Monday, March 21, 2011

Decision Tree: Korea

You may or may not know we're moving to Korea in a month. What that means is that everything I own now belongs to one of three categories: 1) Take to Korea 2) Put into Storage 3) Get rid of forever. How to decide, especially with the disposal part? I made a flowchart to help:

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tournament of Books First round Summary

Link: The Morning News Tournament of Books.

Well, I came out of round one with a respectable six of eight correct picks. Here are the matchups in round two, starting next week:

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, v. Room, by Emma Donoghue
Matt Dellinger, judge
Matt Dellinger is the author of a book about America's national transportation infrastructure; his links to contemporary fiction are not quite clear to me. I'm interested if my knee-jerk stereotype of him as a clear-headed rational thinker will bias him towards Franzen's realistic novel of society and manners, and against Donoghue's parlor-creepiness. Another part of me thinks that Room's reportedly week second half will doom it against the furious and constantly unrelenting onslaught of Franzen's literary chops, regardless of the judge. You're good, Room, but Freedom has gravitas. Winner: Freedom

The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson v. A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
Elif Bautman, judge
Ms. Bautman wrote a book about Russian Literature; she lives in Istanbul, where she reports for the New Yorker. Her international background makes this matchup hard to call. My instincts put Goon Squad, with its compassion for character, originality of ideas and complexity of execution in a far higher league than Finkler. Finkler was okay, but tended toward caricature, and rarely gave insights into its theme - Jewish Identity - instead re-hashing debates that have been going on for centuries. My head says Goon Squad in a walk, but this could be the upset of the round. Winner: Goon Squad

Nox, by Ann Carson v. Next, by James Hynes
John Williams, Judge
Nox beat Lords of Misrule in the first round; this upset people who saw it more as an artifact than a narrative, though its emotional impact is great enough for the right reader that it can upset any book in its path. Next, which I read last week, I found to be of enormous emotional impact at the time, but that impact is fading a bit, although from a novelist's standpoint, its structure and themes are close to perfect. The judge is an old-school book blogger from The Second Pass, so I sense him wishing to restore order to this bracket, and Next's old-fashioned goodness is the perfect book to do that. Winner: Next

Model Home, by Eric Puchner v. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender
Kate Ortega, judge
Model Home was the other upset winner of this bracket, powering past the heavily favored (and apparently over-rated) Gary Shteyngart. Aimee Bender squeaked out a victory in a tepid first-round matchup. Both are gimmicky, white-bread melodramas set in SoCal suburbs, and the judge is an editor for the Wall Street Journal. I have no idea how this one will turn out, but my judge-meter says Ortega will take Bender's food-tasting as gateway to adult emotional relationship trick to her heart more than she will than the shenanigans of a bunch of hard-luck west-coasters in Reagan's 80's. Winner: Lemon Cake.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Next: By James Hynes

I might have never heard of Next were it not for the Morning News Tournament of Books. I'm glad I read it, and grateful to the TOB for bringing it to my attention. I hope this book goes far; it deserves a bigger audience, and it should be able to generate huge discussions. Be aware, mild spoilers are included.

Next, by James Hynes, is a novel fundamentally concerned with men's issues. I say this as a warning and as praise; I can see women opening up Next and not finishing it, in the same way men pick up chick-lit and can't stand it. But for a certain kind of man - that is, for white males approaching fifty - Next is a deep, complicated meditation on the role of men in contemporary America.

It would be a stretch, but not much of one, to call the main character of Next, Kevin Quinn, a typical macho asshole. He sees women as objects, either of desire or scorn. He's over fifty but has a much younger girlfriend, who is a source of bemusement, exasperation and terror when she's not delivering great sex. She has him so spooked with talk of having a baby he's fled south on a plane from his native Michigan to the arid, alien world of Austin, Texas, for a job interview. It's also a few days after a major terror attack in Europe, so he's spooked about that as well.

Once in Austin, with six hours to kill, Kevin freaks out a little. He becomes dangerously obsessed with his seatmate from the plane, an even younger woman who reminds him of his most fulfilling sex partner ever, from twenty-five years earlier, a woman he'd taken sexual refuge with when the woman he was really in love with told him she could never love him. His meditations distract him not only from the job interview, but from current events which are about to overwhelm him.

Kevin has a problem typical to men: He's aware of his emotions, of his own shortcomings, and that his instinctive responses are often misogynistic and cruel. White liberal guilt, in short. But he has no mechanism to process his filters into consistently rational action, so when it comes time to act, he's paralyzed. He backs into every big decision. It's like Hemingway through a modern mirror, but where Hemingway's characters were able process their sensitivity into masculine hyper-activity, Kevin Quinn founders, emasculated by female empowerment and societal expectations, becoming resentful and unable to make decisions.

There's a lot of micro-detail in this novel: it takes place over eight hours, and every moment of Kevin's life and its middle-class bourgeois consumerism, is examined in minute detail, to the extent that you wonder why you should keep reading. Please do. Because the end may look like an action movie, with explosions and opportunities for heroism, but it's not, really. It's about redemption. Or, rather, the mechanisms of redemption - to ask whether Quinn is redeemed or delusional at the end is perhaps the central question I'm left with when this novel ended. In that, it echoes Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find, and to paraphrase the Misfit's final words: Quinn would have been a better man if there were someone there to shoot him every minute.

I'm sure other readers had other reactions; I'd love to hear them.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tournament of Books: Matchup Eight

Okay, home stretch. This is the final matchup of the Morning News Tournament of Books. As of this writing, they've already started judging, and I'm one-for-one. Go me!

Bloodroot by Amy Greene vs. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

Judge: Catherine George

I've always been leery of the new Southern Gothic, where hill-country characters go on and on about the quirks of their ancestors. Throw in country backwoods mythology, and I'm completely lost. I read the sample on Amazon, in which five characters were introduced in the first paragraph; two pages later the narrator changed to a kid with a horse. It was a nice little slice of melancholy southern gothic, it may have been wonderful but I'm not a fan of it.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender
This is a classic gimmick book: an adolescent girl gains the gift of 'tasting' emotions in food cooked by other people. Reviews are good, and Aimee Bender is a quirky but very talented writer. The gimmick is okay, and either a perfect symbol of the burdens of female bonding and adulthood, or a cheap trick that wears thin after one hundred pages. You, intrepid reader, get to decide.

Judge Catherine George was picked via a contest from among The Morning News's regular readers to judge the first round of the Tournament. She is a lawyer and aspiring novelist from British Columbia.

Summary: This is a round where I am definitely not the target audience for either book. Of these two, I am more interested in Aimee Bender. The judge's Canadian background lends me to think she'll be drawn to Bloodroot as an entomologist is drawn to a newly discovered millipede. However, Bender is a Big Name, meaning she can produce the big payoff on demand. This is a toss-up, and in a toss-up, go with sales figures.

Winner: The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake. Mmm... Lemon Cake.

Tournament of Books: Matchup Seven

Even as the judging begins, I'm posting my matchup summaries. But here it is: Matchup Seven in the Morning News Tournament of Books. Almost there...

The matchup:
Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart vs. Model Home, by Erich Puchner

Super Sad True Love Story
I read a chapter of this in The New Yorker, where it masqueraded as a short story. I loved the concept: a love story set in a dystopic, decaying future New York, where technology's assault on individuality is in its final stages, and Homeland Security's assault on individual liberties is nearing completion. Everyone in the book accepts and revels in the status quo except, seemingly, the main character, who is mocked by his new girlfriend for his adherence of anachronisms like printed media.

Model Home
Reviews mark this as a cross between Freedom and Weeds, a loss of innocence set in Southern California's sun-drenched banal 1980's, well before the events of Super Sad. It's probably pretty good, though the central plot - a family on hard times is forced to occupy a model  home in a development - is lifted directly from the beloved sitcom Arrested Development.

Judge: Matthew Baldwin is a co-founder/editor at the Morning News.

In a field with two other strong domestic dramas, and up against the powerhouse prose and bombastic vision of Shteyngart's prodigious talents, Model Home looks like an easy first-round knock-off. But, as I've said before, you never know.

Winner: Super Sad True Love Story

Monday, March 7, 2011

Tournament of Books: Matchup Six

Round Six is another matchup of novels with like-minded themes in the Morning News Tournament of Books. Please, no wagering.

Next, by James Hynes v. So Much for That, by Lionel Shriver

Judge: Jessica Francis Kane

This novel seems themed around late adolescent white-boy angst; Kevin Quinn is fed up with his life and wants a change. He flies to Austin Texas for a clandestine job interview, and over the next eight hours has a series of reminiscences, a new romance, and brushes with modern homeland security. Reviewers have commented on Quinn's obsession with cultural minutiae, and the late twist may elevate this novel from the domestic drama it appears to be at first.

So Much for That
Shep Knacker is ready for retirement to an idyllic third world retreat; when his wife gets sick, he's forced into a decision: stay with her or abandon her to stick with the plan of an island safe haven. There are a lot of developments involving America's Health care system, and Shep's need to stay with his wife and in America feels like this is another domestic mid-life crisis novel, albiet with higher stakes.

The judge, Jessica Francis Kane, is a young novelist in her own right; her second novel, The Report, was shortlisted for several prizes.

A matchup of equals here; two white men in typically white, middle-class conflicts. Whereas So Much for That tackles larger social issues, Next feels more intimate, and perhaps more relevant. Both smack of privileged, middle-class whininess. I know health care is a bigger issue than a young man wanting a new life, but I'm more intrigued to read Next. I'm thinking the judge likes big social issues, so I think that's where she's going.

Winner: So Much for That. A gut feeling.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tournament of Books: Matchup Five

Standard disclaimers apply in this, the fifth matchup in the Morning News Tournament of Books. My picks are not to be used for wagering purposes.

The Matchup:
Nox, by Ann Carson v. Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

The Judge: Andrew Womack

Challenger One: Nox
Nox is not really a novel in the traditional sense; it's more of a collage of poems and mementos in a long, fold-out accordion style binder. Carson put this poem/elegy together after the death of her brother, so her accumulation of objects and memories builds to a strong emotional impact. Will that be enough for it to get past the first round?

Challnger Two: Lord of Misrule
This horse racing story was a long shot to win the National Book Award, but nevertheless came away with the roses. It's about a lower-tier racetrack in the near South in the early '70's, a time now ensconced in a patina of the otherworldly primitivism. The world of horse racing, with its hard-luck occupants and seedy reputation provides great material, and most likely this book is written well enough to make it a strong competitor in a strong field.

Judge: Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News, sponsor of the tournament.

Summary: This oddball matchup of long-shots looks like an easy win for the traditional Lord of Misrule, though one can't account for Womack's tastes. If he's responsible for Nox's inclusion, there's a good chance it can sneak by Lord of Misrule, but most likely Nox is here as a gesture to all the under-published works of genius that can't compete with the deep-pockets of Big Publishing.

My ill-informed pick: The Lord of Misrule

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Tournament of Books: Matchup Four

Matchup Four is the best of the first round in the Morning News Tournament of Books; the winner here could have the strength to go all the way. I think. 
A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan v.  Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray
Judge: Anthony Doerr
Challenger One: A Visit From the Goon SquadJennifer Egan's book, which I've actually read, thank you very much, is a sprawling epic (but short) that spans decades, continents, and lifestyles. It's written as a collection of tightly linked short stories with recurring characters and themes. One of them, Sasha, is a young idealistic girl who gets caught up in rock music, drugs, and the music industry. Egan's imagination is formidable, and her ideas complex and well executed; if I hadn't read this book I'd dismiss it as rock-opera lite, but don't - it's an excellent book despite its one almost-too-much gimmick, which is a chapter told entirely in PowerPoint slides. 
Challenger Two: Skippy DiesPaul Murray's book, on the other hand, is Irish; a boisterous tale of schoolboys, one of whom, Skippy, dies in the first chapter. Throughout the next 660 pages, it wanders through levels of middleschooldom I don't want to remember, dabbling along the way with quantum physics, video games, pornography, and Irish folklore. All in all, this could everything anyone has ever wanted in a novel.
The Judge: Anthony Doerr is the winner of the 2010 Story award for his collection of stories, The Memory Wall. As a rising young lion of the literary world, Mr. Doerr will no doubt want to impress us with his tight readings and keen insights; I think his tooth for literary meat will be satisfied in both of these novels.
Summary: I pity this matchup - both of these have the chops and the fans to go all the way; it's a pity they got clustered together when the other bracket is filled with relative lightweights. *sigh*. Both were nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, garnered huge sales and have legions of adoring fans. (In literary circles, a legion is about fifty people. But still.) Egan's book was bold, grabbed for the brass ring and mostly got it; Murray's book sounds good as well, and if he executes as well as Egan, this is a tough draw for one of these books. I don't know, it sounds like a toss-up, though the loser will likely crop up in the zombie round.
Winner: Jennifer Egan, only because I read her book.  

Tournament of Books: Matchup Three

The third matchup of the Morning News Tournament of Books features a book I'm currently reading: The Finkler Question. Will this make me any more qualified to judge the outcome? Read to find out...

Savages, by Don Winslow vs The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

Judge: Rosencrans Baldwin

Combatant One: Savages, by Don Winslow
This novel follows two small-time marijuana dealers in L.A., who try to stand up to a Mexican cartel that wants to take over their operation. When their mutual girlfriend Ophelia is kidnapped, they spring a plan to rescue her. Winslow is an Edgar award winning author; the prose I sampled is confident and quirky, with a staccato rhythm and a wry, subtle wit. But is that enough to get out of round one?

Combatant Two: The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson
I'm currently reading the Finkler Question, which won the Booker Prize, which is the most prestigious literary award of the United Kingdom. As you might expect of the Booker Prize winner, it's a bit of a chore, and couldn't be more different than Savages. The plot is about a sad-sack man who starts to think he should be Jewish, and the comedic romp that follows. Jaconbson's prose seems engineered to produce a chuckle every few lines, whether what's happening on the page is funny or not. This can get quite annoying if you're not into it. I think in general Jacobson labors a bit hard to produce laughs when he should be moving an actual plot along, though he's pretty respected and has a large, dedicated following, and his themes of Jewish identity can't be ignored or dismissed lightly.

Judge Rosencrans Baldwin is one of the founders of The Morning News, sponsor of the Tournament of Books. His own novel, You Lost me There, is a study in memory and loss, and was called "the perfect sophisticated summer read." I don't have any idea what kind of books he likes, but he's answered my emails in the past so I get the idea he's a nice guy overall.

Summary: These are two quite different books, in quite different voices, on completely different themes. Both writers are mature and confident in their voices. The Finkler Question deals with Jewish Identity, Savages with the underbelly of the American war on Drugs, two of the larger themes in literature and culture. Both novels have received mixed reviews on Amazon.

I think if I were on a bus with a stranger who doesn't read a lot of books, I'd recommend Savages over the Finkler Question, because it's probably just more fun. But in the end, Jacobson's choice of theme, density of prose, and seriousness of intent will lift it over the lighter, more genre oriented Savages.

Winner: The Finkler Question.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Tournament of Books: My uninformed opinion on Matchup Two

Okay, here's an admission: I am not qualified to make a judgment on this round of the Morning News Tournament of Books. I haven't read either book in this matchup, and all I know of the judge is fifteen minutes of a movie adapted from her book. But I believe in the Tournament of Books and, in the spirit of the Internet, I intend to continue offering my half-informed opinion, in the hopes you find them amusing.

Round One, Matchup Two

Judging date: March 8.

Room, by Emma Donoghue, v. Bad Marie, by Marcy Dermansky

Judge: Jennifer Weiner.

Room, by Emma Donoghue
Okay, so, writing a novel in the voice of a five-year old is both cute and dangerous. And writing a novel about a woman trapped in a underground backyard bunker by a psychopath who rapes her nightly for seven years, and who fathered the child/narrator of the book is ... a bold choice. And writing both of them together is Room. I don't really feel like reading books based on horrific crimes, though the reviews agree that the boy-narrator keeps things light and innocent - and wouldn't you have to? Wouldn't you just have to slather on the sweetness and light to have any chance of being read? And does that mean Donoghue actually made some sugar-coating cheats when she wrote this book? I don't know - there are so many pitfalls in this book, if I read it I know I'll find at least five and quit in disgust. It reminds me of The Lovely Bones, in a way - a book I despised for its insipid sentimentality and horrendous prose. Reviews of Room have been stunningly good, however - The Boston Globe called it a modern classic, so Donoghue has touched a nerve, and found readers, so there's probably something here worth your time.

Bad Marie, by Marcy Dermansky
This is another high-concept book built around distasteful themes by an edgy young female author. Bad Marie is 30, and just released from prison. She drinks too much, which doesn't stop her from getting a job as a nanny (really!). She meets and has an adulterous affair with the author of her favorite book, moves to Paris, and has several other adventures. Publisher's Weekly gave this a tepid review, saying it relies too much on contrived coincidence to drive the plot, and that Marie's character is never fully developed. Reviewers on Amazon suggest its a good, fanciful romp that can be churned through in a couple hours. I read the first few pages on Amazon, and it seemed harmless, though Marie was less than admirable - drunk on the job as a nanny, emotionless since the death of her boyfriend; and soon to be on the lam with 2 and a half year old. One reviewer called this chick-noir. Good enough for me to stay away.

The Judge: Jennifer Weiner is one of the queens of Chick Lit. Her first book, Good in Bed, made splashes for starring an overweight woman (I know. What a culture.); her second, In Her Shoes, made news when the movie version starred Cameron Diaz. Last summer, she started a fuss when Jonathan Franzen made the cover of Time; Weiner accused the publishing industry of ignoring women, a debate that found further frenzy when VIDA published some stats that prove it. I don't know how putting her in charge of judging these two books will turn out, but her pick could be a fun read for many many reasons.

Summary: On first glance, these seem like odd books for a chick lit author to judge. On the other hand, they both have strong female characters, both would seem to an uninformed observer to implicitly condemn male authority, and are ultimately targeted to female readers. My guess is that Weiner, being a popular writer, will ultimately choose the book more in line with popular taste (i.e., the one that's sold more copies). I could be horribly, horribly wrong on all of this. That's what makes it fun!

My uninformed call: Room, by Emma Donoghue

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tournament of Books: my uninformed opinion on matchup one

How many Tournament of Books entries have I read? One! Does that make me qualified to make my own picks? Of course. What's the internet for if not to spread half-assed opinions on things you're not qualified to judge?

Round One, Matchup One

Judging begins March 7.

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, v. Kapitoil, by Teddy Wayne

Judge: Sarah Manguso.

The parties involved:
Jonathan Franzen: Literary heavyweight, Time Magazine coverboy, liberal intellectual with funky glasses who was best friends with literary martyr David Foster Wallace, Franzen is the 800 pound gorilla of American literary fiction. This is to the detriment of American fiction, in my opinion, as there are plenty of writers with Franzen’s guts and chops, and plenty of writers whose work shows more respect and compassion for the human condition. Franzen can write a good sentence, and weave the personal into the historical like few writers of this era, but he works just as hard to make you hate his characters. I found The Corrections to be a beautiful achievement, but it was filled with just as many needless stunts as it was transcendent moments. What I’ve read of Freedom, with its condescending attitude to aging liberals, and one excerpt of a man digging through his own shit to find a wedding ring he swallowed, seems to be more of the same.

Teddy Wayne: Kapitoil is the debut novel of magazine writer Teddy Wayne. From its summary on Amazon, I can tell the ideas he works from are close to Franzen’s. A young Qatari citizen moves to New York in 1999, and writes a computer program that can predict oil futures, unsettling the industry and the world. There is romance, politics, and the specter of 9-11. From the sample, also on Amazon, I can tell that Wayne’s prose is precise and readable, and that he should be a good matchup for Franzen in round one.

Judge Sarah Manguso is the author of a memoir, some poems, and several novels; how she became the judge of these two novels I don’t know, but I’m going to sense that she’s got some resistance to Franzen, since the women in his novels don’t fare very well - there’s always a whiff of anger when Franzen writes about women, and I think that’s going to play against him in round one.

Summary: The first round of the TOB is carefully structured to pit like books and authors against each other. Also noteable is that every bracket but one pits like-gendered opponents against each other. I don’t know if this is a conscious effort to achieve gender parity through at least round two, or if it is a side-effect of pairing up like-themed novels. This pair up is a duel of ‘dense social novels,’ and, as such, I can’t see anyone stacking up against Jonathan Franzen - it’s hard for me to see Wayne out-plotting, or flat-out writing better than Franzen. But there’s the issue of character and likeability - from the first page of Wayne’s novel, I liked his narrator, kind of an earnest sad-sack I wanted to win.

Winner: My uninformed guess is that Franzen pulls out a win in round one, but it’s going to be a closer call than you’d think at first glance.