Monday, March 19, 2012

Tournament of Books Moves to Second Round

By Paul Gagne, Guest Blogger

ToB Official Bracket
The Tournament of Books is kicking off its second round this week, and the literary scrapping is starting to heat up. As I mentioned in my prior ToB post, this event brings March Madness to literature, matching up contemporary works of fiction in head-to-head competition, bracketology-style.

I’ve been participating in the ToB for 4 years now, and each time I am struck anew at just how much the judges make the tournament. As there are no set rules for choosing winners in each literary matchup, it’s up to each judge to choose her own criteria in determining which book moves forward. Most of the time, this is satisfying. Other times, it's incredibly frustrating.

Let’s look at a couple of the matches that have been decided already, and then I’ll give my pick for Monday’s final first-round match, with my rationale.

From the judgments that have been made thus far, what I find most interesting is that both Bethanne Kelly Patrick, the editor of my new favorite website,, and author Haven Kimmel, seem to have chosen their winners based on a belief in the future of literature and the output of their respective chosen winners.

The Tiger’s Wife vs. The Stranger’s Child (Judge - Bethanne Kelly Patrick)

This matchup is one in which I read both titles prior to the Tournament. The judge selected Tiger's Wife as the winner, and I would have made the same decision, but for different reasons. I wanted to love Hollinghurst's Stranger's Child, as I have been passionate about several other titles by him over the years, but it was a letdown, and I knew it would be by about three-quarters of the way through. I also had high expectations for The Tiger’s Wife, and for the most part, those were met.

Especially effective for me were the linking of family and national myth-creation to the story of grandfather and granddaughter in war-torn Serbia. And while I enjoyed the Obreht more than the Hollinghurst, I felt no lasting emotional connection to either, although Obreht had me momentarily near the end, when the grandfather eats dinner in a hotel where he had honeymooned years earlier. The scene is perfect, quiet and powerful, as the grandfather dines with the deathless man as a military siege nears the hotel.

Swamplandia! vs. The Cat’s Table (Judge - Haven Kimmel)

While Haven Kimmel ultimately voted for Swamplandia!, the book that “got under [her] skin,” she also says that fact “irritated” her. In the end, her battle, between upstart Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, and Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, comes down to the fact that she decided to be “on the side of the young writer!” And, by her reasoning, “Ondaatje will scrape by without this one victory.” Well, I had read some pretty critical things of Swamplandia!, and in portioning out my reading time with regard to the books in the Tournament, decided to pass on it. I did read The Cat’s Table in preparation for the Tournament, and it is far from the best of Ondaatje – it’s not emotionally, linguistically, nor stylistically forceful as so many of his other books are. Still, it’s Ondaatje. I simply can’t imagine picking something called Swamplandia! over Ondaatje, but Haven Kimmel’s the real judge here, and we’re playing by her rules.

Monday's Final First Round Match - The Art of Fielding vs. Open City

For the only contest remaining in the first round, I have read both titles, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding vs. Teju Cole’s Open City. I genuinely liked both books. The Art of Fielding is tailor-made for me – baseball subject, gorgeous college setting, gay angle. It’s a big novel that introduces many points of view, but doesn’t feel sprawling, exactly (although it does seem 100 pages too long). Despite the gay subplot and periodic references to technology like the iPhone, this novel smells old. Traditional and old-fashioned, like walking into a used bookstore, or maybe going to the Baseball Hall of Fame – I would almost assume that the Westish Harpooners of the novel wore wool uniforms. Unlike Melville’s oft-name-checked Moby-Dick, The Art of Fielding doesn’t go far enough afield even with its shortstop phenom Henry Skrimshander unable to make a throw to first. He simply never becomes strong enough to anchor this type of novel. Perhaps it should have sprawled more.

Open City is a book in which astonishingly little happens. The main character, Julius, is a Nigerian living in New York, who has a great deal of time to walk the city, despite being a psychiatric resident. Julius muses on global warming, recalls his past as a child in Nigeria, his parents’ deaths, military school, and a friend whose sister he meets again in New York. Open City puts you in Julius’s head for the entirety of the novel. It is philosophical, literate, worldly, and gives an interestingly detailed view of New York City in the 21st century. In what may pass for plot near the end of the book, we learn something about Julius’ past that throws us for a loop. Initially, I thought this was a false step, and with barely a further mention in the 20 pages left in the book, I was very unsure of how to feel about the whole work. In retrospect, while I think the treatment of this revelation is questionable, it does help to round out the character of Julius, making him even more fully formed than he had already seemed.

I call this contest for Open City. We’ll see how I do on Monday at the Tournament of Books, and I’ll be updating you again soon.

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