My own March Madness

During the month of March, I spent a lot of my recovery time reading whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I didn't pay attention to what I *should* be reading for work, and I didn't pay attention to the order in which books were added to my "to read" pile. It was lovely. I read a total of 2,489 pages - a lot of time on the couch for this slow reader.

While I cannot possibly be as crafty or write as beautifully as the judges in the Tournament of Books, I have loved following this contest online (check it out) and, since the books I read had many similarities, I wanted to copy the format.

Also, I know that if I'm going to write about a book I should do it immediately. I didn't with these books.

Round 1 Fledgling, by Octavia Butler, vs. Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler wrote the majority of her novels and short stories in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but I only discovered her this past January. If I only considered plot when looking for books to read, I would never have picked up her books. Alien species, shape shifters, time slips, and vampires don't typically hold interest for me. Yet, her prose and her capability to explore human nature are astonishing, and her perspective as an African American woman yields a tone I haven't found in any other science fiction. Her books are beautiful.

Fledgling is about a vampire who suffers amnesia after a violent attack. Octavia uses the amnesia device well to let the mystery of who Shori is and why she's so controversial unfold marvelously. Shori learns that her coven of vampires were dabbling in a bit of genetic engineering, and were trying to improve their kind. The improvement? Shori is (the first) black, and her skin gives her serious advantages but is also cause for outrage among the oldest conservative vampires.

Wild Seed is about two ...um...entities...they aren't exactly human... who live for centuries and whose fates are completely intertwined. Doro is trying to breed the best qualities into humans -much like you would breed horses- and Anyanwu is exactly the seed that Doro wants. They struggle, defy each other, hate each other, love each other and try to stay away from each other but cannot. There's a lot I'm not getting into here, but the story crosses centuries and continents - from African slave ships to American plantations and European cities and is extremely well done.

Round 1 Winner: Fledgling, by Octavia Butler for Shori's strength and honest questioning of the status quo, and easier reading.

Round 2 Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman vs. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
I heart Neil Gaiman. Heart heart heart. I liken reading his books to listening to neoclassical music, like Stravinksy's Pulcinella Suite. It sounds familiar, but the harmonies are mysterious and surprising. His books are perfectly composed, but the hints of magic, twists in character development and simple (thus outrageously hilarious) premises are surprising and delightful.

Anansi the Spider is a trickster character from West Africa, much like Brer Rabbit. Well, Anansi is alive and well in the 20th Century and living in Florida -- that is, until he died while doing a karaoke number in a dive bar. Anansi Boys tells the story of Anansi's kids -Charlie and Spider- set in modern day London and America. The book is, to quote, "a mythology for a modern age -- complete with dark prophecy, family dysfunction, mystical deceptions, and killer birds. Not to mention a lime." Neil Gaiman incorporates elements of the legends into the story, but the real joy in reading these books is discovering the humor and poignancy in everyday situations.

I read about 50 pages of American Gods. Although this is one of Gaiman's more well-known and celebrated titles, I couldn't get into it. Released from prison a day early due to his wife's untimely death, Shadow is approached on his way home by a man who seems to know more about Shadow than he should and seems to assume that Shadow is going to accept the job he's offering. Shadow, like Charlie, is just going along for the ride but for some reason, I felt like Shadow wasn't objecting to the ride enough. Or something.

By the way, if you haven't watched Stephen Colbert interview Neil Gaiman about his recent Newbery Award winning novel, The Graveyard Book , do so now. Really. Now.

Round 2 Winner: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman because I cannot resist a modern day folk tale.

Round 3 Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet vs. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Two epic works that read completely differently from each other. Pillars of the Earth reads like a dramatic thriller, Anna Karenina reads like a heavy Russian novel.

I feel like I have to defend myself. I loved Pillars. At first it felt anachronous to the time period, but given that I don't actually know what lifestyles and mannerisms of 12th Century England were like, I decided to suspend any doubt and just get into the story. And, oh, what a story. Built around the building of a cathedral, the tale is complete with passion, deceit, hatred, being screwed over by your bosses and their alliances, guilt, love. The characters (too many to go into here) may not be fully well rounded, but like Gone with the Wind, the perspective gives insight into each character's motivations for their actions, and they are all recognizeable.

Anna. Oh, Anna. First off, I should say I'm not done with it yet. Second, I have a Ukranian-American friend whose insight into the Russian psyche is affecting how I view the extended conversations about the state of the world that the upper echelons of the society engage in throughout the novel. Third, Anna's decline is so rapid given how strong she is in the beginning. Although I know that people's spirits can erode that quickly when they're carrying the agonizing weight of their mistakes on their shoulders, I'm so disappointed that I have to distance myself from her. Epic novels aren't about one storyline alone, but I've surprised myself with how much I've disconnected myself from the title character.

Ironically, Anna Karenina tells me more about the physical earth, and the landscape dictates the fate of the characters much more than Pillars of the Earth. It is also probably the better novel, if I were going to judge on technicalities. But a) I don't know enough or care enough to objectively rate novels, and b) that's not why I read anyway.

Round 3 Winner: Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet because I could not put it down.

Okay, and here is where the format falls short. I would need a fourth round for a true tournament. And I'm just gonna skip all the semi-final/zombie/final rounds and say that the book I enjoyed reading most last month was Pillars of the Earth.

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