TOB 2010 Contest: Grand Prize Winner

April 5, 2010

Congratulations to Chris of Grand Rapids, Michigan!

With 29 points out of a possible 40, Chris took undisputed first place. Tiebreakers were not a factor. His prize was two books. For his TOB 2010 selection, he chose The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker. The Anthologist was my second favorite of the 16 contenders (Wolf Hall being first) and a book I thoroughly enjoyed. For his Hungry Like the Woolf archives selection, Chris chose Quarantine by Jim Crace. I highly recommend that work. While not particularly fast-paced, it drills deep. And the prose is crafted with elegant beauty.

These are two great choices which I hope Chris will enjoy. (And please come back to let me know what you think of both novels.)

Congratulations, Chris!

The Consolation Prize goes to Kevin From Canada! I assigned a number to all the non-Grand Prize winning entrants (including those who only entered the second chance contest), then the random number generator at selected Kevin’s number.

Kevin has chosen as his prize The Lights of Earth by Gina Berriault. While you will not (yet) find it in my archives, you will find Gina Berriault. Kevin very kindly asked my opinion (The Anthologist or an archives selection). As much as I enjoyed The Anthologist, I immediately thought of recommending Afterwards or The Son, both by Gina Berriault. I wanted to proselytize on behalf of one of the finest authors I have ever read, but The Lights of the Earth is her most exquisite novel. I decided to bend the rules and suggest The Lights of Earth.

For the record, my other suggestions to Kevin were Embers by Sandor Marai (Number 9 on my Best Reads of 2009 List) and The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov (which I read prior to 2009 and, for that reason, did not make the best of list). I do not believe he could have gone wrong.

Congratulations, Kevin!

And to everyone else, thank you very much for playing and/or reading along. I hope we can do it again next year.

TOB 2010: Wolf Hall vs. The Lacuna

April 5, 2010

A recap of how these two books made it to the Finals may not be particularly instructive, but it is entertaining.

The Lacuna struggled somewhat in the opening round against Fever Chart. Alexander Chee “didn’t really love either novel.” He felt The Lacuna was “an important book”, so he sent it through. Wolf Hall had a more difficult time with Logicomix than, perhaps, expected, as both novels “rank among the best books [Judge David Gutowski has] read in years.” I bet both Chee and Gutowski go for Wolf Hall.

In the Quarterfinals, The Lacuna was matched with Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows. I thought Shamsie’s work should have advanced, but Jane Ciabattari was tapped to make the call. While, in the prior round, Chee felt that Kingsolver “sucked the air out” of her central metaphor by naming the book after it and going to the lacuna once too often, Judge Ciabattari enjoyed “a razzle-dazzle sleight of hand that deepens the meaning of the title.” Kamila’s work left singed. Wolf Hall faced one of the best books in the Tournament, both by my standards and, it would appear, by the standards of Meave Gallagher. She started with a bias toward Wolf Hall and its historical setting, but truly appreciated Nicholas Baker’s work. Judge Gallagher chose “the big, awesome book with the big, awesome plot” where everything about the book was “pretty fantastic.” I would guess both judges stick with their Second Round selection.

I thought The Lacuna was done for in the Semifinals. Let the Great World Spin was already the winner of a top-flight prize and people seemed really to think it was very good, though I have not read of many who love it. Jason Kottke was wowed by The Lacuna‘s cover, so it advanced. Wolf Hall also had a cover that pleased its Semifinal judge, so it knocked out The Book of Night Women without raising a flap. If they stick to covers, it is impossible to predict which they will prefer. I predict they split, though how, I have no idea.

The Zombie Round stands out for the quality judging. The Lacuna faced first round loser Miles From Nowhere and had difficulty landing a knockout punch. Despite the fact that “both books probably gave [Judge Sam Anderson] the same net pleasure”, The Lacuna overcame its irritating characteristics to win Judge Anderson’s vote and a birth in the Finals. Wolf Hall meanwhile, demonstrated why it is the clear favorite. Where The Lacuna struggled with Fever Chart, Wolf Hall dominated it. For Judge Julie Powell, “the choice couldn’t be clearer.” “[A]t the end of [Wolf Hall‘s] 532 pages, [she]’d not have snipped anything at all.” Judges Anderson and Powell are two solid Wolf Hall votes.

The Lacuna has not had an easy time in any of its matches. Most of the decisions, to the extent they addressed the actual book between the covers, have given plenty of space to the novel’s irritants and shortcomings. Wolf Hall, on the other hand, won over all of its judges, just as it won over me. Wolf Hall has to be considered a heavy favorite in this Championship Match. And for good reason. It is the better book.

In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel makes very few missteps, all minor. Kingsolver’s work, in contrast, is more memorable for its mistakes or questionable authorial choices, than for its brilliance. I expect a large blowout. Given my prediction of a 6-2 advantage for Wolf Hall among judges who have already rendered a verdict on one of the books in a previous round, I still like my pre-Tournament prediction of a 14-3 Finals romp by Wolf Hall. The Lacuna will be lucky to come closer than that.

[Update: Boy was I off. The Finals were a thriller. Among the judges who had previously rendered an opinion, I was wrong about Alexander Chee and Meave Gallagher (both went for The Lacuna)

But I was right about David Gutowski (Wolf Hall), Jane Ciabattari (The Lacuna), Jason Kottke/Andrew W.K. (they split), Sam Anderson (Wolf Hall), and Julie Powell (Wolf Hall).

These judges split 4-4, mirroring the closeness of the full panel. I am a bit surprised. I found Kingsolver’s The Lacuna tedious and too earnest. I did not like the narrator and was not intrigued by the plot. I realize some did not like the depth of Mantel’s detail, but overall I thought the characters were more interesting and more full. I guess it goes to show the importance whims of taste play in these types of comparisons. Still, I am happy to be aligned with Sam Anderson and Julie Powell, the two best judges of this year’s TOB. Congrats, Ms. Mantel!

Stay tuned for the announcement of my 2010 TOB Contest winners.]

TOB 2010: Wolf Hall v. Fever Chart

April 2, 2010

I have not read Fever Chart, so I can only rely on the reviews of others and this excerpt, posted at McSweeney’s.

The beginning of Fever Chart seems a little fantastical. The owner of Section 8 (low-income, government-subsidized) housing lectures a new renter, our protagonist, on the rudeness of committing a messy suicide.

In the kitchen of my new apartment, Mr Kline and I sat on two milk crates on either side of a paint-spattered sawhorse. I gave him a money order for $265. He handed me a house key and a mailbox key and a grody, dog-eared paperback entitled Shuffle, whose cover was adorned with a photo of a Zippo-brandishing monk sitting Indian-style next to a can of gasoline. “Son,” said Mr Kline, “I’ve quartered a number of you boll dischargees before now and I have come to learn that they will occasionally, and with no alert, do themselves in, often without due regard for their surroundings.”

He goes so far as to describe in detail tidy methods, ostensibly so Jerome, if he decides to off himself, will choose one of those methods rather than a gun stuck in the mouth. It is kind of funny, but it read to me more like a funny story than a story that is funny. I can only guess that the humor continues in something along this vein.

Wolf Hall is funny too, often morbidly so. But the humor is more subtle and sly. For instance, when Thomas Cromwell reminisces about helping his abusive father, Walter, shoeing horses, Mantel gives us this:

Their hooves gripped in Walter’s hands, they’d tremble; it was his job to hold their heads and talk to them, rubbing the velvet space between their ears, telling them how their mothers love them and talk about them still, and how Walter will soon be over.

In the midst of Machiavellian maneuvering (“The Prince” has a recurring role), this break manages to induce a sympathetic smile. It also tells us something about Thomas, both where he comes from (which is already well-established by the time this story is related) and the type of person he is. And that is what Mantel does very well, she uses the whole of her book to explore this character, Thomas Cromwell. The exploration is fascinating.

But, now I am being unfair. I read Wolf Hall, I did not read Fever Chart. So, I will compare their openings. Fever Chart I quoted above. Wolf Hall gives us this:

“So now get up.”

Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned toward the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.

Wolf Hall begins with the same sense of urgency, foreboding, and fighting against fate that pervades the rest of the novel. Thomas Cromwell is a fighter. Wolf Hall is too. This is the blow that kills Fever Chart.


Wolf Hall advances.

With this win, Chris has wrapped up the 2010 TOB Contest. Chris has 21 points and Mantel as the Champion. Christy has 19 points and Mantel as the Champion. Lizzy has 18 points and Mantel. So, an early congratulations to Chris. Start perusing my archives to make your choice.

Everyone else, you still have a shot at the Second Chance Prize. I will pick a winner using a true random number generator. Good luck. And remember, if we live in a multiverse, you are all guaranteed winners.

TOB 2010: The Lacuna v. Miles From Nowhere

April 1, 2010

I want Miles From Nowhere to win because it feels fresh and new, while The Lacuna feels old and a little stale. That’s the feeling I get. It really says next to nothing about the works, but that’s why I want Mun’s work to win.

I believe Miles From Nowhere made it back from the dead on the strength of observations like this when Joon is helping her mother pile Joon’s father’s things in the front yard:

“Did you grab everything?”

I nodded and looked down at the slippers he’d bought me, wondering if they were supposed to go into the pile…With all the lighter fluid, the pile lit up fast, the flash instantly warming my face. I stood there and didn’t try to stop her because I loved her too much then. I knew it wasn’t good to burn all of Dad’s things, but how can you not love someone who lets you see them in all that pain? For the first time, I saw her clearly, as if I were inside a dream of hers, watching all her thoughts. She wasn’t putting on an act. She wasn’t being a nurse. She wasn’t being a mother or a wife or a good Christian. She was just dropping to her knees, inches from the fire, and sliding her thin arms into the flames.

While not perfect, the scene is gripping.

But Miles From Nowhere should not win. Kingsolver has a rare slip of prose, but she is more inventive with her language and her story. Mun lost the match when she stumbled through an important moment:

He had no idea that grief was a reward. That it only came to those who were loyal, to those who loved more than they were capable of.

As much as I would like to see Kingsolver’s novel lose, I think it neither should nor will.

TOB 2010: Let the Great World Spin v. The Lacuna

March 29, 2010

All the remaining semifinalists are, in some sense, historical novels. Tomorrow’s two are both set centuries ago. Both of today’s use actual, but more recent, historical figures to tell their tale. Being set more recently and relying on more well-established stories, actual events are more constricting in today’s contenders than in tomorrow’s.

Ostensibly, both Let the Great World Spin and The Lacuna use actual historical personalities to give structure to their narrative rather than to drive it. However, with the caveat that I did not finish the book, I felt Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky carried The Lacuna for long stretches, whereas Philippe Petit was a bit player in Let the Great World Spin. While I was not thrilled by McCann’s use of Petit or the complete work, I found Petit less intrusive and more artfully utilized than the trio of charismatic characters around which Kingsolver built her fiction.

Let the Great World Spin was also written with more consistently pleasing prose. Kingsolver seems to have written her book with the goal of making every sentence great. Her ambition shows in some overwrought metaphors and more pedestrian slips. McCann never had eyes sliding across a room and, therefore, he should win this round without working up a sweat.

Update: Was I ever wrong. Jason Kottke has declared The Lacuna the winner. Most of his opinion is devoted to cover design, but, in the end, he just liked the story of The Lacuna better. Maybe that last fourth I did not read really redeems the novel.

TOB Contest Update:

Lizzy (12) and Chris (13) each pick up two points for placing The Lacuna in the Zombie Round and, thereby, remain in the hunt with Christy (13) who stands pat. Darren (8) is still a dark horse with a shot at winning if Let the Great World Spin returns as a Zombie (which it may do) and goes on to stumble to the championship (which it almost certainly will not; given my record prognosticating, Darren should take heart).

TOB 2010 Contest: Update #5

March 26, 2010

After a full two rounds, I have ten points. I have Wolf Hall, my only pick still alive, winning out. If it does, I will end with 24 points. If it does, Lizzy (10) will score at least 26 points (as many as 32), Chris (11) will score at least 25 points (as many as 35), and Christy (13) at least 27 (as many as 33).

There is one other contestant with a shot at the title: Darren (currently with eight points). If McCann wins out, Darren could win with a final score of at least 22 and as much as 24. It is also possible that McCann wins, but Darren loses depending on how the Zombie Round plays out.

So, there are only four contenders, all of whom will easily surpass my score and, thus, will most certainly be eligible to win the Grand Prize. Congratulations in advance.

For everyone else, there is the second chance drawing which will be held after the Grand Prize winner has been determined. I will announce the Grand Prize Winner on April 5, 2010 and the Second Chance Winner on or before April 7, 2010. Good luck to everyone!

TOB 2010: The Book of Night Women vs. Big Machine

March 25, 2010

There are interesting parallels between these books. Both involve secret societies, they share essentially the same metafictional twist with respect to narration, squabbles between rival religious sects or disciplines play an important role in each, issues of race and social status are central, the stakes are quite high, and the novels start with great hooks but end with relative whimpers.

The differences are huge. The Book of Night Women tells the story of a green-eyed slave, Lilith, in Jamaica from the late 1700s to the early 1800s. It is narrated in Jamaican patois and involves incredible detail regarding violence against slaves. The book is not particularly easy to read, though it is certainly engaging. There is a distance between the reader and narrator, partly due to the use of patois and partly due to the historical setting. I do not think that is a bad thing, but necessary given what Marlon James has done and is trying to accomplish. The problem is, I was not convinced. I thought the novel came up too far short of its ambition to be a success.

Of course, Big Machine was not entirely successful with me. I think it was more of a success on its own terms. The book was included in the Los Angeles Times list of the Best Science Fiction of 2009. I cannot say it really qualifies as Science Fiction. It is more like Supernatural Fiction. But it is successful within its own terms and framework. It is not a framework that I found particularly satisfying, but that is my quirk, not the book’s. Besides that, LaValle had more memorable lines and observations about the world. Whether that was because he was writing in modern English or because he is the more gifted at crafting sentences does not matter. This is a tournament. Only outcomes matter.

While I picked The Book of Night Women to win before I had read it (but after I had read Big Machine), I think I was wrong on the merits. I enjoyed The Book of Night Women more, but I think Big Machine is the more well-written and successful book. It is not Victor LaValle’s fault that I am put-off by books that rely on the supernatural as a central feature or plot device. He deserves to win the match.

TOB 2010: Wolf Hall vs. The Anthologist

March 24, 2010

In my ideal world, these books would not have met until later in the Tournament. They are, by a fairly comfortable margin, the two books that have most impressed me.

I am not finished with Wolf Hall yet, but, so far, it is an outstanding work of fiction. I am immersed in the political and personal intrigue in King Henry VIII’s court and admire Mantel’s beautiful writing. She does include a great deal of period detail, too much in the eyes of some. I have enjoyed it, though. This is a book in which the reader can luxuriate, enjoying the characters, the setting, and the power plays. Hilary Mantel has written a superb work that achieves its considerable ambition.

I have already reviewed The Anthologist which is also an excellent novel that achieves its own, more focused, but no less considerable, ambition. Its narrower scope and more limited appeal meant that its loss to Wolf Hall today was inevitable. I do not think that should have necessarily been the case. And I am happy that today’s judge said as much. While his subject is less grandiose, Baker set himself every bit as difficult and worthy a task. His success is worthy of praise and a Rooster. I am not saying it should have won the Rooster, only that The Anthologist is one of a handful of books, perhaps as many as four, that is worthy of winning the Rooster.

I agree with Meave Gallagher completely. She put forward a very thoughtful and considered opinion. Hers is the best analysis of the TOB so far. In a hypothetical tournament of judges, Gallagher is looking like the judge to beat.

TOB 2010: Two down in the Second Round

March 23, 2010

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.

Lowboy by John Wray

March 22, 2010

I only read this book after it was eliminated from the Tournament of Books. Its elimination severely bruised my brackets. I did not hold its failure against it, however, but against Andrew Womack who inexplicably picked The Help rather than this book. Well, okay, he had an explanation, that’s the great part of the TOB. Still, I did not agree.

Outrage can only carry a person so far when his opinions are held in the darkness of ignorance. Hit a light switch, the world changes.

Andrew Womack, The Help decision was your biggest TOB mistake since 2005 when you advanced The Plot Against America to the Finals while sending Heir to the Glimmering World to the lockers. Your reasoning then was that, despite Heir being “practically flawless”; it was not enough. No, you wanted the book to have more “to tell.” So you waived through the flawed and held back the nearly perfect.

We must learn from history. An important lesson from the 2005 debacle is that hype, page count, sales numbers, “scope”, and historical settings do not elevate a flawed novel above “a beautiful story, beautifully told.” Yet, here we are and Andrew has chosen The Help instead of Lowboy primarily because it “brings a bigger story to sink your teeth into.”

With apologies to Winston Churchill, that is something up with which I will not put. Dangling prepositions are the least of Andrew’s worries. He chose, again, to dismiss the slimmer book with style in favor of a bulky, flawed remaking of history. Bad call.

Andrew rectified the 2005 error by voting against Plot and for Cloud Atlas in the championship. He will not get the same chance at redemption this year, unless the TOB becomes, not only lighthearted, but a joke.

Lowboy is not flawless, but there are no crippling deficiencies. Wray’s prose is efficiently pleasing and manages to capture both humor and emotion in crisp, but not showy, language. Some of the best parts are revolve around Detective Ali Lateef and Yda Heller (mother to the 16-year old, missing, schizophrenic Will):

But the woman outside his office door could never have been a nurse. The shoes had been chosen to make her look less graceful — they must have been — but somehow they had the opposite effect. There was something involuntary, even feral, about the way she held herself. The beautiful woman’s indifference to everything around her. She seemed to have no idea of the inconvenience she was causing. She held her cigarette between her thumb and ring finger, a little distastefully, like a twig that she’d just pulled out of her hair.

The relationship between Ms. Heller and Detective Lateef expands, deepens, and morphs throughout the novel in interesting, unexpected, and aesthetically pleasing ways. Their sections are as important to what Wray has to say about the world as those sections that focus on Will and his exploits while on the run. Both are fully wrought characters that pull the reader into the story and develop the themes of individual identity (Detective Lateef’s name used to be Rufus Lamarck White; Yda Heller is called “Violet” by her son Will) and eccentricity that are important parts of the narrative of Will’s life.

Various explanations are given for Will’s nickname, Lowboy, but his love of the New York subway is what makes the moniker feel most apt. One can imagine that Lowboy, if left alone on an underground train, would be perfectly content. That may not be true, because his constant companion is paranoia and, hence, seeing threatening meaning in everything including in the design of the subway car.

He would never meet the people who’d drawn the blueprint, never have a chance to question them, but he could learn things just by looking at the car. You could see, for example, that they were fearful men. The pattern on the walls, which he’d always taken to be meaningless, was actually made up of thousands of miniature coats of arms, symbols of the authority of the state. The interior of the car was waterproof, the better to be hosed down in case of bloodshed. And the seats were arranged not for maximum efficiency, not to seat the greatest number of people comfortably and safely, but to express the designer’s fear with perfect clarity. No one sat with their back turned to anyone else.

Lowboy is an interesting character. He has some of the charm of Christopher John Francis Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), but with a much darker edge. His unique way of looking at the world is engaging and disturbing. The reader, like so many of the people with whom he interacts, roots for him, is fascinated by him, and fears him. Wray manages Lowboy superbly, never allowing the reader to forget how sick the boy is, but always with enough sympathy and compassion to keep from alienating the readers.

Wary tries to pack a number of issues and ideas between the covers of Lowboy. From mental illness to detective story tropes, from issues of identity to issues of race, Wray touches on them all, but never in a heavy-handed or patronizing manner. It is the kind of book that rewards a second read. Wray writes with care; he writes for attentive readers.

For instance, Detective Lateef’s former middle name is “Lamarck”, but the reason for the reference is hardly apparent when it is made and its significance only becomes apparent to the astute as the characters and plot are revealed. It is the sort of detail that The Help is not polished enough to possess and that The Lacuna would emphasize to the point it lost all its aesthetic power.

While Lowboy was not my favorite TOB contender, it is certainly one of the most well-written. It is shameful that it was nudged aside by The Help. Lowboy will not be for everyone, but it will provide value to nearly anyone who reads it. Wray is an outstanding writer who has put forth a very good effort. On the strength of this novel, I will look for more of his work. Whether the subject of this one entices you, I encourage you to pay attention to John Wray.

*Note – I mean absolutely no disrespect to Mr. Womack who is a fine reviewer and, I am sure, an honorable man. Mostly, I am just trying to have fun with the TOB, so any pokes at Andrew are meant in the best of humor. I do disagree with the decision, but that is the fun of the TOB. Feel free to shred me in the comments, Andrew.