Tournament of Books: House of Broken Angels

I finished reading the last Tournament of Books  novel a few weeks ago, but I waited with the review until I could gather my thoughts about the whole experience. That’s a little unfair to what’s turned out to be one of the best books in the tournament, so my apologies to Urrea. The “The House of Broken Angels” by Luis Alberto Urrea was up against “So Lucky” by Nicola Griffith in the sixth round of the competition.

To call “The House of Broken Angels” heartwarming seems somehow insufficient. It is a heartwarming tale of a man celebrating the last days of his life with his extended family. It’s also an immigrant story, a story of overcoming abuse, poverty, racism, and your own preconceptions even when you’re on the verge of death. It’s a story of one generation passing the torch on to another. It’s a story of women finding their voice in a world of men. It’s a story with tremendous tragedy and a lot of humour. It’s a story about the poetry of everyday life.
But most of all it’s a story of family and love, created without cynicism or cliche: unique, realistic, flawed, and intensely powerful.
In two days life, in its mundanities and most profound and heroic moments, unfolds before your eyes and leaves you at times laughing, crying or merely breathless with anticipation. Urrea moves you from past to present, from one character to another, effortlessly and seamlessly. It’s one of the few cases that I’ve seem where a complex narrative structure feels like a light read simply because it’s so well created.
This is a must read, especially these days, when the Mexican and Latino population in the US is constantly under attack.

There’s not much in common between “So Lucky” and “The House of Broken Angels” apart from them both being centred around people who have fallen seriously ill. “So Lucky” deals with the first days of dealing with illness, and the “The House of Broken Angels” with the last. The protagonist in “So Lucky” is a lone woman, and in “The House of Broken Angels” it is a man surrounded by a large, loving family. The trick lies in reading the acknowledgements in the end, as it is then that you discover that both narratives are based on the true life experiences of the authors. That adds impact to the stories in some ways, but I think that it mainly creates a level playing ground where they both have a similar gravitas and you can simply judge them by their merits. I highly recommend reading both, but that being said “The House of Broken Angels” is a much better work of fiction. It’s also more enjoyable to read despite its oftentimes tough subject matter, and unlike “So Lucky”, it’s a literary novel and a story of its time that is also timeless. Imagine comfort food that isn’t boring and provides you with all your daily nutritional needs and you’ve got “The House of Broken Angels”.

Have you not read it yet, mijo?

Tournament of Books: House of Broken Angels

Tournament of Books: There There

There There” by Tommy Orange was originally going to be the last Tournament of Books  novel that I read, but because “The House of Broken Angels” was delayed by the post office, it turned out to be the penultimate book to be read. It was up against “America is Not the Heart” by Elaine Castillo in one of the toughest rounds to judge, at least for me.

Wow this book was quite a ride. There are 12(!) protagonists in this book, and a good deal of the subject matter is difficult, but the challenge is worth it. The stories of several Urban Indians converge as they gather to celebrate the Great Oakland Powwow.
Are all the characters necessary? No. But most of them are, and the story that emerges, of urban Native American life is worth reading. It’s a tight-knit and small community so there are a lot of ties between the various characters, and it could have been a very small, very anecdotal story if not for Orange’s moving interstitial background passages. The tragedy of the characters’ lives is made manifest through these pieces, and the result is not unlike a patchwork quilt, where a lot of small parts make a beautiful, interconnected whole.
Not an easy read, well worth your time.

Tournament of Books: There There

Tournament of Books: The Parking Lot Attendant

The Parking Lot Attendant” was up against “The Mars Room” in the Tournament of Books, and it was no surprise when (spoiler alert) it won. I have no idea how “The Parking Lot Attendant” got into the competition proper and books like “America is Not the Heart“, “Speak No Evil“, and “A Terrible Country” had to fight it out in the play in round. “The Parking Lot Attendant” was one of the few books in the competition that was genuinely I-have-no-idea-how-this-was-published bad (the other two were “Warlight“, which somehow almost won the competition, and “Call Me Zebra“).

I have no problem with books that have complex and often confusing narrative structures, provided that the difficulty presented is justified by the work of fiction you end up with. In short – it had gotta be worth it. “Milkman” was worth it. “The Dictionary of Animal Languages” was worth it. “The Parking Lot Attendant” was not. The narrative was jumbled, confusing, vague, and all for nothing. I could not have cared less about any of the characters, as none of them materialized as a real person, and the plot was beyond preposterous. There was nothing here worth spending any time with, and even the premise was uninspired. At the very most, in the hands of a very skilled storyteller, this could have been a decent short story. As it was, it was a 200+ page waste of time.

Tournament of Books: The Parking Lot Attendant

The latest books to arrive

The latest books to arrive today:

The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea, which is the last Tournament of Books 2019 book that I still haven’t read.

Provenance by Ann Leckie, which ties into her masterful and award winning Imperial Radch trilogy.

Spring by Ali Smith, which is the third in her season’s project. I loved Autumn and Winter and I can’t wait to dig into this one.

I’m in the middle of Lies Sleeping the latest Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London book and it’s difficult to put it down, but I’ve decided to put it on hold and finish with the Tournament of Books as I originally planned.

The latest books to arrive

Field Notes: Out and In (Campfire and Fire Spotter)

Out: Campfire Night. I loved using this notebook despite my initial apprehensions about the orange grid and the photo covers (my favourite Field Notes Colours edition is “Balsam Fir”). The covers wear really well, and the orange grid isn’t as distracting as I thought it would be. I’ll still use this one for a while, until I finish reading the Tournament of Books books, as it has my logs in it.

In: Fire Spotter. I’ve started this notebook before, filled in two pages and abandoned it (I’m not a fan of dot grid). Decided to start using up the Field Notes notebooks that I started using and haven’t finished because it’s just a shame not to. Firespotter is a great edition if you like dot grid, and I love the debossing on the back cover.

Field Notes: Out and In (Campfire and Fire Spotter)

Tournament of Books: My Sister, Serial Killer

I finished reading the thirteenth (how appropriate) Tournament of Books 2019 book, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s “My Sister, Serial Killer“, which is running against Richard Power’s “The Overstory” in the fifth round of the competition.

This was a fast, sharp read, so I’ll try to make it a fast, sharp review.

I was worried that this would be horrible slasher novel, and it was far from it. Yes, it’s full of dark humour, but it’s also full of intense understanding of how family ties work, especially ties between sisters. It can be read as a lightweight, lighthearted humour piece, or as something that explores the darker sides of female bonds and male and female power relationships, but either way, you’re in for an enjoyable two hour ride.

Read it, ma. It’s worth it.

Tournament of Books: My Sister, Serial Killer

Tournament of Books: The Overstory

I finished reading the twelfth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Richard Power’s “The Overstory“, which is running against Oyinkan Braithwaite’s “My Sister, Serial Killer” in the fifth round of the competition.

“The Overstory” is a good book that’s difficult to recommend. Why? Because this is not an easy read, both in terms of material and structure. The question in this case is always: “Is it worth the effort?” In this case, the answer is “sometimes”.
There are parts of this novel that could have been pollarded, parts where Powers was clearly very much in love with the words that he was producing. Other parts are a joy to read, pure poetry brilliantly written. The structure is stunningly complex: Powers introduces each character in a story of their own, and then weaves some of those stories together tightly, and others just tangentially. The result is a dizzying book that will make you love trees and love those who love them.
If the book was shorter and the structure clearer (note that I say structure. The book has very little going on in terms of pure plot), it would have been a must read. As it is, if you decide to put an effort in a book of this kind, allow me to recommend “Milkman“. If you’ve read that and are ready for more, much more, then “The Overstory” is for you.

Tournament of Books: The Overstory

Tournament of Books: The Golden State

I finished reading the eleventh Tournament of Books 2019 book, Lydia Kiesling’s “The Golden State“, which is running against Jesse Ball’s “Census” in the fourth round of the competition.

You would be forgiven if you read the premise of “The Golden State” book and thought that you are about to read an “Eat, Pray, Love” kind of book. This is nothing of the sort. Kiesling has written an intensely realistic and touching piece about loneliness, particularly female loneliness.
The heroine of “The Golden State”, Daphne, is a young, neurotic mother to a precocious 2 year old, left alone due to the machinations of the US Immigration system. The daily grind at her unfulfilling job finally makes her snap, and she decides to take her toddler and run back to Altavista, where her late grandparents lived. The narrative follows her through the 10 days of her escape. So far the “Eat, Pray, Love”.
Daphne is a victim of a society that does nothing to help young mothers (except pile guilt and anxiety on them in the form of study after study), especially young mothers who marry outside the tribe. She is caged in a pointless job that is full of daily humiliation, but the money is “good” (not good enough for SF) and the health insurance… She has no friends, no family, nothing of interest in her life except her daughter, who she can’t afford to spend time with. Her husband and his loving family is in Turkey, and apart from skype calls, she has very little chance of seeing them any time soon. No wonder she snaps.
Altavista is no paradise, and isn’t portrayed as such. It’s a semi-deserted place full of angry white people, only a handful of which remember Daphne and her grandparents. She has unknowingly fled to the only place where she could be more lonely than she was back home. So when an old lady who visited Turkey one time befriends her, she can’t help but reach out.
This novel would not work in any place but today’s US. It’s a novel of time, place and character more than plot. Every breathless rush to change diapers or calm a screaming toddler becomes momentous once you realize just how alone Daphne is, just how alone the society she lives in wants her to be.
The novel is interesting, fresh, sharp and well written, and it beautifully breaks down large political ideas to small, everyday encounters.

This book is running against “Census” in the fourth round of the Tournament of Books, and though they have very little in common apart from being stories about single parents and their children out on a trip, it was not hard for me to pick “The Golden State” as a winner. It’s a better book in terms of writing accomplishment, and it has much more heart than “Census”. I highly recommend skipping “Census” entirely, and reading “The Golden State”. It’s a very good piece of contemporary fiction.

Tournament of Books: The Golden State

Tournament of Books: Census

A few days ago I finished reading the tenth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Jesse Ball’s “Census“, which is running against Lydia Kiesling’s “The Golden State” in the fourth round of the competition.

Perhaps unfairly, but when I first saw “Census” I thought that it was going to be novel in the vein of Max Porter’s “Grief is a Thing With Feathers”. I blame the the cormorant on its cover and the published blurb about it for putting me in that frame of mind. It was very clear a few pages in that “Census” would not survive that comparison. Then again, so few books could.

“Census” is book with a very moving preface and some very moving photos at the end. In the middle is a featureless wasteland. It is populated by unnamed characters that function in an unnamed, ill defined world that is maybe desolate, where a peculiar census is conducted each year in which people are asked questions by a census taker who then marks them and posts their answers onwards. Nothing in this novel is given edges, well defined. Everything is wishy washy, vague, seen through thick, milky glass. But that preface… so you stick to it, and it helps that the book is short, though it has no plot to speak of and the setting is bleak and bland. The key to this novel is its characters then, and that’s not surprising because after all, you’ve read the preface and that’s what’s keeping you here.

And that’s the biggest frustration, because when Jesse Ball lets himself write good characters then by God the man knows how to write good characters. There’s a tiny vignette of a ex-fossil loving boy that’s so precise, so concise and so convincing that you want to howl that the rest of the novel isn’t like that. That the surgeon-father-protagonist isn’t like that. That the son, the whole reason for this novel, remains a shapeless mass with nothing making him hum – no distinct feature, tic, preference. That the wife is the best defined major character and even she is seen through thick fog. It’s never personal, emotional, realistic or if he’s really going for the absurdist (which is a poor stylistic choice for the subject matter IMHO) then it’s far from fully embracing that even.

What is feels like is that the writer took a subject that was too close to home, too painful, and tried to deal with it while not dealing with it at the same time. The result is a novel that does everything possible to make it difficult for you to feel anything for any of its characters, including empathy. It very easily lets you slip into the “oh this has nothing to do with me” mode, and from there to “none of these characters are likable, hate-able or even interesting, so why should I care” mode.

But then, the preface…

Tournament of Books: Census

Tournament of Books: The Dictionary of Animal Languages

Yesterday I finished reading the ninth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Heidi Sopinka’s “The Dictionary of Animal Languages“, which is running against Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black” in the third round of the competition.

“The Dictionary of Animal Languages” is a technically difficult novel to read: the language is dense, the plot isn’t linear and at least at first it takes time to figure out who is talking, what’s going on, and in which timeline (one of the several past ones, or the present) you are. It doesn’t help that dialog isn’t delineated with quotation marks and often it isn’t clear who is talking, or whether they are talking or you are in their mind. If it wasn’t for the tournament I would have probably not have bothered with this book after wading through the first 2-3 chapters.

Ivory’s life is complicated and fascinating, but difficult to construct when broken up into non consecutive pieces and portrayed as it is. The characters and settings are very good (vivacious and interesting), and if the story was reconstructed in a more linear fashion it would be “unputdownable”. Sopinka is trying to show Ivory’s life in bursts, not unlike field recordings that you listen to in the lab and try to make sense of, but it really is too much effort for the ending result.

The novel is lyrical and touches on a lot of interesting themes (women’s roles and choices in the worlds of art and science, for example) , but the first third of it moves like thick pudding through a fine sieve. If you get through that, the last half is so much more interesting and rewarding than the first one, although it rushes through some plot points that feel like they shouldn’t be rushed through. There are too many coincidences in the plot (get captured and escape from prison camps much?), there are familial ties that are severed with no explanation or time to mourn (what happened to her brothers? Did Lev really breeze through retelling his brother’s death with not even a moment’s pause?) , and then there is the peculiar animal languages dictionary that is constantly evoked but never really explained to the reader, and you wonder why.

In short, this is a book in need of a more adept writer or a much stricter editor. The bones that are there are interesting enough to merit wading through the first part if you’re interested in contemporary fiction. There’s something there that with time and experience could probably make for a masterpiece some day.

It’s interesting that the Tournament of Books pitched “The Dictionary of Animal Languages” against “Washington Black” as the first has a weak beginning and a strong ending and the last has a strong beginning and a weak ending. Could they have made a perfect collaborative novel together? Jokes aside, Sopkina’s book is a better, if far from perfect, work of fiction, and her novel is lyrical while “Washington Black” only tries really hard to be. “Dictionary”‘s characters are better written and conceived, its plot, once reconstructed, is more compelling, and even its treatment of the animal conservation theme and social pariah/underdog themes are more nuanced and compelling. That is surprising considering the idea behind “Washington Black” seems more powerful and interesting than the one behind “Dictionary”, but Sopinka totally wins in execution against Edugyan.

Tournament of Books: The Dictionary of Animal Languages