Tournament of Books: Census

A few days ago I finished reading the tenth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Jesse Ball’s “Census“, which is running against Lydia Kiesling’s “The Golden State” in the fourth round of the competition.

Perhaps unfairly, but when I first saw “Census” I thought that it was going to be novel in the vein of Max Porter’s “Grief is a Thing With Feathers”. I blame the the cormorant on its cover and the published blurb about it for putting me in that frame of mind. It was very clear a few pages in that “Census” would not survive that comparison. Then again, so few books could.

“Census” is book with a very moving preface and some very moving photos at the end. In the middle is a featureless wasteland. It is populated by unnamed characters that function in an unnamed, ill defined world that is maybe desolate, where a peculiar census is conducted each year in which people are asked questions by a census taker who then marks them and posts their answers onwards. Nothing in this novel is given edges, well defined. Everything is wishy washy, vague, seen through thick, milky glass. But that preface… so you stick to it, and it helps that the book is short, though it has no plot to speak of and the setting is bleak and bland. The key to this novel is its characters then, and that’s not surprising because after all, you’ve read the preface and that’s what’s keeping you here.

And that’s the biggest frustration, because when Jesse Ball lets himself write good characters then by God the man knows how to write good characters. There’s a tiny vignette of a ex-fossil loving boy that’s so precise, so concise and so convincing that you want to howl that the rest of the novel isn’t like that. That the surgeon-father-protagonist isn’t like that. That the son, the whole reason for this novel, remains a shapeless mass with nothing making him hum – no distinct feature, tic, preference. That the wife is the best defined major character and even she is seen through thick fog. It’s never personal, emotional, realistic or if he’s really going for the absurdist (which is a poor stylistic choice for the subject matter IMHO) then it’s far from fully embracing that even.

What is feels like is that the writer took a subject that was too close to home, too painful, and tried to deal with it while not dealing with it at the same time. The result is a novel that does everything possible to make it difficult for you to feel anything for any of its characters, including empathy. It very easily lets you slip into the “oh this has nothing to do with me” mode, and from there to “none of these characters are likable, hate-able or even interesting, so why should I care” mode.

But then, the preface…

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Tournament of Books: Census

Tournament of Books: The Dictionary of Animal Languages

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

“The Dictionary of Animal Languages” is a technically difficult novel to read: the language is dense, the plot isn’t linear and at least at first it takes time to figure out who is talking, what’s going on, and in which timeline (one of the several past ones, or the present) you are. It doesn’t help that dialog isn’t delineated with quotation marks and often it isn’t clear who is talking, or whether they are talking or you are in their mind. If it wasn’t for the tournament I would have probably not have bothered with this book after wading through the first 2-3 chapters.

Ivory’s life is complicated and fascinating, but difficult to construct when broken up into non consecutive pieces and portrayed as it is. The characters and settings are very good (vivacious and interesting), and if the story was reconstructed in a more linear fashion it would be “unputdownable”. Sopinka is trying to show Ivory’s life in bursts, not unlike field recordings that you listen to in the lab and try to make sense of, but it really is too much effort for the ending result.

The novel is lyrical and touches on a lot of interesting themes (women’s roles and choices in the worlds of art and science, for example) , but the first third of it moves like thick pudding through a fine sieve. If you get through that, the last half is so much more interesting and rewarding than the first one, although it rushes through some plot points that feel like they shouldn’t be rushed through. There are too many coincidences in the plot (get captured and escape from prison camps much?), there are familial ties that are severed with no explanation or time to mourn (what happened to her brothers? Did Lev really breeze through retelling his brother’s death with not even a moment’s pause?) , and then there is the peculiar animal languages dictionary that is constantly evoked but never really explained to the reader, and you wonder why.

In short, this is a book in need of a more adept writer or a much stricter editor. The bones that are there are interesting enough to merit wading through the first part if you’re interested in contemporary fiction. There’s something there that with time and experience could probably make for a masterpiece some day.

It’s interesting that the Tournament of Books pitched “The Dictionary of Animal Languages” against “Washington Black” as the first has a weak beginning and a strong ending and the last has a strong beginning and a weak ending. Could they have made a perfect collaborative novel together? Jokes aside, Sopkina’s book is a better, if far from perfect, work of fiction, and her novel is lyrical while “Washington Black” only tries really hard to be. “Dictionary”‘s characters are better written and conceived, its plot, once reconstructed, is more compelling, and even its treatment of the animal conservation theme and social pariah/underdog themes are more nuanced and compelling. That is surprising considering the idea behind “Washington Black” seems more powerful and interesting than the one behind “Dictionary”, but Sopinka totally wins in execution against Edugyan.

Tournament of Books: The Dictionary of Animal Languages

The Tournament of Books: Washington Black

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

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

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

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

The Tournament of Books: Washington Black

Tournament of Books: The Italian Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

Tournament of Books: The Italian Teacher

Tournament of Books: Milkman

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

“Milkman” is an excellent piece of Literature (capital L). Set in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s Anna Burns deftly writes a novel that is both of its time and utterly timeless. Written from the point of view of Middle Sister, “Milkman” portrays the life of a community at siege, and yet alive, growing, changing. Middle Sister wants to stay under the radar in a place where being noticed often times means getting yourself killed, but she lives in a world where that’s not really an option for her. Walking, reading, running, just being a young woman, mean that she’s subject to scrutiny, criticism, and attack.
Most characters in “Milkman” are nameless, the exact place and time it takes place in isn’t specified, but is entirely believable in its realism, in the way the plot inevitably moves towards its conclusion — and yet at the last moment twists, turns and surprises you in a way only real life can. “Ah,” you say, “I should have seen it coming,” and yet how delightful it is that you don’t. It’s almost unbelievale that Burns managed to write a novel that is so, so clever, and so full of heart.

“Milkman” won the Booker in 2018 and boy does it deserve it. I have a feeling that it will end pretty high up in the competition

Tournament of Books: Milkman

How I use my notebooks: Tournament of Books tracking

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

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

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

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

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

That’s it.

How I use my notebooks: Tournament of Books tracking

Tournament of Books: Call Me Zebra

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

So Oloomi had a great premise — to write a modern take on Don Quixote with a young woman, an Iranian refugee, at its centre. That’s where the great parts of this novel end. Zebra, the main character, has none of the charm or pathos of Don Quixote. She’s insufferable – selfish, childish, bigoted, narcissistic, clinically cerebral, depressed and depressing. She also doesn’t change until the very, very end, much like Don Quixote, and her adventures are similarly repetitive, but without the humour and warmth of the original Cervantes. But what is worse is that Oloomi has piled so much literature on the narrative that it’s unreadable. It’s like reading a laundry list of quotes and literary factoids which you are expected to plow through to get to a glimmer of plot or dialogue.
It was so bewildering to me that “Call Me Zebra” got good reviews that I went and read them. It’s pretty clear that the reviewers didn’t read the book through – they just skimmed the first bits (the most interesting parts in the novel), and then just wrote the reviews based on that and the excerpt that they got.
I’m reading this as part of the Tournament of Books 2019, and the book has managed to make it to the first round (against the almost equally terrible “Warlight”), while excellent books like “America is Not the Heart”, “Speak No Evil” and “A Terrible Country” are languishing in the play-in round. In the end I couldn’t care less if “Call Me Zebra” or “Warlight” win this round (“Call Me Zebra” is marginally better because of the first part of the novel, the description of the family’s exile from Iran), but I do wish I knew how they got selected to participate in the first place.

Oh well, the next book up won the Man Booker prize in 2018, so I am expecting a better reading experience.

Tournament of Books: Call Me Zebra