On Reading and the Tournament of Books

I’ve started a new reading challenge: reading all the Tournament of Books 2022 books. I’ve done this twice in the past, in 2019 and in 2020, and it has been a great way to read contemporary fiction that is not necessarily on the best sellers list or the awards circuit. I would never have read “The Book of Broken Angels,” “Overstory,” “Milkman,” “My Sister, Serial Killer,” “So Lucky,” “America is Not the Heart,” “A Terrible Country,” “The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao,” “Cloud Atlas,” “Wolf Hall,” “A Mercy,” “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” “Nothing to See Here,” or “Girl, Woman, Other” if not for the Tournament of Books lists, and that would have been my loss. And while I generally like the list and particularly the way that books are pitched against each other, I tend to not like the judges’ commentary or choices, so I usually ignore them and create my own rankings. Why compare pairings of books in this way in the first place? It’s usually a way to gain some more insight into the books that I’m reading, which is why I keep the “tournament” aspect of it in mind when I log or review the books that I read.

The Tournament of Books logo for this year.

I read significantly less last year (2021) than I did in previous years, only partly because I got cancer. I allowed myself to get off the “maximum books per year” racetrack, and focused more on reading either books that interested me, or books that comforted me. Some of my reading plans went completely awry once I got sick – I was planning on reading the Tournament of Books Tournament of Tournament books (I still do, as they all seem fantastic), but I just couldn’t face the effort once I started chemotherapy. Books were a huge comfort and a necessary distraction for me during my hospitalization and treatments, but they weren’t literary fiction kind of books. I read cozy mysteries and fast paced sci-fi because that’s my reading equivalent of comfort food. Sometimes that’s what you need in a book, and that’s part of the magic of reading: there is a whole array of “comfort books” geared perfectly for your specific needs, if you only know what you’re looking for. 

I’ve talked to other people who have gone through chemotherapy (they tend to come out of the woodwork once you start treatments yourself), and even the avid readers among them stopped reading during treatments, and sometimes well after them. Chemo brain is a real thing, and it makes reading challenging, and oftentimes you want something a lot more attention grabbing than a book during treatments or while you’re recovering from surgery. That’s what streaming is for, and I thank Disney+’s “Loki” and “The Mandalorian” for helping me out during some really rough nights. But somehow books never lost their appeal to me, despite the lure of endless, easily consumable, entertaining content. This isn’t to condescend on “non-readers,” especially not my fellow cancer patients. It’s just to say that different minds are wired in different ways, and mine is wired in this specific way. Once I start reading I generally get carried away and have trouble putting the book down (unless it’s a truly terrible one). This was useful when I tried to forget that I was connected to 3-litres of poison that was dripping into my veins, although it was a little annoying to my long suffering family who were with me during treatments and often just wanted to talk. Sorry, guys. You deserved better.

Once the 2022 Tournament of Books list was published I decided to give it a go again this year, to challenge myself to read all eighteen books on the list. Unlike in previous years I’m being kind to myself and not trying to rush through all of them by the time the tournament judging begins in March. As I started reading before the brackets were published, and so started alphabetically, I read Mona Awad’s “All’s Well” first. It’s a very well intentioned book that completely fails on delivery for me, and I struggled to finish it. I almost gave up on the challenge entirely, except thankfully I decided to read the book that it’s up against, “The Trees” by Percival Everett before doing so and it is phenomenal. I’m almost done with it, and it is viciously funny, dark, thought provoking, and a fascinating and original read. Everything you hope for in a book, and all this in a book that I’ve never heard of before, from a writer I’ve never heard of before. This is exactly why I put myself up for this challenge in the first place.

My neuropathy is killing me in this weather, and this was a literal pain to write, so I will end here by saying: treat yourself to some book exploration this year, if you haven’t done so recently. You never know what gems you’ll find. 

2021: Looking Back at a “Heavy” Year

My hands have been killing me with the worst neuropathy since my treatments began, so I’ve been trying to limit my typing to what I need to do for work. That is why this post took so long to write, and why my posting schedule may be a little off until things improve with my neuropathy.

2021 was a hell of a year for me. It started with me doing Liz Steel‘s excellent Sketchbook Design course. I also took some fantastic and very illuminating tea seminars with Juyan Webster from the Chinese Tea Company. If you have any interest in tea and you get a chance to have a tea seminar with her, I highly recommend it.

Early on in the year is also when a close family member got diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and that’s also when my journalling went on the fritz. This was the notebook I was using at the time, a Moleskine Pokemon Charmander limited edition and I abandoned it 2/3rds of the way through.

Abandoned Moleskine.

Covid was raging, I was working from home, at a new job, and I spent the first quarter of the year trying to fit my drawing and running into the new quarantine rules that kept getting both stricter and more confusing with each iteration. I happily got vaccinated as soon as I could, and I’m still very grateful to the amazing scientists and doctors who came up with vaccines in such a short time frame.
I managed to participate in the OneWeek100People challenge, which is very demanding but also a lot of fun. If you can spare the time I recommend giving it a try.

In the beginning of April I started having shortness of breath (dyspnea) while running. It got worse with time and soon I couldn’t run at all, and then I couldn’t walk very fast or far, climb stairs, etc. After a long and laborious road to get a diagnosis, in the beginning of June I learned that I had cancer, and in the beginning of July I got a diagnosis and started ABVD chemotherapy to treat Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
A few things helped me get through that incredibly difficult time. First and foremost, my phenomenal family (mother, father and brother) that rallied around me and took care of me from the moment of the first diagnosis and to this day. I can’t imagine going through this process without them. Almost as important were my friends, who visited me in the hospital and cheered me up, and kept in touch and cheered me on during the treatments. Finally it was journaling and reading. I started this Moleskine “I am New York” on the day I was first admitted to hospital, and writing in it gave me perspective and kept me sane.

Journal of a bad year.

And books? Books have always been my comfort and escape. I saw a few things on Disney+ while I was hospitalized, but books helped distract me from a lot the most unpleasant and painful parts of this journey.
I was happy to discover that one of my favourite Moleskine limited edition series, the denim ones, was back in stock, and so once I finished the “I am New York” journal I moved into this Moleskine “Skinny. Flared. Bookcut.” one. It’s such a well conceptualized and executed design, it was a joy to use. This was when I decided to regularly use fountain pens to journal with, and just use only one side of the page. I have more than enough notebooks to support that decision.

This notebook took me through the second part of chemo to the end of it.

And now, and the beginning of 2022 I started a new journal, a Moleskine Peanuts Sakura. Pretty, right? Let’s hope I get to fill it with good news and positive thoughts.

A new Moleskine for a new and better year.

Some favourites from the past year:

My favourite pen was the Esterbrook Estie Sea Glass. Quite a surprise for me, but it hasn’t been out of rotation since I got it.

Esterbrook Estie Sea Glass – fantastic and beautiful pen.

Another pen purchase that came in at a close second was the Diplomat Elox Rings and the Diplomat Aero (basically the same pen with a slightly different body design). These are wonderful workhorses, and a joy to use.

Diplomat Elox Rings on the left and Diplomat Aero in Champagne on the right.

I didn’t read as much this year as last year, but I did read a few really great books. Here’s a list of a few standouts among them:

  • The Good War, by Studs Terkel. WWII as I’ve never experienced it before – as seen and told by the “regular people” who lived through it.
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Not an easy read by far, but a breathtaking work of fiction nonetheless. Worth the effort.
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. A surprisingly moving tale of a character that you won’t expect to fall in love with, and yet you will.
  • Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, by Hillary Mantel. Why should I care about Thomas Cromwell? How can you not care about Thomas Cromwell after reading these books? An era and place come to life, in a world filled with complex and compelling characters.
  • Nomadland, by Jessica Bruder. Watch the movie AND read the book. Both are excellent, and both offer a chance to look into a part of modern living that we were hitherto oblivious of.
  • Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir. Just a fun and interesting sci-fi novel. If you enjoyed the Martian, you’ll enjoy this.
  • Underland, by Robert Macfarlane. What happens in the deep dark places beneath our feet? A lyrical work of non-fiction.
  • The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. The love story between Achilles and Patroclus told with great gentleness and heart.
  • Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro. An understated and masterful work of science fiction that explores themes of humanity, identity, friendship and love, among other things.
  • Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead. How can you write a heist novel that isn’t a heist novel but rather a story of a person, a time and place? Whitehead’s writing is exceptional, and Harlem Shuffle is just another proof of that.
  • The Expanse books 1-4, James S.A. Corey. I haven’t read book 5 and onwards yet, but I did read the first four books of The Expanse this year. They aren’t perfect (Holden is a bit much), but they are very good at world-building, with interesting and unique plots and complex and believable characters (apart from Holden, who is a bit much). The books are each written in a different style, and they improve with time.

In terms of art supplies, 2021 was the year of the super-granulating watercolours from Schmincke, and also when I added Daniel Smith watercolours to my palette. Schmincke just announced that the super-granulating colours will be permanently added to their offerings, and that they are issuing three more permanent sets into this series (Desert, Shire and Vulcano), and another limited edition set, Haze.

I’ll be talking about planning for 2022 on one of my next posts. In the meanwhile, have a great new year, and don’t forget to take time and breath.

Weekly Update: Chemo and Klara and Ink, Oh My

I am trying something new here, to see if I can start using this blog to update on what’s going on with me plus as an accountability aid. Let’s see if it sticks.

Health

I spent the week recovering from Chemo number 8. I started the week with muscle aches and pretty strong neuropathy that made typing and writing a real pain, but by mid week the muscle aches subsided and the neuropathy, while still with me, is much less sever. Next week is Chemo number 9 out of 12. Getting into the home stretch, but the side effects are getting more pronounced. I no longer try to work on the day of the Chemo, and I may need to take a day off on the day after as well, but we’ll see. Next week I also finally get to see a psychologist at the cancer treatment centre. I’ve been on the waiting list for two months, so I really hope our appointment will go well.

Reading

I finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s fantastic “Klara and the Sun”. Not a breezy read and a very typical Ishiguro book, but I enjoyed his treatment of AI and humanity in this novel. It starts slow, and builds up a world and an atmosphere like few writers can. Highly recommended.

Started reading Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies” and will likely also start reading “Cibola Burn”, the 4th Expanse book by James S.A. Corey. Mantel is mesmerising as usual, but a bit too demanding to read during Chemo. That’s what “Cibola Burn” is for.

Writing

Got some writing done on my non fiction project, although not as much as I would have liked. I’m still writing in my notebook so I’m not counting words, but I estimate I got about 5 pages of writing in. Not great, but better than nothing, especially considering the material involved. I’m also considering picking up work on a novel that I stopped working on once the pandemic hit. I’ll have to rework the premise quite a bit, but I believe that the core of the story still works.

Currently Inked

I wrote my Diplomat Aero Champagne fine nib pen with Sailor Studio 123 dry this week. I really enjoyed the pen and the ink, so I think that they’ll be back in rotation pretty soon.

From left to right: PenBBS, Kanilea, Esterbrook, Retro 51

The PenBBS Year of the Ox pen and the Kanilea pen have been my journalling pens this week, with the first being filled with Pilot Iroshizuku Ina-Ho and the second with Diamine Earl Grey, both wonderful shading inks. The Retro 51 Monarch has a stub nib and is filled with Caran d’Ache Saffron, and the the Esterbrook Estie Sea Glass is filled with Diamine Jack Frost. Both are in use for my “Three Good Things” entries.

New Reading Journal

Yesterday I finished my fifth reading journal, and so I thought that it would be a good opportunity to write a post about how I set up my reading journal.

I use my reading journal to keep track of what I read and to encourage me to read more. This is the journal that I’ve just finished, a Moleskine Two-Go:

Moleskine Two-Go. The perfect size and format for my needs.

I used to use a Field Notes Arts and Sciences notebook for my reading journal, but once I got back to reading more it made sense to move to a larger journal. For the past three years I’ve used the Moleskine Two-Go, and I fill one book journal a year (70 books are logged in each notebook).

Start and end date for this reading journal.

This is the setup in my old reading journal. Three pages of index:

First index page. Red checkmarks for books that I’ve read.

The Moleskine Two-Go comes with pages that are blank on one side and lined on another, which is perfect for my use case, except for the second index page, which I need to rule myself:

Ruled second index page.

I missed a line on the second index page, so the index numbering came out a little wonky. It’s only for me, so I don’t mind.

Off by one error in my index.

Here’s a sample of a complete page. I talked more about my thoughts behind the design in a previous post, but you can get the gist by looking at this sample. I like drawing something that captures the book for me on the opposite page, which is why I love the Moleskine Two-Go format.

I remember really not liking this book, and this is a reminder of why.

At the very last page of the journal I keep a log of how many books I read that month. It’s ten books so far for December, but the month isn’t done yet so that line isn’t filled.

Number of books per month tracker.

Here is my new reading journal, a Moleskine Two-Go, this time in green (my previous ones were in light grey, dark grey and navy):

Front cover.

I love the texture of the fabric colours on this, and the shade of green is interesting. The two contrasting bookmarks and the endpapers are grey.

Back cover

The first page, marking when I started the notebook and which journal number it is. This notebook doesn’t leave my desk yet I still write my name and email in case I misplace it somehow.

Front page

Next comes the index page. Since this is my third Two-Go reading journal I already know to number the pages until 139 (I number odd pages only, since my reviews are on odd pages), which comes out to 70 books.

Index page.

I rule the second page, because I tried just winging it on the first year and it didn’t come out great.

Spoke pen for the win.

On the last page I create my books per month tracker:

Zebra mildliner highligher smears gel ink, but I still like it.

I number all the pages of the index, but only the first 25 pages of the actual book journal. I will continue numbering pages in batches as I add books to the journal. The great advantage of using a completely unstructured book here is that I can do whatever I want with it, including starting the numbering after the index pages and not on the first notebook page.

These are the pen and pencils that I’ll be using in this journal. The Rotring 600 is a ballpoint, and the only ballpoint that I regularly use. The Caran d’Ache Bicolor has been my companion in these notebooks for several years. I use it to highlight things, and sometimes in my book scene sketches. I used the Blackwing 611 in my previous reading journal, and this time I’ll be using the Blackwing 4.

Caran d’Ache Bicolor, Blackwing 4, Rotring 600 ballpoint.

The first non fiction book in this journal:

The Good War

The first fiction book in this journal:

Cloud Atlas. ToB means Tournament of Books.

That’s my new reading journal all set up and ready to go. I hope that this inspires you to keep a reading journal of your own, one that will encourage you to read more and help evoke the memories of reading a specific book.

Tournament of Books 2020: Optic Nerve

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María Gainza’s “Optic Nerve” is a pleasant piece of what I now know to be termed “autofiction,” which is to say that it’s “fiction” based on the author’s life. It’s a nice way to while a way a few short hours, especially if you enjoy art history (or to be honest, art gossip). “Optic Nerve” is readable, inoffensive, largely forgettable, like most trivia-based works of its kind. There’s nothing to hate here, but there’s also not much to really love: the book remains on surface level with itself and its reader.
There are interesting and complex “characters” here, but the narrator is too self involved to get to know them, or too busy keeping herself at opaque for us to see them well. They are marks on the paper, nothing more, nothing less. You know nothing more about them, the artists or the narrator than you did at the book’s start. It’s a little disappointing, since it’s clear that Gainza knows how to write and is well aware of the dangers of judging an artist by the anecdotes we know of their lives.

I read this as part of the Tournament of Books 2020, where it’s up against Caleb Crain’s “Overthrow” in the 5th round of the tournament.

Tournament of Books 2020: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

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Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is more of a memoir in poetry than it is a novel. Even as you read it it’s clear that this book is so autobiographical that practically only the language use in it is fiction. It’s a sharp, painful and beautiful memoir, and I’m glad that it exists, but it’s just not a novel, so it’s impossible to judge as one. The characterization is brilliant, but it’s clear that these characters are very real, and their complex relationships and behaviours are recorded from life. There’s no plot except the protagonist’s life, Vuong’s life. The writing is wonderful, although it’s not an easy read. It’s poetry from start to finish, and it expects the reader to work for their reading.
There are more and more “fictionalized non-fiction” books that are being published as fiction, and some of them are excellent. It’s just makes the task of judging them against “fiction fiction” much harder.
So a recommended read (it does require a strong stomach. There are some very disturbing images and scenes that appear again and again in the narrative), but one that also calls into question the definition of fiction.

I read this as part of the Tournament of Books 2020, where it’s up against “Nothing to See Here” in round four of the contest. It’s so hard to compare these two books, even though they both deal with childhood trauma, loss and being impoverished outsiders in a world that values wealth and conformity. “Nothing to See Here” is entirely a work of fiction, while “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is so very clearly not. Vuong’s work is more culturally significant, but I enjoyed “Nothing to See Here” so much more, and it’s such a risky and clever piece. I wouldn’t argue with anyone picking “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” as the winner of this round, but my pick is Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here”.

Tournament of Books 2020: Nothing to See Here

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Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here” is a sharp, fresh, unputdownable gem of a novel. A heartwarming story about finding your tribe and embracing your weirdness in a world that’s all about conformity. Larger than life gorgeous characters that aren’t caricatures, a page-turning plot that still leaves them room to breath and grow, and an interesting take on family, love, opportunity and class.
Plus, it’s a funny, fun and original read.
I highly recommend it, and I definitely will reread this book again.

I read “Nothing to See Here” as part of the 2020 Tournament of Books, where it’s up against “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” in round 4 of the competition.

Tournament of Books 2020: Normal People

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It feels like a waste of time to write a review of Sally Rooney’s “Normal People“. It’s a boring novel with the basic “Ross and Rachel” love story plot, but with zero charm or meaning added. The characters are unlovely. They are surrounded by a cast of unlikable caricatures. The whole thing is immersed in lengthy paragraphs of descriptions of people opening wine bottles and making tea.
Was there potential for a story here about breaking the cycle of abuse, about finding redemption with the help of other people? Yes. All of it was squandered in the most infuriating way possible.
I read this as part of the Tournament of Books 2020 contest and it was an utter waste of time. It’s up against the fascinating and brilliant “Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen” which is head and shoulders above it.

How I Use My Notebooks: Yearly Goals (Resolutions)

Near the end of one year and the beginning of another various articles and podcasts about New Year resolutions start popping up. They either give tips on how to make resolutions, debunk resolutions in favour of something else, and almost all of them try to sell you something.

This post is about how I create yearly goals (i.e. resolutions), using things that I already have, in a way that has worked for me since 2015.

I wrote about the way I do “New Years Resolutions” in the past. I call them that because I like the non-business ring of “resolution” over the “business-jargon” sounding goal. My “resolutions” are, however, S.M.A.R.T. goals: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. I manage them using the least used notebook that I had lying around (a Baron Fig Confidant), and whichever pen I have at hand. They aren’t made for instagram, rather I use my plain ugly handwriting, and what marking are on the page are there because they’re useful. Over the past five years I’ve attained about 90% of what I set out to achieve, with even an annus horribilis like 2018 not putting me too much off track. My goals are tiered, much like Kickstarter stretch goals, with most goals having a fairly easily attainable first tier, just in case life decides to kick me in a tender place.

I’m going to go over this year’s goals, and last year’s goals (apart from a few that I’ve censored for privacy’s sake). I know that February is usually the month when people give up on their resolutions. I hope that this post will help and inspire people to give yearly goals or resolutions a chance.

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My 2020 resolutions

Above you can see my 2020 resolutions. A lot of them are things that appear in almost every year. The professional goals are all new (I didn’t manage my professional goals with my personal goals until this year, and even now only a small part of my professional goals are here). 

Every goal at this point only has the basic, first tier goals set beside it. The first three goals for example, all reading related, will eventually have stretch goals. They’re interesting to note here because back in 2016 I only had one reading goal: read 24 books. Once I got back into the habit of reading, I started to challenge myself with longer and more challenging books. These are all my base reading goals. I usually stretch them to around 50 books a year.

Why don’t I start with 50 books then? Because the point of these goals is to build myself up for success. The basic goals are the “even if I have a horrible year I should be able to reach these” goals. They are there to remind me that there’s a tomorrow, and something I can and should do about that tomorrow, even if a family member is hospitalized (or worse). The stretch goals are then built in small increments, reaching to my my final goal for the year.

Why don’t I write my stretch goals down from the start? Because the point is to keep myself focused on the next small step. That’s why things are broken down to the smallest increment that makes sense: one book, 10k, one month.

There’s a reason for each goal on this spread. I won’t go into each one specifically, but they all fall into the following general categories:

  • Read more.
  • Write more (my writing goals are censored, because if I publish them, I won’t do them. I know myself well enough by now).
  • Use the stuff I own.
  • Challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone.
  • Social goals (partly censored).
  • Health goals (running, cross-training, bloodwork, dentist visits).
  • Professional goals (partial list).

Everything has to fit in on a two page spread, or I lose track of things. That’s why I spill over to other pages in the same notebook to track some of the details of my goals:

Tracking page for fountain pens, ink, tea and pencils.

Here are my 2019 resolutions. A pink check mark means that the basic goal is finished. You can see the increments things grow by (my stretch goals):

2019 resolutions

You may have noticed that the “fill triggers” goal isn’t filled up at all. This is the “relevant” part of the S.M.A.R.T. goals. I used the trigger system from Marshal Goldsmith’s “Triggers” book for a few months in 2018, and I decided at the beginning of 2019 to not continue with it. It was a conscious decision, and so I just ignored that goal. 

Here are my 2019 “spill” pages, just to get an idea of how the whole thing works together:

10 different fountain pen inks. Can you see where the stretch goal is marked?

Here are pencils, fountain pens, notebooks and races tracking:

And my largest tracking list, books:

The Baron Fig Confidant that holds this list has a bright cover and sits right in front of me, on my desk, at all times. I set up my goals that at every day or two I crack the notebook open and update the lists. Once there, I scan everything and check if there’s something that I can do to get it done. The point is to have this list on the top of my mind as much as possible, or else I’ll just forget about it, or it becomes something that I avoid checking out.

This is a system that supports me every day, giving my goals and aspirations much needed structure. I hope that this will help you build a personal system of this kind for yourself.  

Tournament of Books 2020: Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen

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A very surprising book. I was expecting a grotesque horror story, and I got nothing of the sort.
In “Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen” Dexter Palmer takes a historical event and greatly expounds upon it to create a clever and subtle work of fiction which is at times breathtaking in its endeavours. This is a bildungsroman, it’s a tale of mastery and apprenticeship, it’s a love story, and most of all its a story about truth, fiction, and the complexity and variety of what lies between the two, and what defines them. The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment, yet, Palmer says, look how dark and fragile that enlightenment was, and look and tremble at how dark and fragile our current age is. For the tale of Mary Toft in the 18th century is also the tale of flat-earthers, anti-vaccers, “Fake News” current West civilization, and it’s also the same tale of women who’s voices aren’t heard, who are abused, ignored, deemed “cow-like” and only good enough for breeding, who cry in pain in a room full of doctors that not once ask her how she’s feeling.
So why 4 stars and not 5? Because there’s a tremendously cruel and grotesque bit in the London part of the novel that I understand why Palmer brought in, yet I still wish he hadn’t. After a line or two I skipped the part, and my reading wasn’t spoiled for it. So: 1. Once the bull shows up in the arena, skip to the end of the chapter. 2. If I could skip the horror and not miss a bit, then Palmer could have done without it.
A very interesting, clever and subtle tale, worth reading and contemplating upon.
I read this novel as part of the 2020 Tournament of Books, which is fortunate, because otherwise I wouldn’t have even heard about it. It’s going up against Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”.