March 6, 2019

The Pre-Tournament Play-In

Judged by Arianna Rebolini

My job requires I read a lot. A lot as in: I open anywhere from five to 25 books in a week. This is not a complaint! But it’s why in the past year or so, I’ve taken on a new habit—I do my best to read books without any knowledge of what they’re about. It lets me judge the book without expectations, and honestly, it’s fun. Which is all to say, it took me some time to figure out the connections among these books, and even when I thought I had it pegged I would find myself surprised by something new. On the surface, A Terrible Country, Speak No Evil, and America Is Not the Heart are immigrant stories, stories about the thorny relationship between home, identity, and inheritance. But just as there is no monolithic “immigrant story,” these stories are most compelling in the ways they pivot off these themes, defying expectation.

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. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “My one conflict is My Sister, the Serial Killer—we chose it for the BuzzFeed Book Club in January.”

Keith Gessen’s incisive and sardonic A Terrible Country deals head-on with the disconnect between expectation and reality. When 33-year-old professor Andrei Kaplan returns to Moscow in 2008 to live with and care for his grandmother, he has high hopes for the trip. Anything would be better than his life in New York—a life that has found him recently single, desperate for money, and stagnant in his dissertation. It will be an escape. If anything, it will be different.

Except it isn’t quite as different as Andrei would have hoped. The Moscow Andrei returns to is “terrifyingly expensive,” but this reads as prosperity. Young liberals and revolutionaries condemn the corruption of Putin’s capitalism, and protests against Putin’s regime crop up around the city. And yet Andrei has a hard time fully grasping the gravity of these truths. “Looking out the window, it was hard to square all the talk of bloody dictatorship with all the people in expensive suits, getting into Audis, talking on their cell phones,” he thinks. “Soviet oppression and Soviet poverty had always been inextricably intertwined.” So easy, of course, to take one’s own experience of a country and project it as truth. It’s a “terrible country,” Andrei’s grandmother tells him, over and over again—but where else is she going to go?

It isn’t until joining a group of young socialists that Andrei is introduced to another Moscow, another Russia, the one created by those too poor to “be full citizens of the consumer paradise that Moscow had become.” Here is where Andrei must come to terms with his political ambivalence, his wishy-washy sense of identity (when natives ask if he’s Russian, his response is usually “sort of”). Here is where the systems of oppression move from theoretical to tangible, where the consequences get very real, very quickly—and it’s hard to read and not see a critique of US capitalism as well.

In Elaine Castillo’s sweeping America Is Not the Heart, Geronimo (aka Hero) De Vera is disowned by her parents—one of the most wealthy and prominent in the Philippines—when she joins the communist New People’s Army. After being captured, tortured, and abandoned on the side of the road, Hero’s aunt arranges for her to emigrate to her beloved uncle’s new home in the Bay Area, where she becomes a live-in nanny to his daughter—her namesake, who goes by Roni. That unthinkable bravery and trauma is the foundation of Hero’s richly drawn character; it’s a history we learn slowly as Hero opens up to a new family, eases her way into a young and vibrant social circle, walks that agonizing will-they-won’t-they line with a local young woman named Rosalyn, and forms a profound relationship with the indomitable Roni.

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $5 and Field Notes will donate 100% of the proceeds to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

Hero’s experience in Milpitas seems like a new life—one of three Hero has lived in just 30-odd years, each serving as a reminder of the limitations of a single worldview. When she’s living in the NPA camp, her comrades tease her about having grown up in the wealthy Vigan: “Did you have a silk fan? Was your house made of damili tile? […] Were you ever serenaded outside your window?” In Milpitas, she witnesses the intersecting cultures of Asian strip malls, experiences Filipino slang, food, and traditions at once familiar and foreign. It’s an evolution of her an identity, but no longer rocks her very core. And as she opens Rosalyn’s world up, too, Hero understands the importance of doing so. “[She] remembered what it felt like to tell other students about Vigan only to discover from the look of terror on their faces that her perspective on the world had been so much narrower than she’d imagined, a knife’s width.” So we find, along with Hero, that these revelations aren’t markers of new lives; they’re merely the expansion of a single, tensile, remarkable one.

This idea of a unified identity runs through Uzodinma Iweala’s heart-wrenching Speak No Evil, but only as a dream. When Washington, DC, high schooler Niru comes out to his best friend Meredith, she downloads Tinder on his phone and convinces him to set up a date. But Niru’s family is Nigerian and extremely religious, and the secret soon comes out. When his father discovers his messages with men, Niru is swiftly whisked away to their home country for a spiritual cleansing. Here I thought for sure I knew what the rest of the novel had in store; I was ready for a story of father and son navigating a complicated relationship on fraught land. In the days leading up to a dreaded departure, Niru recalls trips from years past in a paragraph outlining grievances and disorienting contradictions:

Everything was uncomfortable for me … This was not home, not to me even if I secretly loved the thunderstorms and the smell of wet red earth after the rains … It was almost too confusing to see the old and decrepit so close to the new and shiny … I had the irrational fear that I would disappear into the mess of all these people and never be seen or heard from again.

But they’re back in DC 10 pages later. Iweala’s novel, slim as it is, is exceptional in its breadth—it is about a complicated relationship between father and son, between young man and his heritage, but it’s a lot more, too. When Nuri returns and realizes he isn’t suddenly straight, he experiments with dating but finds the many facets of his burgeoning identity to be incompatible with each other—or, more truthfully, with society. He’s black and vulnerable in a nation that sees him only as a threat. He’s gay in a household that sees homosexuality as demonic possession. And he’s a teen so lost in this confusion that he can’t see his friend is suffering, too. (I haven’t even touched on Meredith, whose narrative makes up the second half of the novel and fills in the blanks left in Nuri’s perspective.) If only he were allowed to be all things at once, in one life. If only the world not only allowed such a thing, but nurtured it, too.

Suffice it to say I loved all of these books, and I went back and forth something like a million times choosing a favorite, give or take. But it’s America Is Not the Heart I find myself returning to, over a month later. It’s little Roni, tugging at my sleeve, her hair a mess from some schoolyard fight. It’s Hero, learning to stop hiding her wounds, to believe in a safety among loved ones. And it’s the fact that 400-plus pages weren’t enough. I spent hours online looking up translations, researching traditions, finding out where I can go in NYC to get some of the dishes Castillo describes so lovingly (from what I can tell, Jackson Heights is the move)—so strong was my need to be close to this family, to better understand their lives. I know that for many readers this book will tell a familiar story, but for me it opened up a new corner of the world. I’m grateful to Castillo for presenting a story without doing all of the explaining, for placing me right in the middle of such an intimate family and community, and by doing so reminding me that my perspective can and should always be widened. This is, after all, what the best books do.

TODAY’S WINNER: America Is Not the Heart

The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Rosecrans Baldwin: Welcome to the Tournament of Books everyone! As the ToB’s organizers, Andrew and I want to say how happy we are to see everyone, and to make a couple quick comments. First, our great thanks to the ongoing support of our title sponsor, Field Notes. They make the notebooks that we, as writers and editors, use and love, and we couldn’t be happier to see their name attached to all things ToB. Check out their special edition for this year’s Tournament, with all proceeds going to 826 National.

Andrew Womack: Thank you to Field Notes, and thank you also to our Sustaining Members, whose support makes the Tournament possible. When we started asking for your help two years ago, we really didn’t know whether it would be possible for us to continue bringing you the ToB in the same way we’d been able to do. I’m happy to say that not only do we feel confident at this point that the Rooster will be here for years to come, but we’ve been able to present more events throughout the year, including Rooster Summer—for two years running now—and a month of nonfiction reading last year. If you aren’t already a Sustaining Member, please consider becoming one today.

Over the past few months, we’ve spoken with some booksellers about ways they could get involved with the Tournament. This year we’re excited to announce we’ve opened match sponsorships—specifically for bookstores. You’ll see the first of these in tomorrow’s match, which is sponsored by Tulsa’s excellent Magic City Books. We have space available throughout the Tournament, so if you or someone you love sells books, have them email us and we can work on setting something up.

Rosecrans: We’ve got a great month of Rooster madness lined up this year. If this is your first March doing the ToB, check out our primer on how everything works. There’s also a brief history of some of the Tournament’s weirder moments.

And now we’ll hand it off to the Howard Cosell and Vin Scully of the ToB, novelists John Warner and Kevin Guilfoile. Take it away, fellows.

John Warner: Kevin, if I am counting right—and I had to take a shoe and sock off to use some toes—this is the 15th year of the Tournament of Books. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but one more year after this one and we will have 16 winners, which means we can have our Tournament of Books Tournament of Champions, which will be hosted by Alex Trebek.

Google tells me crystal is the traditional gift for a 15th anniversary, by which I mean to say, what are you getting me?

Kevin Guilfoile: There have been exactly as many Tournaments of Book as there have been Puppy Bowls, a statistic that is both incredible and worth celebrating. This year is also the 15th anniversary of Facebook, a fact that depresses me when I think about all the billions we could have wrung out of this enterprise by secretly exploiting the personal data of the Commentariat. At least we didn’t help elect Trump.

Anyway, I wasn’t going to show you until later, but I’ve commissioned this figure from the Bradford Exchange, which contains within its crystal splendor obscure and cryptic references to all 250-plus ToB entrants. (I’ll get you started: “Hugs for the Holidays” anagrams to The Goldfinch’s original title, A Foolish Edgy Thrush.)

This year we have an exciting group of novels. I think I had only read four or five of them when the shortlist was finalized. Since then I’ve taken a much larger bite and there’s a lot to talk about here. As always, unintentional themes emerge when you read these novels back-to-back.

John: One of the things I love about the Tournament is that it was never designed to make total sense, so sometimes we have a play-in round, other times we don’t. This time we do. I don’t remember why, other than it seemed like a good idea at the time, and it’s always an excuse to add more books into the mix, never a bad thing. The “national identity” theme here appealed to the Tournament committee, fitting for all kinds of reasons and also an excuse for me to reference Hamilton, which has become the only music I now listen to.

I’m no longer young, scrappy, and hungry in the general sense, but I’m excited to get this underway.

Kevin: Why do you write like you’re running out of time…?

Keith Gessen has an extremely declarative writing style, one that’s probably not going to win him a Wallace Stevens Award anytime soon. The first sentence of A Terrible Country—“In the summer of 2008, I moved to Moscow to take care of my grandmother”—reads like the start of Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. But I found it extremely appealing. His authorial touch is light. I was always convinced by Andrei’s voice.

Judge Rebolini talks about Andrei’s “wishy-washy personality,” and his passivity does create some pacing problems in the first third of the novel or so when the only characters are Andrei and his babushka, who can barely leave the apartment. As she notes, once Andrei starts interacting with the rest of Moscow the story really takes on life.

John: Judge Rebolini’s description of America Is Not the Heart as “sweeping” strikes me as particularly apt, and a contrast to Gessen’s angle of attack, with the “breadth” of Speak No Evil inside its slim package, perhaps somewhere in between. Like Judge Rebolini, I enjoyed all these books and would’ve gone in with a different choice (Speak No Evil), but rather than focusing on the choice, I’m interested in the differences in the stories that Judge Rebolini articulates.

There is no single capital-I, Immigrant story, as these works make clear. Immigrants, we get the job done!

Perhaps I’m even engaging in a little reductionism by labeling them “immigrant stories,” and it’ll be a further sign of progress when we don’t classify them in such a way. Or maybe I’m wrong and it’s even more interesting to consider these stories in juxtaposition through the lens of “immigrant” stories. In Hamilton, Hamilton is consistently referred to as an “immigrant” as well as a “bastard” and “orphan,” and one of the effects of that labeling is to see that the 10-dollar founding father who seems like just another bewigged white guy was not viewed that way at the time. Hamilton’s origin as an immigrant is flattened by history. Taking a moment to recognize immigrant stories for what they are could be a kind of tribute.

One of the reasons why the Tournament is structured as matchups is to reveal things that may otherwise be hidden without a paired book to reflect against.

Kevin: Right. “I liked this book” is an unassailable statement of opinion. You don’t really have to subject it to any scrutiny. But if you say “I liked this book more than this other book,” then you have to interrogate that assertion. You have to ask, why? And in doing so you start to peel back the layers of a larger question. Why do I read? And the answer to that can be both profound and different for everyone.

(I’d like to pretend we thought a lot about that before we started the ToB. Truth is I only figured that out in, like, year eight.)

But seriously, read again the last paragraph of Judge Rebolini’s verdict. When she arrives at a conclusion, there is real joy in her discovery.

John: Our main bracket is now set, and to me, Kevin, this looks like a year without an obvious favorite. We don’t have a true goliath in the tourney, and this year’s National Book Award winner, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, got knocked out in the Rooster Summer Reading Challenge. The Booker winner, Milkman, is on the experimental side and therefore something of a wildcard. Michael Ondaatje and Richard Powers are probably the most established “names” in the bracket, but neither of their books looks like a sure thing.

I honestly have no idea what to expect, other than the usual unexpected, and I’m excited about it.

I’m also excited about the fact that on some of our days off, longtime friends as well as novelists with new books coming out this year, Jessica Francis Kane and Pitchaya Sudbanthad, will be working the commentary booth, plus Andrew, Rosecrans, and ToB Queen Forever Nozlee Samadzadeh.

Kevin: For the first time since the very early days of the tourney, we will also have a few matches with little or no official commentary. This is possible because of the strength of our Commentariat, who will more than ably manage a fascinating and leaderless discussion. You and I have been superfluous for years, John. We are the ToB’s appendix vermiformis. Its vestigial tail. Like the rich kids who spent tens of thousands flying their Cessnas to the Fyre Festival, you and I are only here because of the FOMO. We would miss it if we weren’t.

But unlike the Fyre Festival, we have 18 great acts solidly booked and ready to be enjoyed. Sleeping in a wet FEMA tent is optional.


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