Tournament of Books 2019: A Terrible Country

I just finished reading my second Tournament of Books 2019 book, the play-in contestant “A Terrible Country“. It’s up against “Speak No Evil“, which I’ve already read and was excellent, and “America is Not the Heart,” which I’m about to start reading. I’ll comment which of these three needs to win this round once I finish reading “America is Not the Heart,” but I can already tell that it is going to be a very hard decision, and I don’t envy the judges.

It’s very rare to find a book that is so stylistically innovative, and yet so readable, so familiar that it’s kind of like an out of body experience to read it. This novel is a work of fiction that reads entirely like a memoir/travelogue written by the main character Andrie. It’s so convincingly well done that several times I checked the author’s name and the book description to make sure that it was a work of fiction that I was reading.
This feat of technical mastery is entirely at the service of a moving and relatable plot, wherein a young American man, completely out of depth, tries to take care of his 89 year old grandmother in Putin’s Russia circa 2008. It’s the heroics of everyday life, with its triumphs and tragedies, enmeshed in memories of the Soviet past, great Russian literature, and the dangers of living in such a terrible country, and it is well worth the read.

This week’s long run: baby ducks

Started out extra early today, so ran most of my run in the dark.

Two geese and a coot:

Mom and dad duck bringing their babies to the water’s edge:

Duck and egret ignoring each other on the exposed riverbed:

10k done, and my Egyptian goose friend approves:

Paper for Fountain Pens Notebook Review

Back in the (not so good) old days, Tomoe River Paper was an exotic kind of paper available only in bulk order from Japan, or through various indie creators that advertised mostly on the Fountain Pen Network. The magical paper that made all your inks shine (not literally, this was in the pre-sparkle days of ink, when shading is all we dared dream of in an ink) was very hard to obtain, and very expensive.

It was at that time, in 2013, when I was looking for reasonable priced Tomoe River Paper notebooks that could be shipped to Tel Aviv, that I ran into Paper For Fountain Pens, through the Fountain Pen Network. Since I just received my latest three-pack of notebooks from Jay at, I decided that now would be as good a time as any for a review.

The notebooks that I ordered are the larger, 374 pages (187 sheets), ones, which are available only around this time of year. The regular notebooks have 320 pages, but are otherwise identical. Jay uses 52 gsm Tomoe River Paper for the notebooks, which are 4 3/4 x 8 3/8 inch page size; 5 1/4 x 8 1/2 inch cover size.

The notebooks used to be shipped with a paper cover, now they arrived vacuum packed as well, to protect them from the elements, and in a heavy duty box that prevents them from getting damaged by the postal services of the world.

Vacuumed packaging.
Paper wrapper.

Tomoe River Paper is much easier to find now and these notebooks aren’t cheap, as you are paying for the binding. The covers are very durable, made from a material that (with the binding) makes the whole notebook look and feel like a vintage hardcover book. It has that solid, over-engineered feel to it, and is very pleasant to use and hold.

The notebook isn’t inconveniently thick, even with the larger page count.

There are no frills to this notebook, just blank end papers, no elastic closure or bookmark, nothing but the paper and the covers. The pages lie flat, and the binding is extremely durable (I page a lot, a lot in my Paper for Fountain Pens notebook and not a page has wavered in my years of using it).

The front endpaper 

I’ve used the slimmer version of this notebook as a research notebook for my novel and it has held up well through years of use. I do, however, only keep it on my desk. Travelling with such fragile paper in a notebook with no elastic closure is a recipe for disaster, so if you do intent to use one of these beauties as your everyday carry notebook or journal, I highly recommend placing it in some kind of protective cover that you can zip up.

The back endpaper

This notebook is slightly thicker than the Baron Fig Confidant and Moleskine large notebook, is about as wide as the Moleskine, but a tad taller.

Paper for Fountain Pens above a Moleskine Large notebook and a Baron Fig Confidant

You can see the difference in sizes with the notebooks stacked up. The Paper for Fountain Pens notebooks have thicker and heavier covers than the Moleskine and Baron Fig ones, but the lightweight paper in them keeps them from being overly heavy to carry around.

Paper for Fountain Pens above a Moleskine Large notebook and a Baron Fig Confidant

All in all I recommend these notebooks, with one caveat: they may intimidate you to a point where you won’t use them. There’s something about their book-like format that makes you feel that you can only write the next Booker prize winning novel in them. Notebooks should be used and not stacked and stared at, so if this one will scare you off, pick a more humble notebook instead. Otherwise, buy a three-pack of these — it’ll come out cheaper (particularly with shipping), and there’s an excellent chance that they’ll become your new favourite.

Tournament of Books 2019: The Challenge

Each year for the past 15 years The Morning News has run the Tournament of Books — a March Madness like competition for books published during the previous year. It’s fun and light-hearted and super interesting because unlike other literary prizes, you get to see the judges’ thought process as they decided which book progresses and which doesn’t.

I first learned about it a few years ago through Field Notes, who sponsors the competition and issues a special, limited edition notebook to accompany it. At first I just bought the notebook, because I was a budding Field Nut and that’s what Field Nuts did. A year later I read and enjoyed some of the books that were in the competition, and I started to really look forward to reading the judges’ debates on each round.

Which brings us to this year, which is the year that I’ve decided to finally challenge myself to read every book on the Tournament of Books 2019 shortlist. That’s 18 books total, and as the tournament starts in March, there’s very little chance that I’ll be able to finish reading all of the books in time for their round. That just means that I’ll be following along a little later than usual, but I don’t think that it matters much.

What’s challenging isn’t just the sheer volume of books, but also their topics. There are no “light read” books on this list. There are books about death, prison, war, bigotry, racism and all the other “wonderful” sides of humanity. It would be a tough challenge on a regular year, but as I’m struggling with death and sickness in my family, this will be extra tough.

So why am I doing this? To challenge myself. To make myself a better, more empathetic human being, and hopefully a better writer. And because I can.

Tournament of Books: Speak No Evil

Speak No Evil is part of the Tournament of Books 2019 play-in round, which means that it is up against two other books before it can make its way into the initial rounds of the competition. As this is the first book I’ve read in the ToB and it was excellent, I can’t imagine what the rest of the field looks like.

I have never read a book so full of heart, life and joy, that was also tragic. “Speak No Evil” is a timeless tale that is deeply imbedded in our time and is well aware of it. To say that it deals with Issues (capital I) like Homosexuality, Race, Bullying, Policing, Gender and (above and beyond) Friendship would do this gem of a novel injustice. It’s first and foremost a very good book, with beautifully and richly crafted characters moving around in a plot that is inevitable but far from dull or expected. Every person is propelled forward by their past and their character, but is also somehow aware that he or she are actors in the story of their life. An astounding achievement, and a must read.