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.On this first day of March, as my fellow Southerners start heating up decades-old 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.
As you may know, I have read 15 of the Sweet 16 books. The final book hasn't been chosen at this point, but will be announced in a Pre-Tournament contest on Monday.
Here's how this will work. Today I'm going to look at the first four pairings to tell you how I would judge them. I'll post my picks on the other four contests on Monday.
As the TOB announces its winners in the matches each day this month, I'll give you my Monday Morning Quarterback report, which will tell you more about the winning and losing books.
Feel free to offer your own color commentary as we move through the month-long contest.
Let's get ready to rumble:
The Contest: Historical Smackdown
The Competitors: HHhH vs. Bring Up the Bodies
The Winner: Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
Why It Won: This was a tough one for HHhH, because there is a reason that Mantel won two Man Booker Prizes. For me, this all came down to how each historical story was told. I wanted to like Laurent Binet's HHhH, which is about Reinhard Heydrich, one of the scariest of the top-ranking Nazis (HHhH = "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich" or "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich"). It should have been a fascinating look at a lesser-known Hitler cohort, but Laurent's way of inserting himself into the story got in the way. On the other hand, a different way of telling an historical tale is exactly why I liked Bring Up the Bodies. Rather than obscuring the story, Mantel's writing allowed me to feel as if I was intimately involved in the power struggle between Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn.
The Contest: In Search of a Showdown
The Competitors: Arcadia vs How Should a Person Be?
The Winner: Arcadia, by Lauren Groff
Why It Won: There are books that are meant to be read by at a certain time in one's life, I believe. Some will appeal to you in your youth, and then you find that you don't love them as much in later years. Or vice versa. I will fully admit that Arcadia appealed to me and my more Gen-X outlook than the very Gen Y How Should a Person Be. Both are about people trying to find themselves and to figure out their place in this world. If you dream of Utopian societies where people grow their own vegetables and live free despite the inherent hardships, Arcadia is your book. If you see yourself in one of characters from Lena Dunham's Girls, or you feel that your life is like one big Facebook post, you should read Sheila Heti's book. But beyond that, Heti's experimental writing felt more like a shtick than a true boundary push to me.
The Contest: Mediterranean Mash-Up
The Competitors: Beautiful Ruins vs. The Song of Achilles
The Winner: The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller
Why It Won: The Song of Achilles is not the Brad Pitt version of the Trojan War, but it isn't the Iliad or The Odyssey, either. Rather, it is a twist on the relationship between the hero Achilles and Patroclus, his closest friend and, in this book, his lover. Thoughtfully, and thought provokingly, written, it had me entranced from the start. Beautiful Ruins has at its heart another star-crossed love story, in this case one that spans decades. Told at the beginning of the relationship in the '60s and then in alternate chapters told from today's viewpoint, the book almost seemed as if it was written by two authors. I was captivated by the characters and the scenery in the '60s set, but the minute it switched to modern day, the writing became cliched.
The Contest: The Manipulation Match
The Competitors: Ivyland vs. Gone Girl
The Winner: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
Why It Won: I'm all for experimentation (just wait till you see what I say about Building Stories), but what's the point if your intent, the very heart of why you wrote the book, is lost in translation? Ivyland intrigued me with its type-less cover and the theme of a pharmaceutical company looming over a failing social landscape like Big Brother. Then its mismatched "vignettes" made me want to throw the book across the room. Gone Girl gets twisty in a more conventional way, with the two main characters each getting their chance to tell their side of the story. It's better-written, more engaging, and is one of the few books that actually caught me off guard with a plot turn.