The Final Draft

The coveted TOB Rooster.
Today is finally the first official day of the Tournament of Books, hosted by The Morning News and sponsored by Nook by Barnes & Noble, with top books vying for the coveted Rooster crown.
As you know, I've been furiously reading the finalists since they were announce a few months ago. And today the last of the 16 nominees was announced. Luckily for me it was the one I read, Billy Flynn's Long Halftime Walk. Given all of the press surrounding this book, I was fairly sure it would be the one of the three war-themed Pre-Tournament books chosen. To see the judge's official review, and the color commentary from TOB, click here.
On Friday, I gave you my picks for four of the pairings in the tournament. You can see those here.
I have to tell you, these next four pairings are more difficult for me. Some of my favorite books in the tournament are pitted against each other, making a judgment hard to call. But here goes:

The Contest: Youth in Revolt
The Competitors: The Round House vs. The Fault in Our Stars
The Winner: The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
Why It Won: It pains me to have to choose between these two books. The minute I finished The Fault in Our Stars, I tweeted that this book would win the tournament if it was judged solely on the number of tears shed. It is an amazing story of a teenage girl who meets a boy at a cancer support center – and it is much more uplifting than you might imagine that would be. But, by a hair, The Round House is slightly better. Perhaps it was the fact that Louise Erdrich weaves a grittier, more realistic, story. The voice of the 13-year-old Joe in Round House rings truer. It is a tough tale, though, as Joe recounts the year that his mother was brutally attacked on their reservation, and how he and his friends investigate the crime.

The Contest: A Tussle Between Travelers
The Competitors: The Orphan Master's Son vs Where'd You Go, Bernadette?
The Winner: Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple
Why It Won: Again, TOB, you have given me a very hard contest to judge here. These are two very different books about people who find it difficult to live in their environment, and who travel far away to learn more about themselves. But they are not at all close to the same type of book, so it's tough to pit two such disparate tales against each other. The Orphan Master's Son is a fictional look at the brutal life of a North Korean "nobody" named Jun Do (and yes, the reference to John Doe is purposeful) who improbably ends up traveling to Texas and impersonating a high-ranking official. Bernadette is a funnier take about a mom who has trouble fitting into life in Seattle and in figuring out who she is. When she disappears, her daughter Bee learns more than she bargained for about her mom and their life together. For me, it wasn't that one was infinitely better than the other, it came down to how much I believed each character. But it was still close.

The Contest: The Wild Card War
The Competitors: Billy Flynn's Long Halftime Walk vs. May We Be Forgiven
The Winner: Billy Flynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
Why It Won: Neither one of these are perfect books: Billy Flynn reminded me a lot of a plotline from HBO's series The Pacific, and Forgiven just kept piling more and more improbable situations on the protagonist. But Billy Flynn was a book that I kept putting down – and that's a good gauge of a book's impact for me. I read so quickly and there are very good books that I fly through. So when I stop reading to set a book down, it's a sign that I want to, or need to, think about it; that I'm savoring it. I needed to think a lot about what I read in Billy Flynn, and about the day-in-the-life of U.S. soldiers on a Victory Tour after a tough battle in Iraq. Forgiven is a hard look at a flawed man who inherits his brother's kids, who has to figure out how to deal with them, and who has to come to terms with the fact that his brother is a murderer. Good initial theme, but then the author kept adding to the "hero's" angst with strange bedfellows and segues that take away from what could have been a great core story.

The Contest: The Alternative Altercation
The Competitors: Dear Life vs. Building Stories
The Winner: Building Stories, by Chris Ware
Why It Won: This one was no contest for me, and that isn't fair to Alice Munro. First, I'm not a Munro fan, so it was going to be hard to win me over. Second, I'm not a short-story fan, so that was going to make it even hard for Munro. But then Chris Ware's book arrived on my front porch, and it was basically three strikes against Munro. Ware takes storytelling into another dimension with his box full of tricks, finding inspiration in art forms from comics to manga to architectural drawings to even the Little Golden Books of our youth. Each piece builds upon itself (hence the title) to tell a story in very few words of the ups and downs of a lonely woman. It's groundbreaking, and a very tough competitor for Munro's drier tales.

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