Friday, 28 November 2014

Over-excited Post

It's here it's here!
I just received this in the post from the lovely people at Brit-Books and am very pleased that I can now put it on the shelves and stare at it until finally motivated to read it by some quirk of cosmic coincidence. 

Because that's how I roll.

Don't expect a review any time soon.

The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally

Stroking Malcolm Gladwell's ego
Non-fans of football might wish to look away now. 


Are they gone? Okay then, on with the story. I am very pleased to read things like this. Not that it's well written or a thrilling read; far from it. The authors are slightly lazy with their style, throwing out a reasonable-sounding punter / pundit myth which they then bust in a rather predictable fashion. It's all a bit, "You'd think this is self-evident, wouldn't you? But, AHHHHHHHHHHHhhhhhh! You're wrong." Yawn. To be fair to them, it's hard not to do just that with what is basically a myth-busting big-data-for-the-footballing-lay-person-type book. You set the reader up in his* comfortable assumption, plump up his cushions and get him a nice cup of tea, and then dash the cup to the floor, up-end the sofa and strip his clothes off as you push him out into the cold, hard light of statistical reality. It's how it's done. But it's still a bit repetitive over the course of X chapters, each dealing with its own fallacy. Plus, it lays claim to being one of those books with which you can lay waste to arguments in pubs about football. I disagree because I tried that and almost got punched.

However, I repeat I'm pleased to read such books, which include the excellent Inverting The Pyramid, Why England Lose, Brilliant Orange to name but a few, because I am inherently lazy myself, and find I often hold such opinions as espoused by the dim-witted pub punditry, or equally dim-witted former professional Gary Neville, in esteem higher than that which is their due. I'm easily swayed by enthusiasm, even if I find my cynicism, which before manifested for comic effect, becoming sharper and increasingly bitter with age, allowing me to pour forth scorn on such statements of 'fact' as score more goals and you'll win more games. When people take the time to remind me gently that I am lazy, and hold lazy opinions, then of course, I bristle (see opening paragraph for evidence...) with indignation, but also, do greatly appreciate the mind-numbing data-crunching that goes into such research as this. And it is all very interesting! I won't spoil it for you, but lots of the very scholarly studies of Myths and Facts about Football: The Economics and Psychology of the World’s Greatest Sport*** edited by Patric Andersson, Peter Ayton and Carsten Schmidt (Cambridge Scholars Publishing) are explained in simple terms, almost avoiding things like regression analysis (but not quite). It's compelling reading, and is one of those books that once you've read it, you can't quite see the game in the same way. You start to realise that the commentators are trotting out the asinine rubbish that they heard as players or from previous broadcasters. You realise that football is ripe for a statistical renaissance (to borrow the authors' own words). And you realise that neither Adrian Chiles nor Andy Townsend**** should ever be allowed near a broadcast booth again.

Is this football's Moneyball? Probably not, and the authors themselves admit that the Eureka moment that happened in baseball is an unlikely occurrence in this rather more complicated team sport. But it is an interesting foray for the average Joe Kinnear into Big Data analytics, and is well worth a read, regardless of how many times they shoe-horn Malcolm Gladwell into things.

*Forgive me for assuming the target audience might be heavily weighted towards a male demographic. I know lots of women who enjoy football, and a few who enjoy statistical analysis, but not very many** who might want to read this book.

**None

 
***My favouritest book on the subject, a sample of which you can read by following the link to the Cambridge Scholars Publishing website

****But don't let that stop you playing the ever-popular 'Andy Townsend Bingo' game next time you tune into ITV's coverage of a dead-rubber Champions League tie.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Closing Time by Joseph Heller

Nuclear War Halts 
Society Wedding of the Century!
I wonder if my new-found bachelordom is the reason that I have seemingly embarked upon a morbid trend in my reading. I have long avoided reading this novel, billed as the sequel to Catch 22 and, from the publisher blurb on the back, dealing with the tying up of ends in the lives of the characters from the first novel as they move towards their own deaths - not an uplifting prospect, Heller's acute and acerbic wit notwithstanding. What did I read after this? Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut. And next? Mendelssohn Is On The Roof by Jiří Weil. I suspect you'll see a trend. In my defence, I would posit that there is a deep, atavistic humour to be found in all three novels, something that everyone can access and recognise, the hangman's joke, the infantryman's bluster. That all three deal on one level or another with the atrocities of the second World War might raise a tired sigh from my estranged wife, who has long been disturbed by such trends in my literary taste (or lack, she would argue thereof). Again, in defence of my taste, I would argue that such atrocity is scored deeply into the consciousness of anyone born during or after it, and the World still resonates with the agonised cries of those whose destinies are still twisted around the hate and violence that thrust through the soil across Europe and the Middle East creating the forests of thorns that divide many cultures and even families. 

I should stop listening to Arvo Pärt.

In truth, Vonnegut lead to Heller (I had Mother Night on DVD sat looking at me on my coffee table, but more on that later), and Heller lead back to Vonnegut; Weil was hanging around anyway, smoking a cigarette on the corner and chatting with a lady of questionable circumstance. Vonnegut features in Yossarian's recollections, or maybe it was Sammy Singer's memories; Joey Heller sneaks into Vonnegut's Dresden. Did they actually meet in the war, during or after the Battle of the Bulge? Only Google can tell us, but they are luminaries, their light casting shadows on the same areas of humanity. 

In Closing Time, we meet Yossarian as a near septuagenarian, still mostly virile, still febrile with the paradoxes of life. His life's trajectory has soared higher than the parabola of a rocket, and he finds himself rich, socially well-connected and in business with Milo Minderbender at M&M Enterprises, an organisation which has diversified and is attempting to find a niche in the second-response military market with a plane that could end the world but doesn't exist (or does it?). Yossarian is still attempting to be immortal (or to die trying) although as he ages, his desire to keep living is on the wane. Former comrades appear in Sammy Singer, tailgunner, in Chaplain Captain Albert Taylor Tappman, now retired but mysteriously passing heavy water and therefore kept under close supervision by the Government's plausibly deniable secret research team in the off-chance that he could be militarised (by them or by their enemies), and a new (or at least poorly remembered) character from a shared military past, Lew Rabinowitz. Sammy and Lew's stories are intertwined with those of Yossarian as they each face their eventual fate. Yossarian is more Yossarian than I can possibly explain - more Alan Arkin* than I thought possible too - and the dissonance between thought and action throughout displays perfectly judged humour. Sammy and Lew are more sober characters and narrators, one reflecting on his life as second fiddle, the other refusing to concede defeat to anything he didn't want to be beaten by. 

The story is pretty straightforward and a little obvious, if it were to be told straightforwardly, but as with Catch 22, Heller chooses to muddy the waters with his inventive use of an omniscient third person narrator, mixing with the direct testimony of Singer and Rabinowitz, and Yossarian intrudes throughout in his inimitable fashion. To attempt a synopsis as a result, as the evidence above perhaps proves, is tricky and ultimately futile, but as always, the journey is more important than the destination, and perhaps that's one of the many wise aphorisms that could be used to sum up this novel. There are morals everywhere if you want to look for them. There are truisms a-plenty. There's even some thinly-veiled autobiography - Heller did in fact marry one of the nurses that looked after him during his hospitalisation with Guillain-Barré syndrome. It might not have garnered the praise lavished on the first novel, and there are inconsistencies (for example Yossarian is only 68, whereas he should be 78 if the timeline from the first book were to be accurate), but it does for old age, and dying, what Catch 22 did for fighting wars, and dying. It's hard to contain the scope of the book in 1000 words on a reader's blog, so I will stop trying. Suffice to say I love it. You probably will too.


*More intertextual coincidence - Arkin, the Yossarian in the 1970 Mike Nicholls film of the novel, appears in the movie of Mother Night as Howard W Campbell Jnr's 'friend' George Kraft. I had completely forgotten about this, but in retrospect it all makes perfect sense.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

Mr President swears in your ear.
I have long been a quiet admirer of Barack Obama. Not just for the obvious race-guilt reasons, which creep into my thoughts on occasion, for no other reason that I'm white, of the lower middle class (or upper working class) and smugly safe behind my liberal WASP upbringing and need something to feel guilty about. Firstly for his role as a reluctant trail-blazer for African Americans; in a country where there are [fill in the number yourselves] million people of African descent, it's quite amazing that one of them hasn't been voted in as POTUS before now, so being the first is not only a great victory for equality, much like when Obama got his job at a law firm it is also a burning shame. For America. Me, I couldn't give a monkey's, race-guilt or no race-guilt. Secondly, he looks and acts like a man of class, in the non-pejorative sense, a man who would make a good friend, be noble and upright about the right things, and flexible about the others. Nothing in this audiobook (well, nearly nothing, but read on for more on that!) takes away this impression I formed just from listening to his victory speech when he made Senator in 2005. Thirdly, he's not one of the George Bushes, in fact is so far from being another George Bush that it's hard to believe they were born on the same continent. He makes Democrats look less like uncertain Republicans and more like - shocked gasp! - British Socialists, in the non-pejorative sense. No matter that he and his party is still way right of centre, as befits a country of [insert your own xenophobic bias / jingoistic hooting here]. The majority of the policies he's implemented or attempted to implement have been worthy, notable changes to the status quo of American internecine and / or bipartisan politicking, and he just talks so much sense! I truly do admire him, particularly within his current context, both political and social.

For these reasons I have toyed with the idea of buying his books for a while, but since I had the opportunity to plunder my now estranged wife's iTunes account before I left, I pilfered this Audible version instead. It was a good choice! As it transpired, the very best thing by far in this account of a young man discovering his antecedents and his place in the world, better than the well-written, thoughtful introspection, meditative and self-aware; better even than the humour and poise with which Obama puts across his points, his thoughts on the African American experience, referencing luminaries like Malcolm X and his bestest buddy preacher in the whole wide world Reverend Jeremiah Alvesta Wright Jr.; better even than the fact that Obama narrates this audiobook himself with his wonderfully measured and soothing voice; bestest of all the best bits is the first time Obama as narrator drops the F-bomb, followed by the N-bomb, and them further F-, N- B- and MF- incendiaries across the chapters that follow. I admit I tittered aloud, walking the dark and menacing streets of Splott late in the evening, so that a scary man at a bus stop turned away either in fear or disgust. The President of the United States of America is swearing in my ear! It's great. In a conversation with LA ex-pat pal and one quarter of the black people in his school / college (I forget which), the back-and-forth has b*****s, n*****s, f***s and m*********s. This is the President I'm talking about! Admittedly, he's not the President at this point, back when he was narrating this in 2007 or so, but he must have had an inkling that a mere two years later he'd be sworn in. Did he not think of the consequences of him talking about smoking reefers, drinking to excess and talking about b*****s? No wonder he's only getting two terms as POTUS*.

So for all these reasons, I would urge you all to throw away your paper copies, dog-eared and broken-spined, well-loved copies though they might be, and go get yourself this version on audiobook. It's ace.


*I know full well the restriction in place of only having two consecutive terms in office. Don't insult me with your expostulations.


Monday, 3 November 2014

Lowside Of The Road: A Life of Tom Waits by Barney Hoskyns

You still live out by the airport?
It’s not a coincidence that, during one of the lowest points of my life of late, I reached out to Tom Waits, both for a soundtrack for my misery and to read more about his life and music. Having discussed, agreed, and facilitated a separation from my wife of six years, and in the middle of a temporary period of not seeing my son due to the complications of the move, I had no access to diversions other than my music and books – of course, who actually needs more than that? No TV, no internet, no telephone, no money. Had I been out of a job too I could have cracked open a bottle of white port and pretended I Henry Chinaski! 

Waits’ early beat-jazz style, his circus-freak albums, his junkyard phase; his bawlers, brawlers and bastards* have been ever-present since I first started working in a chain bookstore in 1997 and was introduced to Waits through the oxide-fatigued cassettes on semi-permanent repeat in the stock rooms (along with early Aphex Twin albums and, perhaps less excitingly, Evan Dando). I luckily picked up most of his albums on the cheap, in second-hand bins and by carefully targeting forgetful friends’ CD stacks for short unauthorised borrowings**, and they’ve been bellowing and crunching, thumping and warbling in pretty much every one of the formative scenes in my own narrative since university. That voice, like hobnails on gravel, like a demented mittel-European scientist, a bar-room balladeer, a lounge singer in the back room of a strip club, has the ability to flatten and uplift in equal measure, and I have playlists of the energetic, the lachrymose and downright bizarre to suit any mood.

But what did I know about the man behind the music? Apart from his occasional appearances on screen (of which there are far more than I ever imagined) I had no idea who the hell he was and what the hell he was doing. When Lowside… came out I snapped up a copy, but until now I’ve never felt the need to dispel the sense of mystery. What changed? Well, pretty much everything, but that’s another story.

From the start however I was a little disappointed – mainly with myself – as I hadn’t realised it was an unauthorised biography. It amused me however that the author had been stonewalled by pretty much anyone who still respected Waits and Brennan or who still sought a place at their table. It turns out Waits and family are Pynchonesque in their reclusion. Hoskyns’ rather petulant inclusion as an appendix of emails from various people who turned him down appears an ill-judged attempt to justify the gaps in his narrative and his over-reliance on the testimony of those who were burned, but who in the main still remained supportive of the artist. But on the flip-side it meant getting only a tantalising glimpse of an immensely private person, without hearing all about his toilet habits or getting a roll-call (with evidentiary statements) of the women with whom he slept. I should say that the biography itself was not at all disappointing. Its limitations acknowledged, Hoskyns actually does a cracking job at putting Waits’ life into context and arranges his chapters thematically, taking what must have been hundreds of interviews and distilling them down to add support to his own well-researched conclusions and suppositions. It was incredibly easy to read too***, especially compared to the other book I was attempting to read at the time, and I could consume whole chapters in a sitting**** without feeling the need to get up and move around. I got a very vivid impression of what it was to be in Waits’ circle of influence, and of a man bubbling over with both vigorous strength (of body and drive) and tender and gentle sentimentality. The portrayal is of a man of extremes, who embodies the line “there ain't no devil, there's just god when he's drunk”, who has struggled with his family demons, his addictions, and with his latent parental instincts of kindness and patience, of his search for a father figure of his own. A tortured genius is an over-worked analogy, so I won’t use it. Instead I’ll say he’s a risk-taker and a guy with whom you’d probably want to chew the fat, have a beer, listen to some records. But don’t, just don’t, suggest you’ve got a drummer for his next album.

In the absence of an authorised or auto-biography, this is probably the best one out there (that I’ve read). Hoskyns is clearly a fan, but has an ability to be objective, and the writing is good enough that you don’t notice it. Does he do Waits justice? Who knows, and maybe only time will tell.


*The subtitles to the three volumes of his Orphans collection (songs that didn’t make the cut for his albums), provided by wife and muse Kathleen Brennan

**Tom, if you read this, I’m sorry. I would have bought them new if I had the money at the time. If you’re not reading this, then I am unrepentant and would do it again in a heart-beat.

**All bar the parts, occasionally overly drawn-out, describing Hoskyns’ own thoughts on the tracks included on each album, through which he takes the reader track by track for every album up to and including Real Gone in 2004

****The definition of ‘a sitting’ is the time it takes to make and drink a cup of tea and find and eat a small snack, and before getting fidgety.