WIBR Tournament – Round 1, Bracket 3

This is the money bracket. When first doling out the books for the tournament, I saw five that could easily barrel through a bracket and guarantee a spot in the Final Four. However, when seeding was all said and done, four of them sat in the same bracket, with two of them facing each other in the first round.

I’d love to say that the winner of this bracket will win the whole thing – in fact, that might not be too far from the truth – but to keep the suspense at a maximum, I’ll let you know that probably won’t be the case. Hell – you never know how I’ll feel when the Final Four comes around.

Shall we battle? Of course.

Click here for the entire bracket.

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

Travels with Charley – John Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Tom Joad vs. Charley the dog. Or vs. Steinbeck himself, if you think about it. With three Steinbeck books making the tournament, it’s not surprising to see the grizzled old American legend facing himself at some point. I never thought it would happen this early, though.

Yet, here it is. The face-off that shouldn’t be, essentially boiling down to which era of Steinbeck I prefer more.

The Grapes of Wrath comes in with the handle of Great American Novel clearly affixed, a badge, a nameplate, the most recognizable (if not one of the most difficult) work of Steinbeck’s fiction. In addition, it’s got the benefit of being An Important Look at Life in America. This isn’t just a novel about some random characters. This is a novel about the country during its hardest times, a trip down history’s dusty lane.

On the other hand, we’ve got Travels with Charley. Like The Grapes of Wrath, it’s about America, but at a different time. Steinbeck and his dog (Charley plays a titular role, but little else) roll through America like a pair of nomadic hobos, living out of a trailer, searching for what Steinbeck calls The Real America. It’s not just a rambling lament of how things used to be, though – it’s a discovery, a love letter to the nation, like a snapshot of a favorite son after he had gone to college, grew up a bit and came back for Thanksgiving nearly unrecognizable.

The Grapes of Wrath is amazing – simply amazing. You finish the book and sit layered in dust and grime, with generations wandering by you looking for help. The book’s last image burns into your mind, as unforgettable as any. But Travels with Charley? It’s got something a little different. A nod toward a forgotten life. A friendly romp. The Grapes of Wrath is Important. Travels with Charley is essential.

As you’ll see in the next match-up, there’s no loser here. Just one better winner.

Travels with Charley

The Winner:
Travels with Charley – John Steinbeck

Gilead – Marilynn Robinson
Rabbit Angstrom – John Updike

The Grapes of Wrath was one of the books I thought had a shot at it all. It all just matters who you come up against, really. When comparing the two Steinbeck books against each other, Travels with Charley seemed more redeeming. More memorable. Ultimately a better favorite.

But now, we have two potential winners, facing off in the first round. This is a heavyweight title bout – Foreman vs. Ali, if you will. The loser is out too early. The winner faces what could be the greatest travel novel ever written in the second round.

So where do I go? What do I choose? In a different set up, these two could meet as the final pairing. Gilead is easily the most beautiful novel I’ve ever read. And Rabbit Angstrom isn’t just a novel – it’s a life, four decades of one man’s fight for the right to be whom he wants to be.

What wins? Beauty or life?

Let’s take a look. Gilead has an awkward, totally original and totally brilliant pace that actually forces you to read differently. You read slower than you might otherwise. You enjoy every word, the pacing mimicking the feelings of its 70-plus-old pastor author. And with that slower pace, you find yourself sinking into his life – his paranoia, his misfortune, his beautiful life and his outlook on theology and relationships and communications. He and his father move on through his flashbacks, he and his son move forward with little time left.

There is a nearly 70-year gap between father and son. John Amos re-married late, conceived late, and now, because of his short amount of time, he is writing everything down in a notebook. He is writing everything for his son – a son he’ll never see grow up – and his wife, who he barely understand yet loves with everything he has.

As the relationships intertwine, you find yourself hoping things work out. You find yourself struggling to understand how things could be so unfair – for both father and son – and you keep bracing yourself for the inevitable.

What about Rabbit Angstom, though? Here we have one man. One life. And at the same time, you have one nation. You have four decades of history. Each of the four books within Rabbit Angstrom illustrate how our nation can operate on both an idyllic and chaotic level at all times.

Each novel was written at the turn of the century. The late 50s find Rabbit at home, trying to understand domestic life and, ultimately, running away from it. The late 60s find him twisted up in the counterculture, an unwilling participant who can’t even get his own politics straight. The late 70s find him turning to 80s wealth with a fervor and purpose, and with the final book he gets ready to retire and rest, a heart attack waiting to happen, a spectator to the quickly changing pre-90s world.

The four books together make for an amazing case study into modern man. You see more than just the filth and promise of everyman – you see the internal thoughts and workings of our nation. Each book is a time capsule. Together, they play off of each other like a well seasoned ensemble cast.

This isn’t the most difficult decision I’ll make, but it’s certainly the first. Beauty? Or life? It’s too bad that these books had to face now. If a double-elimination tournament was formed, there’s a good chance that they’d meet again.

With no double-elimination, and a choice to be made, I have to go in a direction I’m sure I’ll regret in a few days. I’m enamored with beauty. But when it comes to great novels, I’ll always choose the character I remember over the prose I can’t forget.

Rabbit Angstrom

The Winner:
Rabbit Angstrom – John Updike

You Shall Know Our Velocity! – Dave Eggers
Beowulf – Seamus Heaney

So say this match-up was based on something different. Not on how much I enjoyed the book or how strongly I hold dear the winner, but instead on how important it is in the general canon of published literature. Let’s say instead of young spirited writer vs. nameless bard remade by odd sounding translator, this match-up was work of non-descript fiction vs. the first and greatest epic poem ever written in the English Language. Sure, you had Homer, but this is Beowulf – THE Beowulf – a tome so resilient and long-lasting that not even alien CD effects and Angelina Jolie could kill it.

The battle would be a no-brainer. Beowulf would smite the upstart You Shall Know Our Velocity with its mighty sword, displaying its author’s head on a spike crafted from Elvin gold, circling the troops to eat roasted beast and drink spoiled mead until each warrior felt as if his own head was smoted. Or smited? Or smitled? Smote. Whatever.

Regardless of how valiant the weakling Eggers could withstand the onslaught of awkward names – HROTHGAR! GRENDEL! – he wouldn’t stand a chance. His legacy of maddening plot twists and short short stories would be cut, well, short. The epic poem would reign supreme, and, save a draining battle against Steinbeck, move ahead to the finals, stopping only to knock the head off of Harry Potter.

But, it’s not based on history. And while I enjoyed Beowulf, I enjoyed You Shall Know Our Velocity more. Sorry, canon of literature. Better luck next time.

You Shall Know…

The Winner: You Shall Know Our Velocity! – Dave Eggers

The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl

Um. Duh.

The Road

The Winner: The Road – Cormac McCarthy

This was lovingly handwritten on April 18th, 2008