Monday, February 01, 2010

book blogging

On the advice of Aishwarya. Since January is already done, I'll finish logging the stuff I read so far quickly, and then try and take it up in a more measured fashion.

#1 The Italian Job, Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti

I was annoyed within the first twenty pages of this book by the writing, which seemed to me to be bent on underselling its solid ideas to some ideal reader who is suspicious of reading anything that doesn't come wrapped around a fried snack. ['To map a footballer's ability, let's plot his characteristics by drawing an x and y axis (For those of you who weren't paying attention in geometry, this is a cross).'] It is a book that consciously positions itself in relation to the sort of football coverage we see in English tabloids, both in terms of what it tries to be (simple! breezy! smart!) and what it won't be (gossipy, prejudiced, sensationalist). Would Vialli and Marcotti have written the same book today that they did four years ago, post the blogular explosion, the broadsheets stealing a march over the tabloids in online brand-building, and the intensified debate over English football's gentrification?

I don't think so. More importantly because I can't see how they would now deal with the other side of its subject? Like the other major overviews on Italian football (John Foot, Calcio and Paddy Agnew, Forza Italia), it was written before Calciopoli, before the World Cup, before Filippo Raciti and Gabriele Sandri. I sincerely believe that had any of these books come out even six months after the trials we would be asking different questions about Italian football - and that's why, in spite of its many successes, the book already feels like its shaping an irrelevant argument. It's constructing an opposition that doesn't really matter. [I know that's not a bad thing, I'm just pointing it out.] But I appreciate Vialli's resistance to simply writing a charming out-of-the-ordinary travelogue about his career in Italian and English football. He and Marcotti are clearly geeks of the first order when it comes to soaking up opinions and facts, about the technicalities of training and attendances and television habits and stuff, and they lay it out really well in the book. The style gets less cutesy as the book goes on, and while they make the same points that Foot and Agnew do, they are far more interested in laying them out as journalistic arguments than in the style of the factual compendium [Foot] or the credible but subjective memoir [Agnew]. I don't think they are critical enough of either football culture: then again, it may be the gap of four years talking.

Stuff I liked:
+ The whole section on referees, which intersperses observations on the culture of refereeing in England and Italy with interviews with Graham Poll and Pierluigi Collina, as well as the section on managing time in football - apparently there is a FIFA reco that states that matches must aim to keep the ball in play for sixty minutes: most matches today manage an average of fifty-two out of ninety.
+ One of Vialli's rare dips into his personal history as a pro: playing the 1990 semi-final against Argentina in Napoli. Amazing and creepy, 'like playing under water,' he says, because no one actually didn't cheer for Italy because of Maradona, they were just - muffled.
+ Jose Mourinho. No one gives interview as good as this man. Vialli and Marcotti gad about talking to a number of smart people: they get Capello, who is crusty and smart and Lippi, who is suave and smart, and Wenger, who is smart in his dogmatic way and Ferguson, who is smart in his totally calculating way. Mourinho is still the best.
+ The section on managers explaining tactics, which includes the gem of the fact that Luis Felipe Scolari apparently gave all the 2002 Brazil team copies of The Art of War. Cafu said it helped him win the World Cup. CAFU. DON'T YOU JUST LOVE FOOTBALL?
+ The sub-section on ultras.

I think the journalistic approach works weakest when they're talking about the fans [and why fandom is different in both countries, why fans are this here and so there]: this is where all their careful planning and their continuous battle against ethnocentrism breaks down in spite of their best efforts. There's a lot of guff from Wenger about the Anglo-Saxon temperament and the Latin temperament, and I hate that people actually think this sort of talk works outside of novels to prove anything. There's also a lovely little idea from one of the interviewees about the Italian fan worshipping the club in the abstract, as an article of faith, while the English fan supports the club as a part of his identity. While I don't think the binary stands culturally, I do think it's an interesting way to maybe categorise fans as a whole. The guy who says this says it's why the fan of 'the abstract' is much less inclined to defend their club, and much more willing to criticise, though, abd I don't know about that. I think faith in an abstract can also lead to a tolerance for its physical manifestation, no matter how un-ideal, that is quite durable. There's no reason why it wouldn't help you assume respect in the first place. I know a lot of people who, like me, weren't particularly interested in having Ronaldinho or Beckham play for their club, but who, once they came, imposed the same expectations on them as they would on other Milan players, and gave them the same presumptive goodwill.

Would I recommend this book? Yes. Would I rec it if you knew nothing about Italian football? Yes. Would I rec it if you knew nothing about English football? Questionable. It's written for English fans looking across to Italy. Would I recommend it if you are interested in history? Yes. Not in the way I would recommend Foot, who wrote an actual history, but to see how football changes, how its narratives change, and to wonder about how long it will last.

#2, Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon [re-read]

Is it really a good thing when the first reaction a writer elicits from a reader is, "That's so you"? I know that is a key point about genre fiction, satisfying expectations [eg. Raymond Chandler satisfying expectations just by writing like Raymond Chandler], but I'm not sure I want Michael Chabon to satisfy expectations quite so assiduously. There's a lovely line in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead where the protagonist says [I paraphrase], '...I am sure that there is a prevenient courage which allows us to be brave,' and really, that's it with Chabon: he has a prevenient literariness that allows him to be literary. He does such a thorough job with having fun in this little novel, with his swashbuckling heroes and adventure and romance, and he succeeds so well, that you end up admiring his gift for writing lovable flawed human beings, his good-humoured compassion for neuroses, his sympathy with literature's women characters, his light touch with history, and his sickening genius for mimicking language - everything, in short, that makes Chabon Chabon. Do you ever want to run around your house galloping on an imaginary horse, brandishing an imaginary sword?

Let me spoiler this short little gem of a novel for you: no.

#3) The Many Conditions of Love, Farahad Zama [review dated 13 Jan 2010]

I heard tons of people gush about Zama's first book, The Marriage Bureau For Rich People, so when I found The Many Conditions of Love, the second in what seems to be a planned series, I jumped at it. I discovered that The Marriage Bureau For Rich People is a matrimonial agency set up in the small town of Vizag in coastal Andhra Pradesh by retired gent and all-round good egg Mr Ali, who finds a lot of gentry coming in and trying to find eligible matches for their sons and daughters. It is a truth universally acknowledged that gentry looking to get their kids married off generally assume the attitudes of the deeply kooky. Gentle fun ensues. Meanwhile, Mr Ali's own son Rehman, an activist civil engineer [...I KNOW, right?] is falling dangerously in love with the totally unsuitable upper-class television reporter, Usha, whose family take drastic measures when they discover that she is engaged to a - gasp! - Muslim. Rehman's widowed cousin Pari is trying to make her way through the world. Mr Ali's assistant Aruna is trying to cope with having married into an unacceptably snooty family. What happens to all of them?

It kept me reading. Zama isn't a flashy writer. And if I were his editor I would really take stringent measures to ensure that he never tried to repeat the annoying habit of following every single non-English word used in dialogue with its English translation (f. e. "it's my favourite devar, brother-in-law" which translates as "it's my favourite brother-in-law, brother-in-law" !!!). But he finds his way into the story very nicely and unobtrusively, and as the novel goes on he really settles into that mild declarative style that will be familiar to anyone who's read Alexander McCall Smith's writing. In fact I think the whole point of the series is to be sort of like the Ladies No 1 Detective Agency, only this time not as a detective agency, and not set in Botswana? There's a sympathetic, non-judgmental eye applied to many of the clashes of character and belief that inform our lives everyday, trying to reconcile tradition and modernity, parents and children, husbands and wives. It was not at all the sort of thing I read often, but it was easy and quick, and sweet. I'm growing old, I would never have read a book with the words 'Marriage Bureau' in its title when I was 22.


  1. she's alive!!!

    I mean the blog, of course! I never had a doubt that you were alive :P

  2. Faith is fully touching. Hi!