Unofficial TOB 2013 Contest: Leaderboard – Round 2, Match 2

March 20, 2013


Match 1, Round 2
The Orphan Master’s Son prevails over The Fault in Our Stars.

Match 2, Round 2
Building Stories stings May We Be Forgiven

Leaderboard – Round 2, Match 2

1. (Ten points) Neil R., Jed S.

2. (Nine points) Christopher H., Dianne H., Mike R.

3. (Eight points) Lydia P., Jane Eyre, Jayme G., Susan S., Linda J., Julie W., Felicity, Jeremy Z., Jim M., Kerry H.

The leaderboard has been re-shuffled. More of that is likely to come. While Gone Girl and Bring Up the Bodies are the most commonly picked winners of the next two matches, there are dissenters, particularly at the top. If the expected happens, we will have new leaders and an even bigger logjam.

(Having read neither of today’s contenders, I have no comment. I was, obviously, happy to see The Orphan Master’s Son advance.)

Unofficial TOB 2013 Contest: Leaderboard – End of Round 1

March 18, 2013

It turns out that, if your favorite is out and it isn’t either Arcadia or Where’d You Go, Bernadette, then your dreams of Rooster-prognostication glory are pretty much over. Sorry. Those are potential Zombies from the so-far eliminated. This means Dear Life, the book I enjoyed most but was wise enough not to invest my Rooster-hopes in, is gone from the TOB for good. So much worse for the TOB.


Match 6, Round 1
Beautiful Ruins (84%) beat The Song of Achilles (16%) as was expected.

Match 7, Round 1
Bring Up the Bodiesl (84%) advanced against HHhH (16%)

Match 8, Round 1
How Should a Person Be? (12%) upset Arcadia (88%)

Leaderboard – End of Round 1

1. (Perfect: Eight points) Linda J.

2.. (Seven points) Christopher H., Mike R.

6. (Six points) Jed S., Susan S., Jane Eyre, Lydia P., Jayme G., Neil R., Julie W., Felicity, Andrew B., Jeremy Z., Jim M., Kerry H. (me!)

Things are getting exciting. How long can Linda stay perfect? Will Chris or Mike be able to capitalize if she does misstep? Is there a hero among the large, hungry group of six-pointers? Yes, yes, excitement galore and only by the slow release of fowl judgments will these questions be answered. The tension is finger lickin’ good.

Um, anyway, the second round odds:

The Orphan Master’s Son 9-1 favorite over The Fault in Our Stars

Building Stories a 3-1 favorite over May We Be Forgiven

Gone Girl over Beautiful Ruins, 3-1.

Bring Up the Bodies over How Should a Person Be?, 1,000,000-1. (Actually, infinity-to-one, but let’s say there’s a chance.)

I will say that we seem, collectively, to underestimate The Fault in Our Stars, but I hope not. Everything else looks pretty accurate to me and, given my picks, would suit me as well as it is possible to be suited at this point. Not Armani, but still pretty nice.

Unofficial TOB 2013 Contest: Leaderboard – Round 1, Match 5

March 13, 2013

Collectively, contest entrants are 3-2 in picking the TOB. And that includes in the “correct” column the virtual tossup between Building Stories and Dear Life. Why is it so hard to pick TOB winners? (Nevermind that Linda J. rejects the premise.)


Match 4, Round 1
May We Be Forgiven (26%) pulled an upset over Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk (74%)

Match 5, Round 1
Gone Girl (97%) easily bested Ivyland (3%)

Leaderboard – Round 1, Match 5

1. (Perfect: Six points) Linda J.,

2.. (Five points) Mike R., Jed S., Christopher H., Susan S., Jane Eyre,

6. (Four points) Jennifer N., Lydia P., Jayme G., Neil R., Julie W., Felicity, Andrew B., Jeremy Z.

With Gone Girl‘s widely expected victory, no one can match the record low of one point. Plenty are still in it with 2 points though. I am barely caught in the middle with three points.

The final three matches of the first round are all predicted by 80-20 margins or greater. And blemish-free Linda J. has gone with the overdog in each of those matches. That means upsets provide fertile ground for a rankings shake-up.

Unofficial TOB 2013 Contest: Leaderboard – Round 1, Match 3 Results

March 11, 2013

That didn’t take long. I’m out.

The thing is, words can hurt. They can hurts in lots of ways, but especially when the words Charles Yu writes in his bracket are different than the words I write in my bracket. It’s like my words don’t exist, like they fell from my lips into the void that awaits us all with its depth, its darkness, and, most of all, its chilly indifference.


Match 2, Round 1
The Orphan Master’s Son (84%) beat Where’d You Go Bernadette (16%)

Match 3, Round 1
Building Stories (56%) advanced on a technicality over Dear Life (44%)

Leaderboard – Round 1, Match 3

1. (Perfect: Four points) Mike R., Christopher H., Linda J., Susan S.

5. (Three points) Lydia P., Jane Eyre, Jayme G., Neil R., Julie W., Jed S., Felicity, Andrew B., Jeremy Z.

Also, seven contestants could still tie the all-time worst score of one. But I won’t get anybody’s hopes up by naming names until we at least get out of the first round.

Congratulations to the slightly shrunken lead group. Yellow draws attention, as do positive tests for performance enhancing drugs (acid, I presume, because that’s what you’d have to be dropping to prefer Building Stories to Dear Life and this doesn’t mean I am bitter), so watch your backs.

Unofficial TOB 2013 Contest: Round 1, Match 1 Results

March 7, 2013

After the play-in and the first match of Round 1, there is one expected result (by you and most people with a clue, not by me) and one upset (sort of). I have read only one of the five books involved, so any opinion on my part would be uninformed. I haven’t developed either a loathing or a love for any of the five books, so am not yet emotionally invested in the results. Well, except that I think this gives The Orphan Master’s Son an easier route into the Zombie Round. This is a good thing.

Leaderboard after Match 1, Round 1:

1. Two points – Mike R., Christopher H., Linda J., Susan S., and Lydia P.

6. One point – Lots.

Congratulations to our five leaders.

There will be a leaderboard update after tomorrow’s match only if The Orphan Master’s Son loses, because, like 84% of contestants, the leaders all went safe with Johnson’s excellent book. If they remain leaders through the weekend, they will start to differentiate themselves on Monday. They are not unanimous in preferring Building Stories over Dear Life.

Unofficial TOB 2013 Contest: Statistics

March 6, 2013

First, the lies: I don’t mind if my picks stink.

The damn lies: I don’t care which book wins the TOB.

The statistics: The Orphan Master’s Son is the odds on favorite (22%) to win, but not nearly the lock that 2012’s The Tiger’s Wife (27%) was…oops…not nearly the lock that 2012’s The Art of Fielding (27%) was…oops oops. Well then. So am I saying Ivyland still has a chance? No. Only 6% pick it to make it out of the first round and no one thinks it will go any farther than that. Ouch.

First Round Favorites:
Gone Girl – 94%
Arcadia – 88%
The Orphan Master’s Son – 84%
Beautiful Ruins – 81%
Bring Up the Bodies – 81%.

This tells me Arcadia (also published in special edition TOB mass market paperbacks as 2013’s Lemon Cake) is mismatched. It should have faced The Fault in Our Stars, which would have bludgeoned it because I know these things. Then again, I have predicted How Should a Person Be? has what it takes to beat Arcadia.

Second Round Favorites:
Bring Up the Bodies – 69%.
Gone Girl – 56%
The Orphan Master’s Son – 53%

Most Likely to Be a Zombie:
The Fault in Our Stars – Few pick it to earn its way there (6%), but 63% of you think it will claw its way out of an early grave.

Gone Girl – While plenty think it will fly through on merit (56%), a full 16% think it has the stench to rise again if necessary.

Most Likely to Lose After Making It to the Finals:

Gone Girl – 19% of entrants think it will make it to the last dance but wrong foot the big finish.

Ten different books are believed by entrants to have a shot at a bucket of fried chicken, gratis. Which, of course, means about half of the books have been counted out before we’ve even gotten a good start.

The statistics mean something, because Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was the prohibitive favorite (62%) to escape the play-in and it did.

Or they don’t, because 2012 saw long shot The Sisters Brothers (Finals votes: 1) take home the poultry. Don’t count yourself out, Arcadia. You do have a chance. Damn it.

Unofficial TOB Contest 2013: Brackets Set

February 27, 2013

The Morning News TOB starts on March 4, 2013 and, just this morning, they released the official brackets. They are not the traditional brackets, but I think we’ll be able to follow along. The circular design reminds me of the Thunderdome, only in reverse. Eighteen books enter, but only one makes it to the center.

Anyway, this means the officially Unofficial TOB Contest can begin. The rules stay the same, only the books change. Entries open until Midnight on the evening of March 3, 2013.

The rules:


The prize will be the winner’s choice of two books from among my “best of” lists (2011 and 2012 to be provided prior to the end of the TOB), the 18 ToB 2013 contenders, and/or Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles. The particular format (i.e. cover type/publisher/ebook/etc.) will be chosen by me at my sole discretion, but I will strongly consider any expressed preferences so long as they are within my allotted budget.

Eligibility and Entry Requirements:

Everyone, everywhere is eligible, except for me, my immediate family, and close relatives. There is absolutely no entry fee, obligation, or purchase required. However, I would be very pleased if the winner, after reading the prize selections, let’s me know what they think of the book in comments here.

Entries must be received by Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 11:59pm Eastern Standard Time (US). (I may, in my sole discretion, accept entries after that if they arrive prior to the posting of any results. Send late at your peril.)


Each entrant should e-mail their entry to: kerry_7 at yahoo. The subject line should read: 2013 TOB Contest. (I will reply confirming receipt. If you don’t receive the reply within three days (I am particularly busy this week and next), you may want to check with me, either by e-mail or in comments.)

One entry per person, please. Include your name and mailing address in the body of the entry. This information will only be used to send you the books in the event you win.

When making your selections, you should refer to the official Tournament of Books 2013 brackets. If you print out the official bracket and fill it out, you will see the outer ring contains the three play-in books. The first comlete ring then has a spot for the play-in winner and the other fifteen contestants. The next ring contains your eight Round 1 Winners. The next ring will be your four Round 2 Winners, the next your four Round 3 Winners and Zombies, next the Zombie Round Winners, and, finally, the Champion.

Please format your entry as follows, using the book title for your pick (decipherable abbreviations are perfectly fine):

Play-in Winner
The Yellow Birds

Round 1 Winners
The Yellow Birds, Dear Life, Bring Up the Bodies, How Should A Person Be, Beautiful Ruins, Gone Girl, The Fault in Our Stars, The Orphan Master’s Son

Round 2 Winners
Dear Life, Bring Up the Bodies, Gone Girl, The Orphan Master’s Son

Round 3 Winners and Zombies
Dear Life, Gone Girl, The Orphan Master’s Son, The Fault in Our Stars,

Zombie Round Winners (Finalists)
Dear Life, The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master’s Son

Winning Votes

The above are my predictions (with a helping of hope, though Dear Life is my favorite of the ones I’ve read). I am, of course, ineligible for anything but bragging rights.

Points will be awarded as follows:
Each correct Play-in pick – 1 point
Each correct 1st Round pick – 1 point
Each correct 2nd Round pick – 2 points
Each correct 3rd Round/Zombie pick – 2 points
Each correct Zombie Round pick – 4 points
Correct pick of Champion – 8 points
Total Possible Points = 41

Please note: You will receive points for your Round 3/Zombie picks even if your “Zombie” pick actually turns out to be a Round 3 winner or vice versa. In other words, I will simply pool your Round 3 and Zombie picks and award points if your pick makes it into that ring of the bracket.

All points will be totaled. The highest score wins.

Finally, as a tie-breaker, guess how many votes out of a possible 17 the winner will receive. (Your answer should be a number from 9-17, obviously.)

If there is still a tie, the earliest entry wins.

Other Info:

I will make every effort to provide reasonable updates on the scoring. The timeliness of the updates, as the chances of winning, depend on the number of entries.

For complete rules of the official Tournament of Books (which is in no way associated with this contest), please check the official homepage of the Tournament of Books.

Good luck and enjoy the Tournament!

HHhH by Laurent Binet (trans. Sam Taylor)

February 15, 2013

There are two books here: One is a fictionalized account of historical events, the other is a book of criticism aimed at historical fiction and the problems inherent in that genre. Before reading HHhH, I, perhaps unwisely, read James Wood’s review in The New Yorker. The wisdom deficiency is in not caring, for I certainly realized, that James Wood’s interpretation and judgment would irrevocably shape my own. So now, although I would like to assure you and, in the process me, that I would have reached conclusions very similar to Mr. Wood’s on my own, there is nothing I can say that would accomplish that task. Much less is there anything I can say that would make it knowably true.

I did just recently read Austerlitz and, thus, almost certainly would have made unfavorable comparisons between that great work and this one. I do not like the narrator of HHhH and I think that is my own genuine reaction. I would not have known for certain, however, that the narrator is, in fact, Laurent Binet and not “Laurent Binet” fictionalized self and relative of Summertime‘s John Coetzee but for Mr. Wood’s providing solid evidence to support that conclusion. I think the book would be more interesting if Binet was a counterpart to John Coetzee. My criticisms then would largely be of the fictionalized author rather than the actual author and it would leave open the possibility that the actual author was aware of the defects in the fictional author’s arguments and presentation.

For me, Binet identifies a difficulty with trying to capture the truth of an historical event, but, rather than proposing an interesting solution (Coetzee’s multiple, subjective perspectives, for instance), he bemoans the problem while also capitulating to it. In fact, he embraces the methodologies he excoriates far more than necessary to accomplish his narrative goal. Woods put it thusly: “Binet has his cake and eats it, and gets to cry over the spilt crumbs, too.”

In other words, the “book of criticism”, as I have called it, unfortunately inextricable from the historical story, is not persuasive. But, it does have me thinking and typing about the intersection of historical truth and storytelling. Truth and storytelling may not be strictly compatible in a reductionist view of historical truth-telling where, unless every fact related is objectively true, the entire edifice crumbles. However, I think Binet is wrong in starting from that reductionist premise. Even the most cursory reflection on the subject reveals that a good story about actual events can never provide the reader with the “objective truth”. Frankly, I think his error is in assuming that it is theoretically possible to write an accurate history from a “god’s eye” perspective the same way Flaubert can write a perfectly objective account of Emma Bovary through omniscient third-person narration. No historian, nor any amateur sleuth bent on writing historical fiction, can attain the omniscience necessary for this sort of narration.

Austerlitz makes this point by nesting points-of-view like Russian stacking dolls: “But I was particularly anxious, Vera told me, said Austerlitz…” We are not getting the story directly from an all-knowing god, rather, the story comes to us from a very human narrator who gets it from Austerlitz who gets it from, in this case, Vera. The contingency of historical facts and the uncertainties of recollections is not ignored, but is used to a purpose. History is somewhat like a game of telephone, we can only hope that the gist of the message has not been lost. Hoping for an accurate transcription of the original is folly.

Binet, though, defies the necessary subjectivity of any account of history. He believes a complete tally of every detail is, theoretically, possible. After one section of fictionalized narrative, he writes: “That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet…To decide that he left in the evening rather than the morning, I am ashamed of myself.” Perhaps he should be, but not for the reasons he proclaims. Binet is so concerned with facts, the minutest details, he falls into the same hole recognized, and avoided, by Austerlitz’s secondary school history teacher (Hilary):

All of us, even when we think we have noted every tiny detail, resort to set pieces which have already been staged often enough by others. We try to reproduce the reality, but the harder we try, the more we find the pictures that make up the stock-in-trade of the spectacle of history forcing themselves upon us: the fallen drummer boy, the infantryman shown in the act of stabbing another…..Our concern with history, so Hilary’s thesis ran, is a concern with preformed images already imprinted on our brains, images at which we keep staring while the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered.

Binet, I believe, is obsessed with accurately rendering the details of these “preformed images” rather than trying to get at the truth of the matter which does not exist in a detail like the precise expression on someone’s face:

And even if there are clues to Himmler’s panicked reaction, I can’t really be sure of the symptoms of this panic: perhaps he went red (that’s how I imagine it), but then again, perhaps he turned white. This is quite a serious problem.

But it is not a problem, serious or otherwise. It is not a problem for the historian because the historian need not speculate on which color Himmler turned, assuming he changed colors at all. The historian will give us the known facts indicating that Himmler was panicked, but has no need to speculate on the fifty shades of Himmler’s face. It also is not a problem for the fiction writer because these are precisely the details that matter for storytelling but matter not at all for the truth of what the novelist (historical or otherwise) is trying to convey. Whether Himmler turned red or white matters no more than accurately describing from a color palette Himmler’s original skin tone the moment before he heard the panic-inducing news. This fervid focus on the accuracy of cliched details is not brilliance or even intelligence, it is an author lost in a jungle of his own planting. Binet, though, seems too proud of his concern for these facts (is the Mercedes black or dark green?) to recognize the triviliaty of his quest.

41HyeElHR2L._SL160_I quickly found these worried asides both distracting and annoying. Almost as annoying as Binet’s use of, again I will use Wood’s words, the “trick of giving the impression that he is thinking the book through as he is writing…” This novel is obviously a well-polished work of art. Binet even comments within the text on the various drafts and his edits. But then he slips in things like: “Actually, no: that’s not how it is. That would be too simple. Re-reading one of the books that make up the foundation of my research….I become aware, to my horror, of the mistakes I’ve made…” Perhaps yes, but actually no. Yes, he may have discovered an error in that way and he may have been horror stricken, but he is neither now nor when he sent in his final draft, horror stricken at his errors. He has chosen, after much thought and deliberation, to leave them in precisely so, as a character, he can be horrified. Binet by presenting these errors to us for the purpose, presumably, of showing how easy it is to get a detail wrong, makes it much more likely that we will take away from this book errors rather than the facts with which he is so concerned. I remember a number of things about Gabcik, which one of those was I supposed to forget? I cannot remember. Thank you, Mr. Binet.

Binet cannot really have been concerned with me, his reader, nor about a scrupulously accurate story, for he leaves in errors to push his critical point while knowing that readers (primacy effect, etc.) will likely remember untruths he embedded in the text for the purpose of demonstrating how concerned he is with strict, objective truth. At moments like that, Binet seems mostly concerned with Binet and least concerned with his audience.

And that is another mistake Binet makes: He directs the spotlight away from the historical truth he claims he is after and towards himself. The story of Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis and the many other heroic contributors to the Czech Resistance ends up being eclipsed by Binet’s obsession with the color of the Mercedes in which Himmler rode to his castle. It is a mistake not only because the power of the story is diminished by the narrator’s intrusions (“Gabcik takes out his lighter and touches it to the German’s cigarette. I’m going to light one too….,” Binet writes at one point; at another, he laments: “I don’t even have time to mourn them…,”; perhaps worst: “…[Gabcik] runs down toward the river. And I, limping through the streets of Prague, dragging my leg as I climb back up Na Porici, watch him run into the distance.”). Pulling readers’ attention away from the ostensible heroes is also a mistake because Binet seems to misunderstand the problem of getting history right. In fact, he seems oblivious to the lessons of philosophy and post-modernism generally.

A god’s eye view of history is impossible. His effort to achieve it, or book length whine that he cannot, is akin to a Creationist’s search for the actual site of the Garden of Eden. Binet’s intellectual concerns are obsolete. Any account of the past is necessarily subjective, no matter how scrupulously you verify the make of the bicycle on which Kubis pedalled away from the ambush.

More damningly, this misguided chasing and the artifice he uses to convey it, becomes extremely tedious.

I have mainly cast stones, from the safety of Wood’s skirts, at that second aspect of the book. However, the story of Gacik and Kubis and the Czech Resistance, though not spectacular in terms of either storytelling or language, is both fascinating and important. Binet has done an incredible amount of research and often leaves the main narrative to relate unrelated acts of heroism from World War II, such the sacrifice made by the Kievan soccer team. Those asides add much to the book, giving as they do other perspectives on the times and the resisters’ heroism. They are much better breathers from the main narrative than, for instance, that authorial cigarette break which is wedged into an otherwise enthralling story. The book is good, in other words, despite the major problems I have with the argument Binet puts forth and the manner in which he makes it. This is a book I found well worth reading for what it does right and, too, for what it does wrong. It provokes. Literature that provokes must have done something right.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

February 8, 2013

The retelling and reworking of myths is as ancient as myths themselves. Milton’s Paradise Lost, of course, reworks the story of creation and the Garden of Eden. Jeannette Winterson’s contribution to Canongate’s “Myth Series” is an enjoyable example, so too is Jim Crace’s absolutely incredible Quarantine. In all, the basic plotlines of the original myth are used as a framework to push new and interesting ideas. The myth is redirected from its original purpose to something else. In Crace’s work, for instance, the historical truth of the original myth is undermined to explore mythmaking itself, how an ordinary man is turned into a god.

The Song of AchillesMadeleine Miller has chosen for her framework the myth of Achilles, one of the most well-known and most-oft told and re-told myths of ancient Greece. The focus of her telling is the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. In her telling, their relationship is a romantic one, but this interpretation is not original to her. Plato, in his Symposium, holds up the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus as a romantic ideal. Whether Achilles and Patroclus had only a close male friendship or a romance has, apparently, been an interpretational argument from ancient times through today. Miller sides with romance, but this decision does little to reinvigorate the myth. There is nothing particularly daring or inventive in this recounting of a famous myth. Miller seems to have been preoccupied with getting it right, sticking closely to the script and only letting her imagination bloom in the gaps.

Her aim then, was not to re-invent the myth and give it new meaning, but to tell the myth well. She succeeds. While the myth itself leaves the modern reader incredulous at times and the love story is fairly conventional, Miller is a good stylist matching imagery with character and story:

His mouth was a plump bow, his nose an aristocratic arrow.

This image of Achilles’s face as a drawn bow is beautifully unexpected and quite appropriate for the greatest warrior of all time. Or this:

Scyros’ great rocks that beetled over the sea…

Miller’s vivid imagery and the inherent narrative pull of the story (it is oft-told for a reason) makes this an easy read. The novel is stylistically pleasing, but not ambitious. The Song of Achilles does not achieve what Paradise Lost or Quarantine did. If you are looking to break that sort of ground this is not your book. However, retelling an important myth, and doing so well, is a valuable contribution to literature on its own. The book did win the Orange Prize for good reason.

Because I have little else to say about the content of Miller’s work, let’s talk Tournament of Books.

In my estimation, Dear Life, The Orphan Master’s Son, and HHhH all have considerably more ambition than The Song of Achilles. The first two of those are at least equally accomplished in terms of prose and structure. I cannot imagine The Song of Achilles actually winning the Tournament. It is too conventional, too safe, and the plot too well-known to beat out books with more exciting plots (Gone Girl), more intellectual heft (HHhH, The Orphan Master’s Son), and/or more consistently elegant prose (Dear Life). Consistency may get The Song of Achilles out of the first round, but I do not see much music for it beyond that.

My dream matchup for The Song of Achilles is HHhH, where an interesting discussion about the similarities between Binet’s passionate concern for fidelity to historical truth and Miller’s apparent passion for remaining true to the “facts” of an ancient myth (for instance, she rejects Achilles’s supposed invulnerability in favor of the “more realistic” and “older tradition” in which Achilles is simply a preternaturally gifted fighter but is not invincible). Binet was trying to write historical fiction while pointing out the impossibility of doing so while resolutely reporting only known facts. Miller was writing mythology as historical fiction. Both authors lost something by being too concerned with factual accuracy and not being concerned enough with giving the important details a voice. Binet was the more courageous, but Miller more certainly achieved her less ambitious goal. My nod is to HHhH because, as infuriating as Binet’s work sometimes is, it provoked. In comparison, The Song of Achilles felt like one of those amusement park cars that ride, slowly, on rails.

Still Suspended, But If You Didn’t Know Yet…

December 23, 2012

The Judges and book selections for the 2013 Tournament of Books have been announced. Enjoy!