It’s that time of year when the calendar year winds down and I like to look back and see the highlights of the year soon over. Cloistered mostly until April I took measured risks ranging from letting my grays grow in, to drag queen dance parties to shake the scary out, and I applied to be a Reader Judge in a literary competition. The Tournament of Books sponsored by a media organization,The Morning News, that runs mostly out of Los Angeles was the rabbit hole I fell into.
The Tournament of Books was a whim I wandered into and I actually forgot that I applied. When I received the email asking if I was still interested of course I said yes, and of course I had no idea what I was in for. With nothing to lose I waited for guidelines, timelines, books and an on-the- fly lesson in Google Docs.
Rosecranz Baldwin, Andrew Womack, and Kevin Guilfoile the creators of The Morning News, a newsletter that aggregates news stories and is contextualized using the fellas’ edgy perspective. Five years into existence during 2004 the team, over drinks at a Brooklyn bar brought into existence the Tournament of Books as a result of a discussion on book awards, the inherent flaws, scandals and corruptions. Being a creative and sensitive group of guys they set up a bracket system and pulled from the year current, titles championed by readers, critics, publications and award issuers and the like. Baldwin, Womack and Guilfoile named their award The Rooster in homage to an essay written by David Sedaris who is absolutely hysterical. The Rooster prize is an actual live rooster to which the author whose book wins can politely decline.
What sets TOB apart from other literary award systems are several things. The pool of judges come from diverse lives and professions and can include writers, editors and passionate readers (that’s me). Also, judges aren’t sequestered in chambers until award day because during tournament time there’s a bracket winner at the end of each day. Judges also have to share their thought process and pull passages from the books that bring forward why one work is preferred over another. After reading and annotating a judge crafts their argument for and against why 1 of the 2 books they’ve read for the bracket should go forward to the next day. It was during this part of the judging process I discovered and had a mild case of impostor syndrome because I have never written or edited in Google Docs nor had I published an opinion anywhere other than my blog, Amazon, Netgalley or Goodreads. The added stress of Google Docs was mildly comedic as I was bribing our kids to real quick show me what the buttons were and how to push them. Never mind the fact that I was being edited and haven’t been since grad school MANY moons ago… After several patient edit suggestions from Rosecranz (thank you btw) and hot flashes I managed to submit my arguments and when my position on the brackets went live I was afraid to tune in.
During tournament time, each part of the bracket has one day on the platform. The platform opens with a discussion and critique of the judges by the tournament creators or significant friends of the TOB. You’ll have to read what they said about me in the link provided and I am reading the book Kevin Guilfoile recommended now thoughts on that another time… For you non-Twitter people, there is a realtime conversation at the bottom of the TOB daily page where the Commentariat chimes in about the judgement, the book overall and some very interesting and rigorous side conversation ensues. Judges can chime to, but most don’t since I’m of the common human I had my fun and a brief experience of the TOB community.
So What did I read for the Tournament of Books?
Telephone by Percival Everett
When you can’t save yourself you save someone else. A riveting, quiet masterful read. Percival Everett uses tools rarely experienced by this reader as he skillfully renders an armature for his story. Within Telephone you will find, Latin terminology, origin descriptions for birds determined by skeletal remains and other clever motivators to look up while you’re reading.
This is a story of parenthood, people and the emotional decay experienced when life serves up disease or professional failure. It’s a story of self discovery and self loss at the very same time. Telephone further explores issues of gender, race and all the other themes dominating today’s news cycle. Everett uses minimalist description to capture women situated within varied domestic tasks and men are reduced to toxic male roles and racial stereotypes.
If you’re looking for an ending you might not get one. If you’re looking for someone enraged with the injustices in this world wanting to do something good in order to transcend all the badness then this book is for you.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
This book has all the things that story lovers enjoy.. Bennett populates her story with complex characters dealing with intersectional issues from the get-go. Characters delve into racial history and the spectrum of manifestations this history presents to people on regional, national and international levels. Bennett invites readers into the lives of characters who experience the ill effects racism and colorism imposed on people from both internal and external perspectives.
The pain extruded from the lives of Bennett’s characters, is quiet and a long, slow deep burn. During reading I kept wondering, “Who is this narrator” due to the changing aspect of insight and commentary on behalf of characters and overall story.
The Vanishing Half began to lose me but the characters however did not. I cared about them and their interconnection with each other and themselves. It brings to mind how do people connect? What filters do they use to broker that connection and how are they tied to race, time and place? It made me think of family secrets and buried stories and the rage unburdening these things from the vaults of secrecy can unfurl. Only Bennett doesn’t go for the hot unfurl or the high drama she stays with patience, acceptance and the getting-on business of life.
Bennett does well in the handling of fluidity. Bennett does well to tenderly show unfortunate options transgender people experience on their journey to wholeness and living the lives they are seeking. Bennett shows that this is a possibility especially when love partners with purity. Her character Reese brings back memories of the AIDS crisis with respect to the use of off-market hormones and injections.
I’ll read Bennett’s other book because I have it, but I won’t be chasing around everything she writes because I like more drama, catharsis and transformation and while this book danced around these flames it kind of put them out.
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
Breasts and Eggs is a story that cracks open how single women in Japan experience obstacles when wanting to conceive and raise children. Kawakami gives readers Natsuko, a writer in her 30s, living on her own in Tokyo. The book written in two parts with approximately 10 years between the parts opens with Natsuko receiving a visit from. Her older sister and niece. The purpose for the visit is of highly personal nature as Maliki wishes to increase her hostess income by going under the knife and having breast implants slid right in. Makiko’s daughter has gone on silent and the gap between the preteen and mother has spanned an ocean due to all of the female details mother has not transmitted to daughter. Readers learn through Midoriko’s journal and Natsuko’s observation how real the struggle between them is. Mostly there’s a lot of exposition regarding women, employment and sprinkles of the familial disappoint and poverty booths sisters endured during their childhoods.
Part two is when Kawakami unravels Natsuko as she has achieved the milestone of being a published author who works in a variety of formats, most specifically that of the novel. Natsuko has a degree of satisfaction in her life until one day her maternal instincts ring and she picks up the phone. The personal confrontations Natsuko endures as she makes her journey through self discovery include: blogs, brochures, donor forums, anonymous and in person weirdo donors, as well as children of donors who are embittered by their experiences. Every ethical, moral, political and spiritual challenge is posed to Natsuko and what brings her through are capital W, Women.
Women and female friendship in varied capacity offer nourishment for Natsuko who has discovered her hungry soul and she is drinking in the sisterly support from fellow writer and single female parent. Natsuko individuates from her past by the mature characters who though have achieved professional status embrace the traditions of women who birth children in condition of marriage or wear their empty nest and lonely lives with honor.
Finding a donor is a slippery slope. Defining her life is an uncluttered decision. There is philosophy regarding existential questions of why we exist and there are beautiful descriptions unearthed in the harshness women have suffered in an historically densely populated old culture within which education among the masses including women is a most modern concept.
I found the book enraging and deeply sympathetic and I am well grounded and heeled now that I’ve finished it. In fact, I might read it again!
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
A remarkable narrative that sets forth issues regarding how historical and institutional racism has lumped and re-lumped Asian Americans into categories with the Black community and how Asian community members have been limited and locked out from opportunity and the American identity. The binary of Black and white, the representation and interplay churned out by Hollywood has herded the Asian American psyche into Chinatowns where people struggle to remain and fight to leave.
Yu took me into a story structure that unpredictably shifts from television to reality in terms of who gets airtime and in what capacity in terms of storyline. Yu employs a script like format and in minimalist function is able to move the internal state as it relates both to life and profession to the external state and how it represents and or negates either or both for viewers and voyeurs watching from home. Into this Yu insets historic and legal precedence that demonstrates how legislative action has kept Asian Americans out of the opportunity structure and feeling displaced.
This is a deeply compassionate work and the subtlety of Yu’s humor offers respite for the intense sadness I felt witnessing a life not lived and relationships forgone because a father, mother, sister, friend or brother couldn’t or didn’t claim status and national appreciations for respect for a specific set of skills. So people lived smaller so small they disappeared missing a very real and sustaining thing: love.
This is a beautiful and necessary story that requires everyone to acknowledge how each immigrant group goes through acculturation and assimilation and some can be factored into an American identity while others struggle. The tropes this nudges Chinese Americans and Asian Americans is painful and eviscerating. The question is why does this linger in spite of time and contribution to America why does whiteness prevail.
What did I choose? Tap the link below…
Living with fear stops us taking risks, and if you don’t go out on the branch, you’re never going to get the best fruit.-Sarah Parish
This little journey in my reading life led me to a media platform, people in LA and all over the country. The deep dive into what matters to me in a book in terms of content and form expanded as I was forced to give shape to this. This page in my reading life showed me I can adapt, update and improvise using technology quickly. Most importantly, I learned that as a person who is 50+ that I’m still relevant and can do new things that don’t have to gather dust on a bucket list. Who’d have thought reading a book and a newsletter about books would have taken me down this rabbit hole. What I do know is that I’m hunting for the next rabbit hole, not the rabbit just the hole and I look forward to where next it will take me.