Sunday, March 13, 2011

TOB: Week Two Picks


This week's match-ups are definitely weaker. All of the "heavy-hitters", the books everyone knows, read, and has given awards to, were in last week's brackets. In fact, a few days ago, A Visit From the Goon Squad won the National Book Critics Circle Award. If you download it, just make sure you read the powerpoint chapter on your iPad and not your Kindle.

This is also the week that features more of the books I haven't read, but that will not deter me!

Nox vs. Lord of Misrule
This match is hard to call since it's a stretch to call Nox a novel. But I loved this book, and somehow it's mysteriousness felt accessible. Since I previously wrote about Nox, I'll turn my attention to Lord of Misrule, which won the National Book Award as a total upset. The book is organized into 4 sections, each one focusing on a single horse race. In each section, there are multiple narrators. I "read" the first section, and you'll see I put it in scare quotes. That's because I found the book almost unreadable. Swear to God, one of the narrators is a old man, a stablehand or groom, and at one point he refers to how hard it was to give up "likker." Come on. Along with the super-annoying narration, there's way too much inside baseball about horses and horse racing, so I didn't get that. And, honestly, I didn't want to get it. Besides little girls and bajillionaires, is there anyone who really gives a shit about horses? By default, this one goes to Nox.

Next vs. So Much For That
Again, a match-up where I've only read one of the books. Next, like The Finkler Question and Super Sad True Love Story, is a book about a middle-aged white guy with middle-aged white guy problems. After reading these books, I can tell you that there are apparently only 2 middle-aged white guy problems: 1)Will I ever get laid by a pretty, young girl again? 2)When will I die?

is up against a book about the health care system and how eff'd up it is, the novel So Much For That by Lionel Shriver. I'm not reading it because it sounds brutally depressing, and because I already have her novel The Post-Birthday World in by TBR pile. I think enough white-guy problem novels have advanced, so I'm calling this round for So Much For That.

Super Sad True Love Story vs. Model Home
I just finished Super Sad True Love Story on Saturday afternoon and I ended up liking it better than I thought I would. This book is sort of hilarious. It's like Gary Shteyngart got a bunch of liberals in a room for a focus group and asked them what they think is wrong with America. Hence, it's set in a not-so-distant, dystopian future: an America where the dollar is yuan-pegged, books no longer exist, and people "verbal" each other only when texting isn't available. All anyone does is shop, and your worthiness is determined by your credit score. The country is run by international corporations rather than the government. Even I, a proud flaming liberal, felt like this was liberal boilerplate run amuck.

The story is told by 2 narrators: Lenny, an old man of 39 (this culture loves youth) and his young, beautiful, Korean girlfriend Eunice Park. I think a triumph of the novel is how different the narrator's voices are. Usually, I think all the narrators just sound the same, but that's not true here. But at the same time, this novel felt like a lot of work to read. It's a glimpse of a future, decaying, destroyed America, but it doesn't feel too convincing. It feels like a gimmick disguised as a novel. It has it's heartfelt moments though, and ultimately the theme is that no one can ever erase the importance of family and human connections, that love, unexpected and tentative, conquers all. And doesn't my inner-flaming liberal just eat that up? Sigh.

I finished Model Home about 5 minutes ago, Monday evening. It's another family drama, more like Bloodroot or Lemon Cake in that it focuses on a family rather than a couple. In this novel, set in the 1980s, the Ziller family faces some extreme hardships. The father, Warren, has bankrupted his entire family in pursuit of a misguided real estate venture in the Mojave Desert. Although I have some issues with the book (too many points of view/too much "head hopping" from one character to another), I loved watching the changing relationships between Warren and his family. There are 2 teenaged children, a daughter, Lyle, and son, Dustin, that are well drawn. The 3rd son, Jonas, seems like more of a plot device and not as fully fleshed out. Despite these issues, it was a more fulfilling story than Super Sad. I don't want to give too much away, because it's a book I'd recommend to anyone. It's not perfect, but it's a good, solid first novel from Eric Puchner.

Bloodroot vs. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Bloodroot should definitely win here. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake just drifted off into bizarro world and never recovered. Bloodroot felt more complete and more compelling. It's just a great story, in a way that Lemon Cake isn't. Lemon Cake starts with an amazing premise that it ultimately can't carry off. Bloodroot starts with the most pedestrian of premises, the generational family story, but it does it well. The questions it answers are, I think, universal and heart-wrenching: What is it that makes people emotionally destructive to themselves and to others? Why do we hurt the ones we love? Why can't we love the ones who want or need us the most?

Of all the books in the tournament, I might have enjoyed Bloodroot the most. We've talked about this before: when I go into a book or movie with no expectations, it's when I have the potential to be the most pleasantly surprised. This book felt like a discovery. I loved it.

Where does that leave me, reading wise? It looks like the next thing to do is try Freedom. I'm sure it will continue to advance, so it makes sense to read. For some reason, I'm dreading it...and it might be because of you. A few weeks ago, you mentioned hating The Corrections. This is the same author! I think I have an existential dread of Freedom because I'm worried I'll feel the same way about it as you did about The Corrections. Hmmm...we shall see. Maybe it's Mercy Thompson time!



  1. I appreciate your review of Super Sad Love Story -- I downloaded a sample of it and did not get into it At. All. Good to know you liked it better than you thought you would -- I'll file that away for now.

    I've heard great things about Bloodroot -- perhaps I need to add it to my TBR pile?

    Sorry to put you off of Jonathan Franzen! I cannot even remember what I hated about The Corrections. But I feel like I am the only person in the world who did not like that book, so don't take my word for it. Further, despite my experience with The Corrections, I've been interested in reading Freedom. So go for it! (Perhaps your low expectations will be greatly exceeded.) (And, if not, it will make wonderful fodder for a snarky review. Heh. ;)

    I am enjoying being a spectator on your ToB Journey. I read too slow, so it's great to get a report from a Speedy Reader! ;)

    Aaaaand... yes. It is definitely time for Mercy Thompson. Definitely.

  2. The first round is over. I picked 5 of the 8 correctly---Bloodroot got robbed! Boo hoo.

    Maybe it's time to start reading Freedom! I'm halfway through the latest Mercy, though, so that is first.


  3. I'm amazed that Lemon Cake beat out Bloodroot. I just read the match -- that judge wasn't fond of either of them, was she? -- and I found it fascinating that her problems with Lemon Cake did not seem to be remotely close to our problems with it. (A chair? A CHAIR?!)

    Eeeenteresting. I think I have to read Bloodroot

  4. I'm going to have to add Bloodroot to my TBR list.

    I'm just a couple of chapters into Freedom (a drop in the bucket, I know) and so far I like it. There's something about the author's tone--a little snarky without being an asshole--that I'm enjoying. We'll see. But I haven't read The Corrections, so I'm not going in with any previous experience with The Franzen.

    And Jen, I wasn't planning on reading Lord of Misrule, but I loved your review: "Besides little girls and bajillionaires, is there anyone who really gives a shit about horses?" Hee.