The 2016 Tournament of Books - Championship

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Championship

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy vs. The Sellout by Paul Beatty

In short, I liked The Sellout, but I thought The Turner House is a brilliant, transcendent novel.

At the Tournament, though, Paul Beatty wins the Rooster.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the next book from each of them, whenever that comes. (I'm also looking forward to The Turner House being turned into an award winning film or TV miniseries which will make Angela Flournoy a household name).

11 months until the next ToB...


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Zombie Round, Day Two

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Zombie Round, Day Two

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff vs. The Sellout by Paul Beatty


I'm tempted to leave it there - mostly because this is insanely busy day, but I feel like I should something about my sense of the differences between the two books.

The Sellout, as pretty much everyone has said, is not a realistic novel, is not a book read for plot. It is about the sentences, it is about the humor, it is about the ideas. It is a wild and crazy ride of a novel that manages to slice through a lot of big issues in an incredibly deft way.

I think maybe my biggest problem with Groff is that I read it after the book had accumulated hype. Like the idea that's a book about marriage. Well, I thought it was pretty shallow in that regard - not as shallow as its main character Lotto (bazinga) but it's a wild melodrama. The book has an energy, I think Groff is a good writer, but her prose doesn't jump off the page the way that Beatty's does. Also Groff accomplishes a lot of the narrative momentum and energy by adding plot twist after another and after a while, it's tiring.

Melodrama can be something amazing but it's a very fine line to walk. A lot of people don't recognize this, but they do see it when melodrama fails or falters, becomes too saccharine, becomes just outrageous-ness, never quite achieves a level of cohesion. Fates and Furies never manages that. The first half was flat and the second half is wild and overall the effect just doesn't quite work.

Beatty on the other hand, does.

My Verdict:  The Sellout

At the Tournament:  The Sellout


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Zombie Round, Day One

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Zombie Round, Day One

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara vs. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

So I've already admitted that I think The Turner House should win the rooster and that A Little Life left me sobbing.

I do understand many of the problems that people have with A Little Life. It's a very allegorical story but then Jude's abuse is so unique, so detailed, that what initially seems like an allegory about Jude trying to move forward without being able to confront his past, but after it is explained in detail in the text, it's unclear how to respond to it.

I also know that one of the book's strengths for me is one of the aspects of the book that was exhausted people the most, namely, the detailed and exhaustive depression and self-abuse. I found it one of the best depictions of depression I've read in a long time. As one who has depression, what others thought was exhausting and over the top as Jude once again thought about how horrible he is, how if anyone knew the truth about him they would shun him and stop caring about him, that people's love is so conditional, that maybe he should end it all - where others are exhausted by this happening yet again in the book, I think, yeah, that's a typical Thursday.

Another overlooked aspect is the genderfluid nature of the characters. Jude and Willem are two men who ultimately end up in a relationship but neither really identifies as gay. Willem makes the point in the book that he's not interested in men, he's interested in Jude. Similarly, Jude is largely asexual. I think that this has been overlooked and it's sad because it is such an interesting part of this allegorical utopian New York that they live in.

Having said that, The Turner House is a very different book in that it's not interested in allegory, it is a book about individuals in an actual city. This is a family saga and like the very best family stories, each characters is unique with their own voice in perspective, the book is nothing but conflict, and there are no villains. You're sympathetic towards them all, you don't hate any, but you can't say that love any of the characters - in other words, family.

It's a hard feat to pull off but when it's done well - and Flournoy does it very well - it feels like a family. It feels like individuals with their own voice who are related and who react to each other like a family.

The book does so many things that seem effortless. So many things that make it easy to ignore just how hard it is to be this subtle, this thoughtful, this nuanced. 

My Verdict:  The Turner House

At the Tournament:  The Turner House


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Semifinals, Day Two

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Semifinals, Day Two

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra vs. The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The tough questions in the Tournament often come in the later rounds where you're forced to consider two books that you liked, and of course the easy answer is to say that people should read both, but as Highlander taught us–there can be only one.

And in this case, funny enough, the books share a lot in common. Both have a dark, absurdist worldview. Both made me laugh out loud. Both are very writerly books, in the sense that they way each author is telling the story is central to the book's appeal. Of course I also know people who have resisted both books or were at least left cold by them. Language can do that and when walking the tightropes that each does, it's almost inevitable that some people will resist being pulled along for a variety of reasons. I know people who aren't nearly as enthusiastic about each book as I am and as others are.

Maybe it's a question of what one likes. After all I do like dark humor, I enjoy the puzzle structure that the individual stories of Marra's book force you to think about create connections. At the same time I can see people getting annoyed by certain elements. Also I loved The Sellout but it's so absurd and funny that a lot of people just won't connect with it because of that - simply the tenor of the humor has caused a lot of people I know to push back a little even if they like many aspects of Beatty's book. Also while Marra's book has some very funny moments, the humor is a much more straight forward kind and not the intense way of Beatty's book.

In the end, I just liked Tsar a little more.

My Verdict: The Tsar of Love and Techno

At the Tournament:  The Sellout.


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Semifinals, Day One

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Semifinals, Day One

Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson vs. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

In many of the matchups at different rounds of the tournament, I base my decision on very simple thinking: I liked one book but I loved the other book. That's why I preferred The Turner House.

Some of that is simply a question of personal taste, of the preferences that one has for a certain genre or approach. In reading the comments throughout the Tournament-

(Here I should add that I think that the ToB comments section are possibly the only comment section on the internet worth reading, composed of passionate, opinionated readers discussing what they love - as opposed to most comments sections, which convince me that if humanity were wiped out tomorrow, it would be a net benefit for the universe)

But in reading the Tournament commentators, they typically damn The Turner House with faint praise. They describe it as traditional and well constructed. The idea being that compared to a book like Bats of the Republic, which is insane, which is conceived and structured and designed to be a unique experience, that The Turner House lacks something by simply being words on a page designed to be read in order.

Of course it's about what you want out of a book, but now that it's been a little while since I read both books, I'm not struck less by my initial thoughts but now what has stayed with me. For example I enjoyed assembling a jigsaw puzzle while on a roller coaster (or whatever awkward metaphor we're using to describe the experience of reading Bats of the Republic) and I loved the design. Hell, I probably spent as much time obsessing and looking over the design of the book as I did actually reading the book. But at a remove, the characters and much of the plot have faded. The characters were always thinly drawn and at a distance, they only way they stick in my mind is their role in the plot.

By contrast, The Turner House is a family saga involving a large Detroit-based family, but it's all about the characters and even though it's been a month since I read the book I can still remember the characters their voices. That's what is so striking about the book, that Flournoy manages to juggle so many characters, to make their voices so distinct and unique. This is a first novel but it doesn't read like it. Flournoy manages to make it look so easy and I think that's the reason for some of the understated praise because what she is able to do is so profound and so powerful, but also very simple. After all, shouldn't all novels have lots of characters, each of whom has their own voice? Shouldn't a story about a family actually act like a family and not like some idea of a family?

Of course most books don't. In her first novel Flournoy does an amazing job of capturing the characters as individuals and the family dynamics. It's easy to have a "bad kid" who everyone else has a an opinion about, to create conflict in melodramatic ways, but to find a way to make the conflict organic to the characters and the situations is something very rare.

The Turner House is a work of genius and a great novel about the United States. If you haven't read it yet, please do.

My Verdict:  The Turner House

At the Tournament:  The Turner House


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Quarterfinals, Day Four

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Quarterfinals, Day Four

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler vs. The Sellout by Paul Beatty

I think my dislike of Anne Tyler and this novel has been well established. Tyler's novel is like the house in her novel - well-constructed.

Beatty's novel, though, is more than that. On a purely sentence by sentence comparison, Beatty wins by a mile. This is a book where the author is interested in humor, where he's trying to make a point, and those two facts give the sentences a weight and an energy

The book is complicated and there's a rhythm to it that might be hard for some people to get into, but if you let yourself follow the rhythm and give yourself over to the story's twists and turns - and after the prologue which involves smoking up outside the Supreme Court and then entering the chamber to find the black justice break his silence is an unexpected way - you should.

And for all the talk about how the book is about race - and it is. It's also a story about fathers and sons, it's about learned behavior, about how we react to our upbringing and fight against it, how we become our parents and how we grow to become someone in reaction to them.

In a week where Paul Beatty has received the National Book Critic Circle Award, advancing into the next round for the Rooster is probably a small thing, but The Sellout deserves every award it receives (and then some).

Verdict:  The Sellout

At The Tournament:  The Sellout


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Quarterfinals, Day Three

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Quarterfinals, Day Three

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara vs. The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

A Little Life is a book that I loved. It's a book that left me sobbing at the end.

It is an odd book, though. As someone who suffers from depression, I think that the portrait of depression and trauma and self-loathing that Yanagihara draws is one of the best I've ever read in a novel. What's odd is that while Jude's depression and abuse and trauma is so well defined, so specific, every other aspect of the book is...less specific.

I know that this is a lingering pet peeve among some readers, and I understand. It is a book that's set in the present day but it's also detached from any event going on in the world or the city. There is a fairy tale like quality to the city and the setting that seems at odd with the specificity of Jude's mindset.

On the one hand I do understand the decision. I know from my own experience how the world and its events can often retreat into the background, how they can contribute to one's general malaise, but depression also blocks out a lot of the world. Just as depression means that so much that one sees and experiences is ignored or blocked out, so too does it prevent one from registering and processing what else is going on in the world. I know that the period of time where I am least up on global affairs are when I'm frantically obsessed with a project that occupies all my free time and keeps me up at night, and when I'm brutally depressed.

The Tsar of Love and Techno is very dark novel - though there are multiple hilarious moments that left me cracking up. Of course it is a novel about Russia in the Soviet era and more recently. There is a bleak fatalism, a landscape dominated by cruelty. Composed of interconnected stories, the book does an exceptional job of piecing the stories together and providing answers to the reader, although not necessarily to the characters.

If A Little Life is a book about empathy, Tsar is a much more writerly book that is less based on experiencing the psyche of a single character and more to surrender to the writer's perspective and mindset. They're both amazing books and I recommend both of them (didn't I write this in yesterday's quarterfinal round?) but in the end I have to go with Marra. Mostly because of his sentences and his lines about wheelchair ramps and the Tom Hanks fan club (among other things).

My Pick: The Tsar of Love and Techno

Over at the Tournament:  The Tsar of Love and Techno


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Quarterfinals, Day Two

The 2016 Tournament of Books  -  Quarterfinals, Day Two

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy vs. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

When I was on the radio a couple weeks ago, I said that if people read only one book from the Tournament, they should read The Turner House, so my verdict on today's matchup is probably not very shocking.

I really liked Our Souls at Night. I found it a very empathetic and quiet look at two elderly people falling in love. It's told from a reserve, so that we're watching them from the outside - like the busybodies in the small town watch them. It's a perfect small novel.

The Turner House, though, is a big novel. It's a novel that's about a family but it's also about the city of Detroit, about community, about social change. It's an epic story. And some of it is simply that I prefer the kind of book that the Turner House is. That's to say, a larger story, but also a story where the personal stories of individuals (who are always individuals, never stereotypes or thinly drawn figures to prop up the plot) that have a lot more resonance beyond just their own lives.

Also as one who has lived in places that are considered urban areas where little happens and is considered a wasteland by some, but is in fact a dynamic place where people live, I really appreciated and enjoyed the portrait of Detroit that Flournoy presented. It's something missing when people often write about Detroit.

Also it's a family story where they feel like a family. This is always hard to do but she manages to make them similar enough to be related, different enough to be individuals, a believable dynamic when they're gathered in a group and then in smaller configurations. My second reading of the book left me in awe of how well Flournoy was able to do that.

My Verdict:  The Turner House

At the Tournament:  The Turner House


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Quarterfinals, Day One

The 2016 Tournament of Books  -  Quarterfinals, Day One

Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson vs The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I loved The Sympathzier and I liked Bats of the Republic. It’s as simple and as complicated a decision as that.

The Sympathizer starts out as a thriller, with the main character and others escaping Saigon as the city is about to fall and then it shifts into a darker mode as it goes on. The main character is something of an everyman - and all the characters are archetypal - but our hero is a great believer and it’s this idealism that keeps us following him, keep us rooting for him, believing that he’ll find a way to get out somehow from both his North Vietnamese handlers and the exiles plotting to return and retake the country.

By contrast Bats of the Republic lacks a character that is so compelling. In both the past and the present, the characters aren’t flat  - I’ve read enough books where the characters are lacking in any and all depth, utterly unbelievable and exist only to advance the plot, and Dodson avoids that, but neither do they ever feel believable. The book is a puzzle and the piece are beautiful and assembling it is exciting, but in the end, the story and the characters which tie it all together, never grabbed me.

I know that this is often the criticism of so much “genre” fiction. The characters are analogues of the writer or they exist to explain things to the audience or to propel the plot. I understand this criticism and I’ve certainly read a lot of books that qualify. (Even though I find the dig at “genre” offensive but that’s a fight for another day)

Books like Bats of the Republic are few and far between but it’s a form that I think we’ll be seeing more of in the years to come. I enjoy them. That should come as no surprise, I read and write a lot about graphic novels so I’m probably less shocked by a book like this than some people. The problem is with a lot of books and other projects like this is that the idea is paramount. Not the characters, not the prose, but the idea. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that. On the one hand, if some of the characters don’t come to life, it could be a killer for the book, but in a book like this, it’s a flaw but not a fatal flaw. It does keep me from loving it, though.

I liked Bats, I respect Bats, I want to read what Dodson will do next, but in the end, the book that kept me thinking about it long after I finished was The Sympathizer.

My Verdict:  The Sympathizer

Over at the Tournament:  Bats of the Republic


Articles Published the Week of March 13th

Jeff Nicholson explains how Through the Habitrails brought him out of retirement

Jeff Nicholson was one of the comic creators who were a part of the 1980's black and white boom of indie comics. In the 90's he went on to create a number of miniseries and graphic novels including possibly his best book, Through the Habitrails. A surreal look at a workplace and a character who longs to escape it, it hasn't lost any of its edge or bite in twenty years since it was first published. This new edition also includes an epilogue, the first comic that Nicholson has drawn in more than a decade.


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day Nine

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day Nine

The Sellout by Paul Beatty vs The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak

Here's the thing, I live in Connecticut. I was born here. I am well aware that for many people Connecticut is nothing more than a few suburbs where rich people who commute into NYC live in palatial estates - whether they can afford them or not. So reading the dust jacket of The Invaders I rolled my eyes. But I love good social satire, I love a skewering of rich clueless people when done well.

The Invaders main problem is that it's not that exciting. The main character is passive and so much is conveyed not through action, not even through dialogue, but through internal monologue. And I understand the basic idea of the book, and the question is, how does one best convey a passive internal character, but it's far too easy to simply let the character wallow in their own thoughts

The Sellout by contrast is not passive or internal, it is active, funny, wild, and full of energy. It's dark and hilarious and a lot of people have called it satire - and I understand why people would say that - but to my mind satire doesn't really describe it. There's an energy to Beatty's prose. The language is just so incredible. Admittedly for people who would rather not read the n-word - it gets used liberally in the book - I can certainly understand some of my friends preferring to avoid the book.

I do think that simply reading the opening scene which is obscene and hilarious, is a good way to test whether the book is your cup of tea. In it we meet our protagonist who is getting stoned in front of the Supreme Court before walking inside where among things, Justice Thomas breaks his long silence in a somewhat atypical exchange.

This is an odd matchup - or maybe a perfect matchup - because Beatty's prose feels the opposite of Waclawiak's in so many ways. One I loved and one left me cold. An easy choice.

My Pick:  The Sellout.

Over at the Tournament:  The Sellout

With that, the first round of the tournament is over. Counting the play-in round, I'm 7/9 in my tournament picks - and both my losses relate to Anne Tyler's novel which left me cold and others seem to love with a passion I just do not understand whatsoever.

Onto Round Two!


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day Eight

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day Eight

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler vs. The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

If you read my analysis of the play-in round, you know that I am not of fan of Anne Tyler in general or this book specifically.

(If you didn't, I attended a high school where I read more Anne Tyler than Mark Twain - among many other writers we read little or not at I've never been a fan and until this tournament hadn't read her since high school)

I could say that the opening scene of the book was annoying and made me hate the characters, that Tyler would manage to have a sentence or two defining each character and then this large would fade into the background and not play a role at all in any way shape or form (literally most of the partners and children could have been excised and wouldn't have mattered). I could mention how much I hate the title - and where the title comes from. Also the fact that it doesn't feel realistic as far as a family's dynamics when confronted with older parents, selling the childhood home, dividing up possessions.

Now if one who has experienced something says, this is exactly what it's like, and everyone who didn't feels it's flawed and doesn't work, I think that's a sign that the book doesn't work. But having seen this in real life, if I feel it's completely unrealistic, does that mean the book is a failure? Because it does feel more like a Hallmark channel movie than real life.

On the other hand The Story of My Teeth was so enjoyable. It was such a fascinating read. Like many of the books on the list, I loved the book in large part because of how it was told. It's a short novel but throughout I was fascinated  and enthralled - and even if you aren't enthralled by the way it's told and the outsize character at its center, well, it's short.

Now I don't love the book the way that some people I know do, but for me, this is pretty stark choice. It's a lively and inventive and dynamic book vs one that is, well, not.

My Winner: The Story of My Teeth

Over at the Tournament:  A Spool of Blue Thread.  (Seriously, I do not understand the love for Tyler that's been exhibited in two rounds and by so many people. Can someone explain it to me> I feel like someone is speaking Norwegian to me when they talk about the book's greatness)


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day Seven

The 2016 Tournament of Books  -  Day Seven

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard vs The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

These are both excellent books, they’re also depressing books. The Book of Aron is obviously depressing–it’s about a young man in the Warsaw Ghetto and to write truthfully about that means that it’s brutally depressing. The Tsar of Love and Techno is a beautifully written book but at its heart is a book that I and others have described as “very Russian.” And when I say “very Russian” I mean that it’s dark and depressing and people die in horrible, unfortunate ways and anyone who tries in their small way to speak out against what is so obviously wrong is killed.

Marra wrote two of my favorite passages that I have come across in these novels. One where a Russian man who runs a phishing scam explains where he gets his list of people to call–the Tom Hanks facebook fan page. The other is a great tribute by a Russian mail order bride to the wheelchair ramp.

On the one hand, the tones of these books have a lot in common, but they both take very different approaches. Shepard writes the novel’s from Aron’s point of view, and it is in many respects a simple, straightforward way of telling the story. That simplicity and the way that Shepard manages to inhabit Aron’s voice. This is a story where going in, I knew more or less how it would end. This wasn’t going to be a fell good story, and this simplicity and the use of a single figure to tell the tale made it powerful and compelling.

Marra’s book on the other hand is a series of linked short stories that are tried together and so the telling of the tale is primary. In the hands of a lesser writer, the result would have felt a little too self-conscious, a little too pat, as though the puzzle pieces were being assembled and connected in a more obvious manner. Marra manages to write these stories and connect them in a way where the reader is aware of what’s happening throughout, but then, at the end, he still manages to achieve that moment of transcendence at the end of the book.

My Pick:  The Tsar of Love and Techno.

Over at the Tournament:  The Tsar of Love and Techno.


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day Six

The 2016 Tournament of Books  -  Day Six

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara vs. The New World by Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz

I’m going to start by saying that I loved A Little Life and The New World left me cold. The New World was a short book, a book with some interesting ideas, a book with some beautiful prose, but it never came together in an interesting way. This is a book - and there have been many recently and probably plenty more in the works - where ideas that once were the geeky province of genre fiction are now treated seriously, with attention paid to the prose and incorporating these ideas into a “literary” novel. I read some of these books and some are good and some are bad, but I had a problem that I’ve found that many other readers I know do not have - I’ve read it before. By which I mean that I’ve read a lot of science fiction and fantasy over the course of my life. Reading something like The New World, it’s not clever or interesting - I’ve seen those ideas elsewhere, read about them explored differently, better, worse, in greater depth. Which means that they have to impress me with how they put it together, with the prose, and the book just doesn’t. It never manages to be more than an interesting idea with good prose that never quite coheres.

A Little Life is a book that I know has divided people, and I have plenty of quibbles with the book, but I think it’s a magnificent work of genius that moved me to tears. Literally, I was sobbing at the end of this book. When I wrote about Our Souls at Night the other day I mentioned that one of the reasons why I voted for that book was that I was truly moved by the book, that the characters managed to elicit emotion in an honest and thoughtful way. But by the end of A Little Life, I was bawling in a way that very books have ever caused me to do.

Now that’s not to say that I think the book is flawless. It’s long and like any book that’s this long (The hardcover edition I had was 720 pages) if I were the editor I would have suggested cutting some sections. I for example could have dealt with less of the abuse that the main character survived as a child. But overall, I found it to be an empathic look at a single character over a period of decades.

I do have a number of questions that I’d like to pose to Yanagihara. For example I do wonder whether the intention was always for the book to be about Jude and a handful of people around him, or if the intention was to be about a group of friends, about this milieu of young people in New York City, but in the process of writing the book, Jude took over. I don’t the know the answer but I am curious. The first chunk of the book which focuses on the many friends reads differently than the majority of the book which focuses on Jude.

It’s been interesting to read the commentary about the book. Sometimes I feel as though when I read commentary that I read a very different book than they did. I cannot call this book “Li’l Life” as some people do, simply because of the reason for the book’s title just makes me unable to do so.

But I’ve been fascinated at the notion that people find the book exhausting and overwhelming and so many of the other words that people have used to describe the book, and the way that people talk about Jude and his depression and self-loathing have made me think about myself and my own life. I suffer from depression and have for quite a long time, and I consider the book to be one of the best fictional portraits of depression that I’ve read in a very long time.

I wonder if that has affected my reading of the book. There are many of the passages in the book where Jude is internally berating himself, the fear he has that people are about to reject or abandon him, his constant uncertainty over so many aspects of his life, the fear of being discovered as a failure and rejected once people learn who he really is. I wonder if so many of the people who read the book find it to be exhausting and straining their empathy–which seems to be what many have said or suggested–while I think, yeah, that sounds like a typical Thursday for me.

I’m being flippant, but I do wonder if that’s true.

Yanagihara manages to convey this complicated sense of self that Jude possesses, the way that he can seem so well adjusted and so capable one minute but wracked by insecurity, tormented by suicidal thoughts, the anguish he has and the ways he tries to endure every day. I’m not saying that it wasn’t exhausting, but it was also very familiar to me. I’ve been through that. I go through that. This is my life. So where others might see the anguish and this never ending stream of pain to be gratuitous, I do wonder whether my perspective means that I read it very differently than the average reader.

This question seems particularly important given the fact that there are TV shows about sex crimes and serial killers and TV shows filled with rape and this kind of trauma and abuse is out there in pop culture. I would much rather that such trauma be treated in this fashion, to show over decades, the pain and anguish and damage that it does to victims. I think that’s much preferable to caring about the pain and suffering of victims for a few minutes and then cutting to commercial and then at the end of the hour, everything’s better.

It’s notable that the victim is a man and his circle of friends are all cis men. I wonder if this plays a role in how people read it and how people respond to it. Would a woman who had gone through this be read differently? If a woman had gone through it would her friends have had a better sense of what had happened, what it meant and how they could have helped? Because I do think that if Jude were a woman and all her friends were women, then it would have been a different book. Not just that we would read it differently but realistically speaking, women would have perceived and responded to a someone who went through sexual abuse, who was traumatized and seems asexual in a different way where the guys in this book just shrug and as long as Jude is no danger to himself or anyone else, it’s no one’s business but his. 

Or maybe I’m wrong. I could be wrong.

But beyond that there are so many interesting moments in the book. The scene where Willem realizes that he’s famous - because he’s always gone to events and known people but it was because his old roommates was the person’s brother or some other 3-4 degrees of separation that exists among young people in a city. Or Willem’s youth and his relationship with his brother. Jude’s descriptions of mathematics and why it fascinates him. There are some incredible scenes and passage sin the book, which I do love.

One aspect of the book that I continue to ponder is the title and the cover art. The cover is a photograph by Peter Hujar, which depicts not a man in pain as many people have said, but a man at the point of orgasm. The title comes from what Jude was told when he was being abused, that he should show “a little life” when he’s being pimped out.

Anyway, I think the book is not perfect, but when I sat there, sobbing as I read the last section, none of those quibbles meant anything. This is an amazing book and I loved it.

My Winner:  A Little Life

Over at the Tournament:  A Little Life (though the judge was not a fan of the book and actually writes near the end “I personally think it’s probably better that you don’t read A Little Life.”)


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day Five

The 2016 Tournament of Books  -  Day Five

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf vs The Whites by Richard Price (writing as Harry Brandt)

Cards on the table: I’ve never read Kent Haruf (though I’ve always meant to!) and I think that Richard Price is one of the best, most important novelists writing in the United States today. (And I’ve believed that for the past two decades)

The reason for my belief in Price is Clockers, which is a work of genius and George Pelecanos once described to me as “our Grapes of Wrath.” It’s a sentiment I support 100% and if some of you feel that by comparing his novel to an iconic American novel is hyperbolic, well, then you should read it. Some writers like Tom Wolfe will right a pretentious essay about how there’s no enough realism in American fiction (not that Wolfe is a realist, he’s more of a satirist, really), Price just wrote a novel that is based on research, that has the texture and the details that come from first hand knowledge and Price’s work has always had that.

The Whites has a complicated backstory that I won’t get into, but it has a much narrower focus that his novels typically do. Price has spent a lot of time and energy writing screenplays over the years - he also wrote for The Wire, a show that David Simon and many of the writers on it said were inspired by Price’s work. The Whites is a novel about one policeman and it’s about police work. It feels like Price learned about the job from the inside out, that people have opened up to him, that he knows the slang and the details and nuances of police work.

It’s a tense thriller but it’s also an exceptional character drama. It’s his skill at blending those two together, at making the thriller organic. This isn’t about trying to hunt down some serial killer that exists only in fiction but something that rings very true to life in all of its complexity. If like me you read a lot of crime novels and watch a lot of crime dramas, in this book Price schools all of those writers about what the genre is capable of and how to do it well.

Having said that, the narrowness of the book’s focus was something of a letdown for me. The book is perfect for what it is. But where his books like Clockers and Freedomland and others, Price is interested in so much more than just how cops operate and think. Here’s a bad but useful comparison. Homicide: Life on the Street vs The Wire. Homicide was a very good television show but the Wire was a great show and one reason I would argue is that the Wire placed policemen and police work in a context.

Kent Haruf’s book is short and not something I would have probably picked up if it weren’t for the Tournament. It’s the story of two older people who live next door to each other who are living alone and begin a relationship. I’m not a fan of romance stories, I’ll be perfectly honest. I do however enjoy good writing and a deliberate but languidly told tale, which this does.

And while I’m not a fan of romance stories, what I liked about this story is that honestly, it moved me. A lot of books that I read - in this Tournament and just in general - are clearly designed to elicit an emotional response from me. Often, they don’t. But Reading Our Souls at Night, I was truly moved.

So even though I think this is controversial, I’m going to vote for Our Souls at Night. And honestly, on a different day, I would have voted for The Whites. I encourage everyone to read both because I think that each of them is perfect for what they are, but today...

My Winner:  Our Souls at Night.

At the Tournament:  Our Souls at Night.

(I’ll be honest, it’s weird that so far I agree with the judges more often than not...this is not usually the way it goes for, well, anything...)


Articles Published the Week of March 6th

"Robot Dreams" cartoonist declares this Spring "Sweaterweather"

I'm a huge fan of cartoonist Sara Varon who's the woman behind books like "Robot Dreams" and "Bake Sale" and picture books like "Chicken and Cat." She has two books out this year. One is a new expanded edition of her first book, Sweaterweather, is a new hardcover with additional comics and commentary. She's also drawing a new picture book "President Squid" which is just out.


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day Four

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day Four

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy vs. Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil

One of the great things about the tournament, besides introducing me to books I'd never heard of - or have heard of and meant to read but still hadn't gotten around to it - is that in matching up books that are very dissimilar, it forces you to think about what you read and what you like, how your taste changes over time. Also how what's considered experimental changes over time.

Ban en Banlieue is one of those novels that's not really a novel. It's a performance piece that's prose, that sometimes is a series of notes and ideas, settings and idea. It has some beautiful prose, some great ideas. I really would like to see this performed. I was taken with the book, I was consumed while I was reading it, but I was never transported by it. That's the nature of the piece, it's not set up to do that. I am curious what it would be like to read it, see a performance and then return to the text.

The Turner House is a multi-generational novel set in Detroit. It takes place in 2008 over days as siblings are dealing with the titular family house, which is underwater. While mostly set in the present, there are flashbacks to when the family patriarch first came to Detroit from Arkansas during the Great Migration.

I loved this book. One reason is that Flournoy managed to capture a family and its dynamics. Every character - even the minor ones - are unique characters with their own voices. She has sympathy for each of them and they get to tell their stories. This is a book that is nothing but conflict - not exaggerated melodrama like you'd find in a soap opera or a sitcom, but the honest day to day conflict that comes from having different perspectives and ideas and experiences. While the book is constant conflict, there are no villains. That seems about as good a description of family as I can think of.

This is a story that is about what it means to be an African-American family, it's a story about Detroit, but it is something that anyone with siblings or parents will find so much in. It's such a rich and thoughtful story. There is no easy solution to their problems just as there's no easy solution to Detroit. Also, Detroit isn't some hellscape or some gentrifying landscape, but a city, a dynamic, ever-changing, troubled city with people and families and communities. That's rare. (And as one who lives in cities in Connecticut that are considered by many suburbanites to be as poor and violent as's something that some people will think of as small and not even notice, but it is something that I'm sure lots of people notice and appreciate)

I keep thinking about The Turner House since I've finished it, I've given it to people, I've told others to read it, and honestly, it's my favorite to win the Tournament this year. It's a Great American novel and a great American story.

My verdict:  The Turner House

Over at the Tournament:  The Turner House!


The Tournament of Books on The Colin McEnroe Show

Today on WNPR I was on the Colin McEnroe Show for an hour along with Kevin Guilfoile (one of the masterminds behind the Tournament of Books) and two other local writers, Julia Pistell and Rand Richards Cooper. (Both of whom are smarter, better looking and more successful than I).

Over the course of the hour, we reveal that none of us was that into Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, we all loved The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, and I realize that everyone thought A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was much more depressing than I did. (I suffer from depression, so maybe that played a role? We all responded the same to the trauma sections but the sections of depression I just found to be a well described Tuesday rather than something else that weighed on them and exhausted their empathy? I don't know)

I also gave a shout out to The Sympathizer (which won today's round) as a great book and said that if people read only one book in the Tournament, they should read The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day Three

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day Three

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen vs. Oreo by Fran Ross

First of all, these are two books that I really loved. It's an interesting matchup because both books feature protagonists who are of mixed race descent and the narratives are in part about them navigating what that means in interesting ways.

The Sympathizer is a spy novel in the mold of Graham Greene about a Vietnamese-French man who is a soldier in South Vietnam - and is a spy for North Vietnam. The opening section details the man and others as the escape from Saigon the day that the city falls, and get onto the last plane out. Then in Southern California he gets involved with various plots to return to Vietnam and retake the country, all the while reporting back to his handler.

It's also a book about the abuse of power - and shows the hypocrisy and corruption on all sides and it shifts the perspective of the war. We're so used to talking about the war in terms of the United States. In terms of the approximately 58,000 Americans who lost their lives and not the 3 million Vietnamese who lost their lives. It's a book about war and immigration, storytelling and who gets to tell the stories. About the tension between ideology and identity - which is not tied to this war but is ongoing.

Note: I did conduct The Rumpus Interview with Nguyen last year (available here for those interested:
Oreo is a book that I love but it's not an easy book to describe. It's about a young woman of mixed race descent who goes looking for her father. There are a lot of explicit and subtle mythological allusions. Some of it is fantastic and bizarre. Some of it is laugh out loud funny. Some of it is just weird. There are postmodern tricks and different approaches and digressions to the story. It is a work of genius. The fact that this was published in 1974 and disappeared is a tragedy. Of course it's also such a strange book that I can't help but think that we read it more easily today.

Of course, Oreo was also published 40+ years ago. I'm not sure why it's in the tournament given that, but if it gets more people reading it, then I say it's definitely worth it. It's an amazing book. I do have to give the prize to The Sympathizer, though. There are a few rough patches, in part I think due to it being a first novel, but overall it's a brilliant, moving and important read.

Winner: The Sympathizer

Over at the Tournament: The Sympathizer wins!


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day Two

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day Two

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff vs Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson

I was excited to read Fates and Furies. I’d heard a lot about the book which was on almost every “best of” list and I was interested in the conceit and how Groff pulled it off, but the truth is that once I sat down with it...I was unimpressed.

So the book is told in the third person, but the first half of the book is from the point of view of Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite (no seriously, that is his name) and the second half from the pov of his wife Mathilde. It’s a story about marriage, both unreliable narrators, the book will be able the ways that their perspectives overlap and contradict and it’s a good premise. The problem is that the first half is boring. It is a slog. I have had numerous people tell me they gave up and wanted to punch the main character (in fact all three people–male and female–said they wanted to punch him in the face). I can understand; I wanted to as well. I found him dull and insufferable and annoying.

The second half of the book reveals that what Lotto thought was luck and talent and happenstance was in fact due to Matilde’s engineering. She wasn’t just the long suffering wife who worked while he tried to be an actor and then stood by him and took care of whatever while he wrote. No, she would rewrite his plays into what they are. She arranged for the funding for his first production. He wanted children but she had herself sterilized so that he would focus on his work. She would threaten and manage and oversee his productions and his life. She also set her eyes on him while he thinks they met by accident and they fell for each other at first glance.

He’s Vladimir and she’s his Vera. The problem is that he’s too stupid to realize that he needs a Vera–or that he has one!

I should also add that Lotto’s background is crazy. Like insane melodrama crazy. Which I’m okay with. And Mathilde’s story is even crazier. Like an entire season of Empire crazy. The way that works though is to have a sense of humor about it and wink at the reader (or viewer) to say, yes, we know it’s over the top, sit back and enjoy the ride. Fates and Furies is a pretty humorless book. It has a lot of extreme situations but there’s a little humor and most of the characters are not grotesques so by the end I’m just exhausted with them.

Another reason the book annoyed me because I went to Vassar - where many of the characters attended - and I knew people like this. Wealthy white people who aren’t stupid, they’re just uncurious to the point of cluelessness about a lot of life. I think that such people run a lot of the world. I think we’ve had Presidents who fit this description. I think a lot percentage of what’s wrong with the world is due to people like this.

Bats of the Republic I also found unsatisfying, but maybe it was coming into it cold and not knowing what to expect, I enjoyed it more. It’s not a funny book, but take a look at the design, examine the dust jacket (that alone is worth some time), the excerpts of multiple books included in the volume, the handwritten letters which are reproduced, the drawings. As a design nut and as an art and comics fan, I was on board.

The story itself is eh, to be honest, and the characters are there to serve the story. It’s about an 1843 expedition to Texas by a naturalist who is delivering a letter and one of his descendants in 22nd Century Texas. I am so tired of post-apocalyptic tales. Truthfully I was far more interested in the 19th century expedition and his coming across many of the creatures we know so well for the first time with such wonder.

That’s of course me. I’m sure lots of people will be far more interested in the futuristic society and the complex plot going on there. I should also mention that a lot of the records have been lost in the future so a lot of what is being relied upon as “fact” or “possible fact” is fiction–the books being excerpted. Which is another way of saying it’s a very complex book. I enjoyed that, although, sometimes I just didn’t care about some of the threads and connections.

I’m sure some will say that Fates and Furies is melodrama and Bats of the Republic is a strange fantastic formally inventive tale, so which one prefers depends on how one prefers those types of books. I can’t really disagree. I didn’t love either, but...

My Winner: Bats of the Republic

Meanwhile at the Tournament, Judge Maria Bustillos voted for:  Bats of the Republic.


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day One

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day One

Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving vs. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Both John Irving and Anne Tyler are very successful, prolific writers and that means that like most people I’m coming into this matchup with biases. I was raised in a family that believed Irving to be one of the great–if not the greatest–living American writer. Tyler is a novelist I first read in high school because I was required to. I in fact was required to read more Anne Tyler novels than Mark Twain novels in high school. (I’ll avoid mentioning the name of my alma mater, though it deserves a lot of shame and scorn for this and other reasons). I’m not a fan of Tyler.

Now Irving’s novel is not his best, I’ll freely admit. It is an odd book, that may deal with many of his concerns, adds a few other ideas and locations and assembles them in a different way. People like to snarkily that every John Irving novel is about prep schools, wrestling and bears–which is a great argument in a classroom, but it’s not true. His work does have a lot of recurring themes, but among those themes are the terror of parenthood, the precarious and dangerous lives of children, how we become different–often very different–people as we grow, this belief in the supernatural and the power of magic.

The fact that his main character is a Mexican-American novelist will no doubt have people crying racism, but the truth is that he’s written about mysticism and religion in the past. He’s written about people with difficult childhoods who grow up to be very different kinds of adults. He’s written about people who mine their childhoods to craft fiction. Admittedly, he’s done all of these things better in other books, but the fact that he’s addressing these themes isn’t new.

In some ways the two do have something in common, both can be seen as sentimental writers. I suppose that the main difference to my mind is that Irving’s books are much darker and more complicated and so that while sentimental, they read very differently. In other words, one of my big problems with this book–and was my main problem with Tyler’s books when I read them in high school–is that they’re just too nice, to the point of being slight.

While I think that Irving’s book never quite coheres, it is the work of a writer who is trying new things, interested in new things, and wants to write about what he sees around him. Tyler is a writer who is writing about many of the same ideas and themes. Admit it, it’s a family saga, there’s a love story, it’s set in Baltimore, the characters are white–you knew all this before you even opened the Tyler book or heard what it was about.

Tyler’s book suffered in my estimation because I was reading all of the books in this year’s tournament that I hadn’t read last year in one fell swoop. As a result I read Tyler after reading Angela Flournoy’s novel, The Turner House. I found Flournoy’s novel to be one of the best of this year’s tournament, but it is a multigenerational family saga centering around a house. In Flournoy’s book however, it’s about an African-American family in Detroit from the Great Migration to 2008. As a result it’s about redlining and racism, social change, work, how the city has changed over time. It’s about the house, but it’s also about what the house represents–a lot. And not something that they’re going to give up on easily.

Tyler’s novel has none of this. The social upheavals of Baltimore since the Great Depression just aren’t in this novel. Reading these two books back to back made the Tyler novel came off like a Hallmark Channel TV movie. One reason is that most of the characters in Tyler’s large family faded together. Many of them felt very generic and have very little to do–which may be why there was so little tension and conflict. Reading Flournoy, having dealt with aging relatives and money issues and watch them play out in my family, it felt real. There were different ideas and opinions and conflicts and in Tyler’s book, I felt little tension. It felt flat and nice and dull. And not reassuring nice, but unreal nice. I’m not saying that I needed there to be a lot of fighting or yelling, but there needed to be tension around the house and what would happen and the siblings if not fighting, then at least talking over what they would do and how. Instead the mother dies, the father goes, well, I’ll move into an apartment, and none of the siblings want to move into the house and there’s no debate over selling it and so after burying mom, they all go back to their lives. It felt too neat.

I’m sure that plenty of people will read the Tyler novel and enjoy it. It’s sweet and sentimental and well-written. It was just a little too sweet and a little too pat for me. Irving’s book had a lot of rough edges, but I would much prefer an interesting failure to a dull, flat melodrama.

My Winner:  Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving.

Meanwhile, at the Tournament, the judges HATED Irving and loved Tyler.


Articles Published the Week of February 28th

Tom Hart on How Tragedy Gave Birth to New Life in Rosalie Lightning

I've long been a reader and a fan of Tom Hart's work and he recently published possibly the best book of his career, Rosalie Lightning. It's based on the worst thing that one can imagine happening, the death of his daughter. It's not a book about her death, but about how to endure and survive something like this, how to grieve, and while I'm not going to claim that it's a happy book, it's not painful, it's not wrenching. It's a book that Hart needed to make to help him go through the process of grieving, and it's a moving portrait of grief. I'm touched that Tom opened up to me and it's a book I can't recommend enough.

Carl Potts Celebrates Last of the Dragons' Return

Potts was a longtime editor at Marvel Comics where he also did some of his best work. People might know him for his run on Punisher War Journal, the independent series Alien Legion, which he initially launched at Epic Comics and has been continuing at Titan Comics. I spoke with him about Last of the Dragons, which was a great graphic novel which has been republished in a new edition. We spoke about his long career which includes mentoring talent, reading every letter or submission that came across his desk as editor, and how, after a long career at Marvel, he wrote The DC Comics Guide to Creating Comics.


Status Update: Two Months into 2016

  • My novel is finished (though still needs a few nips and tucks).
  • My stage/radio play needs another draft.
  • My nonfiction book proposal is in progress.
  • Conducted 16 interviews for articles.
  • Almost finished my big oral history project.
  • In progress on six different essays.
  • No job offers.
  • Read so many books you'd think I was lying if I told you.
  • Also I got to perform a giant puppet at Hartford's Mardi Gras.

So a pretty good two months - not financially, finally it was pretty bad - but otherwise, a good two months.