I may not be a sports buff, but I do live in the South, where March Madness is as serious as a heart attack and where even the smallest child knows how to fill out a bracket.
This first week of March, as my fellow Southerners start heating up decades-old basketball rivalries, I am going to fill you in on my bracket, or who I would select as the winner of each pairing in the first round of The Morning News Tournament of Books. In my opinion, this is the best of the playoff games for bookworms. And this year, it’s a family affair as my daughter Aana weighs in with her draft picks, too.
Interestingly, this week we seem to have the same taste in books. So we mixed things up in how we tell you about the books. I can promise you we won't always agree.
Here's how this will work: Today we’re going to look at the first five pairings to tell you how we would judge them. At the end of the week, we’ll review how the judges called each contest, and we’ll tell you more about each book.
Feel free to offer your own color commentary as we move through the month-long contest.
Now it’s time for the tip-off – so blow that whistle!
The Contest: Play-In Picks
The Competitors: Avenue of Mysteries vs. A Spool of Blue Thread
Cheminne Picks: A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler
Aana Picks: A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler
Why this one, Cheminne? Let me explain this as succinctly as possible - John Irving is a misogynist who loves to write about himself. Every book follows that formula and this one is no different. Anne Tyler, on the other hand, does what I admire so much – she illuminates the ordinary and shows us all that every life is worth examining and celebrating. Her words are spare and unsentimental and the family she writes about in Spool is candid and familiar. No contest.
Why this one, Aana? I never even read A Spool of Blue Thread, but anything is better than John Irving. He comes off like a pompous older man who thinks he knows everything about everything. It’s almost like some wealthy older Anglo guy took a trip to Mexico and now he “just knows” the Mexicans, he “just gets them, ya know?” I really didn’t need all the insider information on beta blockers and Viagra either. It’s like getting stuck talking to your aging, wealthy, bigoted boss at a Christmas party after he’s had a few. It’s pretentious and creepy. Not recommended.
TOB match to be decided March 8.
The Contest: The Fighters
The Competitors: Fates and Furies vs. Bats of the Republic
Cheminne Picks: Bats of the Republic, by Zachary Thomas Dodson
Aana Picks: Bats of the Republic, by Zachary Thomas Dodson
Why this one, Cheminne? Both of these books have something to hide. One of them makes the secret worth the search; the other does not. What they both share, unfortunately, is familiarity. Fates is a story that should surprise, especially when you hit the Furies section of the book. But by the time you reach that second half, you feel as if you’ve been watching a married couple bicker in front of you for hours at dinner. Which is basically the premise of the book, so the “surprise” is more like relief when it comes. Bats is much more entertaining, but would be even better if we hadn’t had a few years of books that already included maps, hand drawings, diagrams, and scrapbooks to help tell the tale. What saves Bats is that it still is a unique story-within-a-story that keeps your attention through till the end.
Why this one, Aana? Buy this book in hardcover! The illustrations and cover lining are awesome. I really liked how the author reveals a little at a time about each character and their history. In some places, you can get a little lost, but it’s well worth it. The way the stories intertwine is really interesting and will definitely keep you turning the pages. Also, there is an envelope marked “DO NOT OPEN” at the end of the book. Do not open it until the very end, no matter how much you may want to peek! It’s much more rewarding that way.
TOB match to be decided March 9.
The Contest: The Obfuscators
The Competitors: The Sympathizer vs. Oreo
Cheminne Picks: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Aana Picks: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Why this one, Cheminne? First I have a bone to pick with TOB - Oreo was originally published in 1974. Yes, it was re-released in 2015 (the year for the books in the contest), and yes it's a good book. However, there were 80 or so other good books that should have been put into the short list. Okay, rant over. When placed in a match against The Sympathizer, Oreo makes a lot of sense for this list. Both books center on a protagonist who has something to hide or discover. Oreo is a girl who is black and Jewish, on a search for her father in a clever twist on a classical odyssey tale from Ancient Greece. The plays on words and mixes of dialects made it both fun and frustrating. Ultimately, the character in The Sympathizer had more depth and meaning for me. The layers were more interesting to peel back: French and Vietnamese, Communist masquerading as capitalist, loner finding love, spy hiding in plain sight. There were many more puzzles to piece together, particularly by the main character himself. Having spent so many years wearing masks to suit whatever situation he happened to be in, he actually may not remember who he really is. Fabulous book that ultimately was much more impactful.
Why this one, Aana? I loved both of these books, so this contest was really hard for me. Oreo gave us a heroine for the modern age, with amazing writing and clever turns of phrase. I mean, she refers to getting her period as "Flag Day." The Sympathizer gave us an anti-hero whose story was as twisted as his moral compass. The story opened my eyes about aspects of the Vietnam War I never knew about, and I found myself sympathizing with the sympathizer. What decided this contest for me was that I eventually got a teeny bit tired of all the puns and wordplay in Oreo. Read both! They're great! A side note - Oreo was originally published in 1974, which is around the time period in which The Sympathizer is set. Not sure what it's doing in the Tournament of Books for 2016, but oh well...
TOB match to be decided March 10.
The Contest: The Smack Down
The Competitors: The Turner House vs. Ban en Banlieue
Cheminne Picks: The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy
Aana Picks: The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy
Why this one, Cheminne? This was really an unfair fight – The Turner House is 3 times bigger, and Ban is poetry. Turner is a fully-thought-out book with a beginning, middle, and end, and Ban is written as if it’s the original sketch of an idea rather than a published book. In a perfect world, Turner should have been pitted against A Spool of Blue Thread – it would have been a fairer fight. Both of those books center on families coming together to decide what to do with aging parents and the emotions that inevitably are stirred up in those situations. In that match-up, I still would have selected Turner. The contemporary setting of Detroit and themes of upside-down mortgages gave it a realism that was both unsettling and engaging. There were almost too many characters - but what do you expect in a family with 13 children? Turner also, refreshingly, didn't wrap it all up with a neat and tidy bow, instead letting the story play out more realistically.
Why this one, Aana? Because Ban en Banlieue was not my cup of tea. I should’ve known when the nice lady at Barnes and Noble informed me that Ban en Banlieue would be in the poetry section if it had been in stock. It’s not that I don’t like poetry, it’s just that most poetry doesn’t engage me. This book not only didn’t engage me, I found it totally incomprehensible. At least it was only 109 pages. I appreciate the thought and meaning behind it, just not the vessel for delivering said thought and meaning. It seemed more like someone trying to describe a vague dream they had of a piece of performance art than a cohesive story. Or maybe a performance artist drunkenly writing notes about their upcoming work. If you’re not going to allow nonfiction, Tournament of Books, then PLEASE – no more “poetry!”
TOB match to be decided March 11.
The Contest: The "Evildoers"
The Competitors: Our Souls at Night vs. The Whites
Cheminne Picks: The Whites, by Richard Price
Aana Picks: The Whites, by Richard Price
Why this one, Cheminne? The TOB Rooster has a sick sense of humor. Why else would the sweet Souls be paired up with the gritty Whites? Both books do offer a look at what happens when you do the "wrong thing," but in Souls it's more about going against the norm and forgetting about what everyone else thinks. Against any other book, Souls might have won. But against the full-throttle-rush-ride of The Whites, it just didn't have the juice. The Whites was the one book on this week's list that I could not put down - it was a slithery look at the underbelly of New York's darker streets and the cops that take justice into their own hands. The Sympathizer and The Whites are my "books to watch" so far in this season's tournament.
Why this one, Aana? I thought Our Souls at Night was a very sweet book about older people doing whatever they wanted and saying "to hell with everyone else." I think the author may have intended the events in the book to be somewhat shocking, or at least out of the ordinary, but to me it was just a sweet, melancholy story. The Whites, on the other hand, was truly shocking and gripped you by the throat throughout the story. It was visceral and intense, which I found more engaging than Our Souls at Night. Fans of The Departed (like me) will love The Whites.
TOB match to be decided March 14.