2024 Tournament of Books: Play-in round

For the first time, I’ve made the effort to try to read all the Tournament of Books entries before the tournament starts instead of relying on dumb luck to let me have read perhaps two or three. Having done this, I’ve decided to do my own parallel judging (I’ve been filling out my brackets as I read) and I’ve decided to put together a series of blog posts showing my own judging of the rounds along with my evaluation of the official judging, because why not?

I’ve never really understood the whole play-in round other than it’s apparently an opportunity to expand the universe of  competing books from sixteen to eighteen, but such is life and it’s all good.

So on to the books. 

The Auburn Conference tells the story of a fictional conference bringing together an assortment of 19th century American literary greats and some of their not-so-great contemporaries. There’s some great potential here, but it felt squandered in the execution. I was particularly bothered by the choice to mix third-person with two different first-person narrators, a choice which had little to recommend it and felt more liky bad editing than anything else.

When I picked up The Librarianist, I was more impressed. I’ve read deWitt before—The Sisters Brothers—and was pleasantly surprised to see that deWitt doesn’t rely on a single trick in his panoply of writerly techniques to produce his novels, I’m guessing that’s why the “bestselling author of…” note on the cover mentions a less well-known deWitt book. There’s some danger here of falling into a too-common cliche of contemporary fiction, the magical bookseller/librarian who overcomes his personal tragedy while simultaneously changing the lives of those aroudn him for the better, and deWitt does a good job of avoiding that, even after the improbably reveal that he has a personal connection to the woman with dementia he returns to her care home in the opening section. The choice to largely structure the novel in reverse chronological order is intriguing, but in the end, I’m not sure that it really did that much.

Which brings me to The Bee Sting. I had to wait a long time to get to the top of the holds list for this book at the library (the only other book presenting this challenge was James McBride’s Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, about which more when I reach that point in the tournament process). The Bee Sting is, I think, the heftiest of the Rooster contenders this year, examining an Irish family by giving each character an extended POV section, each of which could almost be a novel on its own. The writing of each section is distinctive and it’s almost hard to believe that these are all the work of the same author, all of which builds to a conclusion both inevitible and devastating which makes it clear to me that I, at least, would advance The Bee Sting out of this round.

My judgment on the judgment

Rufi Thorpe, in her judging picked The Librarianist, which, of course, was completely the wrong choice,. I mean, yes, The Librarianist had its moments, but it didn’t measure up to The Bee Sting. But even so, this was one of the more exuberant rounds of judging and I must tip my hat to Ms Thorpe.


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