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Tournament of Books - Days 5 and 6 - Jen's Take

Today, I (Jen) am discussing the third section of the Sweet Sixteen of The Morning News Tournament of Books. (If you'd like to read a little more background on what I'm up to here, check out this post.) I have some tough choices here, with THREE books that I really loved. And check out the end of the post, where I provide an update from the very first match-up of the competition

Day 5 (March 13) - The Water Dancer v. Optic Nerve

Ta-Nehisi Coates's The Water Dancer - ". . . memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom."

Ta-Nehisi Coates's The Water Dancer is just a gorgeous book. As in his nonfiction books (including my favorite, Between the World and Me), his writing his beautiful, his consideration of the human condition is honest and insightful, and his communication of the black experience--here focused on slavery--is brutal and vivid. Protagonist Hiram, the son of his white owner and of a slave woman he can remember only in flashes, lives on a plantation that is failing slowly. Hi's life is dedicated to caring for his half-brother, Maynard, who will inherit the plantation but who is not well suited to the dignity expected of a wealthy landowner. Everything changes one night when Hi and Maynard's carriage falls somehow into the river. Hi somehow survives by virtue of a strange power that he only begins to understand. As he struggles with the perils and virtues of memory, Hiram also must deal with the human relationships that are both a strength and an obligation. Reading The Water Dancer definitely brought up thoughts of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, another narrative about slavery that also brings in fantasy, and a recent read, The Deep, which contends specifically with the role of memory in the lives of descendants of slaves. Coates's novel is rich and beautiful and definitely worth reading, particularly if you want to consider slavery--and the escape from it--from a new perspective.

María Gainza's Optic Nerve - María Gainza's Optic Nerve made me consider everything I've ever learned about reading and prior knowledge. I listened to Optic Nerve via Scribd--that format was a mistake because, despite increasing my audiobook listening, I'm just not as adept at listening as I am at reading with my eyes. For challenging material like this, that's a problem. The novel in translation is definitely literary fiction, and at its center is art, a subject about which I know virtually nothing. I kept going since I read this for the Tournament of Books shortlist: (1) that's a goal and (2) the book was short. Sadly, I didn't do the novel any favors, so I'm afraid that any review would be unfair.

My Pick - The Water Dancer

Well, clearly, I can't offer a well-considered opinion about Optic Nerve . . . but it's obvious I wouldn't choose it. In looking back at The Water Dancer, though it's not a perfect novel, I appreciate Coates's ambition, his original perspective on an oft-written about part of history, and his blending of history and fantasy.


Day 6 (March 16) - On Earth, We're Briefly Gorgeous v. Your House Will Pay

Ocean Vuong's On Earth, We're Briefly Gorgeous - Oh my, this book is beautiful. I'm not sure how to describe it because it's about so much more than any plot at its center. Ocean Vuong's On Earth, We're Briefly Gorgeous is poetic and immersive and fragmented in the most perfect way. Its beauty lies in individual lines and in their accumulated value. The book is told as a letter from Little Dog to his mother, Rose, Vietnamese immigrants to the United States with Roses's mother, Lan. Little Dog's meditation on their lives together and apart moves through three parts. Here's a partial list of what it's "about": Beauty. Love. Immigration. Mothers and sons. Abuse. Addiction. Writing. Language. Small towns. Leaving home. Fathers. Nature. Homosexuality. Storytelling. Identity. War. Poverty. Mental illness. Memory. Grief. Healing. I found myself noting lines like this one--“Too much joy, I swear is lost in our desperation to keep it"--throughout, driven both to understand them on their own and the way they contribute to the story as a whole. I think I'll return to this one as it's not a book that yields everything on a first read.

Steph Cha's Your House Will Pay - Steph Cha's Your House Will Pay is an amazing, powerful, relevant novel. (This is one of those that makes me so grateful for the books I find through the Tournament of Books shortlist!) The book alternates between two families over two time periods in Los Angeles. Grace Park is the younger daughter in a Korean-American family who has always felt that she's in her sister Miriam's shadow. What does Grace have going for her? Loyalty. Steadiness. She still lives with her parents after having gone to school to become a pharmacist so she can keep the family business going. Miriam, conversely, has both left home AND cut off all contact with her parents--she keeps up only through Grace. The other family centers on Shawn Matthews, a black man who lived with his sister Ava, aunt, and cousin after his mother's death. When Shawn is a teenager, in 1991, his sister Ava is murdered, changing his world irretrievably. The book alternates between that tragedy in the 1990s and the fall of 2019, when the families learn that their fates have been braided together for decades.

Cha's novel is compelling and thought provoking, asking questions about how much control we have over our actions, what the past means to our present, the role that vengeance and forgiveness should (and do) play in our lives, and the responsibility we might have to correct wrongs committed by those we love. These characters are vivid and real--no one here is an angel or a devil. Instead, these are people who have made mistakes and tried to do better--sometimes, they do, and sometimes, they revert to their previous mistakes. It's a brilliant, beautiful, moving novel.

My Pick - On Earth, We're Briefly Gorgeous

All right, friends, THIS is the hardest decision yet. I'm opting for On Earth, We're Briefly Gorgeous and pulling hard forYour House Will Pay to come back in the Zombie round. How did I make my choice? I just have not ready anything else like Vuong's book. Your House Will Pay is positively brilliant and deals with issues that I'm thinking about all the time. But On Earth, We're Briefly Gorgeous is experimental and ambitious and so, so deeply emotional that I couldn't not pick it. What a tough match-up.


Since my first post about the ToB, I was able to read Saudade, which, as you may recall, is up against Margaret Atwood's The Testaments. Here's my review . . . and my updated pick!

Suneeta Peres da Costa's Saudade - I finally got my hands on Suneeta Peres da Costa's Saudade. At only 120 pages, it's a tight, powerful novel focusing on life in 1960s Angola. I had to do some research as I read, as the context here is important: The family at the center of the narrative is from Goa, an Indian state, and they are caught up in the Portuguese rule over Angola. The focus of the novel is on the coming of age of the narrator, a young girl who--at the beginning of the novel--admires her mother deeply. By the end of the book, she is disillusioned, questioning all that she took for granted as a child about her place in the country of her birth. The novel is beautifully written, and there's so much depth here, but I did find myself yearning for more. I wanted to learn more about the world in which the narrator lives and to have a little more to ground me in her situation. With that said, this is a gorgeous book. I'll be really interested in how it does in the Tournament of Books.

My Pick - Saudade

This is a tough choice for me. I am a HUGE Atwood fan, and though I liked The Testaments fine I don't think it's anywhere close to the best of her work. Saudade, on the other hand, wasn't perfect for me, but it's new and ambitious and is a beautifully, tightly written novel. I'm choosing to reward the newcomer in the field here and am going with Saudade.

Interested in what else we're reading? Check out our Featured Books page.


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