Tournament of Books 2019

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Tournament of Books 2019

It's back!

I like to read all the books in The Morning News' Tournament of Books annually, so that I can ensure I've read at least some well-regarded adult fiction. This is my favorite way to do that, as the list is usually diverse in terms of genres, perspectives and styles. You can find my picks from last year's tournament here. I have to admit, this year's overall list was not my favorite - three of my top five picks are from the play in round! - but I ultimately am glad that I kept reading, as there are some real gems on the list this year. And after all, if everyone else is filling out a basketball bracket, why not have a book bracket?

Milkman by Anna Burns

This year’s Man Booker Winner is atmospheric and moody and rambling and so much better than I expected. Middle sister, the protagonist, lives in an unnamed city in a country at war with itself. She tries to fit in, but can’t stop herself from doing things that differ from the norm – like reading and running. When she starts being stalked by Milkman, a prominent member of the paramilitary, she doesn’t know how to extricate herself from the situation without alienating the neighbors or allying herself with the State. Coupled with her mother who keeps trying to marry her off and her confusing situation with her maybe-boyfriend, she must figure out how to get by.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Romy Hall is in prison, serving two consecutive life sentences plus six years. She is also the protagonist of this vibrant, propulsive novel, a stripper who grew up in the seedy non-touristy San Francisco with a mostly absent mother and was always surrounded by drugs and sex, and the mother of a young son. This book focuses largely on her experiences in prison and like “Orange is the New Black” she’s surrounded by a cast of characters. We hear some of their stories, like dirty cop Doc and English teacher Gordon and they’re all different, fascinating, and horrifying. I wasn’t expecting to like this, but I found it mesmerizing and unputdownable.

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala

Niru is a track star at a prestigious private school in DC, already accepted into Harvard – it seems like his life is going according to plan. But when his best friend Meredith tries to kiss him, he admits to her that he’s gay, something which is taboo to his conservative Nigerian parents. When his father finds out, Niru is shipped to Nigeria to be ‘cured’, and upon his return to DC, begins to pull away from Meredith. Towards the end of the school year, the two of them begin to rekindle their friendship, but with a violent and shocking climax. Iweala’s writing is beautiful and you really get immersed in the heads of his characters.

America is not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

Hero de Vera comes to America to live with her favorite uncle after being disowned by her parents. Her Uncle Pol lives in Milpitas, CA, with his wife Paz who is a nurse who constantly works in order to support a large extended family and their daughter Roni who quickly bonds with the mysterious Hero. As Hero adjusts to life in America, including making friends with make-up artist Roslyn and her network of friends, the narrative flashes back to scenes of her years in a guerilla group fighting the Marcos regime. This book is an intergenerational saga of a Filipino family, but also a deep character study and a novel about the immigrant experience. It sometimes meandered, but I enjoyed how the digressions immersed me in the world.

A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen

Andrei can’t find a post-doc and his girlfriend just dumped him, so when his brother Dima demands he move to Russia to take care of their grandmother, he can’t really say no. Andrei/Andrew hasn’t been back to Russia since his childhood, and tries to adjust. He parks daily at a café to teach online classes, tries to find a place to play hockey, spends time with his grandmother, and eventually gets involved with a compelling woman named Yulia, and through her, in leftist politics. But Russia isn’t America, and Andrei finds out that he may not really understand the country and language he has always thought of as his own. Gessen is a compelling writer and Andrei is a sweet – if naïve – narrator.