It’s March! It’s March! And that means the Tournament of Books is here! You may or may not know just how much I love this tournament, but suffice it to say that I do. I really do.
Anyway, since the finalists were announced in January, I’ve managed to read seven of the seventeen contenders, to add to the two I read last year. I’ve already reviewed Eleanor and Park, How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and Long Division, but I want to quickly review the other six before the first official tournament round goes live tomorrow.
The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
I know. It’s written by the author of Eat, Pray, Love (a book I happened to love and yet is almost universally scorned). But it’s not really fair to judge this lovely work of fiction on the author’s past works, whatever your feelings about them. Alma Whittaker is the only biological child of wealthy Henry Whittaker. She grows up with the world as her oyster – there’s money, there’s the large estate, and there’s the rotation of up-and-comers dining with the family each evening. Even with all of these advantages, Alma struggles to define herself and find happiness.
The Signature of All Things kind of took my breath away. It is a large tome, for sure, weighing at 1.6 pounds for the hardback edition and clocking in at 512 pages. And it is weighty in subject matter too. But for all that weight, I managed to fly right through. Gilbert knows how to pace things. She knows how to tell a story.
The Son, by Philipp Meyer
I read and enjoyed Meyer’s first novel, American Rust, but I loved The Son. It tells the tale of a family from the years establishing a homestead on the frontier (complete with an Indian kidnapping) to the twenty-first century (with oil wells and vast wealth). It’s both a good yarn and a poignant look at the victims progress leaves in its wake. I did have some trouble keeping the characters and relationships straight and thus spent some quality time with the family chart at the beginning. But mostly, I was able to lose myself in this story. Lengthy as it was, I found I wanted more.
The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride (Audio)
It’s embarrassing to admit, but, before reading this book, and I little-to-no knowledge of John Brown or the incident at Harper’s Ferry. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Good Lord Bird follows a fictional slave “freed” by John Brown after the death of his father. Henry “Henrietta” Shackleford, also known as “The Onion,” was in fact a boy but lived as a woman for most of the book. I listened to the audio of this, and I’m glad I did, because it is written in dialect, which some people noted they had a hard time acclimating to. The narrator, Michael Boatman, did a fantastic job, and I had no trouble with the dialect at all.
Perhaps this is due in part to listening to the book rather than reading it, but I felt the pacing was sometimes uneven and there were odd repetitions of phrases. I was occasionally annoyed with Onion’s failure to “be a man,” but I was fascinated with the portrait of John Brown. He was out fighting slavery at a time when that was a very dangerous proposition, but often his methods bordered on insanity and extreme violence. At least as he’s portrayed here, he’s a fascinating paradox. In all, I was very pleased by both the education and story of this book. The Good Lord Bird won the 2013 National Book Award for fiction, and I can certainly see why.
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri
Another embarrassing admission: this is my first time reading Jhumpa Lahiri. And I was not disappointed. The language, story, and characters of this one all stuck with me. I can see the beaches in Rhode Island and the soldiers in Calcutta even though I’ve never been either place. The Lowland is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan Mitra, who are very close as children, but drift apart in interests and location as they grow older. I loved the slow way the story built itself to a gratifying conclusion. This certainly won’t be the last time I read Lahiri’s work.
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki
I really liked this book. It’s so unique. Ruth lives in British Columbia on a remote island. One day, on the beach, she finds a diary, along with some mementos and letters. The diary belongs to a teenage girl, Nao, living in Tokyo and contemplating suicide. The story alternates between Nao’s journal and Ruth and her efforts to discover more about the girl. I loved both stories equally, which is unusual for split narratives like this – often times I’m drawn to one over the other. Towards the end of the book, there are a few instances of what can probably best be called magical realism and references to quantum physics. Though I agree with some of the criticism out there, that it felt like the first half was almost a different book from the second half, I appreciated what the author was trying to do with the concepts of time and space. This is one I will definitely reread in the future.
The Dinner, by Herman Koch (Audio)
Here’s a telling fact: I listened to this eight hour audio book in two days. I was fascinated by this story, but I don’t think I’m going to tell you much about it. It is, in fact, about a dinner and is divided by the courses of the meal. But that’s all I knew about it going in, and I loved discovering the twists and turns of the plot. I enjoyed the look into Dutch culture, and the way the characters are slowly revealed. I did have some trouble following the timeline of events, as the narrative jumps back and forth in time a bit, but that might have been because I sometimes miss small things on audio. (P.S. I thought this narrator, Clive Mantel, was fantastic.) And then there is the small fact that pretty much every character is terrible and that the narrator, Paul Lohman, is not quite reliable. I do have minor quibbles with The Dinner, but overall, it was a lovely meal.