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Posts Tagged ‘tournament of books’

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.

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Even more vibrantly red in person.

My gentleman caller, well aware of my passionate devotion to the Tournament, gave me a fantastic gift this week:  the official Rooster shirt! Alas, its profound and exalted meaning is lost on the plebeian masses and while wearing it out for the first time (because of course I put it on immediately) I already experienced what I expect will be a typical response to the enigmatic rooster. I’m sure I don’t need to outline the specifics, but it involves an expectation of sexual innuendo. No matter:  anyone who asks is treated to a thorough introduction to the illustrious Tournament, complete with incoherent stammering of excitement and an eager tour of my expectations. An excellent gift! I look forward to receiving my official tournament notebook in a few days or weeks (one never knows what to expect from the post office in this part of the country) so I can go full-on booknerd and coordinate my writing utensils with my garments. Some people match their shoes with their clothes; me, I do actually match my clothes to my books if at all possible.

Oh, the Tournament!  I am losing sleep, so great is my excitement. So far my bracket is unbroken but I do not expect this to last for long:  my confidence in my picks is going to get increasingly weaker as we progress into the second half of the bracket. Tomorrow’s match, Wil Wheaton’s judgement between State of Wonder and The Sisters Brothers, is a significant one, and while I’ve been pinned my hopes on the deWitt I am not sure. Uncertainty grows with each following match. I love it.

The comments are particularly enjoyable, as they always are. I’m quite in awe of the intelligent readings on display every day, and my own thoughts on many of the books have been enormously enriched. Still cannot believe how many ardent fans of The Devil All the Time came out to gnash teeth at its (justified, in my confident opinion) loss! Admiration of this particular book is something that no amount of praise can help me to understand. Despite natural disagreements and exempting a few hostile outliers it is all remarkably civil for the internet. I encourage anyone who is not participating to join in–it’s great fun.

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The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like this and I did not particularly. Either my expectations warped my opinion or I’m flush with self-knowledge. To be fair, it was better than I’d feared–perhaps my statement that, having read DeLillo’s fictionalized account of the shot heard around the world in Underworld, I had already experienced the best and needed never to read another baseball-related piece of fiction was premature and brash. In fact, Mr. McGinty has convinced me that I must seek out The Natural for a far superior sports novel and I intend to–I somehow missed it years ago when I made a sweep through Bernard Malamud’s work.* We shall see for sure in a few months or whenever I do manage to locate a copy of the Malamud, but I suspect that this lead will be the best thing that Fielding bequeaths on me.

The Art of Fielding. Yes, demanding internet, I shall try to say a few words about the book itself. It’s about a shorstop who is suffering a crisis of confidence and the various people who are affected by this tragic (’cause it means the school might lose its chance to win for the first time ever–quite tragic in the novel’s small scope) occurrence. It is a college novel–one of my favourite fake subgenres–but also a sports novel–not my favourite narrative due to the inevitable predictability of the story arches. It could, actually, have been quite enjoyable, but several huge factors crippled it fatally. My, it had awful characters. Except for two fully realized personalities–team captain and mentor extraordinaire Mike Schwartz and lovestruck college president Guert Affenlight–everyone was thin and unconvincing, a transparent collection of plot devices masquerading as people. Terrible ending that even I–not, as I have said, an avid consumer of the sports narrative–could recognize as a towering cliche. Unremarkable, simple prose. Blurbs by my arch-nemesis Franzen, a distinctly Franzenesque feel to the whole affair–Franzen by way of a feel-good Disney sports film. And did I mention that the ending was terrible? And that the characters–particularly Cool Gay Roommate/Object of Desire and Wine-Coloured-Hair Rebellious Daughter/Plot Device–were cringingly bad? It’s not good when your characters are mostly flimsy, but when two of the main figures–the young gay man and the only woman in the entire book–are little more than their labels eyebrows must be raised.

I am, as happens so often with these types of books (see:  Freedom), in the minority. It’s been critically acclaimed but, more telling, my customers love this book, which speaks of a popular appeal both broad and deep. I could see it doing quite well in the tournament–at the very least, it will make it out of the first round, and if it is axed I expect we’ll see it again as a horrific baseball-concussed zombie. Ugh.

(*”Somehow” is misleading. I missed it precisely because I had at the time the ingrained habit of starting with every author’s lesser works and avoiding the titles they were most known for. It’s left a lot of striking gaps in my knowledge.)

The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst

My gentleman friend could not make it through this book; he claims that its premise–gay Victorians–has been overdone of late, ridden into trenches of irredeemable cliche. Not being overfamiliar with the supposed ubiquity of the narrative, I enjoyed The Stranger’s Child very much. It does fall squarely in one of my wheelhouses:  I not-so-secretly adore (good)* historical fiction, particularly if it has Victorians and World War I and English manors and boarding schools and Oxford intellectuals. Hollinghurst covers all of this and–bonus!–builds his plot around the construction of an artistic legacy through the ages.  It’s reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Robertson Davies:  that is to say, it’s utterly delicious if you like that sort of thing. Since I am this book’s ideal reader I have no objective words on either its quality or its chances.

(*Byatt, Mantel, Dunnett, the like. No Philippa Gregory and her cohort for me, thank you very much.)

The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje and I have never been close. My favourite book of his is The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which should tell you that I don’t connect well with his more traditional novels. The Cat’s Table was no exception. I felt like I should have liked it quite a bit–it’s about children running wild on a ship, after all, a plot that has worked well for others. But I didn’t care for it–maybe just because I read it relatively late in the lineup, when my patience for the themes and structural choices that it shares with so many of the other books had become worn. Like in The Last Brother we have a grown narrator reminiscing about life-altering childhood events; like The Sense of an Ending we have a meditation on memory and the perspective granted by time. I liked both of these things better in the works I read first. There is an attempt at a sensational, exciting plot, but it doesn’t fit, nothing fits together properly in this novel, it draws so many thematic conclusions that I have no idea what it was trying to do, and while I didn’t hate it I don’t consider it very worthy. It won’t last long in the Tournament.

The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock

A violent little book with little to redeem it. One of the few books from the Tournament that I actively wish I had not read. Kerry at Hungry Like the Woolf has an excellent review  which thoroughly covers my complaints. I’m too busy working on forgetting it to say more–luckily, I’m sure that this process will be facilitated by its speedy elimination from the Tournament.

Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

Last year’s winner of the National Book Award, Salvage the Bones has the prize pedigree to back its advance in the Tournament. Personally, I hope that the judges will refrain from giving this lackluster novel any more attention than it has already garnered; I am convinced–and this sounds horrible, I’m sorry, but I am–that its acclaim rests on it being a very PC pick. This is a story about Hurricane Katrina, narrated by Esch, a poor, black, pregnant fifteen-year-old. I have problems with historical tragedy being used in novels; as touched upon in my discussion of The Last Brother, it is often used manipulatively, to give a book false emotional weight. I felt this to be exactly the case with Salvage:  there is just so little to the book beyond the storm, its long buildup and anticipation, its quickly (and absolutely tritely) resolved aftermath. It read to me like any number of Young Adult Problem Novels, a subgenre I am well acquainted with from my misspent youth and which I have grown to abhor; I half-suspect it of being written as a YA book and elevated to adult through marketing ploys. Wander through the young adult section of your local bookstore:  I guarantee you’ll find dozens of books that would sit more comfortably beside Salvage as its rightful peers than you might by perusing the past winners of the National Book Award.

The “searing narrative voice” is supposed to be the thing that elevates this book from the others. Perhaps I am coldhearted, but I was unaffected. Esch is a noncharacter; her one personality trait is her horribly, repetitively described pregnancy. I doubt whether Ward  has ever been pregnant herself:  if she has, surely she could think of a better way to describe the sensation beyond comparing the abdomen to a bowl of water, a phrase so overused that I came to dread its inevitable recurrence with each turn of the page. I do not even want to talk about the heavy-handed overarching metaphoric comparison between Esch and China, her brother’s beloved and vicious fighting pit bull who gives birth to her first litter of puppies just as Esch realizes the fact of her own pregnancy. I would really have to sit and think very hard to come up with a recent read that’s contained such a clunky and forced parallel.

Other characters also fail to rise above the one-trait descriptions of them:  there’s the basketball playing eldest brother who longs to escape a life of poverty through sports, the half-feral younger brother who likes to scuffle around beneath the house, the alcoholic and neglectful father, the skeezy not-boyfriend who obviously prefers his official girlfriend to Esch, the strong & silent “nice guy” friend of her brothers. The only interesting characters were Skeetah, the brother closest in age to Esch, and his vicious China. The relationship between the boy and his dog was the only compelling one in the book.

I do like the structure of the book, if not the content:  the bulk of the book takes place in the days leading up to the hurricane, and the slow build of tension and anticipation is effectively excruciating. Katrina itself is well-described, well-written, and utterly harrowing, almost enough to raise my opinion. A sense of resentment at the emotional manipulation of the whole affair, combined with yet another terrible ending–this one falsely optimistic, pat, and overly simplistic–prevent that possibility. If this were in fact a YA novel I would judge it on kinder terms, but it is a prize winning adult novel, and I feel it to be utterly mediocre by those standards.

Green Girl, Kate Zambreno

A collection of vignettes about Ruth, a young woman adrift in London, told through the critical gaze of a Mysterious Narrator (presumably Ruth’s future self, but who knows; this intriguing stance was never resolved or much explored). Ruth is a “Green Girl,” a pretty waif utterly concerned with the surface of things, with her own surface. Her shallowness is the plot of the novel:  nothing happens, she is simply presented in various situations and then ridiculed for her failings. Positive reviewers have alluded to an empathy with Ruth, have suggested that her shallowness holds up a mirror to their own to a striking effect. I did not have the same experience–I found the character too emphatically empty to relate with in the least. Even the most appearance-concerned young women I have known, the most apparently stereotypical black-dress-buying US-weekly-reading makeup-smearing heel-wearing starlet-aspiring girls, are, indeed, people, each with thoughts and depths and worthinesses. I could find no reflection of reality in Ruth, nothing that matched my own experience of modern femininity. I kind of get what Zambreno might have been trying to do, but her social critique–if that is what this loose mess was intended to be–never advances beyond a profile of the so-called “Green Girl.” There is no deeper level, no greater concern, no interesting conclusion or implication. Like its character, Green Girl was, for me, nothing more than a pretty concept masking a hollow center. I will be shocked if this makes it very far at all in the Tournament (though I halfway suspect that its first judge, Edith Zimmerman, might find more value in it than I. We will see!)

Open City, Teju Cole

My surprise favourite of the books I hadn’t yet read. I disliked it while reading, but since finishing it has haunted my mind and encouraged my thoughts in directions they would not otherwise have gone. I  love it when a book does this, find it surprisingly rare, and value highly anything that stays with me for so long.  I rather intend to get my hands on a copy again and write a post dedicated to this one so I shan’t say more.

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The Last Brother by Natacha Appanah

This was one of the titles from the Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen that I was most excited to read, an anticipation that was somewhat disappointed as this one made no huge impression on me. I liked it, I was happy to have read it once I had finished. Contrary to what most reader reviews suggest–I am thinking mostly of goodreads, where most readers note dutifully the importance of being educated on a forgotten corner of World War 2 history–this is not a Holocaust novel; this is a novel about grief; about a small boy who has lost all of his brothers and who, through a series of tragedies, loses the stand-in brother, a friend who happens to be a Jewish refugee imprisoned in bureaucratic stasis on the island of Mauritius. It is indeed set in a forgotten pocket of the Holocaust narrative, but Appanah, I believe, makes a very conscious decision throughout most of the book to distance it from the genre. (I say most because the ending, the last few pages, disrupt this impression by making the historical context quite explicit. I hated the ending.) And thank goodness that she does. Holocaust in literature is a quandary best avoided except by minds of the highest order, writers of the finest talent and most unimpeachable integrity.* Appanah sidesteps the problem by employing the well-used trope of “adult narrator looking back on and retelling childhood events,” a narrative frame that is common enough to raise skepticism in this reader, but which may well have saved the book for me. It provided the very necessary perspective of memory and adulthood that saved it from falling into that most sentimentally precarious of genres, that of the Holocaust novel:  through the aged eyes of adult Raj, his childhood friend David is an enigma, a total Other; language barriers and the oblivion of childhood prevented young Raj from ever seeing his friend or knowing his suffering–and grown Raj realizes this and is repeatedly, physically tormented by his failure to ever know this most precious of friends, this surrogate brother. I took Raj’s retrospective realization as to how little he understood David’s situation as signifying the ineffable horror of the Holocaust, how it is impossible for anyone who has not directly experienced it to come close to understanding what it is like; that Appanah wove the acknowledgement of this impossibility into the plot is a mark in its favor. This strategy–an old man wracked by guilt over his failure to understand, and by understanding save, a young Jewish refugee–could have been heavy-handed, but it worked for me.

Rather, it worked until the ending, which–spoiler, I suppose–nearly destroyed the book for me:  the last few pages have a  stilted summary of historical events, unnecessarily shoehorned in, followed by a pat avowal to remember and pass on the story to future generations. This jerked the whole text back into the territory of bad Holocaust novels and the cliches they trade in. I would have preferred an ending more in line with the fraught guilt and sense of lifelong grief that characterizes the rest of the novel–the one it has quite undermines any emotional force that the book had until its close. So long as I can willfully pretend not to have read the last few pages I can appreciate this book.

*I draw a line of distinction between Holocaust fiction and true accounts, of course–everyone should read Primo Levi and Eli Wiesel–but my unease about fiction in this subgenre is due in part to the proliferation of false accounts which do great harm to historical truth, obviously by giving ammunition to deniers, but also simply by blurring the lines between fiction and reality in every mind. I cannot go so far as to agree with Adorno’s famous moratorium against creating art after the Holocaust; I am too much a romantic believer in the necessity of literature to go that far. But it is a difficult area, and books like The Book Thief or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas offend me, and are primarily what I am thinking of when I say how glad I am that The Last Brother is not of their ilk. I won’t continue in this digression–it’s awfully complicated to express well–but I refer anyone interested to the always-eloquent  Cynthia Ozick:  her essays “Who Owns Anne Frank?” and “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination,” both found in the collection Quarrel & Quandary, have informed my thoughts on this matter; I don’t fully agree with her–she takes an extreme stance–but the bones of the argument have always struck me as sound and I look upon the subgenre with eyes tinted by suspicion.

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I’ve written elsewhere,  once or twice, rather pompously I’m afraid, about the much-anticipated Tournament of Books already. For the uninitiated, the Tournament is the most fun on the Internet in March for bookish types; it is at once silly–because prizes for art are inherently ridiculous, based as they are on the vagaries of particular aesthetic taste–and profound–because it is, always, utterly aware of its own absurdity. For several years running I have done my best to read everything and, while I regret this OCD completionist attitude at certain reads, it’s always brought me more good than bad. It was easier this year than in last–I’d already read quite a few of them prior to the announcement. My first impression of the list was one of dissatisfaction:  last year was not a strong year for me in newly published contemporary fiction. I’m still working on formulating my revised and updated opinions on the books I read since the brackets made their glorious debut; until then, here are some brief, impressionistic thoughts on the ones I read prior to the announcement, in 2011. All have long since been returned to the library or otherwise rehomed (space restrictions, the fact that I already own more books than any person my age has a right to, prevents me from keeping most books after I’ve read them) so I am unable to do proper reviews, with substantiating evidence and quotes and page references, on any of the books, but these, the long-ago read will suffer most. Alas, nevertheless:

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

I liked this, as I knew I would:  memory claims that I’ve liked every Barnes I’ve ever read. It was fretful and extremely British; deceptively slight, but troublesome enough to continue in the mind long after the mere few hours it took to read had passed. I love this book for what it did to me more for its narrator (anonymous, forgettable, I do not even recall what his name was supposed to be) or the menial details of its plot:  it made me stop entirely in my head to think about agency and memory, action and inaction, the roles we play in our lives concretely and how they differ from the roles we think we play. “I wonder when our literature will stop being so obsessed with the fallibility of memory as its central theme,” a coworker said sarcastically when I tried to recommend it to her. She is right, in a way; it’s hardly a new idea. But it’s not exactly the point–the point is more about responsibility than anything else. A deeply moral book without ever moralizing, utterly profound, deserving of its Booker win regardless of what anyone says. In addition to its resonant theme I adored the way this was told–how actually, physically slight it was, how deceptively inconsequential and meandering and plotless/pointless everything seems until, suddenly, it’s over and you realize that something very large has just taken place without your notice. It’s incredibly subtle and masterful–I intend to buy it when it hits paperback and reread it to try and determine how it works, how Barnes managed it. This is easily one of my favourites of the batch and, though I’ve seen some mixed reactions to it, I do like its chances.

Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt

Helen DeWitt! Her first published book, The Last Samurai, made a great impression on me when I read it years ago that I’ve been eager to read more by her ever since, and this didn’t disappoint. Much. It’s a very, very different book from Samurai, and in comparison to that one it is slight–and not in a good way. Still, it isn’t fair to judge a book on the basis of its predecessor, and I did like this one quite a bit:  it was funny (a rarity for me–I am terminally serious and rarely amused) and biting and awfully smart. I actually read it–kind of, halfway–again in January to make sure it really was as satirical and clever as I thought it was. And it was, though perhaps a bit too reductive about gender differences to be truly great. ToB predictions:  probably not good–anyone who doesn’t get its particular brand of humor instantly might be offended or, at the very least, put off by the distant narrational tone.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick de Witt

All I can really remember about this was how distracting I found the spectre of its potential movie while reading it. I enjoyed it, I think, but suspect I read it in one of my famous Sunday afternoon tears, that is, too quickly to think much about it. (This is my habit with genre.) Everyone everywhere seems to invoke the Coen brothers in reference while describing it and this is apt:  it reads just like one of their films. This is, more or less, a good thing, but it’s no True Grit (which I must have read about the same time or a little before) in my memory. It may do well in the tournament–I’m confident, at least, that it will make it to the second round.

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides

This is my favourite to win–not because I adored it unreservedly, but because I think it fulfills a number of broadspectrum factors of appeal. I loved this while I was reading it–I could relate so much to it:  I love Barthes! and I’m interested in the varieties of religious experience! I know just what it feels like to fall in love destructively just after graduating from college with a useless degree in literary theory!–so much of it resonated, and, I suspect, will do so for others. For the day that I was reading it and about a week after I thought very highly of this book. I still do, but my swooning enthusiasm has died down markedly as the months have passed and I am more and more bothered by its defects. Which, as they are spoilery, I will not delve into in this post, but may return to if it does well in the ToB.

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht

This book had moments of excruciatingly beautiful writing but it never came close to fitting all of its disparate pieces together in a satisfying manner. I would like it a lot more if not for its pre-pub hype & the fact that no one–customers, mainly–who I’ve spoken to personally save for my good friend L. even remotely agrees with me that this book was just barely okay and certainly not great. Sometimes having a dissenting opinion makes me really aggressively contrary. If this advances at all in the tournament I will probably spend a lot of time complaining about it to my boyfriend–because he’ll at least nod along and appear to be listening–and perhaps to the silent caverns of the internet.

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

I have all the respect in the world for Ann Patchett as a human being. We–my coworkers and I–are all vocal, laudatory fans of her decision to enter bookselling. We scour our daily bookselling mailing lists for quotes she gives on bookselling, handselling, and indie bookstores in the age of amazon, and email them to each other, often simultaneously, always expressing the desire to meet her and thank her. Honestly, I’m kind of forgetting that she’s a writer.

I loved Bel Canto back in the day but haven’t read it since I was a young teenager. After this one, I probably never will reread it; she’s awfully bookclubby. This is fine–bookclubby books are often perfectly good and fill an important social role–but it’s simply not to my current taste. I still cannot decide how it will fare in the Tournament; Kingsolver, similarly bookclubby, did after all do very well with the (weak, I thought) Lacuna.

Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

I complained initially about the inclusion of both Obreht and Russell and I stand by that complaint:  I would have much rather had just one of the 20-under-40ers and given the spot to a more interesting, less well-known pick. Even though I like Obreht’s chances better in the contest itself, I would probably have chosen Russell over Obreht for the tournament, myself, because I personally found her effort to be slightly more charming and enjoyable. My notes suggest that my reason for disliking both books was the same:  both are so poorly structured that they fail as cohesive novels. I think I’m in the minority, but I am slightly more likely to pick up Russell’s next book than I am Obreht’s; I guess I just like alligators more than tigers. It won’t happen, but I’d love to see those two up against each other.

1Q84, Murakami

I had read half of this prior to the bracket release. I put it down in utter disgust, planning to never come back. Dubious readers, this is something I almost never do. If I have already read more than half of a book I am almost always going to finish it. I was bitterly disappointed by Murakami but my loyalty to the Tournament forced me to rally my strength, conduct a rescue expedition into the wilds of Under Bed, and sacrifice an entire Sunday to finishing. Spoiler:  it did not get any better. Scott Esposito expresses most of my complaints very nicely and with a lot less vitriol but even so I might write up something just about the Murakami–I can’t talk about it without discussing explicitly the end.

As Mr. McGinty could attest, if he pleased, I’ve devoted an unhealthy amount of the past month worrying that 1Q84 might sweep the Tournament, destroying my faith in my own taste. There are an awful lot of people on the internet who love this book; I do not understand and no one can or will explain it to me satisfactorily. I fear I am in the minority regarding Murakami’s behemoth; I fear it will do very, very well.

I have at my right elbow my copy of Javier Marias’ A Heart So White, a book that is much better, so far, than most of these. The library is nipping at my heels for its swift return so I shall, dear Internet, leave you for the pleasure of its company.


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