I just finished reading the fourth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Michael Ondaatje’s “Warlight“. It’s in the first round of the competition, running against Azareen Can Der Vlier Ollomi’s “Call Me Zebra“.
This book should have been named “Utter Drivel”. It’s not a bildungsroman, not a war story, not a spy story, not a story about post WWII London or Britain. It’s not a story at all, just a collection of unbelievable and uninteresting scenes, repeated again and again, and connected by wild circumstances that are yet again, unbelievable. The characters are, you guessed it, unbelievable phantoms with nothing to make them feel real, likeable, or anything really. It’s as if you’re wandering in the fog with Ondaatje, neither of you having any sort of clue where you are and where you’re going. It’s not even truly bad, it’s just boring and pointless, which is what makes it so frustrating.
I’m surprised that it was published, and even more surprised that it made it into the first round of the Tournament of Books 2019, while excellent books like “Speak No Evil”, “A Terrible Country” and “America Is Not the Heart” were left to battle it out in the Play-Ins. I haven’t yet read “Call Me Zebra,” but it’s going to have to be terrifically bad to lose against this pointless book.
I just finished reading the third Tournament of Books 2019 book, the final play-in contestant “America Is Not the Heart” . It’s up against “Speak No Evil” and “A Terrible Country“, which are both excellent books that I highly recommend that you read, and I’m pretty sure that it’s going to win.
“America Is Not the Heart” is an immigrants’ tale, a romance, a family saga, and a bildungsroman met in a Filipino restaurant and “America Is Not the Heart” came out.
Ignore the reviews that say that this is a difficult or confusing read. The characters have flashbacks every once in a while. That’s the big challenge of reading this fascinating book, full of rich characters and interesting glimpses into the history, culture and lives of Filipinos both in the Philippines and in the US. It’s a also a touching love story (with some pretty graphic sex scenes), a story about the importance of family, especially the one that you create for yourself, and a story about women overcoming PTSD (whether it’s from growing up starving poor or from being held captive and tortured in a military camp for two years). What’s amazing is that the result is an interesting book with a lot of heart that you just can’t put down, despite the tough topics it deals with. It’s a testament to the skill of Castillo that she manages to pull all that off, and in her first novel too.
I just finished reading my second Tournament of Books 2019 book, the play-in contestant “A Terrible Country“. It’s up against “Speak No Evil“, which I’ve already read and was excellent, and “America is Not the Heart,” which I’m about to start reading. I’ll comment which of these three needs to win this round once I finish reading “America is Not the Heart,” but I can already tell that it is going to be a very hard decision, and I don’t envy the judges.
It’s very rare to find a book that is so stylistically innovative, and yet so readable, so familiar that it’s kind of like an out of body experience to read it. This novel is a work of fiction that reads entirely like a memoir/travelogue written by the main character Andrie. It’s so convincingly well done that several times I checked the author’s name and the book description to make sure that it was a work of fiction that I was reading.
This feat of technical mastery is entirely at the service of a moving and relatable plot, wherein a young American man, completely out of depth, tries to take care of his 89 year old grandmother in Putin’s Russia circa 2008. It’s the heroics of everyday life, with its triumphs and tragedies, enmeshed in memories of the Soviet past, great Russian literature, and the dangers of living in such a terrible country, and it is well worth the read.
Each year for the past 15 years The Morning News has run the Tournament of Books — a March Madness like competition for books published during the previous year. It’s fun and light-hearted and super interesting because unlike other literary prizes, you get to see the judges’ thought process as they decided which book progresses and which doesn’t.
I first learned about The it a few years ago through Field Notes, who sponsors the competition and issues a special, limited edition notebook to accompany it. At first I just bought the notebook, because I was a budding Field Nut and that’s what Field Nuts did. A year later I read and enjoyed some of the books that were in the competition, and I started to really look forward to reading the judges’ debates on each round.
Which brings us to this year, which is the year that I’ve decided to finally challenge myself to read every book on the Tournament of Books 2019 shortlist. That’s 18 books total, and as the tournament starts in March, there’s very little chance that I’ll be able to finish reading all of the books in time for their round. That just means that I’ll be following along a little later than usual, but I don’t think that it matters much.
What’s challenging isn’t just the sheer volume of books, but also their topics. There are no “light read” books on this list. There are books about death, prison, war, bigotry, racism and all the other “wonderful” sides of humanity. It would be a tough challenge on a regular year, but as I’m struggling with death and sickness in my family, this will be extra tough.
So why am I doing this? To challenge myself. To make myself a better, more empathetic human being, and hopefully a better writer. And because I can.
Speak No Evil is part of the Tournament of Books 2019 play-in round, which means that it is up against two other books before it can make its way into the initial rounds of the competition. As this is the first book I’ve read in the ToB and it was excellent, I can’t imagine what the rest of the field looks like.
I have never read a book so full of heart, life and joy, that was also tragic. “Speak No Evil” is a timeless tale that is deeply imbedded in our time and is well aware of it. To say that it deals with Issues (capital I) like Homosexuality, Race, Bullying, Policing, Gender and (above and beyond) Friendship would do this gem of a novel injustice. It’s first and foremost a very good book, with beautifully and richly crafted characters moving around in a plot that is inevitable but far from dull or expected. Every person is propelled forward by their past and their character, but is also somehow aware that he or she are actors in the story of their life. An astounding achievement, and a must read.