Mini-Reviews: Tournament of Books Catch-Up Round
I’ve been cruising through the list of 16 books in this year’s Tournament of Books. The Tournament is well underway, and I want to get these reviews out there now!
Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple
This was a fast and fun read. But it had depth too. Told from the perspective of bright teenager, Bee, this story is mostly a look at Bee’s mother, the titular Bernadette Fox. She’s a recluse who hates Seattle and it’s attendant gnat-moms. But she’s also a revolutionary architect and Bee’s mom. The story is composed of regular old prose and also emails, official documents, and secret correspondence. I loved Bee and Bernadette, though I had less-charitable feelings towards the father/husband, Elgie – a Microsoft-employed genius and absentee father.
The story is funny and satirical, and yet oddly, dare I say it, heartwarming. While poking fun at the attitudes of upper-class Seattle suburbia, it also examines the nature of an artist who isn’t producing art and the particular quandaries faced at middle-age. The writing, upon reading, does not intrude and simply allows the story of unfold. Upon reflection, it reveals a mastermind in control of the various voices, characters, and forms.
I liked Bernadette, and I liked this story. I highly recommend this book to almost everyone.
Building Stories, by Chris Ware
I’m not even sure that this can qualify as a book. It comes in a big and heavy box that resembles a board game. And, as you see in the picture below, inside, there are fourteen different pieces: little books, pamphlets, newspapers, etc. Though there is a suggested reading path found on the back of the box, the reader is free to experience these items in any order. Oh, and did I mention all of this is in graphic novel form?
The story follows an apartment building, its inhabitants, and one little bee by the name of Branford. It is beautifully drawn and written and has resonated within me since I finished. My one criticism is that I did not understand or discern the relevance of the presentation. Why was some of the story in a little Golden Book-esque binding? Why was some of it in strips or in newspaper form? Perhaps that kind of understanding will require some rereading.
Two pieces of advice that I have gleaned from talking with others and from my own experience:
1. Start with the little Golden Book-esque one.
2. Do not end with Branford the Bee.
Note, too, that there are adult scenes, so be wary of reading this around or leaving it out near children.
Have you read this book? I’d love to talk about it. It’s a book (or book-thing) that almost requires discussion.
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
This is about the summer of thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts – the summer in which his mother is brutally attacked and raped on their reservation. It’s about the weird and loophole-filled laws that govern reservations. It’s about growing up. It’s about family and sacrifice and choices and right and wrong. But mostly, it’s just about a boy.
I liked this book a lot. I did not love it though. I found it to be slow in some places, disconnected in others. But overall, it was beautifully written and memorable. It read very realistic teenage boy for me, which is an impressive feat. And there are scenes from it that I will not soon forget. I love how Erdrich made this story both universal and yet very personal. I very much enjoyed it.
(P.S. It won the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction.)
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson
Where to even begin with this one? It’s about a boy, the titular orphan master’s son, who grows up in North Korea. It reaches through the boy’s whole life. It shows the depravity of North Korea. And it shows the peril of individual stories in the hands of a dictatorship. Here’s one of the many many quotes I noted as I read:
“. . . For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.” Here, Dr. Song took a sip of juice, and the finger he lifted trembled slightly. “But in America, people’s stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters. Perhaps they will believe your story and perhaps not, but you, Jun Do, they will believe you.” (121, 27%)
Now, this is fiction, of course, so I have no idea how realistic or unrealistic the depiction of North Korea is. But it felt real. And it felt arbitrary, in that way that chaos does. I liked this one. It definitely made me think and pause and feel grateful for what I have.
Have you read any of these books? Which was your favorite? Are you following the Tournament of Books this year?