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 Catchups

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!

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

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.

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.

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.

ToB quick one

This is just going to be a quick one because I accidentally didn’t post my last ToB update when I originally finished it on Saturday.

The People in the TreesI am very excited to see The People in the Trees win this round. I’ve already expressed my enjoyment of Atkinson’s Life After Life but I think The People in the Trees is more challenging, more troubling, more thought-provoking. While it may have been less enjoyable to read, it gave more reward for engaging with it and it certainly never shies away from ugly, interesting questions. I also dig its form and have some thoughts on that but I’ll leave that till when it comes round again against The Goldfinch.

To end Life After Life‘s ToB run (for the moment at least) I want to quote Judge Green’s insightful and nuanced comment on Ursula: ‘But what’s most interesting about Ursula is the lives she can’t lead, because she is a British woman born in the early 20th century. She can’t, say, be a fancy higher-up in the Home Office during World War II like her brother. To seek a career is to reject marriage. To be married is to lose sovereignty. Ursula can live again and again, but she can never wake up from history.’

ToB Double Feature

Sorry about the delay on this one. I was so close to finishing At Night We Walk in Circles and I didn’t want to read the judgement in case it spoilered anything for me (Yeah, Judge Rosenberg in 2012, I remember that). Anyway I just finished it this morning and boy am I sad that it lost.

I kind of skimmed the parts about The Son because a) I haven’t read it anyway and b) spoilers but I enjoyed reading Judge McElwee’s decision. I’m going to try to read The Son before it comes up again next time. Steven read it and I asked him to write me something about it. He refused. When pressed, he had this to say: ‘It was bad. I didn’t like it.’ I have heard him explaining to a customer that he thought the first section was great and that the other two didn’t live up to it. And that’s all the insight we have into Philipp Meyer’s The Son today!

These are the ones I've readAt Night We Walk in Circles is pretty excellent though. It follows the tour of two actors known (and in one case imprisoned) for their left-wing theatre productions. In an attempt to stage a revival, Henry and Patalarga choose directionless Nelson to join them on a tour of the tiny, war-scarred, Andean towns they visited twenty years ago. As Judge McElwee notes, Alarcón ‘forgoes the narrative appeal of war for a deeper reflection on the illusion and disillusion that rides in war’s wake.’ It is about art and idealism and theatre’s potential to transform, inspire and communicate. It’s also about repression, imprisonment and dysfunctional relationships. For me, it is also about performing identity and the construction of self. What makes someone who they are, what they choose to represent, who has the right to tell a story. And other, spoiler-ier things that we will not go into. It’s done so cleverly that I barely noticed how clever it was: Henry and Nelson’s stories unfold at different paces but always hold together. Different characters bring in different perspectives at just the right times. We always know something bad is going to go down but this becomes secondary to the lives of these men and the lives of those around them as well as the crystal-clear portrait of provincial South America. The more I think about it the more I love it.

As for the matchup between Long Division and The Goldfinch… Long Division sounds great and I can’t wait to read it when I can get my hands on it. That is basically all I can say at this point.

These are the ones I've readThe Goldfinch was a book that I really enjoyed while I was reading it but one that I stopped thinking about basically the second I finished it. (Tartt’s last minute in-your-face meditation on the meaning of art had something to do with that.) At it’s most basic it’s a coming-of-age story about Theo who is orphaned by an explosion at the Met. This explosion also puts him in possession of a priceless art-world treasue. Various settings, and parental figures and super-tense hijinks ensue. The Goldfinch does create a very rich world but so much of it verged on or succumbed to pure stereotype. Moneyed but troubled Manhattanites! Gamblers chasing their big win in Las Vegas! Russian gangsters! Obsession over a childhood crush! The parts I liked best were those that steered away from the cartoonish and toward something more heartfelt, like Hobie’s quiet love and care for restoring antiques and the destructive and powerful friendship between Boris and Theo. These moments felt like the characters stepped out of Tartt’s elaborate constructions and into real feeling. I don’t think it helped that I’ve been re-reading and discussing Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. Her descriptions of the art world and the people in it are so much more convincing than Tartt’s wispy sketches.

On Monday I think I’ll have to watch my favourite book of the tourney, The People in the Trees,  take a fall. There is a pun to be made but I am not that guy.

ToB Rowell vs Lahiri

Tough call on this one. I honestly don’t know what I would have picked, I’ve been thinking about it for the last couple of days and I change my mind all the time.

Eleanor and ParkEleanor & Park is quite lovely. It charts the blossoming relationship of smart, funny, quirky Eleanor and sweet, honourable, passionate Park. Eleanor has a pretty tough home life – she lives in poverty and fear with her violent stepfather and many damaged siblings. Park has a loving and supportive family but still feels that he doesn’t quite fit. Their connection and the growing trust between them, as well as the quite serious issues Eleanor has to deal with at home, is handled very gently and sensitively. But this is YA faction. So that means we have two teenagers handling things way too well, being crazy and beautifully in love, being really good people and explaining all their feelings and actions. Also, as Kevin Guilfoile points out, it’s pretty coy about sex. My issue isn’t with the book, which I really liked, or even with the YA genre, which has certain conventions and is aimed at a certain audience even when it transcends that group.

The LowlandOn the other hand, The Lowland has characters behaving in all sorts of ways to each other. They are often not very nice and certainly rarely ideal but, hey, that’s people. Instead of being presented with each character’s reasoning and emotional process it is left to the reader to piece them together and, unlike Eleanor and Park, they don’t always want the best for others or even for themselves sometimes. As I reader, I really like being given the room to figure out a character myself and being trusted to draw my own conclusions. And the language in The Lowland is incredibly beautiful especially, as Judge Attenberg points out, when describing scenery. She quotes some of it here. Like Judge Attenberg, however, I was left cold by this book.  I mean I do think the coldness and remove was an intentional aspect so it may have achieved its aims. Apart from that I kept thinking that I’d read it before somewhere, so much of it was neither original nor striking (except in its prose).

So, like Judge Attenberg, I enjoyed Eleanor & Park more than I enjoyed The Lowland. The Lowland was definitely the more accomplished book though. Like I said, I don’t know which way I would have gone but I’m perfectly happy with how Judge Attenberg did it for me.

ToB and two books I disliked

I just love Judge Hodge’s opening so much:

Imagine, if you will, the worst meal you have ever experienced. Not the worst food, but the most unpleasant, insufferable, excruciating overall experience at table, with the most boorish, self-involved, solipsistic, or self-dramatizing dinner companions… Imagine the dinner you cannot avoid, the dinner you have dreaded, the dinner from which no escape is possible. The dinner you would blind yourself with dull pencils to avoid repeating. If you ever have suffered such a meal—and who has not?—then you have a reasonably good idea of what it’s like to read The Dinner, by Herman Koch.

The DinnerFinally someone has summed up my experience of reading The Dinner! I so hated that book. Unlike the commentators, I didn’t see it as an exploration of evil, nor did I find Koch at all ‘skilful in the way he feeds us little pellets of information without seeming manipulative’. I found it super manipulative and disappointingly predictable. Koch builds up tension until about halfway through the book and then he’s like: ‘You know what, never mind. Here’s what happened.’ And then it just descends into a wallowing in unpleasantness. As Judge Hodge so neatly puts it, ‘eventually the plot becomes so extreme that the novel threatens to collapse under the weight of its implausibility.’ There’s also this thing he does where he says ‘I’m not going to tell you where a particular something is, just trust me that it’s bla.’ I wish I could remember it more fully and explain it better but I read it so long ago and endeavoured to instantly forget it. But it was just an example of how contrived it all felt – he wasn’t going to tell us something, but then he was going to clunkily argue that it wasn’t important anyway and then it just became a little signpost saying, ‘Hello reader! You are reading a book! Never forget it!’

The Signature of All ThingsThe Signature of All Things was another type of unpleasant. The unpleasantness of a mediocre puttin’ on airs. I don’t understand why people insist on listing it for prizes, it is so supremely ordinary. John Warner sums it up really nicely here: ‘It’s not that The Signature of All Things is bad, so much as it reads like a simulacrum of Dickens. There are pages and pages of narrative summary and characters who come onto the scene and then disappear forever (or nearly so). There is an “and then” quality to the plot—and then this happens, and then this happens.The prose is sometimes flabby, as I feel the strain of Gilbert trying to achieve her tone.’ For starters, she uses the word ‘quim’ about a million times. I wish I had it on my ereader so I could do an actual count . Find another Victorian-era synonym for vagina, lady! The ‘and then’ quality bothered me too. It felt like each episode of Alma’s life was dropped in without a sense of flow or cause and effect. There are small rises and falls but none interact to give a broader sense of character, time or place. The ending feels particularly tacked on.

Either way, I still feel like the lesser of two evils came out on top. Tomorrow’s matchup is between a book I didn’t particularly like but that was beautifully written, and a YA book I love but comes with all my usual concerns about the genre…. Judge Attenberg, I do not envy your choice! And I think I will be happy with whatever call you make. I am surprisingly chill for ToB X. Fay out.