ToB Winner!

The Good Lord BirdCongratulations to James McBride and The Good Lord Bird, winner of the 2014 Rooster. There were some really nice, compact thoughts from all the judges and I urge you to read the whole thing. Here are some parts that resonated with me:

Judge Hu: [Life After Life is] one of the best self-obsessively formal novels of all time. How did Atkinson manage to craft a story so simultaneously cognitive and visceral?

Judge McElwee: This story [The Good Lord Bird] about a boy in a dress hardly touches gender.

Judge Fershleiser:  But in Life After Life, I got my book about female inner worlds. These characters face rape, abortion, abusive marriages, motherhood—all the inescapable strictures of a woman’s existence even as she has a freedom beyond imagining. Amid the extraordinary premise, it’s the fundamentally ordinary that is so beautiful: love for a brother, sharing secrets with a friend, seizing or shirking opportunities.

And commentator Kevin Guilfoile asks: I wonder if a less American jury might have leaned more toward Atkinson. I think The Good Lord Bird presupposes at least a passing familiarity with John Brown and Frederick Douglass, and maybe even an internalization of slavery as America’s original sin.

So that’s the end of another March of frenetic reading and posting. I am both relieved and saddened. As always, it’s been a great opportunity to read some amazing and interesting books and think some thoughts about them. I thank ToB in particular for The People in the Trees and At Night We Walk in Circles. Without you, I wouldn’t have read these wonderful books. Till next year.

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ToB Zombie Atkinson

It finally happened. The People in the Trees has gone down to a zombie. I’m not that sad, I expected it to be kicked out quite a while ago and I really like Life After Life. I hope it wins tomorrow but I don’t think it will.

The People in the TreesI do disagree with Judge Martin’s comments, although I can’t blame him for a difference in taste. For starters, I don’t know what he means when he refers to People‘s ‘shiny exterior’. I actually can’t understand what he’s referring to. I didn’t find anything about People shiny; I found it understated and often gritty with its unlovable narrator and complex themes. I know you’re not supposed to like Perina but he is often dangerously insightful and no one likes agreeing with a (fictional) convicted paedophile. Science and ‘progress’, clash of cultures, relativism, none of these things are easy or shiny. It made the book pretty harsh and conflicted reading for me. And I’m still not going to say anything else about it. I’m just not ready.

Life After LifeJudge Martin also brings up reading order which I think is really interesting. I regularly read books that I’m pretty sure I would like more if I hadn’t read something similar and that little bit better immediately before. Like Judge Martin I read Life After Life right before People and I’m glad I did. People, for me, was the book that cast a pall over whatever came after it. I couldn’t stop thinking and talking about it. Finding out about its real life inspiration just gave it extra emphasis and more relevance and weight, something that came up in the comments.

I do love one thing Judge Martin pointed out:

There are many lines and passages repeated to great effect. Several times within the 500-plus pages, I had that eerie sense of déjà vu. Such a unique sensation. Had I already read this? Why does this seem so familiar? And with that use of language and attention to detail, Atkinson gives us, the readers, that greatest of gifts: we feel what Ursula feels. 

That brings us up to the final tonight. I think it’s going to be a win for The Good Lord Bird. I don’t think it will resonate as much in Australia and it certainly hasn’t with the people I’ve tried to sell it to. But I get why people like it and I wish it all the best.

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ToB Cathups

I am running out of steam on this thing….

Don’t get me wrong, I still stay up late at night, frantically refreshing my browser to check if my favourite book has come through unscathed, but I’m running out of things to say. The judges are so much more articulate and insightful than I am and for a book to have made it this far it means I’ve already put my thoughts out there three times. So my delayed posting is not because I am any less passionate but rather because I am worried about boring you, gentle reader.

So I’ll try to keep it snappy.

A Tale for the Time BeingMonday saw A Tale for the time Being go up (and then down!) against The Good Lord Bird. Like Judge Darnielle I was unwillingly won over by Nao but captivated by Ruth. I like my books slow like I like my…. I don’t know, slow things. Turtles.  Thus Ruth’s quiet, introspective life in coastal Vancouver was right up my alley. I also like books that leave you with room to think and draw your own conclusions. So I liked reading about her weird neighbours and offbeat relationship with her partner when she wasn’t even sure what she was doing there at all. In a way the novel reminded me of Australian bush writing traditions, what with the eccentric community and remote location. I thought A Tale for the Time Being was touching and beautifully crafted. The way Ozeki was able to hold all the scenes, characters and concepts together in a seemingly logical way was really quite a feat of structure and form. As well as being incredibly readable, with well-placed cliff-hangers and clever switches between perspectives. I was sorry to see it go but I thought Judge Darnielle made a well reasoned argument as to why he preferred The Good Lord Bird. Which I still don’t get.

The People in the TreesThen on Tuesday I was incredibly surprised to read that The People in the Trees had taken out The Son. There’s no particular reason this should be surprising but I keep expecting that my favourite book in the competition will get knocked out, and the one I haven’t read will end up winning. I am frequently constructing worst-case scenarios in my head which I’ve been told is a coping mechanism so maybe that’s what’s going on. But that’s neither here nor there. I still don’t want to talk about it because I really want to give it more time, space and thought. And I have nothing to say about The Son.

These are the ones I've readWhich brings us to Wednesday. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Judge Hu’s verdict. It tickled me. I also liked watching my favourite book triumph again. Yet again, reasonable criticisms were levelled against Ron’s pal Donna. The lack of proper female characterisations was one we touched on the other day. I myself am ambivalent about the zombie round; I understand that Judge Hu believes that ‘The Zombie introduces doubt among the living, and allows us not only to revisit, but to potentially even change, the past. The Zombie Round is hope’ but last year it saw my least favourite books returning as the undead. The few years previous it was about 50/50 and I feel the same way about this year. I really liked Life After Life! And The Goldfinch was ok! Or maybe not ok. I’m still tossing up about that one. But what I really would have liked to have seen was The People in the Trees go up against The Good Lord Bird. It still might but what I’m saying is that overall I’d be happy to let the judges decide and leave the popular vote out of it. It can be a little frustrating to watch a book get knocked out in a complex, well-argued piece and then have it come back anyway. Someone already made this call, people! I want to know who wins already!

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ToB Chatz on Satz

Welcome back to a post form you all know and love…. Chatz! And though it appears to be Monday, let me assure you that this Chatz occured on Sat(urday). Veronica is a person who is both very eloquent and very generous with her time and she agreed to join me online to defend Donna Tartt. And boy did she need some defending from Judge Gay. I am actually very pleased to see The People in the Trees survive another round and I’ve left off talking about it again because I think my love for it requires a full post. So for now, let’s talk The Goldfinch. (NB: This gets a bit spoilery. Although when we talk about the end we’re actually referring to a general summing up chapter that doesn’t involve the final stages of the plot.)

Fay: Hello Veronica and welcome to Chatz on…. Well actually on Sat(urday) would you believe

Fay: But more specifically on ToBX and even more specifically on The Goldfinch

Veronica: Thank you kindly Fay, it is a pleasure to be here.

Fay: Today Judge Gay slammed the crap out of our pal Donna Tartt

Fay: As a Goldfinch lover, what say ye?

These are the ones I've readVeronica: I cannot abide this disrespect of Donna. I actually agree with *most *of Judge Gay’s commentary, but for me all the things she criticises are elements that made me love the book so deeply.

Fay: Alrighty so let’s talk writing

Fay: Judge Gay really hates Donna Tartt’s prose

Fay: (she says the word prose a lot)

Veronica: Ach, the prose is divine. This is a bit of a taste thing, really – it comes down to personal preference somewhat.

Veronica: It is overwritten, but I think Tartt is in control of the bigness of it throughout. It’s an immersive, epic bildungsroman, and it needs to be as detailed as it is in order to convey the sense of Theo’s life.

Fay: I kind of know what she means

Fay: I have to say I found myself skimming parts of it

Fay: I mean sometimes I was all, ‘Donna, I love you, but I GET IT’

Veronica: I agree re: arrogance. That’s part of Tartt’s mystique. She’s so confident in her ambition that I trust her storytelling as a reader, both in Goldfinch and Secret History, even when I couldn’t see where she was going. Judge Gay totally contradicts herself in saying that she acknowledges ‘Donna Tartt is, undoubtedly, a brilliant writer. She is coolly in command of her craft’, then going on to pick apart and criticise sentences that I thought were incredibly well-written.

Veronica: I’m very biased just because I loved the book so much, but I can definitely acknowledge that it has huge flaws and I don’t think the writing is one of them.

Fay: I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on the writing style thing

Fay: Not you and me, I mean

Fay: You and Judge Gay

Fay: Judge Gay just didn’t dig Donna Tartt

Donna TarttFay: It’s cool, because she’s a best-selling, critically acclaimed multimillionaire

Fay: With a badass haircut

Veronica: I’m sure Donna doesn’t care. She has her sharp suits.

Veronica: But to say that reading it felt like a criminal sentence is crazy talk!

Fay: Let’s talk plot points

Fay: I tend to agree with pretty much most of Judge Gay’s comments

Fay: EXCEPT (and I quote): It’s as if she knows that Theo’s worry over the painting he took, as a mere boy, from the museum when it was bombed is sort of strange, given the context in which it happened, so she tries to make us forget that strangeness by relentlessly amplifying Theo’s anxiety until we forget what originally caused it.

Fay: How is it strange that a twelve year old would be worried about having stolen a priceless artefact from a museum?

Fay: How is it strange that he couldn’t think of a way to get it back without implicating himself further?

Veronica: Yes, that’s not strange at all. The painting is intrinsically linked with the death of his mother, which is THE formative experience of Theo’s life. Of course he’s going to obsess over it and covet it, the same way he obsesses over Pippa. Their proximity to the bombing makes them his preciouses.

Veronica: But anyway, Boris! Mi corazon

Fay: Oh Boris.

Fay: Never change

Fay: (SPOILER: HE NEVER DOES)

Fay: I loved the whole Vegas sequence

Fay: The weird desolation and semi-squalor

Fay: The kids wandering around like underfed, over-drugged tumbleweeds

Fay: That section more than anything else felt true to me

Veronica: Oh it was just magical. Even though the pacing of it is weird and it doesn’t necessarily make narrative sense for his Vegas time to take up so much of the book, it’s such a rich setting.

Fay: Of all the weird plot twists and Theo’s annoying behaviours that he over-explained

Fay: That was the only part where I was like

Fay: Yeah, Donna.

Fay: That seems like something a really messed up 13 year old art thief would do

Veronica: Agree. This is one of the most impressive displays of Tartt’s writing. How can she evoke the experience of latchkey suburban Vegas kids so brilliantly.

Fay: I love that you just said latchkey

Veronica: It’s so extreme. The whole thing is hyperreal, but I think she does a really great job with the delicate balance between Theo’s experience and the reality.

Fay: And I mean everything is so hyperreal at that time anyway

Fay: Everything is new and everything is SUCH A BIG DEAL

Veronica: Absolutely. They’re in such an extreme environment but they’re also just trying to get through the universal weirdness of adolescence.

Veronica: It’s kind of ironic that the stuff they’re dealing with actually is a HUGE DEAL

Fay: But then once Theo’s back in NY…..

Fay: I mean it all does start to become a bit ridiculous doesn’t it?

Fay: Everything starts moving faster and getting more convenient (plotwise, not so much for Theo)

Veronica: NYC is a different world. And it’s hard to say whether the huge shift in tone is internal to Theo or accurate

Veronica: Yes, there are a lot of plot points that are completely ridiculous

Fay: I just remember being all like, I am caring less and less

Veronica: It’s almost Dickensian (Hobie’s antiques shop, Pippa – who is a much nicer version of Estelle from Great Expectations)

Fay: Wow nicely put

Veronica: That stage is a bit of a blur, things feel out of whack chronologically, but I think that’s partly because Theo is in a prescription drug haze for so many years. The more I think about it the more impressed I am with the way the narrative and the style adheres to the structure of Theo’s lived experience.

Fay: Nyeh I didn’t care for Theo’s lived experience then

Fay: And I never liked the whole Pippa thing

Fay: Sure, Donna TOLD me Theo was in love with her but I never felt it

Veronica: Agree. It’s more obsession

Veronica: And he admits as much at the end, that his ideal of Pippa sits far from who she actually is

Fay: Sure, she’s linked to the death of his mother and a more innocent time

Fay: But to what end?

Veronica: Two perfect objects for Theo to obsess over.

Fay: To the ‘women are another type of possession’ end?

Fay: To the ‘how can anyone but me love you because you’re so unlovable and weird’ end?

Fay: I hated that btw

Fay: Whadadick

Veronica: Yes. Theo’s pathetic.

Veronica: That was in the judges’ notes somewhere. That one of them hated him but still was fascinated by his story.

Fay: you know the more I talk about this book the more I dislike it

Veronica: Nooooooo

Fay: I actually really enjoyed it while I was reading it though

Fay: Maybe I’m blowing it out of proportion

Veronica: I feel like I’d rather read Boris’s memoirs but maybe that would be too much of a good thing.

Fay: I mean yeah, I’d just rather read a Theo/Boris extended coming of age novel set in Vegas

Veronica: Omg I hope there’s Boris/Theo slashie fan fic somewhere on the internet.

Fay: !!!!!

Fay: But let’s skip straight to the ending

Fay: the terrible, preachy, disappointing ending

Veronica: FUCK THE ENDING

Veronica: I prefer to pretend the last chapter doesn’t exist.

Fay: ‘Whatever brilliance Tartt created, she very nearly destroys it with her unwillingness to simply end the novel.’

Fay: Totes agree, Judge Gay

Veronica: Exactly.

Veronica: Like, okay, maybe I don’t know much about art but I just read your 800 page book and I think I gathered all the ideas about metaphors from that

Fay: NOPE YOU DID NOT YOU NEED THEM SPELLED OUT

Fay: LOVE DONNA TARTT

Veronica: It’s like a Cliff Notes summary of all the themes she’s just spent so long carefully and gracefully constructing

Veronica: That was really not cool. She didn’t need to tie it all up with a bow. The ending might have slightly abrupt if she hadn’t included the final chapter, but she needs to trust her readers’ intelligence more than that.

Veronica: Obviously we are very smart.

Fay: We are very smart indeed.

Fay: Is there anything else you wanted to add?

Vreonica: No I think that covers it.

Veronica: Shout out to Popchik for being adorable.

Veronica: The reunion between Boris and Popchik was the most moving and emotionally true section of the entire book.

Veronica: I would also like to extend an open invitation for Donna Tartt to be my friend.

Fay: Duly noted

Fay: And on that note

Fay: We’re out

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ToB Rowell vs Meyer

Today provided a thoroughly unsurprising victory to The Son (which I still haven’t read and probably won’t now because of a new reading challenge – stay tuned for more soon) over the very sweet Eleanor & Park. But today, dear readers, you are in for a treat. Instead of my jaded and often ungenerous views on YA, I’ve asked the delightful Veronica for her input on Eleanor & Park.

Oh, being a teenager in love! It is so amazing. And then, when it inevitably ends, it resolutely sucks. Thanks, Rainbow Rowell, for reminding me why I never again want to be so dependent on another person for my own happiness.

I admire Rowell’s fidelity to the all-consuming experience of adolescent love. At all times, Eleanor and Park’s thoughts are concerned with each other. No matter how dramatic their family and school lives may be, their first and most pressing thought is always whether the other is thinking of them, and if so what the nature of their thoughts are. Because the couple are both teenagers, their affections are selfishly oriented, in that they are primarily interested in what the other person thinks about them. This is realistic too – first love is as much about you as it is the other person.

 In many respects, it’s a shame we’re not given more information outside the scope of the two protagonists. What private torments are Tina and Steve and their friends escaping from in their boozy, pot-smoking garage? What do Park’s friends really think about his mysterious disappearance for a year while he secretly hangs out with Eleanor? Why can’t Park’s tiny Korean hairdresser mum have a spin off novel (she got upset when Patti Smith appeared on SNL: “Why she want to look like man? It’s so sad.”)? (Edit: I second that, Park’s mum is awesome.) But Eleanor and Park’s bubble only has space for two, and so the book is confined to their rather narrow perspectives.

Eleanor and ParkEleanor and Park reminded me of Judy Blume’s Forever, that other epic of whirlwind adolescent passion. There’s not much in either book that isn’t coloured or seen solely in terms of how it fits in with the central relationship. Like Forever, Eleanor and Park is suffused with the hallmarks of its the mid-eighties era, and these details – courting via lovingly crafted mix tapes, finagling to call each other on the family phone, and a conspicuous lack of social media and the internet as a presence in these teenagers’ lives – all place their story firmly in the past. Unlike Forever, there are no dirty bits for teenagers to extract some sexual knowledge or thrill from. Not that Eleanor and Park’s love is chaste, but their sexual explorations are only described in nonspecific terms. Rowell patronises her readers with vague references to “reaching second base”. I felt cheated – after such extensive description of the endless tingling nerve-endings provoked by holding hands, I can only imagine how sweet consummation must have been. Sex is notoriously tricky to write about without falling into awkwardness and cliché. The YA genre is particularly guilty on this front because inexperienced sex is awkward and cliché. But it galls me that Rowell cops out when it comes to sexytime, yet is prepared to relay the physical and verbal abuse perpetrated by Eleanor’s revolting stepfather, Richie.

 There still seems to me a fundamental inequality in pitting YA books against the year’s best novels. It’s an admirable gesture towards inclusivity, but it fails to accept that YA books are just different from adult novels. We love them dearly, but their scope (specifically in realistic coming-of-age YA, at least) is smaller and its focus more intense. They’re written for a different audience. It’s apples and oranges – but then so is, the comparison of any two books, when you get down to it. These are not quantifiable competitions. I haven’t read The Son, but would it make me cry? Probably not. But it might teach me something new, rather than vividly returning me to the most awkward, excruciating stage of life.

Thank you, Veronica, and make sure to tune in tomorrow for more exciting developments in my ToB coverage.

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ToB does it again!

Huzzah for people agreeing with me! Another preferred book has passed through with another loser kicked to the curb. Although Judge Walklin was not as mean as that…

This has been a bad year for any of you who are following along for the snark. On the whole I’ve agreed with most of the choices the esteemed judges have made, and even when I haven’t I have found their discussions interesting and considered. And today is no exception! But I thought I’d break out the snark anyway because, seriously, The Signature of All Things is a pretty crappy book. I’ve already talked about some of the things that annoyed me but I love that Judge Walklin pointed out that Alma has her very own Eat, Pray, Love expedition to Tahiti. How did I not make that hilarious connection??

Now watch out, this will be a bit spoilery… Alma was the most annoying character ever (which isn’t in itself a problem). Completely self-involved, she pretty much ignored all those around her and the sacrifices they made for her until the ‘Aha!’ moment when she goes off to Tahiti. Then she learns the error of her ways, finds inner strength and gets to a very convenient ending. Everything works out for the best! After struggling with family, love, science and recognition she finds them all (or almost all), helpfully situated in the first place she decides to look. It’s ok! You can hear Elizabeth Gilbert saying. Things will work out for everyone! And they do. In the most neat, unlikely fashion of all time.

The Signature of All ThingsAs for the writing…. Well, it has pretensions to literary fiction that it sometimes achieves. It’s certainly not the worst ever. When someone asked me what the voice was like, my answer was ‘an obnoxious, close third.’ For example, we see Alma as a newborn infant before Gilbert whisks us off ‘while we wait for the girl to grow up and gain our interest again’. There’s a similar detached, reflective irony when Alma encounters certain traditions in Tahiti and it felt patronising and smug. I wish I could be more specific, but while I noted the page numbers of particular instances, I eagerly returned the book and now can’t tell you what they were. But boy am I happy this book is out of the game.

As for The Good Lord Bird, I’ve already talked about it a lot. I sincerely think that not being American and being unfamiliar with American history was a drawback as I don’t get lots of the mischievous character assassinations or interesting undermining of established historical traditions. Nevertheless I am glad it won today. I am also glad for the further insight into the general ToB process. The effort to maintain transparency and involve the readers is what makes this the best book prize in town.

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ToB Quarterfinal 1

Unlike Judge Kiesling, I didn’t immediately love A Tale for the Time Being. I initially found Naoko irritating and grating but over time I realised this was a cover for her deeper hurt, loneliness and pain. Naoko relates all manner of bullying and physical assault, as well as parental dysfunction, in such a calm, detached manner that it took me a while to see her behind it. The counterpoint of Ruth (the character, not the author) was a fairly instant hit. Her slow pace of life and her everyday concerns as she tries to write in coastal Canada made for a perfect contrast to Nao’s hyperactive, over-the-top Tokyo. Her love and concern for Nao pulled me through until I loved her too and I’m glad the seafaring journal found her because otherwise I wouldn’t have stuck around to discover Nao’s incredible Zen Buddhist great grandmother and kamikaze pilot uncle.

The commentators have been calling it (and Hill William) a ‘kitchen sink stories’ for the way they bring in all manner of weird facts, tangling bits of different timelines and philosophies in some sort of metphysical soup. However the parts I liked best were the moments of everyday interraction: Ruth and her enigmatic partner, Nao and Jiko taking chill baths together, Ruth getting overinvolved in the ten-year-old daily life of a girl to the point where she really just wants to reach out and help.

A Tale for the Time BeingJudge Kiesling quotes Ruth responding to a concern that ‘narrative preferences’ are getting in the way of her objective search. ‘I can’t help it,’ Ruth replies. ‘My narrative preferences are all I’ve got.’ I think this could double as the motto for ToB. My narrative preferences are what make me rush to the end each day to see if the book I’m rooting for has gone through to another round. And it’s a desire to appreciate the narrative preferences of others that make me go back and read the judgements multiple times. Because I’m always happy to find more justifications for my own preferences or, even more, see how they may have got in the way of engaging with something.

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