Welcome to Camp ToB 2020, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books. This summer, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2020—two books per month, two weeks per book—that the ToB fandom chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel and talk it out on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress. At the close of each month you’ll decide which of the two books advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you’ll pick one of our three finalists to win an automatic berth in the 2021 Tournament of Books.
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UPDATE: We now have our Camp ToB 2020 winner: Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn. We got in touch with the author, and here's his response:
Thanks much for the terrible news that I've won the Summer ToB. I've long enjoyed the arbitrary, fundamentally ridiculous annual book cage fight of the ToB, mostly because I never had a book that was part of the Tournament, and therefore could enjoy with complete abandon as books were regularly pasted by smart readers, even as those same people rage-quit or blithely succumbed to the ridiculous pairings that the brackets produced. Now I'm going to be subjected to the same treatment, in which the only sure outcome is my damaged ego. But I probably deserve it.
I was going to suggest that we feed a rooster to a shark in celebration of my win, but I have a feeling that's illegal in most states and I don't want to try and drive a shark to the states where it's allowed. Here's hoping the 2021 ToB produces as much joy, rage, and disgust as years past. If I'm being honest with myself, I can only hope for a Zombie bracket miracle.
Much love to Mr. Washburn! And much love to Sharks in the Time of Saviors, which is now heading to the 2021 Tournament of Books, and possibly the 2036 Super Rooster.
Rosecrans Baldwin: Let’s jump right into this week’s reading—our final week in what’s been a pretty wonderful Camp ToB, all real-world events aside. We’re finishing Weather today, and I’m happy to say we’re joined by Activity Leader Andrew Fraser, reporting to Camp all the way from Oceania. Andrew, can you introduce yourself a little bit?
Andrew Fraser: Hi there Rosecrans and fellow campmates, I’m very excited to be your Activity Leader for this week. I’m joining you from Auckland, New Zealand, where I live with my wife Hester and two fantastic kids, Zoe and Jim. I work at Vend, a fab cloud point-of-sale technology scale-up.
Rosecrans: Andrew, how would you describe yourself as a reader? Also, how is the pandemic going in Auckland?
Andrew: I have two favorite “buckets” of books: literary fiction and popular nonfiction. I’m also an avid book journaller, writing up reviews of every book I have read since 2010, rating them on a five-star system, and nominating and awarding the ”AJ Fraser Book of the Year” annually. As for the pandemic? My experience has changed over the past week or so… In my first draft of this, I was very excited to report over 100 days without community transmission in New Zealand. Since then, we’ve had a small, localized outbreak, so the entire country has gone back into a state of lockdown. I used to live in Los Angeles, and am a proud UCLA Bruin, but I’m very glad I’m back in New Zealand with everything that has happened in 2020.
Rosecrans: I can imagine. So, let’s start with first impressions. Had you read much Offill before? For Weather, where was your heart by the end of the first half of the book?
Andrew: Dept. of Speculation was such a hit that I placed a hold on it at the library, and my hold expired before I ever got a chance to read it. Even today there are 34 holds on the seven available copies. However, I have read While You Were Napping, one of Offill’s children’s books, with much less climate change and many more robots. Unfortunately, I don’t think there are many parallels I can make between the two works.
By the end of the first half of Weather, I was certainly happy and enjoying myself, but I didn’t really see much of a plot forming. Apart from the title, and the very peripheral storyline of Sylvia, I also didn’t pick up on the climate change themes as well. I guess my question is whether this matters? It’s not a book you read for the plot, more for the wee moments and experiences along the way.
Rosecrans: I think that’s true. Last week we talked a lot about the book’s style and structure and how they related to our reading. I went on at length (too much length, probably) about how it dampened my experience of the book. In the second half, as Lizzie embarks on an emotional affair while her husband’s away, I did find myself more engaged, but mostly because of the plot’s enticement and not for any sense of climate dread. How did the book’s format influence your read?
Andrew: I quite like Offill’s style in this in general, like scraps of thoughts and conversations. I record snippets or quotes from books or articles myself and have always loved the idea of piecing these together in a book. “The Part about the Crimes” in Bolaño’s 2666 is an example of these snippets working as a construct, especially when you identify with the characters or plot. However, I didn’t feel like the characters or plot allowed the style to really shine.
Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. Then her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience—but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned from her years of wandering the library stacks.
Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.
Rosecrans: What prevented that for you?
Andrew: It just didn’t really come together for me as a novel. There were some interesting plot threads—Lizzie’s relationship with her brother Henry really became the focal point in the second half, which gave me a feeling of troubling and sympathy. I liked the library snippets (although they became fewer and further between). However, I really didn’t identify with the emotional affair. And when you’re dealing with this type of structure, and the plot isn’t there, I found myself thinking of Weather as a good book to pick up and put down, not one you can really sink your teeth into.
Rosecrans: Let’s try it from a different direction. New Zealand has a different take, to put it mildly, on the climate crisis than the United States, and then there’s the pandemic, with New Zealand playing a leadership role and the US gaming out civilization collapse. If you don’t mind, er, speaking for an entire nation, does Lizzie’s anxiety about the planet ring true where you’re sitting? Also, I’ll cop to being pretty unread beyond the bigger names in contemporary Oceanic fiction, but are there novelists near you addressing the crisis in interesting ways?
Andrew: I would definitely say that climate change is front and center for many in New Zealand. We pride ourselves on our clean, green reputation, and climate change was described by our prime minister as “our generation’s nuclear-free moment.” Kiwis are proud of our anti-nuclear stance in the 1980s and see climate change as an opportunity to replicate our global thought leadership position. We’re in a very strong starting point, with 85-plus percent of our electricity coming from renewable sources, and one of our biggest worries being methane emissions from cows, but our position as an island nation makes things like rising sea levels much more relevant. So, yes: I, and indeed my entire country, share Lizzie’s understated concerns.
We even got a shoutout in the book, in a segment that made both me and my wife laugh. “The pros of New Zealand are that it’s beautiful, politically stable, and moderate in climate. The cons are the government has restrictions about what you can name your kid. Sex Fruit and Fat Boy are forbidden. Violence and Number 16 Bus Shelter are okay.” (All true, you know.)
Rosecrans: I did not know that. What a stupid country you live in! Give me Sex Fruit children any day of the week. (Netflix is certainly trying.)
Andrew: I haven’t seen a lot (or to be fair, sought out a lot) of climate change fiction coming out of Oceania. Most of what I’ve seen is in the speculative fiction genre, and it tends to go one of two ways, both of which cast New Zealand as a bastion of climate change leadership and resilience. Some, like Tim Jones’s novella Where We Land, paint a stark picture of the world and deal with climate change refugees entering New Zealand’s waters. Others, like James McNaughton’s Star Sailors, imagine a country of climate change privilege, where global billionaires converge. (Uncannily similar to how some have chosen to react to the current pandemic!)
Rosecrans: I’d make a Fat Boy Fruit joke about certain billionaire property owners, but I can’t afford it. But to stay on this for a moment: Weather is a climate crisis novel, I think, primarily in documenting the thinking and feeling that many people experience right now around our inability to do much more than witness what’s going on. Fine, but what else should a climate crisis novel be doing?
Andrew: Ah, fun question. The two things I’d be looking for from a climate crisis story right now is “giving me the feels,” and taking a strong position. I loved the note in last week’s comment section from Baroness von Bookhausen: “I wasn’t able to feel ‘the crisis’ as anything other than very specific, so I kept thinking: ‘If this feels terrible, just wait till you get to the pandemic.’” Weather didn’t move me to act, and didn’t really push the discussion further either.
In terms of taking a strong position, I’m not necessarily looking for an Orwellian novel that beats you over the head with a message. And, to be fair, the tone of Weather is probably representative of the person-on-the-street’s apathy and/or feeling of helplessness. However, when you put this together, it doesn’t make for a book that we will identify as the climate crisis novel of our time.
Rosecrans: I would agree. (Commentariat, do you have any suggestions for the climate novel of our time? Surely not Solar, right?) So, final pages: Lizzie’s affair has concluded, she attends church with her mom, she seems more accepting of the world’s end, and she resolves to continue grinding her teeth at night. What’s your final take on Weather? How does the book sit with you?
Andrew: I thought it was an interesting book, with a unique-ish structure, some snippets that I’ll think about for years, and (for me) less compelling characters and plots. To go back to my book journaling roots, I’d rate it two-and-a-half to three stars out of five—enough to avoid my hall of shame, not enough to be nominated for “Book of the Year.” Yes, I enjoyed a lot of the musings and dogeared some of the pages (sacreligious, I know) to come back to as either interesting or beautifully written snippets. But there wasn’t quite enough there, from a character, plot, or style viewpoint to raise it above a likable novella. And, not to flog a dead horse, but this wasn’t a climate change book to me.
Rosecrans: Hot take, hot take!
Andrew: Also, a controversial statement after your “romantic fizz” comment from two weeks ago, but I enjoyed the romance of Writers & Lovers, and love a happy ending, so would have to put that ahead of Weather in this month’s vote. However, the first half of Sharks in the Time of Saviors was my favorite bit of reading all summer.
Rosecrans: Well, there we have it. Thank you, Andrew, and major thanks to all of this summer’s Activity Leaders.
Now let me turn it over to my partner in all-things-ToB, Andrew Womack, to explain what happens next at camp.
Andrew Womack: Hello campers! We’ve finally made it to the end of Camp ToB 2020, which means we have a few things left to do around here.
Our first order of business is for you to use the form below to vote on which of the two novels we discussed this month should head to our end-of-summer finale, where it will meet Sharks in the Time of Saviors and The Night Watchman in one final poll, where you’ll decide which novels makes it to the 2021 Tournament of Books. Then we’ll return on Wednesday, Sept. 2, with our results—and a special announcement with full details about this fall’s Super Rooster.
(And if you want to get alerted for when that final poll goes live, make sure you're signed up for the Rooster newsletter.)
In the meantime, one thing we can tell you now is that, similar to this year’s Tournament of Books, we’re inviting members of the Commentariat to join us in the commentary booth for some of our Super Rooster matches. So here’s your chance to nominate yourself for one of these heralded positions—you can do that in the other form, below.
Thanks, everyone, and we’ll see you again on Wednesday!
UPDATE: And we have our August winner: Writers & Lovers by Lily King! Now it's time to vote for which of our summer finalists you want to see in the 2021 Tournament of Books. Cast your vote in the form below by Tuesday, Sept. 1 at midnight (ET).
The Camp ToB 2020 Calendar
- June 3: The City We Became through page 214 (finish chapter 7)
- June 10: The City We Became to the end
- June 17: Sharks in the Time of Saviors through page 191 (finish part 2)
- June 24: Sharks in the Time of Saviors to the end
- July 1: VACATION
- July 8: The Night Watchman through page 227
- July 15: The Night Watchman to the end
- July 22: Such a Fun Age through part two
- July 29: Such a Fun Age to the end
- Aug. 5: Writers & Lovers through page 165
- Aug. 12: Writers & Lovers to the end
- Aug. 19: Weather through page 99
- Aug. 26: Weather to the end
- Sept. 2: Announce summer champion