Monday, March 12, 2012

Tournament of Books preview, Part 2


The TOB is just as awesome as I was hoping. I love reading the decisions, but probably the bickering back and forth with other readers is my favorite part.

One of the things that I'm noticing as I write about the books is that *almost all of them* have what I would consider failed, or at least highly problematic endings. Why can't authors pull off the satisfyingly good ending anymore?

State of Wonder vs. The Sisters Brothers
Now this is an interesting match-up and feels like the closest call of the TOB. Although I didn't expect to like either of these books, I was pleasantly surprised by both of them. State of Wonder is well-plotted and fast-paced. Marina is a doctor and scientist working for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota. She is instructed by her boss and lover (Ridiculously, she refers to him as Mr. Fox. It's silly.) to travel to the company's research station in the Amazon to discover two things: the truth about the death of colleague, and the progress being made on a miracle fertility drug.

What the book does well is explore just how perilous this place is for Marina. She must find her old mentor and professor, Dr. Annick Swenson. Dr. Swenson was Marina's attending physician the night a c-section went horribly wrong, and Marina is wary of seeing her again. The strangeness only escalates when Marina arrives at the research station and starts to understand the complicated medical trials and amazing rituals of the local villagers.

State of Wonder is very much about Western medicine vs. native ways of life. It was compelling without being too "preachy." Don't get me wrong, the whole book is some ways feels like an argument against Western idealism in the face of the world's realities. The plot gets tied up a little too neatly if you ask me, but there were at least a few lingering questions (although those seem so heavily hinted/foreshadowed that they don't seem all that mysterious). Although it's a good story and a solid read, I wouldn't call it revelatory. Nothing truly surprised or delighted me, but does that matter? Sometimes I'm just grateful for a "good read" and State of Wonder definitely qualified.

Another surprise was The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. Eli and Charlie Sisters are a duo of killers kicking around in the American West in the mid 1800s. Eli is the narrator, and seems to be the more gentle and thoughtful of the two. The first half of the book was just okay: the writing is nice, and there's an amusing bit about Eli adopting a toothbrush and loving the feeling of clean teeth, a metaphor for wanting to clean up his life?  The chapters are short and elegiac, with Eli tiring of their life of crime and murder. Yet the brothers have a job to do, and they head to San Francisco where they are to kill a man named Herman Warm by their boss, The Commander. I found myself liking the book much more once they actually arrived in San Francisco. There are some amusing descriptions of San Franciscans at that time. {I will add some of the quotes when I get home later. I actually marked the pages, thinking you would also enjoy it.}

But it's once they find Warm and figure out what he's up to, pledging to help him rather than kill him that I found myself truly interested. In other words, it got better. It was sort of a weird ending, and I'm perhaps thinking it was a dream? Or an afterlife? But overall I enjoyed it. Also, this is one of the books that I never would have picked it up on my own had it not been in the TOB. Finally, I thought it had a fantastic cover.

Either way, now that I've written about it at length: I think State of Wonder should--and will--advance. 

Swamplandia! vs. The Cat’s Table 
I hated Swamplandia!, so I'm hoping The Cat's Table will advance. I'm going to try and read it before the match up on Thursday. It could happen. Although the only other book I've read by Ondaatje is The English Patient, a book I loved but that was also a "slow" read for me.

The Marriage Plot vs. Green Girl 
Look, it's going to shock the hell out of me and everyone else if The Marriage Plot doesn't win handily here. Whatever its weaknesses, The Marriage Plot is a solidly good novel with a lot going for it. Green Girl wasn't bad, it just wasn't really a novel, and felt more experimental than anything else. And for me personally, there just weren't a lot of entry points to lure me in. It was almost perfectly designed to repel me, as a matter of fact. Wishy-washy and weak female characters just aren't my thing. I guess if they were, I'd be a Republican. Heh.

Looking back, there's one observation about Green Girl that I keep puzzling over. As previously discussed, it has the trendy-no-quotation-mark thing going on with it's dialogue. But, EVERY SINGLE CHAPTER of that book, and some are only a page or two long, is prefaced with an epigraph. That is, a lengthy QUOTE from someone else that sets the mood for that chapter. Honestly, I don't usually read epigraphs all that carefully, but I found myself doing so with Green Girl. If it weren't for those quotes, I'm not sure I would have understood what the author was going for. It was sort of weird, actually, why let another author horn in and state your themes more clearly than you can? I'm sure it's just some sort of clever way to show us, once again, that the main character doesn't have a real self, and is a construct of her surroundings, yada, yada. It doesn't work, though. Propping up Green Girl with all those other authors just made it seem like it didn't have much to say on its own.

Also, as a general rule, let's just agree RIGHT NOW that any ending that has someone joining in a Hare Krishna parade is not going to work. Jeez, I found Madeline's "do-over" ending more believable. And I thought that ending was ridiculous.

The Art of Fielding vs. Open City
I wrote about Open City earlier this year. Like 1Q84, it's pretty plotless, but it was also a lot more compact and I enjoyed it. I didn't like the ending, but I'm quite curious to see the commentary on the book. I think it bears some discussion. Either way, you're probably sensing a theme, here, with the bad endings. I'm going to try to get to The Art of Fielding next weekend if I can. This feels like a crowd pleaser and everyone loves it, so I'm going to predict that it beats Open City. Plus, I think the judge of this match is a sports writer. I don't want to judge the judges, but hard to believe a beloved novel about baseball wouldn't be more appealing that a guy wandering around thinking about his life. Also, on sheer principle, I refuse to vote for books without quotation marks.

Whew! Let's see how I do!


  1. "Why can't authors pull off the satisfyingly good ending anymore?"

    Is it really "anymore?" I feel like I have had a lifelong dissatisfaction with most books I have read. When I read a book with a good ending, I usually feel pleasantly surprised. *Plus* I hold off on recommending books until I have finished. Do you remember that book Crooked River Burning? I *loved* that book until it shit the bed with about 20 pages to go. I struggle to recommend it to people that I know would like it (esp. anyone with a connection to Cleveland) because of that terrible ending.

    I think, especially, if the book is exploring fresh new territories (which it seems like quite a few books on the ToB list are), then there's no "formula" to rely on and the author struggles (and, even when there is, many times authors do not want to, right?)

    At this point, I'm more impressed with an author's ability to *finish* a book well than to write the damned thing in the first place. And I don't think that's new. CRB was one example, but I remember being pissed off about this issue in college (and maybe even earlier).

    I love the cover of The Sisters Brothers, I love that title, and I love the name "Herman Warm" -- of all of the books that you've reviewed for the ToB, other than 1Q84, this one has piqued my interest the most.

    Lovin' reading the ToB. I wonder how many other true lurkers there are out there.

  2. K,

    I finished The Art of Fielding. I enjoyed it, although it did have a weird ending. Although everyone I knew said, "Mm..weird ending", and therefore I was ready for it.

    Interestingly, I bet it's a book I could get talked into disliking. There were definitely some things some of the characters did/said/thought that I just shrugged at, but someone with a forceful opinion could sway me.

    So far, as predicted, I'm loving the TOB. Love the comments section, love the decisions, love everything. If I had all the money in the world, I'd be constantly enrolled in 1 college level English class just for fun. I love talking ABOUT books, and there's just so few places you can have that satisfying back and forth. I've come to realize that it's the comments that really "make it" for me. To have 100 comments just on the merits of this book or that book? It's like heaven, right there on the internet.

    One thing I find really interesting is the people that bitch about the decision. I always find the decision-making process so interesting. It's so OBVIOUSLY subjective, that's the whole point, right? I love seeing why people enjoy the things they do about books and about reading. But some people always complain: too literary, too smirky, too silly, too this, too that. Although I have disagreed with the outcome, I've always enjoyed the process.

    Oh well. One more book in round 1 tomorrow. It goes by so fast. :sob:

  3. K,

    Another funny thing--Disqus commenting allows you to have a banner next to your name. So early on, I started to change it every day to something funny about the match up.

    1Q84 vs Last Brother: "I never again want to hear about the breasts of Tengo's Mother."

    Tigers Wife vs Strangers Child: "This match up is 100% Meh."

    Sisters Bros. vs State of Wonder: "Can the magic gold finding liquid be used to find Kony?"

    Green Girl vs Marriage Plot: "Let's build a fire for the sacrificial lamb!"

    I didn't think anyone was actually noticing, but then a few people said they liked it, and now I feel all pressured to be clever every day! I guess this is not a bad problem to have, though, right?


  4. I hate Disqus. I can't remember why, but I had a bad experience with it once an have never forgiven it. Of note: your cute little quips don't show up if you're reading ToB comments on the iPhone. That may not even be Disqus's fault, but I'm blaming it anyway.

    Having said that, I am also enjoying the comments and the quality of the discussion is really phenomenal. There isn't a place on the Internets where smart, witty book nerds go to regularly discuss books? I don't believe it. Or, maybe if it lasts longer than a few weeks, the waters get muddied with the general douche-baggery and then the magic is gone. I wonder.

    Meanwhile, saw something eeeenteresting in my email box this week -- the 5th Annual Tournament of *Audiobooks." Looks like it's voted on entirely by listeners, so no judges and no witty repartee, but I do love Audiobook recommendations, especially since my last two picks have been duds! Ugh!

    One was Anna Karenina. This one may be a victim of my current circumstances, as my mind is absolutely *racing* these days and I am very active while listening. Which means that a book has to be *highly* entertaining/engrossing to get a little bit of space in my head right now. AK seems like kind of a dense read anyway, with all of those tricksy Russian names and the narrator has a very heavy British accent that is a bit hard to get through. Then I downloaded another one that was supposed to be "hilarious" and "light-hearted" but ended up being another very proper-sounding heavy British accent. Maybe I just can't do accents right now?

    I wish 1Q84 had a better narrator -- I really like looooong Audibooks (after my two fails, above, I downloaded a quick fluff read. It's fun, but it's only 8 hours... that's less than 2 days of packing!) Incidentally, 1Q84 (and a few other ToB picks: The Marriage Plot, The Sense of an Ending, The Tiger's Wife and The Art of Fielding) are also featured in the Tournament of Audiobooks. Interesting brackets -- 4 divisions: Editors' Picks, Best Sellers, Critically Acclaimed, and Customer Favorites. For my money, 11/22/63 should take it all home.

    Nice feature -- get the first few chapters of all of the contenders for free. I may have to go ahead and download a bunch of those. I always listen to the sample first, but that's usually 4 minutes that tells me "Yes, I can listen to this for many hours" or "No, this person will irritate the fuck out of me." Sample chapters is sweet!

  5. Meanwhile... *this* cracked me up: "Can the magic gold finding liquid be used to find Kony?"

  6. K,

    The Tournament of Audiobooks sounds great! I'd recommend The Art of Fielding or State of Wonder, Despite the general snarkiness about the underpinnings of the "message" in those books, they are both plot driven and I imagine that would really make for a good "listen."

    The TOB feels like a class to me in terms of the level of discussion, and the back and forth. I want to know where I can get that *all the time.*


  7. You and the other ToB'ers start your own private forum? Or put the question out to your fellow ToB'ers: Is there anywhere on the Internet that you folks are book-talking when it's not the ToB? Can't hurt to ask, right?

    [Disqus Update: I posted on a blog today that used Disqus and it was easy and non-invasive. They have clearly cleaned up their act since my exposure a few years back!]