Tournament of Books: There There

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

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

Tournament of Books: There There

Tournament of Books: The Parking Lot Attendant

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

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

Tournament of Books: The Parking Lot Attendant

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: The Mars Room

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.

Tournament of Books: So Lucky

How I Use Pencils in Watercolour Portraits

Continuing my “how I use the stuff I haveposts, I thought that I’d show how I use pencils when I’m working on a series of portraits of the same person.

Since I work in watercolour which is notoriously not great for correcting and changing your mind mid painting, when there’s a face that I know that I’ll want to explore I usually create a “construction” sketch which I transfer to paper several times. I can then paint the portrait in different tones, or focus on a certain aspect that interests me, or take it to really wild places without spending too much time on the technicalities of the preliminary sketch.

I start the “construction” sketch on newsprint paper. It’s much more detailed and “searching” than it needs to be, but that doesn’t matter much. Ultimately only the lines that will help me construct the face and note where the major light and dark transitions are will remain. I draw this with a Faber Castell 9000 2B or 3B pencil that’s sharpened with a pocket knife to allow me to use it without having to pause for sharpening. Newsprint paper is pretty transparent and also generally too fragile for regular erasers, so I use a kneaded eraser to lift off unnecessary lines, or simply ignore them.

Once I’m done with that, I flip the page to the other side and scribble on it with a Faber Castell 9000 6B or Palomino Blackwing MMX. These are again sharpened with a pocket knife, and the point is to get as much coverage as possible. If I’m doing a lot of transfers then I might have to repeat this process, adding more graphite to the back of the sketch.

I then transfer the most important lines in my sketch on to a piece of watercolour paper. This is done by placing the newsprint paper with the sketch over the watercolour paper and going over the lines in the sketch with a 2H pencil (I use a Faber Castell 9000 2H, but this isn’t that important). The pencil needs to be a hard pencil for the lines to transfer to the paper below, but it can’t be too hard or too sharp or it will rip the newsprint paper. It’s also important to put just enough pressure when you’re tracing so the graphite on the underside of the sketch transfers to the paper, but not too much to bruise the watercolour paper. Using a 300 gsm watercolour paper helps protect it, but it’s mostly a matter of practice. When you’re done you get something like this:

The lines are pretty faint, which is great when working with watercolour, because they don’t distract too much from the figure once you start working.

I created about five watercolour portraits of Dame Judi Dench from this sketch so far, and there’s a good chance that I’ll go explore her some more in the future.

How I Use Pencils in Watercolour Portraits

The latest books to arrive

The latest books to arrive today:

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

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

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

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

The latest books to arrive