So, while I was at work yesterday, I finally picked up Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book has been in stores for a while, and yet people continue to talk about it in glowing terms, so I decided I ought to take a look. Considering that this is a book about baseball, I was surprised that people have continued to talk about it even though it’s been out for two months. Usually baseball books interest only the baseball fans who read them, and that’s that. Moneyball, however, appears to transcend the ghetto of sports literature. I manged to breeze through about a hundred pages yesterday, and I have to say, I can’t wait to get back to reading it. The interesting thing about this book is that in discussing the mini revolution that has occurred in the business of baseball, it touches upon a variety of disperate topics. This book is a must read for baseball fans, but it should also be read by anyone who is interested in economics and psychology, as well as by anyone who enjoys a good character-driven, non-fiction book. It’s good stuff.
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.
I have written in the past about the importance of a bookstore’s “front table.”The idea is that one should be able to walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood.To me, this epitomizes what separates the engaging indie from the faceless chain, but this selling point has not helped indies win out in a climate that has been tough for all book retailers. Among the many struggles indies have faced is how to translate the relevance and ambiance described above to the internet, where a large portion of book buying, selling, and discussion now takes place.2008’s launch of IndieBound, an aggregated indie web presence that is a vast improvement over its precursor BookSense, shows that the indies are hard at work trying to unlock the online conundrum.Recently, Scott pointed to another far smaller but particularly resonant example of online experimentation by an indie bookstore. The Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago has started replicating its front table on its blog. This book curation done by a knowledgeable staff rather than the chains’ corporate number crunchers, fulfills the bookstore mission that I noted above, giving readers “what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood.” (This notion of curation is important. In many ways, I’d argue that it’s a key mission of The Millions. Our “staff” selects and sheds light upon certain books at the exclusion of others, bringing to bear our different areas of expertise, interest, and taste.)The front table alone, however, is not enough to make a bookstore. A truly great bookstore and its front table will inspire conversation in the aisles among patrons and staff. Seminary Co-op is part of the way towards making its front table live on its web site, but, as the “comments are closed” message at the bottom of the page indicates, it’s not all the way there. However, the sight of all those covers, laid out neatly, makes me think that we may not be far from an indie bookstore website that makes you feel like you are walking into the store itself.See also: Niche Bookstores: A Dying Breed, Islands in the Stream: A Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Booksellers
Recently perusing the course offerings for Temple University’s continuing education program here in Philadelphia, Season Evans uncovered what has to be one of the more unsavory market research strategies ever employed by the publishing companies. A course titled (and misspelled) “A Sneak Peak at Next Year’s Bestsellers,” is described as follows:Every fall publishers introduce and promote a new crop of novels, books they hope are future bestsellers. This unprecedented course is your chance to get a sneak preview of five forthcoming novels from major publishers. You will read special advance copies of the books and then, as a class, critique each book and predict what readers and critics will say when the books are actually published. Contributing publishers will include: W.W. Norton, Knopf, Random House and others to be determined.Though it’s not explicitly stated that the students’ output will be delivered to the publishers, it seems likely that the publishers would only participate if this were the case. As Season points out, this would mean that students will be paying the publishers to do market research for them under the guise of learning. The course is taught by Lynn Rosen, “a publishing consultant with twenty-plus years of experience in the book industry as an editor and literary agent,” though its not clear if the concept for this course came from her.Some questions I have: do other people out there agree that this sounds unsavory? I think it is, though I’m having trouble articulating exactly why (beyond the fact that students will be paying for this “privilege.”) Also, is anyone aware of this practice going on elsewhere? Is it commonplace, or is this Temple course an anomaly?
Mayor Daley announced the latest “One Book, One City” selection for Chicago today. I don’t know if anyone pays much attention to these recommendations now that the OBOC craze has faded a bit, but the book is worth reading. The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark is a somewhat forgotten classic from 1940, a spare but stirring tale of morality in the lawless Old West. I recommend it highly whether you live in Chicago or not.
Film and literature are two vastly different mediums of communication, an argument best captured in the sentiments a friend wrote to me recently:”I identify books with age and place. It’s a nasty habit as it carries with it a certain sentiment that is not in the book itself, rather the impressions of habitat where and when I was reading a particular book, not to mention my desires at the time.”I replied to my friend that he had defined and distilled the reading experience. It’s those precise differences in approach that make the reading experience so monumental. No two people can read a book the same way, particularly people with different life histories.But film is a visual medium. Movies give us iconic images that last a lifetime. Or so I believed until recently.In early 2004 I wrote a series of 28 blithely interconnected short stories for L.A. Stories. One of the tales, “Bill’s Bottle,” is a first-person narrative that provides a voyeuristic look at the tragic death of film icon William Holden from the point of view of the fatal bottle of vodka that contributed to his passing.Immediately after “Bill’s Bottle” appeared on the fiction page at the L.A. Stories website I received perplexed e-mails from my readers, all asking the same question: “Who the hell is William Holden?””I just looked up his movies on the Internet Movie Database,” one reader wrote, “and I have to say that I am not familiar with the man or his work.”Not familiar with the star who appeared in a bevy of classic motion pictures? Consider just a small handful of Holden’s iconic roles: The struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Major Shears in David Lean’s epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Max Schumacker in Paddy Chayefsky’s clairvoyant Network. Pike Bishop in Sam Peckinpah’s blood-soaked western The Wild Bunch.There was a time when Billy Wilder’s 1953 classic Stalag 17 – set in an Allied POW camp in World War II during one memorable Christmas, starring Holden as rough-hewn Sergeant Sefton – was a holiday perennial on television. Not anymore. This year I was compelled to rent the movie on video in order to add it to my plate of favorite Christmas movies.I purchased a previously viewed VHS of Stalag 17 at my local Blockbuster just a few days before Christmas. Pawing through the bin of discarded videotapes I discovered a virtual treasure trove of William Holden films being chased out the door for a mere $4.99 apiece: Picnic, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, the original Sabrina. (A further irony is that every title mentioned possesses either a theatrical or literary pedigree but that’s another matter entirely.)William Holden was an alcoholic for much of his adult life. Biographer Bob Thomas points out in his book Golden Boy that the ruggedly handsome actor was embarrassed to make a living as an actor, believing the profession to be not only unmanly but downright humiliating. Holden began having a snort or two before scenes, a shyness killer that would eventually kill the man himself in a most gruesome and embarrassing manner.Holden was no Olivier but he was one of the greatest stars who ever graced the silver screen. In 1995 – fourteen years after his death – Empire Magazine selected Holden as one of the 100 Sexiest Stars in Film History. Securing Holden’s lofty place in the often-strange intersection between literature and film is this interesting factoid: J.D. Salinger got the name for protagonist Holden Caulfield in the classic book The Catcher in the Rye from the movie Dear Ruth, which starred William Holden and Joan Caulfield.Today, though, William Holden, sadly, is largely unknown. I moved “Bill’s Bottle” to my website earlier this year and reading the site meter for that page provides an excuse to ponder where our culture is going and has gone. “Bill’s Bottle” receives less than two page views per month. On the other hand, “Dead Porn Stars,” a trade magazine piece I wrote for X Biz World exploring those in cyberspace who are cashing in on late, great porn stars, receives over 1,000 page views per week.One thousand page views for dead porn stars per week. Two page views for Bill Holden.You do the math.
Thanks to the shoddy service of my DSL provider, I haven’t been able to post new reports for you. This is sad because I have many great books to tell you all about. But now it is too late since I am off to Europe this afternoon and I have far too much to do before I leave. If the facilities are adequate and I have the time, I will try to update from Europe. If not, please check back in two weeks when I will pick up right where I left off. Bye bye everyone!