utterly incapable of tact or discretion when confronted by some of the less admirable aspects of the story.

‘The Double’ by George Pelecanos

Tuesday 7th January – Thursday 9th January

After ‘What It Was’ proved something of a disappointment, and ‘The Cut’ restored some of my admiration for GP, ‘The Double’ builds on that and helps restore him to the status of one of my favourite authors.

The story itself is more of the usual fare and as always it is well written. I devoured the first hundred pages very quickly, and it was only once the bad guys were introduced that my enthusiasm flagged slightly. My main criticism would be that the characters of the antagonists were slightly clunky stereotypes. As his plots are somewhat formulaic, the characters are the main hook for me, and so this left me a little underwhelmed.

However, as I often say, I feel like my tone is over-critical. The fact that I finished the book inside 72 hours says something about its readability, and all in all it was another solid addition to GP’s rapidly lengthening bibliography.

‘The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong’ by Chris Anderson and David Sally

Thursday 9th January – Thursday 16th January

The natural partner to ‘Soccernomics’ which I read back in the summer of 2011, this book takes a similarly analytical approach to football, on the basis that it will reveal some startling home truths about the game we all profess to understand.
Granted, there are some astonishing revelations. However, the title has a slightly confrontational, dismissive tone which mis-sells the book.

There are some very interesting revelations; corners are pointless – something like 2% end in a goal – and a player touches the ball for less than a minute in total during an entire game.

However, there are also some maxims which they verify, even if they need to tidy up the common understanding of what the maxim means. For instance, possession really is important in making your team more successful. They do go into greater detail regarding what counts as possession and what sort of it a team needs (it can be loosely explained as time that your opponent doesn’t have the ball, though there are other criteria too) but they also show a strong correlation between how much possession a team has and its success in terms of points accumulated.

My main interest was in the sections devoted to management (mostly due to my geeky armchair-management of various teams through the many versions of FM), and these contain some valuable insights – it is better to improve your worst player than upgrade your star, and the optimal times for substitutions when losing. It also disputes Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s findings regarding the ineffectualness of managers, and claims that they have a much bigger impact than previously suggested. It’s difficult to know who is right, if either of them are. As we all know, you can prove anything with statistics…

‘Back To Bologna’ by Michael Dibdin

Saturday 18th January – Sunday 19th January

Clearly, I enjoyed the penultimate Zen book as I read it inside 24 hours. However, there was something underwhelming about it.

It’s almost as if Zen’s disenchantment with his career and life in general is actually Michael Dibdin’s Zen-fatigue displaced onto his main character. Throughout this book, Zen is a snivelling, irrational, self-pitying excuse for a human being and achieves precisely nothing, yet still receives the credit for solving the case which he was sent to Bologna simply to observe. There is no mystery about the case as far as the reader is concerned, Zen does no investigating, and beyond the two incidents which are there to be investigated, not a lot happens.

This novel reminded me most of one of those water-treading episodes of a TV series which keep the long-running themes going without achieving a lot else; almost to set the scene for the next episode. Obviously, I will move on to the next (and final) book in the series, and I hope Zen goes out with a bang.

‘End Games’ by Michael Dibdin

Sunday 19th January – Friday 24th January

And go out with a bang he does! Or at least, with one of the best books in the series. Not only is this novel a full 160 pages longer than its predecessor, but it fills those pages with a much more interesting story, and significantly more involvement from Zen.

As has become something of a central motif to the Zen series the outcome is rather bittersweet and the story – the series – ends with Zen waiting on the platform of the train station, frustrated by delays, leaving the region with his tail between his legs having solved the crime but with the execution of the final arrest lacking slightly, leaving something of a mess behind.

The greatest thing about Zen is his ordinary-ness. Where other detectives I have read they are almost superhuman detecting machines, but Zen is a fallible, disillusioned, mildly underachieving middle-aged man doing his best to lead a decent existence. He is certainly not a hero in the standard sense, but he is an admirable person in many ways. I’ll certainly miss him now there are no more books to discover.

‘Norse Mythology: Great Stories from the Eddas’ by Hamilton Wright Mabie

Friday 24th January – Tuesday 28th January

This slim volume was a Christmas present from Emma; one which I was inspired to request by none other than the Thor films.

What surprised me the most was how closely the films had stuck to elements of the original mythology.

Beyond that, the myths were quite interesting, but there is something unrealistic about all the stories. I know it seems stupid to say that about a collection of stories about Norse gods and frost giants, but even then several tales required disbelief to be suspended beyond the normal requirements of a fanstastical tale.

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