The Morning News

The Morning News Tournament of Books

The Tournament of Books is an annual battle royale between 16 of the best novels published in the previous year.

A new match is played here each weekday in March.

The 2009 ToB Contenders List

The 2009 Judges & Brackets

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Previous years: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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Kevin: You and I are having a tough tourney so far. Four books to this point and none that either one of us is really excited about, although I’m going to have to let you carry the water on Netherland, as it was the only book in the ToB I didn’t read a word of. The reasons for this are mostly arbitrary, as it was one of the books I was looking forward to reading. It still is, but it will have to happen post-tourney as I simply ran out of time. If O’Neill makes it back in the Zombie Round, maybe I will have read it by then. But probably not. I’m tired.

I remember emailing you as I was reading A Partisan’s Daughter to say that I was enjoying it (I read this one before you did) and then emailing you again when I was done saying I was disappointed in the ending. I guess I enjoy puzzle stories with (or about) unreliable narrators and I enjoy stories with ends that are ambiguous or don’t tie up so neatly, but here I didn’t much go for the combination of the two. De Bernieres is a very good writer, I think, but when it was over I was sort of flummoxed and disappointed. Of course that happens more likely than I should admit.

John: Netherland recently won the PEN/Faulkner award. It was one of the most highly praised novels of the year and a Google search of “Netherland Gatsby” yields about 100,000 hits, the first of which is Michiko Kakutani’s rave in the New York Times.

Unlike 2666, where the book’s appeal remains a near total mystery to me, I think I at least understand why Netherland has collected so many garlands. With its articulate and erudite narrator delivering encomiums to the city’s boroughs, it’s essentially porn for hyper-literate New Yorkers, i.e., the sort of people who review books for the New York Times.

If sentences like this one (describing Times Square)
And whereas others felt mocked and diminished by the square’s storming of the senses and detected malevolence or Promethean impudence in the molten progress of the news tickers and in the fifty-foot visages that looked down from vinyl billboards and in the twinkling shouted advertisements for drinks and Broadway musicals, I always regarded these shimmers and vapors as one might the neck feathers of certain of the city’s pigeons—as natural, humble sources of iridescence.
…sound kind of magical, then this is the book for you.

I, on the other hand, am largely in agreement with Kate Schlegel. I found the whole book kind of phony. Our narrator is a Dutch-born, commodities analyst and yet he sees the city with the eyes and soul of a poet. The novel is kind of textbook of New York provincialism, something you and I discussed previously, and I felt like pulling just about every sentence at both ends to straighten them out at least a little.

I’m not saying that Netherland is a bad book, it just isn’t nearly as good a book as our privileged circles would have us believe. If reviewers are going to break out the “Gatsby-card,” I think they’ve got to ask themselves if they really think people will be reading this book 80 years from now. I have to believe even the most ardent fans of Netherland wouldn’t claim this.

In the inaugural ToB, because I am a cretin, I did De Bernieres a dirty by advancing I am Charlotte Simmons past Birds Without Wings in a 2nd Round match-up, so I’d like to be able to say that I agree with Judge Schlegel’s final verdict, but as many qualms as I may have about Netherland, in the end I just think that A Partisan’s Daughter is not a very good book. I was with it for the first half, but De Bernieres writes himself into a corner that he gets out of by pretending the corner wasn’t actually there. It’s a cheat and it bugs me.

Kevin: One of the more interesting parts of this experience was reading 15 books in a row and thinking about them all in relation to one another. I suppose all awards judges go through a similar thing, but we weren’t just trying to decide which is our favorite novel or which are our five favorites. We were trying to decide which was our 9th favorite. And our 13th favorite. It was different from any reading experience I ever had, and I found my opinions of books changing, sometimes radically as I moved deeper and deeper into the contenders. Where a City of Refuge kept climbing in my personal standings well after I had read it, A Partisan’s Daughter kept getting lapped down the stretch. It’s an appropriate fate I guess for a book that, in my opinion (and yours I think), just didn’t finish well.

Here at the ToB we give preference to major award winners in the seeding process and if O’Neill had won the PEN/Faulkner before we made out the brackets, Netherland almost certainly would have been a number-one seed (it likely would have taken A Mercy’s place). It could be interesting when this is all over to look back and see how things might have been different.

Reader Comments

On March 10, 2009 at 8:27 AM Amy said…

Having read neither book, I must subjectively agree with the guest judge on the basis that she, like me, is a knitter.

On March 10, 2009 at 11:14 AM audrey said…

i, too, have read neither book. however, i make a habit of rooting for the underdog, so it looks like i'm in agreement. mostly though, i want to see junot diaz's t-shirt.

On March 10, 2009 at 12:27 PM Karen said…

Am I the only who wants to see how the peanut gallery is voting without having to cast a vote to do so? If I haven't read the books, I don't want to taint the vote...

I know that's nutty, but there it is.

On March 10, 2009 at 12:54 PM Miriam said…

I'm with Karen. I haven't read either book and so won't vote, but I really want to see how others are voting . . .

Netherlands' been getting mixed reviews in the places I hang. Some love it - others, not so much and both for the same reasons (just stated differently).

On March 10, 2009 at 1:28 PM Stacy Lienemann said…

I don't care about tainting the vote. I don't know anything about the NCAA men's teams and I still enter my bracket every year. At least I've read some reviews of every book.

Everyone who I talked to says they hated A Partisan's Daughter so I'm disagreeing with this decision.

On March 10, 2009 at 2:14 PM Jennifer said…

I haven't read Netherland yet, so while reading this I was getting really turned off by it. That is, until it was compared to Remainder, which I loved, so I'll have to check it out now.

On March 10, 2009 at 3:41 PM gareth said…

I loved Netherland, and am not a NYer. Parts seemed a bit precious for sure, but I loved the writing, and frankly, the cricket gangster was a great character. Also, the protagonist's relationship to sports meant a lot to me.

The, 'soul of a poet,' criticism above doesn't work for me, as frankly, I know a number of financial people with wide interests, from classical piano to street-art to gardening. Many of these people use their money to pursue other interests- say, cricket, or perhaps, poetry. Just doesn't float, for me, as a criticism.

I recall one NY Times review calling the book, 'small boned,' which I think is apt. Which, in this book's case, is both good and bad...

I haven't read the Louis D book, but nothing he's written in a while has excited me.

On March 10, 2009 at 5:27 PM John Warner said…

gareth makes a fair point on the "soul of a poet" front. There are certainly people from all walks of life with deep interests in artistic and other other endeavors. Just as there's commodities traders with the soul of a poet, there's poets with the soul of a hockey coach.

That said, my qualm on this front with Netherland is that there's nothing in the book that establishes this particular character as one of those financial types with the soul of a poet, or more accurate, the background and interest in expressing himself so poetically. It's not that financiers/poets are not possible, it's that there's nothing to make me believe in this particular one. He seems to me, really, like a thinly veiled amanuensis for the author, Joesph O'Neill, something the New York Times profile of O'Neill was only too happy to reinforce. This doesn't invalidate the achievements of the book, but it is a factor that kept me from fully giving myself over to the experience.

On March 10, 2009 at 7:41 PM Nakul said…

I was quite fascinated by the financier's 'soul of a poet', and surely it was at least partly explained by his having read classics at university, or whatever it was that led him to choose to study classics... Over here in Oxford, England, I keep meeting ex-classicist banker-types, and found every reason to believe in Hans.

On March 10, 2009 at 10:00 PM gareth said…

(apologies... too lazy to get, 'Netherland,' off the shelf, and get the names. So, you'll see, 'protagonist,' 'wife,' and 'cricket partner-in-crime,' to follow.)

I will say, with full disclosure, that I'm not the most reliable critic when it comes to the, 'soul of a poet,'/sports relationship.

I read, 'Netherland,' and have an opinion on Louis de Bernieres. Yet, I work in sports, spending my days working on sports television. That is my job, which I LOVE- but, I'm the only one in my office, who quotes, 'Moby Dick.' Hell, I had to hide tears in a truck in D.C. during an NFL game when I heard David Foster Wallace committed suicide. So, on a personal level, I might connect to him a little TOO much. So, not to pile on that one comment.

I DID think the book did a good job in depicting love and a marriage that was crumbling- from what might seem like outside forces, but were actually interior forces that were just waiting to come out. And, Hans kind of showed some guts and stood up for himself to his wife, just when he was about to appear like a spineless chump who was pushed in whicheverway a stronger force- his wife, his cricket partner in crime- shoved him. And, that sort of change made him seem like a real... human being.

On March 11, 2009 at 1:25 PM kate said…

I have to agree with the above criticism -- comodities traders can have poet's souls.also, i haven't read 'a partisan's daughter' but i will say that i very much believed hans as a character who, vision and ability to communicate fogged by depression, is floating though more than interacting with the world. i am only about 2/3s of the way through, but i love watching the moments when he rises to the surface in his anger at and frustration with his wife. i also did not completely disbelieve the chuck underworld plot line, and where, upon scrutiny, i don't literally believe the reality -- this is fiction, right? and i think with fiction we buy into world's that move us, not ones that are literally accurate. when, having gotten to know hans as a gentle though fumbling fellow, he describes his wife's coldness in the wake of his mother's death -- i found this a moving and realistic description of the ways in which relationships can be confused by the internal meanderings of the individuals involved. anyway, i love this book so far. but i also loved that description of times square, so i guess i'm going to agree to disagree on this one.

On March 13, 2009 at 11:47 PM Sam said…

Others have defended the poetic soul of commodities traders, but I guess no one but me is brave enough to say you can also be Dutch and poetic.

Didn't read the de Bernieres, but I did read and admire Netherland (and Remainder too). I'd read it again.

The main criticism of Netherland seems to be that other people liked it.

On March 14, 2009 at 9:05 PM Leesa said…

I read both books and agree with this decision. I found the frequent, and frequently long, digressions into cricket in Netherland distracted from the focus on the main characters and their tenuous relationships with one another.

While the drunken scene towards the end of the Partisan's Daughter seemed a very contrived plot device, the overall exploration of the relationship between the two main characters and their expectations for where the relationship might be headed, despite their understanding that both had incomplete and possibly unreliable information about the other, was compelling.

On March 15, 2009 at 12:51 PM Susan Messer said…

Re: Netherland (which I loved) and the soul of a poet question . . . for me, Hans's character grew out of the wistful loneliness of his childhood, the sense of him and his mother together alone in the world. For a boy like this, I could picture the world of numbers and numerical analysis to be a comfort. Also, I am not a sports fan of any kind, so I am used to not understanding nor expecting to understand anything about sports, to checking out when a sports conversation rises up around me (as it often does). By mentioning this here, I am saying that the cricket sections of Netherland were basically incomprehensible to me, and the fact that I didn't care about that allowed me to focus more on the relationships, what was going on with the people in those games. But we see these kinds of splits between loving and not loving a book all the time in my reading group, and one member always says something about books being magic, and the act of reading being a magical thing, and the spell of a book either draws a reader in or it doesn't, and if it doesn't, there's really nothing to be done about it. That's how it is with magic.