Saturday, March 3, 2012

Tournament of Books Preview, Part 1.


As you can imagine, I'm getting pretty excited for the start of the Tournament of Books this week. There's clearly some organizational changes afoot, and I feel a little confused and discombobulated about the structure of this year's tournament. One huge improvement, as I've already discussed, was that they released the 16 finalists already in brackets. This has been fantastic because I have been targeted in my reading knowing which books were paired up.

However, in previous years, the schedule and pace of the whole Tournament was different...maybe? Last year, the entire Tournament was completed in 4 weeks + 1 agonizing weekend. The tournament started on a Monday with that first day being an overview of the 16 choices. The first 8 match ups then took place, one per weekday, until the following Thursday. Then, the 2nd Friday was a first round recap. In other words, it took a full 2 weeks to complete the first round. In the 3rd week of the Tournament, there were the quarterfinals, winnowing 8 down to 4. The last full week took us down to 2, but then added back in 2 reader favorites, or zombies. It wasn't until the following Monday that the winner was revealed. It was so deliciously time-consuming! Although I really wanted to see which books would advance, I also enjoyed the recap and review days that were just chatter about books and the progress of the Tournament so far. I am so "into" it and I loved every morning of that month. I literally could not wait to see what each day brought. (I realize that I sound unbearably geeky here, but it's all true.) The other advantage to the long schedule is that I could still be actively reading books during the Tournament, especially since the last 2 weeks of March are always my Spring Break.

This year, the Tournament starts on a Wednesday, March 7th, and ends on Friday March 30th. My guess is they are just cutting out some of the recap days, but I am curious. It's also weird because the site apparently won't go live until March 7th. Every other year, they would put up the books, brackets, dates, and judges in advance. I am quite curious to see what's going on there. There are two guys who are like the announcers and hosts for the whole thing, maybe they were just tired of all that extra stuff? I guess one could argue that the thing is entirely too meta: let's not only do this thing, but let's spend a lot of time talking this thing to death. I, however, would argue that it's the meta that makes it great.

Either way, it starts on Wednesday, and I've so far completed 11 of the 16. I'm about 1/3 of the way through 1Q84. Even though I've never read Moby Dick, it's starting to feel like my own personal white whale. Here's my picks for the first half of Round 1. (I was going to do them all, but it's getting ridiculously long, and I really should be writing grade reports.) Keep in mind this is completely unscientific, sometimes I pick what I think *will* win, and sometimes I choose what I think *should* win.

The Sense of an Ending vs.  The Devil All the Time
I've read both of these, and I think it will go the The Sense of an Ending, which I reviewed here.

The Devil All the Time isn't for everyone, and that's what will probably doom it to an early exit from the Tournament. It's a bleak look at the violent world inhabited by people of a small southern Ohio town. This book is unrelenting: a team of serial killers works the country, looking for victims; a preacher molests teenage girls in his flock, convinced of his righteousness; a man builds of shrine to sacrifice animals, praying to cure his wife's cancer. The hero, if you could call it that, is a boy named Arvin. It's his mother that dies of cancer and his father that drags him into the local woods to pray. As a man, Arvin has to live knowing that he has the capacity for both gentleness and brutality. It's his story that grounds the book and gives it heart: without him it's hell without a speck of redemption. The book is both beautifully written and disgustingly repellent. I don't know how to describe the act of reading it: everything in it is so physically raw, it was like choking down a steak that's too rare. I'm not sure I enjoyed it, but it's unusual for a book to have such a visceral impact on me.

Lightning Rods vs. Salvage the Bones
I'd like to see Salvage the Bones win this round. I genuinely think it's a better book in every way (see my review here), but it will completely depend on the judge. Also, this has to be the most bizarre match-up of the Tournament. These two books have literally nothing in common with which to base a comparison.

I almost don't know what to say about Lightning Rods, it was just that bizarre. I guess the easiest way to describe it is as a satire about sex in the workplace, or about the state of sex in 21st century America. The main character, Joe, devises a system to relieve sexual harassment in the workplace. It's long, complicated, and purposefully absurd, but what it boils down to is certain preselected, anonymous women (the lightning rods) backing their asses up to a hole in the wall, while a male coworker takes care of business from the other side. Why anyone would agree to this is the whole business of the novel, but the running gag seems to be that using the right sales pitch and corporate double-speak, you can sell just about anything to anyone. Obviously, as satire, it it meant to be over the top and unbearably clever. It's not that I disliked it, exactly. It was certainly uncomfortable to read, which means it was successful on some level, but maybe I just didn't "get it." Let's just say that I am very much looking forward to the commentary on this one; some books I just need to talk about, and this is one of them.

1Q84 vs. The Last Brother
This match up is completely impossible to call. My gut tells me that it will go to 1Q84, because who wants to be the guy to knock that one out?

I'm enjoying 1Q84, but it's just very slow going. I feel like I've been reading it forever and I'm only on page 330! What's impeding my progress is the long-winded exposition. I love the writing, but how many pages can there be with Aomame or Tengo doing nothing but have protracted, involved conversations of background information? Much to my dismay, the answer seems to be >330.  I would like something to happen. And, as God as my witness, I cannot take any more moments of Tengo wondering about his childhood memory of another man at his mother's breasts. Ugh!

The Last Brother was wonderful. It probably would have been a good match up with The Sense of an Ending, because both of these books are short (under 200 pages) novels about old men looking back at some formative childhood event. I think that the reason it got matched up with 1Q84 instead is because they are both books in translation.

The narrator, Raj, is a man in his 70s, looking back on a strange incident from his youth. He was a young boy of 10 during World War II, growing up on the Pacific island of Mauritius. Raj and his parents move away from their village after a family tragedy. His father gets a job at the local jail, and Raj is determined to find out why there are strange white people imprisoned there. After landing in the jail's infirmary (the island has no hospital), Raj makes friends with a boy, David. Raj's memory of their friendship is incredibly moving. I just loved this little book. The writing is lovely, the story is simple but touching, and Raj's feelings of regret and loss are very human. It's feeling like this year's Bloodroot: the unexpected "find" of reading a book that otherwise would have never been on my radar.

The Stranger’s Child vs. The Tiger’s Wife
I'm going with The Tiger's Wife in this round. The Stranger's Child is at the bottom of the ToB-TBR pile. At least a few people I know gave it the thumbs down. I'll probably only read it if it advances.

Some people loved The Tiger's Wife, and although it wasn't perfect by any means, I didn't hate it. Interestingly, my reader friends at work felt the same ambivalence about it that I did, but I don't see that being a deal breaker. There are too many good things about it to see it go down in Round One.

Whew! I will finish up Part 2 of this in a few days...after finishing report cards!


  1. I had noticed there is no site yet for the 2012 Tournament of Books and I thought it was so strange. If you go to what seems to be the official site ( it still has all of last year's info. I've seen the post with the 2012 list, but I keep expecting them to replace last year's info on that site. Guess that will happen March 7? Kind of odd.

    Some of these books sound downright repellent -- Lightning Rods, The Devil All the Time, and Swamplandia! all make me squirm, just based on your descriptions. I'm glad you're reading them so I know what to avoid. :)

    Found another reason to hate Subtext... when I tried to fire up my book on the plane and found... nope. If you're not connected to the internet, your book is unavailable. F. So I switched to Google Books and I probably won't go back to Subtext, since it doesn't sync with Google Books (wtf) and now that I'm using Google Books, of course I'm reading on my phone. Subtext seemed like a good idea at the time, but I think they've bitten off more than they can chew. I wish Amazon would implement this sort of interactive reading with the Kindle. They sort of have it, but you cannot select the people you want to share with (it's everyone or no one). So maybe that's in the future for them.

    I'm at around page 220 in 1Q84. As I read the winding prose, I keep thinking, "I love this" and "I'll bet Jenny hates this." Heh.

    In other Book News for me, I am currently listening to A Moveable Feast and I'm really enjoying it. It's short, so I'll be done soon. Have you read it?

    And I finished listening to Reamde a couple of weeks ago and that was really fun. It was long and the story was kind of convoluted but fast paced, really engaging, and the narrator was great -- pretty much a perfect audiobook. Definitely not "great literature" or anything... but definitely a fun listen (good for packing!)

    I wish that the narrator for 1Q84 got better reviews (I listened to a clip and it was pretty much unbearable) because I think it would be a terrific audiobook. As it is, I just have to buckle down and find time to read it!

  2. You know what, if it wasn't for the time crunch factor on 1Q84, I'd probably be fine with it. There have been books I just meandered through (A Hundred Years of Solitude comes to mind), but because I want to finish it for the Tournament it's bothersome. That being said, I LIKE it, but it does feel exposition heavy. I am curious about what will happen and where it's going and will definitely finish it no matter what. The writing is so fantastic, I do honestly wonder what it must be like to read it in Japanese.

    Yes, Subtext has it's strengths, but it's weaknesses, too. It's hard for me to imagine that Amazon won't gobble up this idea at some point, but right now I'm not impressed with their social reading stuff at all...popular highlighting? Come on!


  3. K,

    I suppose it doesn't help that I've been reading 1Q84 in subtext on my iPad, on my phone in Google Books, and occasionally I pick up the pBook when the mood strikes me. I keep meaning to take pictures of the pBook for you, because it really is a cool book in a lot of ways. The page numbers are spectacular, and when's the last time you said that? I promise I will do that at some point soon and upload them.

    I have NOT read A Moveable Feast, but I've wanted to ever since finishing it's mediocre stand-in, The Paris Wife.


    PS. Yes, I wrote this entire comment because I wanted to say pBook a bunch of times.

  4. I disagree on The Sense of an Ending vs. The Devil All The Time mostly because I found the latter to be so readable despite the often disturbing subject matter. The Sense of an Ending was beautifully written, but weirdly slow for such a short novel.

    I haven't read Lightning Rods (yet), but just based on subject matter and the heavyweight it's up against, I'd be surprised if it made it through.

    I think 1Q84 will collapse under its own weight right here in the first round. The problems you mentioned seeing in 1Q84 run throughout the novel and it was a big disappointment (for me, at least). On the other hand, some people really loved it - so it's kind of a wild-card, I guess.

    I agree on The Tiger's Wife, although there's been some backlash since it was hyped so heavily and then won The Orange Prize and short-listed for the National Book Award and Dylan Thomas Prize. But overall I think the Tiger's Wife is a stronger, more readable book.

    I'm running a contest around the Tournament of Books if you're interested:

  5. You're 3 for 4 so far! I love reading the matchups and commentaries, but the last two have sort of felt like coin-flips (1Q84 and Tiger's Wife) which I guess, I can understand... in theory, these are all good books, right? It should be difficult to decide between them.

    But I was really surprised when the final word was that Lightning Rods won after reading that review. And by a "TKO?" Really? It seems like the reviewer had far more problems with Lighting Rods than Salvage the Bones. Oh, well. What do I know? I'm just an observer. ;)