Friday, March 4, 2011

2011 Tournament of Books: The Odds

I've finished reading the complete shortlist just under the wire. I laughed. I cried. I made statistical determinations of greatness. Here's my attempt at book-making for the first half of The Tournament of Books. I'll be posting the rest of the odds Monday morning, just in time for the starting bell on Tuesday. This is also a good time to remind you of the bracket contest happening over at Hungry Like the Woolf. If you're interested in the obsessive thinking I've done already, check out my mutterings on the longlist, the shortlist, and the brackets. Ok, enough of that. Let's do this.

In alphabetical order by title:

Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky
Chances of winning first round match: 25%
Chances of winning The Rooster: .5%

Excellent first round pairing by The Morning News: Bad Marie is a bizarro Room. Where Room has a mother and child who cannot escape their location or each other, Bad Marie has a nanny and kid who bounce around with little connection to anyone. Room is essentially a conservative book, reifying conventional beliefs about motherhood, child-reading, and how freaky men can be. Bad Marie is libertarian: the main character acts on impulse only, and we get very little sense of what she wants at all. I suspect Jennifer Weiner, the judge for this round who writes books with relatively familiar values, will go for Room. Should Bad Marie emerge from this match-up, it will be because of its seductive, elliptical main character, but this won't be enough to see it through to the end, where bigger, badder sharks  

Bloodroot by Amy Greene 
Chances of winning first round: 50%
Chances of winning The Rooster: 1%

Bloodroot has several elements that would seem, at first blush, to turn me off: child protagonists, sections labeled by speaker, agrarian mysticism, violence against women as the inciting incident, and an obvious, banal horticultural metaphor. Still, I found myself strangely compelled. For one, Greene is fantastic with setting and her rendering of life in the foothills of the Appalachians is reason enough to read Bloodroot. I think perhaps a less complicated narrative and an easing-off of the allegorical pedal would serve Greene well; she writes well enough to do without so much, well, art. Bloodroot is not quite as polished as The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, but it has a range and richness that The Particular Sadness does not. A sentence-fetishist will pick Bender; a story-seeker will go with Greene. 

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen
Chance of winning first round: 66%
Chance of winning The Rooster: 5%

Man Booker-winning
The Finkler Question is a biting and relentless parody/think-piece on the recalcitrance of contemporary anti-Semitism, which is both sublimated and periodically virulent. The main character, the nebulously goyish Julian Treslove, becomes a stage on which Jacobsen dramatizes the banal prejudice against Jews that seems destined to be with us always. It is a sobering and difficult subject that really is only made bearable by Jacobsen's caustic wit. As the title suggests, this novel doesn't have a plot so much as a thought: Jacobsen's meandering dialogue and set-pieces are an exploration of a question that doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Chances of winning first round: 95%
Chances of winning The Rooster: 33%

Messy, hyped, ambitious, and controversial, Freedom reflects contemporary America just about as well as any novel could. It is not shapely, refined, or transcendent, but frustrating, rich, and fascinating. Freedom is more mimetic than poetic, so it should be no surprise that reactions from the literary community have been schizophrenic. While Freedom was not my favorite novel of 2010, I do think it was the most interesting, and the judges' rulings will say as much about the judges as the work itself. 

Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne
Chances of winning first round: 5%
Chances of winning The Rooster: 0.5%

Another shrewd first-round paring, Kapitoil tells a relatively straight-forward story in a playful and experimental style and is revealing matched here against Franzen's conventional prose and knotty ideas. Even the hyper-logical protagonist of Kapitoil, Karim, seems to serve as a foil for the mushy liberalism of Freedom's Walter Berglund. Kapitoil, in the end, does seem to be a little much art and too little substance; Wayne's relatively benign satire cannot match Freedom's copious vision.

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
Chances of winning first round: 51%
Chances of winning The Rooster: 5%

This book about low-stakes, long-odds horse-racing is no stranger to being a long-shot; after pulling a surprise National Book Award win, Lord of Misrule has kept the momentum to find its way onto several other prestigious short-lists. Lord of Misrule will not be to the common taste; it's a peculiar work about an arcane world. The characters and action are stylized to the point of caricature and the language abstruse to the point of befuddlement. But like an acquired taste, say annis or French Canada, there is charm and 
pleasure to be found here--for the right reader.

Model Home by Eric Puchner
Chances of winning first round: 20%
Chances of winning The Rooster: .5%

Cross Freedom with the television series Weeds, and I think you'll have a sense of Model Home. It's both funnier than Freedom and weightier than Weeds, but this combination doesn't make the book complex so much as tepid. It's not a mediocre book; it's just that I feel like I've already been to the places it wants to go. 

Next by James Hynes
Chances of winning first round: 50%
Chances of winning The Rooster: 1%

Like Model Home, Next treads some well-travelled ground: the mid-life anxiety of a male American WASP. Next, though, escapes familiarity with a shocking turn that comes well-into the novel. The less said about this the better for would-be readers, but this modern Walter Mitty is forced out of his own head in a serious way. (Side note: this is one of those books that is ill-served by a digital sample, since it plays a long-game before the final payoff. Had I not been determined to make it through all of the shortlist, I probably would have deleted my Kindle sample. I would have continued, however, if I had sunk money into a print edition. This by-product of digital distribution
 had not occurred to me before). 


That's it for part one: come back Monday morning for the rest of the list.


Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

Shop Indie BookstoresVisit


  1. awesome! Nicely done, Ape. Let the games begin! (And good look to Kansas, too...)

  2. You came up with an excellent idea and the execution is phenomenal. Great job. Also, well done on finishing the shortlist. I will have read only 10 (maybe 11) by tip-off.

    Of the six of these eight that I have read, I have a hard time finding points of disagreement. I think Bloodroot may have a slightly better than 50% chance of advancing past the first round, but only slightly. I thought you highly over-estimated the chances for Next until I recalled that its first round opponent was So Much For That. I only hope you hold Freedom in too high regard, at least statistically.

    Thanks also for the link!

  3. Newest follower from the blog hop. Come and visit me at

  4. Of this bunch I've only read FREEDOM, so I don't really have much to contribute. However, I wanted to comment simply because this "But like an acquired taste, say annis or French Canada, there is charm and pleasure to be found here--for the right reader." made me laugh so much. As a Canadian, I certainly approve!

  5. I have done some numerical analysis using the multi-star ratings that readers have posted on and I have found that in a rational world unburdened by biases Kapitoil would have a 65% chance of beating Freedom. Believe it!

    Also, Bad Marie has a better chance in the first round than mentioned here; it is about 36% versus Room's 64%.

    I haven't had time to compute any more probabilities beyond these two match ups. Maybe later today or tomorrow?