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Book News for Tuesday, March 25, 2008

  • Then We Came to the Tree of Big Guns: Here it is, the big guns facing off as the Tournament of Books heads into the Semi-Finals.

    Who will prevail?

    Will it be Denis Johnson's National Book Award winner Tree of Smoke?

    Or Joshua Ferris's Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award winner (and National Book Award finalist) Then We Came to the End?

    Today's judge is Gary Shteyngart, author of last year's TOB contender Absurdistan, who finds a herculean task ahead facing him:

    So what am I to make of the year 2007? Three books from this year are going to have a shelf life up to and maybe even beyond the collapse of our own civilization. One about Dominican immigrants, one about the Vietnam War and one about office life. Junot Díaz, Denis Johnson, Joshua Ferris. These are not books, these are entire atmospheres, entire modes of thinking, entire vernaculars. And now I'm supposed to choose between Ferris and Johnson. Why me?

    But Shteyngart bucks up and plows ahead, first praising Tree of Smoke and sounding an awful lot like the anti-B. R. Myers:

    It is...literally impossible to turn away from this book, even when the plot makes zero sense. The Johnsonian dialogue is there, terse and brutal and real, and then there's the molecular evocation of time and space that made me sweat with jungle humidity....But listen, this book is something else, too. It's an entertainment, as gripping as anything those old 19th-century writer dudes used to crank out, only crafted with exacting 21st-century precision. If I could give up a month of my life, I'd read it all over again.

    Then he's on to Then We Came to the End, about which he sheepishly admits:

    I had already started reading it and the central conceit of the book — an omniscient "we" that hovers above a failing Chicago ad agency, gently and not-so-gently touching upon the lives of its many troubled workers — just wasn't doing it for me.

    But then comes — wait for it — the about-face, followed by a profound, New Yorker-esque epiphany:

    But as the pages piled up, I realized what I fool I was. How quickly had I discounted the tragedy of the American workplace....This is such a generous author that one is tempted to borrow as much as $8,000 from him and then never give it back. By the time the novel reaches its middle section, where the "we" is dropped to explore the life of one of the agency's partners who is suffering from breast cancer, you find yourself airlifted into one of the most humane and sympathetic books of the last decade. But it's not all cancer and jammed copiers. A novel whose most romantic character is named Benny Shassburger should clue you into the book's abundant (and rather graceful) humor, another way in which Ferris manages to do the impossible: to turn workaday hell into a gripping page-turner.

    So he loves both books. But only one can emerge triumphant and proceed to the Zombie Round, where a previously eliminated title will arise from the dead in an act of literary necromancy not seen since the debut of Oprah's Book Club. Click here to find out which novel wins out!

  • Bumping Geese: R. L. Stine's Goosebumps... resurrected?

    The horror!

÷ ÷ ÷

Brockman is the head writer for the daily Book News posts on the Powells.com blog. In his free time he's hard at work on his fictional memoir, which changes titles daily.

The views and commentary posted by Brockman are entirely his own, and are not representative of the whole of Powell's Books, its employees, or any sane human being.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Tree of Smoke: A Novel
    Used Hardcover $6.50
  2. Then We Came to the End: A Novel
    Used Trade Paper $2.95
  3. Absurdistan Used Trade Paper $4.95

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