May 06, 2010


Click: One Novel, Ten Authors. By David Almond, Eoin Colfer, Roddy Doyle, Deborah Ellis, Nick Hornby, Margo Lanagan, Gregory Maguire, Ruth Ozeki, Linda Sue Park, and Tim Wynne-Jones. Scholastic. $8.99.

Top of the Order: 25 Writers Pick Their Favorite Baseball Player of All Time. Edited by Sean Manning. Da Capo. $15.95.

The Kingfisher Soccer Encyclopedia. By Clive Gifford. Kingfisher. $19.99.

     Anthologies have inherent advantages and disadvantages. When they are collections of stories – built on a central theme – by various authors, they can provide an interesting variety of viewpoints, insights and styles, some inevitably more congenial than others for any given reader. On the other hand, anthologies inherently lack cohesion, and very few readers are likely to enjoy all their elements. But then there are what could be called “anthological modifications,” such as these books – one fiction and one nonfiction. Click, the novel, is more than a clever assemblage of individual chapters by 10 different authors, more than a set of variations on a theme. It is in fact a fully coherent book built around a connecting premise that allows the writers to produce chapters ranging from gritty and grim to futuristic and fairy tale. It may be a little too neat, a little too carefully intertwined for all tastes, but it has enough points of interest to make a fascinating read. At its center are photojournalist George “Gee” Keane and his grandchildren, Maggie and Jason. Keane has died in the book’s first chapter (by Linda Sue Park), and has left certain inheritance items for Maggie and Jason. The balance of the book moves – effectively if not always seamlessly – between what happens later to the young people and what Keane encountered during his life. Each chapter is named for a person, and “Min,” by Tim Wynne-Jones, has Jason neatly summing up what his grandfather did: “‘He was this socially conscious kind of miracle. He had a nose for chaos, for disaster: Hiroshima, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Darfur – wherever the world was falling apart, he’d be there. …It wasn’t exploitation he was after. He was like trying to make sense of these tragedies. His pictures are…Oh, beautiful and horrible, and they ask hard questions.’” It is the “hard questions” element that attracts most of the authors of Click, often starkly: Ruth Ozeki’s “Jiro” begins, “When my older brother came home from the war, he had no legs.” There are, though, occasional flashes of humor, such as a birthday-party scene in Eoin Colfer’s “Jason,” and there is a sense of wonder here and there, too, as in David Almond’s “Annie,” which may, just may, be about a selkie or two. In the final analysis, Click is attractive in an offbeat way. And the authors are certainly well-meaning in real-world terms: all royalties from the book are being donated to Amnesty International.

     If Click is designed to be relatively seamless, Top of the Order is just the opposite. It represents a more traditional approach to the anthology format – and is designed more to bolster (or contradict) readers’ own opinions than to convince anyone of anything. If you do not actually make your living from sports, the field has no significant objective value to your life; but fans invest sports with a huge amount of subjective importance, to the point of living parts of their own lives through fantasy leagues and imaginary games and battles (pairing boxers or tennis players of different eras against each other, for example). So devoted baseball fans will surely have their favorite players – and Top of the Order gives readers a chance to compare their picks with those of 25 writers, then argue endlessly among themselves about which writers are correct, partially correct, completely full-of-it, and so on. Some but not all the writers here are sports journalists – the list also includes novelists, humorists, and even former major-league players Jim Bouton (who chooses Steve Dembowski) and Doug Glanville (who picks Garry Maddox). Actually, the choices are all over the place, as are the writing styles. Editor Sean Manning himself contributes an essay in which he chooses, of all people, Michael Jordan – and has a very specific personal reason for doing so. Vanity Fair contributing editor Seth Mnookin, usually a serious type, selects Pedro Martinez, and writes a very amusing and amply footnoted piece replete with off-color anecdotes. Actor/comedian Michael Ian Block, on the other hand, puts nothing humorous at all in his piece on Mookie Wilson, instead turning his contribution into a meditation on his own childhood racism – of which he was made aware when Wilson gave a speech. Block also hits, in passing, on the attitude of many adult sports fans – although he is talking about how he felt at age 11: “In my mind, ballplayers inhabited a different, better universe. The kind that was populated only with athletes, astronauts, assorted rock musicians, and Christie Brinkley. It was certainly a better place to live than my constrictive New Jersey town.” Indeed, those sentences encapsulate the feelings of many adults about sports: that somehow they can get outside their own narrow lives by focusing on highly paid celebrities whose world appears far different from the mundane one of 99% of the population. This sort of thinking is harmless as long as it does not become a belief system that distracts people from real-world, everyday responsibilities. And Top of the Order is a bit of harmless enjoyment, too, opening up many chances to discuss why certain writers chose Tom Seaver, Mariano Rivera, Kirby Puckett or Yutaka Enatsu as their favorites players – while others gave the nod to acknowledged all-time greats of the game, such as Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson. These 25 writers, making 25 choices, offer readers far more than 25 chances to argue, debate, agree, complain and then, hopefully, return to real-life pursuits.

     Younger sports fans, or fanatics-in-training, can find an even more colorful book (although the language is not as colorful): The Kingfisher Soccer Encyclopedia, which is helpfully subtitled “The Facts, the Goals, the Superstars.” The timing of this big-splash release is obvious: this year’s World Cup starts June 11 in South Africa. But soccer (which is called football just about everywhere except the United States) is a year-round worldwide passion, causing even more temper flares and unseemly rowdiness than is even seen in American football. The British bow to no one in their propensity for over-enthusiasm for this game, and Clive Gifford – a British author and soccer coach – certainly brings plenty of intensity to this oversized, beautifully photographed and nicely laid-out book. Originally published in 2006, The Kingfisher Soccer Encyclopedia has been thoroughly updated to 2010, even to the point of including a bound-in wall chart for the upcoming Johannesburg World Cup. Although intended for readers as young as age eight, this book will appeal to fans throughout the age spectrum, right into adulthood (or pseudo-adulthood, for really intense fans). The reason is that it not only includes the game’s basics (goalkeepers “must wear a shirt that distinguishes them from other players and officials”) but also throws in a lot of history (“In 1882 goalkeeper James McAulay was pressed into service as a center-forward and scored in Scotland’s 5-0 defeat of Wales”) and the sort of detail that will appeal tremendously to fans of any age. The inner workings of team selection, picking and playing in a particular match, making substitutions – all are here. There are “snapshot” pages with wonderful photos and remarkable stories: “Madrid’s Magnificent Seven” in 1960, “The Wingless Wonders” of 1966, and so on. “Fact file” boxes provide tidbits of information within chapters that focus on legendary individual players, great teams, “Soccer Fortunes” (some good, some not), and so on. There are even pages on “Soccer Nightmares,” including fixing, cheating, stadium riots, racism and more. The Kingfisher Soccer Encyclopedia is not really comprehensive – it treats many topics, but all of them briefly rather than in depth. But for fans, would-be fans, committed fans, fans who probably ought to get a life but probably won’t, fans who live for the thrill of the World Cup, fans who care only to support their local teams – for all these and more, Gifford’s book is both a fine introduction and an excellent reference. It is not, however, for those who believe that soccer/football, like any other sport, is a distraction from most people’s real lives rather than a big part of the heart and soul of existence.

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