Sunday, January 22, 2012

Tournament Progress Update #1


Some quotation marks are useless. Not so for speakers in books!
Here's an update on my progress so far.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending vs. Donald Ray Pollock, Devil All the Time

I've read The Sense of an Ending and liked it a lot. I thought it had a sort of silly "reveal" at the end, but it's also had surprising staying power. Some books just drift away after reading, and some pop up in my consciousness at surprising times. The Sense of an Ending is the latter.

I'll be curious to see how Devil All The Time matches up. Its author, Donald Ray Pollock, wrote a book of short stories called Knockemstiff. I struggle with short stories---they just don't speak to me the same way novels do. In fact, I usually skip the short stories when I'm reading The New Yorker! That being said, there are short stories that I have read that are so spectacular, I wonder why I don't read more of them...but I have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer to that question. I especially struggle with short story collections--too many by the same author can be draining? What I'm trying to tell you is that I never finished Knockemstiff. I'll be curious to give his novel a try.

Helen Dewitt, Lightning Rods vs. Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
As you may remember, there's a "Zombie" round in the Tournament. Before the Tournament begins, readers select a favorite from the contenders. 2 of them come back from elimination in one of the final rounds. I selected Salvage the Bones as my zombie pick. Of the ones I have read thus far, it's my favorite. However, I have heard GREAT things about Lightning Rods, and I'm excited to get to that one, probably next.

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 vs. Nathacha Appanah, The Last Brother
1Q84 is looking overwhelmingly large. I'm excited about our plan to read it together, and should be making concerted, steady progress by the end of this week. My book club is meeting Tuesday, and I'm prioritizing there.

Alan Hollinghurst, Stranger’s Child vs. Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife
I really didn't love The Tiger's Wife. I didn't hate it or even dislike it, it's just not very novel-like, for lack of a better word. I described it to someone as "screaming MFA." It's highly manufactured, managed, and massaged. For me, the ultimate problem is that the narrator tells some brilliantly compelling stories, but her own story is non-existent. That's a big hole in the middle of the novel that all the fantastic writing in the world can't fix.

Ann Patchett, State of Wonder vs. Patrick DeWitt, The Sisters Brothers
I got nothing here. Haven't started either one.

Karen Russell, Swamplandia! vs. Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table
Oh, how I hated Swamplandia!. It's this year's Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Brilliant start, totally fucked up ending. It starts out so great: thirteen year old Ava and her family run a tourist trap theme park (the whole family are alligator wrestlers) on an island off Florida's Gulf Coast. It's quirky and strange and I was loving it. You would love it, too.

And then it all takes a turn. For reasons too complicated and idiotic to describe, Ava's older siblings and father LEAVE HER ALONE on the island. Did I mention she's 13? Then, a mysterious man she calls The Bird Man appears. He offers to help her find her sister, Ossie, who has run away with a ghost. He promises her that he knows the way to the Underworld. I was trying to embrace it, thinking it's a modern day adventure that harkens back to the great Greek myths. Problem is, the smarter part of my brain was screaming at me: she is taking off with an adult she doesn't know. He is going to rape her! He is going to rape her! Looking back, I do wonder if that was just my own personal paranoia (it wasn't too hard to imagine one of my students as I was reading. Creepy.) or if the author was subtly forecasting Bird Man's real intent with her language. This is a real dilemma, because maybe it's brilliant writing on her part, but who cares when I'm so furious about the fact that he does indeed rape her? And she doesn't tell anyone...and she kind of thinks it was her fault...and she has nostalgic thoughts of their journey...and she misses him even once she's back with her family. I mean, are you fucking kidding me?

I was reading, there was one scene where it struck me that Russell was going for a Prayer for Owen Meany kind of thing. Ava makes her escape from Bird Man by swimming through alligator infested waters. Everything in Ava's life is leading up to this moment and everything she's learned at Swamplandia! helps her to escape. Only you know what? It's so lamely carried off that it was more sad that brilliant. However, it did make me want to read Owen Meany again. Anything to take the bad taste out of my mouth that was left over by this nightmare.

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot vs. Kate Zambreno, Green Girl 
This is the only match-up where I've read both books. Well, I actually am only about halfway through Green Girl. It's feeling like a sacrificial lamb to the juggernaut that is The Marriage Plot.

The first strike against Green Girl is that it is doing the trendy "no quotation marks" thing. Authors need to stop this. It's ridiculous and the only thing it adds to the reading experience is annoyance. Why do this? Why? I mean, unless an author is planning to eschew punctuation altogether, a la James Joyce's last chapter of Ulysses, it is just plain exasperating. (Even Lionel Shriver--she's everywhere!--agrees.) It's funny, because I don't think of myself as a grammar or punctuation nazi, but for some reason, this trend really gets me. What did quotation marks ever do to deserve this? [/rant]

Green Girl is more like poetry than a novel in some ways. Not that it's written in verse---although certainly parts of it are---but that the author seems intent on capturing mood and feeling more than plot. There is a main character, Ruth, a mid-20s expatriate working as a shop girl in London. She doesn't find her life fulfilling and seems to be drifting aimlessly through her life. I guess this is why it's matched up with The Marriage Plot since it's not too hard to see the connection between Ruth and Madeline.

Reading about Ruth's life is depressing. Although I don't doubt that there are aimless young women out there in the world, waiting for something or someone to come along and complete them, I don't find it particularly compelling reading. I didn't like those girls when I was that age. I certainly don't like who those girls have turned out to be in their 30s. It's not a bad read, it's just sad and lonely. I'll finish it and see where it ends up.

Perhaps I should write in my own quotation marks and sell it back to a used bookstore, having made the world a better place. Heh.

Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding vs. Teju Cole, Open City
Open City might be the dark horse of the Tournament this year. Julian, 30-something young psychiatrist at the end of his residency, an American by choice and a Nigerian by birth, and a philosopher and thinker. The character of Julian is so interesting, and his brain is such a fascinating place to be, that I was okay with the fact that this book is essentially plotless. As someone who loves New York, you would enjoy this book. Much of it takes place as Julian walks through the city---ruminating on his past and present, and the past and present of Manhattan. Psychiatry is the perfect profession for him: his thoughts smooth over and rationalize any rough edges in his actions. But as the book goes on, Julian becomes both more interesting and more obtuse.  I started to question his story of himself and his life---why is he so distant from everyone? Why the rift with his mother? This seems to be the mystery of the novel in some ways: Julian's difficult or non-existent relationships with women. What are all the stories about his past leading him to understand or recall? Like The Sense of an Ending, this novel has a surprise revelation at the end. I'm not sure what to think about it, so I'm glad to see this book in the tournament in order to discuss it.

Also, in fairness to Green Girl, this is also a book without quotation marks. Sigh. It's catching.

The immediate reading plan:
1.) Finish Green Girl.
2.) Keep reading 1Q84 I think I'll be at this one for a while.
3.) I want to read Lightning Rods, which just sounds good. But realistically, I should prioritize The Art of Fielding and State of Wonder, both of which are borrowed from the school library.



  1. This is sort of funny--- I couldn't remember the name of the book I hated so much from last year. I thought for a minute it was called The Despicable Sweetness of Lemon Cake. Heh.

  2. After we talked about Swamplandia!, I went checking out reviews and you are not alone in your feelings about this book. I feel like there are *far* more people saying "WTF?" about it than there were about Lemon Cake. I don't need to read about 13 year olds getting raped. Who does? Ugh.

    Thanks for the update on all of the other books -- looking forward to hearing out it all plays out. I am chipping away at 1Q84, but still need to finish my January book -- wouldn't be good to get behind in the *first* month of the year!

  3. I am glad I skipped Swamplandia!. I had a copy, barely had started and just wasn't feeling it (different from your experience there). But, if it got worse for you, there would have been no redemption for me. I feel good about skipping it now.

    I've completed these matchups and here are my quick thoughts:

    The Sense of an Ending vs. The Devil All the Time: The former is an excellently elegant novel of the highest literary quality, the latter is worthless dreck. Sense sticks a Glock in Devil's mouth and pulls the trigger.

    State of Wonder vs. The Sisters Brothers: This is the closest match of the opening round. Everything depends on the judge. Patchett's novel is an "exciting" read of solid, if not imaginative, craftsmanship. de Witt's novel is an exciting read that may try a little harder for literary value, but misses its mark a little wider. de Witt's ranks higher with me, but I would not get in a big argument with anyone who went the other way.

    The Marriage Plot vs. Green Girl: As flawed as Eugenides's novel is, Zambreno will be distracted by a designer purse while The Marriage Plot sidles through to the next round.

    Of the others I have read (or am reading, Salvage)..

    The Last Brother could take down 1Q84 with the right judge, but I don't think it will.

    Salvage the Bones should best Lightning Rods (which also sounds like a candidate for Particular Sadness in that it has a sort of good/funny premise but, from what I have heard, fizzles in expanding/executing.

    Thanks for this forum for some pre-TOB discussion. (And thanks for dropping by my place!)

    Kerry @ Hungry Like the Woolf