Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on James Lasdun, Andrew Solomon and Woody Guthrie.

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun

Writing in the Observer, Mark O’Connell describes James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked as “a fascinating meditation on the malleability of identity in the online age, on the ease with which the truth about individual lives can be publicly distorted.” The memoir “is as unsettling as anything I've read about the internet's awful capacity to facilitate the dissemination of hatred”. O’Connell writes that, “perhaps the book's most terrifying revelation is the idea that all that is necessary for a person's life to be made utterly miserable is for another person to want this badly enough, for whatever reason. The internet is the genie that grants such poisonous wishes.” The reviewer is also impressed by the range of Lasdun’s book, writing: “As intriguing as this material is in itself, it's Lasdun's deviations from it that make for such an odd and original work of nonfiction. There are long, idiosyncratic digressions in which he views his situation through various literary lenses – readings of Tintin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Macbeth and the poetry of Plath.”

Jane Shilling’s review in the Telegraph describes Lasdun’s attempts to address the internet in his memoir: “Lasdun accomplishes the task with his habitual luminous elegance, drawing into his account wider questions of honour, reputation, masculinity, creativity, the nature of evil and the experience of 'an unbelieving, not even entirely kosher Jew [who] finds himself subjected to a firestorm of unrelenting anti-Semitism'.” However, Shilling contends that the book is somewhat let-down by Lasdun’s “inability to do more than glance obliquely at the crucial questions of love, flirtation, fidelity and the nature of the marriage bond itself”.

In the Guardian, Jenny Turner is somewhat less complimentary. She says that, “the book as a whole is skewiff, with both far too much information in it and not enough” and she “could also have done without some of Lasdun's own psychic self-dramatisations”. Turner adds that the possibility of Lasdun’s stalker, Nasreen being in “terrible distress” is neglected – “Lasdun isn't interested in a diagnosis, preferring to see her behaviour as motivated by 'a malice that … simply is'.”

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Far From The Tree by Andrew Solomon

In the New York Times Dwight Garner reviews Far From The Tree, Andrew Solomon’s book on parental love, based partly on his experiences with his parents as a gay child. It is a “book is about diversity of a harrowing sort. He introduces us to families who are coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia and, in some cases, multiple extreme disabilities. He writes about rape victims who have kept their children”. While the book is certainly dense - it’s nearly 1,000 pages long and includes interviews with over 300 families – Garner says, “my respect for it rarely wavered.” Where the book lets itself down, it is through prose that is “dry and epigrammatic.”

To Emma Brockes, writing in the Guardian, Solomon’s work is “a rebuke to everything shoddy and dashed off in the culture, and the density of his empirical evidence decimates casual assumption”. Brockes is particularly impressed by “those parents who forfeit the good opinion of their peers by not doing what is 'expected' of them: a woman from Oxford who, after a terrible period of indecision, gives her mentally and physically disabled child up for adoption; the mother of two severely autistic children, who, when her husband asks, 'Would you marry me again?', replies, 'Yeah, but not with the kids.' “

In the Telegraph, Jane Shilling is interested by Solomon’s exploration of identity. “The theme of identity haunts Solomon’s book. He distinguishes between vertical identity – traits we inherit from our parents, such as ethnicity or language – and horizontal identity, acquired from a peer group.” The personal dimension of the book is also notable, writes Shilling.  “As ]Solomon] watched his infant son undergo a CAT scan, he recognised in himself the quality that he had spent so long observing in others: the dazzling terror of parental love.”

House of Earth by Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie composed 3,000 songs. It turns out he was also a novelist. Martin Chilton, writing in the Telegraph, praises his novel (written in 1947 and previously unpublished) as a “heartfelt story about grinding poverty”, and a “rallying cry for building better homes”. The edition contains an introduction by Johnny Depp and the historian Douglas Brinkley which describes the novel as “an artefact from another age” – an introduction which Chilton finds “engrossing”. The novel contains “vivid descriptions” of terrible housing conditions in New Mexico, but Chilton ultimately assesses them as “dated and slow”. This defect is balanced by Guthrie’s powers of observation, which “enabled him to write with a homespun authenticity, and a fine ear for dialect”, and by scenes which are “genuinely moving”. The novel contains a 30 page romp in a barn (“You got more joosey magoosey in these tits of yours here than in any of our old milk cows”) and an extended birth section, which combine to enunciate themes of hope and “weary resignation”. Chilton awards the long-forgotten novel, “both welcome and timely”, an up-beat three stars.

Michel Faber, in the Guardian, is a little more unsettled by the sex scenes in the novel. “Such prose was clearly unpublishable in its time, and is still unusually explicit today”, he writes, after quoting an instance in which “the liquids from [Ella May’s] womb smeared through the hairs on [Tike’s] stomach”. This emphasis on sense data, continues Faber, is “all part of Guthrie's larger vision of human experience. Every sensation is noted and riffed on. Every thought is felt, every feeling anatomised at length. Weather permeates the soul and the soul mingles with the elements. The cry of Tike's newborn baby is described for two pages, because for Guthrie it is the cry of all things on earth”. Faber cannot help but snigger at the introduction, which takes the novel to be a kind of prophetic cry against global warning, and during which Depp and Brinkley “work themselves up to a pitch of bombastic celebration”. This focus is misleading, he contends, and should be transferred to Guthrie’s “linguistic bravado”, which nonetheless is at times a little circumlocutory. In sum, the book is an “eccentric hymn to the everythingness of everything, a sort of hillbilly Finnegans Wake”, and a “historical curio, a precious relic of semi-legendary Americana”.

A range of other reviews echo Chilton and Faber, such as David Martingale’s for America’s Star-Telegram. Martingale finds the novel “entertaining but slight”, “engaging but odd”, and at times “jarring and heavy-handed”. The “dream-like quality”of the prose is commendable, but when Depp and Brinkely compare the novel to Steinbeck they are “guilty of overstating the importance of House of Earth ... a treasure and a pleasure for Guthrie enthusiasts, but hardly an American classic”. 

House of Earth will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition of the New Statesman.

Woody Guthrie photographed in 1960 (Getty Images)
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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times