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Two Foers

I just finished two books by authors with the last name Foer. It's not a coincidence. While searching the library's catalog for one, I saw the other and thought it sounded interesting.

The random one was How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer. It certainly kept my interest, tracing the various connections between politics and soccer throughout the world, from Scottish religious soccer hooligans to Iranian protests against the mullahs, focusing on how the various different political and religious movements are interacting in today's era of globalization (or at least in 2004 when the book was written). I found it snappily-written, informative without getting bogged down. Best of all, I didn't have to actually watch or care about any soccer to enjoy it.

The last chapter, about how soccer has figured in America's culture wars, was a bit of a stretch - hilariously so in parts. My impression is that Foer, as an unabashed soccer fan, really wants the game to be more important to Americans than it is, no matter whether they are for or against it. What I don't think he realizes is that beyond a few jerky sports journalists like Jim Rome, and a 25-year-old quote from Jack Kemp goofily claiming that "football is democratic and capitalist, soccer is European and socialist1," the vast majority of Americans simply don't care and cannot be made to care about soccer. Even the yuppies he describes taking their kids to play soccer in ever greater numbers don't actually care about the game beyond wanting their kids to do well. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of those kids don't particularly care about it after they stop playing either.

Obviously, there are exceptions, especially recent immigrants (although as near as I can tell second generations don't care much either.)

Still. Most American sports fans, if pressed, might say "it's boring" or "I hate soccer" or even manage some sort of "oh, that's for Euro-weenies" but truthfully, Mr. Foer, I am sorry to tell you, the vast majority of us just cannot possibly be bothered to give a damn. Possibly it's because of just what you spent the first 9 chapters of the book exploring - that intertwining of politics, religion, race, class, and etc., make soccer fanship really about identity, not the actual game. Here, there's not even much of that stuff attached to our popular sports, so soccer's just never going to have a chance.

The other book was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and it was, in a word, amazing. I was literally amazed at the inventiveness and joy Foer put into what is, at the end, a sad story. He weaves three first-person tales of people who are at turns brilliant, stunted, wonderful, broken, exasperating, intelligent, jerky, emotional, and, well, human, and turns them into this stunning reflection on love and loss. It's the first time in a long time that I have been quite so deeply affected by a book. Funnily enough, I'm a bit leery of recommending it, because I can't say you'll like it. You might even hate it and I would probably understand why. But I would be very surprised if it made no impression on you.

I suppose it's silly to have had a lot more to say about a book that was interesting reading for a day or two as opposed to one that knocked my little socks off. I guess that's because I don't know what to say about the latter except "holy shit." Good thing nobody is paying me for book reviews.

1Uh, Jack. Those European clubs are most *assuredly* capitalist enterprises. Even back in the 80s.


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 2nd, 2010 04:05 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry, but the correct title of this post is "Two by Foers"
May. 3rd, 2010 05:42 am (UTC)
You are correct, sir. (I'd initially thought of titling it "Two Foer Sex Ain't" or something similarly amusing but couldn't make it work.) I willingly accept your title as much, much better than mine.
May. 2nd, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
If you liked Extremely Loud... you might also consider reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. It's also a first person narrative by a young man with a social dysfunction, but vastly more positive, and it doesn't lecture you about how you should drive a Prius.
May. 3rd, 2010 05:40 am (UTC)
I actually read The Curious Incident of etc... several years ago and enjoyed it, though it had not nearly the effect on me that Extremely Loud did. I'm talking in terms of the simplest human emotions, love and loss. Not that the story of an autistic teenager isn't affecting, but this is just three normal people who love and lose and still love.

Also, I didn't sense any sort of environmental lecturing from Extremely Loud.

To be fair, I understand that Mr. Foer now goes about lecturing people about eating meat. Which, you know... he's probably not entirely wrong, at least in terms of what eating meat costs our society, but I still choose to eat meat most days of the week anyway.

But anyway I didn't really get any of that out of this book. One of the *characters* is a vegetarian, but it's only mentioned in a few bits and frankly I'd be hard-pressed to identify any of it as proselytizing for much of anything but "please stop killing people I love."
May. 3rd, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC)
What I liked most about Foer's book were its moments of whimsy; Oskar's frequent flights of fancy were charming and touching. The author also has a talent for conveying sympathy for human pain in a way that's visceral and direct.

However, his choice of scenarios is also designed to maximize human pain, and character's actions are often inexplicable. Why does the grandfather abruptly stop talking? Why is it a given that he has to marry a woman he doesn't love, and then abandon her because she's still haunted by the memory of his one true love? For that matter, why does Oskar always wear white? And what's with the tambourine? There's a lot of nuance that seems arbitrary, or contrived and manipulative.

I am even less pleased with all the tacit politicizing. Oskar more than once goes on his "hybrid cars == good" schpiel. Even worse was the scene where Oskar meets a rich woman, and it's presumed she's guilty just because she's wealthy. ("I know what I am, but I don't like it. My children don't like what they are, but don't know what they are.") The author, like his protagonist, starts with a framework of assuming the reader is a New York liberal, and giving the reader material at which to nod. Maybe that presumption is true given the book's demographic. But political views should be tied to a story, not garnished on top because the author happens to have a pulpit.

Now by contrast I though Haddon's book was vastly more tightly written, and more touching. I tremendously touched by the ending; choked up on the verge of tears. Instead of just making us feel sympathy for a character who's been dumped upon by unfortunate circumstances, Haddon makes us feel admiration for someone who rises above those circumstances, and takes pride in what he's done. I was far more moved by Haddon's character navigating thirty feet of a subway than I was by Oskar's entire quest. Haddon knows the world can be tough, but he also has tremendous hope and respect for human potential. Foer regards people as walking wounded, and believes that the best we can hope for is coming to terms with our pain.
May. 3rd, 2010 05:35 pm (UTC)
True enough that there is a lot of pain. At its very core, it's simply a sad story.

I guess I didn't get the amount of politicizing you did. Not saying it's not there, although I honestly don't remember multiple hybrid car lectures. Maybe my eyes just glazed over.

And maybe this one resonates more with me having recently had a fair amount of loss. Give me another year or two and perhaps I won't find it quite as heart-rending.
May. 4th, 2010 05:34 am (UTC)
Well... can't argue with that.
May. 4th, 2010 05:29 pm (UTC)
Well, you could. "Screw your losses! I say this is a bad book!" I would have thought it was funny, too. But I suppose the American Academy of Arguing on the Internet, Interwebs, and Electronic Elsewheres (AAAIIEE) frowns upon that sort of thing.
May. 2nd, 2010 06:11 pm (UTC)
Possibly it's because of just what you spent the first 9 chapters of the book exploring - that intertwining of politics, religion, race, class, and etc., make soccer fanship really about identity, not the actual game. Here, there's not even much of that stuff attached to our popular sports, so soccer's just never going to have a chance.

May. 3rd, 2010 05:59 am (UTC)
It's funny, because I knew, I just knew that someone would object to this. So, fair enough, let's give it a fair rundown:

Please tell me the American analog of:

Celtic/Rangers, wherein fans hate each other because of religion, screaming and singing such witticisms as "Fuck the Pope" and "We're wading in Fenian/Protestant blood."

Barcelona/Madrid, where the ancient hatred of Catalan vs. Castilians are played out.

The violent anti-Semitism of clubs in Eastern Europe, holding up banners about how "The trains are leaving for Auschwitz" and such. This was 5 years ago, mind you, not in 1942.

The violent anti-anyone-not-white racism of clubs that still is quite popular, apparently, when a black player gets the ball. Whatever may have happened in Jackie Robinson's day, these days and really since the 70s at the latest, it largely doesn't. Certainly nobody in the stadium makes ape noises when a black player gets the ball. This shit still happens in Europe or did, at least, in 2004 according to the book I read.

I'm not saying we're "better" than them. I'm saying that at least when it comes to sports, we've so far managed to avoid this stuff. Yes, Philly and Boston fans are dicks. Give it another few hundred years and maybe we will. But for now, so far mostly so good.

Perhaps I am wrong. Convince me.
May. 3rd, 2010 08:13 am (UTC)
This is all really interesting - my interest in football itself is pretty marginal but I am fascinated by the culture that surrounds it (particularly in the UK, which is - obv - what I know most about). I guess it's linked to the point about football being 'socialist' (large clubs notwithstanding), as unlike the other big international team sports (rugby, cricket), you need neither a lot of space, nor a lot of equipment, nor a nice soft grassy area on which to fall down - you just need a ball and 2+ players. All over the world, football's the game I've almost invariably seen played by poor kids in the street (the exception being in India, where they played cricket). So because of that it became linked - in the UK, at least - to the white working-class (given that the UK didn't have substantial non-white immigration until the 1950s), a group that's become increasingly disenfranchised over the past several decades, leading in part to the ugly manifestations you describe above.

Anyway! This is probably all in the book, sorry. I should read it.

Never read the JSF book you mention, but I thought Everything Is Illuminated was stunning - would recommend it if you haven't already read it (but I imagine you have).
May. 3rd, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
True enough - really, all you need is a ball and some space. (To be fair, that's all you really need for American football too, as long as you know the rules.) I actually have no problem with the game itself, though honestly I'm not interested in watching or playing it. It's the fanship that I was thinking of.

I actually have read Everything is Illuminated. I thought it was... okay. Didn't really grab me quite the way Extremely Loud did.
May. 4th, 2010 05:59 am (UTC)
Oh, really? I assumed you needed a soft surface for falling down on, and a considerable amount of padding and protective gear - however I now next to nothing about the sport other than what I've seen in the movies.
May. 4th, 2010 05:18 pm (UTC)
Nah, you can play "touch" football, where a tackle is just touching the person with the ball. My friends and I played a lot of this in the street growing up. I'm sure people who had to drive up the street hated us because we'd take our sweet time about getting out of the way, and then glare at the driver for interrupting our *game*.

There was plenty of bumping and jostling, of course, but probably a lot less than you'd see in a rugby scrum, and likely no worse than what happens in soccer.
May. 3rd, 2010 02:08 pm (UTC)
I haven't read the Foer book, so I can't really make a relative comparison, but on an absolute scale there seems to me to be a fair amount of socio-political baggage attached to an awful lot of American sports. From working class kids cursing "cake-eaters" at hockey games, to MIT fans chanting "that's all right, that's ok, you'll all work for us someday.." to Mississippi, where they had to actually ban carrying sticks into the stadium to bring this to a halt...

[while they're still a major feature of NASCAR events]

... to a bunch of dicks at Arizona State...

... to Kansans and Missourians getting their Civil War on..

[what the fuck?]

... to the class resentments displayed in pretty much any state in the Union where there is a major land-grand institution and a separate university.. (or sometimes just for the hell of it)...

While you don't see as much of the open segregation that characterized professional sports into the 1950s (and Sixties in the case of the "Southern" Washington Redskins) and continued in high school and college sports into the 1970s, you don't have to look very long to find more recent incidents....

Then there's all the in-your-face "redneck pride" culture war stuff associated with a lot of "outdoor" sports--our local outdoor sports big-box store hosted a Todd Palin event two years ago, and they sell plenty of merchandise that caters to that element...

etc., etc.

Anyhow, like I said, I can't say exactly how the level of sociopolitical drama associated with American sports is compares with that in global soccer, but I do think there's a substantial amount of it out there.
May. 3rd, 2010 05:22 pm (UTC)
I'm not saying there's none. But nowhere NEAR the level of stuff that's attached to soccer clubs, especially the European ones.
May. 3rd, 2010 05:41 pm (UTC)
That I can't really speak to--I don't see a whole lot of daylight between "Burn abolitionist scum" and extolling the Holocaust. More broadly, my point was that there is a lot of tribalism, triumphalism, resentment, and so forth tied up in American sporting culture, which your original post seemed to discount too quickly. Anyhow.
May. 3rd, 2010 06:52 pm (UTC)
I guess the disagreement here is not whether it exists, as to how much there is - and again, while I wouldn't say there's none, I just don't there's as much. It occurs to me, though, that I'm mostly thinking of professional sports, not college. There might be a lot of stuff that goes on there that I don't know about, not following college sports.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )