It started as a lark then became some type of thing. It jumped sharks, spawned clones, fostered some friendships and destroyed others, and hopefully—because here’s the point of this whole dumb thing—it led you to some really, really great fiction. But seriously, friends, the idea that the Tournament of Books is officially 15 Tournaments old? Is deeply weird to us, and very wonderful, and we’re grateful to everything you’ve done to help us shape it into anything resembling good. So let’s do it all over again!
Once again, thank you to the good people behind our presenting sponsor, Field Notes. Their stalwart support means a lot. And thank you to everyone who’s participated in these 15 years—all the judges, all the commentators, all the readers and fans, definitely all the copy editors and staff behind the scenes. But the biggest shout of appreciation must go to our Sustaining Members, because without them this wouldn’t be happening. Wouldn’t. Be. Happening. So if you’re a Sustaining Member, thank you! And if you aren’t a Sustaining Member, won’t you consider becoming one or making a one-time donation?
Let’s get to it. If you’ve never “done” the ToB before, here’s what’s going to happen. Each weekday in March, two of the books on the shortlist below will be read and considered by one of our judges, also listed below. One book from the match will be chosen to advance, with the judge explaining in detail how they came to their decision. Then the judge’s decision is evaluated first by our official commentators, then by you, the commentariat, wherein you politely and respectfully resist going bananas. And the next day we do it all over again, as March gallops on, until one book wins our award, the Rooster, and we all settle down for a long nap.
And like we always say, louder each year, the Tournament of Books is an event, not a prize. We want it weird, we want it messy, we want to put great books in your hands. But we don’t like to think about it as a competition between books—and definitely not between authors (gross). The “tournament” aspect, at least for us, really is just a handy way to start a conversation around books. Because what we’re interested in is how the act of considering two great books side-by-side makes us consider how we evaluate literature and what that says about our individual and collective tastes. Therefore the books we’ve selected below are decidedly not the best of the year, but instead are merely some of the finest works of fiction published (mostly) in English (mostly) in the United States of America (mostly) in 2018, in a grouping that we find intriguing.
In addition, we need your Zombie vote today. Or at least before Dec. 30, 2018, at midnight Eastern Time. Here’s what that means. From the play-in match to the eight opening round matches to the four quarterfinal matches through the two semifinal matches, the original field is whittled down to two finalists. However, before those books enter the championship match, they must go through a “Zombie Round,” which brings back two books that were eliminated previously during gameplay. As to which books return, it’s determined by a popular vote, i.e., you. Please vote soon using the form below.
Also: We’re doing a play-in round again. Category is—considering the politics of the moment, both in the United States and around the world—“A Question of (National) Identity.”
Also: The Rooster newsletter will keep you updated on everything ToB-related; get some. And if you’re really Rooster-riffic, the Goodreads Rooster group is pretty great, albeit independent of us completely.
Finally: Fifteen years. Honestly, we didn’t see this coming. This stupid thing? This exhausting thing? This maddening, ridiculous, totally exhausting thing? Let’s do it again!
The Shortlist for The 2019 Tournament of Books
Here’s a spreadsheet of the shortlist titles, if you’re into that kind of thing. We get a cut from any purchases made through the list links. Book descriptions are excerpted from publishers’ summaries and edited for length.
Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
Zebra is the last in a line of anarchists, atheists, and autodidacts. Alone and in exile, she leaves New York for Barcelona, retracing the journey she and her father made from Iran to the United States years ago. Books are her only companions—until she meets Ludo. Their connection is magnetic, and fraught. They push and pull across the Mediterranean, wondering if their love—or lust—can free Zebra from her past. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Census by Jesse Ball
When a widower receives notice from a doctor that he doesn’t have long left to live, he is struck by the question of who will care for his adult son—a son whom he fiercely loves, a boy with Down syndrome. With no recourse in mind, and with a desire to see the country on one last trip, the man signs up as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and leaves town with his son. (As the winner of the 2018 Rooster Summer Reading Challenge, Census receives an automatic berth in the 2019 Tournament of Books.) (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
The Dictionary of Animal Languages by Heidi Sopinka
Born into a wealthy family in northern England and sent to boarding school, Ivory Frame rebels. She escapes to interwar Paris, where, torn between an intense love affair with a married Russian painter and her ambition to create, Ivory’s life is violently interrupted by the Second World War. She flees from Europe, leaving behind her friends, her art, and her love. Now over 90, Ivory labors on her last, greatest work—a vast account of animal languages. And then unexpected news from the past arrives: She has a grandchild, despite never having had a child of her own. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling
Daphne, a young mother on the edge of a breakdown, flees her sensible but strained life in San Francisco for the high desert of Altavista with her toddler, in hopes the quiet will bring clarity. Then Daphne meets Cindy, who is active in a secessionist movement, and the elderly Alice, who has traveled to Altavista as she approaches the end of her life. When her relationships with these women culminate in a dangerous standoff, Daphne must reconcile her inner narrative with the reality of a deeply divided world. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea
In his final days, beloved and ailing patriarch Miguel Angel de La Cruz has summoned his entire clan to San Diego for one last legendary birthday party. But as the party approaches, his mother dies, transforming the weekend into a farewell doubleheader. Across two bittersweet days, the revelers celebrate the lives of Miguel and his mother, recounting the many inspiring tales that have passed into family lore, the acts both ordinary and heroic that allowed them to flourish in the land they have come to call home. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman
Conceived while his father, Bear, cavorted around Rome in the 1950s, Pinch learns quickly that Bear’s genius trumps all. After Bear abandons his family, Pinch strives to make himself worthy of his father’s attention—first trying to be a painter himself; then resolving to write his father’s biography; eventually settling, disillusioned, into a job as an Italian teacher in London. But when Bear dies, Pinch hatches a scheme to secure his father’s legacy—and make his own mark on the world. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
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Milkman by Anna Burns
In an unnamed city, middle sister stands out for the wrong reasons. She reads while walking, for one. And she has been taking French night classes downtown. So when a local paramilitary named Milkman begins pursuing her, she suddenly becomes “interesting,” the last thing she ever wanted to be. Despite middle sister’s attempts to avoid him—and to keep her mother from finding out about her maybe-boyfriend—rumors spread and the threat of violence lingers. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Ayoola’s third boyfriend in a row is dead. Thankfully her sister, Korede, knows the best solutions for cleaning blood, has a car with a trunk enough for a body, and keeps Ayoola from posting pictures to Instagram when she should be mourning her boyfriend. Korede has long been in love with a doctor at the hospital where she works. But when he asks Korede for Ayoola’s phone number, she must reckon with what her sister has become and how far she’s willing to go to protect her. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
The Overstory by Richard Powers
An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. All, summoned in different ways, are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat
On an island where the narrator and her father are the two newest and least liked members of a commune, it quickly becomes clear life here is not as harmonious as the founders intended. Our young heroine takes us back to Boston to recount the events that brought her here. Though she and her father belong to a wide Ethiopian network in the city, they mostly keep to themselves, which is how her father prefers it. This detached existence only makes Ayale’s arrival on the scene more intoxicating. Ostensibly a parking lot attendant, he soon proves to have other projects in the works. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
So Lucky by Nicola Griffith
Mara Tagarelli is, professionally, the head of a multimillion-dollar AIDS foundation; personally, she is a committed martial artist. But her life has turned inside out like a sock. She can’t rely on family, her body is letting her down, and friends and colleagues are turning away. She needs to break that narrative: build her own community, learn new strengths, and fight. But what do you do if those around you don’t have your best interests at heart? Mara makes a decision and acts, but her actions unleash monsters aimed squarely at the heart of her new community. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
There There by Tommy Orange
As we learn the reasons that each person is attending the Big Oakland Powwow, momentum builds toward a conclusion that changes everything. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and will to perform in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and loss. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
In 1945, just after World War II, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and they grow both more convinced and less concerned as they come to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women joined by a shared history of unspecified service during the war, all of whom seem, in some way, determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
George Washington Black, or “Wash,” an 11-year-old field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, is terrified to be chosen by his master’s brother as his manservant. To his surprise, the eccentric Christopher Wilde turns out to be an abolitionist. But when a man is killed and a bounty is placed on Wash’s head, Christopher and Wash must abandon everything. What follows is their flight along the eastern coast of America, and, finally, to the Arctic. What brings Christopher and Wash together will tear them apart, propelling Wash even further across the globe in search of his true self. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Play-in round books
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo
How many lives fit in a lifetime? When Hero De Vera arrives in America—haunted by the political upheaval in the Philippines and disowned by her parents—she’s already on her third. Her uncle gives her a fresh start in the Bay Area, and he doesn’t ask about her past. His younger wife knows enough about the might and secrecy of the De Vera family to keep her head down. But their daughter—the first American-born daughter in the family—can’t resist asking Hero about her damaged hands. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala
Bound for Harvard in the fall, Niru has a secret: He is queer—an abominable sin to his conservative Nigerian parents. No one knows except Meredith, his best friend. When his father discovers Niru is gay, the fallout is brutal and swift. Coping with troubles of her own, however, Meredith finds she has little left emotionally to offer him. As the two friends struggle to reconcile their desires against the expectations and institutions that seek to define them, they find themselves speeding toward a future more violent and senseless than they can imagine. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen
When Andrei Kaplan’s older brother Dima insists that Andrei return to Moscow to care for their ailing grandmother, Andrei sublets his room in Brooklyn and moves into the apartment that Stalin himself had given his grandmother. Over the course of a year, as his grandmother’s health declines, Andrei learns to navigate Putin’s Moscow. When he becomes entangled with a group of leftists, Andrei’s politics and his allegiances are tested, and he is forced to come to terms with the Russian society he was born into and the American one he has enjoyed since he was a kid. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Arianna Rebolini is the books editor at BuzzFeed News, and co-author of the novel Public Relations. Her writing has also appeared in GQ, the Guardian, the Atlantic, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two fat cats.
Kate Petersen’s work has appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, Zyzzyva, Epoch, the Paris Review Daily, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. A former Wallace Stegner fellow and Jones Lecturer in creative writing at Stanford University, she currently serves as coordinator for the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
Chelsea Leu is a writer and a 2018-2019 NBCC Emerging Critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times, WIRED, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and others.
Nichole Perkins is a writer who focuses on the intersections of pop culture, race, sex, gender, and relationships. She co-hosts Thirst Aid Kit, a BuzzFeed podcast about pop culture, desire, and the female gaze. Her first collection of poetry, Lilith, but Dark, was published by Publishing Genius in 2018. Nichole loves Prince, romance novels, the television show Frasier (specifically Niles Crane), and remains in search of the perfect juicy lipgloss. A native of Nashville, Tenn., Nichole currently lives in Brooklyn.
Molly Fischer is a senior editor at The Cut and host of The Cut on Tuesdays podcast. Her writing has appeared in New York Magazine, Bookforum, n+1, and elsewhere.
J. Howard Rosier lives in Chicago, where he edits the journal Critics’ Union. His writing has appeared in The New Criterion, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the James Nelson Raymond Fellowship from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an Emerging Critics Fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle.
Willa Paskin is the TV Critic at Slate and the host of the podcast Decoder Ring.
Evan Handler is best known as an actor for portraying two iconic characters in two highly popular TV shows, HBO’s Sex and the City, and Showtime’s Californication, and for playing leading roles in seven Broadway productions during a nine-year stretch back in the early 1980s through early 1990s. He has played leading and featured roles in the films and TV shows Ransom, Taps, The West Wing, Lost, Too Big to Fail, The People v. OJ Simpson, and many more. In 2019 he’ll be seen as a regular in the Starz series Power, and as legendary producer/director Harold Prince in FX’s Fosse/Verdon. Handler is also the author of two books, Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors (Little/Brown; Owl Books), and It’s Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive (Riverhead), each of which delve into different aspects of his battle with, victory over, and the long-term aftermath of, a supposedly “incurable” leukemia diagnosed in 1985.
Sandy Allen is the author of A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story about Schizophrenia (Scribner). Sandy writes and speaks about mental health, gender, normalcy, and power. Their essays and features stories have been published by BuzzFeed News, CNN Opinion, Bon Appétit’s Healthyish, and Pop-Up Magazine. Sandy was previously BuzzFeed News’s deputy features editor. They also founded and ran the online-only literary quarterly Wag’s Revue. Sandy is nonbinary trans. They live in the Catskills with their husband, dog, cats, garden beds, and sourdough starter.
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Life editor at the Forward. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, Tablet, and Haaretz. Avital teaches journalism at Yeshiva University's Stern College for Women and is at work on a novel.
ToB 2019 Reader Judge Christy Heron-Clark is a science editor and writer living in Northern California. A wildfire recently destroyed her childhood home of Paradise, Calif., but it gave her a new appreciation for the permanence of stories and value of shared narratives. She dreams of one day being a librarian—if only she could cultivate her quiet voice.
Tomi Obaro is a senior editor at BuzzFeed Reader, BuzzFeed News's home for cultural criticism, personal essays, poetry, and features.
Myriam Gurba is the author of Mean (Coffee House 2017). She has toured North America several times with the literary cabaret Sister Spit, and her "multi-media" artwork has been exhibited in galleries and museums. She teaches economics and civics to high school seniors. She loves money.
Rion Amilcar Scott’s short-story collection, Insurrections (University Press of Kentucky, 2016) was awarded the 2017 PEN/Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. His work has been published in journals such as Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, and The Rumpus, among others. The World Doesn't Require You, his sophomore story collection, is forthcoming from Liveright in August 2019.
A graduate of Columbia University and Goucher College's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction, Kelsey Osgood has contributed pieces to publications including New York, the New Yorker's Culture Desk blog, Time, Harper's, Literary Hub, and Jezebel. Her first book, How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, was chosen for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program. She was a consultant to former head of the FDA David Kessler, MD, on his book Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering. She edited The Read Along column at The Rumpus, has a blog no one but her husband and her dad read, and a Twitter account with 13 followers.
SJ Sindu was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Massachusetts. Sindu's first novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, won the Publishing Triangle Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and the Golden Crown Literary Society Award for Debut Fiction, was selected by the American Library Association as a Stonewall Honor Book, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the VCU First Novelist Award. Sindu lives in Tampa, Fla., and teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design.
Zan Romanoff is a full-time freelance writer and author of the novels A Song to Take the World Apart and Grace and the Fever, as well as Look, which is forthcoming from Dial Books for Young Readers in 2020. Her work has appeared in print and online for BuzzFeed, The Cut, Eater, GQ, the Los Angeles Times, the Paris Review Daily, Playboy, and the Washington Post, among other outlets. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.
Thank you again, and we’ll see you in March!