Updated: Mar 17, 2020
Today, we have reached the final round of the Sweet Sixteen of The Morning News Tournament of Books. (If you'd like to read a little more background on what I (Jen) am up to here, check out this post.) This is not, I have to admit, my favorite section of the bracket (*hides face in shame*), but I'm making a valiant effort to share my opinions here.
Day 7 (March 17) - Trust Exercise v. Overthrow
Susan Choi's Trust Exercise - I recently listened to a podcast in which the guest talked about abandoning Susan Choi's Trust Exercise because of her negative reaction to the writing style. I found myself having a similarly hesitant reaction to the writing style--it felt overwrought . . . but it also felt deliberate. My faith was restored as the book continued, when I reached section 2. I don't want to take away the joy of any reader's discovery because there's a lot here the relies on the experience of reading the novel (and of reflecting on one's own reactions to the reading). It reminded me of a grad school discussion of Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet and his deliberate manipulation of the reader's understanding of each character. The novel's focus is the student body of a performing arts school: their relationships, with each other and with their teachers, provide a dramatic tale of adolescence, of innocence and corruption, of coming of age. At any rate, I'll just say: Stick with Trust Exercise. The book is worth the journey.
Caleb Crain's Overthrow - Folks, I promise that I have made a valiant effort to read all of the ToB books, but I have not been able to finish Overthrow. Currently, I am on page 118 of 404, and I'm enjoying it more than I thought I would (I've tried not to read reviews, but I've seen some middling Instagram posts, and the Goodreads rating isn't great). So, I generally have positive feelings . . . but they aren't based on a full read.
Updated review: Caleb Crain's Overthrow was the last book I needed to read for The Morning News Tournament of Books . . . while I didn't read it before the Sweet Sixteen round started, I DID make it before the round when it's matched up against Trust Exercise. (Full disclosure: I haven't yet read Elvia Wilk's Oval, which was a book in the play-in round. It did not make it into the Sweet Sixteen, though, so while it's still on my TBR, my sense of urgency has dissipated.) Okay, so Overthrow. I went in with some trepidation because I was told this was a tough one to end with and, well, the Goodreads rating isn't great (it's a 2.73). I liked it MUCH more than that, though it's not been my favorite discovery of the competition. The novel focuses on a group of friends who believe in the power of telepathy to bring about change and a sense of unification between people. Most of them are part of the Occupy movement, but romance expands the group, the Working Group for the Refinement of the Perception of Feelings. There's a sort of division of roles here that often happens with groups (though it couldn't be more different, I kept thinking of The Breakfast Club. Instead of the rebel, the princess, the outcast, the brain, and the jock, here we have . . . well, the princess, the brain (the hacker?), the dreamer, the true believer, the loner, and the lover. Sorry, that's reductive. But as we shift between the characters' perspectives, seeing what each contributes to the group and the way the actions of each person--and others' REACTIONS to those actions--push over a new domino, their interconnectivity becomes clear.
Fairly quickly, we move beyond simple group dynamics to learn that the actions that seem innocent and insular and idealistic have criminal consequences. It's that moment when the theoretical--the fun conversations people might have in college when exploring new ideas in a protected environment--becomes real and entangled with the government and the legal system and mining people's private interactions for profit. The sincere meets up with the cynical.
There's a fuzziness to what these characters intend and think will happen, to their interactions with each other, that rang very true for me. They're drawn into long-term relationships not so much by intention as by circumstance. They often seem to be floating into situations that are much more dire than they can imagine. And yet, there are moments of heroism, of self-sacrifice, that (for me) redeemed some of their more accidental crimes against each other. The bottom line? I liked this book. It made me think. And it felt true. But I can see why others may have found it harder to connect with or harder to read.
My Pick - Trust Exercise
Despite my positive feelings about Overthrow, I can't imagine that it's going to displace Trust Exercise for me, which I enjoyed because of its unconventional nature, its ambition, and (really!) just its brilliance.
Day 8 (March 18) - All This Could Be Yours vs. We Cast a Shadow
Jami Attenberg's All This Could Be Yours - Jami Attenberg's All This Could Be Yours is a stunning and incisive examination of the obligations we have as parents and as children to each other and about the way that loving someone is, in a sense, an obligation It's also about what happens when someone is so horrible that he erases those obligations, that he eliminates the love others have.
The novel centers on Victor, a man who is dying in the midst of a family he has abused and controlled for years. Though he excels at providing materially for his family--his wife, Barbra; his children Gary and Alex; and their families--his wretched behavior has tested their love until now, at the time he relies most on them, they are conflicted about how much they owe this patriarch. Attenberg's narrative moves through the perspectives of everyone BUT Victor, veering occasionally to flash into the thoughts of those with whom they interact or, at times, to provide an extended move into other characters' points of view. We see the interconnectedness of people, the ways that even a casual encounter can have an impact on someone and, consequently, the ways that our central relationships become the courses of our lives. The book is also about . . . well, about stuff. It's about how belongings can seem to stand in for love, for affection, and the times that works or the times it leaves us cold. For some characters, owning things can, at times, seem to be fulfilling . . . but eventually, that feeling recedes, and the true cost of a lack of care becomes apparent.
I'll be interested to see how All This Could Be Yours does in the Morning News Tournament of Books. The book certainly drew me in, beginning with short, punchy chapters that move quickly to introduce the characters and then extending into longer chapters that immersed me in varying points of view. Seeing the ways that Victor's criminality and callousness had shaped his family, but also his daughter-in-law Twyla and his granddaughters, the way that even such a horrible human being can inspire momentary affection from those who try to love him, tapped at both my thoughts and emotions. Attenberg's writing is amazing, seemingly objective but somehow more affective for the ways she shows how each character sees the world, the way objective observations aren't objective at all. I found it to be really brilliant.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin's We Cast a Shadow - Maurice Carols Ruffin's We Cast a Shadow is a deeply uncomfortable read. Intentionally. Ruffin presents a world in which race is centered more than ever, despite a surface presentation of "progress." The nameless protagonist--a black man married to Penny, a white woman--worries daily about the obviousness of the race of his son, Nigel. Nigel is fairly light skinned but has a darker birthmark that has grown (and continues growing) throughout his life. The narrator, who is worried about how society will treat his son, pins his hopes on a demelanization treatment for Nigel, which will make him appear to be white and help him to avoid the perils of racism that have plagued his father and grandfather before him.
This book is, for me, a tough one to talk about. The narrator is often unlikable, unable to see past his son's appearance--he doesn't even want to look at photos showing Nigel's face. I knew, as a reader, that this discomfort stemmed from the narrator's own self-hatred, from the negative experiences of his life and the way he has been held down and held back by society's prejudices. But I had a hard time getting past his inability to grow.
We Cast a Shadow is a satire reminiscent of The Sellout and, more deeply, grounded in Invisible Man. We watch as the nameless narrator of THIS book, like Ellison's protagonist, is confronted again and again by the ways in which his hope is snuffed out, the ways that his feelings of competence result in defeat rather than in victory. Even his victories and progress becoming meaningless. This is a painful read and, for me, one that's not as successful as either of the other books I mentioned.
My Pick - All This Could Be Yours
Ultimately, while I appreciate the ambition of We Cast a Shadow, I found All This Could Be Yours to be the more successful of the two books. Both books contain flawed characters, and both books challenged easy conclusions or assumptions. For me, Attenberg created an immersive world, a real cast of compelling characters about whom I happily could have continued reading.
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