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8th January
2014
written by Steph
 tournament of books rooster

ToB is back!

 

Well, non-sports fans, it’s that time of year again: the time when The Morning News releases the titles that will be competing in this year’s Tournament of Books. For people like me who can tell a basketball from a baseball but don’t particularly care to do so, this is the one sports adjacent piece of pop culture worth actually getting excited about.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the tourney ever since I discovered it back in 2008. Wanting to be able to participate in an informed way, I tried to read all of the finalists… and failed miserably. I couldn’t get my hands on a large portion of them, and what’s worse, many of the ones I did manage to read I wound up really disliking (see my review of A Partisan’s Daughter, for an example of what I’m talking about). Ever since that first experience, I’ve approached subsequent ToB throwdowns with excitement but tempered expectations and under no circumstances do I vow to read all the contestants.

One of the biggest delights about the ToB is that even for avid bibliophiles, the men behind the curtain in charge of selecting the books always manage to sneak in a few titles you’ve never heard of never mind read. Many hardcore ToB fans spend a lot of time trying to guess what books will make the cut and even try to strategically plan their reading around what they think might be deemed worthy. Given how out of touch I was with the book world last year, I didn’t have high hopes that when the list was released this year that I’d recognize many titles and I’d have to be pretty lucky to have read any of them.

Well, yesterday the list was revealed, and I have to say, I was surprised.

Finalists for the 2014 Tournament of Books

  • At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
  • The Tuner of Silences by Mia Couto
  • The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
  • The Dinner by Herman Koch
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Long Division by Kiese Laymon
  • The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
  • Hill William by Scott McClanahan
  • The Son by Philipp Meyer
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
  • [Winner of the Pre-Tournament Playoff Round]

Pre-Tournament Playoff Round

  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
  • Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel

The first surprise was that I have actually read one of the finalists: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. Huzzah! Not only that, but this was one of my top 3 books I read last year, and yet I feel like it hasn’t got much buzz or love in the book world. It’s nice that the ToB will likely bring more readers its way, but I have to say, despite my respect and adoration for the book, I feel pretty confident in saying it doesn’t have chance in hell of winning. It’s an excellent book and is deceptively weighty, but I feel it will get dispatched pretty early on for not being difficult or tricky enough, even though the writing is sublime.

Despite all of the “best of” lists I’ve been poring over the past week or so in order to play catch up on all the books I missed out on last year, the second surprise for me was that there were four books on the list that I had not hear a single peep about and didn’t even know existed until I read this list. (For those who are curious, I was in the dark about the Alarcón, Couto, Laymon, McClanahan, and Maazel.) God knows this tournament loves the underdog, but I wonder how far any of those titles will make it if the rabid book blogging community didn’t throw them any love beforehand.

Because I’m stuck reading only what I can get as an epub, I’m somewhat limited in how much of this list I’ll actually be able to read, but just for funsies, I’ve divided the list into various categories about how likely I am to read the assorted titles.

Books That Made The Cut That I Will Definitely Read (Because I Was Already Planning To)

The Luminaries, The Signature of All Things, The Good Lord Bird, The Goldfinch, Life After Life, Eleanor & Park, A Tale for the Time Being

Books That I Did Not Know About Previously But Seem Worthy of Further Investigation

At Night We Walk in Circles, Long Division, Hill William

Books That I May Read (Or At Least Try) Because They Are On The List (Although I Had Little Interest In Them Before)

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, The Dinner, The Son, At Night We Walk in Circles

Books That I Probably Won’t Read Even Though They Are On The List

The Tuner of Silences, The Lowland, Woke Up Lonely

In some ways I feel the least invested in the tournament than I ever have simply because I’m unfamiliar with 93% of the titles that will be competing. That said, I am surprised that the Atkinson did not make it into a slot up front, but I am on record as being severely biased where she is concerned, even if I haven’t read the title in question. I think I am surprised that the latest Marisha Pessl book, Night Film, did not make the list as it seems like a very ToB book. And even though I haven’t read either book, I secretly feel like Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie should have made the cut rather than The Lowland. The only basis I have for that is that the last time I read a Lahiri book, it was for this tournament and I could not believe that such a repetitive and underwhelming story collection could earn so much acclaim. That really soured me on her, and I have since decided that Lahiri does not live up to the hype (hence why I will not be reading The Lowland). (OK, I’ve gone back and read that review and apparently I didn’t hate Unaccustomed Earth as much as I remember I did. I think it’s one of those things where, with time, the negatives have taken over my memories and reaction to that work and blotted out any of its merits. Lahiri might be better than I give her credit for, but I’m still not going to read The Lowland.)

Given how few of the books I’ve read, it seems futile to attempt a guess at what might win. I feel like it could come down to the Tartt versus the Catton (if they don’t go head-to-head in the first round), which could be a very interesting match-up indeed.

Either way, I’ve got a lot of reading ahead of me!

Any other ToB fans out there? What do you think of the roster this year (and what do you think might win)? In my bid to catch up with good books of 2013, what novel that isn’t listed here would you recommend I make time for?

15 Comments

  1. 01/08/2014

    I’ve actually only heard of two of those books, and have no desire to read either of them. I keep hearing about the Rainbow Rowell book, but it just doesn’t sound interesting for me. Though, she did put up a great NaNo pep talk, which discussed a different book of hers. I might read that one…

  2. I agree with your thoughts exactly! In fact the books I hadn’t heard of match your list. I even agree that Americanah should have beaten Lowland (and I’ve read both books). It is great to hear the ‘The People in the Trees’ was one of your 2013 favs. It has been on my wishlist for a while, but noone had convinced me to buy it yet – I think you’ve just done that!

    I think you may be right about Tartt v Catton in the final – it all depends on the judges as both divide opinion. Personally I’d like to see ‘The Signature of All Things’ take the prize – it hasn’t received the love it deserves yet either.

  3. I’m not a Tournament of Books follower (actually, still not sure how it works, must get into that – do they have a Wikipedia page?!), but this year I’m just really happy that a book originally written in Portuguese made the cut – The Tuner of Silences by Mia Couto, a Mozambican writer.

  4. 01/08/2014

    I’ve only read two of them (Good Lord Bird and The Goldfinch), but I’m looking forward to reading quite a few of these since they were already on my TBR list and I own many of them digitally. There were only three that I hadn’t heard of prior to the list being published – so not too shabby!

  5. 01/08/2014

    I was completely and utterly underwhelmed by the list this year, especially when hot-button discussion books like Alissa Nutting’s Tampa (for content) or S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams (for form) or, as you mentioned, Pessl’s Night Film (for sheer breakneck pleasure) are off the list. Eggers’ the Circle and Teddy Wayne’s Love Song of Jonny Valentine also would have been excellent to chat about with folks that are going to dig deeper into the subtext and meaning of both.

    Sigh. Curse you, ToB. I care too deeply.

  6. Last year we did a Tournament of Books bracket at work — it was fun and gave me a stake in the match-ups. The only downside is that if you get one match wrong, you’re likely to have a whole bunch of matches wrong after that. It’s still fun though!

  7. 01/09/2014

    @ Amanda: Interesting to hear your thoughts on the Rowell, because it’s actually the opposite for me—it’s the only one of her books I’ve heard about that actually appeals to me!
     
    @ Jackie: I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on the Yanagihara. I’m really surprised it hasn’t gotten more buzz in the book world. It touches on some icky subjects, but then again, Tampa is being talked about and that one is far more controversial, I think.
    And I’m happy to hear you enjoyed the new Gilbert novel… I tried reading Eat, Pray, Love a couple months ago in preparation for our trip to Bali and it did not turn out so well! ;)
     
    @ Alex: The tourney is pretty much a mimicking of the NCAA basketball matches that take place in March in the States. 16 books from the previous year are selected and placed in a bracket, where two are judged against each other at a time and the winner progresses to the next round. This goes on until there are only 2 books, and I guess it’s kind of like the Hunger Games as only one book can be named a winner! Mostly, it’s just a lot of bookish fun!
     
    @ Brooks: It sounds like you are in a good position to participate (in an informed way) in this year’s competition. I’m impressed that only 3 books had escaped your notice!
     
    @ Christopher: I felt mildly disappointed by the list as well, which is strange since I have read so few of the books on the long-list as it was so I really have no opinion (based on anything other than whimsy) on most of the possible books that could have been selected. One thing I’ve learned from years past is the ToB’s selection methods are incredibly obscure and they frequently pick a handful of books I think are dreadful while ignoring many books that I would consider worthier entrants. I guess that’s part of what makes it fun… and it is supposed to be fun, right? ;)
     
    @ Jenny: How fun! I recall there was a book blog that used to do a similar thing (I can’t remember if there was a prize), but I never competed because without fail, I’ve never read enough of the books to have my picks be anything other than uninformed guesswork. And, as you say, if you get those early matches wrong, you can pretty easily be screwed for good. The thing about reading and judging books is that it’s all so arbitrary that I never know whether my taste will align with whoever is judging the match or not.

  8. Pam
    01/09/2014

    I am a Lahiri lover, but couldn’t make it to 100 pages in The Lowland. It felt like such a forced novel and not typical of her past writing.

    I loved Eleanor & Park with a passion and am thrilled that she was included in the ToBX.

    I’m forcing myself through Life After Life right now mostly because of ToBX. Again, another disappointment from an author I have loved in the past. I was actually quite disappointed by the short list for this year’s tournament. One of the books (Hill William) has only 100 reviews on Goodreads. I understand they like to pick some books that aren’t on the best of lists from the year, but why go out of their way to pick a group that so many have never heard of? I haven’t read Americanah yet, but it’s sitting patiently on my nook waiting. I’m actually sad that George Saunders’ collection Tenth of December wasn’t included. I thought it was a fantastic collection that would be really stand up to some of the massive novels out there. I’m going to do my best to try to read what I can in anticipation of ToBX, but I’m not holding my breath.

  9. 01/09/2014

    @ Pam: I’m sorry to hear that Life After Life has been a disappointing read for you; I’ve only heard others raver about it, and as a fan of Atkinson’s other writing, I have high hopes for it.
    I think the best way to approach the Tournament is to read what you want off the finalist list, but put no pressure to read it all. After all, half the books won’t even make it through the first round, so there’s hardly any point spending a lot of time on books that don’t interest you or that you aren’t enjoying. I’ve found that even if I haven’t read either of the books in a matchup, I can still really enjoy the thoughtful commentary of the judges (and the ToB staff). Sometimes its reading those reflections that change my mind about whether to read a book, but at this stage in the game, although I’m always excited to hear about new books, I won’t go out of my way to read ones that just don’t appeal.

  10. 01/10/2014

    I’m always really excited to see this list come together. Even though, like you, I’m usually looking at a whole stack of books to read all of a sudden. This year I’ve only read The Goldfinch, which I absolutely loved in a gushing-haven’t-been-able-to-corrall-it-into-words way, so I’m quite excited about the exploring up ahead. I’ve never managed to read the entire list but, as you’ve said, I enjoy the commentary even when I have only read one of the pair, or sometimes not having read either book discussed.

    Which book do you think you might aim for first? (Like you, I have no thoughts on possible winners, only thoughts about reading plans.)

    As for a great read from last year not on this list, I wholly enjoyed Janie Chang’s Three Souls, which keeps getting compared to Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, but although I was a big fan of that one too, it feels quite different to me because you really sink into a single woman’s story: extremely readable, but some heavy themes if you choose to look at it for information not entertainment.

  11. 01/11/2014

    I honestly don’t know which ones I might tackle first, although I do have copies of The Luminaries, Life After Life, The Son, and The Dinner so I suppose one of those four would be a good starting point! ;) I’m really intrigued by the Atkinson & Catton and would have read either of them without the competition, so I’d bump the odds towards either of those up a bit. Then again, I just finished a long book and both of those are quite chunky so I might want to try something a bit shorter just to cleanse the palate before diving into something so dense right away.

    And thank you for the recommendation for Three Souls—that one escaped my notice entirely and is one I will certainly investigate further!

  12. Lu
    01/11/2014

    I had the urge to read all the books I haven’t read yet on this list… but I seriously doubt I’m going to get to them. I read The Dinner (blech) and The Goldfinch, which I liked very much, but did not love. Eleanor & Park is wonderful, but I don’t think it has a chance at winning.

  13. 01/16/2014

    “I read The Dinner (blech) and The Goldfinch, which I liked very much, but did not love. Eleanor & Park is wonderful, but I don’t think it has a chance at winning.”
    I laughed when I read your reaction to The Dinner because I suspect I’ll feel much the same way. As for Eleanor & Park, I’m fine with books not having a shot in hell at the rooster if they’re good; I’d much rather read those than books that are likely to win but that I do not care for at all!

  14. 01/17/2014

    I’ve started Tale for the Time Being, which was a predictable choice, I suppose, because I’ve loved her other two novels and have reread both of them. But then, on a whim, I picked up the Mohsin Hamid on audio (read by the author) and it has completely struck me in the right reading mood, so I’m into that as well. As the days tick past, I realize it’s highly unlikely I can make any real headway on the list, but both of these make me rethink my resolve. Maybe I should try harder!?

  15. 01/20/2014

    Well, the great thing about the tournament is that although there’s a deadline for the judges to read the books, there’s no such stipulation for us! If you don’t get a book read before March, you can still tuck into it afterwards and enjoy it! :)

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