I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
-- Billy Collins
“Bird’s Eye View” by Elinor Florence vs “Shotgun Lovesongs” by Nickolas Butler
Judge Dave Irwin
The final pairing in the Buff Orpington this year features a battle between the traditional and the (slightly) avant garde. “Bird’s Eye View” is the more traditional work, a straight-forward story that evolves outward from the role of Canadian women in World War II. “Shotgun Lovesongs” is more quirky in its storytelling and smaller in its scope, using sequential first-person narrative by its characters to move the story along, even while continually shifting the perspective of that story.
“Bird’s Eye View” blossoms from the microcosm of one girl’s peaceful life in a small Saskatchewan prairie town until it encompass the chaos of war and a Europe full of death and devastation. Leaving her job at the local newspaper, Rose volunteers to join the British Royal Air Force. Her knowledge of photography lands her an elite intelligence analyst position, reviewing reconnaissance photos.
From there, the war proceeds apace along historical lines to the inevitable defeat of the Nazis, aided by Rose dutifully doing her part. Her distance from the actual fighting itself is a metaphor for Canada’s role as an Ally. Placid Canada and its abundant farms eagerly and willingly contributed their sons and daughters to the fight, but faced no direct threat at home, in sharp contrast to the fury of life in wartime England, with bombs raining down daily. Along the way, Rose falls in and out of love, tries to understand this big ol’ crazy world, and eventually (spoiler alert!), the war won, she goes home and marries the boy next door, much as she likely would have had a global conflagration not sidetracked things.
I enjoyed the memoir-ishly detailed descriptions of WWII, the plain-spoken narrative, and the character of Rose. I’m a fan of WWII history, especially the European air war, as my father was a B-24 crewman. Florence gives a good sense of the drudgery and excitement of the air war, including the guilty relief of the ground crews and support infrastructure for not being the ones being shot at.
The problem with “Bird’s Eye View” is that in trying to embrace the immensity of a war in which Rose is only one more pawn, it conflates to a Canadian approximation of magical realism. Plot points align far too smoothly and neatly, people end up in exactly the right place at the right time for otherwise inexplicable things to happen. Had there been a little more chaos in the course of the characters, more genuine surprises or legitimate plot twists, “Bird’s Eye View” might have felt more authentic and less manipulated by the author’s hand.
“Shotgun Lovesongs” is also about a small prairie town: Little Wing, Wisconsin. It starts there and rarely leaves – even when visiting New York or Chicago, Little Wing looms large. The story focuses on five school chums, four guys and one girl, some of whom leave to make their fortunes and some who will never leave.
The most successful is Lee, a world famous pop star who at the end of the tour always finds his way back home to Little Wing (itself the name of a Jimi Hendrix song). This character is seemingly influenced by the true story of Justin Vernon, who, after failing repeatedly in the music business, retreated to a Wisconsin cabin, reinvented himself as Bon Iver (“good winter”) and single-handedly created his massive 2008 hit album, “For Emma, Forever Ago.” There are also echoes of John “Cougar” Mellencamp and his heartland paeans, as Lee has his choice of earthly delights, but keeps returning home physically and in his songs and his friends struggle to find the real Lee beneath the swag and bling of stardom.
There is also Ronny, a good-hearted, but damaged rodeo cowboy; Kip, spiritually adrift despite an instinct for making money; Hank, a farmer, father and all-around decent guy; plus his wife, Beth. Each sequentially shoulders the narrative duties in short, chapter-length chunks.
I enjoyed the freshness of “Shotgun Lovesongs,” and its strong sense of people living real lives in a real place, despite being fiction. The book is like a novel of characters from Bruce Springsteen songs. But a key character in “Shotgun Lovesongs” is Little Wing itself, and unfortunately, the characters’ devotion to this bit of geography is never clearly articulated beyond a generalized nostalgic wistfulness for a simple life of honest work and meaningful relationships.
Also a technical note: Butler’s prose often takes poetic flight, especially during interior monologues, which reduces the uniqueness of the speakers and makes them seem artificial, as when Ronny uses the word “gleaned,” which should be far beyond his normal vocabulary or Lee describes the flower petals in his hand at Henry and Beth’s wedding. This is clearly an artistic choice, which while tying the tone together more coherently, robs the characters of more individualized voices.
One of the results of a bracketed single-elimination competition is that, as in college basketball’s March Madness, the results are not necessarily reflective of overall strength but of the cumulative results of each single competition. A great team may have one bad day and be out. One book may be paired against a book that simply resonates better with a particular judge on a particular day. That bit of randomness is one of the things that makes the Buff Orpington exciting.
That said, the 2015 Buff Orpington winner is “Shotgun Lovesongs,” for a variety of reasons. Its firm sense of presence and people made it a more interesting read, though not necessarily any more compelling than the epic action of “Bird’s Eye View.” The characters of “Shotgun Lovesongs” felt more human, while many characters, especially ancillary ones, in “Bird’s Eye View” seemed stereotypical. The more experimental approach to a novel’s form in “Shotgun Lovesongs” pays off, while “Bird’s Eye View,” with its traditional historical narrative, is limited in the range it can even attempt and be true to its genre. Finally, over-manipulation of the narrative to achieve predetermined outcomes in “Bird’s Eye View” eventually weakened my engagement with the story, while the sheer openness of “Shotgun Lovesongs’” potential endings kept me turning the pages eagerly to the end.
Congratulations to Nickolas Butler’s “Shotgun Lovesongs,” the 2015 winner of the Buff Orpington Book Tournament.
Elinor Florence, Bird’s Eye View vs Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 3
Judge Laurel Hicks
Here are two first-person tales, one a memoir of the author's early years, the other a historical fiction novel about a young Canadian woman in World War II. You have already been given synopses of the stories by Judge Pamela and Judge Brooke, so I will simply give my opinion of the two books.
"Bird's Eye View," the story of the Canadian farm girl who went to England to help in the war effort, is well written and interesting; it added to my knowledge of photography, landscape interpretation, and spying methods, and it has some sympathetic and some decidedly unsympathetic characters. I kept thinking that it was probably a young-adult novel, but that's all right. It is a good, though not great, book.
In "My Struggle, Book 3,” Knausgaard offers up his memories of childhood in Norway—every single one of them, it seemed as I was reading. I like stories of childhood, and I am interested in Norway, but the excruciating, perhaps obsessive, details made me weary. I didn't really like little Karl Ove, and I got tired of listening to him. I love the book cover, though.
And so, my confessedly opinionated opinion is to give the prize to "Bird's Eye View."
Nikolas Butler, Shotgun Lovesongs vs Marilynne Robinson, Lila
Judge Ann Stetson
While I’ve lived most of my life in and around NYC, I spent a few years living in upstate New York. I also spent a great deal of time in the 1980’s driving across the US and Canada. Maybe it those two reasons, but for whatever reason, Shotgun Lovesongs resonated with me in a way that Lila did not. Lila was perhaps the more “literary” book, the book that I could more likely see someone using as an example of “real” literature.
But Shotgun Lovesongs reminded me of Richard Russo, especially Mohawk and Empire Falls. There is a sense of place in SL that speaks to me. That’s often absent in modern literature, where place is to be honest, in the character’s head and not rooted in an actual place. But as with Richard Price in Clockers, Butler has taken a small area of the US and made it his own. It’s a place that I am not all that failure with (unlike Russo’s upstate New York, and Price’s fictitious Jersey suburbs), but still: it walks that border in fiction where you say, yes this is a story, but it’s based on something that is part of the author’s life, and thus is very real.
Again, I had hoped for more from Lila and I will go back and read Gilead and Home and see if that makes Lila better. But for now, for me, Shotgun Lovesongs. The fiction of place and geography is something I always enjoy, be it The Hobbit and Middle Earth, or Bonfire of the Vanities and the South Bronx.
Jane Smiley, Some Luck
vs Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 3
Judge Frandy Garrett
My Struggle – Book 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
For a largely unknown writer here in the U.S., many will soon make this name a household one. Knausgaard’s title, whether book 3 or any other number, initially seemed off-putting. Merely by its small print and thickness – embarrassing as it may be – seemed a daunting task. However, it soon became apparent that the author, and this book, would be what a terrific read should be. It is no surprise that the “My Struggle” series is internationally acclaimed.
My Struggle: Boyhood tells the story of boy’s early years in Norway. Surprisingly, Knausgaard has an incredible gift of making his story seem universally relatable. Rarely has a writer been able to convey a sense of place better, yet make the story as soon ours as his. There are so many poignant adventures and moments within the book that can harken back to one’s own childhood. Whether the moment is experiencing a first kiss to that of having learned a hard life lesson, this prose is unsurpassed. Any reader can relate to exploring forbidden places or acting without the thought of consequences. All the while, although this book can be read as a solitary story, both the earlier two books, as well as those to come, will be enlightening to the whole.
The reader can only hope that the stories keep coming – quickly – so we avid readers can continue the rave reviews! Unquestionably, this book is the winner between it and Jane Smiley’s Some Luck.
Some Luck by Jane Smiley
When one thinks of a fine writer, one needn’t look further than Jane Smiley. Since writing A Thousand Acres, she has been highly respected in the publishing community. This particular novel is the first of a trilogy, a chronology of the Langdon family which commences in 1920 and takes us to 1953. For someone from the’ baby boom’ generation, this is reading to relish.
Time is faithful carried chapter by chapter, as the years continue, beginning with the patriarch Walter returning from soldiering in WWI. Rosanna Vogel Langdon, his devoted wife, soon gives birth to Frank, the first of their five children. Frank’s perspective, deft fully told in his ‘head speak’ adds to the nuanced opening of the family’s story. We see, as the narrative moves on, each sibling’s differing personality developing. We also see the interconnectedness of the families within the Langdon’s circle at their Iowa farm. Smiley easily draws us to fully engage in the lives of many of these characters, allowing us to become enmeshed as their lives move on. While some family members remain in the same community, others move far beyond. The story is so credibly written, the reader genuinely cares what happens to each of the characters. We follow the family, in this particular book, to 1953.
Because Smiley can make us so easily relate to her story, the reader looks equally forward to reading the sequel. Writing such as this makes the reader champion the works of Jane Smiley. However, it cannot compare with the universal appeal of Karl Ove Knausgaard.
vs Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests
Judge Bobby Lee Eason
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters---the non-winning choice
Set in 1924 post WWI England, The Paying Guests one supposes is a historical novel although little context of the period is provided. The topic focuses on the personal and legal consequences of an illicit love affair gone bad. Albeit a love affair between a married woman and her landlady, overtly lesbian protagonists are regularly featured in Waters’ previous novels which have won numerous UK awards including the 2002 Fingersmith, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Roll the wheel and take your pick, themes included love betrayal, sorrow, British classism, passion, lust/power, despair, panic, jealousy, and catastrophe. The protagonist, 26 year old Francis Wray, a pacifist, has lost three members to the consequences of the Great War, two brothers and a father. From this upper middle class family only she and her mother survive; however, the family fortune has been lost and the Wrays must take in lodgers to make expenses—the Barber couple Len and Lilian.
Nearly immediately, Francis is attracted to Lilian who seems shocked by her bisexual feelings for Francis. One thing leads to another, they are in each other’s arms, and eventually discovered by Lilian’s outraged husband. A three-way fight ensues. It ends when Lilian frees Francis from the grasps of Len by violently smashing him with a deadly object. Faced with a choice of telling the police or displacing the body to an outdoor path known to harbor violent thieves, they opt for the former thus not having to expose their illicit love affair to a world not ready.
There is an investigation which strangely did not involve the police seeking clues from the Barber’s living quarters. Instead a 19 year old thug was found, arrested, and tried. The strain of the trial and fear of an innocent man being hanged broke the relationship between Francis and Lilian. Yet somehow, the youth was found innocent and the book ended with Francis and Lilian holding hands as if a shared future still might be conceivable.
As for the non-vote, it is not that The Paying Guests was not a page turner; nor is the reader offended that a murder/detective story used a lesbian/bisexual couple as a plot source; nor that the characters were not particularly likable or even well developed; rather it was the structure that weighted against this book. From the beginning, the police had inklings that all was not right between the Barbers and Francis, but rather than investigate their instincts, they chose to indict an innocent man, a perpetrator more palatable to the social mores of the times.
Elinor Florence and Bird’s Eye View—the Quarter-final Winner
Bird’s Eye View is Elinor Florence’s maiden trek into novel creation but she is far from a novice. Having spent years as a newspaper reporter, editor, and owner along with being a feature writer for the Canadian Reader’s Digest, she is well versed in telling a good story. Moreover, her newspaper predisposition to get the story front and center helped draw the reader immediately into Bird’s Eye View. Once in, I was hooked for the duration
BEV is a historical novel portraying the role of Canada’s reluctance to enter into WWII. The lead character is Rose Joliffe, a 19 year old farm girl from the wheat prairies of Saskatchewan. To earn college money, she finds work with the local newspaper. The editor, a scruffy ill-mannered isolationist, is won over by Rose’s sharp intellect and work ethic. He taught her the newspaper business including dark room photography and a sharp eye for detail. Through their dialogue the reader is provided interesting point/counter point reasons why Canada delayed entering the war.
As the war raged on, Rose lost patience with Canada’s reticence and enlisted with the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Rose’s high test scores and knowledge of photography landed her in an intelligence division as an aerial photographic interpreter. After several brilliant detections she was promoted and became a star of the division.
But all was not perfect. Rose was sucker punched by a British officer promising love but only wanting sex; her brother was killed in combat; and she was severely injured in a bomb raid. Suffering near mental and physical collapse, she found solace when a high school friend reappeared in her life; sparks ignited; and promise was given hope for a replenished Canadian workforce.
Florence’s work was not without structural flaws. Once she referred to the Tower Bridge as the London Bridge. She enjoyed perhaps too much the use of similes and other obvious literary devices. Still, the story that developed her prevailing theme of the backstory heroes of WWII left the reader appreciating the importance of the role played by smart dedicated women toward the Allies victory.
To finish, Herman Wouk wrote of two kinds of novelists—life-enrichers and life-impoverishers. Elinor Florence by creating Bird’s Eye View is a life-enricher.
Colm Toibin, Nora Webster vs Marilynne Robinson, Lila
Judge Phyllis Mitchell
I’m pleased I was assigned the delightful task of reading two novels whose main characters are diverse in background and temperament. I chose “Lila” rather than “Nora Webster” not for any literary reason but because I admired her raw, elemental courage.
”Norah Webster“ is the tale of a recently widowed woman. She defined herself as a wife and mother who was dependent on her husband for decisions, opinions and security. It was a happy marriage for her.
The story is set in a small village in the county of Wexford, Ireland, during the late1960’s. Nora is at odds with her widowhood. She wrestles with her future and the opinions of her neighbors, friends and family. She finds solace in music, which helps her to channel her restlessness and overcome her grief.
A novel, simply and gracefully written, that portrays a woman’s journey through grief to redefine her life and to move forward with hope and courage.
“Lila” tells the story of a very different woman. The setting is the small, dusty, rural town of Gilead, Iowa, during the depression of 1920’s. Lila finds shelter from a rainstorm in the church of the Reverend John Ames.
She brings with her a hard lonely life of homelessness and poverty. Her family had been pieced together not by blood but by circumstance.
The Reverend Ames is attracted to her when she appears at his church to get out of a rainstorm. They begin a romance born of fear, loneliness, and wonder. It becomes love. The honesty and courage of Lila unfolds as the author moves between the past and the present.
Robinson uses dialogue between the Reverend and Lila to pose many theological concepts. When Lila becomes pregnant, her thoughts and concerns are shared with her unborn child. Why do things happen in life? Is there a heaven? Is this heaven worth the sacrifice if you never see loved ones again? What is death? Why pray?
Lila comes to happiness through a simple honesty with herself and the raw courage to wonder.
I have chosen “Lila” as the winner of this match. This is a novel with many layers. It is poetically written with a thread of wistfulness meandering throughout. I have shared questions with Lila. Lila has become a friend.
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Almeddine vs
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
Judge Kim Barton
I had a hard time choosing between these two books as neither one of them really jumped out at me as the clear winner. If I had to give them a star rating, I’d give each book a three. They were both beautifully written, but they each had flaws too. I liked them, but didn’t love them. In the end, I chose the book I’d be most likely to read a second time.
An Unnecessary Woman
I wanted to love this book, I really did. It started out well when Aaliyah, our 70-something year old protagonist, accidentally dyes her hair blue. She tells the reader about her collection of book translations that she’d done over the years, translations that no one has ever seen and that sit in her extra room. Then her estranged brother shows up with their mother telling Aaliyah she has to take the mother in, that he and his wife are done taking care of the aging women. The mother takes one look at Aaliyah and screams. The author sets the reader up for some big life-changing event.
And then…nothing happened for most of the book. The middle part dragged, with a few lovely vignettes, like Aaliyah and her niece washing her mother’s feet, in between her long digression about the books, authors, and philosophers she’d read. I found myself skimming, wanting to get past all that.
Her depictions of Beirut and of the war were beautifully done, but it wasn't enough for me to get past the boring middle.
A couple of weeks after I’d read the book, someone asked me about An Unnecessary Woman. I had to stop and think for a moment. What book was that? What happened? It did not leave a strong impression on me.
One thing both books have in common: home. For Aaliyah it’s Beirut and her beloved apartment. In Shotgun Lovesongs, home is a small Wisconsin town. But that’s all they have in common! Shotgun Lovesongs is also about friendship, particularly male friendship. The story, told from the point of view of each of the four friends begins and ends with the marriage of the foursome’s most famous friend, the musician who wrote the album Shotgun Lovesongs. Although rich and famous, Lee always comes back home to recuperate. He loves his small town and his friends who have stayed behind. Hank, the rancher who has never left has a wonderful wife and family.
All four men, and the one woman they have in common, tell their stories of friendship and life in a small town. At the end, a revealed secret threatens to ruin their friendships and tear the group apart. I enjoyed how the author weaved together their stories and also each person’s story as it lived in the past and the present. The scenes where the boys and then men sat on the mill tower and watched the sunrises and sunsets were beautifully done and very poignant. I also appreciate a good story about male friendship, something I don’t encounter in literature very often.
The one thing I didn't like about Shotgun Lovesongs was how each story was wrapped up neatly, and yet when something unexpected happened, it did not seem believable. The last quarter of the book lost it for me. I was unhappy with the way the author handled the reveal of the big secret. It didn't seem to fit the characters of the two men. The very last scene dragged on for much too long and then quickly became ridiculous.
Perhaps I engaged in Shotgun Lovesongs more easily than An Unnecessary Woman, because the characters were closer to me in age and I could relate to their lives. They had friends, loving families, and got out into the world to live. Aaliyah, living alone with no friends or family and subsisting on books was completely alien to me.
The Winner: Shotgun Lovesongs
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 3 vs
Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank with You
Judge Brooke Lunee
Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford
Richard Ford has been writing books with the first-person narrator Jack Bascombe since the early 1980s. His first Bascombe book is The Sportswriter, which he wrote when he lost his job as a sportswriter. There are many other parallels between the character’s life and that of the author, but there are also some wide differences.
This novel is a set of four tightly attached short stories with the action, what there is of it, occurring in the two weeks before Christmas in 2012, just weeks after the hurricane, Sandy, which destroyed much of the construction on New Jersey’s barrier islands. The character, Jack Bascombe, was in the past a realtor living in a fictional town near Seaside Heights. And he begins this book with a call from the man to whom he sold his house years ago – a man who, like all property owners in that area, lost everything but the residual value of the sand dune on which his house had been built.
The title of this book is key. What the character, Frank, is trying to do in this narrative is tell the reader who he is. “I’m Here” is the title of one of the stories and in another he attempts to explain his Default Self and his use of this straightforward persona with no past and no future, a terse, non-lying, matter-of-fact guy who is the essence of Frank Bascombe. Tricky but Ford pretty much carries it off.
So we have a story that is based on sorrow and loss and anger and the attempts we make to deal with these inevitabilities. There is a good deal of looking back in this short novel, including a wrenching visit to Bascombe’s ex-wife who is now in a continuing care facility with Parkinsons. Although a reader new to Ford can read this book as a stand-alone, it would be much more effective if one has already read The Sportswriter and the other Bascombe books.
My Struggle, Book 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
As with the Richard Ford book, Let Me Be Frank with You, this third book in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s monumental My Struggle, is a book you can read without having read books 1 and 2. It is the story of the author’s youth in the 1970s seen from the child’s point of view but filtered through the mind of the 40-something author writing in the 21st century.
It is with the publishing of this third of six books that the reviewers began to get serious, calling My Struggle a masterpiece and comparing it with In Search of Lost Time Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist all gave it starred reviews, and I would star it also. I can’t remember reading anything so engaging since Wolf Hall.
The reviewers are correct when they say that this novel can be read alone. But to really catch the allusions and understand the development of Knausgaard as an author I really think you need to read the earlier books.
Because of the freshness and ingenuity of this novel and because of the depth of feeling and understanding of youth it depicts, it wins this round of the tournament.
Jane Smiley, Some Luck vs Rachel Joyce, Perfect
Judge Sarah Psitos
The two books assigned to me were a bit of a challenge. I have read and admired Jane Smiley for many years. I am completely unfamiliar with Rachel Joyce. Both novels are very well-written with characters the reader grows to like and care about. The difference is more in the atmosphere and focus of the stories. Joyce’s “Perfect” jumps between 1972 and about 40 years later. Byron Hemmings, a worried 11-year-old, and his unhappy, lonely mother are trying to make sense of the community they live in. Byron is obsessed with a two-second adjustment to the atomic clock. How can scientists change time without a noticeable change in the world? He is sure those two seconds will lead to disaster and in a way, it does.
There is a dark and tight focus in the plot of “Perfect”. Diana Hemmings is a woman who is bullied by her much-absent husband to be perfect in her dress, her housekeeping, her looks, her children. Byron tries to help her, but he does not understand the adult world rules. It seems as if everything is headed for a dark end. Forty years later we meet Jim who has spent most of his adult life in a mental institution that has recently closed. Jim is crippled by his obsessions. Sometimes it takes him hours to perform all the evening rituals before he feels safe at home in his trailer. Slowly, as she cycles between 1972 and the present, Joyce brings the two stories together. The end is not a surprise, but is satisfying.
By contrast, Jane Smiley has written an expansive novel that covers more than 30 years with one farm family, the Langdons, starting in 1920 when a young couple, Rosanna and Walter, and their baby son, Frank, have moved into a farm a few miles from their parents’ farms. Smiley describes the milestones in the family’s lives – births, crop yields, money worries, drought, deaths – and manages to make each new character an individual person. Over the years the parents, with some prodding from the children, go from using plow horses to tractors, kerosene lanterns to electricity. The description of the family’s fortunes is an illustration of what was going on in the country in those 30 years from just after World War I, through the Depression, World War II, and the early 1950s “red scare”.
The plot is more of a chronicle of interwoven lives as families are. Smiley’s writing is crisp and vivid. The characters were interesting enough to make the reader want to see what kind of adults they became by the end of the book. In “Perfect” it seemed as if Jim was not ever going to get out of his grim, difficult world.
This was a hard decision, but I have to go with Jane Smiley’s “Some Luck”.
Roddy Doyle, The Guts vs Elinor Florence, Bird’s Eye View
Judge Pamela Thomas
The Guts by Roddy Doyle
Roddy Doyle’s new novel “The Guts” continues the story of life in the working class of fictional Barrytown, a small scruffy town on the fringes of Dublin, Ireland. Its protagonist, Jimmy Rabbitte, is 25 years older than when he was the heroic manager of the band “The Commitments” in Doyle’s first Barrytown novel of the same name. Jimmy is still engaged in life and is passionate about nostalgic off-beat rock bands. He’s married to the saintly and supportive Aoife and has four children who relate lovingly but with some trepidation to their offbeat dad.
Jimmy has colon cancer, and literally 80% of his guts have to be removed. He must also undergo chemotherapy treatments that make him very sick. “The Guts” chronicles his story of grappling with mortality, his family and friends, and continuing to find meaning in what he does. Not only does he have to sacrifice most of his guts to beat the cancer, but he must find the guts inside of himself to keep going under the cloud of his mortality.
“The Guts” is drop-dead funny at times. How do you explain Facebook to your elderly father? “It’s like a club but yeh have your own room, for the people yeh want to meet. Except there’s no room an’ yeh meet no one. Unless yeh want to.”
Jimmy puts his heart into bringing some of his old bands back to light at the biggest music festival of the year, the Electric Picnic. And there he orchestrates the hoax debut of his son, whom he has set up as a Bulgarian singer presenting a 1932 pounding number written as a hoax by Jimmy. It would seem this is Jimmy’s proudest moment. It bothered me a bit that Jimmy is so proud of the hoax he has created centering on his son.
There are a lot of subplots that don’t seem fully fleshed out – a relationship with a long-lost brother, the creation of the band hoax, even an illicit love affair. But you get the feeling Jimmy is walking around in a bit of a fog with his illness and treatments, and he relates to most everything in his life with vagueness. He talks to his buddies and father but doesn't really say much. He has strikingly uninformative conversations with his estranged brother, and he tries to figure out how to behave as a potentially dying husband and father. He and wife Aoife bounce back and forth between humor and pathos in dealing with his illness.
It has been said that the novel’s commentary on rock and pop culture insights are right on, though I’m in no position to judge. While critics praise his sparse descriptions and profane dialog, I found the novel disconcerting to read because virtually no page was left without the F word, or the C word, or the S word (ending in an ‘e’, the Irish spelling). Heck, almost no LINE was left without one of these words. The other word in constant use was “grand” – not obscene, but most everyone used it to describe every single thing: something was ‘grand’ or ‘not grand’. I do believe most characters got by mostly with those four words. Perhaps this depicts the local dialect – I’m no expert here. But it was off putting as a first time Doyle reader who lives in middle class US.
There’s some fun and much poignancy and vulnerability in “The Guts”. There is great warmth and sympathy for these everyday lives of Jimmy’s world. Jimmy takes his friend and former band member Outspan, who is dying of cancer, to the festival. Both Jimmy and Outspan are determined to make it through the festival and see and do it all even if it kills them. They are wringing one last hurrah out of life, a lesson for the rest of us. In the end the display of grit and zest for living in “The Guts” is enough to make it worth a read.
Bird’s Eye View by Elinor Florence
Rose Jolliffe is a young Canadian woman who lives in a small Saskatchewan town called Touchwood. She’s naïve and inexperienced but smart enough to brazen her way into a job at the local newspaper. She longs to join the military to participate in Canadians helping to win the war like her brother and male friends. Finally she finds a way to pay her own way to England and join the Royal Air Force. Along the way she finds some discrimination against Canadians and struggles to represent her country well.
Rose becomes part of a unit assigned to perform photographic interpretations of aerial photos taken on spy and bombing runs. It is important work as it helps determine troop movements, defenses, damage, and other strategic fighting information. Rose has an exceptional gift of interpretation, helped along by her growing up in a rural community and her photographic work at the newspaper job.
Rose suffers from loneliness and from the losses and deprivations of war, making mistakes in love and friendship along the way. But each experience contributes to her growing into a capable and centered woman who makes major contributions to the war effort through her skillful detective interpretations. For example, Rose figures out there are many more troops in a location than it appears in the photographic evidence because one building doesn’t have snow on the roof as it should – the warm bodies inside have caused the snow to melt, as Rose has seen on the cattle barn at home.
“Bird’s Eye View” is the story of Rose growing up in the tense atmosphere of a world at war. Many are the back-breaking hours the interpreters put in to discover the tiniest out of place feature of a photo. The reader is given fascinating insights as to the little-known photographic interpretation activities, all done with black and white photographs until close to the end of the war. Many of the war’s secrets were kept or uncovered by the aerial interpreters. It’s worth a read just to enter the world of interpreters. This is author Elinor Florence’s first novel, and I say well done.
I had some problems with both books, and there wasn't a clear winner in my mind. I couldn't fully relate to the world of Jimmy Rabbitte in “The Guts”, and I was off put by the coarse and sparse dialog. Eventually I did recognize that some of the sparseness of the book was the interior world of Jimmy and his fight with cancer. But some humor aside, it just wasn’t much fun to read. That may be my personal failing in not being able to relate to Jimmy’s world.
I approached “Bird’s Eye View” with reservations because the first pages seemed ‘girlie’. Was this going to be a naive girl’s romance story? Not my cup of tea. But the naivety disappeared as the story and Rose grew, and in the end Rose seemed a fully formed character worthy of our reading time. Her Canadian viewpoint was also a plus. Most importantly, I found myself caught up in the fascinating world of aerial photographic interpretation and wanting to know more.
The winner by a hair is “Bird’s Eye View”, primarily because I enjoyed the able and exciting story presentation of the role of aerial photographic interpretation in World War II.
Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea Vs Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests
Judge Cynthia Tooley
So many contradictions. Chang-rae Lee explores multiple themes in “On Such a Full Sea” including the nature of freedom, safety, the transcendence of loving and relatedness, social class and racial issues, and, most unusually, relentless endurance. He also creates a unique atmosphere that is at once violently sad yet peaceful. I was at once unsettled and lulled. I almost want to describe the setting as zen-like yet overlaid with elements from the old American West where violence and disaster could lurk around every bend. Lee also plays with time. He leaves us wondering if the events take place in the future or a parallel past or maybe even a shadow world of our own…one that looks like our reality and that can seem frighteningly relatable but with just enough change in perspective that it feels alien. Where I expected a mainstream literary perspective he introduces a science fiction element. Again very unsettling. In one section of the book there were shades of a more literary V. C. Andrews.
Fan is the young woman at the heart of the book. She goes on a journey supposedly to find her lost lover but discovers many layers of relatedness. She’s ordinary in an extraordinary way. Her journey takes on legendary status to the people she leaves behind. Her fable changes their world. Fan’s extraordinary skill is diving and the ability to hold her breath for long periods underwater. Lee uses this as a metaphor for her unusual ability to endure yet do it gracefully. I loved stepping into Lee’s world for the duration of “On Such a Full Sea”. CT
Sarah Waters contrives splendid plots in her novels. I’m thinking especially of Fingersmiith and The Little Stranger. But in her most recent novel, The Paying Guests, the plot, despite a murder mystery, is loosely woven and it is character development and self-understanding that she focuses on.
Waters returns to the 1940s, an era in which she has set previous novels. She tells a sad story about a mother and daughter who are almost penniless after the death of the husband and father who has provided nothing for them and because of the confiscatory taxes imposed after the end of World War II. They cling somewhat desperately to their gentility despite their economic situation, which is why they call the married couple who pay to live on their second floor paying guests and not lodgers.
It is a story of an unexpected love and an unexpected death and the abuse of power and of generosity and self-sacrifice – and the ending is not a conventional tying up of all the loose ends of the story. It’s very cleverly written and the characters are very hard to forget.
Paying Guests is the winner of this pairing. MD
Colm Toibin: Nora Webster vs Ayelet Waldman: Love and Treasure
Judge Nancy Couto
Both novels are well worth reading, both are set in Europe (or mostly in Europe), and both present characters whose lives are affected by war, although war is primarily in the wings or in the past. Both authors live in Brooklyn at least part of the time. And there the similarities end. Choosing between these books was like choosing between rutabagas and farm implements, between grief and motion, between a song and an airline ticket.
Ayelet Waldman's Love and Treasure is an ambitious novel, traveling from Maine to Salzburg to Budapest to Israel to New York, moving from the present century to the mid 1940s, shifting back to the present, treating us to a delightful account set in Budapest in 1913, and then dropping the reader off in 1948. Central to the story is the Hungarian Gold Train with its cargo of jewelry, furs, and other valuables taken by the Nazis from the households of Hungarian Jews. The book is well researched, and the subject matter is compelling. And Waldman doesn't stop there; she introduces a love story for each time period, each involving an enameled pendant appropriated from the famous train. There is also a search for a painting by a little-known Hungarian artist, as well as a search for the heirs of the stolen pendant, which happens to be depicted in the lost painting. History story, love story, detective story--there's a lot going on, and the writing, although not luminous, is competent enough to handle all of it.
As might be expected from a novel that encompasses so many characters and so much distance and time, not all sections are equally effective, and the parts don't really add up to a satisfying whole. I found Section Two (Budapest; Israel: 2013) the least convincing, both in consistency of character and believability of plot. This section is packed with action. I enjoyed the detective work on the part of the granddaughter and the art dealer, but some of the plot twists really strained my credulity (and I have a lot of credulity). On the other hand, I loved Section Three (Budapest: 1913), which also has a convoluted plot. I was surprised by the introduction of a new character, a psychoanalyst who is full of himself and not completely reliable as a narrator, but after a few pages I was under the spell of his account, even if it was distanced and served with a slight dusting of dishonesty. I enjoyed the book.
Colm Toibin's Nora Webster does not range widely either through geography or through time. The book is set in the 1960s in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland; the action, what there is of it, takes place in the three years or so after the death of Nora's husband, Maurice, and centers around home and workplace. There are brief outings--a couple of caravan holidays at the seaside, some short trips to Dublin, a weekend at a farmhouse outside Kilkenny--but no serious travel. Political events loom large but are still at a distance or on television; we expect the worst, but the worst doesn't happen. Nora copes with well-intentioned but not always welcome visitors, with interfering family members, and with a nun who "in any other century . . . would have been burned as a witch." Her two young sons and her daughters are also fumbling through grief, and Nora is not always effective in guiding them. She changes her hair color, worries about finances, gets a job, takes singing lessons, buys a record player and a dress, tries to paint a ceiling, redecorates a room. Nothing happens, or at least nothing dramatic happens.
Toibin's narrative is third-person subjective and almost transparent; for the most part I was unaware of his writing, whether it was good or bad, whether he had an arsenal of narrative hooks and stylistic tricks. The few words I needed to look up--and I read on a tablet, where looking up a word is a simple matter of touching it with my finger--were for the most part Irish terms, and luckily my iBooks dictionary had most of them. I was puzzled by the "Selection Box" that one of Nora's sons receives as a gift, and I had to go to Google for that one. Turns out it's just a box of chocolates. I like that the language did not interfere with the heart of the book. By the end of the novel I was so completely inside Nora Webster's head that any writing that called attention to itself would have been intrusive. Nothing was intrusive. The writing was simply luminous.
I want to stress again that both books are worth reading and that both authors accomplished what they set out to do. But, on the basis of the quality of the writing, which was transparent rather than opaque, which let the light in, I have chosen Nora Webster to advance to the next round of the tournament.
Ian McEwan, The Children Act vs Marilynne Robinson, Lila
Judge Wendy Weise
At the center of these very different books is the inability of partners in a marriage to communicate effectively. The women couldn’t be more different. Lila is an ignorant, uneducated discarded offspring of migrant workers. Her life has been a constant struggle to survive. Fiona Maye, daughter of privilege, is a High Court judge in London. Sophisticated, educated, musically talented, she is everything Lila is not.
These two women at the extreme ends of the continuum of society share a common dilemma: their marriages are threatened by factors that are at the essence of their personalities.
Lila is unable to communicate. Her life has been a struggle to survive, and opening her thoughts and feelings to another person can mean danger or even death. Better to remain silent and vigilant, always on the alert for the next threat, the next danger. Trust comes very hard to her. Who knows when her husband may change his mind and repudiate her. How would he react if he knew her story and who she really is? She is like a wild deer who has wandered in Rev. Ames life. The slightest abrupt move may startle her into flight.
Fiona’s marriage undergoes a severe shock when her husband tells her he is not content to live in a sexless marriage and intends to take a lover if she is not willing to discuss the problems of their marriage and work with him to resolve them. She shuts him down immediately and changes the locks when he is gone.
Both women are forced to look inward and realize their own responsibility for the difficulties of their marriage. Fiona has greater powers of introspection, but Lila has the benefit of the continuous presence of a loving, supportive spouse.
How they work their way out of their dilemmas creates the substance of both books. Ian McEwan is an excellent writer. His use of detail and plot to engage the reader results in a sense of wonder that a man can enter so deeply into a woman’s mind. I did find it less than credible, though, that Fiona would shut her husband down so abruptly and absolutely. As I judge, she would surely be more open to the possibility of counseling and negotiating a compromise and rapprochement with her estranged spouse. The details of the workings of the court are fascinating and full of interest for this reader.
Lila has a much smaller canvas: a small town in Iowa, a small family circle, a sense of restriction and lack of options. And yet the rich inner life of the title character, unable as she is to articulate it, informs the book with a transcendence and luminescence that fills the reader with wonder.
This is Marilynne Robinson’s third visit to the town and people of Gilead, and I hope it will not be the last.
My choice: Lila
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian,
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nikolas Butler
Judge Bronwyn DiPeri
Right from page one, Chris Bohjalian’s YA novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, is evocative and disturbing. Dealing with the aftermath of a power plant nuclear reactor meltdown in formerly-idyllic Vermont, it follows the life of teenager Emily Shepard, whose parents happen to be the lead engineer and communications director of said power plant. This is not a post-apocalyptic story, as devastating as the explosion is for northern Vermont, neither society nor even the state shuts down. While the opening was compelling, the solipsistic self-destructiveness of the narrating character, Emily, feels forced, as if Bohjalian was trying to capture all the dark roads a modern teenager can pointlessly wander. Unfortunately, the story never really expands into anything other than that of the narrator, who isn’t convincing as a tortured teen.
Now, Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs, told by several on-the-young-end-of-middle-aged adults struggling to stay connected to their small Midwestern community, is multi-layered and mature. Butler peels open the small-town-stereotypes of the brain-damaged drunk, the cocky hedge fund manager returning home to show off, the local boy turned world famous musician. These characters have grown up together, they’re limping through the disappointments of adult life together, and they are oh-so-ordinary in their quiet betrayals.
Shotgun Lovesongs is a story of the quintessential small town America: though beaten down by poverty, injustice, and exhaustion, the people still dance together, they still share food together, they sit drunk together under the stars.
I don’t know if my lukewarm response to Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is because of the age and self-absorption of the narrator, but Shotgun Lovesongs felt like real life and was much more satisfying in the end. The winner:
All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr
An Unnecessary Woman
by Rabih Alameddine
Judge: Kilian Metcalf
When I went into this competition, I was already reading All The Light We Cannot See for pleasure. I fully expected that this critically acclaimed bestselling novel would be my choice in the first round of competition. It has an intriguing premise: parallel stories of a blind girl on the island of St Malo in 1944 on the verge of destruction from attack by the Allies. Simultaneously we learn about a gifted young German orphan who is destined for a life drudging in the mines. He is rescued from this fate by his own brilliance and the hand of fate in the form of an army in need of radio engineers. We wait and wait for their lives to converge as the war grinds on to its end.
Well, written and plotted, this story will make a beautiful movie with the latest hot young actors in the lead roles, and aging character actors in the supporting roles. Great plot, picturesque setting, attractive characters, suspenseful plot what’s not to like? I was definitely on board with giving it the nod in its round.
Next up, the obligatory read before I declared All the Light the winner, came An Unnecessary Woman, a book I knew nothing about in spite of it’s being shortlisted for the National Book Award. No buzz on any of the sites I follow, no chatter among my book-loving friends, nothing to bring this book to my attention. I was completely blindsided by the quality of writing in the account of a woman in her 70s, living alone in a Beirut apartment much too big for her according to her covetous relatives. She makes her way through the many conflicts raging around her, some personal, some national, saved by her love of literature and an astringent sense of humor that helps preserve her sanity through every challenge. By page three, I was hooked and laughing out loud. Eagerly I read page after page, not because I wanted to find out what was going to happen, but because I begrudged anything that took me out of this wonderful woman’s company. How does a middle-aged gay man know so much about the rich inner life of an elderly woman? Maybe he pays attention to the invisible ones in our midst. He sees them; he hears them; and he writes it all down.
Comparing An Unnecessary Woman to All the Light We Cannot See was a no-brainer. One book will live forever and stand up to rereads and discussion to find its place in the company of the major works of literature that inform his character’s life. The other will make its splash and disappear like the ripples it leaves behind.
My choice for winner of this round: An Unnecessary Woman.
Tomorrow we begin announcing the results of the first round match-up in the Buff Orpington Book Tournament, so this seems like a good time to talk about our philosophy.
Our book tournament gives no instruction to the judges; no criteria need be applied except "I like this book better than that one."
Of course, some of our judges write perceptive and insightful essays about the books they are judging. Some of us have advanced degrees and professional experience with book reviewing. Others of us are "just readers" who have likes and dislikes about books in general or particular books.
But since so many book prizes seem to us to be based on whim, we decided to create our own contest and be up front about the basis on which the winners are chosen.
Here is the lineup for the first round of the 2015 Buff Orpington Book Tournament. We will post the winners of these contests, one a day on weekdays, beginning on the 11th of March.
Judge Kilian Metcalf
Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman
Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
Judge Bronwyn DiPeri
Chris Bohjalian, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands
Nikolas Butler, Shotgun Lovesongs
Judge Wendy Weise
Ian McEwan, The Children Act
Marilynne Robinson, Lila
Judge Nancy Couto
Colm Toibin, Nora Webster
Ayelet Waldman, Love and Treasure
Judge Cynthia Tooley
Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea
Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests
Judge Pamela Thomas
Roddy Doyle, The Guts
Elinor Florence, Bird’s Eye View
Judge Sarah Psitos
Jane Smiley, Some Luck
Rachel Joyce, Perfect
Judge Brooke Lunee
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 3
Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank with You