I finished the last of the sixteen Tournament of Books contestants (well, except that I couldn’t actually finish The Stranger’s Child). I haven’t commented on the last four, but I read and enjoyed The Last Brother, Salvage the Bones, The Cat’s Table, and The Tiger’s Wife.
Of the four, I enjoyed The Tiger’s Wife and The Cat’s Table the most. Both require some patience, and I didn’t get into them to the extent that I was thinking about them when I wasn’t reading them, but they are worth the effort. The Tiger’s Wife easily beats The Stranger’s Child in the first round, as does The Cat’s Table over Swamplandia! I enjoyed Swamplandia! but it feels like it has been years since I read it, and the story didn’t stick with me like a great book does.
The dog in the photo is our oldest, Nika, who turned fifteen last September. She is having trouble with her hind legs, and often has no appetite, but when we go for walks on the Creek or trails, she’s still as excited and animated as she was when she was a puppy. I’m listening to the A’s vs. Cubs game now, but I think I’ll take her out for a little walk later. The A’s introduced Cuban sensation Yoenis Cespedes earlier today, but he isn’t in the starting lineup. I will be very interested to see how he handles major league pitching, but that probably won’t happen for a few days.
Lightning Rods is another Tournament of Books entry. It’s the story of a salesman who comes up with an idea to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace by installing “lightning rods”—women working in the office that have agreed to perform anonymous sexual favors at work. It’s a silly story, funny in that DeWitt takes the concept beyond all possible reason, but eventually a bit tiresome too. And if you spend too much time thinking about it, maybe it isn’t even all that funny. Either way, once the idea is clear, and you’ve laughed at some of the things that come up in the implementation, there isn’t much else going on. So I can’t say I hated it, but it would be near the bottom of my choices to win the contest in March.
I couldn’t bring myself to waste any more time on Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, suffering all the way through the first two parts. I must be missing something, since it was selected for the Tournament of Books and was supposedly a surprise omission from the Booker short list. Maybe I’ve reached my tolerance threshold for upper crust English families and the irrelevancies of their pampered lives. Hollinghurst simply didn’t give me any reason to care about the characters, possibly because we know them from their inane dialog and their restrained physical activity (sitting around, mostly), and I couldn’t find a meaningful plot or conflict that made me want to start reading again after I had put it down.
I had the same reaction after watching the first episode of Downton Abbey, but by the second episode, it had won me over. Great characters, interesting plot, believable dialog. Things I wish I had found in this book.
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, is another number one seed in the Tournament of Books, and it deserves it’s high ranking. It is the story of Marina, a medical researcher working for a large pharmaceutical company, sent into the Amazon in search of her former medical school mentor to determine the progress they have made researching a fertility drug. She is also trying to find out what happened to her office mate, who apparently died on a similar mission after months in the jungle.
It’s a great book; well written, surprising, and suspenseful. The way the jungle is described through the eyes of Mariana perfectly captures the wild other-worldliness of it, as well as her gradual understanding and acceptance of the situation she is in. The lead scientist on the project (and Marina’s former mentor), Dr. Annika Swenson, is also a great character, especially seen through the eyes of Marina. Dr. Swenson is one of those people that always seem to have a perfect handle on every situation; seeing several steps ahead and knowing exactly what to say in order to both resolve the issue and make one feel foolish for not seeing it.
The book faces off against one of my favorites, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. It will be very interesting to read judge Wil Wheaton’s logic when he makes his decision. It’s close enough in my mind that I can’t make up my mind at this moment.
Another Tournament of Books pick, The Devil All the Time meets the last book I read (Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending) in the first round. They are such totally different books that I wonder how judge Emma Straub can possibly decide between the two. Devil is about hard lives and evil, taking place on the other side of the tracks in towns in Ohio and West Virginia. There aren’t any characters in the book that you’d want to meet, and if you did, you’d either need to be carrying a firearm to survive the encounter, or would want a shower after the experience. One reviewer commented that reading this book was like “wrestling a grizzly.” I know someone that has actually done that (not her choice), and I doubt if she would equate the two.
In many ways, it reminded me of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, except without the hero protagonist trying to make the world a better place by murdering Oswald. The brutality and poverty also recalled Matthiessen’s fantastic Shadow Country.
It’s an excellent book, if you can handle it. It isn’t one of my picks to win the tournament, but I wouldn’t be disappointed if it did. How it fares against Ending in round one probably depends on how much the judge hated the ending of Barnes’s book compared with feeling beaten down by Devil. I think I’d pick Devil, but it’s close.