Monday, February 21, 2011

2011 Tournament of Books: The Brackets

In the pursuit of my eager and vaguely pitiful quest to become the Joe Lunardi of The Tournament of Books, here are some observations on the final brackets for 2011. (Indeed, I am spending so much time thinking about The Rooster that I am sure to be awarded an honorary degree in ornithology).

I still have a handful of the finalists to finish before my full handicapping sheet is ready, but let's have a look at the notable matchups and judge-placements. In no particular order:

1. Most Intriguing First Round Match-Up: A Visit From the Goon Squad v. Skippy Dies
Terrible luck I think for Skippy Dies. (and yes, I am referring to these books as if they were sentient beings. Reason? Skippy Dies has sat on my lap. Paul Murray has not. QED). I thought Skippy Dies had a chance to advance a couple of rounds, but Goon Squad is a terrible match-up, since it is both more formally innovative and just as beloved by readers. I thought it was better than The Finkler Question, but it was seeded as a 3 to Finkler's 1. Note: the winner of this match-up should make it to the semifinals, since I don't think Savages or The Finkler Question will put up much resistance.

2. Award Winners Get the 1 Seeds
There are a lot of tough first round matches for my favorites, mostly because the major award winners were placed in the protected positions; this pushed some books that had considerably more critical and commercial success into the middle of the bracket to duke it out amongst themselves. The upside is that if you are So Much for That and can get out of your first round, then the second round against a one seed is not as tough as it might be. 

3. Best Potential Quarterfinal Match-Up: Freedom v. Room
Veeeeeeeeeeery interesting. Reader darling up against the dauphin of American literature. With the right judge, Room could win this, but Matt Dellinger is a journalist/non-fiction guy and I suspect that Franzen's social commentary will appeal to him more than Donogue's page-turning plot. Plus, there's the gender thing (watch for that as you fill out your brackets. When in doubt, pick the author with the same gender as the judge).

4. Whither Weiner?
Part of me really thought they were going to put Weiner in a position to judge Franzen. I both wanted this and feared it. For good or for ill, though, Weiner gets the Room v. Bad Marie first-rounder, which I expect to go to Room, though Bad Marie presents an interesting opponent. More interesting than the winner here will be Weiner's explanation. 

5. Most Favorable Seed: So Much for That
The right side of the bracket seems much lighter than the left. Super Sad True Love Story seems poised to get to the final, but So Much for That, as a three seed, only has to get through a book about horses, one about a white dude in a mid-life crisis, and a poetry collection to make the semis. 

6. Head-Scratching Judge Placement
There is an excellent chance that the lead-singer of a largely unknown alternative rock band will be the one deciding between Freedom and A Visit From the Goon Squad. This would be like James Salter deciding between The Black Eyed-Peas and Taylor Swift for the Grammy for Best Album. I like having a couple of judging wild cards but not this late in the game. 

7. Applause-Inducing Judge Placement
I really like Audience Judge Catherine George's match. I don't think either of these books is going to do much in the tournament, but these two books are screaming for a struggling MFA to judge them. My sense is that someone who has a draft of something trying to be The Great Canadian Novel in the drawer will be more sympathetic to Bloodroot than The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, but the restraint and polish of Lemon Cake has its appeal. I am disconcertingly fascinated by this. 

8. Zombie Round Chaos
My uneducated guess is that A Visit from the Goon Squad and Room will be the Zombie books. I didn't think about the ramifications of the Zombie round in my earlier observations on the short-list, but the prospect of Goon Squad getting a 1-Up late in the game makes it, to my mind, the sharp's bet to take home the poultry. 

Alright, that's it for now. Back to getting through the whole list before March 6. Let me know if anything else about the brackets caught your eye.

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  1. Hmmm, I was just going to choose based upon cover art :)

  2. Excellent observations. Also mourning first round match-up for Skippy as that was my great hope for a winner behind the highly-deserving Nox that will not rise to its rightful place for obvious reasons. Bad Marie is my dark horse favorite here, and I will go out on a limb and say it can take the(in my opinion) less-deserving Room. I also need to read faster. Right around the corner now.

  3. Add me to the sympathy for Skippy Dies club (even though I greatly enjoyed Goon Squad as well). It was my Zombie Round pick, though, so hopefully it can get back in the game even if it gets knocked out off the bat.

    Also, I agree with what you say about So Much for That, and while as a whole it is superior to Next, that 50/60-page ending climax to the latter is totally enthralling and just might push it over the top depending on the judge.

  4. I thought Skippy Dies was worlds better than Goon Squad. I'm not ready to offer my sympathies yet.

    Sadly, I think I'm only on pace to finish 8 of the 16 before the tournament begins. Makes it a little harder to weigh in.

  5. I love your analysis, and would add my own but I only managed to read one of the entries (Goon Squad) and the Shteyngart that was excerpted in the New Yorker.

    This may be the only prize in literature that is truly earned.

  6. Clint-
    You know that was a thing last year, don't you? One of the judges did that.

    Maybe I am going a little nuts, but part of me thinks NOX might make a run; it's so different and beautiful.

    Hmmm. Maybe I am underestimating the Skippy Diehards and it has a choice at reanimation. I'd prefer to see it there than Room.

    Which 8?

    You may have well read the finalists (in part).

    And I agree.

  7. Really late to the game here, Ape - but enjoyed your analysis. (Incidentally, what percentage of people who read this do you think understood your Joe Lunardi reference?)

    You're right - the most shocking thing to me is Super Sad getting a #1 seed. Terrible. I think there's a chance Bloodroot could make the semis - you're right, the right side of the bracket is very weak. I don't know who Matt Dellinger is, but he's got his hands full with the Freedom vs. Room bout!

  8. Greg-
    Well, there's you, me, Clint.....and that might be it. So three out of a few hundred. Though how many college hoop fans would get a Tournament of Books reference?

    A comic novel makes it to the finals about every other year, so don't sleep on SUPER SAD.

  9. I am late to the comments too. You should be offered a position as official commentator (in addition to, not replacement of, the excellent Kevin Guilefoile and John Warner). Perhaps you could replace their statistician who, it appears, is not around this year.

    On the books, I have only read 7 of the 16 (but should finish 3, maybe 4, more before tipoff). Those I have read are: Freedom, Next, Kapitoil, Savages, The Particular Sadness, Bad Marie, and Model Home. I have been saving the favorites on the theory that I should, at least, be able to finish most of them before they are eliminated.

    While I have more affection for Kapitoil than Freedom, I probably wouldn't advance it myself. It is simply not a better book. I am cheering for Bad Marie, I don't like what I know about Room and I enjoyed Bad Marie. With the right judge, it could pull an upset. I think Savages would have had a shot, but Baldwin has a pretty solid track record picking the respected literary over the commercial pulp.

    Beyond that, my reading limits me to saying Bloodroot should best Lemon Cake and Shteyngart's novel should not have much trouble with Model Home if Super Sad is at all super.

    Finally, (advert) I am hosting a ToB pool where you pick the winners and, if you are Lunardi, you can win a couple books. Follow my name for details. (/advert)

    Thanks for the great coverage and discussion!

  10. Well, the lead singer of the Walkmen Hamilton Whatsit (blanking on his name and the internet's too laggy for another tab) is, by all accounts, very well-read and intelligent about literature. I thought his picks for The Millions' Year in Reading were great and very well explained. No complaints from me if he ends up a late-round judge. Part of what I like about this tournament is the feeling that it might actually speak for The Readers more than the prize committees do; Hamilton, at least, is a verifiable reader.

    I hope Particular Sadness loses quickly. It was the bitterest disappointment of this year's bunch (at least of the 9 I've read).

  11. Great speculating. I'm happy to have found this blog. The ToB always introduces me to new authors, not necessarily debut novelists -- although there are usually some of those -- but new to me. This year I'm discovering other followers of the tourney who have blogs. A new dimension to the fun! Bravo.

    With the first week and the 1st day of the 2nd week having been decided, as I write this, Ape's predictions have mostly been validated.
    However, it now looks like Goon Squad will march its way deep into the contest without going the Zombie route. Many people, including me, were surprised that Skippy didn't knock out Goon Squad.

    I wish they didn't close the Zombie round voting so far in advance of the tournament. January 26, this year, was the last day for Zombie voting.

    It's like they expect us to follow The Morning News all year around! Sorry, I wish it were more interesting to read -- but were it not for the ToB, I wouldn't even know about the Morning News.

    Why vote for Zombies before any particular book has been eliminated? Doesn't make sense to me. I suspect lots of us would love to be able to vote for Skippy now to be one of the two Zombies this year -- but it's too late. The ToB prides itself on openness, reader participation -- but then the running in the Zombie race is off-bounds for those who come to the ToB around the time the action begins.

    I know we'll probably get an update at the end of this week -- in the stats report -- as to which books are now in the top spots to be this year's Zombie picks. Which makes it seem like the race to be a Zombie is ongoing. It's not. All the votes are in. If you're at the top of the Zombie picks at the end of Round Two, you're going to remain there -- unless someone eliminated in a later round has already gotten more votes.