Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Tournament of Books 2015

It’s late February, so if you are at all like me, your mind may be on the Tournament of Books, which begins on March 9th. What is it about the Tournament that is so much fun? Why do people get so obsessed with it, including me and all the people in the Tournament discussion group on Goodreads? It’s such a silly enterprise, but everyone who runs it knows it’s silly, which makes the silliness just fine. Maybe it’s that there are so many things to think about — which books will get chosen to participate? Which ones will get paired to compete against each other? How will they be seeded? (Seeded!? It really IS silly.) Who are the judges and is it possible to guess how they will decide? What type of book will make it to the end?

These last few years I’ve taken the opportunity to read as many books from the tournament as I can that I find interesting. I can’t and won’t read them all because they don’t all appeal, but many of them have already caught my eye, and others I may not have known about before but now I realize I might like them. This year I’m doing very well in my tournament reading: out of 16 books total, I’ve read seven and am listening to another. I may even add one or two more in the next couple weeks. For me, that’s not a bad record.

Here are this year’s books, in alphabetical order, along with my very personal, very biased commentary:

  • Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball. I haven’t read this, but I have it checked out of the library and it looks super-interesting. It seems to be at least somewhat experimental, and a good story too. That right there is pretty much my thing.
  • A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor. I hadn’t heard of this one before the tournament. The organizers always include one or two small press books that haven’t gotten much attention, and I’ve learned about great authors such as Kate Zambreno this way.
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I read this one and admired it. I didn’t fall in love as many other people have, but it’s a very good story, and beautifully written. This one has a chance to win.
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. I want to read this eventually, but it’s the third book in a trilogy, which makes it an odd choice for the tournament. I plan on reading the trilogy in order, but that will take me a while.
  • An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. I read this last summer and had mixed feelings, but many readers have unequivocally loved it. This one might have a chance to win.
  • Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer. I haven’t read this, but I thought his earlier novel Spurious was very good.
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Not read yet, but it’s on my list to check out eventually. I’ve heard it’s an important, powerful book.
  • Redeployment by Phil Klay. Not read yet, and I’m not sure it’s my thing. But again, I’ve heard very good things.
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Not read yet, but my husband read and liked it, so we’ll see. Maybe. I can see our copy on the bookcase across the room from me, so maybe it will call out one day and demand to be read.
  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Nope. At least not any time soon. I like Mitchell a whole lot, but this one is long and complicated with fantasy elements, and it’s just not my thing right now. I think I prefer the realist version of Mitchell (Black Swan Green for example).
  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I listened to this on audio, and I enjoyed it. It’s a great story, an absorbing family drama. I’m not sure it has what it takes to win the tournament, though.
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. I want this one to win. It was my favorite book of last year and I think it’s just amazing. I’ve read it twice and plan to read it again.
  • Adam by Ariel Schrag. This one was a good read, an interesting story. It’s a coming-of-age novel focusing on LGBTQ young people, and Schrag does a good job with her characters. I read it happily. I’m pretty sure it won’t win, though.
  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. This one was another fun read, very absorbing, but I didn’t fall in love with it. Not one of Waters best, I think (for that, turn to Fingersmith).
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. I listened to this on audio, and I plan to get to the two other books in the trilogy on audio eventually. I liked it; it was an unusual venture into science fiction for me, and I’m glad I tried it out.
  • All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. I’m listening to this one on audio right now, and so far I’m very impressed. I may even want to read it on paper at some point.

So, go Dept. of Speculation! I’m hoping the tournament is fun and the discussion is lively. Have you read any of these? Which ones are you rooting for?


Filed under Books

Pioneer Girl

Two books have recently been published called Pioneer Girl, one of which is the “annotated autobiography” of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I haven’t gotten my hands on this book yet, but as I understand it, the book consists of Wilder’s manuscript on which the Little House books are based as well as other manuscripts, diaries, and letters. Clearly, as one who was obsessed with the Little House books as a child (and I mean the BOOKS, not the television show, although I watched that too), I’m going to be reading this.

But I wanted to mention how much I enjoyed the other Pioneer Girl: a novel by Bich Minh Nguyen. This one is also about the Little House books but from an entirely different perspective. It tells the story of Lee Lien, child of Vietnamese immigrants, who has moved back in with her mother and grandfather after finishing graduate school. She helps them run their restaurant while she half-heartedly looks for an academic job. In her mother’s house she comes across a gold pin that has always been a part of family lore: an American woman named Rose left it or gave it — it was unclear which — to her grandfather back in Saigon in the 1960s. When Lee discovers the pin, she realizes that it’s exactly like the one described in These Happy Golden Years, the one that Almanzo gives to Laura as a gift. Well, those of you who know the books will realize what Lee realizes — that it’s possible the woman named Rose was Rose Wilder Lane and that the pin was actually the one in the Little House books. Of course, Lee, with all her recent research training, has to investigate further.

The novel takes Lee deep into the history of Laura and Rose, and along the way she thinks about the parallels between their lives and her own. Lee’s family is a pioneer family in its own way, as immigrants to the U.S., and while not a pioneer in the sense her mother was, Lee too has to forge her own way as a member of the first American generation. Lee finds comfort in the complicated relationship between Laura and Rose as she tries to make sense of her own relationship with her difficult mother. As with so many other readers, Lee finds that the Little House books have shaped the way she thinks about the world and about her life. However, in her case, it’s possible that she has a much closer connection to Laura, through Rose, than any of the rest of us. It’s enough to make any Laura Ingalls Wilder fan very jealous.

So, for all you readers as obsessed with the Little House books as I was, here are two more books to enjoy!


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Recent Nonfiction

First of all, if you’re at all interested in participating in the next Slaves of Golconda group read, make sure to head on over and vote for your selection. The list of books for us to vote on is great. Anyone is welcome to participate, and you don’t even need a blog. We welcome new people!

I recently finished Janet Malcolm’s book The Journalist and the Murderer and (unsurprisingly, given my history with Malcolm and the fame of this book) loved it. I’d wanted to read it for a long time and even more so after listening to the Serial podcast and hearing people talk about how relevant The Journalist and the Murderer is to everything that happened there. So the time was right. Her opening line is famous: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” From there she tells the story of a convicted murderer who sues a journalist for writing a book that makes the case that the convicted murderer did indeed commit murder. Although the trial ended in a hung jury, it went surprisingly badly for the journalist. Malcolm shows how this happened and along the way explores the nature of journalism and the fraught question of whether and to what extent it’s acceptable for a journalist to mislead an interview subject. In typical Malcolm fashion, she is in the book herself, her own reactions and emotions as much a subject of her investigation as the lawsuit. It’s all wonderfully layered and complex. And Malcolm is such a brilliant writer. This book is now sharing a place along with The Silent Woman:Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes for my favorite Malcolm book (out of the four I’ve read).

If you like nonfiction, READ JANET MALCOLM. That’s all there is to it.

I also recently finished MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, an essay collection edited by Chad Harbach. The essays were generally very good. A couple were very academic in tone, but most of them were personal and informal — personal essays about people’s experiences in writing workshops or as teachers on the one hand, or as editors, agents, publicists, and NYC writers on the other. The book’s central dichotomy doesn’t stand up under scrutiny — the world of American fiction is much more complicated than MFA vs. NYC, but that doesn’t detract from the interest of the pieces. If you like reading about the publishing world and where your fiction comes from, it’s fun.

Finally, there are some recent or forthcoming nonfiction works I want to get my hands on ASAP. The first is the new Maggie Nelson book, The Argonauts. I adore Nelson’s book Bluets and have high hopes for the new one. And then there is Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary. I admired Manguso’s earlier book The Guardians very much. Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen is poetry, not nonfiction, but I’m going to add it to this list anyway. Also on my radar are H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Excavation by Wendy Ortiz, Savage Park, by Amy Fusselman, Bulletproof Vest, by Maria Venegas. I could go on and on.

So many books!!!


Filed under Books