Contrary to popular belief, books are meant for multi-tasking. You can eat with a book, drink with a book, even sleep with a book; it's all a question of the right book for the right occasion. For some people, that occasion will be at a bar where you’ll hear the zizzing of vuvuzelas, the shouting of national anthems, the thumping of a jabulani. It’s hard to justify spending hours in front of the screen, drinking beer no less, unless, of course, you bring a book. Then you are reading, drinking, watching. After trying a few others and getting bored (or drunk) I thought that Bill Buford's Among the Thugs was the perfect book for bars during the World Cup, despite the fact that it’s not about international soccer. It is, however, a famous book, which is to say, it seems that most people have read it; I hadn’t read it, but when I began to read it, I realized why most people have read it: once you start it’s impossible to stop. It’s a sanguine, rowdy, raucous account of an American journalist that braves it with Manchester United hooligans. But the book is more than just brash violence and ballsy reporting, it’s hopping borders, skipping fare on planes, pissing onto people’s plates. Although much of what Buford narrates is about England of a certain era -- lagers, crisps, skinheads, oi music -- hooligans and their fanaticism can be found all over the world. This is life in the cheap seats: “There was a narrow human alley, and I joined the mob pushing its way through for a place from which to watch the match. Except there was no place. There was a moveable crush. It was impossible once inside to change my mind.” Buford writes with impeccable rhythm and clarity. You can read Among the Thugs as book of brilliant soccer grotesques: “a tall very sunburnt man wearing very little clothing”; “He was short, dumpy, and balding, and wearing a white linen suit that would have flattered a man many times thinner… his forehead was damp and clammy, and his skin had the quality of wet synthetic underpants.” I could go on, but I don’t want you to vomit like so many of Buford’s subjects do after a few too many warm lagers. Published in 1991, the book precedes the more recent craze for immersive non-fiction, and as a work of plain old journalism, it is written with amazing intelligence. Buford is cognizant of the many ways he might fall into journalistic clichés. He names them, contemplates them, then moves on. The one you’d most expect, as does Buford, is that he’ll go native, start throwing back the lagers, and wolfing down the crisps, but he doesn’t. Instead he observes that there’s something exhilarating about being with and yelling with other people, whether it be scoring a goal, or breaking a window. Simon Kuper’s Soccer Against The Enemy is good for half-assed reading for different reasons. It's a series of articles written over the span of nine years that describe football: its history, its people, its fans around the world in fifteen to twenty-minute reads. The commentary can sound a little outdated, but the story is probably as entertaining as it was a decade ago. Kuper is interested in examining football’s role in culture and politics, why it means so much to so many people, so he spends nine years traveling all over the world as a journalist to figure it out. Most of what Kuper discovers applies to this year's World Cup. Kuper’s account of soccer in the former Soviet Union will be familiar to those who followed the North Korean national team this year, their fearful faces and their puppet fan base (that literally had a conductor). In the USSR, soccer coaches are sent to Siberia. Secret Police run their own teams. Kuper arrives just after the fall of the Wall, and immerses himself in the great changes on the former Soviet soccer field. In what was once the only arena in life where fans could yell things like, "Go urinate in front of Lenin's Mausoleum" to the game's referees, now Kuper finds fans bored with much greater freedom. The players, rather than priding themselves on this foul-mouthed fan-base as they once did, hardly run after the ball; they’re too busy daydreaming about signing a contract in the West. Football Against the Enemy also explains the draw game in soccer. Many of those low-scoring games were examples of catenaccio, a tactical style, that is often attributed to the Italians (it means "padlock" in Italian, but it is now a word in English according to the OED). Kuper actually hangs out with the star coach of various Spanish and Italian sides, Helenio Herrera, who some credit with having invented this defensive style of play. In catenaccio, the most of the team defends, thanks to an extra defensive player called the sweeper, waiting for an error; when it gets one, it sends the ball to the front lines, where the strikers can sneak a shot without taking a major risk. According to Coach Herrera, it's French, not Italian and it’s a libero, not a sweeper. It doesn’t really matter now that nearly everyone uses it when they have to, hence the abundance of low scoring ties at the beginning of this World Cup. One of my favorite chapters in the book, “Africa (In Brief)” examines the continent’s historically underprivileged position in FIFA, as well as the press’ attitude towards African teams, much of which has been repeated this year in various languages. The age-old criticism? The Africans are disorganized and they don’t train. As Kuper is quick to point out, aside from North Africa, most of the African nations couldn’t even play to qualify in 1994 due to poverty or war. Indeed, we do not know the real conditions behind these teams and their pristine Nike uniforms (in one case “the coach of Ghana has to beg petrol from the Minister of Sport before he can drive into the bush to look at players.”). Then we get to South Africa, 1992. As captured in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, as well as J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime, everything, even sports come color-coded in South Africa. Just take a look at the Bafana Bafana (Zulu for the Boys explains Kuper): there are hardly any white players. Then look at South Africa’s rugby or cricket team: the opposite is true. Kuper, born in Uganda of Dutch heritage and upbringing, heads to South Africa for the first multiracial election, and to witness Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the South African national football team. When Mandela comes, just like in the Clint Eastwood movie, he says, “I support all sports.” The story Kuper recounts with testimony from government ministers, players, coaches is surprising. Despite many setbacks, as Kuper writes, “On a day when they are feeling optimistic South Africans say that their country has everything: gold, sunshine, and an ideal mix of white and black. They tell you that the new South Africa will be as rich as Switzerland, have no crime, and that it will win the 1998 World Cup.” Sure, fifteen years later not much of that is true, but not even Kuper for all of his soccer savvy could foresee South Africa as the host of the World Cup. I guess there is something to be said for that: cheers.
Summertime, another work of fictionalized autobiography (following Boyhood and Youth) from Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee arrives this week. Also, new this week is Psycho Too, an illustrated travelogue collaboration between Will Self and Ralph Steadman. Of the book, PW says "Self is far from a reliable tour guide, but his eye for seldom-trod byways and offbeat insights make him a diverting travel companion."
I can't choose between the two best books I've read all year, but they're both by J.M. Coetzee -- Disgrace and Summertime. They are equally riveting, uncompromising, heartbreaking, painfully intelligent, fully achieved portraits of human loneliness of a specific kind: that of the principled, bookish, socially awkward, essentially passive male. The books are also about South Africa, or rather, the book's protagonists are inextricably bound up in, defined and limited and shaped by, that country's climate -- political, social, historical, meteorological. Any outrage Coetzee evokes with his various portrayals of the treatments of animals, of blacks, of women, is achieved without raising the decibel level of his voice above the mildly conversational. Therein lies much of his narrative power, his power to entertain and to shock: he isn't cerebral or inaccessible, which seems to be a prevailing impression of him. He's just unusually restrained, and his occasional swellings are generally in the direction of mordant humor, which is in its way as daring and risky as anything he says or writes about. Disgrace is a novel, Summertime a fictionalized memoir, but both transcend genre labels -- they feel sui generis, having emerged as wholly necessary, full-blown things. Coetzee has received death threats and a Nobel Prize -- there is no question in my mind that he wholly deserved the latter, and as for the former, his work is so seemingly quiet, its surface as still as glass, in its essence without apparent controversy or intentional provocation, any official or unofficial desire to squelch this radiantly clear, steady, sane voice must be due to its ability to expose by example its opposite qualities wherever they exist and thereby to awaken a sense of virulent threat in those who possess them. But Coetzee's only weapons seem to be laser-focused subtlety and fiercely intelligent clarity -- he is a great writer, and these are great books. More from A Year in Reading
Quite a few books took my head off in 2009 and, as always, The Millions' brief is a tough one to fulfill. I've spent much of the year extolling the virtues of Rob Riemen's slender polemic, Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal, which makes a moving plea for good old fashioned high idealism. The year also brought magnificent new works from my two favorite novelists, John Banville and J.M. Coetzee - The Infinities and Summertime, respectively. But I suspect The Millions' well-read audience doesn't need me to direct them to either of these remarkable authors. And so the book that came out of nowhere and captured my imagination is Eric Karpeles' lovely Paintings in Proust, in which he goes through the entire Proust cycle and reproduces every painting mentioned (or a reasonable substitute when specifics are lacking), marrying the image to the text from the books themselves. I've gotten hours upon hours of pleasure returning to this beautifully illustrated, intelligently annotated volume. Sadly, the 2008 book is already out of print and when copies turn up they can be quite expensive - but keep your eye on the used book sites for this gem, bargains can be found. It's a book I can't wait to pass on to my daughter when she's old enough to appreciate it. Update: Well, it appears I have been happily premature in declaring Paintings in Proust unavailable. As the author notes in the comments below, " ... Paintings in Proust is NOT out of print, but currently in its third printing. There was a disastrously long hiatus of months between the first printing's selling out so quickly and the appearance of the second printing. Now Paintings in Proust should be available at booksellers everywhere as well as online." Clearly, I became aware of that book during the noted interregnum, and now the friends on my holiday gift list will be the beneficiary of Karpeles' timely notice. More from A Year in Reading
Some of the biggest names in literature got the nod from the Booker judges for this year's shortlist including J.M. Coetzee, A.S. Byatt, and Hilary Mantel. Co-favorite of the oddsmakers, Sarah Waters, made the cut, while the other favorite, Colm Toibin did not. The longlist was offered here with some excerpts less than a month ago, but since you might not have gotten around to them then, we'll offer the same with the shortlist below. The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt Summertime by J.M Coetzee (excerpt) The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (excerpt) The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (excerpt pdf) The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (excerpt pdf)
The Booker longlist was announced yesterday. Going over the list, I noted that it didn't seem very multi-cultural. One of the interesting things about the Booker is that any author from the Commonwealth of Nations or from Ireland is eligible. This means that any of 54 countries might send a writer to Booker glory. This year, however, the judging committee is keeping things geographically constrained, with only three countries represented among the 13 finalists:England, 9 (Byatt, Foulds, Harvey, Lever, Mantel, Hall, Mawer, Scudamore, Waters)Ireland, 3 (O'Loughlin, Toibin, Trevor)South Africa, 1 (Coetzee)Moving on to less serious matters, the Booker betting odds are now out (and subject to change as punters put their money on the line). The bookmakers like Toibin and Waters to win, but James Lever is putting in an impressive showing with his mock memoir of a chimp.4/1 Colm Toibin - Brooklyn4/1 Sarah Waters - The Little Stranger5/1 Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall6/1 J.M. Coetzee - Summertime8/1 James Lever - Me Cheeta10/1 A.S. Byatt - The Children's Book12/1 William Trevor - Love and Summer14/1 Ed O'Loughlin - Not Untrue and Not Unkind14/1 Simon Mawer - The Glass Room16/1 James Scudamore - Heliopolis16/1 Adam Foulds - The Quickening Maze16/1 Sarah Hall - How to Paint a Dead Man16/1 Samantha Harvey - The Wilderness
With the unveiling of the Booker Prize longlist, the 2009 literary Prize season is officially underway. As usual, we have a mix of exciting new names, relative unknowns and venerable standbys. The big names that will stand out are J.M. Coetzee, a two-time winner of the prize, A.S. Byatt, William Trevor, Colm Toibin, and Hillary Mantel. Also an eye-catching nominee is James Lever whose fictionalized autobiography of a movie star chimp made the cut. My one other observation is that this list feels somewhat less multi-cultural as compared to prior years. Several of the books named appeared on our "most anticipated" lists for the first and second halves of 2009. All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with excerpts where available): The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt Summertime by J.M Coetzee (excerpt) The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey (excerpt) Me Cheeta by James Lever ("I'm the real Cheeta") Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (excerpt) The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (excerpt pdf) Not Untrue and Not Unkind by Ed O'Loughlin Heliopolis by James Scudamore (excerpt) Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (excerpt) Love and Summer by William Trevor (excerpt) The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (excerpt pdf)