Unofficial ToB X Contest: Final Standings

March 30, 2014

The chickens have come home to roost, but for the one sent off to Mr. McBride, of course. So, the final results are in and Adam gets to crow this year.

For his prize, Adam has selected the much-anticipated U.S. debut of The Orenda, which has taken home some prizes of its own, including the Shadow Giller Prize. In addition, he has selected the scintillating novel described by one astute critic as like “the birth of your first child, only it fits on a Kindle and doesn’t keep you awake for several months before it begins to tell you stories and the stories are actually good.” If that sounds like over-hype, it isn’t when you consider Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles has also garnered critical praise like this: “Henehan isn’t just playful with language, she tickles it until it wets itself.” But, this is more about Adam and his incredible, come-from-behind, sorry Jennifer, victory in the Fifth Annual Unofficial ToB Contest! Well done, sir. Happy reading, to you and to all!

Oh, and that’s almost guaranteed with Henehan’s novel which has been lauded not only by me, but also by The Millions, Bookslut, and GQ. And now you are probably wondering, is Milkweed Editions paying him? No, they are not, though I wouldn’t be above that (and I did get them to give away a book to a Hungry Like the Woolf reader, though I paid for mine). Is Kira Henehan sleeping with this guy? No, I am sure Ms. Henehan is above that, especially as I am a complete stranger to her. What’s the deal then? I just really, really liked the book, it is from a small press, and I want Ms. Henehan to write another. Please. You must google your name now and again. I won’t buy just one.

I think I’ve strayed. Thanks to everyone who participated or followed along or just read this for no intelligible reason at all. The best to all of you!

Final Standings

1. 32 Points – Adam S.

2. 29 Points – Jennifer D.

3. 28 Points – Laura C.

4. 16 Points – Jeremy Z.

5. 15 Points – Michelle W.

6. 14 Points – Jim M.

7. 13 Points – Katie M.

8. 12 Points – Susan S., Mike R., Me

Hope to see you all online (here, Goodreads, wherever) before next year’s ToB, but, if not, at least then.


Tournament of Books X: End of Round 1 + 1

March 18, 2014

Here we are, several sixty degree (F) days and eight inches of snow later, and Mother Nature isn’t the only one mocking us.

Heavy hitters are falling faster than _______. [edit: I had originally put in a boxing reference, but, upon reflection, thought a very good, if not great, boxer deserved to be remembered for more than the worst fight of his career. I have no replacement.]

And my brackets are a mess.

The standings:

After Game 1 of Round 2

1. 9 points – Jennifer D.: Like, could I borrow your crystal ball?

2. 8 points – Susan S.: The Luminaries hurts us both.

3. 6 points – 6 contestants: Don’t get too confident, another two have five points and four of us are limping along at four points.

I am not sure how to consider historical records with the play-in, but one person has managed only the play-in right so far. To even be considered for the record, that streak has to stay alive through the Zombie minefield and the Finals. So, stay calm. History hasn’t even started dialing yet.

My (Brief) Thoughts on the TOB So Far

With Life After Life hoping for just that, At Night We Walk in Circles wandering aimlessly, and The Luminaries permanently X’d out, I am down to rooting for The Good Lord Bird. I am not pleased with this state of affairs, but then the TOB does not exist to please me. Drats.

Geraldine Brooks has turned in the best judgment (disregarding results) so far, however, there are plenty of potentially interesting matchups to go. Go to the Disqus comments if you haven’t, that’s where most of the fun is.

Until I get a few free moments again…


Unofficial TOB 2013 Contest: Final Leaderboard

March 29, 2013

Results:

After yesterday, it was inevitable a Zombie would win. It did. This Zombie lives up to the Rooster tradition of excellence (The Road, Cloud Atlas, Wolf Hall, etc., etc.).

Championship Match
The Orphan Master’s Son karate chops The Fault in Our Stars

Final Leaderboard

1. 28 Points and Undisputed Winner: Neil R. (tiebreak 11; actual 14)

2. 28 points (and ineligible for glory): Kerry H. (tiebreak: 10)

3. 26 Points: Amy C. (11)

4. 26 Points: Julie W. (10)

5. 25 Points: Melanie C. (11)

6. 25 Points: Dianne H. (no tiebreak)

7. 24 Points: Michelle W.

8. 20 Points: Linda J. (13)

9. 20 Points: Felicity (11)

10. 17 Points: Christophe H. (9) edging out Jennifer N. (no tiebreak)

Neil R. takes home the prize! Congratulations and I hope to see you next year trying to defend your title.

As for the bottom of the pile, no record was set. However, several contestants came in with an impressively low 4 out of a possible 41 points. Stacy, Timothy, and Kevin managed this unenviable feat. KfC takes home the booby prize on tie-breaks. He (as did I) unwisely predicted a close, 10-7, Finals. In reality, Adam Johnson hen-pecked John Green 14-3.


Unofficial TOB 2013 Contest: Leaderboard – End of Round 3

March 26, 2013

Results:

Match 3, Round 2
Gone Girl thrilled over Beautiful Ruins.

Match 4, Round 2
How Should a Person Be? was a question left unanswered by Bring Up the Bodies

Match 1, Round 3
Building Stories disappeared The Orphan Master’s Son

Match 2, Round 3
Gone Girl denied the premise of How Should a Person Be?

Leaderboard – End of Round 3

1. (17 points) Christopher H.

2. (16 points) Linda J., Neil R., Felicity, Jeremy Z., Kerry H.

7. (15 points) Mike R.

8. (14 points) Jane Eyre, Jayme G., Julie W., Jed S., Amy C.

Other contenders (Current/Max Points):

Michelle W. (12/28), Diane H. (13/25), Melanie C. (13/25), Jennifer N. (13/25)

I regret to inform you that if your name does not appear above, you have been mathematically eliminated.

Interestingly, no one has picked Building Stories to take it all. I have to think there might be regrets about that. It seems very likely to make the Finals, but can only play spoiler, not king-maker, now. A Building Stories win will force a tie-breaker decision.

Only one contestant still in contention picked The Fault in Our Stars for the Rooster. If it wins, she does.

The Orphan Master’s Sons contingent is the largest and Gone Girl booster club nearly as populous. The precise winner, in the event either of these prevails, will be determined by tie-breakers.

Good luck!


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.


The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

April 24, 2012

I will be brief, because this novel has received widely laudatory coverage and I do not have much to say about it. Magical realism tends to have too much magic and too little realism for my taste. The mix here, though, was not bad. I also did not find, as others have, that the novel felt like two short stories (“The Deathless Man” and “The Tiger’s Wife”) duct-taped together to form a novel. Perhaps the most I can say is that I was not particularly moved.

Obreht has some beautiful imagery and intriguing ideas on offer. For the imagery, try this:

[H]e was the kind of boy who caught bumblebees in jars and then harnessed them carefully with films from cassette tapes so that it was not uncommon to see him walking down the main road with dozens of them rising around him like tiny, insane balloons while the film flashed wildly in the sun.

I also enjoyed the “sour little shudders” of a boy’s heart and the need, in cold and snow, “to wipe the sting out of his eyes”. Obreht paints exquisite details into her novel.

As for ideas, one of her most important characters is “the deathless man” who has been cursed with the inability to die. This idea has been often used before, though Simone de Beauvoir explored it with the most philosophical rigor in All Men Are Mortal. De Beauvoir uses Raimon Fosca, an immortal character, to examine what mortality means for our ethical systems and how it shapes human experience. In her rendering, immortality presents problems of its own, demonstrating that frustrations with limited time are, in some ways, based on false assumptions. The darkness and the light at the heart of existentialism is further explored through Fosca’s inability to create any lasting progress or improvements in the world. Whether man dies or not, meaning is ephemeral.

Obreht takes a light approach in bending the venerable myth of a man cursed with immortality to her purposes. Partly, this is by giving the deathles man a supporting, rather than leading, role. Natalia, Obreht’s narrator, learns from her grandfather’s interactions with the deathless man the lesson of hope in death. The deathless man proves that death need not be feared because there is something afterwards, something even to be longed for by one who knows best what to expect. Death, in other words, is not really death.

The primary problem with death, in Obreht’s telling, is that people are always worried they missed something that would have prolonged their life.

”But the greatest fear is that of uncertainty,” Gavran Gaile is saying. “They are uncertain about meeting my uncle, of course. But they are uncertain, above all, of their own inaction: have they done enough, discovered their illness soon enough, consulted the worthiest physicians, consumed the best medicines, uttered the correct prayers?”

I am not sure this could be written or believed by anyone over the age of forty. By that age, denial of mortality is generally no longer really possible. The greatest fears tend, then, to be those with which de Beauvoir and her character Fosca engage. The question is not so much “have I done enough to avoid death”, but “have I done enough with my life?” The brilliance of All Men Are Mortal is that Fosca’s life demonstrates that the thing we tend to mean when we ask that question is not really all that important. There is no monument a person can erect to herself that will insulate her from annihilation. All accomplishment is, in the longest of runs, illusory. Ozymandias may have been the king of all kings, but boasts of eternal greatness are always mocked by time. Impermanent beings must satisfy themselves with evanescent significance.

Obreht, meanwhile, demonstrates admirable skill, but never delivers the sort of depth her premise suggests. The deathless man serves as a kindly guide across the Styx. One needn’t fear death, because a friendly man awaits. He will start you on the path to find your previously departed loved ones. You will meet them again. Death is not death, but a mere transition. Obreht’s is too facile a solution to the unpleasantness of finitude.

The Tiger’s Wife is a promise to us that Obreht is an author worth reading now for the greatness she will give us in the future. This book provides pleasant diversion, but no real weight.


State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

March 6, 2012

Having just finished State of Wonder, I was extremely surprised when Jeff O’Neal pegged Patchett’s solidly conventional bestseller as the odds-on favorite to take home the Rooster. The unexpected endorsement from O’Neal has me looking for reasons why my assessment is wrong.

In its favor, State of Wonder has good sales (having made the New York Times Bestseller list and being one of six TOB contenders highly ranked on Amazon’s sales list) and demonstrates good, if not particularly artistic, craftsmanship. As a commenter at Book Riot noted, the novel is meticulously plotted. If it is possible to be too carefully plotted, though, State of Wonder is. For, despite the title, everything that occurs in the novel is carefully foreshadowed to prevent anything truly startling from occuring. There are twists and turns to the narrative thread, but there are warning signs well in advance of every sharp corner in the road. On the one hand, this prevents the reader from feeling unfairly manipulated; on the other, this reader felt he was being led too carefully through a zoo rather than let loose in a jungle.

The story involves the search for a wonder-drug being developed deep in the Amazon forest by a seemingly rogue researcher, Dr. Annick Swenson. When the novel opens, Anders Eckman, having gone to look for Dr. Swenson, is dead. He and the protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh, had been working together, stateside, at the same pharmaceutical company which sponsors Dr. Swenson’s research. The head of the company, Mr. Fox, had pulled Eckman out of the lab and sent him into the Amazon to find out what sort of progress Dr. Swenson was making and, hopefully, to talk her out of the jungle.

While working together, Dr. Singh and Eckman had developed a close personal, as well as professional, relationship, so Singh is hit doubly hard by the news of his death. Eckman’s wife, of course, takes an even bigger psychological blow, not least because she is left to raise her and Eckman’s boys by herself. It proves too much for her. Karen Eckman refuses, on the basis of a two paragraph letter from the secretive Dr. Swenson to believe her husband is actually dead. Dr. Singh tries to console her and move her towards acceptance.

”He’s dead, Karen.”

“Why? Because we got a letter from some crazy woman in Brazil who nobody’s allowed to talk to? I need more than that. This is the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to me. It’s the worst thing that’s going to happen to my boys ever in their entire lives, and I’m supposed to take a stranger’s word on it?”

There had to be an equation for probability and proof. At some point probability becomes so great it eclipses the need for proof, although maybe not if it was your husband. “Mr. Fox is going to send someone down there. They’re going to find out what happened.”

“But say he’s not dead….”

Karen all but begs Dr. Singh to go to Brazil to find out what happened to her husband. In a neat turn of coincidence, Mr. Fox also wants to send Dr. Singh to find Dr. Swenson, because Dr. Singh has a past connection with Dr. Swenson and, so Mr. Fox imagines, may succeed where Eckman failed. Dr. Singh is not sure because their connection is well in the past and involves a mistake Dr. Singh made during her medical residency as an obstetrician. Unfortunately for Dr. Singh, the incredibly talented and stern Dr. Swenson, her immediate superior at the time, was nowhere to be found during an emergency and Dr. Singh, handling it on her own, made an error. Dr. Singh was so shaken by her mistake that she abandoned the practice of medicine.

The tension builds very slowly but, from the short summary of the set-up, it is easy to see where certain things are going. Dr. Singh and Dr. Swenson will become re-aquainted in the Amazon, the incident during Dr. Singh’s residency will be important, Karen is correct to be suspicious of Dr. Swenson’s short report, though maybe not for the right reasons, and so forth.

Did I mention that Dr. Fox and Dr. Singh are slow-brewing a romance, that Dr. Singh and Eckman were not doing the same though Karen half-suspects they were, and that everything in the novel is bent in service of the plot?

Dr. Singh did not strike me as a particularly compelling character. While she is “a good person” and a competent researcher, she mostly seems to me a vessel into which readers can pour themselves. That, and a slave to plot. She likes puppies, dislikes mean people, is sure of herself when she needs to be, but mostly is not. She definitely is not sure of herself if she needs not to be. She is open minded about alternative (native) remedies, but just skeptical enough to avoid commitment one way or the other.

For instance, when she comes down with a fever, she accepts a potion from Dr. Swenson’s Manaus-based guardians, the Bovenders. Her fever passes and she credits the drink until Dr. Swenson passes judgment on the natives’ medicinal efforts.

”For these people there is no concept of a dosage, no set length for treatments. When something works it seems to me to be nothing short of a miracle.”

Marina remembered that cup of sludge Barbara Bovender had brought her from the shaman’s stand and wondered if she was no more than a Westerner given to the charms of boiled tinctures. It was a cure she would never admit to now.

This conflict between modernity and ancient wisdom dovetails nicely with Patchett’s moral concerns. What, for instance, is a US-trained physician to do when faced with a native’s medical emergency? Let them struggle, or treat them? The corrupting influences of the profit motive, the hubris of Westerners generally, and how those factors together can strip seemingly decent people of their morality are all raised. To Patchett’s credit, she does not lecture her readers on the correct answers to any particular conundrum but, then, she avoids that by avoiding, in my view, delving into these issues. They are like engaging billboards beside a highway. They pass the time, but they are not the point of the drive. The gravitational pull of the plot curves the path of each noticed idea back to plot.

The story-centric nature of State of Wonder leaves it feeling too-light, despite the emotional and physical rigors through which it puts its characters, to seriously contend for the TOB title. At the end, you have had a good story well-told but not much else. I simply do not believe this sort of novel can win this sort of contest. Many of its competitors are flawed, but ambition counts in the Tournament. State of Wonder‘s primary ambition is to keep the reader engaged in the story. It does that well and with a practiced literary hand.

The best books, though, use their plots to make strong arguments. Patchett reversed her priorities, it seems to me, leaving any arguments put forward as weak as Dr. Singh’s waffle on the effectiveness of local “medicine”. The biggest ethical decision Dr. Singh is forced to make ends up being made for her. The lack of a coherent argument (not message, a simple message book is much worse than this) renders State of Wonder defenseless against its more aesthetically and ethically ambitious competitors.

[Edited after posting: At some point, I started typing “Eckerman” rather than “Eckman”. I have fixed those errors.]


Unofficial TOB Contest: What the Entries Say About the TOB

March 5, 2012

The entries for this year’s TOB Contest have been tabulated. Based on these entries, the dynamics of Tournament of Books 2012 are very different from those of Tournament of Books 2011.

TOB 2011 saw three books tied among entrants as most likely to see Round two (Freedom, Room, and Super Sad True Love Story) whereas there is a single, and overwhelming, favorite in the first round this year: The Sense of an Ending (90% predict first round success). The Tiger’s Wife (86%) and Swamplandia! (83%) are the next two most common picks to advance out of the first round in 2012. Interestingly, each of last year’s top three first round picks found their way to the Championship on at least one entry. Not so for Swamplandia!, whose early enthusiasm wanes quickly. No book in 2011 or 2012 sees its support drop so precipitously. Swamplandia! loses at least half its support each round, culminating in zero votes to be Champion.

In TOB 2011, none of the five closest first round matchups were more lopsided than 66% vs. 33% (and only Next vs. So Much For That was even that lopsided). This year by contrast, the least lopsided match (State of Wonder vs. The Sisters Brothers) has a 66% vs. 33% split among voters. Despite all the discussion (including by me) of how hard it will be to predict outcomes, everyone seems to be coalescing around first round winners.

These lopsided results are also reflected in the fact that not a single entrant believes Green Girl will make it past the second round. No book had such a poor showing among contest entries in 2011. Two more 2012 contenders (The Stranger’s Child and The Cat’s Table) join Green Girl in managing what no 2011 contender did: All are absent from the Zombie Round (and, as a necessary consequence, also receive no votes as either Finalists or Champion).

2012 is also odd in that everyone who picked first round underdog State of Wonder (33%) also penciled in State of Wonder as a second round winner. No books from 2011 held onto every one of their boosters through the first two rounds. (The Stranger’s Child also managed to keep all its first round voters in the second round in 2012, but then its voters disappeared entirely.)

Last year, Room was an overwhelming pick for Zombie status with over 40% of contest entrants tapping Donaghue’s novel to rise from the grave. (A Visit From the Goon Squad was next with about 20% picking it as a Zombie.) The closest any novel in the 2012 TOB comes to inspiring that sort of faith in an afterlife is State of Wonder. 25% of entrants think Patchett’s Amazon adventure (featuring cannibals!) will develop a taste for brains. (The Marriage Plot will be stumbling close behind, if the 24% of entrants who picked it as a Zombie are correct.)

Entrants correctly predicted the eventual champ in 2011 with a 37% plurality foreseeing ultimate success by A Visit From the Goon Squad. The next closest pick for Champ was Skippy Dies (16%). In fact, A Visit From the Goon Squad was the most frequent pick to advance out of each round from the Zombie Round forward (71%, 53%, 37%).

There is no such frontrunner this year.

The Tiger’s Wife and The Art of Fielding are the equally popular picks to win (28% each). They split the lead-up rounds with Obreht’s novel being tagged as most likely to make the semifinals (66% vs. 62%) while Harbach’s book has been voted the most likely to make the Finals (48% vs. 38%).

If entrants are as prescient this year as last, we will see a final bout between The Art of Fielding and The Tiger’s Wife with the winner TBD. Lock your harnesses and prepare for a fun ride.


Green Girl by Kate Zambreno

February 28, 2012

Green Girl does not feel like a novel. What there is of plot did not feel like plot. The narrative felt more like a journal, albeit a journal written by the future “green girl” rather than the “green girl” herself.

The “green girl” is Ruth. Ruth is an American in London who works as a temporary perfume saleperson in a department store she disparagingly calls Horrids. The narrator both admires Ruth and envies her youth, comparing Ruth’s “perfect French breats” to her “maternal and massive and saggy” breasts. It is difficult to tell exactly who the narrator is, but she takes some delight in Ruth’s sufferings. When Ruth spills the contents of her purse:

She is such a trainwreck. But that’s why we like to watch. The spectacle of the unstable girl-woman. Look at her losing it in public.

The novel, particularly in the beginning, consists in many ways with the more materialistic/hedonistic preoccupations of this particular type of young woman: clothes, shoes, hair, and casual romantic encounters with men. These are all things with which she is trying to fill a void in her life. Perhaps a little black dress will do it:

She hardly has enough money to eat. But who needs to eat when you can wear a dress like that? Ruth thinks. Anyway, food gets digested, food goes away. Useless practice. But a dress like that will be forever. A sort of spiritual nourishment, just as fundamanetal as eat and roof and breathe.

Zambreno excellently conveys the light veneer Ruth presents to the public. Beneath, she is empty and searching and longing. Of course, she goes about solving her loneliness and emptiness in ways entirely inappropriate and ineffective. Her friend and roommate Agnes is no help, usually encouraging the worst of her impulses.

There may be more than a little debt to films like The Devil Wears Prada:

Wisdom is not something the green girl possesses in abundance. Her sacred scriptures are new wave films and fashion magazines.

Ruth lacks depth. The narrator notes this explicitly at least once. As her temporary jobs indicate, she has not found a way to fit in the world. She longs for her lost love, she has a crush on a co-worker, and she is effectively estranged from her distant father.

Early in the novel, I had high hopes. The fashion-oriented aspects were not particularly appealing, but Zambreno managed to keep them interesting and relevant, such as with a designer knock-off purse: “up close one realizes the purse’s secret, the humiliation of its anonymity.” Ruth, too, is humiliated by her anonymity and, in fact, seems to crave more humiliation. The narrator enjoys Ruth’s sufferings as much as Ruth herself finds pleasure wallowing in self-pity and, perhaps manufactured, lovesickness.

There are some romantic movements of plot, but little else other than some wandering and job changes. For me, with fashion and hookups doing most of the work of plot, the novel lost its way. I became disengaged and felt removed from Ruth by the end. The narrator played a part by observing Ruth almost as a specimen rather than a person. The shopping and preoccupation with clothes did not help either. I lost the thread. I would say the end was disappointing, but the story had unraveled to the point I was no longer invested in the outcome. The novel very nearly evaporated.

As a TOB contender, I cannot imagine Green Girl taking down The Marriage Plot. With all its flaws, Eugenides’ work never has the reader doubting the skill of its seasoned author. Zambreno either was attempting something I was too dull to follow or was overpowered in the struggle with her book. Whatever the case, I do not think I will be alone in assessing The Marriage Plot as both more ambitious and more successful. I wish Green Girl much success, but I doubt it will find any in the Tournament of Books.