The Morning News

The Morning News Tournament of Books, sponsored by Powell’s Books, is an annual battle royale amongst the top novels in “literary fiction” published throughout the year. Read more about this year’s tournament »

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Powell's Books


March 13, 2008



Shining at the Bottom of the Sea


The plot of Run sloshes around in its 24-hour timeframe like a tempest in a teapot: Former Boston mayor Bernard Doyle guilt-trips his two grown sons, both adopted, into accompanying him to a political rally on a cold and snowy night. One of the sons ends up accidentally strolling in front of an oncoming car but is saved by a kind woman, a stranger, who pushes him out of the way at the last moment and ends up in a hospital bed herself. (I’m not giving away anything; this all happens in the first 50 pages.) In the ensuing 22 hours and 250 or so pages, everything, and nothing, becomes clear for this family.

I romped through Run in fewer than six hours. The characters, especially little Kenya Moser, are interesting and full of life. But in the end, it all feels a bit too prettily wrapped up and tied with a bow. I never committed to the characters, never wanted to know more about them or wondered what happened after the book ends. It was so obvious: In this cotton-candy story, nearly everyone lives happily ever after.

On the other hand, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea creates, literally, a place I want to visit. From the opening line of the foreword (“Sanjanians are perhaps the most literary people on earth”), this set of short stories, presented as an anthology of the literature of the (fictional) North Atlantic island of Sanjania, shows what a writer—in this case, Stephen Marche—can do with words. The language Marche summons to stand in as the island’s early and very localized patois in the first story, “The Destruction of Marylebone, the Private King,” has a lilt all its own. To wit, when things first turn bad for the Private King:

Sally Parkman, a Woman Crownagent, grabbed the pirate fleet, and yawled it against the waves of Portuguese Cove, and Marylebone scuppered with his sister Virginia and his good friend Moses Tumbledown overhill byland toward his homecove Restitution, flittering.

Marche then takes us on a thoroughly mesmerizing ride through 18 more stories by authors from Sanjania. The language matures from the early patois but still keeps its lilt, and each story has its own individual style and makes its own unique contribution to the social and political picture of the island nation. “Professor Saintfrancis” is a mystery in the vein of Conan Doyle’s, while “The Master’s Dog” gives readers an idea of the racial tensions that gripped the colony in the last years before its independence. The love story that is “Histories of Aenea” is terrifically sad, and when the narrator of “The End of the Beach” tells the tale of her departure from Sanjania, I want to know how she could ever leave.

In short, lately I’ve been daydreaming about a visit to see Sanjania’s coves and its looming inner mountains, and to visit its many bookshops. Anyone who can make me do that deserves a Rooster. Stephen Marche’s book goes to the next round.

• Today’s WINNER •

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea

• About the Judge •

TMN Managing Editor Kate Schlegel is a native of Columbus, Ohio, and a copy editor by training, though these days she works as a news editor for the web site of the Wall Street Journal. She lives in the neighborhood sometimes known as Brooklyn’s best-kept secret—if you ask nicely, maybe she’ll tell you where exactly that is. Her current favorite author is Eudora Welty, though the last book she finished was The Longest Night, about the Blitz on London in the spring of 1941. Connections to this year’s competitors: None known.

• From the Booth •

All critics are like dog-show judges: The first thing a critic must do is define the thing he’s criticizing. Kevin John Prior to it showing up in the ToB brackets, I’d never heard of Shining at the Bottom of the Sea.
» Read Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner’s commentary on the match «

• The Peanut Gallery •

Do you agree with the outcome of this match?

absolutely   no way

The Standings


• Round One •

Tree of Smoke v. Ovenman
judged by Tobias Seamon

The Savage Detectives v. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
judged by Elizabeth Kiem

Then We Came to the End v. Petropolis
judged by Anthony Doerr

You Don’t Love Me Yet v. New England White
judged by Jessica Francis Kane

Run v. Shining at the Bottom of the Sea
judged by Kate Schlegel

What the Dead Know v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
judged by Elizabeth McCracken

On Chesil Beach v. Remainder
judged by Ze Frank

The Shadow Catcher v. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England
judged by Helen DeWitt

• Round Two •

Tree of Smoke v. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
judged by Mark Sarvas

Then We Came to the End v. You Don’t Love Me Yet
judged by Maud Newton

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
judged by Ted Genoways

Remainder v. The Shadow Catcher
judged by Mark Liberman


Tree of Smoke v. Then We Came to the End
judged by Gary Shteyngart

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao v. The Shadow Catcher
judged by Nick Hornby


Then We Came to the End v. Remainder
judged by Rosecrans Baldwin

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao v. The Savage Detectives
judged by Andrew Womack


Remainder v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
All Judges + Jennifer Szalai