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Super Sunday Smackdown: March Madness: Part 1

March 21, 2010

A question I wrote as a possible Sunday topic was “If the world’s going to end, which author would I take to the bomb shelter with me?”  Rather than just give a straight answer, I decided that since it’s March Madness time in college basketball, I’d employee a similar idea to determine which author I would take to the bomb shelter with me should the Earth be facing some cataclysm.

Generally this is a no-holds-barred tournament between 32 of my favorite authors.  (I couldn’t think of 64 I’d even want to remotely take to the bomb shelter so we’ll go with half that.)  There are a couple of rules though:

Rule #1:  The author has to be ALIVE.  None of this BS like when people ask, “If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead…”  Why would I want to have dinner with a corpse?  That’s gross.  And really there’s no point taking a corpse or pile of dust like Shakespeare or Cervantes into a bunker with me.  So the author has to be alive.  I “verified” some by looking at Wikipedia.  If I make a mistake, let me know.

Rule #2:  The author can’t be a pseudonym.  There are a couple authors I read who use an anonymous pseudonym.  In one case the author is actually two people—at least.  There’s not enough air and supplies for two authors or how ever many there are for a series like “The Hardy Boys.”

For the opening round I’m going to focus mostly just on the books I’ve read by the authors.  Later rounds I’ll open it up to more factors.

For the tournament I’ve divided my 32 authors into two 16-contestant divisions.  The first is the Literary Division.  These are “Literary” Fiction authors I read.  The other division is the Sci-Fi Division that features SF authors I read plus a couple of miscellaneous ones that didn’t fit in the other division.  I determined the seeding by personal preference and I’ll admit (unlike the NCAA) that some of these were jiggered to create neat matchups.

With that, let’s get ready to rumble!

You can click on the thumbnail below to see the actual bracket for these first two rounds.  Explanations of the match-ups are below.

Opening Round:

Literary Division

(1) John Irving vs. (16) Tom Wolfe

This is a real-life grudge match between two aging, powerful authors.  (Seriously, they had a public disagreement years ago.  You can look that up.)  On one hand we have the author of some of my favorite books:  “The Cider House Rules”, “The World According to Garp”, “Son of the Circus”, etc.  On the other we have the author of a couple of books I enjoyed:  “Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full.”

Winner: Sorry, Tom, you don’t have the Right Stuff for this tourney.  Mr. Irving penned two of my most favorite books and I can’t say that about yours.

(8) Scott Lasser vs. (9) Charles Baxter

You might be wondering who these guys are.  A couple of Michigan boys.  Woo hoo!  Lasser wrote “Battle Creek” and “All I Could Get.”  Baxter wrote “Feast of Love” which was made into a so-so movie starring Morgan Freeman and Greg Kinnear.  On that score Baxter has the advantage as no one (to my knowledge) has turned Lasser’s books into films—yet.  Maybe Kevin Costner could do “Battle Creek” to add another baseball movie to his resume.

Winner: Still, I’m going with Lasser.  I’m a sucker for a good baseball story.

(5) Anne Tyler vs. (12) Charles Frazier

OK, this isn’t even close.  Tyler wrote one of my favorite Pulitzer-winning novels:  “Breathing Lessons”.  Frazier wrote “Cold Mountain” which was a good read, though not a good movie–I’m just saying.

Winner: Tyler.  While I like “Cold Mountain” it didn’t grip me as much as “Breathing Lessons.”

(4) Richard Russo vs. (13) Richard Ford

It’s the Battle of the Richards!  (Of course there’s a dirtier name for that if you’re so inclined.)  Russo wrote my favorites “Nobody’s Fool” and “Empire Falls.”  Ford wrote the very good Pulitzer winner “Independence Day” and a couple other books I enjoyed.  Both deal with middle-aged white guys facing crises.  So it’s a tough call.

Winner: Not really.  Russo wins, hands down.  I liked Ford’s Bascombe novels but not as much as Russo’s small town exposes.

(6) Ian McEwan vs. (11) Jeffrey Eugenides

McEwan is from across the pond while Eugenides is from my home state, so that gives him a home court advantage.  Still, McEwan wrote the great “Atonement” and a couple other good books.  Eugenides has only written the very good Pulitzer winner “Middlesex” and “The Virgin Suicides.”

Winner: So much for home court.  McEwan wins.  I loved the ending of “Atonement” far more than Eugenides’ books.

(3) Elizabeth McCracken vs. (14) Audrey Niffenegger

Two female authors with books dealing with a misfit and the woman who loves him.  And if you read my entry about cover art you’d know they feature very similar covers for McCracken’s “Giant’s House” and Niffenegger’s “Time Traveler’s Wife.”  Could be a tough call.

Winner: Or not.  McCracken wins in a landslide!  I loved “Giant’s House” and “Niagara Falls Over Again” while initially I threw “Time Traveler’s Wife” against the wall.  Even if I softened on the latter, I can’t honestly pick its author over someone whose work I consistently enjoyed.

(7) Ann Packer vs. (10) Margaret Atwood

Two more female authors here.  Packer’s “Dive From Clausen’s Pier” saved at least some of my sanity during jury duty.  Atwood’s “Blind Assassin” was a tremendous combination of literary fiction and sci-fi.  This really is a tough call.

Winner: I’m giving it to Packer by a hair.  I have a much more indelible memory associated with her book.

(2) Michael Chabon vs. (15) Jonathan Franzen

This is another real-life grudge match if you’re a fan of “The Simpsons”—see the “Word Loaf” episode that also featured Tom Wolfe and Gore Vidal.  Anyway Chabon wrote one of my favorites, the Pulitzer-winning “Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.”  Franzen wrote the excellent “Corrections” about a dysfunctional family.

Winner: No contest.  Chabon wins.  “Corrections” is a good book but it’s no “Kavalier and Clay”—and you can blurb that on the back cover.

Sci-Fi Division

(1) Terry Pratchett vs. (16) Greg Bear

Pratchett is the author of the famous Discworld series, of which I’ve read just about all of the 39 or so books.  Greg Bear is the author of “Moving Mars” which I read once and gave away.  He won my equivalent of the “play-in game” to determine who would get the last seed.

Winner: Pratchett, obviously.  Like all play-in teams Bear’s appearance here is a quick one.  No disrespect intended.

(8) Bernard Cornwell vs. (9) Steven Pressfield

These two are historical fiction authors, not really sci-fi authors.  Cornwell wrote one of my favorite series The Warlord Chronicles about Arthur in the 5th-6th Century.  Pressfield wrote the great “Gates of Fire” that is I’m sure is a far more accurate retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae than “300.”  He also wrote “The Legend of Bagger Vance” about a mystical golf caddy.

Winner: Cornwell.  “Gates of Fire” is great but Pressfield’s other novels were not up to par.

(5) James Alan Gardner vs. (12) Kristine Smith

Gardner is a Canadian sci-fi author who wrote the League of Peoples series of books.  Smith wrote “Code of Conduct” and a few sequels.  I’m pretty sure she’s not Canadian.  In every tournament there’s a 5-12 upset…

Winner: But not this time.  Gardner wins.  Smith’s books were OK, but I enjoyed the humor and action of Gardner’s far more.

(4) Joe Haldeman vs. (13) William Gibson

Haldeman wrote the classic “Forever War.”  Gibson wrote the classic “Neuromancer” that introduced us to “cyberspace.”  This should be a tough call.

Winner: But it isn’t.  I love “Forever War.”  “Neuromancer” is a good book too but just not as good in my mind.  I own Haldeman’s but I only rented Gibson’s if that tells you anything.  Sorry if that makes me a savage.

(6) Vernor Vinge vs. (11) Dan Simmons

Vinge wrote the newer classic “Fire Upon the Deep” and “A Deepness in the Sky.”  Simmons wrote the excellent “Hyperion” and its sequel “Fall of Hyperion.”  These are two pretty evenly-matched contestants in my opinion.

Winner: A close one but I’ll go with Vinge.  I liked both of the books listed above plus “Across Realtime” while I didn’t like “Fall of Hyperion.”  So Vinge wins it on a judge’s decision, just to mix boxing with basketball here.

(3) Timothy Zahn vs. (14) Orson Scott Card

Zahn wrote the Thrawn Trilogy of Star Wars books as well as the Conqueror’s Trilogy and a few other novels.  Card wrote the classic “Ender’s Game” and its sequels and spin-offs.  To most people this should be an upset.

Winner: But not to me.  I liked “Ender’s Game” and “Ender’s Shadow” but not the one following it and I didn’t bother finishing the series or the other spin-offs, midquels, and whatever else Card has out there.  And Grand Admiral Thrawn could whoop anyone from Ender’s Battle School.

(7) Bret Easton Ellis vs. (10) Chuck Palahniuk

Again these aren’t really sci-fi authors.  I’m not sure how you’d classify the gruesome “American Psycho” by Ellis and almost as grisly “Fight Club” by Palahniuk.  Anyway, if this matchup were one of their books there would be quite a bit of blood spilled, but thankfully we’re practicing nonviolence here.

Winner: Ellis.  Though it was disturbing I loved “American Psycho” more than “Fight Club.”  “Less Than Zero” isn’t bad either.  Also, a movie where Christian Bale cuts off a dude’s head with an axe to Huey Lewis & The News vs. Brad Pitt whaling on Edward Norton?  Come on!

(2) Neil Gaiman vs. (15) Robert J. Sawyer

Gaiman is the author of numerous fantasy books like “American Gods” and “Anansi Boys” as well as comics like “Sandman” and children’s books like “Coraline” and “The Graveyard Book.”  Sawyer is another Canadian sci-fi author whose book “FlashForward” was mangled into an ABC series.

Winner: You don’t need to be omniscient to know how this one turns out.  Gaiman wins.  I liked “FlashForward” and thought “Starplex” was OK, but there’s no way it’s comparable to Gaiman’s work.

Sweet Sixteen Round

Literary Division

(1) John Irving vs. (8) Scott Lasser

So we have my favorite author against my homeboy Lasser.  Tough decision.

Winner: Irving in a landslide!  Considering the body of work 2 great books, several good ones, and three stinkers is better than 1 good and 1 mediocre book.

(5) Anne Tyler vs. (4) Richard Russo

I loved “Breathing Lessons.”  I loved “Nobody’s Fool.”  I liked “Accidental Tourist” and “Morgan’s Passing.” “Ladder of Years” was OK.  “Amateur Marriage” stunk.  I really liked “Empire Falls” and “The Risk Pool.”  “Straight Man” and “Mohawk” were OK.  Didn’t really like Russo’s short stories.  It’s going to be close!

Winner: Russo by a nose.  Again, pitting the whole body of work (that I’ve read) against each other Russo would come out on top with me.

(6) Ian McEwan vs. (3) Elizabeth McCracken

I loved “Atonement” and “Enduring Love” was OK.  Didn’t like “Amsterdam” a lot.  By comparison McCracken has only two novels and one short story collection but I really liked them all.

Winner: McCracken.  I might change my mind about this in 5-10 years, but for the present that’s how it’s going to be.

(7) Ann Packer vs. (2) Michael Chabon

I know Packer has more than one novel but I’ve never read them.  I’ve only read “Dive From Clausen’s Pier” once though I mean to reread it outside of a jury waiting room at some point.  By contrast I’ve read “Kavalier and Clay” like six times since 2001.  And “Wonder Boys” twice.

Winner: Chabon.  Easily.

Sci-Fi Division

(1) Terry Pratchett vs. (8) Bernard Cornwell

Great, we have two Brits against each other.  The Discworld books are uneven with a few I really love and some I didn’t so much.  But I read over 30 of them.  I only read 5 of Cornwell’s books, though he has nearly as many published as Pratchett.

Winner: Pratchett.  Quantity and possibly Quality prevails!

(5) James Alan Gardner vs. (4) Joe Haldeman

Haldeman wrote the classic “Forever War” which is perhaps my favorite SF book ever.  However he also wrote the dreadful sequel “Forever Free” and almost sequel “Forever Peace.”  By contrast Gardner’s League of People series isn’t the greatest in history, but none of them are nearly that bad.

Winner: Gardner.  I’m sure I’m the only one who would make that choice.  And I stand behind it.

(6) Vernor Vinge vs. (3) Timothy Zahn

Two great space opera SF authors here.  I really like the three Vinge books I read, but I only read them once and probably gave a couple of them away.  I’ve reread the Thrawn trilogy at least three times, plus I’ve read the Conqueror’s Trilogy and Hand of Thrawn series twice each.  So that kind of tells you something.

Winner: Zahn.  When you put it like above it’s pretty easy.

(7) Bret Easton Ellis vs. (2) Neil Gaiman

This is just a really weird matchup, but that’s how the seeds fall sometimes.  Anyway, “American Psycho” was good but it kind of wore on me.  “Less Than Zero” was pretty good but got kind of boring by the end.  On the other hand, Gaiman’s books are funny and entertaining.  So there.

Winner: Gaiman.  The better question might be:  could Pat Bateman take out the Sandman?

OK, that’s it for the first two rounds.  Check back next Sunday for the Elite Eight, the Final Four and the Championship Round.  I think you’ll be surprised by the results.

And come back on Tuesday for Terrible Tips where I go Mythbusters on the Hows of Writing.


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