The fifth annual Tournament of Books at the online magazine the Morning News -- a sort of bookish March Madness -- has begun, and it's had its share of upsets.
In the second matchup last week, the literary heavyweight "Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill fell to "A Partisan's Daughter" by Louis De Bernieres. Then, "Harry, Revised" -- the debut novel from L.A. author Mark Sarvas, who does the Elegant Variation litblog -- beat the Man Booker Prize-winning book "The White Tiger" by Aravind Adiga.
(But that's not how things always go: In the first pairing, the favorite, Roberto Bolano's "2666," prevailed over Fae Myenne Ng's "Steer Toward Rock.")
In each daily round, two books are read by a single critic who has to declare one a winner, and so on until one book climbs the brackets and is dubbed champion.
Previously, color commentators Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner have been fairly outrageous in their dialogue about the matchups, but this year they're a bit more subdued.
Maybe that's because they've read (almost) all of the 16 books in competition; their critiques seem more grounded. But they're still willing to voice opinions that are rarely said in criticism, such as Warner's take on "Netherland":
"It's essentially porn for hyper-literate New Yorkers, i.e., the sort of people who review books for the New York Times. . . . 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."
That's pretty substantive commentary for a contest that is inherently silly, but I think the literary conversation benefits. The idea that books might be put head to head in a competitive smackdown is flashy, funny and nonsensical -- but is it really any odder than asking a panel of people to collectively agree on the book they think is best? Can the brackets deliver more interesting results?
The odds in this race, sadly, run in favor of traditional wisdom. For the second year, the eclectic design/advertising studio Coudal Partners has set up a betting room at www.cou dal.com, so we can all wager on our favorite books. The bets, $20 each, go to the charity First Book -- last year's take helped purchase more than 5,000 books for needy kids.
I'm not sure how they figured their handicapping, but "Netherland" -- which won the PEN/Faulkner Award this year -- was the favorite, with 2-to-1 odds. So now the field is shaken up. Time to lay some money on a long shot?
-- Carolyn Kellogg
For more books coverage, go to the Jacket Copy blog.