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review 2015-04-08 05:42
well at least it didn't win...
All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel - Anthony Doerr

Fellow devotees of the Tournament of Books might recognize me from the comments. I've been following the Morning News' spoof on book tournaments for years, and have been a hardcore ToB Irregular since my boyfriend encouraged me to conquer my internet shyness and join the comments fray back in 2012. March is the one month where I interact on the internet, geeking out about books all day every weekday with some of the smartest readers I know. Things can get rough and tumble, but at the end of the day there's a civility that keeps me coming back. Book tournament satire + deathly serious yet hyperbolically lighthearted comments=perfect month.


In past years I read all, or nearly all, of the contestants. However, this year I was too busy, and poorly prepared. In my years as a bookseller I'd frequently read at least 5 of the books when the shortlist dropped; since my return to academia, with its wonderful-yet-onerous bottomless pile of nonfiction and articles, my fiction reading has dropped to a perilous level. 


Perhaps if the books had been better I could have made time. But--and maybe I say this every year--but. This year was rough. All the Light We Cannot See is emblematic of my struggle with this year's lineup:  a universally beloved book that just could not capture my heart or soul. Everything about this book was repellent. I even tried reading it on an airplane, essentially trapping myself in its sole company in the hopes of self-inducing stockholm syndrome, but nothing worked. Maybe it's a wrong time/wrong state of mind problem, but I don't think so. I just don't like this book.


The language is pretty, I will admit it. Really, it's too pretty:  all shiny surfaces and no emotion or philosophy. An astute ToB irregular compared it a well-curated tumblr, which is so perfect:  the experience of reading AtL is exactly like scanning through infinite pages of gorgeously-photographed gems and cunning sculptures, interspersed with overwrought poetry. Mind, my use of this comparison isn't meant to be derogatory:  I am the proud owner of what I like to consider a rather well-curated tumblr, if I do say so myself! But tumblr is for fast scrolls when I'm procrastinating work; it's not something I necessarily come home to, and I've never looked forward to crawling into bed with it. It's not what I look for in a novel. 


Another apt comparison comes from Mr. Underskies, who read a few chapters before giving up:  this is a screenplay for a movie starring Audrey Tatou, A Very Long Engagement and Amelie met in the middle of the century and mashed together. Once he mentioned this I saw it on every page. I even noted a couple of absolutely-intentional-I'm-positive explicit references to Amelie. Again, the comparison is not meant to insult Amelie (though I'll definitely cast my scorn towards A Very Long Engagement; that movie was insultingly bad):  it was my favorite movie when it came out! I owned a copy, and my parents never let me buy movies. But I was 14 then. I still love it, but I like to think my taste has evolved. Everything in AtL is so precious, every character--even the villain Nazi gem-hunter!--is a super special snowflake genius with a unique talent. It is adorable. It is vomitous. 


My last problem is broader, and harder to articulate. I read a lot of nonfiction about World War One and Two. I read a lot of fiction and philosophy and theory written by people who lived through the war. I rarely enjoy it, and I don't expect to do so when I pick up Vasily Grossman or Hans Falada. I expect to be devastated, to feel my soul curdle, to obsessively circle in my head about evil and atrocity for weeks or months afterwards. I expect books set in or about WWII to make me feel, and I expect them to have some sort of philosophical purpose:  if they don't, then I have trouble shaking the suspicion that they are exploiting the horror of this war for sales. 


I have this suspicion about Anthony Doerr. The setting is superfluous. The characters' disabilities or Nazism are plot devices. He doesn't say anything worthwhile about the era. It's treacle and sentiment, which is cool in certain circumstances, but I have a serious moral issue with WWII being used as a plot device and a means to emotionally manipulate the reader. This is a problem I've head before, it is a problem I'll surely have again, but I'll never stop noting it. I don't go so far as Adorno to claim that art cannot/should not be made after the Holocaust, but I do have a threshold for "acceptable use," and this book crosses it.


The Tournament of Books reminds me to be a more generous reader, but this one failed me. Or I failed it. But, this time, I think it's the former.

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url 2015-03-11 20:28
the tournament of books: my favorite time of the year!


i love the literary discussion that happens every year during The Tournament of Books. there's no better literary conversation happening anywhere else on the internets right now. it's a complete time-suck, but so very worth it.


if you've never heard of this fantastic event, a brief description from the website:

Each weekday in March, two works of fiction will go head to head, with one of our 16 judges choosing one to move ahead in the brackets. Along the way, each judge reveals his or her biases and interests, any connections they have to the participating authors, and, most importantly, an elaborate explanation of how they decided between the two books.

 . . . .


From the eight opening round matches to the four quarterfinal matches through the two semifinal matches, the original field of 16 competitors is whittled down to two books. However, before those books can enter the final, championship match, they must compete in the Zombie Round, which brings back two books that were eliminated during gameplay.

. . . . 


The two books that emerge victorious from the Zombie Round enter the championship match, which is decided by all 16 judges plus an additional tiebreaker judge. Each judge picks their favorite of the two final books, and the book that receives the most votes takes home that year’s Rooster.


today's match-up was last year's literary juggernaut, All the Light We Can Not See versus the small, indie print Wittgenstein, Jr. i haven't read either (i have All the Light on my TBR shelf), but i've had so much fun reading the commentary about WWII books, and idle intellectuals that it doesn't even matter. you'll discover new books and have your opinions about the books you have read challenged and shaped. it's a book club of the highest order, and i wouldn't miss it for the world.

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review 2014-12-02 06:05
Let the Great World Spin
Let the Great World Spin - Colum McCann

I just completely panned The Lacuna for being too much a Witness to History book, and I teetered for a moment towards feeling the same about this one, but in the end came out on the other side. The difference: in this book everyone is important because they are connected; in The Lacuna everything was connected because it was an important historical event. This is a fine difference that I am not sure I am articulating at all, but reading McCann left me with a sense of devastated joy at the interconnectivity of the world, how everything from daily small actions to the pageantry of a historical event impacts us and ties us together. Whereas in a book like The Lacuna the author was maybe trying to do the same but was so heavyhanded and onerous about it that the reading was painful.* This book was multiperspective done exactly right: there were only a few chapters--well, just the phone hackers really--that I could have done without; everything (& everyone) else both lived convincingly in their own right and came together movingly at the end. A lovely, if brutal, read.*Apologies for all the comparison; I read them nearly back to back.

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review 2014-12-02 05:50
The Lacuna
The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver

I was thrilled with this at the beginning. I see a lot of the reviewers here thought the beginning dull and the end fantastic, but for me it was quite the opposite. I loved the 'childhood' section of the novel, with its gorgeous, dreamy evocation of the land and the food and the history. Then the storyline spliced into alignment with History and Real Life People and my interest started dropping incrementally. Maybe it's just a mood I'm in, but right now I'm feeling bored to death with these Witness to History books--probably I've just read too many in a short span, but I shall make an effort* not to pick up any books with the "fictional character lives through calamitous events and rubs elbows with real people" premise. It makes books feel so false. I wanted to quit the book a hundred pages in when our narrator was jerked off to the united states seemingly for the sole experience of living through riots before being packaged back to Mexico just in time to be grafted onto Trotsky's household--it just felt so hideously contrived. No one fictional in this book seems able to live or breathe or die without being roughly welded to some moment in History; that might be okay but every one of these false connections is endlessly remarked upon. It makes it difficult to just read the damn book.*And it'll be a monumental effort since I love history and tend to gravitate towards these exact kinds of books that annoy me so. A few particular problems I had:--The characterization of Frida Kahlo. I don't know all that much about her life, actually--never read the biographies and don't plan to anytime soon--but I've long adored her art and everything about the way she was written just seemed off to me. Perhaps she wasn't written incorrectly, quite, but just shallowly--she felt like a minor character even though her role in the book was relatively massive. I cannot balance the force of character and power that shows in the real paintings with this flighty, manic, unapologetically cruel & aimless simulacrum that bears her name.--The unbearable obviousness of how the last third of the book is going to play out as soon as you look at the dates and think for a second. How absolutely dull it all is--just a several-hundred-page onslaught of repressed sexuality & oppression & political statement. The ensuing disappointment when you realize that HWS is even less an actual character than you'd assumed from the great beginning and actually just a vehicle for Statements and Theme and nothing else. --The endless slang. It's like BK thinks we'll forget this is a historical novel if she doesn't pepper every single sentence with bygone phrases to remind us that we are in The Past. It's even more jarring because her prose is generally really nice so there is always dissonance.--The repeated bludgeoning of a few particular metaphors over and over every few pages. Okay, BK. The press is bad. They are howling monkeys come to suck our blood. I got it the first time you said so at the beginning of the book--no need to keep saying so again and again and again... I won't even get started on the lacuna metaphor & how tedious it became. I hate feeling as if the author suspects I'm half-illiterate and incapable of grasping any concept, in need of constant hand-holding and illustration. In part, I read to be made to feel cleverer than I am and it makes me petulant to be spoken down to. So, why two stars with this grocery list of complaints? Because the prose was sometimes breathtaking, I truly did love the beginning and liked the very tippy tip of the end, and there were some rather interesting gender moments (which I won't say much about for risk of being spoilery) that might be really fun to write papers on if this were a less aggravating book.

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review 2014-12-02 05:25
The Finkler Question
The Finkler Question - Howard Jacobson

I was utterly prepared to LOVE! this from the first paragraph. The introduction to goyish, hapless, morbidly romantic Julian Treslove set my heart a-thumping: at last!, I thought, here is a book worthy of the adjective 'Nabokovian!' And at first the book is Nabokovian in the best way; in fact, certain paragraphs seemed echos of some of my favourite lines in Pnin. Alas, it got political and I lost much of my momentum and interest. Then it got tragically serious and I was propelled into a distracting tangent, spending more time obsessing over why I wasn't finding it funny, what is wrong with me, do I lack humor, than actually reading properly. And then, finally, the aimless political plot wound to an end and I was left confused. If I were a better reader I'd go back to it--I really was terribly distracted, worrying about lack of political knowledge and failure to understand humor--but who has the time?One star for the often-interesting examination of male friendships, one star for the heartbreaking Libor, and one star for the excellent first stretch.

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