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Far Afield: A Sportswriting Odyssey

Overview

A Year in Provence . . . in sweats

Some people would consider writing for Sports Illustrated a dream job. Others fantasize about living idyllically in the South of France. S. L. Price got to do both. Assigned by Sports Illustrated to cover sports in Europe, Price relocated his family to a small hamlet in Provence, and then set out to uncover the soul of world athletic competition.

In an attempt to comprehend the planet's most intense and ...

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Overview

A Year in Provence . . . in sweats

Some people would consider writing for Sports Illustrated a dream job. Others fantasize about living idyllically in the South of France. S. L. Price got to do both. Assigned by Sports Illustrated to cover sports in Europe, Price relocated his family to a small hamlet in Provence, and then set out to uncover the soul of world athletic competition.

In an attempt to comprehend the planet's most intense and bloody sports, he immersed himself in the cricket rivalry between India and Pakistan. He spent time with Lance Armstrong as the cyclist fended off rumors of performance-enhancing drugs. He argued politics with Olympic athletes in Athens, covered Austria's beer-drenched version of the Super Bowl, and caught basketball fever in Belgrade—as he, his wife, and children tried to adjust to life in a Europe convulsed by terrorism, anti-Americanism, and George Bush's war in Iraq.

Far Afield is an extraordinary memoir of growth, family, and games people play worldwide.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
Praise for FAR AFIELD: “The seasoned reporter behind this memoir is a master of the new journalism developed by Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese and Price’s personal paragon, Pete Hamill. Whenever he writes about sports—or about the craft of writing—he hits it over the fence.”
Chicago Tribune
“A masterpiece.”
Boston Globe
“Price blends an unerring eye for detail and nuance with fresh, crackling prose that gives these insights a startling authenticity.”
Esquire
“One of the year’s five best reads.”
Esquire
“One of the year’s five best reads.”
Esquire
“One of the year’s five best reads.”
Chicago Tribune
“A masterpiece.”
Boston Globe
“Price blends an unerring eye for detail and nuance with fresh, crackling prose that gives these insights a startling authenticity.”
New York Times Book Review
Praise for FAR AFIELD: “The seasoned reporter behind this memoir is a master of the new journalism developed by Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese and Price’s personal paragon, Pete Hamill. Whenever he writes about sports--or about the craft of writing--he hits it over the fence.”
Gordon Marino
The sports reportage in this gracefully written book is strong enough to make the sometimes-dated events seem timeless. Writers who aim to fix images of athletes and games in our collective memory need to find fresh angles, just like great photographers. Price is a virtuoso at locating unconventional entries into common topics…The seasoned reporter behind this memoir is a master of the new journalism developed by Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese and Price's personal paragon, Pete Hamill. Adherents of this approach drop all pretense to objectivity and are loath to dismiss any detail as irrelevant. For example, in his reckoning of the 2004 Summer Olympics, Price spends paragraphs on the travails of driving in Athens; when he's in Pakistan, taking in a historic series of cricket matches with India, he prattles on about bedbugs and a broken air-conditioner. And yet it all works to capture the tension of the event and to create a coherent and absorbing composition.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Price, a senior writer at Sports Illustratedfor 13 years and author of Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports, finds his past in the most unfamiliar places when he moves to the south of France to report on European sports for a year. Inside his coverage of every new competition in every new city lurks Price's profoundly American self-consciousness. Lambasted at every turn for Bush's war on terror, Price's American identity is formed defensively as he spars with European opponents over the war, politics and history. Luckily, Price couldn't be further removed from the ugly American stereotype. He's perceptive, open-minded and intelligent, transcribing Europe with the confident, lofty lyricism of an American sportswriter who has found his voice. His metaphors hit the mark, whether summing up the doping accusations against Lance Armstrong, eating eggs with Ted Williams, experiencing the fanaticism of the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry, exploring Europe's obsession with soccer or sitting down with prospective NBA centers from the former Eastern bloc. Price is aware that the biggest action has a way of following him wherever he goes. Indeed, his memoir is a stroll through a minefield of recent European headlines-the train bombings in Madrid, the Le Pen vote scare in France and the 2004 Athens Olympics. The personal becomes political and the political gets personal in this travel memoir, as national identities and sports collide. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

More travelog than sports, this account of following sports worldwide is a social commentary of the first order. On assignment from Sports Illustrated, award-winning sports writer Price (Pitching Around Fidel) moved his family to the south of France in 2004. For the next year, he followed sports of all types: from cricket matches to the Tour de France, from the Athens Olympics to Paris Open tennis. At the height of the Iraq war, Price reported inside the fields of play, ever suspect of being the ugly American but deftly defying the label with grace and wit. Here is the love-hate relationship with the French and their disgust with Bush and most things American-yet Price delivers a fresh approach, filled with the often simple joys of competition and the complexity of athletes like Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong. A chapter on the India-Pakistan cricket matches is chilling, reminding us of the fragility between nation states. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Boyd Childress

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061708725
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/19/2009
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

S. L. Price, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated since 1994, has written two other books—Pitching Around Fidel, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Far Afield, which Esquire named one of the top five books of 2007. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his family.

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Read an Excerpt

Far Afield

A Sportswriting Odyssey
By S. L. Price

THE LYONS PRESS

Copyright © 2007 Scott L. Price
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59921-144-2


Chapter One

Giants lived here once.... In Vachel Lindsay's day, in Carl Sandburg's day, in the silver-colored yesterday, in Darrow's and Masters' and Edna Millay's day, writers and working stiffs alike told policemen where to go, the White Sox won the pennant with a team batting average of .228 and the town was full of light. Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make

The mystery box opened, and there they sat-Algren, David Mamet, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Upton Sinclair, Mike Royko, Ring Lardner-the whole loud, unwieldy school of Chicago writers, one dozen books packed together and then tossed by the 1,500-mile ride into a jumble of accusation, a nifty dare: So what are you going to do? On top lay a note from the editor of the Chicago Tribune. "Chicago has always been a city of great stories," she wrote. "I'd like to read some of yours."

Well. It was the winter of 2002, and I had been chewing over a job offer from the Trib for weeks, a great one: Write a column in America's best sports town, for one of the few ambitious newspapers left, with an old friend as boss. The courtship had followed the usual steps-a phone call, aflight, a we-love-you interview, a letter with salary and perks and an ironclad signature. Most important, I had been handed that rarest of career gifts: leverage. Writing for newspapers or magazines isn't like other jobs; nothing you do translates easily to the bottom line. The talent traffic in air-opinions, critiques, quotes, ideas, information. Judgments are subjective; no one really knows who's any good, and when another publication comes sniffing, your bosses regard it as much a validation as a threat. Coveted from the outside, you become more coveted inside. It's rare. It's nice.

But the leverage works only when wielded with conviction; you must be willing to quit. I'd had a good decade at Sports Illustrated, with a promise of more to come. The managing editor, Terry McDonell, said he'd match any salary offer: Leaving, on the most obvious level, made little sense. But my friend at the Tribune, an assistant managing editor now, had been a wily boss long ago in California, smart enough, week-in and week-out, to manipulate my grim and overbearing ambition. "I just want to be great," I would say back when we worked together, as if I really had a choice in the matter. He knew: Nothing would lure me better than arrogance. So the box of books opened, and Bellow and Mamet and Lardner glanced up from their typewriters and said, Greatness? You've got to go through us first. For weeks, I left it squatting in the middle of my office floor like a provocation, and after a time I swear I almost could hear the city-Jews and blacks, salesmen and hacks, couples juiced by passionate loathing, the cold and the corruption, the wind, idiocy, regret, baseball, riding the El, the Dan Ryan-rising out of it in a constant murmur of punch-in-the-face prose. I'd trip over the box on my way to my desk, see it when I spoke on the phone, and the voices in the box kept chattering away. I finally shoved them on a shelf so they'd shut up already.

I loved newspapers. For a decade, I had lived for the thrill and torture of daily deadline, the buzz of breaking news-so much that it had taken me more than a month to decide to go from the Miami Herald to Sports Illustrated in 1994. So here was my chance to go back. Here, too, was leverage, and a chance to ... what exactly? Two nights before I was set to fly to New York to meet with McDonell, it hit: He's going to ask what it will take to keep me. Someone positioned to grant the answer was about to ask life's central question: What do you want?

I was forty. There was another baby due in a month. There was a house in Washington, D.C. that, after three years and an interminable round of construction, had started to feel like home. What did I want? I wanted to tear it all up. I wanted to tear it all down. I was forty, sinking slowly into the American routine, and I knew: Thick-waisted, midwestern, Cubbies-loving Chicago would only take me deeper. I wanted what I'd always wanted, but now had the power to get. Away. I wanted to go where no one talked like me, where nothing was easy again, where SI was just another way of saying yes. I wanted to see beer ordered at breakfast, cigarette smoke at every meal, uncomprehending glances, cheating customs officials, three-hour lunch breaks, bricks hurled in a soccer riot. I wanted bad teeth, tunnel-scraping trains scaling Swiss alps, funny blue currency, men who dress like adults, tortured efforts at conjugation. I wanted to be a walking argument, the American loosed in a hostile world.

"Give me Europe," I said. "Let me take a year to cover sports there."

And McDonell didn't laugh. Once in a lifetime, maybe, it's that easy. The Summer Olympics were returning to Athens in 2004, the U.S. was at war in Iraq and widely despised, and now the magazine could range about, taking the temperature country to country before the biggest, most controversial sporting event of the new century. "You're the artist," McDonell said, officially uttering the first foreign word I would hear in my new assignment. In my ten years writing for newspapers in Chapel Hill, Memphis, Sacramento, and Miami, in my years writing for SI, I had been called many things-but never that. Yet he kept going, and I resisted the urge to giggle, to look over my shoulder to see if he was speaking to someone who had walked in behind me. "The gig is what you make it," he said. "Don't let the editors here grind you up."

We had our choice: anywhere on the continent. We picked the South of France because my wife, Fran, speaks the language, but there was also the thrill of saying, "Yes, we're moving to the hills of Provence," so casually, so coolly, as if this was just another link in our charmed chain of adventures, as if we were just like people who had money. And the fact was, we had been tapped in some way for so long; we had lived in San Francisco, Miami, and, now, Washington, D.C.-each a city with undeniable mystique, each beautiful and odd. Not only that, but as a sportswriter I had stumbled into these places with eerily impeccable timing-to San Francisco in the late '80s with Bill Walsh's 49ers dynasty and the World Series Giants and Oakland A's, to Miami in the '90s with its premier college football team and new pro baseball and hockey franchises, to Washington in 2000 just before superstars Michael Jordan, Steve Spurrier, and Jaromir Jagr ran aground there and Maryland basketball won its first national championship. I'm capable of delusion. I would be sure that some greater power was at work, that I'd been chosen somehow, if not for the disasters.

I didn't think it strange the first time, when I was in L.A. with the Giants in 1987 and the earthquake threw me out of bed, nor even when I sat in the upper deck of Candlestick Park in 1989 and felt the stadium jump when the worst quake to hit the Bay Area in eighty-three years shook the World Series. But after Hurricane Andrew-the worst storm to hit Miami in six decades-rolled over Dade County in 1992, I began to wonder. In the summer of 2001, two weeks before September 11, I actually congratulated myself for moving my family to D.C., where, at the time, 2 inches of snow was considered calamitous. Then the plane shot into the Pentagon. Then our post office closed and neighbors wore rubber gloves for fear of letters laced with anthrax. Then a pair of snipers roamed the area gunning down women and children. I'm no fool; I know none of these events were about me. Still, each spasm of fear felt like payment, some kind of cosmic counter to a lifetime of good fortune. When, in the summer of 2003, I went to Manhattan for two days to work on a story and the city suffered its worst blackout in over thirty years, it seemed only right. "It really does happen wherever you go, doesn't it?" said a friend.

He still doesn't realize: I wouldn't want it any different. I grew up in a rich neighborhood with no money, in a smart family seeded with a strange pride and a contrary bent. I've waited a lifetime for whoever's in charge to tap my shoulder and say, "You don't belong here." Like most neurotics, I get nervous when things are too easy or pleasant; the longer I stay in a pitch-perfect place like Boulder, Santa Barbara, or Martha's Vineyard, the more I want to see something smash. I didn't really live in San Francisco or D.C., not in my head, and I certainly don't live in "the South of France" now; I still come from the town where no one young wants to be, where the restaurants shut down early and the nights are owned by bar drunks railing at the TV. I've never read a book about expats immersed in Provence, or the repairing of some soul and villa in Tuscany; it all smelled a bit too pat, too quaint for words, and I've never been much good at quaint. So France-France now-was perfect. France had disowned Bush's Iraq adventure; France, by all accounts, had no use for Americans anymore. Still, I couldn't resist stacking the deck. Looking for a house, I had the choice of seven Provençal beauties. I picked the one closest to the region's strangest sight: two massive cooling towers at the power plant in Gardanne that, every fresh and glorious morning, spew a hellish brew of smoke and steam in seamless imitation of the nuclear facility at Three Mile Island.

Ten months of preparation, worry, wondering-all of it led to this: On the fourth day of September of 2003, after twenty-four hours and rushed changes in New York, Frankfurt, and Paris, our plane approaches Marseille. Fran sits upcabin with the baby, Charlie. Our seven-year-old son Jack, my three-year-old daughter Addie and I sprawl across the last row in the back of the plane, the two kids stoned on red-eye exhaustion until, just twenty minutes before landing, passing out for the first time. We land. I shake Jack. Addie-in a clear show of superior female strength-scampers over her brother's prone body without a second look. I shake him again. He moans, clenches his eyes shut. The other passengers are moving out; the French flight attendants pretend to ignore us. I lift Jack by his arms and, while yanking out what becomes an avalanche of carry-on computers, shopping bags, and diapers from the overhead, wrench him over the three-across seating. His moaning rises to an air-raid level howl.

I lean over close to my son's ear and, as tenderly as possible, hiss, "Cut this crap out now!" The last passengers look back with alarm and scurry out the cabin door. I grab under his armpits and half-carry, half-drag him up the aisle, past the grim-faced pilot, the fashionably coiffed steward. By the time I get into the concourse, the boy is weeping. Some other time, I might've uttered something profound to mark our arrival. But my frazzled mind seizes on only the handiest cliche.

Lafayette, I mutter, we are here.

Chapter Two

What were sunsets to us, with the wild excitement upon us of approaching the most renowned of cities! What cared we for outward visions, when Agamemnon, Achilles and a thousand other heroes of the great past were marching in ghostly procession through our fancies? Mark Twain, before his first visit to Athens, in The Innocents Abroad

The first weeks are madness. Seven pieces of luggage-including air beds-don't make it to Marseille the morning we arrive. When they get dropped at the house the following afternoon, an apocalyptic rain has been pounding for hours; the drought-plagued region has become a flood zone, the dirt driveway a sea of mud. I run out, head down. A tarry, rock-speckled goo encases my shoes in dripping cakes 3 inches thick. I hump the bags and mud inside. The empty new place, five bedrooms set in the hills outside the village of Greasque, has wood shutters the color of lavender but no oven or dishwasher, no furniture, no curtains. Unlike corporate expats, I get no stipend for housing or schools, no adjustment for cost of living or an ever-weakening exchange rate. So it is that, within hours of our arrival in France, we become obsessed with Sweden. We try to be polite. But no local is safe from the questions.

"How far is it ...

"Have you ever been to ...

"Is this a good day for ...

"Which way to ... IKEA?"

We make three shopping trips, all absurd, all frantic. They blend together into one epic $3,400 spree, with two jet-lagged kids and an eight-month-old infant whiningly hooked to a shopping cart buried under so many boxes and bags that it resembles a garbage scow with a broken tiller, heeling forever to the right. The milling Saturday masses hustle out of our way in the French manner-pursed lips and averted eyes, as if the inanity flowering before them simply doesn't exist-because once moving, the scow is all but impossible to stop. After one look at the hundreds of shoppers, the snaking lines, the children already fraying under the pressure of inescapable, adult-imposed boredom, Fran and I instantly degenerate into yelping fools, skittering through the aisles, spouting out the carnival Swedish names-Lack? Stefan? Roder?-with unearned authority, Ingrid Bergman and Björn Borg unloosed upon the mall. "Do we want the Klackbo?" I yell. "No. Yes. Let's get two!"

Lights, paper lanterns, knives, forks, rugs, plastic side tables, hangers, office supplies, desk and chair, three beds, two couches, kitchen table, towels, candles, bathmats. It is, really, a new Olympic event: speed furnishing with kids. Then, after laying flat all the seats in the rented van and ramming in the once-pristine goods, there's the challenge of getting five people-three of whom legally belong in child's seats in the back-into a front seat fit for three. No chance. Fran and Jack shimmy into the 10 inches of space left between the boxes and the van ceiling, flat on their stomachs and unable to move. I slam the rear doors before they can protest.

But it's good. Our landlord Philippe, who lives next door with his wife Jocelyne and son Jean-Philippe, built our house himself, and it's forever about a week shy of being finished: no banister on the steep stairway to the kids' rooms downstairs, no motor on the automatic gate, no landscaping to pretty up the pitted and weedstrewn backyard. Moths, mosquitoes buzz through the screenless windows. From the start, though, we convince ourselves that this is the price one pays for grabbing the golden ring: inconveniences, risk, lunatic missions. We sing and laugh as soon as each episode ends, because we did it together and we know. Stories rife with tension get retold most of all. This will be part of the family lore, the stitching that binds us someday, when adolesence hits and sends everyone scattering, when illness comes and we need painful sweet moments to remember ...

I had shipped seventeen boxes of clothing, supplies, Charlie's crib from Washington-three-day delivery, weeks before. None of it has arrived. When, finally, DHL unloads a half-dozen, the driver demands an unannounced, 388-euro ($430) customs charge-payable only by check. This is my first exposure to the French suspicion of credit cards, French circularity, and French graciousness. I can't open my checking account until I have a phone-yet can't hook up the phone without a checking account-and now the DHL man is demanding payment or he'll pack up the boxes and go. Philippe, a squat and bubbly Parisian who'd fled the chill winters there, has already taken to pointing out the blazing sun and exclaiming rapturously, "Le Sud!" (The South!) whenever he sees me. He gives the driver a Gallic shrug, scribbles out a check for the full amount, and tells me to pay whenever.

I hadn't been expecting this, of course. The war in Iraq has been going badly for a while now, and we're Americans, after all. Yet as our first days unroll, the French repeatedly prove themselves anything but the brusque ogres portrayed on both sides of the Atlantic. Everyone is smiling, voluble, eager to help. We aren't complete boobs: Fran is a month or two from fluency. We know enough not to demand Jerry Springer revelations, we try to speak the language, we whisper a courteous Bonjour upon entering any establishment, no matter that you're often greeting the new shoes or groceries more than the people inside. Always, we are taken warmly in hand, and when I remark on this to Philippe he gives what I'll soon know as his signature reply. "C'est le Sud," he says, and then in a simplified French I manage to understand, "They're not as nice up north."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Far Afield by S. L. Price Copyright © 2007 by Scott L. Price. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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