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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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.

Book diary – January 2012

‘The Troubled Man’ by Henning Mankell

Friday 31st December 2011 – Friday 6th January 2012

The last of Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander series, and one of the best.

‘The Tattoo Murder Case’ by Akimitsu Takagi

Friday 6th January 2012 – Saturday 14th January 2012

A very interesting story. It took a little while to really grab me, and the prim prose combined with a couple of rather contrived plot points stopped it being a great book, but I will certainly read another Akimitsu Takagi if I can get hold of one cheaply.

‘The Cut’ by George Pelecanos

Saturday 14th January – Friday 20th January

This is George Pelecanos’s latest novel, and follows a format. As always, very readable, but the end felt a little half-hearted and predictable. It’s not that I don’t enjoy GP’s books, I just want one which doesn’t end in a shootout in which everyone gets just about what they deserve.

 ‘Mustn’t Grumble – In Search Of England And The English’ by Joe Bennett

Friday 20th January – Saturday 28th January

This was a Christmas present from the mothership, and, if I’m being totally honest, a book I probably wouldn’t have chosen for myself. However, I enjoyed it, found it very readable and would read another of the author’s books. In essence it is an English Bill Bryson. Joe Bennett has returned to England after a couple of decades in New Zealand and is going ‘in search of England’. Along the way he discovers how England is changing and makes some very astute and thought-provoking observations. My only real criticism would be that the book ends very suddenly.

‘Shoedog’ by George Pelecanos

Saturday 28th January – Tuesday 31st January

The first standalone George Pelecanos novel, and I would go so far as to say one of his best, if not the best. It is only 198 pages – probably explaining how I read it in 3 days – but is more lean and concise than some of his later books (this one is from way back in 1994) which does it no harm at all. It bowls along at a really good pace, and yet contains all of the usual details of character and place. This book was intended to last a little longer, and kick off ‘George Pelecanos Month’ which involved me reading ‘Shoedog’, ‘Drama City’, ‘The Turnaround’ and his latest, only-just-published novel, ‘What It Was’ throughout February. Depending on my progress, it might turn into ‘George Pelecanos Fortnight’.