Tournament of Books commentary

Tournament of Books commentary for 3-16-17 by Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John: I still think The Underground Railroad is the favorite, but not nearly as overwhelming as I would have said entering the tourney. You and I get the rest of the opening round off as our bookseller commentators take over for the final two matches, starting with Sue Kowalski and Jenny Fischer from The Bookstore, the pride of Glen Ellyn, Ill., and one of the very earliest retail outlets to champion the Tournament of Books. They’ll be commenting on a battle of debuts: The Nix and We Love You, Charlie Freeman, judged by writer Lili Loofbourow.

Kevin: I know The Bookstore well, and Glen Ellyn is close enough to my own little town for me to consider Sue and Jenny the home team. I’m much looking forward to what they have to say tomorrow.

Commentary for 3-17-17 by Jenny Fischer and Sue Kowalski

Jenny Fischer: We are a couple of booksellers from Glen Ellyn, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago. Our 1,200-square-foot store, improbably named The Bookstore, has been on Main Street since 1960. We are passionate about books and reading, but not exactly renowned as writers. So this whole exercise has us a little nervous. But we love the Tournament of Books, so we were thrilled to be invited to provide this commentary.

Sue Kowalski: We’re passionate readers all right, but I’m such a non-writer that I need to be forced to fill out the staff pick cards that we put in all of our favorite books. I was a math major in college and did that just to avoid any more book reports.

Jenny: And before becoming a bookseller 19 years ago I taught second grade—no need for big words.

Sue: This reminds me of what I love about the ToB: When I finish a book, I have a terrible time articulating what I liked or didn’t like about it. I rely on my favorite book critics as well as some of these judges to help me explain my feelings. With that being said, let’s talk about this judgment!

Jenny: I hoped against hope that The Nix would be the winner. It was smart, funny, and timely. Sometimes when authors try to fit 40 topics into one book it just annoys me, but not in this case. I loved the back and forth in time and subject. I laughed out loud so many times that a group of girlfriends I was vacationing with wanted me to read a funny selection aloud. I chose the scene where Laura ends up with the chunk of brontosaurus burger in her mouth. I thought it was hilarious. They didn’t ask for any more.

Sue: Oh, I wonder why. I also laughed out loud and at the same time felt the pain of many of the characters. There were so many abandonments and losses of children, parents, and friends. These themes really paralleled We Love You, Charlie Freeman.

Jenny: You and I are both suckers for heartbreaking family stories. There were pages I felt Nathan Hill was writing as I read. How could a book that was started in 2006 be so spot-on for 2017? From an abhorrent politician to protesters to social media that consumes our time and news, this book has it all. At the very end, Samuel and his editor, Periwinkle, talk about “alternative facts”: What’s true? What’s false? In case you haven’t noticed, the world has pretty much given up on the old Enlightenment idea of piecing together the truth based on observed data. Reality is too complicated and scary for that. Instead, it’s way easier to ignore all the data that doesn’t fit your preconceptions and believe all data that does. … It’s liberal tolerance meets dark ages denialism. It’s very hip right now.

Sue: That quote is almost too perfect for these days of Sean Spicer trying to justify what’s coming out of the White House. Don’t get me started on his boss. I’m with you in that I wholeheartedly agree with this decision, but we have been remarking that We Love You, Charlie Freeman is stuck in our heads.

Jenny: And I don’t want him stuck there. He creeped me out as he wedged his way into the Freeman family, taking away the sisters’ stability and home. Although it wasn’t the chimp’s fault; Laurel and Charles let it happen. I needed to look up why the doctor constantly chewed on chalk—“It was the yellowiest, craggiest, driest tongue I’d ever seen.” Yuck! I know this is an important and powerful story of race and history. But I saw it more as a family story.

Sue: This brings up another point about the timeliness of these novels. We Love You, Charlie Freeman has a lot to do with how we deal with history; Charlotte’s friend even states, “History is a weapon.” And it should be. So how do two lily-white booksellers internalize the serious messages that Kaitlyn Greenidge conveys and really understand them?

Jenny: We just came home from Winter Institute in Minneapolis, a four-day educational event for independent booksellers from around the world. The keynote speaker was Roxane Gay (a previous ToB contender and judge!) Anyone who has heard her knows she is a powerhouse when it comes to talking about race and diversity. And her point was that we need to stop talking and start doing. She said, “For the foreseeable future, everything we do is political as readers, as writers, as booksellers, as people.” Funny how we both “voted” for The Nix but can’t stop talking about We Love You, Charlie Freeman.

Sue: But I really did love The Nix. Judge Loofbourow writes about how ambitious both of these novels are with respect to having all of the storylines and perspectives pay off, and I echo her statement, “That’s where The Nix shines.” I appreciated every thread of that story, particularly the historical perspectives, in part because I’m old enough to remember the bomb shelters, the 1968 Chicago riots, video game history (I’ve had them all since the beginning of video game time). Oh no—I’ve just let on that I’m not a young hip bookseller!

On the other hand, the Nymphadora story in We Love You, Charlie Freeman just left me cold. When I think about how much I want to discuss that book (and we are doing a lot of that), I’m leaving out Nymphadora.

Jenny: As we’ve hashed this out, it’s evident that both books have made a lasting impression. Periwinkle says, “In today’s market, most readers want books with accessible, linear narratives that rely on big concepts and easy life lessons.” Not true! It’s all the confusing, complicated, and disconnected parts that challenge us.

Sue: WAIT! (Who’s that detective that keeps coming back with one more thing?) I don’t feel I’ve given Judge Loofbourow enough praise for her well-written decision. It’s one thing to say we agree with it, but I was so impressed with how she could pull together all those ideas, summarizing plots, themes, you name it into one judgment. It’s what I love about this tournament!

Kevin Guilfoile: Multitudes of gratitude to Sue and Jenny for stepping up today. Terrific job. The Bookstore has been a longtime booster of the ToB, and Sue was directly responsible for the inclusion of Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing on the 2015 shortlist. That was a book I hadn’t even been aware of and it became one of my favorite novels of that year. On Monday the opening round wraps up as Mister Monkey by Francine Prose takes on the winner of our pre-tourney play-in match, Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue. Pamela Ribon will be doing the judging. She was one of the screenwriters of Moana, y’all! I tell you what, I dreaded taking my kids to that movie, but I loved it. Borrow a kid and go see it.