Reviews Round-up: Atwood, Wolitzer and Danahar

The critics' verdict on Atwood, Wolitzer, Danahar and Ripley

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

With MaddAddam Margaret Atwood concludes her “speculative fiction” trilogy, which began in 2003 with Oryx and Crake and continued in 2009 with The Year of the Flood. In the final instalment, the focus shifts to Toby, who plays a more minor role in the first two books, and sees the subplots and loose ends rounded off and tied up as Attwood’s satirical dystopia reaches its climax.

Sarah Churchwell, writing in the New Statesman magazine, found the conclusion to be a little too neat for the tone of the trilogy noting that “One might expect a dystopia to be rather messier and more entropic: the plague wipes out the entire human race, except for all Atwood’s protagonists, who endure in order to come together in MaddAddam and tie up her storylines rather too neatly”.  While not unimpressed by the finale, she still rates the opener as the “tour de force of the trilogy”.

The Scotsman’s Tom Adair, however, was spellbound by the finale, suggesting that Attwood’s witchlike ability to charm her reader would have had her burnt at the stake in times gone by. Her cutting prose is “diamond edged and perfectly pitched” and while Churchwell might think it is unnatural that the subplots of the previous two works are brought together so conveniently, Adair feels that “MaddAddam represents the brilliant culmination of their stories”. He concludes that, in this case, three is better than one or two as “Atwood’s trilogy eclipses the sum of its parts in a way that could not have been foreseen in the first two books”.

James Kidd of the Independent was also impressed by final work, commending both Atwood’s reflective side (“It ends with a bravura meditation on the power, consolations and endurance of literature itself”) and her subtle humour (“Atwood is not always praised as a comic writer, but MaddAddam reveals a fondness for bad puns, off-beat one liners and some inventive running gags”). He judges Atwood to have given an almost distressingly accurate reflection on humanity in all its depravity concluding that “It is not always a pretty picture, but it is true for all that.”

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer’s tenth book The Interestings follows a group of otherwise unremarkable American teenagers, who meet at a summer camp in New York, as the unquenchable excitement of youth gives way to the inevitable dreariness of middle age in a tale that has received a positive response from critics.

For the Telegraph’s Alison Pearson, it is a breakthrough novel, worthy of five stars and a gleaming review. She is charmed by Wolitzer’s wit “which can even make clinical depression entertaining” and impressed her “fearlessness in tackling everything from the difficulty of getting a penis inside you to the sheer horror occasioned by your best friend’s new walk-in refrigerator”. Above all, Pearson hails The Interestings as “a great feminist novel” concluding that “Meg Wolitzer is a supreme ironist. If anyone can find the bittersweet humour in an elevation to the Big Boys’ League, it’s her.”

Rachel Cusk, writing for the Guardian, acknowledges that the plot-line might be considered somewhat “old-fashioned” but thoroughly enjoyed the novel, calling it “essentially a cheerful enterprise with a guaranteed entertainment value” and attributing to Wolitzer a “knack for comic-satirical perceptions of character and culture”. Whilst she laments the occasional excess of “narrative bulk” she ultimately concludes that the reader is constantly “waiting to see what happens next”.

In the Independent, Holly Williams gives the novel another positive reception, hailing in particular Wolitzer’s brilliance in writing about “normal, unremarkable lives, investing them with just as much detailed attention and humane humour as the lives of the beautiful, the rich and the famous.” She finds it refreshing that the heroine “isn’t particularly pretty or sexy, or rich or glamorous”. Williams also points out the success of Wolitzer’s socio-historical contextualisation and concludes that although the prose is sometimes forced, and she thinks that Wolitzer occasionally and unhelpfully indulges her “urge to run down every available narrative track”, ultimately “this novel lives up to its name; Wolitzer’s perceptive portraiture makes these ordinary lives very interesting indeed."

The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring, by Paul Danahar

In The New Middle East: the World After the Arab Spring Paul Danahar reveals his own insights on the Arab Spring, having worked on the "axis of evil" during the revolution. In vivid prose, Danahar narrates the events that removed the "stable (yet ruthless) dictatorships" from the Arab Continent and have yet to reform: he notes that the end product is still an unknown entity.

Christopher de Bellaigue, writing for the Guardian, considers that the book is somewhat out of its depth; despite "a smattering of horror" and "exotic frisson" he concludes that there is "little to surprise an even moderately attentive reader of the foreign news." Indeed, the paper mocks Danahar’s willingness to embrace the obvious when stating that "in war, seconds and inches are the difference between life and death." There are also criticisms of the content itself: Danahar seems to have neglected the ever-changing nature of the situation when writing that the Arab Spring has left "a stronger Sunni, and a weaker Shia, Islam." In fact, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood party has been toppled in Egypt and Assad’s Shia regime continues to remain in power. De Bellaigue also appears to be mildly amused by the author’s naivety; to the statement, "God has returned to the Middle East," de Bellaigue responds "did he ever leave?"

However, the New Statesman’s Philip Maughan offers a more sympathetic view. He reminds us of Danahar’s expertise, running "the BBC’s coverage of the Arab spring between 2010 and 2013," before describing how the book leads us to some important questions concerning these newborn democratic states, nominally difficult matters of "statehood, secularism and religion."

Colin Freeman, writing for the Telegraph, also shares some of the Guardian’s concerns; he criticises the scapegoat Danahar places on "the shortcomings of American intervention" whilst ignoring Al-Qaeda’s nihilistic resistance. Freeman feels that this is completely paradoxical to the Arab Spring itself, for it adopts "that old mentality that still dogs the Arab world – namely, that whatever goes wrong, someone elsewhere is always to blame." This mantra appears contrary to the progressive mindset that typifies the Arab Spring.

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley

In her book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way Amanda Ripley condemns the grim state of American education, reiterating the view that is rife contemporary politics. She answers the pressing question "What exactly is happening in classrooms in foreign countries that are out-performing the U.S.A?" by spending time at the heart of the action: she follows three American teenagers choosing to take a year out as foreign-exchange students in Finland, Poland and South Korea. She presents the startling effects this has on their academic performance and attempts to discover what other countries are doing right and the U.S. is doing wrong.

Emma Keller, writing for the Guardian, tells potential readers Ripley’s book will "amaze you" and agrees that she drives home some very accurate points on America’s failing schools: "kids are bored, mentally unchallenged and could do so much more with their time."

The Huffington Post’s Jonathon Edelman shares Keller’s view that Ripley’s book is "gripping" and admires her "fascinating characters" and "fresh observations." He admires that, "Ripley lets facts and firsthand observations guide her conclusions, not the other way around," and is adamant that Ripley’s suggested improvements to America’s educational system – "parent involvement, heightened levels of expectation and well respected teachers" – ought to be at the core of the organisation and inculcated into its pupils.  

The Economist agrees that Ripley’s "wide-eyed observations make for compelling reading" and praises the "startling amount of insight" the book offers. The reviewer connects with Ripley’s frustration at America’s focus on "tracking students at different cognitive levels" where "low expectations are often duly rewarded" and, like Ripley, laments "the perverse sort of compassion that prevents American teachers from failing bad students."   

The consensus suggests that this book successfully crystallises why America’s schools are declining; the reviewers all hope that the contempt for the American education system this book breeds will spark a desperately needed overhaul.

Joe Iles and Irfan Allana

Margaret Atwood. Photograph: 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