commentary by KEVIN GUILFOILE & JOHN WARNER
Kevin: John, I loved these booksthey were both among my four favorites in the tourneyand Mary’s analysis of them is right on. Like her, I did at times wonder why Lahiri didn’t reformat Unaccustomed Earth into a novel to turn the repetitive nature of the stories into an assetI suppose there are second-generation Indian-Americans who haven’t married non-Bengalis and who aren’t engaged in a quiet, cross-generational cultural war with their parents, although you won’t find them herebut it’s not fair to penalize Lahiri for writing a different book than I wanted her to. These stories are beautifully written and crafted with tremendous care and skill. I almost certainly never would have read these stories if it weren’t for the ToB, and I’m so glad I did.
On the other hand, I’m not sure if I can remember a novel that so changed my perception of an event I thought I understood as much as City of Refuge has changed my grasp of Katrina. I love New Orleans and have been there many times and I thought I had absorbed the scope of what happened, but Piazza made me realize I didn’t. He personalized the tragedy in a way that moved me deeply.
Piazza sometimes interrupts his narrative with pieces of information that the characters couldn’t havestatistics and examples of government incompetence and descriptions of what people in other cities were watching on televisionand when I was reading I was a bit put off by all that. I think it was supposed to make the story more real by imitating the style of narrative non-fiction, but it did the opposite for me. It kept taking me out of these characters’ lives and reminding me that, while real people lived the same tragedy, these particular people didn’t. I wanted their fear and confusion to be my fear and confusion. I still loved the novel, but in my personal ranking of the ToB’s books, I initially had it somewhere in the upper middle of the pack.
As days and weeks passed, however, I realized how much I had been moved by City of Refuge and my estimation of it rose considerablyI had turned a minor complaint into a major one. In a short while I had forgotten all about Piazza’s accounting of empty FEMA trailers and the only thing that remained were indelible portraits of two families, real to me, whose lives had been changed forever by the rain.
It would kill me to have to be the one to send Lahiri home after the first round (although you have to assume she probably fared well in reader voting and has a chance to come back in the Zombie round), but I can’t argue with Judge Roach. There’s a possibility that, 100 years from now, the images of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath will be informed in large part by this book. It’s that good.
John: I can’t say it better than Mary Roach, Jhumpa Lahiri has some sort of writerly superpower. The stories in Unaccustomed Earth are immediately and consistently absorbing, and as I read them, I felt a tell-tale rumble in my solar-plexus that tells me that the writer has plugged into something (again in the words of Judge Roach) truthfully rendered. It’s hard for me to express the depths of my admiration for this work. Mostly it makes me envious, in that I recognize I’ll never write anything this good. Reading these stories makes me want to try harder to get better and/or quit writing altogether.
There is not a dud in the bunch. It’s easily one of my favorite reads of the tourney, one of the books that I’ve eagerly recommended to a wide range of readers. After finishing it, I couldn’t imagine that whatever book it was to be paired against could beat it.
And yet, City of Refuge comes out on top. I’ll have to take yours and Mary Roach’s words on that since, due to the frankly, totally fucked-up nature of the book business, I could not acquire a copy of the book in order to read it.
OK, that’s something of an exaggeration, but consider my experience in trying to buy this book. City of Refuge was first published in hardback in August 2008. By the time I received the initial list of ToB contestants in late December 2008 (well-ahead of the public release) the book had already worn out its welcome on the shelves of bookstores. I checked four different Barnes & Nobles in two different cities (both below the Mason Dixon Line) as well as three independent bookstores, and none of them stocked the book. All of them were willing to order it for me, of course, but only if I was willing to pay the full price of $24.95. Amazon and Powell’s, bless them, had it in stock, and at discounted prices, but I’d already acquired several other tournament contestants and even though the subject matter of City of Refuge intrigued me more than some of the other titles, I put in on the back burner, hoping that perhaps the paperback edition would make its way into stores in the meantime.
But no, the paperback of City of Refuge isn’t scheduled for release until August of this year, a full 12 months after the hardcover release, and probably nine months since the book largely became unavailable for purchase outside of special order or the internet.
Publishing treats books like they’re the McRib or Shamrock Shake, available for a limited time only before mothballing them. Anyone who is following the tournament and is now intrigued by the book will not run across it in most stores. I’m sure Tom Piazza appreciates all the attention, but it isn’t going to do his sales any good if there’s nothing to buy. Many people have gone on and on about how stupid this strategy is, but it doesn’t really hit home until one of the (apparently) best books of the year can’t be purchased in a bookstore outside of an initial three-month window. Is there any other industry that treats their product this way?
Fortunately, help is on the horizon. For Christmas, my wife wanted a Kindle. It arrived a couple of weeks ago. After breaking it out of the package, I downloaded a copy of City of Refuge to the device in all of 15 seconds. Thanks to the new Apple Store Kindle App, (which shot to the no. 1 book app and no. 3 free app overall one day after its release) I can also read it on my iPod Touch. It cost $9.99, half of even the discounted hardcover available through Amazon, 70 percent less than the full hardcover price, and five bucks cheaper as the not-yet-existent paperback. I’m hoping to have it read by the time it meets Harry, Revised in the second round.
You say you want a revolution