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.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Completed: Sin in the Second City


The Everleigh Sisters, Minna and Ada
Don't get all freaked out. You  know I always read fast at the beginning of the year so I can make way for my ToB reading. It helps that this book was short, under 300 pages, and a rollicking good time. Seriously, this is one of those great stories that's all the better because it's true.

If they told these kinds of stories in history class, I sure would have paid more attention. Anyways, as it turns out the early 1900s was a hotbed of prostitution, graft, and corruption. Almost every city had a red light district where regular laws simply didn't apply. In Chicago, that district was called the Levee. Minna and Ada ran a brothel in Omaha but decided they wanted something bigger. After doing some research, it was apparent that Chicago was the town most in need of a high end whorehouse. They moved to town, set up shop, and quickly became the best known "resort" in Chicago if not the whole country: The Everleigh (pronounced Ever-Lay) Club. One fascinating tidbit in the book, the phrase "getting laid" is direct reference to the club and...ahem...what happened to you when you went there.

Along with the description of the club and how the Levee district operated, there are also chapters about the escalating opposition to the club from reformers and other concerned citizens. The entire country was swept up by horrific stories of "white slavery": young girls lured to cities under false pretenses and forced to work in brothels. In the period from 1900-1910, the reformers put more and more pressure on local governments to shut down red light districts and close down the brothels, dance halls, and bars that ensnared the innocent young girls.

Abbot is a sharp writer and the city of Chicago is just as much a character as the people in the book. Here's her description of Big Jim Colosimo, a power player in the ward that contained the Levee: He went straight for a while, heading up a team of street cleaners that evolved into a labor union of sorts---a potential voting bloc that caught the notice of the city's Democratic machine. Big Jim was appointed a precinct captain, which marked the end of his time as a law-abiding citizen (57). Hah. That just cracked me up. This is definitely a town known for its crooked politics, and certainly one can see why after reading this book. Abbott details the tremendous amount of money that exchanged hands between the Everleigh sisters and the cops and politicians they were expected to bribe. And, of course, state legislators were always entertained for free. No wonder the Tribune said, "Chicago has come to be known over the country as a bad town for men of good character and a good town for men of bad character" (123). Ouch!

Most of all, the book proves that today's scandals aren't all that different from those of a hundred years ago. The story felt amazingly fresh: crooked politicians railing against corruption, an obsession with the perceived sexual depravity of the time, and mass hysteria over a media-fueled social injustice campaigns. The cause might change, but the rhetoric stays the same. I can't say that I'm surprised by that, but it was amazing to see how little really has changed.

One of the most amusing anecdotes in the book is about a march through the Levee in October of 1910. The marchers were led by ministers and reformers and their goal was to protest the licentious immorality of the Levee. Thousands marched and prayed in the streets of the district that night. Eventually, the marchers dispersed and you'll be shocked--shocked, I tell you!--to learn what happened next.  The Everleigh Club and the other whorehouses reported that they had to turn patrons away it got so crowded. One Madam said, "You'da thought it was the militia coming back from the war and that was the night that we all had the biggest business we'd had in years" (203).

This is a great book. It's a tribute to Karen Abbott's talents that it reads more like a great story than a painstakingly researched work of non-fiction. And yet it's clear that she spent at least a gazillion hours doing all of the legwork required to tell the story of both the Everleigh Club and the people determined to bring it down.

A great read and good way to start the year!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

It's Here! It's Here! The 2012 Tournament of Books!


It's the most wonderful time of the year. The 2012 Tournament of Books is almost here! It's ridiculous how excited I am by this. Ridiculous.

Today, they released the titles for the 2012 tournament. It's a different roll out than last year, but I think I like it. In previous years, they released a long list of about 50 titles in December, the list of 16 in January, and the brackets in late February.

This year, they skipped the long list altogether (I did like the long list, because it had lots of good books on it that I didn't know.). Instead, they just waited to release the list of 16 already in brackets! This is revolutionary. In previous years, I'd been proud of myself for reading books, but it's sort of useless unless you've read its competition. This way, I can be more more targeted in my reading choices over the next few weeks. The good news, I've ALREADY READ FOUR OF THE 16! Yes! The bad news: 944 pages of IQ84. Gulp!

Here are this year's books in their first round match-ups. The ones I have already read are in bold.

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

2. Helen Dewitt, Lightning Rods vs. Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones

3. Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 vs. Nathacha Appanah, The Last Brother

4. Alan Hollinghurst, Stranger’s Child vs. Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife

5. Ann Patchett, State of Wonder vs. Patrick DeWitt, The Sisters Brothers

6. Karen Russell, Swamplandia! vs. Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table

7. Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot vs. Kate Zambreno, Green Girl 

8. Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding vs. Teju Cole, Open City

Of the remaining books, I can get Open City, The Art of Fielding, State of Wonder, and The Cat's Table from my school library. I bought a copy of Swamplandia! with my winnings from Book Riot, and Erik gave me IQ84 for Christmas. Finally, I cleverly saved my bookstore gift cards from Christmas for just this reason and just ordered the other 6. Total cost to me for my Tournament of Books 2012 reading: $10.63. Yahoo!

Time for me to get cracking! Let's see how I do!

PS. I yell at my students all the time for excessively using quotation marks. And look at me.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Jenny's Book 1.12: Sin in the Second CIty


I definitely wanted to read a non-fiction book first this year. My tentative plan is to alternate between fiction and non-fiction. Since I'll want to end with a novel (easier in December!), I want to start with a non-fiction choice in January. We'll see if I stick to that as the year goes on.

I was thinking about how to order the non-fiction titles, and I think I might try to do them in chronological order. That means Sin in the Second City would have been first anyways, since it's about a brothel in turn of the century Chicago. But, I also like the parallelism of us both reading a book about the history of our current residence.

I'm not sure where I picked this book up. Actually, I think I might have borrowed it from a kid I tutor and I never returned it. Whoops. I'd heard good things about it, and I enjoy reading about Chicago. Last year, of course, there was Nature's Metropolis. I also enjoyed a great biography of the first Mayor Daley called American Pharaoh--which was co-authored by a parent of one of my students!

And we're off to 2012! Exciting to be at this for a second year in a row, don't you think?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Kelly's Book 1.12: Historic San Francisco

Dear Jenny,

I'm pretty sure I bought this book around the time that I moved to California... 12 years ago this month! Now that I'm on my way out, I figured it would be a good time to finally read the thing.

I have a sinking feeling that reading this book will make me wish I had seen more of San Francisco during my time living here, but here's my positive spin: it will give me a good list of things to see when I come visit -- we always see more when visiting a city (or hosting visitors) than when we live there, don't we? (At least, I know I do...)

This one isn't too long, but I hope the writing is good, since I'm not fantastic at digesting historical information -- "concise" in the title seems promising. I'm flying to the UK on Friday, so I'll have plenty of reading time on the plane there and back.

So what's your first book of the year?