Cynical Review: Inverting The Pyramid

The prologue of Inverting The Pyramid mentions the genesis of the book occurring in a bar in Lisbon in 2004. England had beaten Switzerland 3-0 in the Euros the day before, and a group of journalists were discussing the England setup, and how it could be optimised. An English journalist then exclaims “Oh, what’s the difference? They’re the same players. The formation isn’t important. It’s not worth writing about.” These words changed Jonathan Wilson’s life, if we are to believe his account of things. He set out to write the ultimate tactics book about football, and presumably sent a copy to the gentleman who uttered the unfortunate words, I assume with a post-it note attached saying “So… I guess it IS worth writing about”.

I get that the prologue is most likely put in there for narrative purposes, and that the journalist is meant to represent the wider English mindset of anti-intellectualism in football. I also wholeheartedly agree with Wilson in that anyone whose brain-to-mouth filter does not stop comments like those of his fellow journalist “shouldn’t be allowed to watch football, let alone talk about it”. However, I’m not sure if Wilson knows how he’s coming across when he’s implying that he responds to drunken discussions by going away for four years to write a 450 page book about why he’s right. You should know that I myself have been described as “punchably argumentative”, yet this is the most strenuous effort I’m willing to go to in order to score a point after an alcohol-fuelled debate:

With that in mind, the desperately sad thing is that he kind of misses the mark. The book has the subtitle “The History of Football Tactics”, it aims at being a tactical book, but it is first and foremost a history book. Namedropping of absurdly obscure characters and descriptions of their backgrounds take up way more of the word count than discussion about the merits of formations. Actual tactics are generally limited to unhelpful visualisations of football fields, with tactical descriptions ranging from the mundane to the incomprehensible, sometimes even in the same diagram:

No wonder England found it harder to score, with all those arrows in the way.

Another clear sign of why this is a history book is the ridiculous amount of index fodder. There is a long index of names at the end of this book, containing pretty much every single internationally influential football manager in history. It also contains a lot of other names. This is largely due to Wilson pulling out sequences like this one:

(…) Zajec as the libero, with Hadzic to his right and either Srecko Bogdan or Borislav Cvetkovic to his left. Gradually [Blazevic] replaced the full-backs, Zvjezdan Cvetkovic and Milivoj Bracun, with more attacking players, Petar Brucic and Drago Bosnjak, creating the 3-5-2.

Did that excerpt intrigue you? If so, I can reveal that it is in fact a description of Dinamo Zagreb’s backline of the early 80s, including two separate Cvetkovices. Also, I can reveal that you are very likely somewhere on the autism spectrum.
Marathon namedropping sections like that are not unusual throughout the book, and it’s clear that Wilson somehow gets off on having a big, thick index, possibly the strangest form of penis size compensation I have ever encountered. But the epitome of indexing weirdness is reached in this section:

(…) the debate about the relative merits of beauty and success came to Sweden. Peterson compares it to listening to Charlie Parker after Glenn Miller or viewing Picasso after classical landscapes

So this is a quoted metaphor about American music from the 1940s. The absurd thing is that this digression gets an index entry for Glenn Miller, but not for Charlie Parker (Or Picasso, for that matter). I find this so strange that I’m actually struggling to get past it. What was the thinking there? Is it based on which obscure and outdated musician is more likely to be searched for in a book about football history?

Actual tactics are clearly secondary. There is a chapter on Catenaccio, but predictably, it is more concerned about which short and tempered Italian got an epiphany from which nautical metaphor, rather than how Catenaccio looks in today’s game. Specifically, how it looks when adopted by a dreadful Portuguese man currently in the Manchester area, who have spent most of his professional life trying to be the Darth Vader of club football.
Though truth be told, I mostly enjoyed Inverting The Pyramid. It’s informative, and it does provide a historical context for why the game looks like it does, and why centre backs are occasionally referred to as “centre halves”, which I’ve always found weird. It’s still weird, as it turns out this is a remnant of a “halfback” position that hasn’t been used a whole lot these past 90 years, but now I have a context for why it’s weird. The biggest problem of the book is that it doesn’t live up to my expectations, as it was sold in to me as the definitive book on football tactics. But occasionally, it does feel like the importance of tactics are undermined somewhat by the book, as it clearly doesn’t matter where on the pitch you put your players, they’re just going to run pointlessly around anyway.


Un-cynical Review: It Can’t Happen Here

This is the book that overnight became the most important novel in the world, more than 80 years after it was written. I’ve seen some claims regarding so-called predictions of the Donald Trump presidency in literature, including both Brave New World and 1984 (Which is strange, seeing as the two governments in those books are pretty much complete opposites ideologically). I was impressed with the parallels found in Black Mirror’s The Waldo Moment episode, but felt that the most striking prediction was George RR Martin’s obscure short story And Death His Legacy. That was until I read It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, a book that I must admit I hadn’t even heard of until everyone started talking about a 1935 American politics novel that had predicted the least predictable presidential candidate in modern times 80 years later.

The thing is, with all these claims being made about Lewis’ prescience, the oppositional and argumentative part of me (Which is most of me) wanted to call this book out on not being all that accurate before I’d even read it. However, it’s actually pretty bloody accurate. Naturally, there are some obvious shared traits that you would attribute to any totalitarian leader, such as demonisation of the free press, xenophobia and general demagoguery, but the really eyebrow-raising similarities are in the details:

I am of the opinion that a good book is enjoyable, a great book is profound. As it happens, most good books aren’t that great, and almost no great books are particularly good.

This is also true of It Can’t Happen Here. The premise is great, the themes speak to something fundamental in human nature, even the main character is a more or less likeable person. But the storyline is very much lacking, placing it firmly on the right hand side of the venn diagram of literary priorities.

The book is written from the perspective of Doremus Jessup (I have no idea how “Doremus” is supposed to be pronounced, but he dislikes it when his wife calls him “Doormouse”, so that’s not it). He works as an editor for a local newspaper in a town in Vermont whose name I’ve already forgotten because I don’t care. I think the choice of profession was a good move on Lewis’ part, as Jessup is well-informed about what is going on around the political scene and can provide a perspective on it for the reader. The problem is that whenever something does happen, it’s as if the book is interrupted by a loud voice-over going “MEANWHILE…” and we suddenly have to deal with another chapter about the goings-on amongst Doremus and his posh friends in Whogivesashit, Vermont. Perhaps there are readers who feel sympathy for Doremus as he is trapped in an unhappy, but functional marriage with a woman who calls him Doormouse. Maybe these same readers feel moved by how Doremus’ daughter endorses his affair with a mistress he is much more compatible with. Could be that these hypothetical readers are simply more endowed with empathy than I am. But it’s also possible that these people simply lack any sense of perspective, as while this is going on, President Windrip is throwing his political opponents into concentration camps and can we get back to that bit, please?

However, for nuance, I will say that the greatest moment of the book takes place in one of these mostly tedious breaks from what happens on a macro level. Doremus’ son Philip is a young lawyer who has been persuaded by his establishment-friendly colleagues that Windrip is enforcing positive change. The heated discussion between Doremus, naturally very anti-Windrip, and his son is one of the best literary conversations I’ve ever read, even beating the climactic honesty of Winston and O’Brien’s post-capture exchanges in 1984. The way it explores the line between healthy ambition and toxic opportunism makes the whole book worth reading alone. If you can’t be bothered to do that, it’s on chapter 24. You’ll be missing out on a lot of context, but I still really think you should read it.

All in all, It Can’t Happen Here is not a page-turner, you will not cancel any social plans in order to go home and read it, and truth be told, it felt like an effort at times to pick it up and keep reading. Come to think of it, this is not even the best novel on 1930s American politics I’ve read so far this year, as All The King’s Men was actually more enjoyable. So it is not a very good book. What it is, is a great book. A book written by a Nobel Literature Prize winner, exploring in a very realistic way how in certain conditions, human howler monkeys can win democratic elections. The fact that he was proven right as much as 80 years later somehow only makes it greater.


Cynical Review: I Am Pilgrim

At the end of I Am Pilgrim, author Terry Hayes has put in a note entitled “Dear reader”, which essentially apologises for why the book is so long. Indeed, it is a very long book, 888 pages in the edition I just finished. However, length is not one of my main problems with it, and I feel someone who apologises for the page count of his work is someone who has written for an audience who don’t really enjoy reading. I mentioned this in my review of Dan Brown’s Inferno – I’m not going to judge anyone’s book preferences, but if you’d rather be watching a movie, you should go and do that. This is not an intellectual judgement, just some friendly advice on how to best enjoy your own existence.

I Am Pilgrim revolves around a retired intelligence agent/super-investigator who is probably named Scott, but who uses the codename Pilgrim because of security reasons, and because it sounds cool in a book title. His deduction skills include things like looking at a hotel room and concluding it’s been rented by a female, because milk has taken priority over beer for fridge space. Clearly, Pilgrim and I spend time with very different types of women. Also, we have different opinions on what constitutes conclusive evidence in a police investigation.

We live in a time so saturated with action heroes that it feels a bit unfair to accuse any new protagonist within the genre of being derivative. It’s a bit like blaming the odour of a festival toilet solely on the last guy who used it. On the other hand, my posts are kind of reliant on visual props, so here’s a pie chart:

Maybe-Scott is dragged back into the intelligence world when it is discovered by chance that a lone Islamist terrorist has developed a vaccine-resistant form of smallpox with the very likely intent to share it with the western world without telling us. Our hero’s pilgrimage goes to southern Turkey, to find a woman with whom the fundamentalist chemistry enthusiast has been having phone conversations. He manages to identify this woman, thanks to a coincidence that some might describe as “astronomically unlikely”, but which I personally would describe as “just plain dumb”. Like I have mentioned in previous posts, I don’t rate books, but if I did do a 1-10 scale thing, this lazy writer’s shortcut on a crucial plot point would have subtracted nine points from my rating alone. Seriously, it’s unacceptable.

The book is drenched in something slightly suspiciously ideological, with countless suggestions that the end justifies the means, as long as the end is AMERICA! Our antagonist, known throughout the book as “The Saracen” (Because Terry Hayes thinks that sounds cooler than it actually does), looks like a caricature made by Marine Le Pen when his internal monologue turns into gloating over the lack of border control throughout Europe. The Muslim world in general is portrayed quite one-dimensionally, but that’s fine, because Hayes has made all the people of this world one-dimensional too, so that they’ll fit in. That being said, all the anti-western sentiments, Muslim supremacy ideas, cartoonish oppression of women and general arseholery across around 6-7 different Muslim countries would have seemed a lot less problematic if there had been a Muslim good guy or two involved. But really, the only semi-likable adult from the Middle East we encounter is a hotel receptionist whose English has an amazing vocabulary, but absolutely no sentence structure. This leads to linguistic absurdities like “The company of great thievery called Digiturk, which gives us the channels of crap”. You would think that someone familiar with the word thievery in English would also have a basic idea of how adjectives work.
Finally, the book suffers from a few instances of the author thinking he’s more clever than he actually is, leading to a lot of cringey quotes that are worthy of a blog post in themselves. So I expect to be writing something of that nature within the relatively near future.


Cynical Review: Inferno (Dan Brown)

I’m slightly uncomfortable about admitting publicly to having read a Dan Brown book as recently as over the last couple of days. Needless to say, I did not buy this book for myself or take any initiative whatsoever with the purpose of reading it. As a matter of fact, it was a gift (Well, I don’t care if you don’t believe me – it fucking was). Specifically, it was a Christmas present from my mother, which means that I had the ultimate to-read obligation on my hands. That being said, I’m not blaming my mother at all. Like she said: “I know you liked some of his other books”. And I did. When I was thirteen. I guess the subject of Dan Brown just hasn’t popped up in any of the conversations we’ve had since 2005. As a matter of fact, I liked a lot of things when I was thirteen that I currently (Age 24) have less enthusiasm for, including Family Guy, Eminem, and porn actresses with big fake plastic tits. This was not what I told my mother, as I felt that a “Wow, you remembered that? That’s impressive, thank you so much Mum!” was more appropriate.


I want emphasise that this is not at all a judgement on people who do like reading Dan Brown. But it is hard not to interpret that as a symptom of someone who would much rather watch a movie than read a book. Which is absolutely fine, I just think people should be honest about these things.
This is Inferno in a short summary: A possibly deranged genius biologist (Who dies) has developed something that might or might not be a big deal, but it probably is, and we’ll definitely find out within the near future. For some reason, he has also left a series of esoteric clues and riddles around some of Europe’s most prominent classical art centres, leading to where his possibly dangerous thing can be found and hopefully destroyed. Enter Robert Langdon, Harvard professor with a photographic memory and a pornogaphic obsession with the type of cultural artifacts that he keeps running into during his geographically convenient adventures. This time around, he suffers from amnesia and can’t remember what he’s been up to for the last few days, or why he’s in Florence. Of couse, the reason he is in Florence is that Dan Brown needs antique and artsy scenery to describe in painfully slow and condescending detail. Langdon teams up with Sienna Brooks, the mandatory Dan Brown character with extremely exaggerated traits. She’s a former child prodigy with a vague brain condition that gives her an IQ of 208, and yet she makes most of her decisions based on emotional whim rather than her brilliant mind. Also, she’s involuntarily bald, so she wears a wig. Together, they try to solve the riddles and stop the mysterious biologist, which they probably would have a better shot at if Langdon didn’t constantly get distracted by the renessaince props around him, pointlessly describing their aesthetics and origins to himself.

In an even shorter summary: “This episode of Dora The Explorer for adults has been brought to you by Visit Italy.”

Inferno is Dan Brown at his most danbrownian. The book actually deals with some really interesting themes, mainly the ethical problems around solving the overpopulation problem as well asĀ transhumanism. I think you can bet your testicles and/or ovaries that he’s actually taken an excessive bit of inspiration from George R.R. Martin’s sci-fi masterpiece Tuf Voyaging, one of my favourite books of all time. Note that I, in all my benevolence, am calling it “inspiration” rather than plagiarism, when both could reasonably apply. But whereas Martin can deal with any issue through the medium of an unprecedently good story, Brown desperately hurls a series of fast-moving objects at the reader, hoping to distract them from the complete lack of sense in between.

Dan Brown checklist

  • Start off with a theme that’s actually quite interesting
  • Introduce characters with absurdly hyperbolic features
    • You know, self-flagellating religious fundamentalist albino assassins, that kind of stuff
  • Insert as many obscure riddles with references to European classical art as you can (NB: These do not have to serve any purpose for the story whatsoever)
  • Make sure that the pace of the action camouflages the ridiculousness of the plot

At this point, you might very reasonably ask why this book is called “Inferno”, a reference to The Divine Comedy. Well, Dan Brown. That’s why. You see, there is absolutely no reason for why the ethically ambiguous antagonist would leave a series of clues around the city of Florence leading to the planned ground zero of his creation. No reason. Except of course, for the fact that Tom Hanks brings in some serious box office moolah. Therefore, Robert Langdon must be in the book. And therefore, the author needs to shoe-horn esoteric riddles in a renaissance city into the story to justify why Robert Langdon is in the book. And therefore, Dante Alighieri. And therefore, Inferno.



Un-Cynical Review: Predictably Irrational

If you’re like me, you may occasionally frequent the excellent site If you have checked out what your fellow goodreaders think of Predictably Irrational, you might very easily be turned off by the currently highest rated review – this strange sequence of ramblings:


But then again, if you’re even more like me, you’re generally not that bothered with the opinions of strangers on the Internet who have yet to prove their cognitive prowess to you. Though come to think of it, that probably means you’re not really like me, seeing as you’re reading this, presumably voluntarily.


However, I just wanted to say that I find the assessments of Petra Eggs to be very, very unreasonable, so please ignore them, and include only my own far superior review in your consideration. (Blogger’s note: Alright, I’m poking a bit of fun here, and there’s no question that I’m speaking from the perspective of a straight, white, cis, able-bodied, non-ginger man with no serious allergies, but come the fuck on. If a 20-year-old man doesn’t find the idea of shagging a 60 year-old woman particularly appealing, it’s misogyny?)

Though I’m not at all surprised by Predictably Irrational being considered somewhat controversial. If I was from the same cultural background as the Israeli-American author Dan Ariely, I might have described this book as having chutzpah. But I am not from that background, and I’m probably using the word slightly wrong, The point is that it has a real sting to it that you rarely see in popular science books. Even the really good ones about this and similar subjects (E.g. The Freakonomics series, How Not To Be Wrong) tend to feel a little bit like a collection of amusing and/or interesting anecdotes around a central theme. But Predictably Irrational has some serious direction, with a clear and convincing message. Ariely is not a mere reporter pondering the peculiarities of life; he is a very intelligent man with a message and an impressive arsenal of logic and evidence to back up every single possibly chutzpah-ish testicle kick he delivers.


In an unfairly short summary, Predictably Irrational is a manifesto of the erratic aspects of human nature. Said nature is treated with equal parts affection and fascination by the author Ariely, and he output is a pretty delightful and counter-cultural book about behavioural economics, which manages quite brilliantly to balance being entertaining and informative, with a very strong narrative and personal story. At the age of 18, Ariely was victim of a dramatic accident after which he ended up with severe burns on 70% of his body. His experiences with the subsequent treatments are frequently brought up to back up his points, and to explain why he became interested in behavioural economics in the first place. This works really well, and gives an intimate feel to the book that’s quite rare for the genre.

In a strange way, it is quite similar to the aforementioned Freakonomics books, while at the same time being sort of the opposite. Note that I’m using Freakonomics as a point of reference here mainly because I think it’s a reasonable assumption to guess that you’ve read it. I.e. if you are spending your time reading this when you have not yet read Feakonomics, I strongly disapprove of your priorities.


Very much like with Freakonomics, there is a “common sense on steroids” aspect about this book, with some very engaging experiments and anecdotes being used as evidence, as well as a sharp wit and an enjoyable style of writing. But Freakonomics was all about how people respond to incentives in pretty rational ways, Predictably Irrational makes the point that people are too easily distracted by things like hormones, ownership and the word “free” to really be trusted to react sensibly to the incentives put in front of them. As a matter of fact, Freakonomics mastermind Stephen D. Levitt is named and shamed (While being referred to as a “fabulous economist”) in the introductory note to the readers as a representative of the old school economists, the naive optimists with a hopeless faith in human rationality. I am a massive fan of the Freakonomics series, but I’m also someone who often struggles to understand why people do the things they do, so I find it very hard not to agree with Ariely’s theses of behavioual economics. And given the outcomes of certain recent elections, it must be difficult to argue the case for human rationality these days.