The Morning News Tournament of Books is BACK! For the uninitiated, this is a 16-book, bracket-style “tournament” designed to crown the . . . well, I’ll just let them explain it:
Today we’re announcing the shortlist for the 2012 Tournament of Books (for novels, of course, published in 2011) only a week or so into the New Year. See, this is the space where we remind everybody what a folly this exercise is. It’s stupid. A tiny and secretive cadre of people telling everyone else what the best novels of the year are is every bit as ridiculous as an electoral system where anonymously endowed Super PACs tell everyone else which willfully ignorant global-warming denier should be president.
Like we said, stupid. But we do it anyway. And the one thing we humbly offer is transparency, and a rooster for the winner. We do not meet in a closed conference room and slide our decision under the door scribbled on the back of a car-wash receipt, like they do with the Pulitzer. And unlike the National Book Award, we have a series of fail-safes designed to preserve the integrity of our prize by ensuring that we do not mistakenly include books that are homophones of the actual finalists in our shortlist. We are proud to say that the system ultimately worked, but not in time to avoid an apologetic phone call to to the biographer of British painter Copley Fielding.
In the Tournament of Books, you will know who the judges are. What their biases are. Which books they choose and why they are choosing them. In the past we’ve had judges who flipped coins. Judges who picked the book with the prettiest cover. Judges who didn’t finish one of the books. Judges who didn’t finish either book. Once we had a judge who so hated both books we had to literally subdue him physically to make him choose. (When we say “literally” we really do mean literally, though when we say “physically” we mean “politely in an email.”)
In other words, this is the best, non-serious book tournament being played (?) today. And as always, I think their list of 16 books sucks almost as bad as that stupid BCS thing and everything in the state of Alabama.
First off, the judges are definitely top-notch: Emma Straub, Mark Binelli, Oscar Villalon, Bethanne Patrick, Alex Abramovich, Walter Kirn, others.
But the books! Ugh. OK, maybe “meh” is more appropriate. Obviously, I’m disappointed that ONCE AGAIN, they overlooked all Open Letter titles. Zone, Scars, My Two Worlds, could compete with any of the 16 titles “they” selected.
I’ve only read parts of a few of these books, but just because it’s Wednesday, I’m going to break the field down into a few categories:
Deserve to Be There
Nathacha Appanah, The Last Brother (Go Graywolf!)
Teju Cole Open City (Sebald version 2011)
Helen Dewitt, Lightning Rods (Gloryholes! And I wrote about this for Rolling Stone)
Karen Russell, Swamplandia (Karen loves Bragi Olafsson’s The Ambassador!)
Kate Zambreno, Green Girl (We go way way back)
Had to Be There
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (Even his blank pages win awards)
Patrick DeWitt, The Sisters Brother (I know nothing about this except that it’s referenced everywhere)
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (Probably good, and ordained as such months before publication)
Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding (See The Marriage Plot)
Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 (Big, totalizing, mesmerizing, infects your dreams—we get it already)
Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones (Automatic inclusion since it won the National Book Award)
If This Book Had a Face I’d Punch It
Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife (OK, that’s really mean. I’m just so terribly sick of hearing about this book)
Books That Should Be Replaced with Open Letter/New Directions/Archipelago/NYRB Titles
Alan Hollinghurst, Stranger’s Child (Just the description makes me feel tired)
Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table (We swam in the Blue Lagoon together)
Ann Patchett, State of Wonder (I have no opinion about this)
Donald Ray Pollock, Devil All the Time (Unless this book is set in Felicity, OH, I don’t care)
When this gets started in March, we’ll post some further sarcastic commentary. For now, you should order all 16 titles (+ the three Open Letter ones) from Powells.com the official sponsor of the contest.
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .