#ToB15 Roundup 1
The Tournament of Books is coming in just eight days! 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 ten (and counting) of the sixteen contenders. Here are my abbreviated thoughts on the first seven.
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean toward its branches as if toward the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right.
I really loved this World War II story. It toggles back and forth between a blind French girl and a soon-to-be Nazi boy. It’s beautiful and nuanced. And the writing. Amazing. Check out this Millions article for an analysis of the writing.
The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters (Audio)
She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she made them, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged. Yes, that was it, she thought, as she turned a corner: it wasn’t a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by the friction of her shoes against the streets. She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in these tingling moments—these moments when, paradoxically, she was also at her most anonymous.
I’ve been meaning to read something by Sarah Waters for years, and I’m glad I finally did. I enjoyed this tale. It is perched at the end of World War I in Britain, which is marked by cracks in the social caste. I am very glad that I listened to this on audio (though it clocked in at over 20 hours(!)), because the narrator was gifted and it allowed me to hear the British accents and through them the classes of the speakers. I don’t think I would have picked up as much from just reading. But I did find that it went on a bit too long.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
“I still think you invented the parallel-universe theory,” she said, but one of the few things that August didn’t know about her was that sometimes when she looked at her collection of pictures she tried to imagine and place herself in that other, shadow life. You walk into a room and flip a switch and the room fills with light. You leave your garbage in bags on the curb, and a truck comes and transports it to some invisible place. When you’re in danger, you call for the police. Hot water pours from faucets. Lift a receiver or press a button on a telephone, and you can speak to anyone. All of the information in the world is on the Internet, and the Internet is all around you, drifting through the air like pollen on a summer breeze. There is money, slips of paper that can be traded for anything: houses, boats, perfect teeth. There are dentists. She tried to imagine this life playing out somewhere at the present moment. Some parallel Kirsten in an air-conditioned room, waking from an unsettling dream of walking through an empty landscape.
This is my favorite contender so far. It’s the end of the world as we know it. 99.9% of the world population has died from the Georgia Flu. The world we knew is gone, but people, as they do, survive, and carry on. The book begins with a production of Macbeth and then follows, in ever expanding circles, the people we meet there. I loved the story and the structure and, well, almost all of it.
Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offhill
The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out. A home has a perimeter. But sometimes our perimeter was breached by neighbors, by Girl Scouts, by Jehovah’s Witnesses. I never liked to hear the doorbell ring. None of the people I liked ever turned up that way.
This is a quick novella of a read. It’s in an interesting style, where the main character includes things from the research she is doing and random poems and bits of literature that strike her. At it’s core, it is the story of early love, marriage, child-rearing, and discontent. The child-rearing bits worked the best for me. While I appreciated what Offhill was trying to do, it just fell a little flat for me. If you would like more analysis of this one, check out this Literary Disco episode and/or this Slate Audio Book Club episode.
Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim-lit halls of other places forms that never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who have never seen or been seen . . .
I’d heard a bit of buzz about this series over on Book Riot. But I had no idea what to expect when I finally picked it up. I definitely didn’t expect a story about Area X. A story with living words and the unknown. This is the first in a trilogy (or really the first part of a three part novel), and while I really enjoyed it, I’m not sure I’ll be reading the other two. It’s very odd, but intriguing.
An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay
When he finished talking, I said, “Your mother did not deserve the unwanted attentions of a man like my father.” I said, “I did not deserve the unwanted attentions of a man like you. It is often women who pay the price for what men want.”
Whew! This one was intense. It is about a well-to-do Haitian women turned American who is kidnapped and held for ransom. She is taken in broad daylight in front of her husband, baby, and many onlookers. There are no holds barred here with the violence and its repercussions. I had to read this in one sitting, because I just couldn’t go to bed in the middle. I don’t know quite how I feel about this one really.
Redeployment, by Phil Klay
Somebody said combat is 99 percent sheer boredom and 1 percent pure terror. They weren’t an MP in Iraq. On the roads I was scared all the time. Maybe not pure terror. That’s for when the IED actually goes off. But a kind of low-grade terror that mixes with the boredom. So it’s 50 percent boredom and 49 percent normal terror, which is a general feeling that you might die at any second and that everybody in this country wants to kill you.
This book got tons of love last year, even winning the National Book Award. But I was mostly just confused and bored. That probably says more about me than the book, but it took me over six weeks to get through this short story collection about Marines and Iraq. It was jarring to end a story about a Marine and then start a new story about a new Marine. Several times it didn’t feel like there was enough differentiation between the characters. And there was so much military jargon that it was clearly a stylistic choice, but it just made me feel alienated. Overall, I didn’t love it. Again, for more, check out this Slate Audio Book Club episode.
That’s it for this round up! What do you think? Have you read any of these? Which books are you going to be rooting for come March 9?
Check out the actual tournament bracket here.