Please note: The 2016 Tournament of Books short list found below is based on our previously released “long list.” Also, you can check out all of our Rooster coverage over here, browse previous tournaments at the official ToB website, or support some of our tremendous sponsors like Field Notes and Powell’s, who make this whole thing possible. Thanks!
Twelve years we’ve done this silly thing. Twelve years, a bunch of works of fiction are read, compared, discussed. Twelve years, judges judge, commentators comment, readers cry, scream, rage, celebrate, fulminate, call each other names and worse things, and send us hate mail. Twelve years, people also come up to us in April and tell us it was the most fun they’d had all year long, at least when it came to contemporary fiction.
Twelve years, we say up-front: Our event is stupid. Stupid. Books aren’t basketball players. Stories don’t care about other stories. Awards for art are intrinsically political, fussy, inevitably crass. Which is sort of why ours is a rooster, named after David Sedaris’s brother: because it’s barely an award at all. Maybe it’s an anti-award? What we’ve figured out in 12 years is that the Tournament of Books (ToB), for all the silly times we’ll mention “bloodsport” between now and April, is actually less an award or event, more a long heated chat about books and reading and writing, and what makes literature good or bad or something in between.
Before we go further, let’s point out that none of this would be possible without the generous support of Field Notes, our longtime presenting sponsor. They make great pocket notebooks and other things that we use and love, and they’ve been a steadfast friend of the ToB for many years.
Our great thanks also go out to our book sponsor Powell’s, the legendary independent bookseller from Portland, Ore., likewise a longtime Rooster fan.
Below you’ll find a list of 17 books, and a bunch of judges who will read them and, come March, discuss them at length. Also a couple new features. The books represent, we believe, some of the finest fiction published last year (in English, mostly in America). These books derive from our long list, previously released, as well as some recommendations and ideas that were sent in by TMN readers.
But to reach this short list, we had to exclude dozens, if not hundreds of titles that easily could have made the cut. So our list is no “best of the year” list. It’s simply a small amount of very good, interesting books, culled from a sea of many very good, interesting books likewise released in 2015.
If you haven’t followed the ToB before, here’s the summary: Starting in early March and proceeding each weekday, one of our judges—the full list is below—will read two books, choose one to advance, and explain how they reached their decision. The criteria is entirely personal; we merely ask for no basketball metaphors, and that the judge render their decision-making process in full transparency, and also tell you any connections they might have to the authors and/or books involved. Then our commentators, Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, weigh in, followed by the wonderful community of readers that turn the comments section into one of the smarter, more interesting discussions of contemporary fiction that we know about.
Now, before the lists, three things. First: We’re doing a play-in match again this year. Meaning two books will face off to see which one makes it into the ToB. Because we noticed this past year that two major names were published whose books had never been in the tournament before. Terrific. However, since today is supposedly “the golden age of television,” not hardcover fiction, we asked three writers from one of our favorite shows, Bob’s Burgers, to act as gatekeepers.
Second: Each round, one match’s commentary will be handled by an outside party in lieu of Kevin and John. Namely, the hosts of some of our favorite literary podcasts, who’ve generously agreed to dish here for us all.
Third: We need your Zombie vote. Now, or at least before midnight, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. (Update: Voting is now closed.) If this sounds confusing, here’s a rundown. From the play-in match to the eight opening round matches to the four quarterfinal matches through the two semifinal matches, the original field of 16 books is whittled down to two. However, before those books enter the final, championship match, they must go through the “Zombie Round,” which brings back two books that were eliminated previously during gameplay. As to which books return, it’s determined by a popularity vote. So please vote soon.
For 12 years, we’ve done this silly, moronic, informative, all-consuming, fascinating, weirdly fun thing. So have many of you. Let’s do it again.
The Shortlist for The Morning News 2016 Tournament of Books
We get a cut from any purchases made through the links below. Book descriptions are excerpted from publishers’ summaries and edited for length.
The New World by Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz
Jorie has just received some terrible news. A phone full of missed calls and sympathetic text messages seem to indicate that her husband, Jim is dead. Only, not quite—rather, his head has been removed from his body and cryogenically frozen. Jim awakes to find himself in an altogether unique situation, to say the least.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.”
Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson
In 1843, fragile naturalist Zadock Thomas must leave his beloved in Chicago to deliver a secret letter to an infamous general on the front lines of the war over Texas. The fate of the volatile republic, along with Zadock’s future, depends on his mission. When a cloud of bats leads him off the trail, he happens upon something impossible…
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
The Turners have lived on Yarrow Street for over 50 years. Their house has seen 13 children grown and gone—and some returned; it has seen the arrival of grandchildren, the fall of Detroit’s East Side, and the loss of a father. But now, as ailing matriarch Viola finds herself forced to leave her home and move in with her eldest son, the family discovers that the house is worth just a tenth of its mortgage. The Turner children are called home to decide its fate and to reckon with how each of their pasts haunts—and shapes—their family’s future.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At age 22, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed.
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Addie Moore pays an unexpected visit to a neighbor, Louis Waters. Her husband died years ago, as did his wife, and in such a small town they naturally have long been aware of each other. What Addie has come to ask—since she and Louis have been living alone for so long in houses now empty of family, and the nights are so terribly lonely—is whether he might be willing to spend them with her, in her bed, so they can have someone to talk with.
Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil
Ban en Banlieue follows a brown (black) girl as she walks home from school in the first moments of a riot. By the end of the night, Ban moves into an incarnate and untethered presence, becoming all matter— soot, meat, diesel oil and force—as she loops the city with the energy of global weather.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli
Highway is a late-in-life world traveller, yarn spinner, collector, and legendary auctioneer. His most precious possessions are the teeth of the ‘notorious infamous’ like Plato, Petrarch, and Virginia Woolf.
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra
A 1930s Soviet censor painstakingly corrects offending photographs, deep underneath Leningrad, bewitched by the image of a disgraced prima ballerina. A chorus of women recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town. Two pairs of brothers share a fierce, protective love. Young men across the former USSR face violence at home and in the military. And great sacrifices are made in the name of an oil landscape unremarkable except for the almost incomprehensibly peaceful past it depicts.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong.
The Whites by Richard Price
Back in the mid-’90s, when Billy Graves worked in the South Bronx as part of an anti-crime unit known as the Wild Geese, he made headlines by accidentally shooting a 10-year-old boy while stopping an angel-dusted berserker. For the next 18 years Billy endured one dead-end posting after another. Now in his early forties, Billy is called to a 4:00 a.m. fatal slashing of a man in Penn Station. When he discovers the victim was once a suspect in an unsolved murder with connections to the former members of the Wild Geese, the bad old days are back in Billy’s life, tearing apart enduring friendships and even threatening the safety of his family.
Oreo by Fran Ross
Oreo is raised by her maternal grandparents in Philadelphia. Her black mother tours with a theatrical troupe, and her Jewish deadbeat dad disappeared when she was an infant, leaving behind a mysterious note that triggers her quest to find him. Our young hero navigates the labyrinth of sound studios and brothels and subway tunnels in Manhattan, seeking to claim her birthright while unwittingly experiencing and triggering a mythic journey of self-discovery.
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard
Aron is a young boy whose family is driven from the countryside into the Warsaw Ghetto. As his family is slowly stripped away from him, Aron and a handful of boys and girls risk their lives to keep their people alive, hunted all the while by blackmailers and by Jewish, Polish, and German police. Eventually Aron is “rescued” by Janusz Korczak, a Jewish-Polish doctor and advocate of children’s rights. In the end, he and his staff and all the children are put on a train to Treblinka, but has Aron managed to escape, to spread word about the atrocities, as Korczak hoped he would?
The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak
Cheryl has never really fit in with the other women in the seaside country club community of Little Neck Cove, Connecticut. Now, as she hits her mid-forties, she realizes that her husband is starting to lose interest in her, too. Her only solace is her morning walks along the beach’s nature trail, until a sudden act of violence accelerates her emotional tailspin.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted painter; Malcolm, an architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that will define his life.
ToB Play-in Match
Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving
As an older man, Juan Diego will take a trip to the Philippines, but what travels with him are his dreams and memories; he is most alive in his childhood and early adolescence in Mexico. The chain of events, the links in our lives—what leads us where we’re going, the courses we follow to our ends, what we don’t see coming and what we do—all this can be mysterious, or simply unseen, or even obvious.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
“It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon.” This is the way Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she fell in love with Red that day in July 1959. The whole family—their two daughters and two sons, their grandchildren, even their faithful old dog—is on the porch, listening contentedly as Abby tells the tale they have heard so many times before. And yet this gathering is different too: Abby and Red are growing older, and decisions must be made about how best to look after them, and the fate of the house so lovingly built by Red’s father.
Blake Bailey is the author of biographies of John Cheever, Richard Yates, and Charles Jackson, and he is working on the authorized biography of Philip Roth. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Francis Parkman Prize, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent book, The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait, was a finalist for the National Books Critics Circle Award.
Maria Bustillos is a journalist and critic based in Los Angeles. She has written on culture, politics, technology, and business for the New Yorker, Harper’s, the New York Times, The Awl, the Guardian, Bloomberg, etc. Her first published fiction appeared in the Paris Review earlier this year.
Jaime Green’s essays have appeared in The Awl, The Millions, American Theatre online, and elsewhere. She also hosts and produces The Catapult, a podcast of new writing read aloud.
Danielle Henderson is a new TV writer and old freelancer. She lives in the “not Brooklyn” part of New York City.
Brad Listi is the author of the novel Attention. Deficit. Disorder. and the founding editor of The Nervous Breakdown, an online culture magazine and literary community. He is also the host of Otherppl with Brad Listi, a weekly podcast featuring interviews with today’s leading writers. He lives in Los Angeles.
Liz Lopatto is the science editor at The Verge. Before that, she worked at Bloomberg News and before that, founded the Kenyon Review’s blog. Her interests include cats and space explosions.
Syreeta McFadden is a Brooklyn-based writer, photographer, and adjunct professor of English. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Guardian, BuzzFeed, NPR, The Nation and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine Union Station and a co-curator of the group Poets in Unexpected Places. She is currently working on collections of short stories and essays.
Lizzie Molyneux is a writer for the Emmy-winning animated Fox show, Bob’s Burgers, with her writing partner/sister Wendy. Her dog thinks she’s pretty great.
Wendy Molyneux, along with her sister Lizzie Molyneux, writes for the TV show Bob’s Burgers, for which she also voices the massively unpopular character Jen the Babysitter. She is also a frequent contributor to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and other humor sites, and has had several pieces included in the Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology series over the years.
Celeste Ng is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Everything I Never Told You. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, One Story, Gulf Coast, The Millions, and elsewhere, and has been awarded the Pushcart Prize. She earned an MFA from the University of Michigan and lives in Cambridge, Mass.
Kit Rachlis is a senior editor at California Sunday Magazine. He was editor-in-chief of the American Prospect, Los Angeles Magazine, and the LA Weekly, and executive editor of The Village Voice.
Doree Shafrir is a culture writer at BuzzFeed and the author of the forthcoming novel Startup (Little, Brown). She lives in Los Angeles.
Choire Sicha is a co-founder of The Awl, BookForum columnist, former Gawker editor, longtime TMN writer, and author of a book of nonfiction.
TMN 2016 Reader Judge John Taylor is a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he works on the inpatient consultation service in the emergency department, serves as assistant training director for the MGH/McLean residency, and is a project manager in behavioral health integration. He is also an instructor at Harvard Medical School. He lives in Cambridge, Mass.
Miriam Tuliao works for BookOps, the shared technical services organization of the Brooklyn Public Library and New York Public Library. She is a member of the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association and American Library Association.
Jeff VanderMeer’s most recent fiction is the New York Times bestselling Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance), which won the Nebula Award and Shirley Jackson Award, and made Entertainment Weekly’s list of the top 10 books of the year. Paramount Pictures/Scott Rudin Productions acquired the movie rights with Alex Garland set to direct. VanderMeer’s nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post, The Atlantic’s website, and the LA Times.
Daniel Wallace is the author of five novels. He directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Kelvin Yu is a writer currently working on the Fox animated series Bob’s Burgers. A Los Angeles native, Yu studied theater and communications at UCLA. He is also an actor whose credits include Milk, Star Trek, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and, most recently, Master of None.
Jess Zimmerman is a writer and editor who’s appeared in Hazlitt, the New Republic, the Guardian, The Hairpin, and others. The Toast once said she was “on fire” but it turned out she was fine. She lives in Brooklyn with all the other writers, and when not working spends most of her time aging, feeling terrible about aging, or frequently both.
Literary Podcast Commentators
Slate’s Audio Book Club is a monthly podcast on the books everyone is talking about. Hosted by Slate words correspondent Katy Waldman, it features a rotating cast of critics, including Dan Kois and Laura Miller, who join Katy as ToB guest commentators, as well as Parul Sehgal, Jamelle Bouie, Meghan O’Rourke, Hanna Rosin, and Emily Bazelon.
Books on the Nightstand is a weekly podcast about books and reading, hosted by Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman. Ann and Michael work for Penguin Random House, though the podcast is a labor of love and not part of their day jobs. Michael has converted Ann into a graphic novel reader, but Ann has so far failed in her efforts to get Michael to read Great Expectations. They tweet at @annkingman, @mkindness, and @BksOnNightstand.
The Book Report is a bi-weekly literary web series presented by The Millions, and hosted by book critics and friends Michael Schaub and Janet Potter. Schaub has written for NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times Book Review, Potter has written for the Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, and the A.V. Club, and they both really hated Dune by Frank Herbert. They tweet at @michaelschaub, @sojanetpotter, @bookreportshow, and @The_Millions.
Christopher Hermelin and Drew Broussard are co-hosts of the book podcast that celebrates reading, So Many Damn Books. Christopher is a literary agent and Drew is the Special Artistic Projects Associate at the Public Theater. They are both writers and readers, forever indebted to the ToB for sparking their real-life friendship.
Thank you again, and we’ll see you in March!