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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judged by Mary Roach
After reading the first few stories in Unaccustomed Earth, I didn’t think Piazza had a chance. Lahiri has some kind of writerly superpower. The emotional stuff of her characters—Bengali immigrants in various states of acculturation—is so thoroughly mapped and truthfully rendered that you don’t have a sense of having read about these families, but of knowing them well and passing entire uncomfortable weekends with them. Lahiri micromanages a dozen subspecies of guilt and love and never slips up. Nothing ever rings false.

Piazza can’t write like this—few can—but he has two powerful trump cards here: Hurricane Katrina and the novel form. City of Refuge follows two families in the wake (literal in one case) of Hurricane Katrina: one from the inundated Lower Ninth Ward, and one from a middle-class neighborhood on higher ground. Piazza’s passion for the city (he also wrote Why New Orleans Matters) powers his descriptions of the flooding and his detailed understanding of the devastations and conflicts it created. This book made me ashamed for failing to absorb, at the time it happened, the enormity of the flood’s aftermath and the diaspora that followed. It feels important in a way that Unaccustomed Earth does not. I almost broke into tears (possibly hormonal) three or four times while reading it. Piazza forced me out of the comfortable remove of my Google Earth satellite view of post-Katrina New Orleans and took me down into the day-to-day realities of the people whose lives were uprooted. The dysfunction and anomie of Lahiri’s uprooted Bengalis seemed trivial by comparison.

Had Unaccustomed Earth been a novel, I suspect this might have ended differently. Though characters from one Lahiri story pop up in others, the stories are discrete, disconnected. Rather than creating a narrative current, the various linkages created, for me anyway, a thematic repetitiveness that left me uncompelled to finish the book. But what do I know. Michiko Kakutani calls the book “a testament to Lahiri’s … consummate artistry.” Both women won Pulitzer Prizes. I was a runner-up in the 1990 Institute of Food Technologists journalism awards.

In closing, let me add that Tom Piazza is the perhaps only author on Earth to have used the verb “festoon” three times in one book. It’s possible he should be stripped of his Round One crown for this, but I’m going to let it pass. Go, Tom go!

Today’s WINNER

City of Refuge by Tom Piazza

About the Judge

Mary Roach’s books include Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and most recently, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. More info at Known connections to this year’s contenders: None.

From the Booth

It would kill me to have to be the one to send Lahiri home after the first round. Kevin John Due to the frankly, totally fucked-up nature of the book business, I could not acquire City of Refuge in order to read it.
» Read Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner’s commentary on the match and leave a comment of your own «

The Peanut Gallery

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