Two thousand and twenty is going to be a special year for the Rooster. This will be our 16th year for the Tournament of Books, which means in March we’ll anoint our 16th winner—enough champions to populate an entire Tournament unto itself. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
But before that can happen, one more book must win the Rooster, and so once again we’ve culled our long list down to the shortlist below, and we’re excited. This list has books that made us laugh out loud and books that made us moan. Books that pulled us deep into perspectives we never would have experienced. It’s got prize winners. It’s got surprises. It’s got some of the greatest hits from Camp ToB. It’s been 16 years, and every year feels like we’re right back at the start.
Let’s not go any further without bestowing an enormous thank you to Field Notes, our presenting sponsor. They’ve stuck with the Rooster for many years, and the whole time they kept making beautiful notebooks and other things (that are perfect for holiday shopping, wink wink).
Also, a loud trumpet blast of tribute to our steadfast band of Sustaining Members. Their support literally means this event is taking place. If you’re a Sustaining Member, thank you, and if you aren’t a Sustaining Member, please consider joining the Rooster orchestra today to keep this event running for years to come.
Here’s how the ToB works. Each weekday in March, two books from the shortlist are read by one of our judges. One book is chosen to advance to the next round, and the judge explains at length how they came to their decision, then the commentariat—people like you—express their outrage and anguish, or celebration and joy. And the next day we do it all over again. This carries on, round after round, through the month until one book wins the Rooster, our big dumb award, and then we all have a drink and go to bed.
If you’re really, really new to the ToB, here’s a summary of how the event works and there’s also a brief history of significant Rooster moments.
And hey! We need your Zombie vote today, or before Dec. 30, 2019, at midnight Eastern. Because, come March, from the play-in round to the eight opening round matches to the four quarterfinal matches through the two semifinal matches, the original field gets whittled down to two finalists. But before those books enter the championship, per Rooster tradition, they must endure a “Zombie Round,” which restores two books that were eliminated previously during gameplay. However, as to which books return, it’s determined by a popular vote, right here, right now, using the form below.
Finally, we are doing a play-in round again. Our theme this year is “The Future Is Getting Here Awfully Fast.”
And with that, you can find our 2020 judges, shortlist, and Zombie poll below. We’ll have more news soon—including our 2020 brackets—but in the meantime, stay updated on all things Rooster by signing up for the Rooster newsletter. (You can also pick up our morning Headlines newsletter while you’re at it.)
UPDATE: You can download the 2020 brackets here.
Thank you for playing along!
The Shortlist for The 2020 Tournament of Books
Book descriptions are excerpted from publishers’ summaries and edited for length. We may get a cut from purchases made through the book links. Here is a spreadsheet of the full list.
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg
Now that her father is on his deathbed, Alex feels she can finally unearth the secrets of who Victor is and what he did over the course of his life and career. She travels to New Orleans to be with her family, but mostly to interrogate her tightlipped mother, Barbra. Meanwhile Gary, Alex’s brother, is incommunicado. And Gary’s wife, Twyla, is having a nervous breakdown. As each family member grapples with Victor’s history, they must figure out a way to move forward—with one another, for themselves, and for the sake of their children. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Akner
Dr. Toby Fleishman thought he knew what to expect when he moved out: weekends and every other holiday with the kids, some residual bitterness, tense co-parenting negotiations. He never thought that one day Rachel would just drop their children off at his place and never come back. As Toby tries to figure out what happened and what it means, his tidy narrative of a spurned husband is his sole consolation. But if Toby ever wants to really understand where Rachel went and what really happened to his marriage, he is going to have to consider that he might not have seen it all that clearly in the first place. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Amma is a newly acclaimed playwright whose work often explores her Black lesbian identity. Her old friend Shirley is a teacher, jaded after decades of work in London’s funding-deprived schools. Carole, one of Shirley’s former students, is a successful investment banker. Carole’s mother Bummi works as a cleaner and worries about her daughter’s lack of rootedness despite her obvious achievements. From a nonbinary social media influencer to a 93-year-old woman living on a farm in Northern England, these 12 characters intersect in shared aspects of their identities, from age to race to sexuality to class. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
A mother and father set out with their two children, driving from New York to Arizona in the heat of summer. On the radio, there is news about an "immigration crisis": thousands of kids trying to cross the southwestern border into the United States, but getting detained—or lost in the desert along the way. As the family drives, we sense they are on the brink of a crisis of their own. A fissure is growing between the parents, one the children can almost feel beneath their feet. They are led, inexorably, to a grand, harrowing adventure—both in the desert landscape and within the chambers of their own imaginations. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer
Surgeon’s apprentice Zachary Walsh knows that his master, John Howard, prides himself on his rationality. But John cannot explain how or why Mary Toft, the wife of a local journeyman, has managed to give birth to a dead rabbit. When this singular event becomes a regular occurrence, John and Zachary realize that nothing in their experience as rural physicians has prepared them to deal with a situation like this. When King George I learns of Mary’s plight, she and her doctors are summoned to London, where Zachary is exposed to some of the darkest corners of the human soul. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Normal People by Sally Rooney
At school, Connell is popular and well-adjusted, while Marianne is intensely private. But later, when they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin, Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years at university, Marianne and Connell circle one another, always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. And as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
Lillian and Madison were the unlikeliest of roommates at their elite boarding school: Madison, the daughter of a prominent Atlanta family, being groomed for greatness; Lillian, a scholarship student, plucked out of nowhere based solely on her intellect and athletic prowess. Yet the two were as tight as could be. Years later, the two have lost touch, but Madison writes and begs Lillian for help. Her husband’s twin stepkids are moving in with them and she wants Lillian to be their caretaker. There’s a catch: The twins can spontaneously combust when they get agitated. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
In a letter to his mother who cannot read, Little Dog, who is in his late twenties, unearths a family’s history that began before he was born—a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam—and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation that along the way explores race, class, masculinity, and our American moment—immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
A message from our sponsor
As always, Field Notes® has made a small batch of Memo Books for 2020, with the Tournament mascot on the cover and a list of competing books inside.
Buy one or more of these for $5 and Field Notes will donate all the profits to 826 National, a nine-chapter network that provides under-resourced students, ages 6-18, with opportunities to explore their creativity and improve their writing skills.
Over the years we have raised tens of thousands of dollars for 826. C’mon readers, let’s keep it rolling.
Optic Nerve by María Gainza
El Greco visits the Sistine Chapel and is appalled by Michelangelo’s bodies. The mystery of Rothko’s refusal to finish murals for the Seagram Building in New York is blended with the story of a hospital in which a prostitute walks the halls while the narrator’s husband receives chemotherapy. Alfred de Dreux visits Géricault’s workshop; Gustave Courbet’s devilish seascapes incite viewers “to have sex, or to eat an apple”; Picasso organizes a cruel banquet in Rousseau’s honor. All of these fascinating episodes in art history interact with the narrator’s life in Buenos Aires—her family and work; her loves and losses; her infatuations and disappointments. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Overthrow by Caleb Crain
As Matthew is walking home from the subway, a handsome skateboarder catches his eye. Leif, mesmerizing and enigmatic, invites Matthew to meet his friends. It’s easier to know what’s in other people’s minds than most people realize, the friends claim. Do they believe in telepathy? Though Matthew should be writing his dissertation, he soon finds himself falling in love with Leif and entangled with Leif’s group. When the friends fall afoul of a security contractor, the repercussions damage the romances and alliances that hold them together, and complicate the faith the members of the group have in the powers they’ve been nurturing. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Saudade by Suneeta Peres da Costa
1960s Angola. A Goan immigrant family finds itself caught between their complicity in Portuguese rule and their own outsider status in the period leading up to independence. Looking back on her childhood, our narrator captures the difficult relationship between her and her mother, and the ways in which their intimate world is shaken by domestic violence, the legacies of slavery, and the end of empire. Her story unfolds into a growing awareness of the lies of colonialism and the political ruptures that ultimately lead to their exile. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
More than 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within. At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results. Two have grown up as part of the first generation to come of age in the new order. The testimonies of these two young women are joined by a third: Aunt Lydia. Her complex past and uncertain future unfold in surprising and pivotal ways. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
In an American suburb in the early 1980s, students at a highly competitive performing arts high school struggle and thrive in a rarified bubble. When two freshmen, David and Sarah, fall headlong into love, their passion does not go unnoticed—or untoyed with—by anyone, especially not by their charismatic acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley. The outside world of family life and economic status, of academic pressure and of their future adult lives, fails to penetrate this school's walls—until it does, in a shocking spiral of events that catapults the action forward in time and flips the premise upside-down. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Born into bondage, young Hiram Walker almost drowns when he crashes a carriage into a river, but is saved from the depths by a force he doesn’t understand. So begins an unexpected journey into the covert war on slavery that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s plantations to guerrilla cells in the wilderness. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, all Hiram wants is to free the family he left behind—but first he must master his magical gift and reconstruct the story of his greatest loss. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
Los Angeles is tense in the wake of the police shooting of a black teenager. Living at home with her Korean-immigrant parents, Grace Park is trying to understand why her sister hasn’t spoken to their mother in years. Shawn Matthews's sister was murdered as a teenager back in 1991, and this new shooting is bringing up painful memories. Plus, his cousin is just released from prison and needs to reconnect with their family. When another shocking crime hits LA, the families collide in unexpected ways. Tensions come to a head and force a reckoning that could clear the air or lead to more violence. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Play-in round books
Golden State by Ben H. Winters
In a strange alternate society that values law and truth above all else, Laszlo Ratesic is a 19-year veteran of the Speculative Service. He lives in the Golden State, a nation standing where California once did, a place where like-minded Americans retreated after the erosion of truth and the spread of lies made public life and governance impossible. In the Golden State, knowingly contradicting the truth is the greatest crime—and stopping those crimes is Laz's job. In its service, he is one of the few individuals permitted to harbor untruths, to "speculate" on what might have happened. But the Golden State is less a paradise than its name might suggest. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Oval by Elvia Wilk
In the near future, Berlin’s real estate is being flipped in the name of “sustainability,” only to make the city even more unaffordable; artists are employed by corporations as consultants, and the weather is acting strange. When Anja and Louis are offered a rent-free home on an artificial mountain, they seize the opportunity. After Louis’s mother dies, Anja is convinced he has changed. At work, Louis has become obsessed with a secret project: a pill called Oval that temporarily rewires the user’s brain to be more generous. While Anja is horrified, Louis believes he has found the solution to Berlin’s income inequality. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
“You can be beautiful, even more beautiful than before.” This is the seductive promise of Dr. Nzinga’s Clinic, where anyone can get their lips thinned, their skin bleached, and their noses narrowed. In this near-future Southern city, more and more residents are turning to this experimental medical procedure. Like any father, our narrator just wants the best for his son, whose black birthmark is getting bigger by the day. The darker Nigel becomes, the more frightened his father feels. (Amazon / Apple Books / Barnes & Noble / Books-a-Million / Google / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Ratik Asokan writes about literature, film, and photography. Originally from Mumbai, India, he presently lives in New York, where he works at The Baffler.
Jade Chang’s debut novel, The Wangs vs. the World, was named one of the best books of the year by NPR, Elle, BuzzFeed, and Amazon and has been published in 12 countries. Jade lives and works in Los Angeles.
Micco Caporale is a Chicago-based writer. Her work has appeared in outlets such as Pitchfork, Nylon, and In These Times. She writes a monthly column for Audiofemme and produces Bad Reputation, a women's rock history podcast. When not entombed in music books, she listens to hair metal while powerlifting. (Yes, really.)
Reader Judge Heather Cothran is a high school English teacher who lives in St. Louis with her husband and teenage children. Between work and home, adolescent sarcasm abounds. One of her earliest and happiest childhood memories is coming home from the bookmobile with her weekly supply in a Radio Flyer wagon, and one of her proudest moments is winning on Jeopardy!
As a musician, Dessa has appeared on the Billboard Top 200 charts; contributed to The Hamilton Mixtape; and toured the US, Europe, China, and South Africa. As a writer, her work has appeared in the New York Times and National Geographic Traveler. Her memoir in essays, My Own Devices, was recently published by Dutton Books—you can see one of her essays presented as the TED talk, "Can We Chose to Fall Out of Love?" Dessa splits her time between Minneapolis, Manhattan, and a tour van coasting at six miles per hour above the legal limit. To check out music, musings, photos, and updates from the road, find her on Instagram and Twitter.
Meghan Deans is the Senior Marketing Director of Ecco and a playwright. She lives in New York City and gives reasonably good advice.
Catie Disabato's debut novel, The Ghost Network, was published by Melville House in 2015. She has written criticism and commentary for BuzzFeed, LAist, and Medium. She lives in Los Angeles.
Deena ElGenaidi is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a novel and a web series, and her work has been published in NYLON, MTV News, Longreads, Bustle, and elsewhere. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Lovia Gyarkye is a writer based in New York. She doesn't tweet much, but feel free to follow her.
Barry Harbaugh is a senior editor at Amazon Original Stories.
Jeanna Kadlec's writing has appeared in Elle, O the Oprah Magazine, Literary Hub, NYLON, Allure, and more. She is a culture columnist at Longreads.
Ethan Kuperberg is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and writer. He won a Peabody Award for his work on the TV series Transparent and most recently wrote on the upcoming TV series Pachinko for Apple TV. He is a regular comedy contributor to the New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs.
Debbie Millman is a designer, author, curator and educator. Since 2005, she has been the host of the award-winning podcast Design Matters, which is one of the world’s first and longest running podcasts. She is also co-founder and chair of the world’s first graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts, editorial director of Print magazine, and the author of six books on design and branding. She has worked on the design and strategy of over 200 of the world’s biggest brands and is currently Chair of the Board of Directors for Law & Order SVU actor and activist Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation.
Maret Orliss is the Associate Director of Events, Programming at the Los Angeles Times. She oversees the team behind programming the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the largest literary festival in the United States, plus The Taste, Envelope Live, Indie Focus Screening Series, Ideas Exchange series, and much more. When not at work (or reading obviously) you can find her binge-watching romcoms, drinking cocktails with friends, traveling to a new country, or boxing at the gym.
Helen Rosner is the New Yorker’s food correspondent; occasionally, she also writes about the inedible.
Jeannie Vanasco is the author of the memoirs Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl (2019) and The Glass Eye (2017). She lives in Baltimore and teaches at Towson University.
Jenny G. Zhang is a culture writer in New York. She currently works for Vox Media's Eater, where she writes about things that tangentially have to do with food. Other places to find her include Twitter and her newsletter "annotations" in which she annotates and recommends magazine stories to read around the web.