by Barbara Kingsolver
Reviewed by Tournament of Books
The Morning News
Powell's Books and The Morning News present the 2010 Tournament of Books
The annual NCAA-style battle between literary titans is nearing its moment of ultimate culmination. There have been some serious contenders this year, including The Lacuna, Wolf Hall and The Year of the Flood. Review-a-Day is bringing you a week at a glance -- every Sunday through March (and leaking a bit into April). Tune in each week for our featured battle, see how your favorites fared and catch up with fun commentary and other tidbits from The Morning News.
This has been an exciting week with results from both the Semifinals and the Zombie Round. As we approach the final battle (scheduled for April 5), you were likely as surprised as we were when some of the early favorites were eliminated. Who could have guessed that Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood wouldn't make it past the opening round -- and that Baker's The Anthologist would be eliminated in the quarterfinals? Shocking. We have to admit though, that the emerging finalists are not exactly dark horses. The Zombies on the other hand... What a tough job these judges have -- let's give them a round of applause, shall we?
This Week's Featured Battle
(From the Zombie Round)
Battle Date: April 1, 2010
Miles From Nowhere, by Nami Mun
The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver
I agonized over this decision. For a couple of days it sent me into a real lost-in-the-wilderness aesthetic-crisis-of-faith tailspin. I went back and forth many times. I actually lost sleep. I started to think that the books had been paired, intentionally, because they would activate totally different regions of my brain and force me to choose, in public, between two rival forms of readerly pleasure. I talked to my wife about it for so long that she literally refused to talk to me about it anymore. So now I'm going to talk to you.
Miles From Nowhere is a total joy. Its voice is bright and smooth and punchy and funny even when it's narrating the most wretched events -- the story of this fundamentally good person thrown into a horrible junkie life. (I kept feeling like I was reading the autobiography of Bubbles from The Wire, if Bubbles had been a Korean girl in the Bronx in the 1980s.) Every story is loaded with great lines, paragraphs, scenes: when Joon calls her estranged dad and just lets Pop Rocks fizz into the receiver, when she lays on "a bench so orange I wanted to drink it," when she feeds the starving dog some chicken. When her friend Knowledge puts on her gloves, "which were really tube socks with ten finger holes." Way too many great moments to name here. The book deserves every blurby adjective we can come up with: true, thrilling, hilarious, disturbing, poignant, trenchant, whatever. I recommend it, very highly, to everyone in the whole world.
That said, it also has some fairly obvious weaknesses. Joon's voice occasionally crosses over from genuine poetry and wisdom into cutesiness. ("God didn't show that day, but one of his angels did.") Plots sometimes feel a little forced, even manipulative; I rolled my eyes several times. I wonder if the subject matter was so bitter and gritty that Mun felt like she had to inject some "chicken soup for the junkie soul" sweetness in order to keep the general reader. I wish she hadn't. And then there's the perennial problem of the short story cycle: Its parts connect so tangentially that it doesn't quite give you the final wallop of a good novel. My love for Miles From Nowhere is more about paragraphs than it is the total book. Which is a problem, obviously, in a Tournament loaded with full-on novelistic juggernauts. (Cf. the way Mun got steamrolled by Colum McCann in the Opening Round.)
Kingsolver's novel was basically the opposite experience. It irritated me immediately, on several fronts.
(Read Sam Anderson's entire review for the Tournament of Books)
Sam Anderson is a book critic at New York magazine. Known connections to this year's contenders: "Nicholson Baker: an early writing hero of mine; I interviewed him once for an hour or so on the phone, had a lovely conversation; but I can still be objective about him. Marlon James: I know and like his editor, Sean McDonald. The Book of Night Women made it onto my year-end top 10 list. Wells Tower: I reviewed his book; I had friendly lunch with him once; I put his book on my 2009 Top 10 list."
Additional match-ups from this past week:
And from the Zombie Round:
Don't miss the exciting final battle between:
April 5, 2010
To be judged by
Jessica Francis Kane