The Morning News

The Morning News Tournament of Books
  • This is The Final Round of the Fifth Annual Tournament of Books
  • March 31, 2009

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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judged by all judges + Amanda Hesser
Amanda Hesser: I was surprised by the number of parallels between Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge and Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. The biblical themes—floods and slavery. The characters’ resulting feelings of dislocation. The narrative being carried forward from the perspective of a handful of characters. Were Morrison and Piazza at Yaddo together? Probably not, but the darkness of their narratives feels appropriate right now.

Morrison’s book, which is so short it feels more like a novel in haiku, explores the lives of a trader, his wife, and their slaves in the 17th century. In a land not yet shaped by law, each character is deeply dependent on the others for survival, and yet each seems unable to alter his or her doomed trajectory. Not a lot happens in the book; it is a forge for internal revelation, as the characters ceaselessly meditate on a small number of events—a mother’s decision to give up her daughter to the trader, a slave’s journey to get medical help for the trader’s wife. Morrison’s people ultimately emerge as fragile and limited, unable to overcome being abandoned.

In her past works, such as Beloved, I’ve been mystified by Morrison’s prose style, which seems to blow fog in your face, and then demand that you push through it to figure out what’s happening. She doesn’t make you work quite as hard in A Mercy—a mercy, indeed.

Piazza tackles an equally massive and thorny topic: Hurricane Katrina. Trying to recreate the drama of an event many of us feel (rightly or wrongly) that we lived through on television and in the newspapers is a big challenge; we already think we know the story, and how it turns out. Piazza overcomes this obstacle by zeroing in on the experiences of two families: Craig and Alice, an upper-middle-class white couple living in a white neighborhood on the west side of New Orleans, and the black Vietnam War vet S.J., his sister, Lucy, and her son, Wesley, who live in the Lower Ninth Ward. Piazza explores the paths they take when they’re uprooted by Katrina, and the wrenching process of their decisions of whether to ultimately try to return to the greatly diminished city.

The characters are a mixed lot—the struggling black family resonates more than the whiny white yuppies, and sometimes they all feel like a little like coat hooks for Piazza to hang his exodus narrative on. But he is convincingly furious about the folly and neglect that led to the flood and the floating dead. By accretion of detail, by lovingly describing the bars and krewes and daily errands of New Orleans’s citizens, he creates a portrait of a vital—or once-vital—city, and how deracinated its people feel when they’re forced to leave. There are larger resonances with many of the great catastrophes and diasporas that constitute modern history.

While neither is a perfect novel, they’re both engaging and thought-provoking books. But everyone knows Morrison’s work; fewer are familiar with Piazza’s. And so for this final round, I’m giving my nod to the promising underdog. Point: City of Refuge

Andrew Womack
: I began Piazza’s novel with a rush, and was swept up in its dual stories—until 100 pages in. That’s when tiny faults began to appear: The characters flattened, reducing to their foibles. Steadily, the novel’s plot appeared foregone. Then Piazza dug it out, and I was cheering on each character until I became elated—and crushed—through the book’s many unexpected conclusions. Morrison’s storytelling power brought her to the finals, yet the power of City of Refuge wins my nod for the Rooster. Point: City of Refuge

Rosecrans Baldwin: No one like Morrison makes me feel as though I’ve picked up a new Faulkner novel; after a couple of dry years, I’m so glad a new book of hers gave me that feeling again. I enjoyed City of Refuge, but A Mercy is stupendous and I was sorry to see it end. Point: A Mercy

Junot Díaz: Some very surprising decisions through out the competition. 2666 somehow got bounced and another favorite of mine died too. But this ain’t math, folks. And here we are with two fantastic books. If it were up to me, I’d call it a tie and let it be. But since it ain’t up to me, between these two finalists, I’m going with Morrison. I love this book, this writer, and Piazza’s novel is superb (this cat is a dynamo), but it couldn’t in the end wrest me away from A Mercy. In boxing when it’s a tie they always give it to the champ and that’s what I did. But City of Refuge took Morrison to the brink, and how many books how many writers can make that claim? Bravo, sir. Point: A Mercy

Liz Entman: A Mercy struck me as a kind of preface of what was to come in the Katrina-ravaged New Orleans depicted in City of Refuge. Or perhaps it’s more of a portent, or prophecy. Even though there are at least two too-strong echoes of Beloved in A Mercy—the feral girl-child, and the Sophie’s choices that enslaved women made to preserve their children’s humanity—A Mercy felt fresh to me, and beautiful. Although Tom Piazza is a strong writer and his story often left me with a catch in my throat, Morrison was able to say more with her silences and indirection than Piazza could with all his meticulous research. That said, I would have liked A Mercy to have included more voices and answered more questions, and thought it was too short overall. I wasn’t ready for it to end when it did. Point: A Mercy

John Hodgman: Honestly, Morrison is a better writer, line by line, and A Mercy is a more mature and consistent work of compact fiction. But City of Refuge is a true novel: big, ambitious, digressive, painted on a broad, funky, black velvet canvas called New Orleans, a city Piazza knows cold. Both books attack great American crimes: slavery and the failures surrounding Katrina. But there is a wail to Piazza’s prose, a weepy humanness to his characters, and a nearness that make his novel feel less workshopped, more urgent, frankly, and worthy of its occasional jumps on the soapbox. Point: City of Refuge

C. Max Magee: I breezed through City of Refuge in 75-page chunks. The Hurricane Katrina backdrop is beyond compelling, and Piazza’s portrait of those hit by the storm is essential for anyone who cares about recent history. But A Mercy is masterful. It feels like it should be a 500-page, multi-threaded epic spanning generations. Nearly any other novelist would set out to write that big book, but Morrison’s legacy is already cemented. In fact, her combination of brevity and gravitas is the book’s coup. And the ending, oof, it’s a killer. Point: A Mercy

David Rees: Which book would I pass along to a friend? A Mercy is lean, poetic, and haunting. I assume it will be read forever. City of Refuge is no masterpiece. But I’m excited by what it portends: A contemporary American literature of rage and renewal. (If only it had ended with a flip-book showing the water flying back up and over the levees. That would’ve been AWESOME.) Point: City of Refuge

Maud Newton: While Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge is a gripping book, one that straddles the line between fiction and Hurricane Katrina reportage, my vote goes to A Mercy. Morrison’s latest novel may be the lesser little sister of Beloved and Song of Solomon, but it’s still her finest work in years. Point: A Mercy

Witold Riedel
: Language is at its best when it hints, translates, yet protects and tells. A German word for poetry, “Dichtung” hints at these abilities: the spirit of what can be born when the world is packed tightly into word after word after meaningful word. Thus A Mercy is my winner. It begs to be read again and again. It hurts, and yet how much more could it, were it not protected by beautiful, carefully assembled language? Point: A Mercy

Jonathan Eig: Piazza based one of his protagonists on my friend Michael Tisserand, the former editor of New Orleans’s Gambit Weekly. (After the hurricane, Tisserand wrote a lovely little book called Sugarcane Academy, which I heartily recommend.) Despite the heavy doses of reality in City of Refuge, I had no difficulty reading it as fiction. Yet while I liked it, I didn’t love it. I was moved, but never fully swept away. I thought another Katrina novel, The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke, was better. So even though I picked A Mercy over The Dart League King by a slender margin in the opening round, I am pleased and proud to vote for Toni Morrison one more time. She’s written a beautiful, brutal, haunting book that people will be reading for hundreds of years. Point: A Mercy

Monica Ali: This was no contest for me as A Mercy left me strangely unmoved whereas City of Refuge gave me everything I want in a novel. It paints on a big canvas in the most vivid detail, it’s passionate and yet restrained, and it tells a story that needs to be heard. Point: City of Refuge

Anthony Doerr: I’m awfully glad I read City of Refuge. It reminded me of New Orleans’s suffering, rekindled my anger, and beautifully dramatized the dilemmas of folks who had to decide whether or not to return to a damaged city. But this is supposedly a literary smackdown, and A Mercy is my kind of book: slippery, difficult, dense, and beautifully composed. Which book is the greater achievement? In other words, which novel would I read twice? Point: A Mercy

Mary Roach
: Morrison wins, even though the last six pages of her book have, through some tragic editing decision or printing snafu, appeared as the first six pages, forcing you to begin the book in a state of deep confusion and irritation. By page 30, however, you are over it. You’re under her spell. Writing like this is beyond the grasp of mortal authors. Piazza is excellent but mortal. Point: A Mercy

Jonah Lehrer: There is an immense multiplicative power in reading these two novels back-to-back. Taken together, they frame a sad arc for America, from the 17th-century slave trade to Katrina. While both fictions are powerful demonstrations of why we need fiction—to hear the individual inside the roar of history—it was the voice of Florens, the young plantation girl in A Mercy, that I couldn’t shake. Her visceral metaphors, so childish yet wise, are still following me around. Point: A Mercy

Kate Schlegel: I was given A Mercy as a Christmas gift and read it in a day and a half, so when I found it was facing off against City of Refuge, in my mind the newcomer was at a disadvantage. But Piazza’s book is just the kind I love: the true(ish) tale of people facing adversity and using their own resources to triumph. Gripping, disturbing, terrifying—I loved every moment of it. Point: City of Refuge

Brockman: Frankly, I’m baffled by all the ToB love shown to City of Refuge. Yes, the book gets interesting when Hurricane Katrina hits, but countless documentaries and nonfiction books have given us real stories that were far more compelling. Piazza’s bland characters are riddled with clichés and cultural stereotypes, and his “authentic” African-American dialogue veers uncomfortably close to Ebonics. I wish Richard Price had written it instead. Meanwhile, A Mercy is a stirring and haunting novel whose depth belies its brevity. Point: A Mercy

FINAL: City of Refuge (6), A Mercy (11)

Today’s WINNER

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

About the Judge

Amanda Hesser has been a food columnist and editor at the New York Times for more than a decade. She has written two award-winning books, The Cook and the Gardener and Cooking for Mr. Latte, and edited the recently published collection of food essays, Eat, Memory. Her next book will be a compilation of recipes from the New York Times going back to the 1850s. Hesser is also a founder of She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Tad Friend, and their two children. Known connections to this year’s contenders: I know Peter Matthiessen.

From the Booth

It’s a little like complaining that the solution to today’s Sudoku doesn’t require calculus. Kevin John If the ToB does nothing else, it demonstrates the passion out there for books. Now we just need to spread the word, people.
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