WIBR Tournament – Round 3

The Final Four is right around the corner. Let’s cut this group in half, shall we?

Click here for the entire bracket.

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

Housekeeping – Marilynn Robinson
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth – Chris Ware

It’s funny how we come across the books we love – and how random those choices can be.

Housekeeping was a book on the periphery of eventuality for a long time. Two years ago we celebrated Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead (which lost to Rabbit Angstrom in the first round) as the One Book South Dakota. I read it, wrote about it and fell in love with it.

It could have ended there, but a coworker told me that I absolutely had to read Housekeeping – how it’s better than Gilead (it’s not, but close) and blah blah. At the SD Festival of Books, I purchased a copy, had it signed by Robinson and placed it on my shelf.

It could have ended there, as well. But while I sat in the hospital waiting for Sierra to be born, I read Nick Hornby’s Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, a collection of his Believer articles. He read Housekeeping, loved it, and spurred me to reach for it on the shelf.

I read it and loved it too.

Jimmy Corrigan was fueled by some McSweeney’s love as well – he designed the cover of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 13, a book I received because McSweeney’s was six months late in fulfilling my subscription to Believer.

I loved his style and looked him up. I purchased a copy of Voltaire’s Candide simply because he designed the cover. And naturally, I had to have Jimmy Corrigan, widely accepted as his best work and one of the most respected graphic novels of the 2000s.

It didn’t sit on my shelf. Graphic novels are easy to read, so I started it just hours after taking it out of the box it was shipped in.

What I’m saying is that there’s a lot of love put into a book selection before it’s read. There’s the act of locating the books and the fight to make time to read it. Opinions are gauged, budgets planned, reviews read. After a while, you either impulsively pull the trigger by ordering it online or grabbing it at a store or you wait until you find it at a used bookstore, knowing you’d like to have it on hand but may never read it.

A lot of love went into both of these selections. A chain reaction of factors led to each book’s purchase and completion.

After all of that, it’s hard to shut one of these out. But I have to.

And it makes it so much harder to know that a Final Four showdown of Pulitzer Prize winners is being shot down as well.

Jimmy Corrigan

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

Bracket Two:

The Whistling Season – Ivan Doig
East of Eden – John Steinbeck

The Whistling Season was selected as 2007’s One Book South Dakota (in fact, it was Gilead’s successor). East of Eden was selected as one of Oprah’s books – in fact, it was a return to the classics, if I remember correctly.

As much as I love One Book South Dakota, it doesn’t really carry the influence (though, admittedly, it also doesn’t carry the stigma) that Oprah’s book club does. Which leads part of me to want to go for the upset here, choosing The Whistling Season over the book everyone knew was going to make it to the Final Four.

But I can’t. Ivan’s a nice guy, and I refuse to let him hang in the wind. The true fact is that this bracket was as chalk as can be. There was no way East of Eden wasn’t going to make it out, which is pretty evident in the fact that I haven’t bothered to write anything about why I’ve chosen it.

Here’s why I choose East of Eden. Because it’s a wonderfully layered novel by one of the English language’s great masters, a book that doesn’t seem as long as it is, a book that looks deep into the psyche of an entire family of fuckups, a family that is doomed to repeat its own mistakes on and on ad infinitum.

It’s Steinbeck’s love letter to the place where he grew up. And it’s as candid as he ever really got (notwithstanding those times when he was accompanied by a dog. See: Travels with Charley.)


The Winner:
East of Eden – John Steinbeck

Bracket Three:

Rabbit Angstrom – John Updike
The Road – Cormac McCarthy

Hey – speaking of Pulitzer Prize winners, here’s two! In fact, four of the final eight have all won Pulitzer Prizes (these two, Steinbeck and Marilynn Robinson). What heady company!

Okay. I’ve been dreading this. Either one could win. And I’m convinced that the winner of this bracket will win the entire tournament. The entire tournament! This is like Spurs/Suns 2007, a battle of heavyweights that will ultimately determine the entire tournament, leaving the other three Final Four combatants shaking in their boots.

But at this point – right now, as I type this – I still haven’t chosen a winner. I’ve even placed links to both book images in the code, not knowing which I’ll eventually choose.

There are two things I could do. I could go on and on about the merits of both of these books, dragging on forever (too late!), ultimately coming to a hackneyed decision based on some triviality like a hangover I had while reading page 346 or a comment that my father made regarding someone with a similar name as the author.

Instead, I will tell you why this decision is so hard.

After reading The Road, I dubbed it “The Best Book I’ve Read in the Past Five Years.”


Now, my dilemma: I can either back up that statement wholeheartedly or turn my back on it and choose the other book that qualifies under The Best Book, etc.

I do have an out, though. The Best Book statement was made in March 2007. I read Rabbit Angstrom in April 2007. Continuity, my friends.

The Road really is the greatest book I’ve read from the past five years. It’s haunting and simple, saying so much with so little. That’s what I loved about it – the fears weren’t spelled out for us – they were implied, allowing our minds to create whatever fears we had and transpose them into the story. It was well worth the praise it received. It’s a required read, one of my top ten of all time.

However, Rabbit Angstrom, for all of his faults, sticks with me. The effort of reading all four of the Rabbit books at once, bound together not as four separate sections but as one collected life, made Rabbit part of my circle of friends. I know more about that one character – have watched his rise and fall, his fears and bold accusations, every wrong word and misguided step – than I know about a lot of people in real life.

They’re time capsules, beautifully written and still striking today. The Road is a wonderful book. But Rabbit Angstrom is wonderfuller.

(P.S. – this is a case where both books are equal. So equal, in fact, that if you would ask me which book was better tomorrow, there’s a good chance that The Road would win. Call it a mental coin flip.)

Rabbit Angstrom

The Winner:
Rabbit Angstrom – John Updike

Bracket Four:

Then We Came to the End – Joshua Ferris
Black Swan Green – David Mitchell

My past vs. my future. Sad kid trying to fit in vs. copywriter.

As this tournament has gone on, Then We Came to the End has gained momentum I never thought it would have. It’s still pretty fresh in my mind, which helps – like a basketball team that had a rough start of the year forging ahead with a winning streak into the playoffs.

This time, Black Swan Green isn’t saved by a less spectacular book of short stories or a coin flip. When it comes to Then We Came to the End, David Mitchell’s just not in the same league (WIBR-wise).

Then We Came Etc.

The Winner:
Then We Came to the End – Joshua Ferris

This was lovingly handwritten on April 28th, 2008