WIBR Tournament – Round 1, Bracket 1

Oh, you thought I forgot?

Ta-da! Presenting the first round of the What I’ve Been Reading Tournament of Books!

Over the next four days, we’ll be going through the four brackets, one quadrant a day – that’s four match-ups, four winners, four losers and two new second round match-ups. The excitement? Palpable.

Click here for the entire bracket.

The What I’ve Been Reading Tournament of Books
Bracket One:

Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer
Moneyball – Michael Lewis

I’m not supposed to be stumped here, this early, on the first match-up. Come on.

What’s difficult here is the separation between fiction and non-fiction. On one hand, I’ve liked everything that Jonathan Safran Foer has written – and by everything I mean both of his novels. On the other, Moneyball single-handedly changed the way I look at baseball.

It’s true. Before Moneyball, baseball was a boring sport with a 30% success rate. It was like watching professional bowlers consistently average 115. It was like watching the New York Knicks.

And then, Moneyball. Michael Lewis so expertly explained the fine art of number crunching and put real emotions and real strategy into a game still reeling from its self-induced coma (read: STRIKE and LOCK OUT). He exposed Billy Beane as a genius and showed the world how good a small-market team could be.

Foer, in the meantime, wrote a book filled with magical realism that I had a hard time understanding at times. It was fantastic, sure. But I liked his second book a lot more. I’ll push for that one more in the next bracket.

I guess this is upset number one.


The Winner: Moneyball – Michael Lewis

Housekeeping – Marilynn Robinson
The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri

These are the types of dilemmas I knew I would find myself in. Marilynn Robinson’s Housekeeping is an incredibly beautiful work of fiction. And Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is just as beautiful, but in a different way.

You’ve got childhood acceptance versus coming of age, bleak country floods versus New York City, American culture versus Indian culture, women versus men. Both have been made into movies. Both titles have at least two “e”s in the title. Seriously, how do you do this?

I have to dip a step deeper. The Namesake is written by one of my favorites, set in a city I can’t get enough of literarily, about a man in an age that I seem drawn to reading, regarding a culture that is known for amazing food and even more amazing stories.

Houskeeping was about floods, trains, girls and what goes on in the dark, when everyone is scared, when there’s nothing left to fear but your own thoughts, when you simply accept the idea that the person taking care of you might be a little weird but deep down inside you know you shouldn’t judge them because, hell, nothing good has ever come from thinking negatively about a person who’s different.

My gut says The Namesake. My brain says Housekeeping. And aside from a cookbook, I can’t remember the last time I read a book with my gut.


The Winner: Housekeeping – Marilynn Robinson

Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
Paper Trails – Pete Dexter

Pete, I love ya. You’re hilarious at every South Dakota Festival of Books event. You write columns in the style that originally turned me on to writing. And you do it with tongue in cheek, with a thoughtful nod at those who are already in on the joke, but in a way that doesn’t exclude. It’s homey. It’s thought provoking and vile at the same time. It’s pretty damned good.

Unfortunately, you’ve run up against my book du jour, a novel that really opened my eyes to how great fiction can be. Filled with great characters. And the ultimate chracter itself – Brooklyn.

Sorry, man. Maybe next time you’ll run up against something less lofty. Maybe next time you’ll run into a less formidable opponent. Like Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter.

Fortress of Solitude

The Winner: Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem

White Teeth – Zadie Smith
Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth – Chris Ware

White Teeth will always have a solid place in my heart. It was my first book club book. At 500+ pages, it was an enormous investment in time. It was set in modern London, a place to which I’d love to return.

Even more than that, it was my introduction to the idea of “first book as award winning, no holds barred, completely original and totally impressive novel.” I mean, really? Zadie Smith hadn’t written a book before this? Don’t you usually reserve these sure-to-be-classics for your peak? Wait – has Zadie Smith peaked?

While White Teeth is a marvel of fiction, it never really tugged at my heart. Some weird things happened that separated me from its characters. I felt a connection, but not an emotional one. More of a knowing, agreeing and understanding connection.

But for emotion? Well, that’s where Jimmy Corrigan comes in.

As a gawky, uncomfortable and socially retarded kid in middle school and part of high school, I know where Jimmy Corrigan’s coming from. It’s not easy. But for the grace of punk rock music I’d be right there with him. So I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been close to the misery of struggling to fit in – and really, who of us hasn’t been close? – or if Chris Ware is really just that good.

Wait, I just picked a comic book over a genuine piece of literature? No. Actually, I believe they’re called graphic novels. And in this case, the novel part of that seems to be a bit more pronounced.

Jimmy Corrigan, etc.

The Winner: Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth – Chris Ware

This was lovingly handwritten on April 16th, 2008