Oh Yeah

And, oh yeah, I’m still reviewing a book: The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey (Harper Perennial). If it seems like it’s taking me a long time to get through it – I first wrote about it here – you’re right.

The book isn’t a doorstop – the galley pages aren’t numbered, so I don’t know its exact size – but nonfiction is slower going than fiction. Also, with 32 essays by 32 authors, it’s hard to settle in for a marathon read. It’s like trying to charge through a book of short stories – it’s hard to find a rhythm, and I find myself wanting to stop and think after each one.

(Do I really read every page of every book I review? How can I get the books reviewed if I read this slowly? Those are questions for another day.)

I am enjoying this book. Many of the essays are thought-provoking, enjoyable digressions on the links between soccer and culture, politics, and personal life. Standouts include essays by Henning Mankell (Angola), John Lanchester (Brazil), Nick Hornby (England), Aleksandar Hemon (France), Tim Parks (Italy), Jim Frederick (Japan), Sukhdev Sandhu (Saudi Arabia), Robert Coover (Spain) – but several others are quite good, too.

Many of them ask questions, whether implicitly or explicitly, that apply to other sports as well. What does it mean to tie your own happiness to the performance of an athlete? What does it mean identify yourself with a team, a city, region, a country? Do athletic contests serve as proxy battles or do they wind us up for the real thing? A recurring theme in many of the essays is the role of the national team in nations who are questioning their own identity in the face of increased immigration.

Unfortunately, some of the essays go too far in this direction and seem barely to belong in a book about the World Cup. They may be fine essays individually (or not, such as Jorge Castaneda’s dry piece on Mexico), but most people who pick up this book will be wanting discussion of the game to be central to each essay, not tangential. A few almost seem to have had references to soccer inserted in order to justify their inclusion here. Starting with Castaneda, Mexico’s former foreign minister, there’s a string of essays like these: Isabel Hilton on Paraguay, James Surowiecki on Poland, William Finnegan on Portugal (which is more about surfing than soccer), Geoff Dyer on Serbia and Montenegro.

(Note to the publisher: this velo-bound galley refuses to lie flat, which drives me crazy when I’m trying to write about it.)

But then Sukhdev Sandhu writes about a fatwa forbidding soccer “except when played as training for Jihad” and, once again we have a brilliant example of how we can learn something vital about a society through its attitude toward sport.

I’ll probably finish this book tonight, which is good, because I have two more to review by next week.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.