Wednesday, March 7, 2012

So many books, so little time? Start here!

On some blog, somewhere - maybe it was on Twitter, these things are lost in the mists of time - I ran across mention of the 2012 Tournament of Books. It's a March Madness style bracket pitting various darn good novels from 2011 against each other. I'd read a few, or put them on my 'to be read' list, and many of the rest of them looked worthwhile. So I added to my list, and really, couldn't be happier with the selection. Thus far I've read 7 of the 16 titles, and started Swamplandia twice only to put it down twice. (I hear such good about it. It really ought to be up my alley. But I'm just not captivated. Has anyone read it? Yay or nay?)

The two I most recently finished are both slim and weighty, focused on unprivileged youths in small communities beset by natural disasters. Otherwise, they're vastly different in tone, subject, and style.

Nathacha Appanah's The Last Brother is set on Mauritius towards the end of WWII. Raj is an intelligent but weak nine-year-old when his older and younger brothers are killed during flooding at the sugar cane plantation where his family scraped out a life. His parents move him to the center of the island, where his abusive father begins work as a prison guard. Unbeknownst to Raj - or to most of the islanders - the prison is guarding a group of Jewish refugees who were turned away from Palestine and have no other home. When Raj is confined to the prison hospital to recover from a beating, he befriends a Czech boy named David. Although Raj knows nothing about the war, or the Jews, or why a boy a year older than him would be smaller than him, the two find common ground in imaginative games, exploration of their landscapes, and the little French each knows. After a cyclone rips the community apart, Raj helps David escape, which propels them on a fraught and sorrowful journey based on an elusive hope. Appanah's translator Geoffrey Strachan handles her words tenderly, I can tell. Each of her paragraphs, her scenes, is crafted with a precise balance that traps me on an island off Africa for the duration.

Jessmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones is set in rural Mississippi in the days leading up to and through Hurricane Katrina. The ungrounded but laser-sharp fourteen-year-old Esch has spent half her life raising her baby brother, whose birth ended their mother's life, and navigating minefield-heavy relationships with her father, her older brothers, and their omnipresent friends. As the novel opens, her father is obsessively trying to fortify their ramshackle home in preparation for the hurricane, her brother's prized fighting pit bull is giving birth, and Esch is only beginning to suspect that she's pregnant. Twelve days later, when the novel closes, the hurricane's destructive force is, at least, at an end, but Esch and her family have more than the physical rebuilding to attend to. In the interim, Esch's close observations and interest in Greek mythology, coupled with Ward's lyrical language and tight structure, forced me past each character's facade and into a complex human reality that keeps my eyes open long after I shut the book.

What have you read from the Rooster list? What will you put on your list? The tournament starts tomorrow, with The Sense of an Ending up against Devil All the Time. Since I haven't read Devil, and I liked Ending, I'll hope Barnes goes on. Or maybe I'll hope Pollock wins, to encourage me to read his novel soon.

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