Tournament of Books - Days 3 and 4 - Jen's Take
Updated: Mar 14, 2020
All right, I (Jen) am back with the next two match-ups in the The Morning News Tournament of Books. (If you'd like to read a little more background on what I'm up to here, check out this post.) Today, I have, for me, the first TRULY difficult decision of the Tournament.
Day 3 (March 11) - Lost Children Archive v. Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen
Valeria Luiselli's Lost Children Archive - Valeria Luiselli's Lost Children Archive in some ways defies description. On one level, it's about a family--a mother, a father, a boy, and a girl--traveling from New York to the Southwest for two purposes. The mother is documenting (via audio) the "lost children" crisis of migrants at the border. The father is documenting (via audio) the horrific past of the Apache tribe. They are also, gradually, beginning to split into the disparate parts from which they originated (the father and the son, the mother and the daughter), floating apart because of their divergent goals. This multigenre novel is also about the stories the family accrues over their journey. They begin with seven archival boxes and add to them over their trip. The book incorporates pieces from those boxes, including lengthy excerpts from Elegies for Lost Children, which follows seven children migrating to the United States by train. As Luiselli weaves the stories together, the echoes compound, each narrative enriching and reinforcing the messages of the others. Luiselli's final notes reinforced, for me, that this is a book that defies easy understanding (there were definitely parts I'd need to re-read to even begin to comprehend fully) but that begins to worm its way into the reader's head and heart. It's a book that's both timely and timeless.
Dexter Palmer's Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen - I don't think I would have found Dexter Palmer's Mary Toft; or The Rabbit Queen if it weren't for the Tournament of Books. This is a DEEPLY strange novel that was fantastic on audio (I listened on Scribd; you can try the service for 60 days here . . . and I get a free month!). The book tells the story of a women who begins giving birth to dead rabbits. Set in a small town in 1726, the story focuses--for the most part--on the understanding of local surgeon John Howard and his apprentice (and son of a minister) Zachary. As the two struggle to understand Mary Toft's horrific affliction, they call in experts from London, desperate to help the poor woman and to identify the cause--whether medical or spiritual--of her suffering.
The book is funny in parts and takes full advantage of the contrast between country and city (of London), of the medical misunderstandings of the 1700s, and of the gender gap between the surgeons and the women they serve. The book has so much to say about arrogance and sincerity, about emotion and logic, and about skepticism and credulousness. I absolutely loved it.
My Pick - Lost Children Archive
While I was unexpectedly taken with Mary Toft; or The Rabbit Queen--I do love a strange book--this is no contest for me. I loved, deeply, Lost Children Archive, and the more I think about that book and everything that Luiselli is doing throughout the novel, the way she balances experimentation with pure readability, the way she takes on family and larger society, the more I admire the novel (and want to add it to my list of books to re-read!).
Day 4 (March 12) - Girl, Woman, Other v. Nothing to See Here
Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other - "Carole loves dancing like a warrior queen to frenzied beats of the war-painted shamanistic godfather, Fela Kuti
loves the way he rips apart her emotions with his polyrhythmic percussions and unashamedly flatulent horns blasting away all pretence at nicety-niceness with his anti-corruption-lyrical-political broadsides
and the futuristic psychedelics of Parliament Funkadelic
and outrageously costumed performances she loves to watch on YouTube
out of it
out of her head
out of her body
moving on to James Brown, the Godfather of Soul
get on up, Carole, get on up
which is exactly what she's doing as she disappears between the glass revolving doors of the tall office building . . ." (141).
I haven't been taken over by a book like Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other took me over in a long time. Evaristo immerses the reader in the lives and minds and souls of 12 women. Their interconnected stories could, I think, stand alone, but the richness of the book lies in the way we find echoes of other women, threads weaving through their lives. Some of these connections are straightforward: mothers and daughters, teachers and students, colleagues, friends. Others are less so, a thought considered by more than one woman, a revelation that causes more than one woman to reel. Evaristo's writing, which is this beautiful melding of prose and poetry, launches into each new story as if it's going to be straightforward, a "started here, learned this, ended here" kind of thing. But wow, the revelations that appear as she pulls back each layer are astounding.
Through the book, we read about SO many issues: racism and misogyny and transphobia and homophobia; abuse and power and poverty; education and religion and government. But that listing doesn't EVER feel like a list because these women embody both the experience of these problems, these institutions AND set forth the solutions, or at least the progress, that we see lived in the book: "we should celebrate that many more women are reconfiguring feminism and that grassroots activism is spreading like wildfire and millions of women are waking up to the possibility of taking ownership of our world as fully-entitled human beings" (438).
Some of these women are objectively horrible, and yet, by the end, I loved them all.
I loved this book, and I think (hope!) it will do well in the Tournament of Books!
Who else has read this one? What's the last book that unexpectedly blew you away?
Kevin Wilson's Nothing to See Here - Kevin Wilson's Nothing to See Here was a hard one to put down. At all. I would have read it in one sitting if it weren't for my job and my kids and needing to eat. You know, life. Anyway, I absolutely devoured this strange, brilliant novel about two kids who catch on fire.
The premise is phenomenal: Lillian, the protagonist and narrator, receives a call from Madison asking for a favor. Madison was Lillian's roommate during one year at a prep/boarding school--Lillian's time there ended suddenly, but they've kept in touch. Lillian is living in poverty, miserable in her job and her life; Madison is wealthy, the successful wife to a senator and mother to an adorable little boy.
Madison's favor is Lillian's help with her two stepchildren. Their mother has died, so they're coming to live with Madison, the Senator, and their son. The problem, of course, is the fire. While it doesn't hurt the twins, it can be destructive. And it would be PR nightmare if anyone found out about the Senator's secret shame.
What ensues is just bizarre and beautiful and tender. Lillian knows nothing about kids, and there are certainly hilarious moments as she tries to contend with the children's strange affliction. But at its center, their relationship is about empathy. Lillian understands how these kids feel, and she wants to make sure they don't suffer the way she always has.
Well, I'll leave the rest for you to discover because I ABSOLUTELY recommend that you pick up Nothing to See Here. What did everyone else thing of this book?
Note: We talk about this book on episode 115; it's our March Book Club pick. We'll therefore be discussing it all month on social media.
My Pick - Girl, Woman, Other
I finished Girl, Woman, Other on February 23. Before I picked it up, I thought that Nothing to See Here would be a shoe-in. I loved Wilson's novel, which is eminently readable, funny and strange, and quite deep. But friends, Girl, Woman, Other is EPIC. It blew me away. And blew away Nothing to See Here. So, while I'll hope that Nothing to See Here comes back in the Zombie round--always a surprise!--I'm with Evaristo all the way.
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