TOB 2010: Two down in the Second Round

I did not post yesterday about the Let the Great World Spin vs The Help matchup, at least not explicitly. I think dropping The Help was the only rational decision for someone who loves books. The judge made the right call. The reasoning, however, was lame. I almost get the feeling that no one wants to hurt Stockett’s feelings, or is it her fans? Alex Balk emphasized the closeness of the decision and gave the impression that a coin flip essentially made the decision, that and dialect. I wanted fireworks, but I get the next best thing: the last of The Help.

You are probably happy I will have no more opportunities to bash The Help.

Nicholas Sparks is still available to kick around. He takes it on the chin in today’s commentary about the The Lacuna vs. Burnt Shadows. Seems the commentators either didn’t read or didn’t like both books, so they turned their fine intellects to the task of Nick Sparks analysis. Good fun.

But, first, The Lacuna vs Burnt Shadows. I enjoyed Burnt Shadows, but thought it fell apart in the ending a bit. I also see the merit in others’ gripes that the story felt a little contrived and that the book seemed to morph from romance to spy thriller, passing through half a dozen other genres on the way. These are fair points, but not disqualifying. As today’s judge notes, Kamila Shamsie has a great eye for details and, as today’s judge did not note, she can write some beautiful sentences. For a first novel [Thanks, Kevin From Canada; my apologies to everyone else] Her fifth novel, Burnt Shadows is something of which Shamsie can be proud. [But not as proud as if it had been her first.]

I did not enjoy The Lacuna. That is one reason you have not seen a separate The Lacuna post. The other reason is that I only finished about 80% of it in audiobook form before the library wanted it back. I was happy to oblige. Maybe there is only one reason you haven’t seen a The Lacuna post.

The reason I did not enjoy The Lacuna is that the most compelling characters were not the primary players. I suspect that the judge’s affinity for Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Trotsky (or their stories), enhanced her enjoyment of The Lacuna. The re-telling of the Frida-Diego-Trotsky story was easily the most compelling part of the 80% of the novel I read. The farther off-stage those characters went, the less engaging the novel became. I was also put off as the novel progressed and became more and more the story of Violet Brown rather than the purported protagonist Harrison Shepherd. The book is told in the form of a diary with snippets of (mostly fake) newspaper clippings and, worse, fan letters to Harrison Shepherd. There was also the issue that Ms. Kingsolver narrated the audiobook herself and made the decision to give Violet Brown a very odd way of enunciating words. She sometimes sounded like she was trying to imitate computer-generated speech. Maybe one of the late book surprises was that Violet Brown was a computer. That might change my opinion.

As for Kingsolver’s writing style, while there are some very fine metaphors, Kingsolver seems unable to write a sentence without a metaphor. Basically, I thought it was overwritten in places. Maybe underwritten in this one:

She slid her eyes toward the office window.

I wonder whether they picked up splinters along the way.

So, I would have voted for Burnt Shadows. I found it more engaging, I more thoroughly enjoyed Shamsie’s writing, and I thought Shamsie did a fair job of accomplishing her ambition. My appreciation of Kingsolver’s The Lacuna is obviously hampered by my failing to finish it, particularly as the final third is where the great surprises are. But I doubt I would have liked it more.

Having said all that, I do not think this was a bad decision, only one I would not have made.

TOB 2010 Contest Update:

Chris and Christy start out perfect in Round 2, which give them each a 9-8 advantage over former leader Lizzy. The rest of the field falls back, with a three-way tie for fourth at 6 points. I am one of those, but, because so many of my picks are too dead to be Zombies, I am no longer a threat to lead. The winner will easily best me.

6 Responses to TOB 2010: Two down in the Second Round

  1. Christy says:

    I find that in listening to audiobooks, the narrator can make all the difference. I’ve never heard Kingsolver speak, but your description of her narration sounds offputting. I enjoyed reading The Lacuna, but it was so long that I might have given up on the audio version myself.
    I liked both books in this round, but didn’t have particularly strong feelings about either. I will say, given all the focus on book covers in previous rounds of the TOB, the cover on my copy of Burnt Shadows made it look like a bad romance novel. I never would have picked it up if it weren’t for the TOB, and I’m glad I did.
    I lauged out loud reading the TOB commentators’ take on Nicholas Sparks. I’ve been subjected to one (and only one) of his books by my mother, but I had no idea he took himself and his “literary” talents so seriously. What a pompous ass.

  2. Kerry says:

    If the wait list at the library wasn’t so long, I would try to finish off The Lacuna. It certainly was not so bad that I could not finish it. And I do suspect I would have enjoyed it more in print than I did in audio. So, I really defer to the judgment of you and others who have finished it. It sounds like I was interrupted just before the thing really took off.

    Great point about the covers. I concur on Sparks. The commentary was hilarious and he does seem to be an ass.

  3. Burnt Shadows is actually Shamsie’s fifth novel and she has done rather well in both UK and Pakistan prizes with her previous ones — but hasn’t attracted much North American attention until this one.

    I haven’t read Lacuna but from descriptions of it I would say that both these books fit the “widescreen” novel description. And it seems to me that judging between two “widescreen” books is going to come down to which back story you prefer (or rather, dislike the least). I’m pretty sure I would have come down to Burnt Shadows because I dislike the hi-jacking of real characters for fictional purposes (Lacuna) more than I dislike the hijacking of events (quite a string in the Shamsie).

    All of which leads me to believe that both commentators are not fans of “widescreen” books, which would also make them non-fans of Nicholas Sparks. Who certainly does seem an ass (confirmed for me by the one book of his that I read).

  4. Kerry says:


    I thought this was her first. Thank you very much for the correction. Big mistake on my part, I will make a note of it. Of course, that takes away her excuse for letting the plot get away with her. At the fifth, she should have better control than that. Still, I liked it despite its faults.

    I agree on your assessment of the widescreen novels contending in Round 2. The back story is key. I probably share you preference for hijacking events rather than people. Of course, I am really enjoying Wolf Hall, but maybe that is far enough in the past? People are fickle.

    I am pleased never to have read anything by Nicholas Sparks. Of course, that makes me unable to say anything at all about his writing ability (or lack thereof). For all I know, he does write as well as Hemingway. Given your reaction, I assume not.

    Thanks again for correcting me.

  5. Wolf Hall is set far enough back — and is long enough — that it gets to be called “epic historical” as opposed to “widescreen”. While I found Mantel’s style and fascination with detail not to my taste, I know I am in the minority on that.

    Actually, I see no way that it doesn’t win the tournament (meeting McCann in the final, I’d think). While I like the McCann better, it too is a flawed book. As the Friday “statistical” analysis indicated, I do think the tournament format tends to favor the “bigger” book. Which is not a criticism, just an indication of its limitations.

  6. Kerry says:

    I absolutely agree, Kevin. Bigger novels have a decisive advantage. I think part of the bias towards “big” is that we assume the more pages the larger the author’s ambition, which I think is not always true. I tend to like novellas, actually, so I really appreciate economy (which goes against my liking Wolf Hall, but I am people and people are fickle.

    The average page count this year was pretty high. I would love to see a few sub-200 page novels make the Rooster (or Man Booker) shortlist, or at least a number of sub-250 page novels.

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