Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Double book review: 'Once more with feeling' and 'For richer, for poorer'

It feels like years since I last did a book review on this blog, and for good reason: it has been years. I have been reading just as much as ever, but few books have either impressed, interested or annoyed me enough to encourage me to write a review.

However on Valentine's Day Sencan gave me Victoria Coren's latest tome, 'For richer, for poorer'. For those who do not know her, Victoria Coren is the rather astoundingly gorgeous and hyper-intelligent presenter of the best quiz show on TV, 'Only Connect'. But this is only one of the strings in her bow for, as this book shows, she is also a rather good poker player. (*)

In it, the author describes how she first got interested in poker by watching her elder brother play, of how she started going to rather dubious clubs in order to play various games before settling on poker. She manages to break through her inherent shyness and develops friendships and even relationships with her fellow players. As a woman in a very male world of dodgy geezers she is an obvious outsider, and yet she is eventually accepted as a player. Not just that, but a good player.

The book (and the author's experience of poker) cover an interesting period - she first plays poker in clubs that seem rather dive-like, and her descriptions of them are coloured by her love of the places. But around the turn of the millennium poker starts to get televised, and then explodes on the Internet. Suddenly players are travelling to tournaments all over the world, have blogs and even sponsorship. First celebrities turn up, then bone-fide stars, all wanting to be part of the action. An underground activity heavy with threat and darkness has suddenly become popular and mainstream. In the end all her poker-playing friends are roaming the world, playing tournaments and winning - and losing - fortunes.

She is very clear that she is an addict; she started playing various gambling games but found that she had a fondness and, rarely, a skill for playing poker. Like all addicts, she seems to feel that changing from one type of addiction to another is in some ways an improvement, that she in some ways won a victory by changing from blackjack to poker.

It is an honest book - at times brutally so. It is partly an autobiography, but a biography viewed through the distorting prism of poker. It is obvious she did not enjoy her schooldays, but even these stories are related through poker anecdotes. Even the death of her father - who she obviously loves to an immense degree - is described through that same poker prism. When she needs two Jewish men to say prayers at her dad's funeral, who does she turn to except for her poker-friends?

This is not the first of Victoria Coren's books that we have read. A few years ago she wrote a book, 'Once more with feeling', where she and an old university friend Charlie Skelton attempt to do the seemingly impossible. As the subtitle says: 'How we tried to make the greatest porn film ever'. In it they set out to learn enough about the industry to create a brilliant non-exploitative porn film. Sometimes it is a funny read, at others depressing; but it is always an insightful look at a dark, hidden world. Needless to say, the biggest problem they have is making the film non-exploitative: everyone seems to exploit each other. Agents exploit artists and artists exploit other artists. Some of the pictures are rather interesting as well, especially if you want to know how porn stars remove an excess of lube...

So we have two books: one where men and women form false relationships and screw each other for money, and the other where they form false relationships and screw each other for money. Having read both books recently, it becomes clear that there are many similarities between the worlds of porn and poker.

I found 'Once more with feeling' a much better read. It is a genuine outsider's view of a dark, hidden world; witty, inventive and not a little scary. What is more, it attributes genuine souls and characters onto the actors and actresses who are usually just seen as objects. In places it is not an easy read, but that is because of the situations described rather than the authors' prose.

There are two problems with 'For richer, for poorer'. The first minor fault is that many pages are filled with descriptions of poker hands that are virtually undecipherable to a non-player. There is no guide to the terminology and the learning curve is very steep. Using various websites I tried to learn some of the terminology but even then it was fairly impenetrable. Fortunately these sections are short and I eventually ended up skipping over them.

More important was the perspective of the books. In 'Once more with feeling' the authors are examining - and trying to become a small part of (**) - the world of porn. They are looking at the industry in an unusual way and give the reader sometimes-disturbing views.

However in 'For richer, for poorer', the author is thoroughly embedded within the world she is writing about.  She can see its faults, can describe the problems, but has done well out of it; she has been successful and won over a million dollars. For every player like her there will be a multitude who are losers, and many whose lives have been ruined by a gambling addiction.

Yet she has the mind to learn to play poker well, the intellect to realise the type of gambling she is best suited to, Most importantly, she has a supportive family and good, if not spectacularly well-paying jobs. She is a gambler, but she is an in-control gambler. The risks are relatively low: she has no husband and no kids who will be thrown out onto the streets if she fails.

To stretch the analogy between these two books a little too far, 'For richer, for poorer' is like a high-class prostitute writing 'Once more with feeling'. Victoria Coren can see the damage that gambling causes, but aside from late-night trans-Atlantic calls to banks, has never really suffered from the downsides. She has never been shot in the testicles unlike one poor gambler she meets. And that is the biggest problem with the book: it is a successful insider's view and lacks the perspective of 'Once more with feeling'.

I can thoroughly recommend both of these books. Be warned, though: you need an open mind to read either of them.

(*) She also happens to be the daughter of Alan Coren, brother of Giles Coren, which perhaps explains both her writing and her rather esoteric interests.

(**) Double entendres allowed.

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