Three more tournament judges (Cecilia C., Greta U., Donna B.) took on the six Round Two books in the Niles Library’s first Tournament of Books.
Judge: Cecilia C.
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
Strout really knows how to capture a family and their ideals through her writing. She did it with Olive Kitteridge but she really hits the mark with this story of Burgess family. Dealing with tons of unresolved childhood trauma, this novel tells the tale of Susan, Jim and Bob Burgess, who come together years later in their Maine hometown to help out Susan’s son, who got involved in a legal mess.While dealing with that drama, all three siblings finally have the chance to deal with the reason they are so estranged from each other and from their hometown…the death of their father when they were all children. Strout has a knack for capturing not only small-town life, but getting right into the psyche of people, much like Richard Russo did in his early works, i.e. Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls, Straight Man. The family talks between the siblings are conversations that could resonate with families around the country…even the world. But, yet, Strout makes, at the same time, this story intimate and personal…like it could never happen to anyone else than the Burgess family. Strout’s talent is hard to describe…you will just have to read it yourself to find out. Regardless, you will be in for a great story with excellent writing and fully developed, flawed characters that jump off of the page. Get ready!
One of the most riveting, tense nonfiction books I have read in years, maybe even since Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Like Midnight, this book read more like fiction than fact. But, unlike Midnight’s story, which is the tale of one murder, Five Days is a days-long saga of pain, death, torture, utter desperation and complete fear. Set during the days right before, during and after Hurricane Katrina, when after the storm passed through New Orleans, Louisiana, causing minimal damage, the city’s badly-constructed levees broke and much of the city was submerged in foot upon foot of water. Memorial Hospital, just outside the city’s famed Garden District, is one of the many public facilities caught in the middle of this flood zone. From page one, where Fink sets the stage of how Memorial, like most hurricane-zone hospitals, became a relief centers and place of refuge from the storm, to the final pages, set against the criminal trial brought as a result of Katrina’s after effects, this book is wrought with fierce passion and constant tension that springs off the pages. I have to admit that Memorial’s finest pages are set during the storm and even more so, the hours and days during the flooding. The ending and its legal melodrama are captivating, though less so, at least for me. But, those middle chapters, the ones filled with heart-wrenching life and death decisions, are enough to make this whole book a must read.
Ruling: I choose Five Days at Memorial, because great literary fiction, though not as prevalent as it should be, comes around more often than intense, captivating nonfiction.
Judge: Greta U.
Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
The Mourning Hours by Paula Treick DeBoard
The Mourning Hours by Paula Treick DeBoard is the debut novel from an author to watch. DeBoard sets her thriller in small town Wisconsin. The Hammarstrom family has had their own issues but once Stacy Lemke has set her sights on Johnny, the teen boy in the family, she won’t be deterred. And then Stacy goes missing and her disappearance isn’t solved until years later after the DeBoard family has been torn apart with suspicion.
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling) is a suspenseful story set in contemporary England. Private investigator Cormoran Strike is asked to investigate the death of Lula Landry, who fell to her death a few months before. The death was ruled a suicide but Lula’s brother doesn’t believe it and asks Strike to check out the events leading up to Lula’s death.
Ruling: Both of these books are very well-written but I prefer The Mourning Hours because of the strong sense of place in the story.
Judge: Donna B.
And the Mountains Echoes by Khalid Hosseini
The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood
The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood follows the lives of two seemingly unrelated characters — one a frustrated housewife in 1960s suburban D.C., and the other a single woman who writes obituaries for a living in 1919 San Francisco — who share an unexpected connection. I found Hood’s writing to be very readable, but a bit cliché. The vacuous 1960s dinner-party talk of cooking, fashion and decorating is the same here as in countless other depictions of suburban wasteland from The Graduate to Edward Scissorhands. I also feel that Kate Chopin better captured the plight of unhappily married women with The Awakening, written more than 100 years earlier. I found the 1919 story line to be the more interesting one, partially because its protagonist, Vivian Lowe, seems to live more freely than the 1960s protagonist, Claire Fontaine. Maybe she’s too caught up on the love she lost in the 1906 earthquake to have interest in other men, but Lowe sets her own work schedule and lives comfortably. She has a close friend who is happily married, and her happiness helps to buoy up Lowe. Without spoiling anything, I will say that I like how the two story lines converge at the end.
Khaled Hosseini’s novel And The Mountains Echoed is similar in that multiple story lines follow disparate characters through different times, places and circumstances before coming together at the conclusion. The connections between the many characters always, however, swirl around the central plot of an Afghani brother and sister who are separated as young children. Each character’s point of view reveals a piece of the puzzle of their lives, while also revealing patterns that they (and we, perhaps) share in common. We are all avoiding something, searching for something, disappointing our loved ones; we are all phonies, we all have regrets, we all suffer in some way; sometimes we do the right thing, and sometimes life turns out okay. I really like the structure of this novel, and also that Hosseini has something fresh to say.
Titles surviving and moving forward to Round Three are Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink, The Mourning Hours by Paula Treick DeBoard, And the Mountains Echoed by Khalid Hosseini and winner of the judges’ Zombie vote, Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell.
Voting for Round Three ends on Sunday, March 23. Stop by the Niles Library 3rd floor display wall to vote or email firstname.lastname@example.org.