Six Degrees of Separation – From Hornby to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

fever-pitch

This month’s starting book is Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

Nick Hornby has been a football fan since the moment he was conceived. Call it predestiny. Or call it preschool. Fever Pitch is his tribute to a lifelong obsession. Part autobiography, part comedy, part incisive analysis of insanity, Hornby’s award-winning memoir captures the fever pitch of fandom — its agony and ecstasy, its community, its defining role in thousands of young mens’ coming-of-age stories.

Ugh! Football!! No, thanks! Though at least proper football is played with the feet, unlike American Football. Which reminds me of…

the perfect pass

SC Gwynne’s The Perfect Pass. SC Gwynne was the winner of my FF Book of the Year Award in 2014 and the “prize” is that I will read the author’s next book. Imagine my delight when his next book turned out to be about American Football! This is the story of how a college coach, Hal Mumme, developed the “unstoppable” Air Raid offense, changing the very nature of the game.

Though the passing technology was more than half a century old, there was still something morally thrilling about watching the quarterback toss the ball to the tailback, while the guard or tackle pulled and the fullback crashed down on the defensive end and the whole team seemed to move en masse in that swinging, lovely rightward arc of pure power followed by the popping sounds of all those helmets and pads and the scream of the crowd as the whole thing disintegrated into a mass of bodies on the turf.

Amazingly, this book was a surprise hit with me, proving that a great writer can make any subject fascinating! Plus it was the cause of me finding one of my favourite pics to ever appear on the blog…

Testing football helmets...
Testing football helmets…

Gwynne’s award-winning previous book was Rebel Yell, a biography of Stonewall Jackson, one of the great US Civil War generals. This reminded me of…

king solomons mines

King Solomon’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard, which culminates in the great civil war amongst the Kukuanas. A book I consider to be the best adventure story I’ve ever read, this tells the tale of Allan Quatermain and his companions setting out on a journey across Africa to find the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon…

“It is far. But there is no journey upon this earth that a man may not make if he sets his heart to it. There is nothing, Umbopa, that he cannot do, there are no mountains he may not climb, there are no deserts he cannot cross; save a mountain and a desert of which you are spared the knowledge, if love leads him and he holds his life in his hand counting it as nothing, ready to keep it or to lose it as Providence may order.”

adventurers

Another book that involves climbing mountains is…

thin air

Michelle Paver’s Thin Air. This chilly ghost story takes place in 1935 during an expedition to climb Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas, the third highest mountain in the world and as yet unconquered. Although it starts and ends rather slowly, the bit in the middle where the horror actually happens is excellent. This is not gore-fest horror – it’s all done with things half-glimpsed and subject to interpretation. A good one for a dark evening.

kangchenjunga south-eest face

I couldn’t visit the Himalayas without thinking of…

black narcissus

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden. This is the story of a group of nuns who make their way to a palace high in the Himalayas to set up a convent and school there. But they are not prepared for the isolation they will feel in this place of majestic grandeur, constantly windswept, and with a population who have their own spiritual beliefs and no desire to change. Soon the nuns will find themselves challenged, not only physically, but emotionally, even spiritually, struggling to maintain their faith amidst the emptiness that surrounds them.

This GIF from the movie gives me vertigo each time I look at it…

black narcissus bell

Nuns and convents made me think of…

eleven days

Stav Sherez’s Eleven Days. When a fire engulfs a convent in London, the ten nuns who make up the Order are all killed. But there is another body too, and it’s up to Detectives Jack Carrigan and Geneva Miller to find out who she was and why she was there. This is a complex, somewhat sprawling thriller that looks not just at the underbelly of crime in London but also at politics within the Roman Catholic church, and across the world to the impact of big business on the peasants of Peru.

Stav Sherez
Stav Sherez

An “Eleven” is the traditional name for a cricket team, which made me think of…

selection-day-2

Selection Day by Aravind Adiga. Back to sport to end on, but a decent sport this time! (Though not as good as tennis obviously.)

Gratuitous Rafa GIF
Gratuitous Rafa GIF

This is a story of sibling rivalry, tied in with a wider picture of corruption in society shown through the corruption in cricket. I love Adiga’s depiction of Mumbai. He shows the poverty, corruption and class divisions quite clearly but he also shows the other side – the vibrancy, the struggle for social mobility, the advances of recent years. His characters, even when they’re being put through the emotional wringer, manage to have some fun along the way, and the whole atmosphere he portrays lacks the irredeemable hopelessness of so much Indian literature.

“People thought I had a future as a writer, Manju. I wanted to write a great novel about Mumbai,” the principal said, playing with her glasses. “But then…then I began, and I could not write it. The only thing I could write about, in fact, was that I couldn’t write about the city.

“The sun, which I can’t describe like Homer, rises over Mumbai, which I can’t describe like Salman Rushdie, creating new moral dilemmas for all of us, which I won’t be able to describe like Amitav Ghosh.”

 * * * * *

So Hornby to Adiga, via football, civil war, mountain passes, the Himalayas, nuns and elevens!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

The Perfect Pass by SC Gwynne

Play the next play…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the perfect passThis is the story of how a college coach, Hal Mumme, developed an “unstoppable” offense that would defeat even the biggest, strongest defenses; and of how that offense gradually spread throughout college football and into the professional leagues, changing the very nature of the game – the Air Raid offense.

Sometimes you just have to take the things life throws at you and run with them. When SC Gwynne won my Book of the Year award in 2014 for Rebel Yell, his brilliant biography of Stonewall Jackson, I gave him the usual prize – my promise to read his next book. Of course, I was assuming it would be another biography of a historical soldier or politician. Imagine my… delight when it turned out to be a book about a passing offense in American football! In my life I have watched one full game and a bit of another, and frankly thought it was a jolly silly game a game one has to have grown up with to fully appreciate. So the question was not so much whether I’d like this book as whether I’d even understand it!

Gwynne starts with a great description of Texas Tech putting the Air Raid offense into action in 2008. He then whisks us back in time to meet Hal Mumme at the beginning of his coaching career. He shows the uncertainty of life as a college coach in a nation obsessed with the game – a hero when leading his team to victory, but abused and reviled if they lose. Hal had always wanted to coach, despite the low pay and precariousness of the profession. His big idea was that he was going to make throwing the ball the centre of the game.

1929 - when men were men and football was war
1929 – when men were men and football was war

To explain why this idea was so radical, Gwynne gives a potted history of the rise of football. He shows it as arising out of a nostalgia for war – an opportunity for men to hone their manly aggression in peacetime. Therefore it was all about brute force in “the pile” in the middle of the field – meat on meat, as it was charmingly summed up. The more broken bones, busted skulls and fatal injuries the better – a real man’s game! Forward passing was initially prohibited, but when reformers began demanding that the game be made less dangerous, it was eventually legalised. However, it was rarely used, since in this beefy culture it was seen as “feminising” the game. In short, passing was for sissies. Games were all about bulldozing the opposition, and as a result were usually low-scoring and rather dull to watch. This chapter is so well-told and very funny in places, especially over the “manliness” aspects of it all.

Though the passing technology was more than half a century old, there was still something morally thrilling about watching the quarterback toss the ball to the tailback, while the guard or tackle pulled and the fullback crashed down on the defensive end and the whole team seemed to move en masse in that swinging, lovely rightward arc of pure power followed by the popping sounds of all those helmets and pads and the scream of the crowd as the whole thing disintegrated into a mass of bodies on the turf.

Testing football helmets...
Testing football helmets…

Hal was convinced though that passing could be made to work, especially for teams without the brute power to win against bigger opponents using traditional plays. The bulk of the book is taken up with Hal’s long road to development of the Air Raid, learning from other coaches who used passing plays in their games, trying out new things with the various teams he worked with and, with his long-time coaching partner Mike Leach, gradually refining his system so that even fairly mediocre players could be taught it. It wasn’t just on the field that he changed things. Again the culture was to make the players prove their toughness in full contact training, often being injured before they even got to play, or being worked so hard in training sessions they would be on or past the point of collapse. Hal had his players do shorter sessions, focussed on passing rather than tackling, developing precision in throwing and tactics rather than beating each other to a pulp. His idea, which doesn’t sound as though it should have been revolutionary but apparently was, was that football should be fun!

Hal Mumme and Mike Leach
Hal Mumme and Mike Leach

And gradually, the no-hoper teams he initially worked with began to win games, and to win them spectacularly with huge scores. And dismissive traditionalist crowds began to see that the passing game was exciting (especially the fans of the winning teams – the losing fans perhaps weren’t quite so enthused). Slowly other coaches started to use Hal’s techniques until eventually passing became an accepted part of the game. Hal’s own career remained chequered and he never made it into the professional divisions, but his ideas did, and the final version of all his work, the Air Raid offense, has been used and adapted by the top teams.

Hal Mumme with Tim Couch, then coach and QB of University of Kentucky Photo credit: Ed Reinke/AP
Hal Mumme with Tim Couch, then coach and QB of Kentucky Wildcats
Photo credit: Ed Reinke/AP

One of Hal’s favourite sayings was, Play the next play. The words were a combination pep talk and theory of life, perfectly aligned with his coaching philosophy. The gist was, life, like football, is a headlong dive into the future. There is no past, at least not one you should worry too much about. If you lose, let it go. Don’t panic. If you win, don’t be too satisfied. Play the next play.

SC Gwynne
SC Gwynne

This isn’t a hugely long book, but even so I’ve only given a flavour of it. Gwynne’s writing brings the sport to life and he explains all the various plays clearly enough that even I felt I understood them. There are lots of diagrams to show the various offensive formations and how they’re designed to bamboozle the opposition defenses. Through it all, Gwynne’s respect for and warmth towards the game, its coaches and players, shines through, and the occasional humour and great descriptions of the games make the book entertaining as well as informative. A surprise hit for me, proving that a great writer can make almost any subject fascinating. I may even watch a few more games now…

(Since the game is American, I’ve gone along with the wrong American spellings of offence and defence throughout… 😉 )

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

TBR Thursday 93…

Episode 93…

A massive drop in the TBR this week – down 1 to 176! This is clearly the start of a downward trend and I expect to be down to single figures quite soon. Unless something goes wrong with my willpower, but that’s highly unlikely, don’t you think?

Here are a few that will be moving onto the Reading section of my spreadsheet soon…

Factual

Sometimes, I can’t help but feel that there’s a malicious booksprite picking on me. Or perhaps I’m being punished for something I did in a past life – wrote a scathing review of Chaucer or something. It seemed like a safe idea, when creating the annual FictionFan Awards, to make the prize be a promise that I’d read the author’s next book. I mean, authors always stick to similar subjects, don’t they? So when SC Gwynne won the 2014 prize with Rebel Yell, his brilliant biography of Stonewall Jackson, I settled down to wait patiently for another fascinating slice of American history to come along. So imagine my… delight… when his next book turns out to be all about a particular pass in American football. All I know (or want to) about American football is that you don’t play it with your feet…

the perfect passCourtesy of NetGalley and another of my 20 Books. If SC Gwynne can make me enjoy this, forget the Booker – the man deserves the Nobel Peace Prize!

The Blurb says: Hal Mumme spent fourteen mostly losing seasons coaching football before inventing a potent passing offense strategy that would revolutionize the game. That transformation began at a tiny college called Iowa Wesleyan, where Mumme was head coach and Mike Leach his assistant. It was there that Mumme invented the purest and most extreme passing game in the 145-year history of football, where his quarterback once completed 61 of 86 passes (both national records). His teams played blazingly fast—faster than any team ever had before. They rarely punted on a fourth down (eh?), and routinely beat teams with ten or twenty times Iowa Wesleyan’s students. Mumme did it all with average athletes and without even a playbook.

In The Perfect Pass, S.C. Gwynne explores Mumme’s genius and the stunning performance of his teams, as well as his leading role in changing football from a run-dominated sport to a pass-dominated sport. He also shares the history of a moment in American football when the game changed fundamentally and transformed itself into what tens of millions of Americans now watch on television every weekend. Whether you’re a casual or ravenous football fan (or… me?), this is a truly compelling story of American ingenuity, innovation, and how a set of revolutionary ideas made their way into the mainstream of sports culture that we celebrate today.

tom-brady-replacement

* * * * *

Fiction

dirt roadJames Kelman is Scotland’s only Booker prize winner, though not for this novel, of course. To my shame, I haven’t read any of his books (mainly because I think there’s a very good chance I’ll hate them due to his reputation for extreme sweariness). Time to find out… Courtesy of NetGalley…

The Blurb says: From the Booker Prizewinning James Kelman, comes a road trip through the American South. Murdo, a teenager obsessed with music, wishes for a life beyond the constraints of his Scottish island home and dreams of becoming his own man. Tom, battered by loss, stumbles backwards towards the future, terrified of losing his dignity, his control, his son and the last of his family life. Both are in search of something new as they set out on an expedition into the American South. On the road we discover whether the hopes of youth can conquer the fears of age. Dirt Road is a major novel exploring the brevity of life, the agonising demands of love and the lure of the open road.

It is also a beautiful book about the power of music and all that it can offer. From the understated serenity of Kelman’s prose emerges a devastating emotional power.

* * * * *

Sci-fi

from the dust returned 2The last of my 20 Books and it’ll be a miracle if I make it in time. I was blown away by Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Time to find out if that book was a one-off or if he can do it again…

The Blurb says: High on a hill by a forked tree, the House beckons its family homeward, and they come–travelers from the lyrical, lush imagination of Ray Bradbury.

From the Dust Returned chronicles a community of eternal beings: a mummified matriarch who speaks in dust; a sleeping daughter who lives through the eyes and ears of the creatures she visits in her dreams; an uncle with wings like sea-green sails. And there is also the mortal child Timothy, the foundling son who yearns to be like those he loves: to fly, to sleep in daytime, and to live forever. Instead, his task is to witness the family’s struggle with the startling possibility of its own end.

Bradbury is deservedly recognized as a master of lyricism and delicate mood. In this novel he weaves together individuals’ stories and the overarching family crisis into a softly whispered, seductive tale of longing and loss, death and life in the shadowy places.

* * * * *

Crime

4.50 from paddingtonFor the Agatha Christie Blogathon in September, a re-read of one of Agatha Christie’s finest books. It’s not too late to join in – if you’d like to participate, click on the logo on my sidebar to the right…

The Blurb says: Agatha Christie’s audacious mystery thriller, reissued with a striking new cover* designed to appeal to the latest generation of Agatha Christie fans and book lovers. (*New in the 1970s, that is, when I collected every one of the Fontana editions of Christie books with the fabulous cover designs by Tom Adams. They may be yellow, tatty and dog-eared from too many re-reads now, but there will always be a place for them on my bookshelves…)

For an instant the two trains ran together, side by side. In that frozen moment, Elspeth witnessed a murder. Helplessly, she stared out of her carriage window as a man remorselessly tightened his grip around a woman’s throat. The body crumpled. Then the other train drew away.

But who, apart from Miss Marple, would take her story seriously? After all, there were no suspects, no other witnesses… and no corpse.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?