Category Archives: Reviews

Hello from not Melbourne!

Hey everyone! This is Fay, checking in. I haven’t died or been arrested or anything, I’ve just stopped checking and updating this blog obsessively. This is probably healthy, as Steven told me. But don’t worry, I’m still obsessively checking and updating mine, and I just posted about some books we (probably) have in stock. (Unfortunately I am not able to monitor Sunflower stock in real time. Otherwise I would probably end up doing a lot less sightseeing.) So if you want to hear my thoughts on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan and Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam then come on down to (Check it, Ste, I finally figured out how to link!)

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The New Republic by Lionel Shriver

Journalists, you guys.  Does it naturally draw the sanctimonious or do you just have to be that way to apply for the job?  And is any profession more self regarding?  If I have to read another defence of journalistic free speech/vitriol against regulation/hagiography of the Reporter, praising the nobility of taking photos of lady celebrities’ vaginas I will… not be remotely surprised.  Like shoegaze was known in the early 1990s, journalism is the scene that celebrates itself.  Except, you know, shoegaze was actually worth listening to.  So it is wonderful that Lionel Shriver’s book, written in 1998 and full of this smug, self important type has been released now.    If I needed another reason to be a fan of hers after So Much For That (my favourite book of 2010, and in our shop for only $19.99!  Though the trade off for that is a TERRIBLE cover).  It follows misanthropic former lawyer Edgar Kellogg, who all his life has longed to be a larger-than-life character, someone popular on whom every conversation would hang, someone that inspires awe, instead of merely a follower.  Ironically it is his following of his old high school idol Toby Falconer which leads him to journalism as a method of becoming this person.  Kellogg is posted to Barba, a backwater, desolate province of Portugal which is nonetheless home to a violent terrorist group, the Soldados Ousados de Barba or SOB (lol good one Shrives).  Mysteriously, attacks claimed by the SOBs (still funny) have dried up, just as Kellogg’s predecessor Barrington Sadler (just the type of person who Kellogg wants to be) has disappeared.  What follows is a rollicking romp (yup) which, while definitely humorous in tone, has a lot of questions to ask about terrorism, journalism, ethics, and, to lamely quote the blurb, “What makes charismatic people so magnetic, while the rest of us inspire a shrug? Whats their secret? And in the end, who has the better life – the admired, or the admirer?”.  As usual, Shriver’s writing is crackling and full of attitude (I hate myself for saying that but it’s true), and she vividly brings Barba to life in such a way that you never question it’s awfulness.  The characters too are highly entertaining, characters, especially the collective of fellow journalists and Edgar’s mental image of Barrington, with whom he converses often.  An important theme in the book is how we perceive things: Edgar is a master of ‘inversion’, or how the same fact can be presented in two diametrically opposed ways, which allows him to see the positive side of the thoroughly un-positive things he is doing, and his slide into immorality, like the metaphorical train wreck, is engaging in a horrible way, and even though you know what’s going to happen it’s still it remains eminently readable.  Also, unlike a train wreck it’s hugely fun.

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Things in the Shop that You Should Buy: Money

Welcome to (what will possibly become) a new feature on this here blarg, Things in the Shop that You Should Buy, in which I, Steven Z. Helfenbaum, recommend to you, I don’t know your name, books, not necessarily new, that we have in the shop and that you totes owe yourself to read.  Starting today with Martin Amis’s classic, Money.

Money by Martin Amis

“It must be the booze, it must be the junk, it must be all the pornography

Money tells the story of John Self, a successful ad executive turned movie producer, and the perfect consumer of fast food, drink, drugs, and pornography.  Throughout he travels between New York and his home in London, making a semi-autobiographical film (his father, Barry, hilariously and terribly, sent an invoice to John on his maturity for expenses involved in raising him) with young, tanned, athletic producer Fielding Goodney.  Money is a satirical look at all the excesses of late 1980s ‘greed is good’ capitalism (and not surprisingly it works just as well today).  Self is a hideous character concerned only with gratification and a desire for greater riches, and is the very embodiment of his self-centred age.  But he’s also very funny.  Consumerism and pornography saturate everything, creating an oppressive, ugly mood that Amis can create so well (see also London Fields, which is amazing), and the book rife with clever literary allusions to Shakespeare, in particular Othello.  Important to the book is the question of motive, or rather the lack thereof in late modern society.  Money is also very clever: Amis writes himself into the novel, in doing so implicating himself (and the reader as well) in the hyperconsumerist monster, and also allowing some interesting meta-fictional exchanges about Amis’s role in the novel (as character and author).  As vital today as it must have been 30 years ago (I’m too young for the 80s buddy), Money is a fantastic novel.  It’s in our shop and you should buy it.

Money by Martin Amis, $12.95


Steven: Well Fay, your favourite/the worst book of the tournament is out.  HOW DOES IT FEEL?  Look, this isn’t a chatz format, let the readership know that I wrote these arguments in advance giving Fay PLENTY OF TIME to rebut.  (Fay: while Steven has more time to research, as referenced by his prodigious referencing.) But I hope the truth shines through and that EUGENIDESTRUCTION 2012 is a resounding success.  Allow me to begin with the most glaring fault, Madeleine.  As one of the three central characters, probably the one with the most pages devoted to her, you’d expect her to be more than just a hollow, agency-less shell right?  Noooope.  Madeleine is boring.  Here is what we know about her: she’s preppy, she likes order and neatness but ALSO she secretly loves the punishment of disorder.  Aaaand that’s as far as her depth goes.  To quote Hmgillispie in the ToB comments, “Madeleine has no personality except for her views on literature”.  Amen brudah, and something a number of people seem to have picked up on.  What I’ve seen mentioned a bit in the ToB comments and elsewhere is that the people who like Madeleine either associate her with themselves, or someone they know, thus filling in the gaps in her character.  Fay, if I may be so bold to suggest that you may well fit into this category.  In addition!  Name one thing that Madeleine does in the book that isn’t about either Mitchell or Leonard OH WAIT YOU CAN’T.  Oh sorry, she goes to a conference and decides to study post-grad Victorian literature WHOA SLOW DOWN THERE EUGENIDES!  Throughout the book, all of her actions are precipitated by one of these two men.  She goes to Cape Cod to be with Leonard, and then… actually I’m just going to paste this same argument from a discussion here by Nika Knight at Full Stop: “Even when she scandalizes her mother by moving in with her boyfriend, she’s just following him to a place where she has no job and no goals and no friends. Even when ending her marriage, she does so by acquiescence”.

Fay: Ok let me jump in here for a second. This is a complaint I’ve heard a lot and I think it is by people being thoroughly uncreative and unrealistic. Madeleine is not a Mary Sue! She’s kind of wry, but not particularly funny. She’s pretty  enough to make life easier but is not defined by her looks. She’s smart, but not a genius and not confident enough to voice her thoughts in class. [Steven: So far you’re only kinda ADDING to the boring thing] Quiet you! She’s glad that someone else says ‘Barthes’ first so she doesn’t embarrass herself. You know what that sounds like to me (ok other than me [except for the pretty part], I’ll give you that [Steven: Ha!])? A REAL PERSON. Real people aren’t all stunningly and interestingly characterised, they’re ok at stuff, and nervous and unsure sometimes. [Steven: Agreed!  I’m not asking to read a book about perfect people (if I was I’d just write my autobiography HEYOOO) because that would be boring.  My complaint isn’t that she’s not perfect but that she’s boring.  So all this would be fine as a basis for the character!  But there is no development or journey, no change or transformation.  She stays that way through the whole book, and that’s not enough to make an interesting character.]

And yes, she doesn’t do a lot by herself. May I remind you the book is called The Marriage Plot? It’s a take on the freaking Victorian marriage plot and if Madeleine was full of agency and practical ideas about where her life was going she wouldn’t be at the centre of this book. [Steven: Well, first things first, it’s meant to be a late modern take on the marriage plot which takes feminism into account.  It seems that part was forgotten by Eugenides.  ADDITIONALLY, if the book didn’t remind you every 10 seconds (look here’s the name of a book, aren’t YOU clever) it would just be taken as a good ol’ fashioned love triangle.  FURTHERMORE that’s not what I’m saying.  I’m not saying she has to know everything but I am saying that Eugenides short shrifts her.  I can’t say I’ve read any marriage plot books but I assume the women at their centre aren’t simply the pawns of everyone else for the entire book?  EVEN FURTHER she’s not really at the centre of the book.  It starts as hers but really ends as Mitchell’s, which emphasises all the more her lack of agency.  The book ends, once again, in her simple aquiescence] She follows Leonard because she doesn’t know what else to do with herself. Again, REAL PEOPLE may totally finish college and be at  a loss and grab onto whatever is going rather than go back to live their parents’ house. The uncertainty of the newly graduated is part of the setting of this book and why it works the way it does. Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell are all on the edge of something, moving from a day-to-day life full of literary debate and beatnik one-upmanship into a world where they are suddenly expected to know what to do and how to do it. Madeleine doesn’t, and that’s precisely the point. And who hasn’t clung onto a love affair hoping to recapture their initial feeling? Why does everyone find Madeleine so hard to deal with? To me she is completely real and perhaps fairly ordinary but that is precisely the point.

Steven: Mitchell and Leonard, on the other hand, have a lot more going on.  More depth goes into Mitchell’s idolisation of Madeleine than goes into her character.  Mitchell and Leonard both have Stuff Going On, as well as character development.  Leonard is the most interesting of the three, suffering from bipolar disorder he is either a manic force of nature, bringing joy and excitement into Madeleine’s (and others’) life (until it inevitably goes too far) or he is helpless and demure, in need of Madeleine’s attention.  Both of these states are vividly detailed, and a lot more of Leonard’s personality shines through than Madeleine’s (oh no, she just doesn’t have one).  Mitchell too is more interesting.  Though I found him a whiny, annoying jerk who needs to shut up always (which further says something about Madeleine).  Admittedly THAT last complaint is a personal taste thing.  But let me tell you if there is one thing I don’t want to read about it’s people backpacking in Europe/India.  Actually, that was another thing.  That section was too disjointed from the narrative.  I found in the (roughly) last third everything became a bit too loose and messy, in an unsatisfying way.

Fay: Again, DISAGREE. I found the backpacking section another example of a real person being lost that rang true. The romance of the adventure compared to the realities of being lonely and confused and quite literally lost is something that most travellers will be able to identify with. Especially the scene at the start with Mitchell’s friend ditching him for his annoying girlfriend. I also found it particular interesting as a period piece, a time when backpacking meant being constantly disconnected from everything you knew. Mitchell’s isolation is highlighted by all the letters sent and not sent. And I thought the looseness was again indicative of mental state. Mitchell is isolated and confused, stringing his experiences together in the hope of finding some religious or spiritual meaning. I thought the writing conveyed that really well. [Steven: All of that, MAYBE!  Not caring about white people backpacking and despairing is clearly a personal thing.  But you haven’t addressed its disjointed-ness from the rest of the book.] Ok, maybe because I didn’t find it so disjointed really.  This is a post-college self definining story and it fits in perfectly, as well as being a common experience, with that theme.  Mitchell, who seems to have everything going for him tries to physically distance himself from everything in an attempt to define HIMSELF rather than fall into a path defined for him. Each character spends a lot of the novel feeling profoundly alone, Mitchell just happens to experience this physically as well. It worked for me. Furthermore while I agree with your liking the intensity of the Leonard section, may I controversially say that I found him and not Mitchell to be the annoying one.

Steven: The first third of the book was pretty orright!  I like college/university stories, probably because THAT’S WHERE I LIVE! and I particularly like wanky theories and such because THAT’S WHAT I DO!  So the bits at Brown were fun, where there was still the potential for Madeleine to become not boring.

Fay: Me too! It inspired me to go out and buy a copy of A Lover’s Discourse by Barthes (which I now know how to pronounce correctly) from the one and only Sunflower Bookshop! Buy books there now! I honestly think that you may have liked it more if you had finished uni and were trying to make your life work in the real world. That’s where I live. It is confusing and scary and you don’t always know where to go or what to do. And you’re not the smartest person or the most beautiful person or the most creative person [Steven: speak for yourself! Fay: I saw that coming the second I wrote that.] so you just see what comes along and go where it will take you. Eugenides captures this perfectly [Steven: I will accept this!  But unfortunately that’s not all the book’s about].

So the verdict? We must agree to disagree! Agree or disagree with us Agree with Steven in the comments.

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ToB: The Art of Fielding vs Open City

So!  We’ve finally got to the end of the first round in Sunflower Bookshop’s mildly bizarrely ordered coverage of the Tournament of Books.  Followed a bit later with the mildly surprising AND HUGELY DELICIOUS victory of The Sisters Brothers (The Best Brothers) over Swamplandia!.  But first this round!

These books you guys!  Some of the (second) best books in the Tournament, head to head with their FISTS.  Book fists.  I loved them both.  I actually have a tattoo of Teju Cole making out with Chad Harbach.  Watched serenely from on high by Patrick DeWitt (WHY HAS NO ONE BOUGHT THE LAST COPY OF THE SISTERS BROTHERS IN STORE? It’s only $19.99 for AT LEAST 100 times that value!).

Let’s start with The Art of Fielding, aka the hardest to sell book in the shop.  “Why”, I hear you ask?  Well let me give youa summary mon frere.  The Art of Fielding follows young college baseball player… THERE. RIGHT THERE is why this book is hard to sell.  I preface every recommendation with “you’re not going to like how it sounds at first but bear with me”.  Australia just does not care.  “BUT” I tell them, “it is about so much more!  And it is!  But let me continue first, you jerk.  The Art of Fielding follows young college baseball player Henry Skrimshander, star of the Westish College team.  Henry is preternaturally gifted, and his skill, guided and developed by fellow player and bffl Mike Schwarz, raises the team into a force to be reckoned with.  Until one game, Henry makes a bad throw, his first, which goes off course and seriously injures his team/room-mate Owen.  After that, Henry finds he is unable to throw, seriously jeopardising his team.  This throws stoic-philosopher-loving Mike into a crisis of his own, having spent so much time on Henry to the detriment of his own life and law school ambitions.  MEANWHILE!  College President Guert Affenlight falls in love with Owen, and his daughter Pella comes to Westish, escaping an awful, controlling husband and trying to get her life back on track.  And all of it is GREAT.  Harbach made a storm when he was offered, like, a jillion dollars as an advance on this (his first!) book, and he totes deserves it!  This was one of the most enjoyable books of this years tournament.  It’s true that beyond its plot and excellent writing that there was nothing more to it, no deep philosophy or issues that will keep you a-thinkin’ after you’ve read the book, like there were in Open City, but you know what that’s ok when a book is this good.  I was engrossed in each of the character’s arcs and kinda wanted them all to be my besties.  Except Henry, really, as the judge mentioned BUT as someone wrote in the comments, this book is about MUCH more than Henry.  Some have called Pella problematic.  I would refer them to Madeline in The Marriage Plot.  But also I don’t see that so much.  Of anyone, she displays the most dramatic growth in the book, and she is the one who brings everyone together for the book’s incredible ending.  Soo basically?  The Art of Fielding was a super enjoyable, well written, lovely example of good ol’ fashioned literary fiction that everyone should enjoy and just BEAR WITH ME when I describe it to you OK?

And then there was Open City!  Which was also really good!  And here briefly to say that same thing, but better, is Vivienne, our newest comrade at the bookshop:

Vivienne: A young man wanders the streets of New york, sharing his thoughts, reflections, insights and snippets of his history. Through his beautiful, meditative prose we gradually learn that he is a psychiatrist, he is Nigerian and he is alone. His musings on art, history, music, love, politics are impressive, interesting and often challenging. It reads like a journal but is much more crafted and cohesive than that; it seems deceptively easy and fluid. He travels to Brussels, ostensibly to search for a lost grandmother but once there does not really try to find her. Instead he continues his wanderings and musings, connecting with strange and disparate characters along the way………the Moroccan phone salesman with an impressive knowledge of philosophy and politics,who is obsessed by the notion of difference, the doctor from Boston who only wants to talk about Jazz……….. I haven’t yet finished the book but I suspect the themes of racism, otherness, how we find our place will deepen as I continue to read. It’s not really like anything I have ever read before but I am intrigued and know that i will feel I want to read it again for the things I missed the first time around. There is so much to relish here.

Steven: Well, I’M going to stop talking about books.  Thanks to Vivienne for enlightening us all, and for showing me up.  THANKS.  Open City is a beautiful, lyrical book with a fascinating protagonist, one who is an outsider everywhere he goes, who is deeply introspective yet deeply guarded about himself (see, e.g. the revelation near the end).  And it’s currently out of stock!  But hopefully it will show up at the shop in the next couple of weeks with the attractive price tag of $19.99.  So Open City won, but I would have been happy either way.

And now we’ve finished our coverage of round one!  Fay has filled you all in on the surprising results of the first two quarter finals (both of which bode well for The Marriage Plot [The Worst Plot] according to my long term/highly faulty strategisin’), so tomorrow I will revel in The Sisters Brothers.  And depending on Fay’s next availability (the Venetian jerk) Eugenidestruction is coming soon.

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The Quarterfinals (some of them)

Hello from Venice! That’s right my blogfriends, this post comes to you from halfway around the world, from the city of love! Or is that Paris? Don’t worry,  I will be blogging from there too! Care too much? I believe I care the perfect amount, as officially endorsed by the Tournament of Books reviewers as the best bloggers in the entire world. Their words, not mine.*

But enough about me, let’s talk about books. In a super shock decision on Tuesday Lighning Rods beat The Sense of an Ending. Cmon Roxy Reno, what the hell! Or at least that’s my initial thoughts having not read Lightning Rods. As mentioned before, it’s not possible to get it in Australia and I don’t think it ever will be  due to extremely conservative and fearful publishing strategies. (‘Who’s Jennifer Egan?’ I hear Australians ask until 2011. ‘Oh, she’s just a much lauded, talented writer, with numerous awards and publications to her name.’ ‘Oh she just won the Pullitzer, I guuueesss we can publish her books now, just a small print run though…’) But I digress. I haven’t read Lightning Rods but I sure have read The Sense of an Ending and I know that it is beautiful and elegant and effortless and prize worthy. But hey, it’s not like it hasn’t won any prizes. But if you’re interested in Lightning Rods you should go and read the commentaries and comments left on it’s matchups. There are some really interesting and engaging thoughts by people who’ve actually read it. And just quietly, it’s getting kind of slammed.

Look you guys! It's me, in Venice!

Onto 1Q84 and The Tiger’s Wife (our personal shout out matchup). DISAGREE! As previously mentioned I loved both books. I really really did and would happily recommend either one of them. I loved the carefully manipulated sci-fi-fantasy of 1Q84 with it’s crazy interweaving plot threads and careful study of the mundane. But, for me, The Tiger’s Wife is the winner. It’s so much tighter and I found it more thoughtful, with a more subtle and considered take on the big questions it poses. I didn’t agree with any of the criticisms put up against it. I personally can’t think of one, where I can think of a few complaints for 1Q84. I think I’ve already voiced them but if you want me to elaborate let me know and I will! There was a discussion in the first round match up about rewarding failed literary ambition over the soemthing with a smaller aim. I think that’s what happened here and I don’t think it’s fair. 1Q84 went big, and while it didn’t always succeed, it worked a lot of the time. But The Tiger’s Wife is not short of literary ambition, and it worked all of the time. (Tiger all the time?)

Final note: I’m glad The Art of Fielding seems to have legs as a zombie (zombie legs?) because, like Steven, I am very eager to see it in a matchup with The Marriage Plot. Which I haven’t forgotten by the way! Boy did Steven say some hurtful things. Don’t worry crew, I will take him down next time and I take comfort in the fact that when customers come in to buy the book or talk about how they like it he can’t contradict them. Heyhere’s an idea,  all you fans, go in to Sunflower and tell Steven how much you liked The Marriage Plot! We could make it a thing, like Marriage Plot Fridays or something? I’m happy to make up a roster.

Goodbye for now! I hope you are enjoying Melbourne as much as I am enjoying Italy (did I mention I’m in Venice?)

*Actually my words, not theirs

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ToB: The Marriage Plot vs Green Girl

Well this is embarrassing.  As much as I love being OFFICIALLY MENTIONED BY THE TOURNAMENT OF BOOKS, I am subsequently shamed by my sometimes (often) less than average reviews (excerpt: “I like the way the words are good and stuff?”) and our less frequent than desirable update schedule.  Which is why this week there will be a TOURNAMENT BLITZ!  Today I’m going to talk about the Saturday’s match up of  The Marriage Plot and Green Girl.  TOMORROW I will chat (not to be confused with chatz) about The Art of Fielding vs. Open City with previously unmentioned and current-reigning newest employee (knocking me off my perch; alas that excuse for poor service is gone) Vivienne!  She will will totes have a bunch to say Open City and the previously eliminated though-none-the-less-great-for-it The Cat’s Table AND she will probably do it with effortless style and grace.  And then, my friends, AND THEN! Sunflower foreign correspondent (previously humble worker) Fay is going to discuss the semifinals thus far from Venice.  Venice you guys!  Clearly she cares about this thing too much.  And after (but super hopefully not) The Marriage Plot beats the much superior Open City, Fay and I will battle it out in a WAR OF WORDS over why The Marriage Plot is the worst.  Or at least I’LL be saying that, she loved that book!  Great minds and poor reviewers (well one at least) will clash and ONLY ONE SHALL EMERGE.

All of which means, of course, that I’ll be saving my choicest arguments about this match up till then.  And I haven’t read Green Girl so this one might be short.  Green Girl is another one of those books that, like Lightning Rods, is just not available in Australia, meaning to read it I’d have to buy it through America.  I shall leave the (very reasonable) rants about the conservativeness of the Australian publishing industry to Fay.  Anyway like Lightning Rods, I couldn’t justify to myself buying it for the shop, meaning I’d have to buy it for myself.  And LET ME TELL YOU while studying a useless discipline and working part time in a bookshop might SOUND like the glamorous life of a jetsetter, appearances can be deceiving.  In short, I’m cheap so I haven’t read it.  BUT it certainly sounds interesting!  I am not really a reader of experimental fiction, not because of particular taste but rather because I don’t KNOW any but I am willing to start with that one (even if the judge, and others, were not the fondest).  Aaand that’s as far as I can stretch talking about how I haven’t read a book.

The Marriage Plot, however, I DID read.  And there was nothing SUPER wrong with it.  A large chunk of my visceralreaction against it is probs just because of how much Fay loved it.  But you know what THERE WAS NOTHING TO LOVE.  It was ordinary, the mainest of main characters was barely a character, Mitchell was irritating (though it certainly seemed like Eugenides loved him) and the whole thing was just inconsequential.  The first part of the book was orright but it reminded me of a weaker version of Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow, which, conversely I LOVED, and the rest of it, whatevs.  OK Mr. Eugenides was trying to write a late modern (it weren’t postmodern let me tell you!) version of a marriage plot but who gives a shit?  And then in the third (roughly) third I felt like it became too disjointed and lost all its momentum.  Oh yeah summaries we’re still trying to do that.  The Marriage Plot follows three characters as they graduate from college in the early 1980s.  There’s Madeline (the problematic one), a Victorian/regency literature lover who is no fan of Derrida (fair).  Mitchell (the annoying one) is totes in love with her or at least he idealises/idolises her, but she just wants to be his friend/is happy for him to like her.  Then there’s Leonard (the good one), the charming, bi-polar science student who Madeline falls in love with.  The book follows their college travails and bla de bla.  LET IT BE KNOWN that I have no problem with that as a plot.  And LET IT BE KNOWN that Eugenides writes totes good like (there that Steven reviewing skill is again!).  And LET IT BE KNOWN that I do not know what it is like to finish university and be thrown into the world like a child into the swimming pool, sans floaties, and so I obviously cannot appreciate the oft-commented-on way that Eugenides describes that post university feeling (very well apparently).  And LET IT BE KNOWN I wanted to enjoy it.  But unfortunately, for me, it was ultimately empty.

But Fay loved it!

As a final note is it just me or does it seem this tournament’s going out of it’s way to advance Marriage Plot, maybe even let it, heaven forbid, win?  I mean first it’s placed against something it will obviously crushed.  Ok, it happens! (See Sense of an Ending vs. The Devil All the Time).  But then things that could defeat it are placed against each other (Art of Fielding, Open City), then there are two surprise losses (Sense of an Ending, Tiger’s Wife) leading to a next round match up of Marriage Plot with Open City.  Now I know I just said Open City could win.  But it’s polarising.  Vivienne and I loved it, Margaret, one of the managers, hated it.  Whereas Art of Fielding is a damn enjoyable novel, and yes, there’s not much more to it but I feel the same way about Marriage Plot (minus the enjoyable part).  In other ways too I feel like Art of Fielding was the closest book to it in the Tournament (having not read Green Girl), and Art of Fielding was a LOT more enjoyable.  ANYWAY, clearly I’m hoping for an Open City win.

And that, as they say, is the books.

Check back in tomorrow for Vivienne’s internet debut!

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ToB: Swamplandia! vs The Cat’s Table

[Note: This was written yesterday for that day’s round.  Today’s round saw the inevitable victory of the Marriage Plot which I shall discuss on Thursday, along with whatever has happens between now and then]

So, as you may have read, Fay’s going off to Europe for six months, aka being a white person, thus leaving you in my many pairs of capable hands.  Some of those I used to read both of today’s books!  Also: my eyeballs.

So, I’m going to say it up front I actually preferred reading The Cat’s Table to Swamplandia!.  I have less to say about

both of them than yesterday (I’m saving them for when I WORDDESTROY The Marriage Plot [though it will win

tomorrow, there couldn’t be a more uneven match up]) but I can tell you this: Swamplandia! is the best title of the tournament, the best title MAYBE EVER?  I want to name my firstborn Swamplandia!.   Swamplandia! Helfenbaum.  When the book came out there was a bunch of Swamplandia! mania in the U.S. but it never really travelled here (though I can order it in for you for a cheap $19.95!).  Anyway, the book tells the story of Ava Bigtree, the youngest daughter of Hilola and the Chief, alligator wrestlers at the Swamplandia! theme park.  Ava’s mother recently died, and her father leaves for the mainland in an attempt to keep struggling to keep the park afloat.  Older brother Kiwi leaves to join a rival theme park, in order to achieve that same goal, while middle sister Osceola disappears to join her ghost lover in marriage.  Swamplandia! follows Ava and Kiwi in parallel narratives and is a clever, magical realism (or, POTENTIAL SPOILER: fake magical realism) twist on a coming of age tale.  (YOU KNOW WHAT if you want a better summary just go to today’s link). By turns whimsical and (VERY) dark, Russell’s writing is terrific.   Yes the ending was basically a deus ex machina (though SUPER SPOILER DON’T READ THE AGAIN UNTIL THE END OF THESE PARENTHESES, you know, it still ends super sadly) as a bunch of folks have complained, but I didn’t mind.

The book is clever, mysterious, funny and sad.  WHICH SHOULD BE ENOUGH so the problem’s probably mine but I just didn’t FEEL it as much as everyone else seemed to.  Which is weak reviewing but that’s the truth.  My only less meaningless complaint is that I found myself skimming Kiwi’s sections, so concerned was I for Ava.  And that’s totes kinda a compliment!  Anyway, I totes want to read it again so I can get what I’m missing.

Whereas The Cat’s Table I very much did feel.  IN MY PANTS.  Lol jk it’s about an 11 year old boy ew.  Set largely on a ship travelling from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to England, the book is narrated by Mynah as an adult, but recalling the point of view he had then, as a young boy.  As mentioned, not much happens (at least till near the end).  Adventures are had with two other boys, we get to know a vivid cast of characters and we get to read Ondaatje’s beautiful, lyrical wordstylez.  It’s a really lovely, poignant book and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read with their face.  I have very little else to say about it though.

I suppose in many ways Swamplandia! deserved to win.  It’s more new, exciting and ambitious but I just couldn’t help liking The Cat’s Table more.

And that, as they say, is the bookz

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ToB: State of Wonder vs The Sisters Brothers

Steven: You guys!  Did you read that?!  You guys!  The Sisters Brothers!  (THAT is the kind of sophisticated commentary you have come to expect from this blog).  Wil Wheaton CRUSH(ER)ED State of Wonder! (Get it? Star Trek puns I hate myself).  As I have mentioned here before, The Sisters Brothers was my favourite book out of nine I read for the Tournament, very likely my favourite book of 2011 (that I can think of off the top of my head).  I would usually describe myself as not a man of Westerns.  My exposure to them has been limited and it’s just a genre that has never hugely appealed.  That said, this was my favourite book of last year and Deadwood is the best TV show in the world ever I won’t hear any arguments go watch it right now, SO, maybe I need to examine my preconceptions.

Anyways, set during the California gold rush the book follows the journeys of Eli (the narrator) and Charlie Sisters as they track down a prospector for their unseemly employer, known as the Commodore.  For much of it’s length the book reminds me of a (much, much darker) picaresque novel, with the brothers travelling from Oregon to California meeting (sometimes murdering) strange and interesting characters, with themes of loneliness and the lure of gold throughout.  As for today, both Wesley Crusher and the commentators mentioned that it took a bit of adjusting to get into Eli’s narration, but I didn’t find that at all.  I remember telling a friend that it was a great book when I was only on PAGE TWELVE.  Maybe I just identify with murderers WHO CAN SAY BUT THAT WOULD NOT HOLD UP AS PROOF IN A COURT OF LAW.  I found the prose fantastic –  taut, engaging and noiresque and I really enjoyed the episodic nature of the book.  The brothers themselves are very well drawn, and as Crusher says you care greatly about both of them by the end.  The minor characters are also intriguing, and many add an excellent touch of weird to the book that makes it all the better.  Also, and this is worth mentioning, the book design is fantastic.  It is rare to see a book that looks this unique and, well, GOOD.

Minor complaint wise, I did feel a bit let down at the end though, unlike commentator Kevin, not because of the admittedly convenient but still totally believable diary, but rather because I felt the dark tone that the book had had from the beginning didn’t pay out in the end.  I’m not a fan of dark for the sake of dark Dark Knight style (or anything for the sake of itself for that matter, lookin right atcha any emotionally manipulative book about cancer) but I feel that, while the book was sad, it could have just gone that bit further.  Furthermore, and this isn’t a fault of the book, I don’t get why a bunch of reviewers are saying it was hilarious?  It was WRY, certainly, and there was some fun to be had with Eli’s new found obsession with toothbrushing (which, if you’d never done, you’d totally be into to) but hilarious IT WAS NOT.  But you know what it was?  THE BEST.  Get some in ya.

As for State of Wonder, let no man say it is not a book.

OK, I’m being harsh.  State of Wonder is totes good too. So Dr Marina Singh sets off into Brazilian jungle to report back on renegade researcher Dr Swenson. Swenson is working on what may be a highly valuable new drug, but she is not so good at reporting back in, and the last researcher who was sent to check on her, oh I don’t know, DISAPPEARED! Ann Patchett writes very well and while I agree with much of the criticism that Wesley Crusher dispenses, I certainly think that the book has enough redeeming features.  THAT SAID let’s dwell on some of these complaints.  First of all I am super glad that everyone seems to agree with me that, you know what, we wanted a bit more adventure-y, lowbrow ACTION.  For me, the premise, as familiar as it is, is still super awesome and I just never felt the book lived up from that, even though it wasn’t even trying to.  As Kevin Guilfoile says, “It’s almost as if, having decided on a premise with such a familiar, plot-oriented hook, Patchett keeps running away from the story’s possibilities. It’s a good thing—even a necessary thing, I’d say—to subvert the reader’s expectations, and I think that’s what she’s going for here. Clearly she wanted to write a novel that was more than just an adventure story. But she also ended up with something not quite as satisfying as an adventure story”.  Secondly, once those expectations ARE subverted there is a ton of foreshadowing and enough hints given that nothing that occurs is unpredictable.  My only surprise at the ending was its suddenness (especially after the long burn of the rest of the book).  Still, these issues aside there is much to like.  I didn’t find the characters nearly as hate-able as judge Wheaton, except of course for the walking stereotype that is Dr. Swenson who is MEANT to be like that, as awful as ‘that’ is (I really hated Dr. Swenson). In the end it all comes down to the writing though, and all issues aside Patchett’s is really good enough to make these problems with the plot not be too big an issue.  While I didn’t love it like I did the Sisters Brothers, it is still a Good Book (which we have in store!  For only $29.99!) Fay?

Fay: Yeah I liked State of Wonder fine. In fact more than fine. I agree with the complaints: Swensen sucked, not much happened, it doesn’t live up to the adventure BUT as you just said, Ann Patchett is really good at writing. It was atmospheric, lush and heavy with jungle feel. I found the characters plenty likeable and, like Marina, it immersed you in the environment until you turned around and you were right in there, agreeing with the people you didn’t know or like at first, or at least understanding where they were coming from. I didn’t see the ending coming either, that’s such an easy thing to say after you’ve already read it. I guess for me it just didn’t live up to what I could have been. But as Kevin said, maybe that was the point? I didn’t think about it like that at the time but the more I think about it the more it grows on me. Like some sort of jungle parasite. I would go right ahead and recommend it as clever, immersing and very atmospheric. Did I say that already? But it was.

Steven: So!  With that decided in the best possible way, tomorrow brings Swamplandia! vs. The Cat’s Table.  I’ve read them both so I’m going to talk at you some more.  See you then!

xoxo Gossip Girl

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ToB: The Stranger’s Child vs The Tiger’s Wife

I am on a lucky streak! Loved The Sense of an Ending, hadn’t read the other, it won! Refused to read Salvage the Bones, it lost! Just finished The Tiger’s Wife, loved it, it won! Watch out Steven! Here comes The Marriage Plot ftw! No, I sincerely think my luck will have run out by then. I want The Marriage Plot to win first round just as much as Steven wants it to lose, but I am very worried that my run will have been used up by then.

But I am happy for it to be used up on The Tiger’s Wife. Loved it. LOVED it. I literally just finished it about half an hour ago which I know always helps but still I thought it was great. It’s my new  personal Sisters Brothers. But with a better title.

The Tiger’s Wife is Natalia, a young doctor taking medical supplies across a war torn Baltic region to an orphanage. As she learns of her grandfather’s death she finds herself in a foreign landscape filled with superstition and myth and finds herself tracing her granfather’s own story, that of the woman who loved tigers so much she almost became one. As Natalia traces the story of the tiger’s wife, the deathless man and the diggers at the vineyard where she is staying, legend and reality fuse, superstition and medicine intertwine. Truth becomes lost in the mythology of the past while stories live on and provide a basis for the future

The deathless man and the tiger’s wife are both stories of fear and awe, possibility and impossibility and Tea Obreht tells them simply and lyrically. Her style effortlessly swoops from folk tale to harsh realities and past to present. She perfectly catures a plausible, passionate and not in any way twee relationship of grandfather and grandaughter. Meanwhile all this is set against a history of war and violence in the region, unobtrusive yet influential. And it’s her first novel. And she’s only 26. And she wrote it when she was 24! I am so, so jealous of her talent.

May I add that I don’t think the attacking of the judge was fair or justified at all? And as some further comments have said that sometimes judging reveals more about the person than the book, perhaps attacks on the judge reveal more about the attacker than the judge?

But I definitely recommend The Tiger’s Wife to anyone. ANYONE. Apart from being enjoyable it’s also, as Bethane Kelly Patrick comments,  significant, full of big questions and demands active reading. Steven, care to weigh in?

Steven: Nope. They’re both in store? At the wallet pleasing price of $19.99 each!

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