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 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: 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: 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.

The Tournament of Books: Washington Black

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

This is the only Tournament of Books book that I heard of before the competition. It made quite a splash when it came out last year, a sort of slave/coming of age narrative with steam punk slapped on for flavour. Sounds interesting, right?

The first half of this novel is. The story of Washington’s childhood (if you can call it that) as a slave, Kit’s story, Faith plantation, Barbados and the Wilde family — they’re all vibrant, alive, speaking volumes through history. Washington’s escape, his travels, his survivor’s guilt, they’re all fascinating, complex, well written, until Washington reaches Canada, where everything grinds to a halt. The narrative enters a kind of swampy ennui, characters become cardboard specimens viewed through milky, distorted glass, and the only thing that maintains the earlier vibrancy is the setting. It was as if all the narrative urge was drained out of this novel and Edugyan was working for a word quota. Slash the novel after the point where Christopher steps into the ice storm and you not only lose nothing, you end up with a better narrative. Christopher trapped and Washington free is more interesting than Christopher being a man-child unable to face the world and Washington chasing him to get no answers. And the “love story” between Tanna and Washington feels more like a last minute after thought than a believable, integral part of the tale.

This could have been an excellent novella, instead of an almost good novel that lost narrative steam halfway through. What a shame.

Tournament of Books: The Italian Teacher

I just finished reading the seventh Tournament of Books 2019 book, Tom Rachman’s “The Italian Teacher“, which is running against Anna Burn’s “Milkman” in the second round of the competition.

What a difference one round makes. The Tournament of Books play-in books were all excellent, setting up high expectations for the first round of books. If only those expectations were met. Both “Warlight” and “Call Me Zebra” were very mediocre books, verging on the terrible. A good premise and sweaty efforts that exude out of every page do not a good book make. It would have been very easy to give up on the Tournament of Books at this point, but I’m so glad that I stuck to it.

The round 2 books were the complete opposite of round 1, finally giving the play-in books a run for their money. “Milkman” is one of the best books that I have ever read, period. It deserves to stand in any capital L Literature shelf in every library around the world. I was genuinely worried for “The Italian Teacher”, sure that “Milkman” would mop the floor with it. It didn’t.

Tom Rachman’s “The Italian Teacher” is a study of what makes an artist, how humans connect and how those connections evolve with time, and the gap between what people’s expectations of what an artist’s life and work process is versus the often lacklustre reality of their lives. It is far from a treatise though — every character pops off the page, juicy and real and warm, the dialogue sparkles, the oftentimes tragic story is sprinkled with humour and good nature, making it a fun read, even though oftentimes you want to punch this or that character in the mouth or shake them to awareness. Every little detail is well thought out, but unlike “Call Me Zebra”, you don’t see the sweat. It feels so effortless to read that you’re lulled into thinking that it was effortless to write.

If it was placed against any of the round 1 Tournament of Books books it would have easily trounced them. As it stands against “Milkman”, I doubt that it will advance beyond this round. “Milkman” has a timeless, monumental quality about it, even though its heroine leads a much less glamorous life than Bear and Pinch, or even Natalie. In a place where the sky is always blue and sunsets are not something you go and watch, great novels grow.

How I use my notebooks: Tournament of Books tracking

Most stationery blog posts focus on reviewing products and less on how people actually use all the paper, pens and inks that they buy. I thought I’d try to write a bit more about how I use my stuff, and not just on how cool is all the stuff I have.

This is my latest Field Notes, the Campfire Night. I use a binder clip to keep it closed as it bashes around in my backpack. Without the clip the pages get crumpled and torn after a few days of use. The clip used to be nice and copper coloured but now is just nice and worn silver.

Apart from my day to day to do lists, this notebook currently hosts my Tournament of Books trackers. There’s a list of books that are participating in the contest, divided per round. Those that I’ve read are marked off with blue pencil. This is for my personal use, so you’ll not see any Instagram level calligraphy here. I wasn’t planning to photograph this and blog about it when I created these.

This is where I’m logging who I think should win each round. When the tournament starts I’m going to log who actually won each round on the opposite page.

Since doing this challenge means reading 18 books in a very short period, I’m tracking my reading progress in this notebook as well as in my reading journal, just to make sure that I’m on track (I won’t finish reading these in time, as I’ve started too late, but my goal is to finish reading them all by mid April).

That’s it.

Tournament of Books 2019: Warlight

I just finished reading the fourth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Michael Ondaatje’s “Warlight“. It’s in the first round of the competition, running against Azareen Can Der Vlier Ollomi’s “Call Me Zebra“.

This book should have been named “Utter Drivel”. It’s not a bildungsroman, not a war story, not a spy story, not a story about post WWII London or Britain. It’s not a story at all, just a collection of unbelievable and uninteresting scenes, repeated again and again, and connected by wild circumstances that are yet again, unbelievable. The characters are, you guessed it, unbelievable phantoms with nothing to make them feel real, likeable, or anything really. It’s as if you’re wandering in the fog with Ondaatje, neither of you having any sort of clue where you are and where you’re going. It’s not even truly bad, it’s just boring and pointless, which is what makes it so frustrating.

I’m surprised that it was published, and even more surprised that it made it into the first round of the Tournament of Books 2019, while excellent books like “Speak No Evil”, “A Terrible Country” and “America Is Not the Heart” were left to battle it out in the Play-Ins. I haven’t yet read “Call Me Zebra,” but it’s going to have to be terrifically bad to lose against this pointless book.

Hard Times

Journal comic drawn with a Sharpie brush pen on a Moleskine Star Wars crawl text limited edition plain notebook.

How I Started Reading More (Again)

A few more insights into how I got back to reading, beyond using a reading journal, as it has come up in conversations lately (people are gearing up for 2019 resolutions, I guess):

  • I started with detective novels, easy reads, things that were fun and not too challenging to dig into. M.C. Beaton, P.G. Wodehouse, John Scalzi were my friends. I was trying to rebuild a habit, and so the last thing I needed was to start with books that I would resist reading. My mind had to learn to treat reading as a pleasant pastime and not “homework” anymore, so the more challenging books came in only about a year after I started.
  • I used streaks to challenge myself to read 10 minutes a day, every day. Why 10 minutes? Because I felt that this was the minimal amount of time required for me to start easing myself out of the choppy, constantly distracted and interrupted reading habits that I had picked up after years of using social media.
  • I deleted the Facebook and YouTube apps from my phone, and after a great deal more struggle and a few relapses, Twitter. Instead of browsing them when I had a minute or two to spare, I used the Kindle app.
  • I put reading in my new year’s resolutions (yes, I have been doing those for the last three years, and I’ve been pretty successful in meeting them for the last three years, but that’s a different post). At first it was just for a certain quantity of books (24), and then it was for a certain number of books of each kind — challenging books and long books.
  • I set up a Goodreads account and started a reading challenge there. As with the resolutions, it’s important to keep the goal not only attainable under normal circumstances, but also attainable when things go horribly wrong with your life. Start lower than you think, and ignore other people’s goals. You’re doing this for yourself. If it’s 5 books, 10 books, 20 or 20, it should be what you can do. I chose 24, because that was 2 books a month, and something that I felt I could get to without resorting to reading only short and simple books.
  • I cut out TV almost entirely from my life. This wasn’t just about reading, it was about making more time in my day for things that were more important to me, but it definitely helped with my reading. I cancelled my cable subscription and I watch about 2 hours of TV a week.

This has been my journey back into reading. Take from it what you wish, but if I can distill them they’d look like this:

  1. Decide you want to do it. If it’s not coming from you, it won’t happen.
  2. Set up systems of daily reminders and goals. These can be private or public, they can be analog or digital, as long as they help you keep on track.
  3. Make it pleasurable. Start with easy reading in a genre that you enjoy, maybe with a writer that you know, and keep your goals easy and attainable even not on the best of days.