October 28, 2009

Book 56: Love & Blood

Love & Blood: At the World Cup with the Footballers, Fans, and Freaks
Jamie Trecker

After a fully depressing (but fully brilliant) novella, I decided to turn to soccer, a game about which I long to know more about and which I find very interesting in the international social context. Conveniently, I discovered this book, which is even more topical due to the current ongoing World Cup qualifyers heating up, with only a few slots left to fill. Trecker's homage to the supposed pinnacle of soccer is produced throughout with funny, incredibly readable prose that seeks to contextualize soccer in the globalized environment as well as being a travelogue of sorts recalling Trecker's journey to the World Cup as an American reporter with high-access Swiss credentials. Trecker does a great job balancing fact, analysis, and anecdote in this volume, which will appease soccer fans while remaining inviting to those who don't know much about the sport. Trecker largely stays away from soccer's slang terms, explaining thoroughly those that are necessary, and continuously aims to describe the tensions and emotions of the world's tournament with a keen eye towards an American audience. Love & Blood maintains a careful balance between explaining the recent (and not-so-recent) history of American soccer with due attention to the Rooneys and Zinedines who light up stadiums around the world.

The book itself can get a bit choppy, purporting to talk of the 2006 Cup in general while sliding into a more general discussion of the sport, returning again to Germany as if nothing had happened in the interim. There is a bit of reader whiplash but the informal nature of the book, while making the story of 2006 a little hard to follow, makes Love & Blood a fun read and underscores the author's credibility as a true fan. Trecker's passion for the sport is obvious across each and every one of these pages, and his exploration of the lack of American passion remarkably stays away from a chastising or despairing tone. Love & Blood is eminently fair to its American readers and seems a labor of love; the prose gets informal but the analysis stays relevant and interesting. It is obvious too that Trecker has put a lot of thought in to the deeper issues he explores, which include the effects of increasing commercialization, rising club dominance, and even troubles within FIFA. Complete with his often hilarious observations and anecdotes concerning the 2006 World Cup and its German hosts, Love & Blood takes great steps to contextualize the world's biggest sporting event from an American perspective, remaining respectful and entertaining throughout.

Grade: B+

October 20, 2009

Book 55: Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians
J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee has won a Nobel Prize for literature, and after reading Waiting for the Barbarians, there is no doubt as to his talent. Every single page of the book, every word, simmers with consummate artistry. Coetzee tackles the ever-present struggle between oppressed and oppressor in a mere hundred and fifty pages that feel like an all-consuming epic. The human struggle is encapsulated in this slim volume, which drives home its point on page after brutal, raw page in exquisite and illuminating prose. While some of the plot details are obscure, the novel covers a wide range of territory completely in exploring the struggles of an allegorical Empire to maintain control as the barbarian natives seek to reclaim what's theirs. Focusing on the intellectual and moral struggle of a longtime magistrate, Coetzee explores the divide between oppressed and oppressor, and by the end of the book it is unclear which agent fulfills which role; though the lines between good and evil are drawn quite clearly early in the book, the work gradually becomes as ambiguous as real life as it reaches its crescendo and slowly, quietly descends into a whisper as the fate of the Magistrate and his formerly bustling town hangs in the precarious, pregnant balance. Waiting for the Barbarians is not for the weak of heart; Coetzee deals with the subject of torture openly and with a stunning brutality; he minces no words and describes exactly what he means his readers to see. The effect, strangely, mixes with the poetics and the repeated use of visual imagery to produce, ultimately, a feeling of grace. Waiting for the Barbarians throws no punches and is a moving testament to the oppressed everywhere, slightly difficult in subject matter and obscure on the details but haunting and powerful nonetheless.

Grade: A

October 13, 2009

Book 54: Stalefish

Stalefish: Sakeboard Culture from the Rejects Who Made It
Sean Mortimer

Since I am now entering the busy part of my semester, it was good fortune that my hold for this book finally came through just as my semester is heating up. This book is purely fun reading, an escapist journey for both those within and out of the current skate culture. As the title suggests (it's the name of a skateboarding trick), a basic familiarity with the skateboarding world and some of its lingo and history are required for getting anything out of this book, but Sean Mortimer largely succeeds in his mission to bring skating's history to the kids today who may have no idea where their own beloved culture comes from. The book is less a history than a collection of carefully edited and compiled interviews, comprising everything from the first skateboarders in the 1960s through freestyle and pool riding and into current giants Tony Hawk, Bob Burnquist, and Daewon Song. The book chronicles the history of skating through several thematic chapters that hang together loosely and, naturally, bleed into one another. Throughout, the skaters are open about the art of skateboarding and what it means to them- an interesting consequence of the multiple interview format is that Mortimer elicits conflicting views from skaters on everything from preferred formats to whether skating should be considered a sport. Without editing in a way that seems to bias the narrative, Mortimer takes the words of the skaters and keeps them in context, shunning the kind of bombastic arguments propagated by cable news outlets for the book's true form and the kind of history that current skaters need to appreciate the unique, ground-up history of the...activity: Stalefish is a bunch of devoted, influential skaters talking about what they love and the culture that defines them. They are obviously sincere throughout and, together, comprise a many-sided view of the history of skateboarding. Complete with plenty of pictures, Stalefish is a quick and relatively lighthearted read perfect for anyone enthralled by the art of skating. There is no definite history here and the views are all objective, so newcomers may want to stay away, but anyone with a vague familiarity with skating should eagerly take this opportunity to see the skateboarding world from the eyes of those who, more than any others, intitially shaped and still continue to define it.

Grade: A

October 7, 2009

Book 53: Memento Mori

Memento Mori
Muriel Spark

Above all, what really makes us human is the fact that we must eventually die, despite what current science wants us to think, and it is this inescapable fact that Muriel Spark investigates in Memento Mori. Spark takes us into midcentury London and the world of the rapidly declining; the elderly are an often unseen piece of society and it's interesting to have a novel full of them, particularly as they approach their own deaths with candor and a lack of grace usually reserved for the young. Spark reminds us throughout that the older among us are still inherently human, and though it's quite funny that a woman in her seventies takes to blackmailing her acquaintances, there is a hint of the tragic that isn't fully explored in this lighthearted tale. Its characters are rich and compelling, almost universally over the age of seventy and vibrant while tackling the challenges of older, slowly betraying bodies. Spark's novel lacks a bit of coherent plotting or any real sense of movement, but it certainly does not lack for charm. The novel turns on a mysterious crop of phone calls reminding the characters that they must die, but instead of really probing their reactions the novel has the characters resume their daily lives, perhaps overreacting at times but behaving normally. Perhaps this is the point- that at a certain age even the disturbing reminder of death can only phase so much. Nothing much happens at a leisurely pace, but the novel is enjoyable enough due to its hilarious and well-portrayed cast. Though Memento Mori centers on and contains plenty of death, it teems with a lively spirit and is a refreshing look at an often ignored facet of society.

Grade: B+