The Morning News

The Morning News Tournament of Books

The Tournament of Books is an annual battle royale between 16 of the best novels published in the previous year.

A new match is played here each weekday in March.

The 2009 ToB Contenders List

The 2009 Judges & Brackets

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Previous years: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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Kevin: John, I loved these books—they were both among my four favorites in the tourney—and Mary’s analysis of them is right on. Like her, I did at times wonder why Lahiri didn’t reformat Unaccustomed Earth into a novel to turn the repetitive nature of the stories into an asset—I suppose there are second-generation Indian-Americans who haven’t married non-Bengalis and who aren’t engaged in a quiet, cross-generational cultural war with their parents, although you won’t find them here—but it’s not fair to penalize Lahiri for writing a different book than I wanted her to. These stories are beautifully written and crafted with tremendous care and skill. I almost certainly never would have read these stories if it weren’t for the ToB, and I’m so glad I did.

On the other hand, I’m not sure if I can remember a novel that so changed my perception of an event I thought I understood as much as City of Refuge has changed my grasp of Katrina. I love New Orleans and have been there many times and I thought I had absorbed the scope of what happened, but Piazza made me realize I didn’t. He personalized the tragedy in a way that moved me deeply.

Piazza sometimes interrupts his narrative with pieces of information that the characters couldn’t have—statistics and examples of government incompetence and descriptions of what people in other cities were watching on television—and when I was reading I was a bit put off by all that. I think it was supposed to make the story more real by imitating the style of narrative non-fiction, but it did the opposite for me. It kept taking me out of these characters’ lives and reminding me that, while real people lived the same tragedy, these particular people didn’t. I wanted their fear and confusion to be my fear and confusion. I still loved the novel, but in my personal ranking of the ToB’s books, I initially had it somewhere in the upper middle of the pack.

As days and weeks passed, however, I realized how much I had been moved by City of Refuge and my estimation of it rose considerably—I had turned a minor complaint into a major one. In a short while I had forgotten all about Piazza’s accounting of empty FEMA trailers and the only thing that remained were indelible portraits of two families, real to me, whose lives had been changed forever by the rain.

It would kill me to have to be the one to send Lahiri home after the first round (although you have to assume she probably fared well in reader voting and has a chance to come back in the Zombie round), but I can’t argue with Judge Roach. There’s a possibility that, 100 years from now, the images of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath will be informed in large part by this book. It’s that good.

John: I can’t say it better than Mary Roach, Jhumpa Lahiri has some sort of “writerly superpower.” The stories in Unaccustomed Earth are immediately and consistently absorbing, and as I read them, I felt a tell-tale rumble in my solar-plexus that tells me that the writer has plugged into something (again in the words of Judge Roach) “truthfully rendered.” It’s hard for me to express the depths of my admiration for this work. Mostly it makes me envious, in that I recognize I’ll never write anything this good. Reading these stories makes me want to try harder to get better and/or quit writing altogether.

There is not a dud in the bunch. It’s easily one of my favorite reads of the tourney, one of the books that I’ve eagerly recommended to a wide range of readers. After finishing it, I couldn’t imagine that whatever book it was to be paired against could beat it.

And yet, City of Refuge comes out on top. I’ll have to take yours and Mary Roach’s words on that since, due to the frankly, totally fucked-up nature of the book business, I could not acquire a copy of the book in order to read it.

OK, that’s something of an exaggeration, but consider my experience in trying to buy this book. City of Refuge was first published in hardback in August 2008. By the time I received the initial list of ToB contestants in late December 2008 (well-ahead of the public release) the book had already worn out its welcome on the shelves of bookstores. I checked four different Barnes & Nobles in two different cities (both below the Mason Dixon Line) as well as three independent bookstores, and none of them stocked the book. All of them were willing to order it for me, of course, but only if I was willing to pay the full price of $24.95. Amazon and Powell’s, bless them, had it in stock, and at discounted prices, but I’d already acquired several other tournament contestants and even though the subject matter of City of Refuge intrigued me more than some of the other titles, I put in on the back burner, hoping that perhaps the paperback edition would make its way into stores in the meantime.

But no, the paperback of City of Refuge isn’t scheduled for release until August of this year, a full 12 months after the hardcover release, and probably nine months since the book largely became unavailable for purchase outside of special order or the internet.

Publishing treats books like they’re the McRib or Shamrock Shake, available for a limited time only before mothballing them. Anyone who is following the tournament and is now intrigued by the book will not run across it in most stores. I’m sure Tom Piazza appreciates all the attention, but it isn’t going to do his sales any good if there’s nothing to buy. Many people have gone on and on about how stupid this strategy is, but it doesn’t really hit home until one of the (apparently) best books of the year can’t be purchased in a bookstore outside of an initial three-month window. Is there any other industry that treats their product this way?

Fortunately, help is on the horizon. For Christmas, my wife wanted a Kindle. It arrived a couple of weeks ago. After breaking it out of the package, I downloaded a copy of City of Refuge to the device in all of 15 seconds. Thanks to the new Apple Store Kindle “App,” (which shot to the no. 1 book app and no. 3 free app overall one day after its release) I can also read it on my iPod Touch. It cost $9.99, half of even the discounted hardcover available through Amazon, 70 percent less than the full hardcover price, and five bucks cheaper as the not-yet-existent paperback. I’m hoping to have it read by the time it meets Harry, Revised in the second round.

You say you want a revolution…

Reader Comments

On March 12, 2009 at 10:24 AM Jennifer said…

I agree 100% with this judgment.

On March 12, 2009 at 10:46 AM Ryan Chapman said…

John, I ran into a similar problem when I tried to find a friend's book. It was the day of publication, and she had a trade paperback original with Random House. I tried my two favorite independent bookstores. The first said it was in "literature," which was surprising since it's a collection of essays. They didn't have a copy. Maybe somebody bought it? No problem. I tried the second store - The Strand in Union Sq NYC - and they had a review copy in their used section. Simply because I wanted my purchase to go at least a little toward the author's pocketbook, I was forced to B&N, which had 4 copies.

I know this is anecdotal, but still - how often am I willing to go to several bookstores before I just buy it on Kindle?

On March 12, 2009 at 11:09 AM Lisa said…

I found my copy of City of Refuge at the library.

On March 12, 2009 at 11:24 AM Matt Evans said…

/Harry Revised/ versus /City of Refuge/. What's the over/under on this one? I'm thinking of Guilfoile's "gravitas deficit" here, and thinking /CoR/ is gonna kick some /HR/ ass. On the other hand, who knows. The Rooster's judges are fickle bantams. Mary Roach is a Nankin Bantam (which is high praise indeed).

Warner's comments make it clear that a Kindle is in my future. But what if you don't like Kindles? What if you want to turn pages? I read somewhere about some kind of print-on-demand book vending machine. I'd probably pick that over a Kindle.

On a totally separate note, does anyone here know how Guilfoile pronounces his last name?

On March 12, 2009 at 11:26 AM Shauna said…

"City of Refuge" is one of the great, unsung novels of 2008. It's beyond moving. It almost feels necessary.

I have not read the Lahiri book yet. But I will because I've loved almost everything else she's published. So big and so miniature at the same time! But I can't imagine, no matter how well it's written, that her book is nearly as relevant for this moment as City of Refuge, and sometimes that's a good quality for a novel to have.

On March 12, 2009 at 12:00 PM Amy said…

I loved the Lahiri, but now really want to read the Piazzi. And I was able to locate a copy in one of my town's finest indie bookstores: Micawbers ( Sorry, folks, I got the last one.

On March 12, 2009 at 5:05 PM Joe said…

Despite her very apparent talent, I'm kind of leery on Lahiri's latest, just because you do see that kind of repetition across the body of her books. Writers have comfort zones and specific passions, but you do see the same story and characters over and over again with Lahiri. I wonder what her next book will be about? Perhaps another cross-generational feud with the parental units by immigrant kids? What are the odds of that? I hope it's not too unfair of a comment. Like I said, there are themes or subjects that writers are often rooted to, but I'd like to see a bit more curiosity or adventure on Lahiri's part. She should be done with writing as therapy by now.

On March 12, 2009 at 5:09 PM Peter said…

"Had Unaccustomed Earth been a novel, I suspect this might have ended differently."

Is Roach saying that the novel is inherently better than a short story collection?


On March 13, 2009 at 8:50 AM Herman Melville said…

I think Roach was saying that the episodic, repetitive nature of the material in UE would have fared better if treated as a novel, instead of a series of discrete, self-contained stories.

On March 13, 2009 at 1:19 PM greg said…

John your comments are very true about the book industry but the industry is only reflective of your (and other book buyers') ridiculous expectations. You wrote: "City of Refuge was first published in hardback in August 2008. By the time I received the initial list of ToB contestants in late December 2008 (well-ahead of the public release) the book had already worn out its welcome on the shelves of bookstores. I checked four different Barnes & Nobles in two different cities (both below the Mason Dixon Line) as well as three independent bookstores, and none of them stocked the book. All of them were willing to order it for me, of course, but only if I was willing to pay the full price of $24.95." OMIGOD! How ridiculous for you to have to pay the regular price of the book only five months after the pub date! Dozens of new books, if not more, come out every week and stores have only so much shelf space. If a book isn't on the shelves (and it could be that the book was so popular that the store had simply sold out of all their remaining copies and was waiting on a refresh order) it takes a mere 3 days to get it in. AND there's no additional charge for shipping. But apparently it's ridiculous to wait 3 days and be charged the full price of the book. Your post is ridiculous because it smacks of you wanting to save money and then ridiculing the book industry (let us not forget it is an industry) for not being able to keep books on shelves longer.

On March 14, 2009 at 12:22 PM CeQuoia Jones said…

I heard Tom Piazza speak in a panel of writers discussing writing about place. He was a good speaker. A gentle man. I bought his book because of his intelligent comments on the panel and was delighted to find I loved his book. Katrina is one of those experiences we can not truly know unless we were there. City of Refuge puts us there in a way the newscasts, news articles and photographs can't––we live the experience through Piazza's book. That's the very best kind of fiction, is it not?

On March 14, 2009 at 9:31 PM Leesa said…

I once again agree with the judges decision in this round! I think it's a little odd that a collection of short stories ended up in this competition. It was the best of Lahiri's books that I've read, but it does seem out of place among all the novels.

Piazza's book could have been strengthened by the omission of the facts and figures chapters (maybe these would have made an interesting forward or appendix?), but the stories of the two families were believable and moving.

On March 26, 2009 at 4:39 PM MI reader said…

Okay, I guess I have to be the dissenter here....I was moved by Katrina, but I wasn't blown away by Piazza's book. I thought Lahiri's book was better, even in short story form, and I thought that the last story in her book was every bit as thought provoking and powerful as Tom's descriptions of the horrors of Katrina. Not as long, not as drawn out, but extremely impactful. I also didn't see Piazza's writer's family issues as being shaped by Katrina--the dynamic was there before Katrina, and it was more a tug-o-war between the spouses that could have been triggered by any relocation event, and felt very superficial to me given the devastation that those around him experienced. I also found it uneven in the narration mentioned above, and agree that it distracted from the stories of the characters themselves.