The Penalty Area by Alain Gillot, trans. by Howard Curtis

When a grumpy soccer coach takes in his 13-year-old nephew, they’re both forced to grow, on and off the field.

penalty area

Quirky and heartwarming, Alain Gillot’s The Penalty Area introduces an eccentric soccer coach who finds unexpected happiness in the oddest places. Vincent Barteau retired from playing professionally after an injury, settling instead for coaching as a way to stay in the game. Coaching children was never the plan, but this job pays well enough. He is a loner, frustrated with the mediocre talent he has to work with. When his estranged sister shows up to deposit her 13-year-old son with him, Vincent is understandably annoyed–until he puts his nephew Léonard on the field and everything changes.

Léonard is a chess prodigy and all-around odd boy. He dislikes soccer for being “too simplistic.” It is only in deciphering plays, percentages and tactics that his exceptional intellect is engaged. Caring for Léonard exposes Vincent to new people and scenarios; the man dislikes change as much as the boy does, but in the new world that opens before them, possibilities abound. Léonard discovers soccer. Vincent discovers family and hope.

The Penalty Area handles material that could easily overindulge in sentiment, but Vincent’s awkward, exasperated approach to life and human flaws admits no foolishness. Howard Curtis translates from the French in occasionally stiff prose, which nonetheless suits the equally stiff narrator. Vincent’s voice offers the novel a disarming vulnerability; Léonard and Vincent’s exploration of new challenges feels fresh and endearing, even humorous. No love of sport is required to feel the genuine emotion pulsing from this story about making connections.


This review originally ran in the September 13, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 shots on goal.

Magnum Cycling by Guy Andrews

Stunning photographs of bike racing across disciplines and decades, succinctly narrated, provide a compelling historical perspective.

magnum cycling

From Magnum Photos, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious photo agencies, comes a collection of historic and iconic images of bike racing. Arranged and with accompanying text by Guy Andrews, Magnum Cycling is visually stunning and insightful.

Chapters are organized by themes, times and places, and photographers. The photographs of Robert Capa and Harry Gruyaert each fill a whole chapter, focusing on the 1939 and 1982 Tours de France, respectively. Guy le Querrec’s work covers “winter and spring,” including cyclocross racing in Belgium and France, and the Renault-Elf pro team’s winter training program in 1985. Chapters also address the velodrome, including six-day racing and the Paralympics, and the spectacle of the spectators. Henri Cartier-Bresson and John Vink join an impressive list of featured photographers. Along the way, Andrews explores the history of the Tour de France, national differences in spectator traditions and the legacy of figures like Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon and Lance Armstrong. His tone combines awe with humor when he calls cyclocross “simply bonkers… akin, perhaps, to bull-running in Pamplona or cheese-rolling in Gloucestershire.”

The balance of text to photographs is perfect: Andrews’s narrative and captions inform and elucidate, and then get out of the way of the extraordinary images that are the heart of this beautiful book. More than 200 gorgeous, intimate photographs in black-and-white and vibrant color present a view of a sport that is adrenaline-filled, fast-paced and deeply, tenderly human. Magnum Cycling is a superior collection of art, history and emotion.


This review originally ran in the June 1, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 moments.

Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present by Gail Buckland

Disclosure: I read an uncorrected advance proof sent to me as a review copy.

who shot sportsI’m sorry not to love this book. I love the concept: a coffee-table style art book of sports photography, beginning with the first known “sports photograph” in 1843 (a portrait of an unknown tennis player), and including nearly 300 images. In the final publication, 120 of these photographs will be printed in color. My galley copy has just a few pages of full color, but I can tell the end result will be visually impressive.

The pictures are great. And the history is fairly well done: there is some discussion of technological advances (geared toward the layperson, not the professional photographer), and trends and values. The text itself, however, is very uneven. It started to bother me at about halfway through, as it began to repeat itself: in particular, Dr. Harold Edgerton’s feat in pioneering stroboscopic photography is noted over and over again, at different points in the book but also repeatedly on the same page. Who Shot Sports is organized thematically, with chapters like “Fans and Followers” and “Vantage Point”; within these chapters are photos that fit into that theme, from different eras. The surrounding text profiles the photographers rather than the athletes, and one of the express goals of the book is to highlight those often still unknown men and women (but mostly they are men, even now). These bios vary widely in length and quality, and often feel more like lists of facts than composed or relevant narratives.

But the line that stopped me and wouldn’t let me go was, “Banning African Americans, who were such talented athletes, was especially cruel and malicious.”

This is a racial stereotype that has not served African Americans well historically, and anytime we assume something to be true of an entire population, we look silly and find ourselves in some cases wrong. I read another 20-30 pages past this point, but couldn’t move on in my mind.

I will point out again that I read an uncorrected proof, meaning that this book is likely to see another round of editing before publication. They may catch this line in time. But they also sent this copy out for review, and should expect to be held accountable for its contents. Typos and formatting problems are common issues with galleys; images may be missing or shown in poor resolution, with the understanding that the finished copy will include the real thing. But tone-deaf racial profiling I can’t help but note.

This will clearly be a beautiful volume of photography. I think the text might be worth, at best, skimming. Unless of course you are as bothered by that one line as I was.


Rating: 9 light sources for photos, 3 for text. Draw your own conclusions (always).

The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

Set during a weekend of pro football reenactment, this sidesplitting novel displays all the baggage of male middle age.

throwback special

The Throwback Special stars a group of middle-aged men gathering for the 16th annual reenactment of a memorable moment in professional football: the 1985 sack, by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, that resulted in a career-ending comminuted compound fracture of the leg for Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. In the hands of Chris Bachelder (Bear v. Shark), this is rich material, by turns poignant and droll.

The 22 men are expertly evoked as individuals, often pathetic but also sympathetic. “It could be said of each man, that he was the plant manager of a sophisticated psychological refinery, capable of converting vast quantities of crude ridicule into tiny, glittering nuggets of sentiment. And vice versa, as necessary.” This is Bachelder’s specialty: the intersection of the absurd with earnest emotion, neuroses lovingly portrayed. The Throwback Special is endlessly hilarious, ranging from the serious, even the existential–it is true of the play, like everything else, that “while it was happening it was ending”–to the shrewdly wise: a seven-page interior monologue about race relations by the group’s one person of color is surprisingly entertaining.

The book takes place over a single weekend, involving a certain amount of action but mostly focused on the men’s thoughts and reflections. In this brief window, Bachelder reveals the magic of professional sport spectating, the silliness and profundity of traditions, and the tender illogic of friendship. Obviously, this novel will attract football fans, but there is absolutely something for everyone (even the sports-averse) in this rollicking, irreverent but sweet human drama.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the March 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 ping pong balls.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

I have a fun one for you today.

throwback special

Chris Bachelder’s novel The Throwback Special had me laughing out loud in the strangest of places. What a gift! Also, this novel is about football – the American kind – a sport and pastime I have no knowledge of or enthusiasm for; and I still loved it. I guess that’s because even more than it’s about football, it’s about people: specifically a group of not-entirely-happy middle-aged men. They interact in some funny ways. I loved this line:

Charles, who counseled adolescent girls with eating disorders, wanted to tell Robert to put that thought in his worry box.

Keep your eyes open…

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

guest review: movie: Run Free, from Pops (2015)

Pops has been to see the documentary film Run Free, which handles the subject matter of Born to Run which he’s earlier reviewed for us. His review is below.


In follow-up to the Micah True, Caballo Blanco story introduced in McDougall’s book, I saw the just-released doc film by Seattle director Sterling Noren: Run Free. Noren began working on the general idea of a film after a chance meeting with True in Mexico in 2009. After Born to Run was published, True heard Hollywood was planning a film so he requested that Noren help tell the “real story” with his own film.

Noren’s film is wonderful; his work benefits from True’s cooperation and many interviews with central characters including McDougall, runner Scott Jurek and Luis Escobar, who also contributes great still photos taken over the years. It features the beautiful & magical Copper Canyon in Mexico, the special native towns there and of course the Tarahumara themselves – and True’s special relationship with the place & its people.

Filming includes the 2012 version of Caballo Blanco’s Copper Canyon ultra race; and then Noren’s crew was on hand for the immediate aftermath when True goes missing in the Gila Wilderness (as I related in my earlier book review.) McDougall’s fun & mythical tale as told in the book becomes starkly real in the film – both in the simplicity of Tarahumara subsistence culture, and the sad poetry of True’s final, fatal run.

The film’s narrative effectively invites us into the eccentric world of its main character & the close network of ultra runners, which makes their role in the wilderness search & subsequent memorial events all the more poignant. It’s a powerful story for those who can connect, from a number of perspectives. For this runner, four decades in, it was that and more.

Thanks, Pops. I’m glad – but not surprised – that you found it so powerful.

Lanterne Rouge by Max Leonard

An amiable history of a largely unsung hero pays respects to the last-place finisher of the Tour de France.

lanterne

Even non-cycling fans recognize the Tour de France as the sport’s biggest annual event. Naturally, the attention of the press and the viewer is focused at the front of the race, where attacks, group sprints and winners are born. In Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France, Max Leonard directs overdue consideration to a different segment of the Tour, where he finds a less fairytale-like but very sincere story.

Ever since the Tour was founded in 1903, as a struggling newspaper’s publicity stunt, someone necessarily has come in last place. Cycling’s term for that someone dates back almost as far: based on his research, Leonard argues that it must have been in use before World War I. The usage of lanterne rouge, or red lantern, is generally accepted as having come from the railroad, where a red lantern lit the last car, letting signalmen know the line behind was clear. Over the last century and more, the lanterne has been variously a joke, a dishonor, an achievement to be sought after and a source of controversy, conflict and myth.

Importantly, the lanterne rouge achieves the accomplishment of finishing the race. The Tour has always had a high rate of attrition. Many men withdraw from the race over weeks of mountain passes, long days and severe weather; some years, Tour staff have pulled trailing riders from the race as well. The lanterne is the man who finishes last–but finishes, a respectable feat.

Leonard makes his passion easily felt as he follows his underappreciated subject. In his prologue (a word not only for a book’s introduction but also a preliminary time-trial stage of the Tour), he attempts to ride a mountain stage of the Tour, but DNF’s (“did not finish”), and his failure will haunt him for the rest of his research and writing process. He then spends nearly two years meeting with surviving lanternes and those who remember them, and searching French libraries for scraps of information about the earliest ones. For example, he pursues the legends of the first lanterne rouge, Arsène Millocheau of 1903 (but did he really finish the race?), and of Abdel-Kader Zaaf of 1951, whose story involves wine, naps, religious difference and colonial racism. Leonard studies the lanterne (and, somewhat resignedly, the leading yellow jersey as well) exhaustively, throughout history and through the race’s evolutions and rule changes. A chapter on drug and doping scandals rounds out any analysis of the Tour, and yes, some lanternes were involved.

Lanterne Rouge is an engaging, exhaustive survey of the last man in the Tour de France, a history, a collection of appealing anecdotes and a psychological consideration of winning and losing. An obvious choice for serious cycling fans, Leonard’s approachable study will also please general sports fans, history enthusiasts and those who root for the underdog.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the June 12, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 bidons.
%d bloggers like this: