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Review-a-Day
The Morning News
Sunday, March 14th, 2010
Voice your opinion about this review by
posting a comment on the Powells.com blog


 

Burnt Shadows

by Kamila Shamsie

ToB: Burnt Shadows vs. That Old Cape Magic

A review by Tournament of Books

Powell's Books and The Morning News present the 2010 Tournament of Books

The annual NCAA-style battle between literary titans has begun! And, this year, Review-a-Day will feature a recap of the previous week's battles, judges' comments, and, of course, the winners of each match-up -- every Sunday through March.

With Friday upon us and an exhausting week of battles under our belts, we are now halfway through the opening round. It's been a lot of fun and we've got some exciting results to share! Before we get started, you might want to peek into the judges booth for some pre-game chatter.

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This Week's Featured Battle


Battle Date: March 12, 2010

__________

Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie
VS.
That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo

__________

Judged by
Nic Brown




Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows is insanely ambitious. It starts with a love scene between a German man and a Japanese woman in Nagasaki on the day of the dropping of the atomic bomb, then somehow ends in Guantanamo Bay, but not until Shamsie first takes on the Partition between India and Pakistan, the end of British colonialism, American C.I.A. agents working in Afghanistan, several iterations of cross-cultural love, and some serious homoerotic tension between British lawyers and their Indian clerks. Much of it is too convenient and unbelievable to work, especially as the book progresses, and as for the end, I can't really say for certain if it's set in Guantanamo Bay or not, because I haven't finished it yet (I have a 17-month-old with a cold, a day job, and a new book to edit -- cut me some slack). But it doesn't really matter. By the end of the first chapter I knew it was going to win.

Let me explain. Shamsie's prose is often beautiful, and she's dealing with Big Ideas here. Of course, therein lie many of the problems in this novel, especially as the dialogue becomes increasing didactic ("Because of you, I understand for the first time how nations can applaud when their governments drop a second nuclear bomb," for example), but I admire what she's trying to accomplish. And I read this book second, so I knew as soon as I encountered her beautiful descriptions ("An old man walks past with skin so brittle Hiroko thinks of a paper lantern with the figure of a man drawn onto it") that it was my favorite.

Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic is very readable, and filled with moments of irresistible narrative momentum. He opens with his narrator driving around Cape Cod with the ashes of his father in the trunk of his car, soon to be joined by those of his mother. Thing is, he can't bring himself to dispose of either until he works out some problems with his marriage, most of which stem from parental issues. The symbolism here -- the guy can't let go of his parents and it's affecting his family -- is less than subtle, but the real issue I had with the book is that the parents are the most interesting characters in the book, and -- they're dead! Could the stakes be lower? The only people we care about have been incinerated. If characters can't stop speaking even when dead (and yes, there are many conversations with the ashes here), I would argue that the author might want to consider writing the book with those characters alive.

(Read the entire review by Nic Brown)

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Additional match-ups from this past week:

  • March 9
    Let the Great World Spin v. Miles From Nowhere
    Judged by Rosecrans Baldwin
    click here for comments and outcome
  • March 10
    Lowboy v. The Help
    Judged by Andrew Womack
    click here for comments and outcome
  • March 11
    The Lacuna v. Fever Chart
    Judged by Alexander Chee
    click here for comments and outcome


Coming up next week:



March 15, David Gutowski

__________

Wolf Hall
VS.
An Epic Search For Truth
__________






March 16, Molly Young

__________

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
VS.
The Anthologist
__________






March 17, C. Max Magee

__________

A Gate At the Stairs
VS.
The Book of Night Women
__________






March 18, Kate Ortega

__________

Big Machine
VS.
The Year of the Flood
__________





The RoosterIt's that time of year again for the Tournament of Books, the annual NCAA-style battle between literary titans from online magazine The Morning News. You can print a bracket, keep track of the standings, and read all of the judges' reviews at TMN's website. You'll save 30% on all the tourney books when you purchase them from Powells.com. May the best book win!
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