The Counterlife and Deception by Philip Roth (Shane's books 22 and 23, 2011)

Last year, I read four Philip Roth novels - the first of his Zuckerman series, anthologised by The Library of America as Zuckerman Bound. This year I read the next Library of America volume, which collects the four books Roth wrote between 1986 and 1991. [amtap book:isbn=1598530305]

Two are works of fiction that Roth dares us to view as autobiographical and two are non-fiction but Roth teases us with the possibility that he is not telling the truth. I'm going to look at the first two in this post.

The Counterlife continues the story of Nathan Zuckerman but the novel is nothing like the previous entries in the series. This would fit comfortably with the short series of post-modern novels that I read earlier this year.

Split into four sections, the book continually contradicts itself, with each section altering a significant fact from the section before. In the opening section, for example, Zuckerman's brother Henry has died during a heart operation. In a later section, it is Nathan who dies in the operation, while Henry picks up the narrative. Later still, Nathan is alive again.

Roth doesn't just fracture his narrative, he plays with the form too. The story is told partly through letters, reminiscences and sections of Zuckerman's manuscripts.

The work, both in structure and in content, examines the process of writing. Roth deals looks at how writers use their own lives and those of their friends and family to create their fiction and also at how the drafting process alters and hones the fiction.

But this is more than fiction about fiction. The Counterlife is also about our own counterlives - those parts that don't fit our image of ourselves or the image other have of us. The novel is filled with instances of people acting out of character or in ways that would surprise those close to them.

Roth also deals with his familiar themes: family, relationships, Jewishness, anti-Semitism and fidelity, whether to a family, a lover or a cause. It's a fantastic book.

Deception deals with some of the same themes, particularly anti-Semitism and fidelity, but Roth goes even further in his exploration of the line between fiction and reality. This book could be a section of The Counterlife: it's told almost entirely in dialogue and features an American novelist who lives in England with an English woman and is having an affair with a married woman.

However, the novelist is not Zuckerman but "Philip Roth". How much of this is autobiographical and how much is part of Roth's deception, played on the reader? Later in the book, "Roth's" partner finds his notebook, which contains the conversations we've been reading. He tells her that the woman is imaginary and he's working on a novel. Is this true or more deception?

It's a slight novel, both literally and figuratively. It suffers in comparison to The Counterlife, though it is interesting to read the two together.

Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson (Shane's book 21, 2011)

I read this back in May and in the time it's taken me to write about it the football season has rolled around again. Wilson's book is a thorough guide to the history of tactics in football, from the days when the majority of players were attackers, through to the modern game, in which teams frequently play without a recognised striker. [amtap book:isbn=1409102041]

Though Wilson, as an English writer, spends a lot of time on the game at home, he also finds time for extensive examinations of how the game developed across Europe and South America.

"It could be said," Wilson writes, "that the whole history of tactics describes the struggle to achieve the best possible balance of defensive solidity with attacking fluidity."

While that is true, Wilson also demonstrates that tactical innovation depends to a large extent on what everyone else is doing. If one team can change its system, even slightly, to exploit a weakness in the fashionable system of the day, then it can gain a significant advantage. Of course, that advantage is often then diminished as others imitate, leading to further experimentation, and so on.

Wilson provides potted biographies of the key figures involved in the history of the game. This brings the characters to life and is always readable but does tempt Wilson into suggesting on occasion that a key tactical change came about because of some quality of a manager's character.

In some cases that might be true but the broad sweep of the book makes clear that most tactical development is the result of an evolution from what had gone before. It is less a stroke of genius from an individual and more a case of experimenting with moving just one more player a little further back or pushing a player a little further wide.

In other words, while it might be possible to find a link between a brilliant tactical advance and the character of the manager who pioneered it, the evidence suggests that with so many managers, coaches and players all examining the same problem, that advance would have been made by someone sooner or later.

Still, the stories are frequently entertaining. I particularly enjoyed this one: "Garrincha had fallen out of favour for showboating in a warm-up friendly against Fiorentina (having rounded the goalkeeper he decided not to roll the ball into an empty net, but to wait for him to recover, upon which he beat him again before walking the ball over the line)."

Wilson is very clear on the flaw in the English game: the over-estimation of strength and fitness and the under-estimation of skill. He goes right back to the formulation of the laws of the game in 1863 and F. W. Campbell of Blackheath: "Sport, he appears to have felt, was about pain, brutality and manliness; without that, if it actually came down to skill, any old foreigner might be able to win."

Which pretty much explains the World Cup. England's one win, in 1966, cemented a certain idea of the game in the English psyche, Wilson argues. The result has been clear for all to see.

As I write whenever I review a sport book, clearly you have to enjoy football to get anything out of this book. If you do enjoy it, however, it will give you an excellent grounding in the evolution of the game across the world and provide an understanding of just why today's game is played as it is.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (Shane's book 14, 2011)

This was Wallace's first collection of essays. It's not quite as good as the follow-up, Consider the Lobster, but it does contain some brilliant pieces, particularly the title essay. [amtap book:isbn=0349110018]

There are seven essays here, all published between 1992 and 1996 and covering literature, television, film, tennis and, of course, Wallace's now well-known social observation.

The weakest is E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction, which is an incisive look at the effect of television and TV advertising on society and on fiction writing. Wallace's argument is that watching too much television is bad because "it engages without demanding". However, he is smart enough not to damn the medium entirely.

Wallace makes lots of interesting points but the essay is over-long and too academic in tone. In places it's a bit of a slog. There is plenty of fascinating stuff in there, though, if you persevere.

Pretty much everything else in the book is excellent. The two pieces about tennis - one of which relates Wallace's experiences as a teenage tennis player and the other which focuses on minor player Michael Joyce - give a great sense of what it means to play the game and to play it well. Wallace is honest about his limitations and disarmingly self-deprecating when faced with a professional player:

"But the idea of me playing Joyce - or even hitting around with him, which was one of the ideas I was entertaining on the flight to Montreal, to hit around with a hot young US pro - is now revealed to me to be absurd and in a certain way obscene, and during this night match I resolve not even to let Joyce know that I used to play competitive tennis, to play seriously and (I'd presumed) rather well. This makes me sad."

The tennis writing prefigures much of Infinite Jest (released in 1996, the year before A Supposedly Fun Thing…) and so does much of the writing about television in E Unibus Pluram. There's even a person named Antitoi in one of the essays.

The book also contains an illuminating profile of film director David Lynch and a piece in which Wallace considers the notion of the 'death of the author'.

The two most interesting pieces are the ones that, for want of a better category, I will simply call social observation pieces. It's these kind of pieces that Wallace became known for, at least in his non-fiction writing. Four of the ten essays in Consider the Lobster could be placed in that category.

The first of the two, Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All, is the story of Wallace's visit to the Illinois State Fair. It doesn't quite work, partly because it's longer than it needs to be.

That's the second time I've made that criticism and many will feel that it's a fault that runs through Wallace's work. I disagree. Wallace often wrote very long pieces, of course, but he almost always had the material and the writing ability to justify it. In the case of 'Getting Away…', the material is lacking. Wallace just doesn't find enough of interest at the Fair to justify the length of the piece.

There is still much to enjoy in that article but it's not a patch on the final essay in the book, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. In that essay Wallace takes a Caribbean cruise and his bemusement at the experience is hilarious.

I found everything in this essay to be spot-on, perhaps because I once went on a cruise myself and it was every bit as horrible as Wallace describes. Here are just a few highlights:

"A second Celebrity [the cruise company] crowd-control lady has a megaphone and repeats over and over not to worry about our luggage, that it will follow us later, which I am apparently alone in finding chilling in its unwitting echo of the Auschwitz-embarkation scene in Schindler's List."

"And a major percentage of this overheard chitchat consists of passengers explaining to other passengers why they signed up for this 7NC Cruise. It's like the universal subject of discussion in here, like chitchatting in the day-room of a mental ward: "So, why are you here?"

"The very best way to describe Scott Peterson's demeanour is that it looks like he's constantly posing for a photograph nobody is taking."

There are so many other great moments too: when Wallace is beaten at chess by a 9-year-old girl; his attempt at skeet shooting; and his closing encounter with stage magician Nigel Ellery.

It's a great piece and worth the price of the book on its own.

The Information by James Gleick (Shane's book 11, 2011)

Beginning with African talking drums, this book takes us on a tour of the history of information. It's not just about the history of transferring information between people or places, it's about the concept of information itself. [amtap book:isbn=0007225733]

Gleick is a science writer who, in 1987, wrote the first mainstream book about chaos theory. I haven't read that but I would recommend Faster, his 1999 book about the technology-driven speeding up of everyday life.I had expected The Information to be mostly about the development of the internet and what we think of as 'the information age'. What I hadn't realised, and what Gleick makes clear, is that the information age has been here for hundreds of years.

The development of literacy, for example, led to an explosion of information that left many people wondering how they could possibly keep up. Much later, the arrival of the telegraph led many people to worry about the corrosive effect all these short messages would have on the language.

Plato, Gleick notes, feared that writing would erode the human memory and as recently as the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan was arguing that oral culture was superior to written culture. It's fascinating how similar these arguments are to those we hear today about the internet.

What this book makes clear is that the information around us is not the problem. Our ability to deal with all this information, which for centuries has been more than one person could consume in a lifetime, is dependent on our ability to filter it and find the information that matters.

Central to the book, is Claude Shannon, the founder of information theory. Gleick returns to Shannon's work repeatedly as he explains how information gradually became understood as an essentially digital phenomenon that could be broken down into 'bits'.

Richard Dawkins, Alan Turing, Ada Byron and Samuel Morse are among the many major figures whose contribution to information theory is drawn upon.

One particularly interesting story - in a book filled with many great stories - tells how Morse and his partner Alfred Vail realised that Morse Code would be more efficient if the shortest keystrokes were assigned to the most common letters. With no way to know which letters were most common they went to local newspaper office and counted the letters in the type cases. They structured the code based on what they found.

"Long afterward," Gleick writes, "information theorists calculated that they had come within 15 per cent of an optimal arrangement for telegraphing English text."

Gleick does an excellent job of covering a vast topic and a sweep of hundreds of years. It doesn't feel rushed or shallow and Gleick finds enough stories, such as the one above, to bring each section of the book to life. In places the maths and science can be a little heavy going but those sections are few.

The Information is worth reading if you're interested in how we communicate ideas and understand the world around us.

Mirage Men by Mark Pilkington (Shane's book 9, 2011)

I was fascinated by the idea of UFOs as a child. As I got older and realised that it was highly unlikely that aliens were visiting us my curiosity dimmed. But even if alien spacecraft are not dropping by, the UFO phenomenon does exist. There are lots of people - many of them reliable and respectable - who are seeing something, so what is going on?

[amtap book:isbn=1845298578]

Mostly it's people mis-identifying planes, planets or other man-made lights in the sky. Mark Pilkington's book suggests that the US has exploited UFO 'sightings' as a cover for its own secret projects. While concrete proof is hard to come by, the evidence he provides is pretty compelling.

Noting that the height of the UFO phenomenon coincided with the Cold War, Pilkington suggests that the US military realised as early as the 1950s that UFO sightings would make an ideal smokescreen for its 'black projects'.

Pilkington's contention is that the US military took a two-pronged approach: denying the existence of UFOs publicly, while actively feeding the fantasies of UFO obsessives in private. The effect, he says, was to make UFO hunters seem so outlandish and silly that the general public would have little interest in looking into their claims.

Central to the book is Richard Doty, a former intelligence officer who admits to having fed faked 'evidence' of alien activity to UFO researchers. One of the victims of the campaign, Paul Bennewitz, a businessman with a PhD in physics, eventually had a nervous breakdown, driven deep into paranoia by the disinformation he was fed.

Doty is a slippery character whose story shifts constantly. Despite his admissions of forged documents and the deliberate misinformation campaign against UFO researchers, he insists that he really has seen an alien. Is he telling the truth this time or simply spreading more disinformation?

Pilkington builds a plausible case and the story he tells is extraordinary. Along the way he gives a history of the UFO phenomenon, details of some of the more bizarre secret aircraft - including, yes, one that was saucer shaped - and a fascinating report from inside a UFO conference.

Overall, the book reminded me of Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare At Goats. Whether you believe Pilkington or not, Mirage Men is very entertaining and packed with odd characters.