The Fault in Our Stars
  • March 29, 2013


  • John Green

    Z1The Fault in Our Stars
    Z2The Orphan Master’s Son

    Adam Johnson

  • Judged by

    All Judges

The Orphan Master's Son

Nathan Bradley: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars has such a unique and memorable voice, but The Orphan Master’s Son is like a page-turner spy novel written by Cormac McCarthy at his most wearily elegant. Stars is a delight to read—and its emotional pressure points genuinely brought me to tears—but Orphan Master’s riveted me in the rarest way. Adam Johnson wrote a work of epic length that does not feel long whatsoever. It instead unrolls scene by scene like a Bayeux tapestry of horror, paranoia, tenderness, and humanity. I was absolutely floored.

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Edan Lepucki: Green’s novel is engaging and big-hearted without being sentimental, and I adore his narrator, Hazel. On the other hand, I found the first 75 pages of The Orphan Master’s Son slow, and sometimes its North Korean characters felt American to me. By page 100, though, Johnson’s book had worked its magic on me: I dreamed of brutal regimes every night, I imagined eating wildflowers for dinner, I couldn’t stop thinking about torture—and about my own country, land of “illiteracy, canines, and multicolored condoms.” Adam Johnson has written a deeply dark book that’s also funny. It wins my vote.

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Elliott Holt: Count me among the people who sobbed while reading the last 30 pages of The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel and Augustus were irresistible, believable characters and I admired John Green’s nuanced portrayal of both illness and love. But The Orphan Master’s Son gets my vote for the Rooster. I’ve read it twice and I want to read it again just to figure out how Adam Johnson pulled it off. It’s brilliant and funny and haunting and a mind-blowing example of what fiction can do: Conjure an entire world that changes the way you see the world around you.

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Charles Yu: Both books are intense and rewarding—I am lucky to have read them. The Fault in Our Stars expanded my heart. The Orphan Master’s Son expanded my world. Those two things are not mutually exclusive (actually maybe two different ways of saying the same thing). There is a difference, though, and it is one of magnitude. Fault is a relatively small-scale story that is nearly perfect, but Orphan is immense and brilliant good. Big thing beats small thing (this time around).

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Dave Pacey: Seldom am I reduced to tears by a passage in a book, but I have an eight-year-old son, and the scene in The Orphan Master’s Son where the interrogator explains how, when he was eight himself, his father took him by the hand for a walk and told him to remember that they were, even in the darkest moments, always holding hands no matter what their bodies were doing or their mouths were saying, just tore me up. I had to put the book aside and gather my thoughts for a while before continuing. That was the moment I knew I was reading the winner of the ToB.

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Ron Hogan: These were two of my favorite novels of 2012 last year, and I found myself loving them all over again during the reread. I found that I still couldn’t bring myself to choose between them—they’re both amazing books that I’d recommend to just about anybody who loves great stories and great writing. But I thought Stefan Beck made an excellent case for why he reached the decision he did when they first faced each other in the quarterfinals, so I’m going to affirm his original judgment: The Orphan Master’s Son.

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Tony Horwitz: Bring Up the Bodies seemed the obvious Zombie title. But plague and decapitation just isn’t dark enough. So it’s down to this: Can kids with cancer outlast tortured orphans? The black-humored banter in The Fault in Our Stars positively hums. The book is also a compulsive read, hardest of the Rooster pen to put down. I didn’t warm as quickly to The Orphan Master’s Son, because the world it conjures is so alien. But that’s the book’s genius. It makes us believe, care about, and even laugh at the looking-glass world of totalitarianism. 1984 for a new millennium!

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Jack Hitt: These two fantastic books share a theme: how life is shaped by fiction. The Orphan Master’s Son occurs in North Korea, which is, essentially, a bad novel: Everything must be trimmed and stretched into procrustean propaganda. The Fault in Our Stars concerns the oldest human fiction—that death doesn’t matter today—and re-believing it, even in the brutal world of children dying. I choose The Fault in Our Stars because Green’s tight and potent prose defies the tween genre he’s forced into. It’s just a great novel. One example: The main couple develops a pet language, which boils down to one word. Okay. Not maudlin. Simple, playful, but charged. Okay. Brilliant.

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D.T. Max: How do you compare books as disparate as these? Why can’t they both win, the way welterweights and heavyweights can each take home a boxing title? I mean, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a more surprising novel than The Orphan Master’s Son. I sort of collect North Korea trivia, but what Adam Johnson finds/invents/extrapolates out of that benighted country simply left me agape. Bravo! So I vote for John Green. What? No, there’s really no “what” about it. It’s sad, it’s very sad, it’s daring, it’s not the kind of book I usually read, but I read it and I cried.

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Stefan Beck: I’m told I can change my vote. That would certainly be the dramatic thing to do, but the fact is, I was probably too easy on The Fault in Our Stars the first time around. It’s a very good novel, and terrific YA, but it’s receded from my memory as Johnson’s North Korea has grown more vivid. The wilder claims made for Green’s book are colored by an enthusiasm for Dear Leader that I’m relieved not to have to encourage. (If The Fault in Our Stars is to supersede The Catcher in the Rye, better it do so as a teen classic than as “the novel most likely to be found on an assassin’s person.”) The bottom line: Johnson’s is the superior work of art.

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Caity Weaver: I didn’t expect that I, a person who tears up at Google Chrome commercials, would find myself more emotionally invested in the story of a professional kidnapper from an alien country than the romance of two dying kids, but that’s how it shook out. Where The Fault in Our Stars is slick, The Orphan Master’s Son is polished. Any of Jun Do’s half-dozen adventures could have worked as the plot of a standalone book. Woven together, they form a surreal, daring, captivating epic. The Orphan Master’s Son was the winner from page one.

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Kate Bolick: The finalists arrived at my house the day before I left for vacation, requiring I pit them against each other and surf camp in Costa Rica. Fortunately both books proved to be so excellent I didn’t resent holing up in my hotel room reading while everyone else drank beer by the pool. But only one of them made me do something I’d never done before: laugh and cry simultaneously the whole way through, and I mean really cry, rivers of tears streaming down my face, drowning out the annoying reggae blaring next door, until there was nothing left in this world but two hilarious, dying teenagers. Winner: The Fault in Our Stars.

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Saeed Jones: The Orphan Master’s Son is darkly thrilling. Written with a sentence-by-sentence precision that is sinister in its beauty, Adam Johnson’s novel is as much about Jun Do’s journey as about the way we live with (or at least survive) the stories we inherit and the stories that are inflicted on us. I enjoyed reading The Fault in Our Stars, but The Orphan Master’s Son continues to haunt me in the best possible way.

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Davy Rothbart: I loved The Fault in Our Stars. I found it funny, heart-squeezing, pitch perfect, and studded with finely-chosen details on every page. John Green has absolutely nailed it. But I’ve already picked against Adam Johnson’s masterful The Orphan Master’s Son once in this Tournament, so I’m well familiar with the pangs of regret I’ll feel if I make the same mistake again. I won’t do it.

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Rachel Riederer: Having recently been through the cancer-death of someone I love, I am very grateful that The Fault in Our Stars exists. It wrecked me (in the best way) with its characters’ calm fatalism and its generously real depictions of the physical indignities and existential distresses of dying and grieving. It fulfilled for me that lovely Vonnegut quote about literature making us feel less alone. But reader, I picked the other guy. Because The Orphan Master’s Son did the inverse—instead of making me feel that in this vast universe, I was being understood, it extended my sympathies to a part of this vast universe about which I never, ever think. Also, as a piece of literary art: damn. The way the narrative fractures in the middle means that you have to make your way through the second half disoriented, suspicious, piecing together reality just as the characters have to, because some invisible force is controlling what you’re allowed to know. Luckily our invisible force is Adam Johnson, and he is benevolent.

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Natasha Vargas-Cooper: Citizens! A triumph in literature has been secured by comrade Adam Johnson! Comrade Johnson’s fictional book about the arbitrary violence and absurd cruelties forced upon the citizens by a tyrannical necrocracy is a rare and bracing work. Heed the call of High Commander Oprah to consume this most excellent book. May all unnamed orphans take the name Adam Johnson to show their great patriotism. A most glorious victory over Teenperialism by the Great North Korean novel!

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Lev Grossman: It’s a tough call because these are, quite simply, two perfect novels, but I’m going with The Orphan Master’s Son purely on degree of difficulty. The scope of what Johnson did in this book is just stunning—the extremes of emotion he puts his characters through, the beauty and hideousness of the world he builds, the range and diversity of the ideas he manages to bind into one single story. This is an extraordinary achievement, not something you see every year or every decade. It succeeds in every way a novel can succeed, and I think we should honor it with the win.

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THIS YEAR’S CHAMPION: The Orphan Master’s Son

Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin: “A delight.” “Engaging and big-hearted.” “Irresistible.” “Intense and rewarding…It expanded my heart.” “Amazing…One of my favorite novels of 2012.” “It positively hums.” “Terrific.” “Funny, heart-squeezing, pitch-perfect, and studded with finely chosen details on every page.” “It wrecked me in the best way.”

That is what the back of the paperback edition of The Fault in Our Stars would look like if John Green’s publicist only solicited blurbs from people who voted against it in the ToB championship match.

As for The Orphan Master’s Son, I don’t know if I’ve ever read a more breathless scroll of praise in the championship of this contest, and we’ve had a few lopsided wins. I agree with every word. If you haven’t read it, find this book. It is ambitious and touching and funny and brilliant and particularly relevant at this moment in time. Not since Cloud Atlas have I evangelized this much about a Rooster winner. Read it, read it, read it. And then tell everyone you know.

John: We reached out to congratulate Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son, and he passes along the following statement:

I’ll admit I’m a ToB addict, so it’s a special honor to be included in the bracket and to survive some fascinating matchups. And to get bumped, only to Zombie back? My highest achievement. Really, I read it all—the reviews, the color commentary, the reader comments, the NOOK ads—and it always got my day going by thinking about books: why we write them, how we read them, how we speak to them, what they mean to us.

I will now demand that my publisher place silver Rooster stickers on all the paperbacks. But first: Deliver unto me one live rooster! It will live in our backyard in San Francisco, until my sleep-deprived neighbors murder it. And if readers will make suggestions for what we should call it, I promise to select a name from one of the comments.

Finally, a special thanks to all the readers, reviewers, and authors who contributed to a pretty dang awesome celebration of books.

The end is almost always an anti-climax, so much fun over a month’s time, and then…poof, it’s over. Both books gave their all, and the appreciation from the judges is apparent. As we break down the spotlights and power down the Disqus servers for another year, I feel like we finish with a really satisfying taste in our mouths.

Except like a really good book, I like to think that the Tournament lingers over the course of the year. Because I am a book nerd, I have a shelf dedicated to each year’s contestants, so at a glance I can reflect on the journey behind us.

And so much of my reading time is spent on contemporary fiction, books that may wind up in the next year’s Tournament, that I can’t help but look forward. Each time I finish a new one, I begin to wonder how it might look in the mix of finalists. Will we give a shot to another collection of short stories next year with George Saunders’s Tenth of December? What about Jamaica Kincaid’s first novel in more than a decade, See Now Then? Judging from the reviews and extra-textual commentary, we could be looking at a How Should a Person Be? kind of discussion. Will J.M. Coetzee get his first crack at the Tournament? William Gass? Marisha Pessl? Khaled Hosseini? Paul Harding? Elizabeth Gilbert? Percival Everett?

The mind reels, or my mind does, anyway. I’m grateful for the Tournament as a kind of organizing principle over my own reading, a way to make some sense out of the chaos.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve endeavored to create a personal “watch list” over possible competitors for the next year. For a lot of reasons, I didn’t get it together to do one this year, but I realized that we have a far more powerful tool for such things, our commentariat. I’m eager to hear what everyone else is looking forward to over the course of the coming year. What should the Tournament of Books braintrust be watching for?

Kevin: In the last match, you talked about the enthusiasm our judges have had for this list in general, and the final four books in particular. We know there are a lot of people who read along with the ToB, and so there are probably not a few folks out there whose last four books (or close to it) were The Orphan Master’s Son, The Fault in Our Stars, Gone Girl, and Building Stories.

So as long as I have the Biblioracle right here (with the ToB ending and all of us looking around for our next read) I’m compelled to ask: If someone told you those were the last four books they read, what would you suggest they tackle next?

Field NotesBuy anything from Field Notes during the ToB and receive a special red, letterpress memo book free. Use coupon code ROOSTER.

John: Talk about pressure. These books don’t hold many similarities, other than quality. There’s no particular pattern that I can discern, though all of them, I suppose, involve close studies of character. In the comments on the first Zombie Round, commenter C.D. Hermelin praised John Green’s “detail-work” in helping The Fault in Our Stars rise above the stereotypes of the YA genre, and I think that’s probably the key to success for all of these books, or maybe all books everywhere. Get the details right, and your audience is going to fall under a spell.

I’m temporizing. Is it hot in here?

I’d like to say that I’ve done a profound and multi-faceted analysis of all possible factors and criteria in coming to this recommendation, but the truth is, the only thing the Biblioracle knows is his gut. I’m thinking about character and detail work.

Tom Drury is a writer whom not enough people have read. His novels are set in the fictional Grouse County, Iowa, amongst solid, Midwestern stock, people who want things but probably won’t get them. He, at last, has a new novel coming out later this year (Pacific) but to prepare, I’m recommending The End of Vandalism.

Thank you, my friend, for putting me on the spot one last time. Thanks for the good book conversation. I’ll be seeing you in email until next spring.

Thanks to our readers, our competitors, our judges. Thanks to The Morning News—Rosecrans Baldwin, Andrew Womack, Nozlee Samadzadeh, Karolle Rabarison—for keeping it all humming behind the scenes while we yammer in front of the mics. We may be the primary faces of this thing, but they’re the ones who keep the Tournament in motion 365 days a year. It’s hard to overestimate the logistical difficulties they’re able to negotiate to make it all come together so beautifully.

Viva lectura! (The internet tells me that means “Long live reading!”)

Warner, out.

Kevin: Thank you, John.

As regular followers of the ToB know, each year we offer the winning author a live rooster as a prize. Until today no one has ever taken us up on it (a donation in their names to Heifer International has always been the alternative). As you are reading this, however, the ToB staff is actually researching California zoning laws regarding poultry ownership to find out if Adam can accept delivery where he lives. We will keep everyone posted, but in the meantime put your suggestions for rooster names in the comments.

Big thanks to our presenting sponsor, NOOK by Barnes & Noble, and also to Field Notes. Thanks especially to our readers, commenters, and everyone who has helped spread the word and made the Tournament of Books bigger, better, and more fun each year.

Finally, we have contest winners to announce. It turns out there were only two individuals who had the correct championship matchup and victor. They also had the same final score. So we flipped a coin. The winner of a NOOK HD+, courtesy of The Morning News, is Jesse Feldman. Felicity Rose wins a Barnes & Noble gift card, also courtesy of TMN. Congratulations! Please email to claim your prizes.

And to give us all a head start, please follow John’s lead and put the books you’re most looking forward to this year in the comments. Of course, if there’s a book you’ve read so far in 2013 that you think is deserving of consideration for next year’s Rooster, shout that out, as well.

We will see you all next March.

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