It's round two for our prognostications for The Morning News Tournament of Books, and we're going into it feeling kinda frisky. We ended last week with a perfect score - calling 4 out of 4 matches. But the books this week are a little harder to call, so we aren't letting those on-target wins go to our heads.
I'm the only one crazy enough to have read all of the books on the list, as I try to do every year, but this year I didn't give Aana enough time to finish them all, so there are two below that I'll call on my own.
Aana is known for regularly finding 4- and even 5-leaf clovers, so I'm going to hope that her luck rubs off on us and lets us call a perfect game, or bracket as the case may be.
So let's play ball!
The Contest: The Game of Life
The Competitors: A Little Life vs. The New World
Cheminne Picks: A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
Aana Picks: A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
Why this one, Cheminne? Both of these books do have a common thread - it's the idea of what a life is worth, and how someone survives whatever life throws at them. For The New World, that includes how one survives death. Yes, survives. Jim is a chaplain at a hospital and he asks for his head to be frozen after death, to allow him to live again in the distant future. His wife Jane, a surgeon at the same hospital, is completely caught off guard, only finding out about Jim's plan after he (and his head) are already gone. Alternate chapters look at Jim's future self and Jane's rage against the machine and company that took him there. But here's the core issue I had with the book - I didn't care about either one of them. They left me as cold as the cryogenic tank Jim was frozen in.
But oh - A Little Life. I cared very deeply for the characters in A Little Life. In fact, it's one of the books that will definitely stay with me for a long time. It's the story of four college friends, Jude, Willem, Malcolm, and JB - but it really centers on Jude. He has a secret, much like Jim in The New World, a horrific childhood that haunts his present and his future. Through his friends, Jim finds a family, but not quite security, still haunted by the all-too-real demons that make him feel less than worthy of the love his friends offer. The New World is 158 pages and I couldn't wait for it to end. At 700 pages, A Little Life seemed too short. That says it all.
Why this one, Aana? Honestly, I didn’t read either of these. I’m going to go with what mom says because mom almost always knows best. [Good call, says mom.]
TOB match to be decided March 15.
The Contest: International Match
The Competitors: The Book of Aron vs. The Tsar of Love and Techno
Cheminne Picks: The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra
Aana Picks: The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra
Why this one, Cheminne? First, let it sink in that I chose a book of short stories to win this contest. If you read this blog, you know that I dislike short stories for the most part. Tsar, however, reads like a novel, with lines that connect and lives that intersect in fascinating ways. The writing is lyrical and lovely; so good, in fact, that I kept a few lines aside to treasure. Like: "The stomach is not the only organ that hungers." Or: "You remain the hero of your own story, even when you become the villain of someone else's." This is one of my top three books in TOB this year, so I hope it continues to rise in the ranks.
On the other side of the coin, I also loved The Book of Aron. It is a heart-wrenching and often painful story of Polish Jews walled up in their ghetto, and centers on a real-life character, Dr. Korczak, and a fictional character, a young boy named Aron. For Aron, the harsh and frightening realities of war, poverty, and hunger bring challenges and opportunity as he finds himself working both with smugglers and the Gestapo. As Aron's family disappears one by one, he ends up in Korczak's orphanage, trying to help the doctor feed and clothe the hundreds of children he has taken in. It was difficult to choose between these two books, as both are gripping and well written. But Tsar's ability to make me feel every emotion on the spectrum in one simple sentence is what took it over the top for me.
Why this one, Aana? It’s amazing. The stories in this book are all about Russia from the Soviet era to the modern day. Every story is beautiful in its self-contained singularity, but even more beautiful when you start to realize that they all fit together. This book shows that seemingly small decisions or coincidences in one person’s life can have extremely significant, profound effects in the lives of others. The characters in these stories are all flawed, but the reader will be able to identify with some part of each and every one – whether it’s the devastating devotion of a mother to her wayward child or the need to seek out any shred of information on a missing loved one. However serious the subject matter of these stories, they’re told with a cleverness and dark humor that I think is genius. Swimming in toxic waste, being forced to work in a garden as a prisoner of war, and trying to get arrested in order to avoid being drafted to serve in Chechnya are all described with a mix of candor and pique that is irresistible. Seriously, this is a must-read for anyone, whether you enjoy short stories or not. Oh, and a tip: the audiobook is great because the narrators are Russian speakers.
TOB match to be decided March 16.
The Contest: The Odd Couple
The Competitors: A Spool of Blue Thread vs. The Story of My Teeth
Cheminne Picks: The Story of My Teeth, by Valeria Luiselli
Aana Picks: A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler
Why this one, Cheminne? As much as I hate to think about John Irving more than I have to, it would have been very intriguing to see Avenue of Mysteries paired up with The Story of My Teeth - both about men and Mexico. In fact, I almost wonder if the creators of the brackets thought Irving was a shoo-in when they set this up. But that was not to be since Anne Tyler's book was the one that advanced from the Play-In Round. And it may surprise Aana to see that I chose Teeth over Tyler, but despite the off-putting idea of the title, The Story of My Teeth was a surprisingly refreshing new idea in literature for me. On the surface, it is the story of Highway, a self-made auctioneer in Mexico who is determined to own Marilyn Monroe's teeth. So to pay for them, he auctions his own teeth and tells prospective buyers fantastical lies, that each tooth belonged to a famous person like Plato or Virginia Woolf. Once he owns Monroe's (supposed) teeth, he has them put into his own mouth, but they are later stolen by his once-abandoned son. Believe it or not, that isn't the most interesting part of this book. Once his teeth are stolen, Highway ends up in a strange and unsettling encounter with clowns that leaves the reader wondering what is reality and what is not, who is telling lies, and where the truth really lies. At the end, you realize that the reader is really part of the story, and is able to (invited to) interpret it as they like. I loved that surprise ending and the unusual invitation of a writer to make the reader part of the story. The book was actually written for, and inspired by, an art exhibition and is in itself a work of experimental art.
Why this one, Aana? I didn’t read either of these either, but The Story of My Teeth sounded really creepy and I didn’t like the premise.
TOB match to be decided March 17.
The Contest: The Satirical Sides
The Competitors: The Sellout vs. The Invaders
Cheminne Picks: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
Aana Picks: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
Why this one, Cheminne? These books again have a common idea - holding a mirror up to society's ills. The Invaders, however, never really satisfies with its all-too-common idea of a fish-out-of-water, a second wife who isn't accepted into the social set that her husband swims in. When she commits a horrific act, she finds herself rebelling against the rules set in place by money and class. The final denouement of a hurricane washing clean the small coastal Hamptons-esque town was too much for me, though. It was a set-up that didn't pay off, for a story that's been told one too many times.
That cannot be said about The Sellout, a raucous raunchy satire that reminded me of Chris Rock's in-your-face comedy. Nothing was sacred or off limits and it made me laugh out loud. Not something you would normally say about a book that covers slavery, racism, discrimination, violence, and police brutality. But it is funny - with a kernel of pain thrown in to remind us that it isn't really funny at all. The central character, never really given a name, is raised by a social scientist father who loves to use his son as an experiment. When his father dies, and his town is removed from the map, the narrator decides he will also experiment with society's norms, determined to bring his town back. He's joined by Hominy, an actor who played stereotypical black roles in early movies and who is now upset that his fans might not be able to find him with the town gone. He begs (literally) to have the narrator take him on as a slave, and the two of them segregate their new version of their old town. In a time where race is becoming a defining issue in the presidential campaign, The Sellout is the most brutal and honest conversation about race we may have this year. Maybe all the candidates should read it, too.
Why this one, Aana? The Sellout was hilarious. It’s a Swiftian satire in which the narrator proposes a return to segregation as a solution for the problems associated with racism. Interestingly, in this book, segregation also seems to be a solution for the problems associated with ignoring racism or trying to pretend that racism doesn’t exist. I think most readers will be able to identify with the themes presented and I hope nobody takes it too seriously, because this book is FUNNY. It’s got a sense of style that many new books lack, and the characters are just cool in a way that a lot of authors don’t seem to get these days. It’s a great read that will really make you think. I think a lot of the essence of the story can be summed up in this quote by the main character: “I’ve whispered racism in a post-racist world.”
TOB match to be decided March 18.