Tournament of Books 2020: Oval


Dystopias are rarely boring. Dystopias rarely make you think, “meh”, when the characters meet the horrors of their world. Dystopias rarely lack plot, drive, an every calling telos. The world of dystopia may be hedonistic but the characters rarely are: after all, what’s the point of creating that kind of world if your character are too nihilistic, hedonistic and selfish to care what is going on around them?
Elvia Wilk’s “Oval” manages to be all that: a boring, bland, myopic, pointless dystopia full of nihilistic and selfish characters that don the mantle of social awareness and environmentalism as nothing more than a status symbol. I hesitate to call “Oval” a speculative novel, since so little speculation happens in it. Corporations are going to be ever more powerful at the expense of governments? That’s a known truth in 2020. The housing crisis is a thing worldwide? No kidding. Economic disparity, young people despairing from the political system, partying your way to the end – it’s not just that there’s nothing new here, it’s also that Wilk didn’t even try to dress it differently, give it an interesting or thought provoking spin. After reading “Oval” to the end I felt like I felt after watching “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”: was this all that it’s for?
I don’t like feeling cheated as a reader, and “Oval” wears the mantle of a high brow novel while providing less satisfaction, interest and down to earth character moments than works like Corey Doctorow’s wonderful “Radicalized”. Go read that instead.

I read “Oval” as part of the 2020 Tournament of Books, where it’s up in the play-in round against “Golden State” and “We Cast a Shadow”.

Tournament of Books 2020: Golden State

43473236. sy475

In a dystopian California, obsessed about the truth and capturing every moment of reality, a detective in the lie-detecting “Speculative Service” encounters an accidental death that may be more than it seems. Ben H. Winters’ “Golden State” is a clever mirror of “1984”, built for our cynical and surveillance heavy world, and it has a lot to say about truth, fiction, human relationships, guilt and objectivity. There’s something very “Caves of Steel” about it, and yet Winters’s characters are actual characters, and not robots-in-flesh as in Asimov’s work. This isn’t just a novel of ideas, but also a novel of people, of Lazlo dealing with pain, guilt, ambition.
A clever speculative novel that is worth reading even if speculative novels aren’t your thing.

I read this as part of the 2020 Tournament of Books Play-In round, where it’s up against “Oval” and “We Cast a Shadow”.

Tournament of Books 2020: Fleishman is in Trouble

Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s “Fleishman is in Trouble” is a readable book. The pages fly by as you absorb them, looking for something, anything, more than superficial, entitled, dull misery. I kept waiting for the promises humour to appear. I kept waiting for the novel to get to even the basic insights in David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” as it dug into the daily grind of its rich, white, healthy, able-bodied, cis-gendered, supremely selfish and childish characters. I kept saying, “so what, who cares?” and the novel didn’t answer. What things it had to say about women’s place had been said much more poignantly by authors with a better story to tell.
There is some attempt at narrative sophistication, but that doesn’t land. Akner chooses to use the second person for parts of the narrative, but she doesn’t commit, doesn’t fully create a witness account. Then there’s an attempt to mirror a fictional narrative within the narrative, a magazine article like telling of a divorce falling apart. Again, Akner pulls her punches, the comparison of “divorce story as written by a man vs. divorce story as written by a woman” doesn’t land. At some point I started hoping that she would pull off a trite move like revealing that she’s gender switched the narrative all along, just so I could have something to look forward to. Toby talks about rich people not knowing how to deal with tragedies or hardship in a novel devoid of any tragedies or hardship, as a character, in a cast, that has never truly dealt with the terrors of the world. The only character that has the potential for some depth, Rachel, is rendered as a selfish, driven, social climber with no empathy to anyone but herself.
The novel, like its characters, is pleasantly whiling the time as the world around it burns and it eats beef lo mein.
I read this book as part of the2020 Tournament of Books, where it’s up against Jami Attenberg’s “All This Could Be Yours” in the first round. Both novels are about rich, white people going through a crisis of sorts, but Attenberg’s novel has a depth to it, the darkness of Victor vs. the light of its post-Katrina New Orlean’s residents, that makes it worth spending some time with.
If you’re looking for a “Sex in the City Post Divorce” type of book, “Fleishman is in Trouble” may be what you’re looking for. Otherwise, I’d avoid it.

Tournament of Books 2020: All This Could Be Yours

All This Could Be Yours

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” ― Leo Tolstoy , Anna Karenina
The Tuchman family is unhappy in its own way, as Jami Attenberg deftly portrays in “All This Could Be Yours“. The patriarch, Victor, is lying on his deathbed, and Attenberg creates a mosaic of family members around him, with each character radiating out to other characters, the narrative touching on them for a moment (a conductor on a streetcar, a bartender, nurses, a coroner) placing them in the city of New Orleans, the world at large, and then floating away. The result is a lyrical telling of the consequences the life of a monster has on the people around him, almost a mirror image of Alberto Luis Urrea’s wonderful and touching “The House of Broken Angels”.
Victor Tuchman is a monster, but we only see his shadow, his effect in “All This Could Be Yours”. Alex’s obsession with knowing the truth about his life, why her mother stayed with him, what he did is what mostly drives the narrative, which is very thin on plot. It is rich with vibrant and interesting characters, the verve and buzz of New Orleans, the tang of misery brought on by people acting as people tend to do.
These are rich white people having rich white people problems in the city of New Orleans, in the America of Trump. I expected to not care less about the Tuchmans and their collective misery (no real tragedy here). But Attenberg knows how to write a book, and she knows what she’s doing even though you might get a little distracted at times along the way. Take a look at what’s described and what’s not, whose childhood is narrated and whose’s not, and on which character doing what the main narrative ends. A cruel man starts the narrative, but kind women have the last word.

I read this as part of my Tournament of Books 2020 challenge, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though the narrative jumps and amount of characters can be confusing at times.

Tournament of Books 2020: The Challenge

Each year for the past 16 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.

Last year, for the first time ever, I read all of the books on the shortlist, 18 books in total. As I started a bit late and I was rushing to get to the March deadline, that meant reading six novels a month for three months straight. The rushing part was a challenge, and reading many of these books was a challenge. Some were technically difficult, others dealt with difficult topics, still others required me to do some research while I read.

Despite the challenge, I ended up enjoying most of the books, loving more than half of the books, and really disliking only two of the 18 that I read. That’s a very good ratio, as a friend pointed out, and that made me consider doing the challenge again this year.

I don’t have as much free time next year as I had this past year, so I doubt that I’ll be reading at the rate in 2020 as I did in 2019. I won’t finish the books in time for the tournament, but I don’t mind. Last year I got angry at the judge’s choices (well, the judge’s reasonings, more than their choices) so I stopped following the tournament. That didn’t matter, as the choice of the books and their pairing was enough to get my mind thinking.

Today I purchased the first book on the shortlist (All This Could Be Yours, by Jami Attenberg) and all three books in the play in round (Golden State, by Ben H. Winters, Oval, by Elvia Wilk, We Cast a Shadow, by Maurice Carlos Ruffin). Here’s for another year of interesting, challenging and good books!

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: 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: 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 Mars Room

The Mars Room” was the book that I most dreaded reading once the final list of the Tournament of Books 2019 contest was published. The story of a stripper sentenced to three life sentences in a California prison for killing her stalker didn’t seem like the kind of reading that I’d enjoy. In some ways I was right — this wasn’t a fun read. What I hadn’t anticipated was being moved and touched by a story not so dissimilar from those that I’ve recently read and heard about in the news or in “This American Life”.

“The Mars Room” is about as far from light reading as you can get. It’s gut-wrenching. It’s violent. It’s relentless. It’s excellent.
We are living in a time where at least in parts of America there seems to be a growing awareness of the failings and injustices of their criminal justice system. There are a lot of non-fiction pieces coming out now that are bringing to light the toll mass incarceration, the “war on drugs” and prison privatization have taken on communities. So why read a work of fiction, no matter how well researched, when you can read an article or a book, listen to podcasts or watch documentaries on the American criminal justice system and the people at its mercy?
Because Kushner lets you into Romy’s mind, into her fellow inmates minds, into her victim’s mind. You see the people working in the system and incarcerated in the system as intimately as you possibly can – their mistakes, the tragedy of their lives, their big and small moments, their cruelties and their kindnesses. They aren’t opaque any more, they aren’t invisible. You get to see not only the systems of poverty, injustice, racism and abuse that started them on their respective journeys to prison, but you get to see them, to experience them as full human beings. That’s what makes it so terrible, and such a great work of fiction to read.

Tournament of Books: So Lucky

I’m still charging ahead on my Tournament of Books challenge, even though the competition has long ended (what a weird choice of a winner and a finalist. I don’t get it). Since I’ve been trying to read the books as fast as I can, I’ve limited myself to notes on them in my reading journal, and so the updates on the site have been somewhat delayed. It’s just easier to write my book thoughts with pen on paper.

I was going to read “The House of Broken Angels” by Luis Alberto Urrea first, but for some reason it was pulled off the kindle store, so I had to wait for the paperback to arrive. That meant that I went on to read “So Lucky” by Nicola Griffith next as the 14th book I read in the competition. It’s up against “The House of Broken Angels” in the sixth round of the competition.

It is so rare to find a work of fiction that centres around a young, healthy, active person discovering that they have a serious disease that isn’t cancer. There’s nothing sexy or hip about the subject matter. There’s nothing about MS that inspires the same kind of charity and feeling as cancer or AIDS. And Mara, the protagonist, is so aware of that.
That’s just another layer of realness in a novel that reads like a work of non-fiction while still showing us Mara’s inner world in a way that only fiction can. It moved me, it rattled me, it made me furious and it gave me hope. This is a must read not because it’s great literature with-a-capital-L, but because it is a profoundly human and humane piece of fiction that is both deeply personal and utterly universal. It says a lot about how we treat the sick and the disabled, it says a lot about what it’s like becoming sick and disabled (these days in America, but not only), and it says a hella of a lot about our ability to evolve and adapt to the most harrowing of conditions.
Also, it really made me want to learn karate.