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All reviews - Movies (1) - Books (48)

Fred: Portrait of a Fast Bowler

Posted : 12 years, 9 months ago on 22 January 2009 02:33 (A review of Fred: Portrait of a Fast Bowler)

How to understand the man behind the public image? If you take your cue from a modern-day sports publishing house, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a forensic approach to your subject’s private life was the most revealing route. Tip over his bins to find the man within, if you like.

A writer like John Arlott was from a different school, perhaps a different age. For Arlott, sport reveals character. Want to know the man; know the cricketer.

Fred, Portrait of a Fast Bowler, contains very little about Fred Trueman away from the game he loved, beyond a brief passage about his youth, similar coverage of his national service -mainly in reference to its effect on his career - and a single sentence about each of his marriages. In contrast, great care is taken to cover the most pivotal and revealing events in the career of the self confessed “t’finest bloody fast bowler that ever drew breath”. Through this we see that the character of the man informs the player of the game, the player of the game informs the character of the man, and throughout, the skill of the author informs the reader of what lays behind the public image.

From the outset – a four page opening chapter, as good as any you’ll find in sports journalism – Arlott sets out the complex nature of his subject’s character. Trueman we are told, was a man of many contradictions: boastful but insecure; immensely entertaining yet sometimes a bore; capable of the self-motivation needed to reach the top of his sport, but a player who could also need encouragement; a gifted wit who knew the right line to carry the day, yet on occasions someone who reverted to a clumsy, inappropriate comment.

If Trueman’s personality was complex, it was also as large as his talent. A combination that led him to become one of the most talked about cricketers of his age. Everyone, it seemed, had a Trueman story, regardless of any foundation in truth. And as we are taken through Trueman’s career, with match descriptions chosen for their relevance to the development of both man and player, Arlott calls the bluff of some of the more notorious tales that have attached themselves to ‘Fiery Fred’, whilst confirming the authenticity of others.

The picture that emerges is one of a great talent realised, yet one you feel was never fully utilised by the powers that be. Trueman was a bowler with an action as smooth as his personality could be grating. He had an individuality that often left him with an uneasy relationship with those higher up cricket’s overly hierarchical structure. Be it as a brash young man entering the Yorkshire dressing room of the early 50’s, where the hard-nosed professionals of that time were quick to put him in his place. Or later, as an England player, with a forthright opinion on the southerners and public school ‘fancy hats’ that ran the game. For in truth, Trueman could at times be his own worst enemy, whilst at others he was harshly treated, or even punished for crimes not of his making.

As a result, his final haul of 307 test wickets was enough to set a then world record, but was far less than what was achievable had the national management of the time fewer competing fast bowling options, or anything approaching a professional standard of man management skills.

Here was a talent that craved recognition and respect. Here was a man with a burning desire, not only to be a great fast bowler, but to be acknowledged as one. Here was a round peg that resisted the wish to be smashed into the square hole of English cricket.

That Trueman achieved all those aims, was compensation for the effort of bowling over a 100,000 deliveries in his career; something that would have broken the body, if not the heart, of a lesser man.

Verdict: This isn’t a book for the voyeur; it’s a book for the cricket lover. Arlott devotes great swathes of prose to match descriptions. Taken out of context, that can sound dry and uninteresting, but within the framework of the book, they explain the development of man and career.

Arlott’s use of the English language is as classically smooth as Trueman’s legendary bowling action and he uses it to describe a sportsman he knew well, but one he can observe objectively. In a marketplace swamped by ghost-written autobiographies that are little more than puff-pieces, this gem from 1971 is perhaps an indication that Freddie was right after all; some things were better in his day.

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Crossing the Boundary

Posted : 12 years, 9 months ago on 22 January 2009 02:29 (A review of Crossing the Boundary: The Early Years in My Cricketing Life)

Published as part of the slew of post 2005 Ashes cash-in literature, Crossing the Boundary is a curious mixture: part ghosted autobiography, part exercise in brand building, part self-justification, and part chance to settle old scores.

Clearly the Kevin Pietersen of 2006 - when this book first appeared - had a number of ‘issues’ he wanted to clarify. As a cricketer who has had many accusations hurled in his direction: traitor to his country, troublemaker, show pony, opportunist, someone who is not a team player; it’s no wonder that a large part of Crossing the Boundary is taken up with him putting the record straight, as he sees it.

Some of this, almost three years down the line in late 2008, has dated and seems unnecessary. High profile commercial deals are now common place for England’s international cricketers, the kiss-and-tell stories have faded from memory to be replaced by a happily married man, and the accusation that off-field activities would detract from on-field performances have been proven incorrect. All we’re really left with is Pieterson trying to justify a rather stupid haircut on the basis that working-class kids will find it cool. If you want to look cool, Kevin, stick to the basics: wear black and move slowly.

Other issues, however, continue to dog him; in particular the rights and wrongs of the journey that took Pietersen from his native South Africa to England. Here a concerted effort is made to state his case, but it’s one unlikely to change minds already made, as the facts remain the same: Pieterson has an English mother and an Afrikaner father, he was born and bred in South Africa, but after finding his career held back by that countries racial quota system in cricket, came to England and played through a four-year qualification period before making his international debut. You either believe that his treatment in South Africa explains a change of loyalty to the land of his mother, or you think he’s a South African who has made a career decision to play for England. There is little in this book that will alter your initial feelings.

Elsewhere the journey through his career is used to settle old scores, as difficult periods of his life are revisited. Most of this is fair enough, as these are experiences that have helped form his character and career, and have been used by others as a stick to beat him with. The problem is that Pietersen has an occasional tendency to go beyond setting the record straight.

A perfect example is a story from his childhood, of being overlooked for selection in a school side in favour of another boy he believed to be of lesser talent. It’s an anecdote that mirrors his later experiences with the quota system; so it’s inclusion in the book makes perfect sense. But why did he need to name the boy, and label him a teacher’s pet? What purpose did that serve? It was the coach who was responsible for the decision. The impression left is not that Pieterson has suffered the vagaries of selection throughout his life, but that he can at times, be a rather petty man, immature, and unable to let go of the perceived injustices of the past.

There are also a number of examples scattered throughout the book, of figures from Pietersen’s past, with whom he had some kind of disagreement, coming forward since his elevation to sporting fame, asking for signed memorabilia for benefits, club auctions etc. This is mentioned to highlight their hypocrisy. Quite possibly it does. It also might indicate that they’ve moved on from the past and harbour no grudge. Pietersen it seems, feels differently. For a man who comes from a religious family, the Christian virtue of forgiveness appears to hold less sway over his present day emotions than the childhood vice of being a bad loser.

The overall picture painted is of a highly talented man, driven by an intense desire to reach the very top, but one who has difficulty relating to those who fall short of the same standards – it’s noticeable that very few of the numerous players Pietersen cites as close friends, are journeymen pros. What that says about Pietersens’s current relationship with Peter Moores, is up for debate.

Indeed, Crossing the Boundary makes interesting reading in the light of his appointment to England captaincy. You can only hope that the 2008 Kevin Pietersen spends less time fighting the battles of the past and saves his energy for fighting the ones of the present.

Verdict: Written with one eye on the long term cricket enthusiast and one eye on the ‘new breed of fan’ that had discovered the game during the summer of 2005, the resultant balancing act is another curious mix; veering as it does from the technicalities of shot selection based on field settings, to a broad brush explanation of Shane Warne’s stature within the game, for the uninitiated.

The writing style is conversational, and not a particularly highbrow conversation at that - a chapter about his wife, lurches very close to Katie Price territory.

Insight is given to Pietersen’s personality, but it may not be the entirely positive image that was intended. Pietersen is a man who can illicit strong opinion; too strong perhaps, to be swayed by the contents of this particular book.

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Stanislaw Lem – The Futurological Congre

Posted : 14 years ago on 20 October 2007 10:37 (A review of The Futurological Congress (From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy))


“Bringing his twin gifts of scientific speculation and scathing satire to bear on that hapless planet, Earth, Lem sends his unlucky cosmonaut, Ijon Tichy, to the Eighth Futurological Congress. Caught up in local revolution, Tichy is shot and so critically wounded that he is flashfrozen to await a future cure. Translated by Michael Kandel.”

My thoughts:

The Polish Sci-Fi writer Stanislaw Lem is best known for his novel ‘Solaris’, which has been adapted for the big screen twice, first in the early 70’s by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovski and thirty years later by Steven Soderbergh. If ‘Solaris’ was all you knew of Lem’s work you could be forgiven for thinking his brand of sci-fi was not only more philosophy than phasers, but fairly serious, dry stuff as well. That would be a misleading impression as a number of his other books display a cutting satirical edge as well as Douglas Adams like, almost Wodehousian, comic sensibility - sensibilities that are displayed in his 1971 novella “The Futurological Congress’.

Structurally, ‘The Futurological Congress’ is a mess. The opening twenty or thirty pages are set in a Costa Rica struggling to hold a scientific congress on the population explosion, at the same time as a violent revolutionary uprising is doing it’s best to alleviate the problem. The writing here is Lem at his most impish, with the humour becoming quite farcical, to the point where the plot becomes so subservient that you almost lose sight of it.

However, it is once the main character, Ijon Tichy, has been shot, frozen, and then revived in the year 2039, that all semblance of story is cast to the wind. From here on in, the book becomes a maze of ideas, some more serious than others; as Tichy finds himself in a world the inhabitants view through the prism of psychotropic drugs supplied by a totalitarian state. As Tichy learns more he discovers the population exist in a false reality of an artificial world, feeling artificial emotions, and speaking an artificially enhanced language.

So far this is fairly standard stuff, quite reminiscent of something like ‘The Matrix’. Given this book was written in 1971 it may well of been an inspiration for that film, although probably via the well-read Grant Morrison, whose comic strip ‘The Invisibles’ was one of the Wachowski Brothers most obvious ‘influences’. But Lem goes much further and deeper with his ideas than could be expressed in a Hollywood film, as further layers of doubt and artifice are added, till the possibility that Itchy has never left the present day starts to emerge. As you near the end, you start to question everything you have read and wonder how many of the ideas Lem has introduced are part of the books reality and how many are mere smoke and mirrors.

‘The Futurological Congress’ is a book rich in ideas and humour, but is structurally unsatisfying, and with some of the wordplay surrounding the development of language descending into a conveyor belt of puns. But the good overwhelmingly outweighs the bad, for a writer who is sadly overlooked, even by fans of the genre – a recent trip to ‘Forbidden Plant’ revealed just one book by Lem in stock.

As an interesting footnote, having been written in the early 70’s, Lem depicts the future as being several degrees cooler. “The New Ice Age” having been the predicted ecological disaster at that time.

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Lars Saabye Christensen

Posted : 14 years, 2 months ago on 27 August 2007 06:59 (A review of Herman)

Do you need to empathise with a books central character to fully enjoy the story? An eternal question, and one with a personal, highly subjective response. For me the answer is no - something confirmed by reading ‘Bleak House’ a few weeks ago. ‘Bleak House’ is an incredible book - a complex, multi-layered, socially aware masterpiece, written in beautiful prose. But to be honest, if one of the main characters had been put through a mincing machine for the sake of plot development, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. ‘Herman’ by the Norwegian writer Lars Saabye Christensen is a different book entirely.

The story revolves around Herman Fulkt, an eleven-year old Norwegian boy. Herman seems to daydream his way through life, using his vivid imagination and quick wits to navigate past any trouble caused by his lackadaisical attitude to the world in general and school in particular. Reality only begins to encroach after a trip to the barber, followed by an appointment with his doctor, reveal he is starting to lose his hair. Herman’s response to his gradually changing physical appearance, as well as the reaction it causes in others, is to retreat further into fantasy. It is only when reality hits hard again that Herman learns to cope with committing the schoolchild’s greatest crime: being different.

You could be forgiven for thinking that sounds like the plot of some terrible made-for-tv ‘disease of the week’ movie. But it’s far more substantial fare than that. As despite being only 180 pages long, the sparse nature of both plot and prose allow Herman the time and space to work through his situation, and find his own solution to how best to cope. But even better, we are given opportunity to genuinely care for Herman himself. For what sets this book apart is the brilliant characterisation of its protagonist. Christensen manages to paint a funny, quirky and deeply sympathetic character, without ever resorting to cliché or cheap emotional manipulation. In fact, it’s a long time since I can remember caring this much about a character from a novel. To the point where, about a third of the way through, I found myself cheating, and flicking to the back page to make sure Herman is ok. If he wasn’t I’d of closed the book, and set about tracking down the author’s email address so I could give him a piece of my mind.

‘Herman’ is a simple story, with a simple message: embrace who you are. It’s not trying to dazzle you with somersaulting prose or reach out for literary awards in a self-conscious ‘look at how clever I am’ way. It does something far more difficult; it makes you genuinely care about someone who doesn’t really exist. In it’s own way, it’s a minor classic – and that’s final.*

*You’ll need to read the book to understand why I added those last few words.


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Harry Mulisch: The Assault

Posted : 14 years, 2 months ago on 22 August 2007 04:11 (A review of The Assault)

Some novels announce their genius from the opening page – ‘Bleak House’ and ‘First Circle’ being good examples. Some take longer to build momentum and grab your attention. Others, like ‘The Assault’ by Harry Mulisch, provide an enjoyable read throughout, but it’s only when a highly satisfying denouement puts the final pieces of the puzzle in place that the book comes together, leaving you with the thought: ‘That was a damn good read’.

‘The Assault’ opens in German occupied Holland during the first few days of 1945. Liberation is close at hand, and the Dutch resistance takes their chance to exact revenge on a local policeman for collaboration. An assassination takes place outside a group of four remote houses as the man makes his way home. Knowing the Germans will burn down the house closest to the shooting, the occupiers drag the body through the January snow to the front of one of the neighbours. Twelve year old Anton Steenwijk watches as the body is dumped in front of his home and as his elder brother Peter attempts to move it on again just as the authorities arrive. Arrests are quickly made, and Anton finds himself in a police cell overnight, before being released into the custody of his Aunt and Uncle. It is from them that he learns his family has been killed in retaliation and his home destroyed.

The rest of the book follows Anton as he grows into adulthood, and tries to put the past behind him. But a series of encounters with people involved in the shooting keep dragging him back to that day, as he learns more about what actually happened, until, many years later, he finally learns the full truth.

‘The Assault’ takes the one overwhelming question of war – why? – and mixes it inventively with a more personal reflection on fate and the repercussions of our actions. Anton is reluctantly forced to face up to his past and ask some difficult questions. Why did the assignation take place where it did? Why was the body moved in front of his house rather than one of the others? Are we fated in life? Are events ultimately meaningless? Do we have our backs to the past whilst facing the future, or backs to the future whilst facing the past?

The result is a kind of human equivalent of a nuclear reaction. Circumstances - some of which have meaning, some of which are meaningless – come together to cause an event to happen, which itself leads to repercussions – some of which have meaning, some of which are meaningless.

When you finally put the book down, you are left with almost as many questions as Anton. Did the characters involved with the shooting act correctly? If they had acted differently would the resulting situation have been any better? Is it impossible to escape our past?

‘The Assault’ is a fine, thought provoking read and at 180 odd pages, a quick one too. It’s the first book I’ve read by Harry Mulisch - one of Holland’s leading writers and a nominee for the Man Booker International award this year - and it probably wont be the last.


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Spun Out by Paul Barry

Posted : 14 years, 9 months ago on 25 January 2007 04:19 (A review of Spun Out: Shane Warne the Unauthorised Biography of a Cricketing Genius)

Sporting genius is often portrayed as coming hand in hand with a complex and flawed character. The reality is that all of us have differing aspects to who we are, both good and bad. But those with the greatest genetic predisposition to athletic prowess are sometimes elevated to a position where it seems the normal conventions of society have a lesser hold, and temptation leads to lapses of judgement which are later held up to the spotlight for all to see. Shane Warne, like Botham, Best and Maradonna before him, is a sportsman who seemingly makes as many headlines off field as on. It was only a matter of time before a ’warts and all’ biography was written about him, especially as his own books have never seemed to be a wholeheartedly honest reflection of certain parts of his life.

Paul Barry’s task of writing “Spun Out” was made extremely difficult by Warne, as he discovered that family and friends had been asked to give no help. Despite this, the author claims to have interviewed over a hundred people who ignored the instruction and where happy to talk about a man with an “uncanny knack of getting himself into shit”. The result is an odd collection of sources, as books by Warne and his team-mates are quoted liberally, along with newspaper articles, television interviews and at one point a cricinfo match commentary. The space in between these dots are joined by unnamed sources and on a couple of occasions – by the author’s own admission – guesswork.

The book starts out with the revelation that Warne was removed from the Australian cricket academy for exposing himself to a group of students as they sat by their university swimming pool. The rest of the text follows his life from childhood to the end of 2005 in a similar vein. There is little description of Warne’s exploits on the field, save for a couple of chapters covering the 2005 ashes. This passage seems out of place with the tone of the rest of the book and comes across as a last minute edition to cash in on the post series publishing bonanza. Neither is it particularly well written, with the prose lacking in subtlety or depth of understanding and veering at times towards hyperbolic nonsense, as the usual ups and downs of test match cricket are constantly elevated into ‘crucial’ turning points.

So whilst career highlights are mentioned, it’s Warne’s off field life, the scandals and the personality flaws, that interest Barry most. To be fair, he does a good job of collecting together a full and eventful life and digging that little bit deeper to get at what really happened. The problem is that whilst the stories of Warne’s over the top sledging, the Indian bookmaker affair and the drugs suspension are covered well enough, it’s the sex scandals that take up most room. This results in the book becoming as repetitive as Warne’s behaviour as he makes the same mistakes over and over again. By the time you’re a third of the way through you’ve already got the picture. Warne is an idiot for being constantly caught with his pants down, and his wife is an idiot for constantly thinking ‘this will be the last time’. The names of the women involved change but the same basic behaviour is repeated. You’re left with the question -how can someone so intelligent on field, be so foolish after play has stopped?
Equally perplexing is Barry’s almost schizophrenic attitude to it all. He condemns the press, particularly the British tabloids, for their interest and prides himself on refusing to reprint the more salacious details. Whilst at the same time the entire book is build around washing Warne’s stained sheets in public in an almost relentless manner. Barry should understand that if you write about someone “having hot sex” you’re really not in a position to take the moral high ground.

Verdict: The scandals around Warne are covered in detail, sometimes repetitive detail, but do prove to be revealing. As does some of the insights into his childhood and personality. But the book is let down by some poor prose. Cliches are used liberally and the percentage of words that make it past two syllables probably wouldn’t challenge Glen McGrath’s batting average. But if you have an interest in Shane Warne then this is a must read, at least until someone is given fuller excess and co-operation from Warne to do the job properly

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Zimmer Men by Marcus Berkmann

Posted : 14 years, 9 months ago on 25 January 2007 04:18 (A review of Zimmer Men: The Trials and Tribulations of the Ageing Cricketer)

How many of us can identify the exact moment we were caught in cricket’s obsessive grip, never to be let go? I can. Watching Botham and Dilley hit out during the 1981 Headingly test, ensured the strange game granddad always had on TV, was now part of my life forever. Marcus Berkmann can pinpoint his moment of realisation too. Whilst on a boyhood holiday to Spain, he can remember reading the back page headlines from the British newspapers and being struck by just how bad it felt to be missing an important match of that summer’s test series. He refers to it as ‘my first cricketing bereavement’.

Cricket has been an integral part of Berkmann’s life ever since. Leading him and a group of like-minded friends at university to form a travelling cricket club called ‘ The Captain Scott Invitation X1’. The ups and downs of playing for the club were documented in Berkmann’s first book, “Rain Men”, which was published in the mid-nineties, and described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘cricket’s answer to Fever Pitch”.

Ten years later, life and club have moved on. Berkmann, now in his mid-forties, is facing the knowledge that his peak sporting years have gone, not that a career batting average struggling to reach five indicates much of a peak. Muscles now stiffen at the sight of a pitch, injuries take longer to recover, and younger players are eyed suspiciously.
His club felt the effect of the passing years too. As it first split into separate teams along lines of ability and ambition, before finally Berkmann took the step of forming a new club, named after his first book, and containing those, who in the words of Howlin’ Wolf, are ‘built for comfort not for speed’.

‘Zimmer Men’ chronicles the misadventures of Berkmann’s new club, and reveals the pains and pleasures of the cricketer growing old disgracefully. The themes will be familiar to everyone who has played at this level - somewhere between Pub 2nd XI & the current England ODI side – as all aspects of the amateur game are lovingly covered. The mid winter compilation of the fixture list, where strong sides are avoided, teams easily beaten in the past hounded until they agree to play you again, and matches with new sides approached like a blind date. The difficulties of raising a full team, when players drop out at the last minute with increasingly unconvincing reasons, to be replaced by co-operative, if slightly bewildered girlfriends or children. Bad batting, bad bowling, bad fielding and bad tempers feature in every match. So by mid book Berkmann is in full ‘Grumpy Old Men’ mode, laying into the new fads to have entered the club scene in the last decade, from sunglasses and baseball caps to the rise of the ill judged sledge.

Some of the chapters read a little like newspaper columns and the books organisation can feel cut’n’paste at times rather than having a smooth narrative running it’s way through. If this were a scholarly study of W.G. Grace that would represent a problem, but somehow it feels a prefect match for the muddle through nature of club cricket. Humour, which is the strong point of the book, is also well pitched. Very few jokes miss the mark, and unlike so many cricket books, anecdotes ring true rather than appearing ‘made to measure’.

Verdict: Whilst ‘Zimmer Men’ is at first glance about the life of a cricket club, it’s real subject matter is the nature of being a cricket obsessive. The language used at times ranges from “mildly fruity” to “we’ve received a complaint from Lenny Bruce” so a PG rating applies. But for everyone else, this is a warm, funny, gem of a book. Wholeheartedly recommended.

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Calling the shots

Posted : 14 years, 9 months ago on 13 January 2007 08:02 (A review of Calling the Shots: The Captain's Story)

Cricket books written by current players can be a mixed bag. For every classic like ‘Eight Days a Week’ by Jonathon Agnew, there are dozens devoid of originality that read like an accountancy exam. Many fall somewhere in the middle, with some genuine insight given - but not too much, we have the end of career biography to think of – mixed in with some filler material to pad it all out.

‘Calling the Shots’ by Michael Vaughan falls in the higher end of that middle group. The book contains plenty of filler: match descriptions, scorecards, statistics and player pen pics that you could probably have a stab at writing yourself. But in-between there are enough insights into Vaughan, his team-mates and the England set-up itself, to keep you interested.

The book covers Vaughan’s leadership from the resignation of Nasser Hussien as England one-day captain, up until the end of the 2005 Ashes campaign. Emphasis is very much on the national team, with Yorkshire managing only two entries into the index, a number matched by Mick Jagger. Such is the life of the modern England cricket captain.

The most interesting aspect of the book is the assessment Vaughan makes of other players, as he’s a shrewd judge. Fellow international captains are given sympathy for the pressure they are under, but honestly assessed. Stephen Fleming is held up as a model to follow, whilst Ponting is unsurprisingly given short shrift for his complaints about fielding substitutes. Tillekeratne’s captaincy of Sri Lanka is described as “bizarre” and Graeme Smith comes across as the kind of guy ASBO’s where designed for.
A chapter towards the middle of the book about Harmison, Flintoff and Vaughan himself is particularly revealing. Harmison it seems, is someone who practically needs babysitting when away from home. Description of gangs of mates coming down to stay with him when he’s strayed as far as London give you the impression, unintended I’m sure, of the slow kid at school who could only be trusted with the safety scissors. Whilst Vaughan’s prediction that GBH will retire when he’s thirty is starting to look a good bet in the time since publication.

Many of the clichés and whining so prevalent in the genre are avoided; as tales of golf games against former legends, niggles about hotel and training facilities on tour, complaints about dips in form, dodgy umpiring decisions, and press criticism are all keep to a bare minimum. In fact, it seems that the only time press flak really annoyed was when it came from Ray Illingworth at the time Vaughan was appointed. Illingworth’s reward in the book is the selection of a particularly shifty looking photo, which makes him look as if he’s trying to explain to a judge exactly what happened to the Christmas club money.

Indeed, good quality photographs form an important aspect of this and all sports books. The majority here are on-field action shots, and whilst they’re excellent - probably the best available to the publishers – we’ve seen them before many times. What are missing are more personal glimpses into Vaughan’s career, as well as candid snaps of dressing room life. If you’re hoping for a chance to see backroom tactical discussions or Geraint Jones gently washing Duncan Fletcher’s feet at the end of play, you’ll be sadly disappointed.
The only one that really stands out in the mind afterwards is a rather gruesome group photo of the Sky sports commentary team: Gower and Hussien with nervous smiles, Bothom, face as blank as a list of great Australian scientific discoveries. All towered over by what at first appears to be a badly constructed waxwork of Albert Steptoe, but on closer inspection turns out to be Bob Willis. I’m shuddering just thinking about it.

Reading the book now, at the end of the 2006/07 tour, it’s interesting to speculate what influence Vaughan might have had if match fit. You suspect many things would have stayed the same as he is in favour of coach as selector, an extensive back up staff and the replacement of Reid by Jones during the 2004 WI series; although he concedes that change could have been handled better. Whilst the amount of cricket needed to build up for a tour isn’t directly addressed, Vaughan does stress the importance of giving players rest and seems unworried by a lack of runs going into an important game. If so, perhaps England’s attitude to tour preparation this last winter is not radically different than before?

The overall impression left is of a highly intelligent man, who is focused and above all, honest. It would be interesting to see what some of the TV and Radio commentators make of his views on field placement etc. I’ve certainly come away with the impression that out on the field, without any of the computer analysis available to them, he’s still capable of being a good few overs ahead of where they are in reading the game.

Kenny Shovel

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The Engineer of Human Souls

Posted : 14 years, 9 months ago on 11 January 2007 05:02 (A review of The Engineer Of Human Souls: An Entertainment on the Old Themes of Life,Women,Fate,Dreams,the Working Class, Secret Agents,Love and Death (Vintage Classics))

I love Czech literature. Writers from that region have a wonderful ability to talk about nothing and everything at the same time, all wrapped up in a warm dark humour that reveals a great love of life. Perhaps it’s a twentieth century tradition that stems from the writing of the humorist Jaraslav Hasek and his greatest gift to Czech literature, ‘The good soldier Svejk’? Perhaps the origin is earlier and beyond my knowledge? But the influence can be seen in the work of Ivan Klima, Karel Capek, Bohumal Hrabal, and probably countless more I’ve never even heard of. I’ve always got half an eye out looking for writers in a similar vein, a search that somehow led me to miss what was already under my nose.

‘The Engineer of Human Souls’ by Josef Skvorecky has been sitting in my to-be-read pile for some time, probably a couple of years. I’d bought it on recommendation, but the ominous sounding title (a reference to Stalin’s opinion of a writers function) plus a hefty 571 page count, well above my normal comfort zone, had seen me passing it by for newer purchases on a fairly regular basis. And what a glorious book I was ignoring.

The story revolves around Danny, a jazz loving writer from Czechoslovakia, living in exile in Canada and working as a university lecturer in literature. The parallels with Skvorecky’s own life are very strong, to the point where the book comes close to a Japanese I-novel in style. The narrative shifts between Danny’s current life amongst the Czech émigré in Canada and significant periods in his past, all neatly tied together with letters from those he knew from his homeland who have taken refuge in other parts of the world. As the story progresses, we learn the different paths chosen by Danny and his friends during wartime, and how their lives pan out. Much is revealed as the characters live through ever changing times: democracy, Nazi rule, communism and for the lucky ones who escape, exile.

The subtitle to ‘The Engineer of Human Souls’ is: An entertainment on the old themes of life, women, fate, dreams, the working class, secret agents, love and death. But that reveals only the tip of this book’s iceberg. How a seemingly meandering tale, with a fairly basic plot can say so much is a testament to the skill of Skvorecky.

Familiar Czech literary obsessions of food, wine, women and song make regular appearances, and at times Danny’s laid back attitude to life is reminiscent of the ‘good soldier’ himself. But there is much more under the surface. Bravery, cowardice, motivation and duty are put under the microscope as we learn of Danny’s wartime experiences working in a Messerchmitt factory, and his flirtations with the resistance movement. Flirtations that are fed more by desires towards impressionable young girls than desire to do the right thing. This proves to be an enduring attraction to Danny, as his older self becomes ever closer to a young student in his class.

Life under Nazi rule, the communist regime, and abroad as an exile are subtly compared. Contrast skilfully made between the younger man living under oppression and fighting against it in his own way and the older wiser man amused by the attraction of totalitarian states to those who have no experience, or real understanding, of them.

This is a bibliophile’s book as well. The discussions Danny has with his students’ flow throughout the story, and literary references abound. The book is even divided into seven chapters named after famous authors. The result is a book that moves to the love of literature, as well as the love of life.

I’m still undecided if this book has crossed the line to becoming a masterpiece or not, I need a little longer to mull that over. But it is a fantastic read: warm but cynical, naïve but knowing, straightforward but complex, a book full of contradictions, but one that never stops being a joy.

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Summer at Baden-Baden

Posted : 14 years, 10 months ago on 3 January 2007 04:31 (A review of Summer in Baden-Baden)

Of all literary techniques, stream of consciousness is the one I have the most problem with. Unless the subject matter and author combine and try damn hard to catch my imagination, it’s all just going to wash over me, however critically acclaimed the work may be. Leaving writers like Joyce, Woolf and Sebald all firmly labelled in my mind as worthy but dull.
Thankfully, experimentation in some of his books by one of my favourite authors, Bohumil Hrabal, persuaded me that my aversion might be down to content rather than style, and lead me to take a risk on ‘Summer at Baden-Baden’ by Leonid Tsypkin. This is a joy of a book and one where the technique is used not as a means to an end, or a flamboyant literary example of the Emperor’s new clothes, but as an integral part of the story.

‘Summer in Baden-Baden’ is a bibliophiles book, and one in particular that should be read by every fan of Dostoyevski. Tsypkin was himself a dedicated admirer of the Russian master and the narrative of the story encompasses and links them both.
The book is framed by a train journey Tsypkin took in the late 1970’s to St Petersburg. A trip to visit and photograph various locations from Dostoyevski’s life and books, in particular ‘Crime and Punishment’, and one that he hoped would bring him closer to understanding the author. As Tsypkin travels he reads from a gift his Aunt has given him: the diary of Dostoyevski’s second wife Anna, covering the period in 1867 when they lived in Baden-Baden.
It is here that the book takes off, as the text flows from first to third person narratives and from the point of view of Tsypkin, Dostoyevski and Anna. The switching of POV and narrative style allows the characters of the married couple to be explored from inside and out in a way that Dostoyevski himself would have been proud of. The changes are made seamlessly, often mid sentence, but you quickly get into stride with the tempo of the writing, to the point were the style of prose seems the most natural way of telling the story. It’s effortless and breathtaking at the same time, and full credit needs to be given to Roger and Angela Keys for their wonderful translation.

Dostoyevski’s battle with his addiction to gambling takes centre stage for much of the time. It reveals many of his flaws: his weakness, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, and mood swings that lead him to push away those closest to him. So whilst at times you can hear echoes of a number of Dostoyevski’s works in the text, it is ‘The Gambler’ you are most reminded of, to the point where ‘Summer at Baden-Baden’ seems like a shadowy ‘Double’ of that book.

The relationship between the ever-faithful Anna and her husband is used as a mirror for one of the major themes of the book. How can Tsypkin, a Jew, reconcile his admiration for Dostoyevski with Dostoyevski’s attitude towards his faith? It’s a question that is touched upon throughout the book, often obliquely referenced, until Tsypkin finally reaches St Petersburg where he directly and honestly addresses it.

As I mentioned before, this is a book for fans of Dostoyevski, and some knowledge of his work, life and times are needed to get the most from it. Some of the nuance of meaning from his meetings with various other Russian writers and the historical accuracy of the events described were a bit beyond my knowledge. But that didn’t effect my enjoyment.
Special mention also to the 2001 edition which included an excellent introduction by Susan Sontag and reproduction of Tsypkin’s photographs from his trip to St Petersburg. Want to see the building where the moneylender in Crime and Punishment lived? It’s in here. Although to be honest it looks like it could be from any of the modern day Eastern Europe cities I’ve visited.

But whether you regard this book as a fantasy, a fictionalised documentary or an extended piece of fan mail is ultimately unimportant. ‘Summer in Baden-Baden’ stands alone as an exquisite masterpiece, and Tsypkin an author worthy of sitting on the shelf next to Dostoyevsky without fear of being out of place.

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