Turner House for the Win

We've done pretty well with our Morning News Tournament of Books brackets this year. So a shot of overconfidence helped us decide to go all in early and predict the winner of the entire thing as we enter the Zombie Rounds. We're feeling pretty confident of our chances (which should scare us), so we're going to call it.
In the Zombie Rounds, we're predicting The Turner House knocks out A Little Life, and we're fairly confident that The Sellout will put the smackdown on Fates and Furies (and I hope it hurts).
That leaves The Turner House up against The Sellout - a terrific pairing of books that each examine race and economic issues with very different styles.
Although we both absolutely love these two books, The Turner House has an edge for us. It has more depth and heart - hitting us right in the emotions with all the feels. The Sellout is more of a searing and sarcastic read, and while we loved its snarkiness, Turner House was a bit more accomplished and quietly compelling.
What an amazing first novel from Angela Flourney! And that makes us wonder, how many first-time books have taken it all in the Tournament of Books? We'll have to ask the Rooster.
And so we close out another month of March Book Madness with 16 fantastic books. It was especially fun having my daughter Aana join in on the calls this year! I may have to ask her to be a part of my fall predictions for the Man Booker Prize - if I haven't exhausted her with this whirlwind of a ride.
Until next year!

Zombies Ate My Semifinalist

As in any other game, when you play The Morning News Tournament of Books, you win some and you lose some. And I've lost quite a few this year - I never thought Bats of the Republic or A Spool of Blue Thread (both books I like!) would make it as far as they did.
Aana fared better than I did, correctly predicting one more match to my selections. But I think we're both happy because 3 of our favorite books have made it to the semifinals. And we're moving into predicting those rounds. 
Before we do that, I must caution you that the zombies are about to attack. No, I haven't been drinking - it's part of the fun of this tournament. WAAAAY back before the tournament even began, people were able to vote for their favorite books, just in case any of them were knocked out early. And the most popular books will be able to "rise from the dead" to compete another day.
The winners of this week's semifinal rounds will each square off in head-to-head competition against a zombie, so I hope they have their best zombie weapons (whatever those are). The judges have already let us know that Spool won't be one of them, but Aana and I think we know who the zombies will be, so read on.

Semifinal Match #1
The Competitors: Bats of the Republic vs. The Turner House
Our Pick: The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy
Why this one? We both liked Bats of the Republic, we really did. We both thought it was innovative, unique, creative, and engaging. But neither one of us thought that it was developed enough to compete with some of the other heavyweights in this competition. The fact that it beat The Sympathizer still blows Aana's mind. She says: "I'm bitter! Bitter enough to vote against it - I pick Turner House." While I agree with her selection of Turner to win, I actually chose Turner House because I think it really is the better book. Both of the competitors are complex, but Bats relies a bit more on flash and tricks, and Turner is a more mature and resonant story. If you want two great books to read, though, you can't go wrong with either one. It still astonishes me that they are first books for both authors.
TOB match to be decided March 25.

Semifinal Match #2
The Competitors: The Tsar of Love and Techno vs. The Sellout
Our Pick: Split decision by the judges!
Why this one? Okay, this is one of the toughest matches in the competition for both of us. These books are two of our favorites in the entire tournament and choosing between them is like selecting a favorite child. The differences between them are interesting: One is about a culture very different from our own, and the other is about specific aspects of our own culture that cause us the most strife. One is a subtle interweaving of stories from different characters' intriguing perspectives and one hits you in the face with its blatant messages on racism. Aana predicts The Tsar of Love and Techno will win because she found it enthralling, but she also says she would be happy no matter which one wins. I deliberated for a long time over this match, and I have to say that I think The Sellout has the edge. Maybe it's how resonant it is to our current political and social issues, but its razor-sharp wit and almost-too-uncomfortable spotlight give it a win by just a hair.
TOB match to be decided March 28 - and we'll see which judge is a better judge.

Zombie Predictions
Aana Says: 
1. The Sympathizer - this was easily my favorite book out of all of them, and I still can't believe Bats of the Republic beat it.
2. The Whites - this book was so intense and I felt like it didn't get the chance it deserved.
As long as John Irving doesn't come back, we'll be okay. That would be like the "hideous bloated zombie in the well" scene from The Walking Dead.
Cheminne Says: 
1. The Sympathizer - I really couldn't believe this book dropped out of competition in the first place. It was one of my favorite books of the year.
2. Fates and Furies, although I want it to be A Little Life - I was NOT a fan of Fates. As I said in my initial review, reading it felt like I was watching a couple pick and bicker for an hours-long dinner and I literally threw it down when I finished. But I suspect there are a lot of fans out there who voted for it. I actually voted for A Little Life. It hooked me from the first word, and I was surprised by the vehement reaction of the judge who knocked it out of competition.
And ditto Aana's John Irving diss. 

Down to the Quarterfinals

There were some major upsets over the last week in the sports version of March Madness, causing consternation in a lot of brackets. In reviewing The Morning New Tournament of Books, we've already had a couple of upsets, too.
I think the biggest one so far would be the loss of Fates and Furies, a book that many predicted would win the whole tournament. It is not one of my favorites, but I think it's safe to say that book will be back in the tournament's Zombie round, when two selections are chosen to "rise from the dead" to compete again. We'll see those zombies storming in just before the championship match.
But this week, it's all about the quarterfinals. So it's time for Aana and I to give you our predictions for who will advance to the semifinals. I correctly predicted 7 of 9 regular-play matches, but Aana predicted 8 out of 9, so she's feeling smug.
This week, we both selected the same books to win. Let's see what we predict will happen:

Quarterfinal Match #1
The Competitors: Bats of the Republic vs. The Sympathizer
Our Pick: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Why this one? Both of us liked both of these books, they were both creative and well written. But Bats didn't have the depth of feeling or the completeness that The Sympathizer did. The story in Bats was complex, almost too complex to understand at times. And while that makes it unique and interesting, it doesn't necessarily make it the best book in this contest. On the other side of the coin, it's the characters in The Sympathizer that are complex, reeling you in bit by bit until you're completely hooked. Like The Americans - a fabulous show on FX that just started a new season - you find yourself rooting for a protagonist who isn't entirely good, or entirely evil. So we're pulling for the Communist mole living in the US after the Vietnam War, trying to keep his identities straight while secretly sending information back to his Communist best-friend-slash-handler in Vietnam.
TOB match to be decided March 21.

Quarterfinal Match #2
The Competitors: The Turner House vs. Our Souls at Night
Our Pick: The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy
Why this one? This was a close one for us. Our Souls is a sweet book about two elderly neighbors who decide to go against convention to create their own way to find comfort together. Turner House is more like their boisterous neighbors, a big family that scraps and loves at top volume while trying to decide what to do about their mom and their family house. Ghosts, literal and figurative, are stirred up as they work through their past and present squabbles. And maybe that's part of the charm, that they are more alive somehow in their book, or maybe Our Souls is just a bit too quiet (Aana found Our Souls to be bland). We give Turner House the slight edge, but we also realize that Our Souls has steam in this tournament and could be the judges' choice.
TOB match to be decided March 22.

Quarterfinal Match #3
The Competitors: A Little Life vs. The Tsar of Love and Techno
Our Pick: The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra
Why this one? Another very close call, at least for Cheminne. She was in love with A Little Life, which was meant to be an allegory, but was for her just a distracting, disturbing, and terrific read. However, Tsar was even better - and for both of our judges was one of the most beautifully crafted books we've read in a long time. Although it's listed as a book of short stories, they are each intertwined and linked in such a way that it's more like a novel that moves seamlessly between characters and decades without losing its emotional grip on the reader. The setting is Russia, from the Soviet era to modern-day Chechnya, with politics the center of some stories, and character actors in others. But it's the writing that stands out, with sentences woven together like a tapestry of rough and soft threads: lyrical, painful, and tightly bound. This is one of our picks to go all the way.
TOB match to be decided March 23.

Quarterfinal Match #4
The Competitors: A Spool of Blue Thread vs. The Sellout
Our Pick: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
Why this one? What an interesting matchup, or mis-matchup, to be honest. Spool is a lovely book, written by the amazing Anne Tyler who is at her best here. It's an ordinary story about ordinary people, but brought to life with Tyler's gift for spinning a tale. The Sellout, on the other hand, is a swaggering satire, strutting out all loud and proud to deal knock-out punches left and right. The key here is that The Sellout is clever and wry, with a topic that stabs a fork into one of society's rawest nerves. It's brave, bold, and hilarious, so it's our pick in this match.
TOB match to be decided March 24.

Round Two: Shoot and Score

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.

Are You Ready to Rumble?

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. 




You Do You

I've always been slightly rebellious (okay, my mom just laughed at the use of the word "slightly"), so I've never been one to read something because it's a best seller, or because someone else tells me that a book is "important."
In today's New York Times Book Review section, I loved reading a debate about this very idea: Is a book good because it's "LIT-ra-ture," or because it's just fun to read?
I believe that, much like a Twinkie, the middle is where the good stuff happens. On one end you have what you're supposed to read, and almost never do. And on the other end, the things that you're slightly embarrassed to admit you read. Much like admitting that you ever ate a Twinkie.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of Henry James, William Faulkner, Plutarch, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen. And I also enjoy the books that I call "popcorn books," those by Dick Francis and Agatha Christie. They aren't on any classics lists, but I love them and gobble them down like popcorn. In fact, I have every single one of the Dick Francis books - 49 if you're counting.
But tell me that I have to read something just because everyone else thinks it's fabulous and I balk. Because I'm usually let down (thanks a lot, Dan Brown and Jonathan Franzen) and the attention is often not worth the blather.
Frankly, it's why I gravitate to book awards like the Man Booker and the Morning News Tournament of Books - the nominated books are usually good to fantastic, amazingly well written, and creatively entertaining (except for that John Irving thing, but more about that in another post).
The middle is occupied by wizards like Jo Rowling and Elizabeth George, who create indelible characters while pulling us completely into their worlds. Or by Jo Nesbo and Robert Harris, who paint mesmerizing visions of worlds we don't occupy.
And I've read breathtaking writing - crying (hard) over Harrison in Pigeon English, holding my breath over the pain suffered by Dorrigo in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and sighing when Marie-Laure finally meets Werner in All the Light We Cannot See. The middle even made me change my mind over apocalyptic novels after I read Station Eleven. The middle is really satisfying.
So don't let anyone tell you that your favorite author isn't a good one. Or that you aren't intelligent enough to "get it" if you don't like James Joyce. You read what you want. You do you. And we'll meet in the middle.

The Books That Should Have Made the List

One of the best things about contests, brackets, and opinion pieces is the second-guessing game - talking about what should have happened, who should have been chosen, and what might have been. The founders of The Morning News Tournament of Books not only recognizes that, they encourage it. They fully admit that their entire process is subjective and full of errors and omissions, and they welcome other ideas and arguments as part of the bracket process.
So who am I to deny them that bit of fun? I definitely have some opinions already about which books were left off this year, and which ones should win (more on that later). So Aana and I compiled a short list of nominees that aren't on the "official" TOB list, but should be.
Speaking of second-guessing, I'm wondering if I should have allowed Aana to join in on this blog. She selected the books that I wanted to put on our short list, which made me go back to the well. Luckily for her, I read a lot. Otherwise, this could have gotten ugly at a very early stage.
Feel free to second-guess our second-guessing in the comments section below!

The "What Were You Thinking" List of Nominees

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart
An Aana Selection
Constance Klopp (based on a real woman) is a hero for the modern woman, who makes sacrifices and sticks her neck out to protect her family. This book really stood out for me because it’s so easy for an uppity woman to identify with the main character. She’s curious, brave, strong, and does what she has to do, but she also comes off like a real person with insecurities and secrets. It’s even more remarkable that Ms. Klopp was a real person who stuck it to the man! I think she would’ve gotten along well with Oreo (of Oreo, a book that was chosen for TOB's brackets). AG

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
An Aana Selection
More historical fiction with strong female characters. I loved this book for its atmosphere. It’s easy to put yourself in the story and feel what the main characters are feeling. Isabelle is headstrong, unstoppable, and heroic. She refuses to be daunted by the horrors of war and throws herself into the fight. In the same vein as Dead Wake (see below), this story shines a light into an aspect of history that most people don’t know all that much about – the women of the French Resistance during World War II. I think we’ll see this book return as a movie in the not-too-distant future, so stay tuned. AG

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg
A Cheminne Selection 
A good-time girl from the Lower East Side of New York lives the hectic life of a Jazz Age baby, working at a theater during the day, and dancing with a fever pitch at night. But when the Depression hits, she reinvents herself and her neighborhood, helping those who need a hand during the dark days of joblessness and hunger. Decades pass and this "saint" of the Village is hidden in history, until someone finds her diary and starts to uncover who Mazie really was, and how she impacted so many others in a trying time. This book made TOB's long list, but was left off the short list, which I think is a crime. Not to give too much away, but after reading almost the entire short list, this book is better than quite a few that are included on the bracket. Maybe a Zombie round will bring this fabulous book back! CTS

Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich
A Cheminne Selection
There is a mountain near my parents' house in Virginia named Bull Mountain, which I confess is the first reason I started reading this book. But the Southern noir, the history of moonshining (which my own family shares), and the mystery at the core of the story were the hooks that kept me reading. This tale of family ties between fathers and sons and the generations of hardscrabble Georgia country folk is gripping and shocking, and keeps you turning pages till the very end. It's a fabulously written novel of how our family history affects us in ways we never imagined. CTS

The "Why Doesn't TOB Include Non-Fiction" List of Nominees

Dead Wake by Erik Larson
An Aana Selection
OK so they don’t allow non-fiction books in The Tournament of Books. But they also used to disallow books by people who write for The Morning News, and you saw how All the Light We Cannot See got on the list (and won) last year. Anyway, I think Dead Wake should be allowed because it’s a brilliant retelling of events leading up to one of the most momentous episodes in modern history. How much does the average person remember from history classes about the sinking of the Lusitania? Probably not a lot, but this book brings it to life and puts you right there on the steamer and in the U-boats. It illustrates what people on both sides might have been thinking and feeling, and makes history real. Not a lot of authors can do that! AG

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson
A Cheminne Selection
If you aren't familiar with The Bloggess, go to her website right now. I'll wait. If you were able to get through a single post on that site without guffawing, then you need to see a doctor because something is seriously wrong with your sense of humor. Jenny Lawson on paper shouldn't be funny - she wrestles with mental health demons like serious depression, agoraphobia, and anxiety. But the way she deals with them is through a completely twisted (and spit-your-drink-through-your-nose) sense of humor and brutal honesty. For some, she's a light in a dark tunnel, allowing them to laugh at their own struggles. For others, she's just the funny bomb. CTS