After trying for hours to remember my wordpress password–I take pride in my memory and hate stooping to password resets–I’ve finally broken back in to this very dusty, book-cluttered attic corner of the internet.¹ The occasion: the realization, after reblogging a Tournament of Books 2014 post to my tumblr, that I have things to say about books again! Granted, they are cranky and pretentious things; please be assured that I am at least self-aware, if not exactly repentant, of how obnoxious I am. Because I don’t like to clog that corner with too many words of my own, I undertook the arduous process of logging in here.²
Quite a lot has changed for me. I don’t particularly care to talk about it, but confessional writing is gravitational. In short: I am catless, jobless, pennyless, thankfully not homeless or McGintyless, and rushing through a hasty 2nd bachelor’s degree in the hopes of attending grad school next fall. I read fewer books last year than probably any other in my lifetime, but I watched a lot of movies to compensate.³ Though I don’t miss working in bookselling (an armed robbery, among other things, stole the joy from it and though I tried for nearly a year I never could steal it back), I still love to read. December depression (see: “catless,” above) struck me hard, but at least I remembered how much I love reading. As ever, books are always there for me, offering escape and surmountable challenges when everything else in the life of the mind goes askew. The release of the Tournament of Books 2014 lineup helped galvanize my finishing rate, though after a string of questionable titles from the list I am looking forward to the beautiful Balzac that NYRB sent me in the mail as my next fiction read.
Enough preamble. On to the Tournament breakdown! I have currently read nine and two different halves of the books. As ever, I am exceptionally grumpy about the titles chosen. I must remind myself that every year always feels like the worst year ever in Tournament history, and every year I am thrilled by something that I might not otherwise have read… but having read nine and two halves of the books I am starting to think that my kneejerk hyperbole might be correct this time around? To begin with, I am having a hard time considering any book separate from an ever-present question: “How does [insert ToB title] compare to Americanah?” The answer, so far, is overwhelmingly that they don’t. None of the books that I have read — so far! fingers crossed! — comes close to matching the wonderful blend of erudition, newness, and likeability that was Americanah. It’s a wonderful book, but it’s also an important book written by an author (I cynically suppose) that the ToB selection gods should adore just for how well she would boost their diversity bragging rights. The exclusion of Americanah is a terrible oversight, especially considering the titles that the gods of the Tournament selection saw fit to include. I feel so strongly about this that I decided to annoyingly bold the preceding sentence, and I feel so strongly about it that I have added a second sentence just to emphasize how shocked and upset I am that Adichie has no chance to take the Rooster. I’ve been shaking my fists at the selection committee all month. Most of my commentary can be reduced to a bitter mutter that eventually descends into profanity. I will try to say other things about the titles I’ve read but do keep in mind that, unless I say otherwise, every thought I have about this group of books is underpinned by this plaint, this unstated (oh, I will try not to state and overstate) outrage. The list — which I have divided into “books I have read” and “books I have not read,” with a never-before-seen special category of “book I have no intention of reading ever (O, Americanah!What injustice!)”
Books I Have Read
- At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón – I lie. I haven’t actually read all of this: this is one of the abovementioned half-read titles. This book isn’t terrible or offensive (other than the fact that this is not Americanah). It is just dull. If I finish it, it will only be because I have persisted in using it as a soporific long enough to somehow creep through the whole text. The best way I can think to describe this lackluster entrant is “Bolaño Lite:” it has similar themes and a similar po-mo feel to Bolaño but lacks the viscera, the fire, the occasional transcendent beauty, the off-putting sections, the magnetism of the best Bolaño. After pestering ToB commentariat superstar and all-around trusted reader neighbors about her opinion (which is that it never gets interesting) I feel comfortable letting this one go unfinished. When I was younger I tried to read all of the entrants but I am getting too old for that nonsense. Why bother with lesser imitations when I could just reread The Savage Detectives? Thematic pairings: haven’t read it yet, but maybe How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
- Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – It’s been ages since I read this book (read: a year) and it made so little impression on me that I can barely remember it. If it makes the play-in I’ll take another look at it; I still have a copy. As for its chances of making the play-in: I would think good, but I haven’t yet read Woke Up Lonely.
- The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – I read this as soon as it was crowned this year’s Booker in part because it sounded like a wheelhouse novel for me but also because I knew it would thus be a ToB lock. Despite sounding like a novel I would usually love — nineteenth century historical! set in a place I know nothing about! with multiple narrators and a tricky, intricate structure! mystery! adventure! gold! opium!! — this was a struggle to get into. I chipped away a couple of pages every night for ages (read: a month) before it finally caught my attention enough to finish it up in a couple of sit down marathon reading sessions. I probably would not have finished it were it not guaranteed a spot in the ToB. I am marginally glad that I didn’t abandon it, but it’s still a book with more promise than execution. The much-admired structure is one of the largest of many problematics; it doomed the book to carry on a good 100 (or more? I shall check) pages beyond what its (rather flimsy) plot could sustain. While some of the characters were charming and/or interesting, they were unfortunately not the people at the heart of the plot: most damningly, one of its two female characters is a whore with about the same level of personality as Bella from Twilight while the other is a one-note villain. My final summation: there is probably a good book in here somewhere but the pretentious, gimmicky structure buried it; furthermore, I couldn’t really tell if this was trying to be an a high falutin’ Literary tome or just a good, plot-and-character-driven story and the attempt to be both makes it somewhat fuzzy as neither the quality of the writing nor the characters/plot were strong enough to make it either. A good editor and a clearer sense of the story’s identity would have elevated this book enormously. In its favor, the more I read of the other entrants the better The Luminaries looks in hindsight. I have found myself thinking back fondly to its moderately well-developed sense of place and time. Thematic pairing: The Son — they are both massive historical fictions with multiple viewpoints and colonial themes. Of the two, I prefer The Son both personally and for the ToB.
- The Dinner by Herman Koch – Look, it’s not that I dislike books with unlikable protagonists. I don’t read in search of imaginary BFFs for myself — my friend-slots are well filled both by real people and by fictionals like Harriet Vane. (Harriet! Write me! Dying to hear what you and Peter have been working on. Are you still in France? Can you recommend a good translation of Dante? Please write soon — I miss you! love, your friend, Not Alice.) My problem with The Dinner is actually that the characters were not unlikable enough, or at least not in the right way. I had a glimmer that maybe Koch was trying to expose and indict underlying fascist ideals still extant in European culture. If this is the case, awesome! Great idea! More on this later. Unfortunately, this interesting notion is spoiled by the conclusion. The “and they’re all psychopaths!1!” twist at the end of a thriller is my least favourite thing in this genre. It’s so boring and expected and it has the effect of immediately leeching out any hint of moral complexity. This isn’t literature; it’s the European equivalent of a NYT bestselling mystery novel, a Michael Connelly or a Harlan Coben. I’ve read my fair share of both of these authors, but I’d never put either of them up against literary fiction. I am positive that there were better books in translation published last year and it’s a disappointment that this is what the ToB chose as the most significant. Thematic pairings: The People in the Trees since both have off-kilter narrators; of these two, I’d give it to the Yanagihara by a hair.
- Long Division by Kiese Laymon – This is the other half-finished book. Unlike the Alarcón, I will finish this, and soon. Holding out forming any opinions at all until I finish it. Regardless of how it turns out, this is a title whose inclusion I’m very pleased about: I hadn’t heard of it, it’s outside my usual reading path, and it is absolutely worth my time. Thematic pairing: I really hope Laymon and McBride aren’t matched up against each other just because they both feature black teenage boys as protagonists, but I fear they might be. Even though I haven’t finished Long Division, I would still prefer it to win. My dream pairing for this book is against Eleanor & Park. I would love to see it take that flimsy YA book out early since Laymon deftly illustrates the differences between YA and adult as genres. His narrator is believable, his sentences are dynamic, he actually considers race in America instead of just pretending to, and Long Division feels rich in culture and place in a way that E&P never does. I’ll be pretty damn happy if they’re set up against each other early. It might also work well against A Tale for the Time Being because both deal with time travel or multiple universes or something.
- The Good Lord Bird by James McBride – I know too much about this time period to enjoy this book. That’s the only explanation I can find for my rather intense dislike. Unfunny, repetitive, poorly written (in inconsistent dialect — one of my least favourite things ever!), hateful (I will never forgive McBride’s portrayal of Frederick Douglass). I cannot believe this won the National Book Award! It is one of my most disliked books of 2013 — I would take the bafflingly popular The Flamethrowers over this win. I never had an opinion about McBride before (tried to read his memoir once and put it down quickly but without judgment) but he is dead to me now. The NBA sure is getting close to being an award I have no interest in following. It has been mightily inconsistent in recent years.
- The Son by Philip Meyer – As a fan of historical fiction and history, I liked this book. I feel comfortable labeling it my favourite of the Tournament’s historicals this year. Most of the details were accurate, and I was very excited to see that a good portion of its plot is about the early 20th century persecution of hispanics in Texas. I don’t know what (if anything) the notorious history books of Texas have to say about this period of our country’s past, but it isn’t nearly well-known covered in states to the north and west ,where I received my educations. This book also has the best sense of place of any that I’ve read so far, though that may just be because it beautifully describes the open skies and dusty desserts that are basically a primal part of my soul. However, as a fan of books with complex (not necessarily strong — just complex) female characters, I did not like this book. As a fan of novels with multiple narrators who are all equally well written and thought-provoking, I did not like this book. As a person who would truly like to read a fictionalized account of the details and drama surrounding the rise of the oil industry in Texas, I did not like this book. Thematic pairings: The Luminaries, as above.
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki – I would not have finished this book if I’d picked it up outside of Tournament reading. I viscerally despised Nao’s narration at first: the sexualized, kitschy-cute Japanese schoolgirl is a disgusting trope. But as I went on I either became acclimated to her sections or they got better, because for a bit in the middle I quite enjoyed it and, like “Ruth,” worried about Nao’s fate. Unlike the multitude of goodreads reviewers, I didn’t mind the “Ruth” sections because I liked her Asperger-ish husband, “Oliver,” and his encyclopedic musings about nature. But “Ruth” is a terrible, weak character; she seems uniquely stupid, a trait that “Oliver” highlights by needing to explain everything to her. Because “Ruth” is both character and, of course, author-stand-in, this gives the book an unpleasant air: everything is overexplained. It’s tied with The Goldfinch as containing most unnecessary thematic denouement. I like magical realism, but the effect is utterly spoiled the instant the author has various characters figure out the key to the magic and spend tens of pages explaining it to each other. I described this to my housemate as similar to a bad Murakami. “Ruth’s” lack of intelligence assumes that the reader is also unintelligent which I despise in a book. Authors! Stop overexplaining your ideas! Or if you must explain, don’t just provide a wikipedia-level summary of Schrodinger’s Cat — everyone has read that article on the great free encyclopedia. Elevate and complicate your ideas! Thematic pairing in the ToB: The People in the Trees because they both use meta-textual structure in which one character footnotes another’s text? Life After Life, because they both deal with multiple worlds? If the former, I don’t know which book I’d give it to; both were problematic. In the latter, I guess I’d prefer Life After Life simply because it doesn’t talk down to the reader quite as much — though I think the Ozeki probably had better characters. Or maybe it could be Eleanor & Park since both books deal with bullied teenage girls? If that’s the case, A Tale for the Time Being wins easily; Nao was more distinctive than either Eleanor or Park, and the bullying was integrated into her overall story and character arc instead of just existing to add faux obstacles and to heighten the pathos and misery (and thus the feels, as the kids say) of the book. Or will it be The Lowland, which I haven’t read yet and don’t look forward to, because both are set in both Asia and America? Despite its flaws, this is one of the more interesting picks just from the multitude of potential pairings it allows.
- Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – YA books are not the same as adult books. It is unfair to compare children’s literature to adult because they (usually) have very different goals. I detest the trend of including YA in the ToB. Frankie Landau Banks was exceptional; she should have been a one-off. This is one of the titles I resent the most; its position should have gone to Americanah. Or to a genre book for grownups — Jenny & Kelly had the idea of pitting Stephen King against his son Joe Hill in the play-in round, a notion that I love and am now grieving because it didn’t happen. (NOS4A2 was great fun!) I do not enjoy being that sort of reader, the one who minces about looking down her nose at books. Truly, I don’t: my bookstore days made me egalitarian. I’m glad kids are reading, and I recognize that I might have loved this book when I was 14 and bullied. However, I am going to be extremely cruel to this slight, insufficient, vaguely racist, Twilight-ish teen romance come the Tournament. Keep an eye out; I’ll be the one frothing at the mouth in the corner while everyone who remembers my thoughts on The Fault in Our Stars last year will roll their eyes and give me a wide berth. Pairings: as above, I hope it’s Long Division and that this goes away. It’s hard to say, though; a rather ridiculous amount of these books have teen protagonists. Whatever it is, E&P is my pick for the most likely zombie. Needless to say, it shall not get my vote.
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – I won’t lie: I read this book the way that I occasionally blow through a batch of home-baked cookies: in a gluttonous haze that lasted no longer than 24 hours. Similar to a cookie binge, it immediately left me feeling undernourished and nauseated. I may have much more to say about this one later, either in the comments or in a post of its own. Until then: most overrated book of 2013? Most likely to do very well in the ToB? The book that brought me most fully into agreement with Francine Prose than I ever have been and may ever be? I say yes to all. Thematic pairing: any of the ridiculous amounts of “kid protagonist” books, yawn.
- The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara – This one also deserves a post of its own, if I can somehow manage to recreate the rambling, incoherent, pancake-fueled raving that I subjected my gentleman friend to the night that I finished it. I appreciate that this book was at least ambitious in its themes, but I am still unsure if it was a partial success or utter failure. The fact that I cannot decide is probably a good sign. This is one of the more interesting reads so far (if only because everything else was so dreadful). There were lots of problems, though: plot, pacing, tone, believability, and more. Here is a goodreads review that covers just some of the issues I had with the book. I will try to organize my thoughts on it, but until then, I will only say: I appreciate that Yanagihara tried to mimic the language and structure of scientific writing, but I don’t think she succeeded at either capturing it or parodying it convincingly. This book does not do for anthropology what Possession did for English scholars. I kind of wish this book had been written by A.S. Byatt or someone who is better at miming academic styles; I would have found “magical turtles!” a lot less insipid if they’d been dressed with more stylistic flourishes. I am not ashamed to admit one of my essential weaknesses as a reader of fiction: provocative ideas matter more when they are presented in pretty prose. Thematic pairing: see above. Chances: depend on how the judge it draws feels about Nabokov, I guess.
I will do “books I have not read” later. It’s fairly easy to deduce what they are. I still somewhat hope to finish more books and to post longer responses to some of these titles, but school started last week and I’m immediately subsumed in history reading. How many articles can one person read about nationalism in a year?!
¹Every place that I occupy, whether literally or imaginatively, is dusty and book-cluttered.
²Tumblr, as silly as it is, serves as an excellent commonplace book, a digital version of the small physical books, full of borrowed words and images, that I used to make with paper and glue. Mixing in my own sentences disturbs the hermetic pleasure I get from flipping (or scrolling) through the record.
³After years of liking movies and harboring intense passion for a small handful of films, I’ve begun work on transforming myself into a cineast–I just need to make enough time to watch the 115-ish best films of all time.