The Best Reads from the Tournament of Books

March is here, which means bracket madness has descended on the United States. For me, the only bracket that matters is The Tournament of Books, an annual book smackdown hosted by The Morning News. I’ve discovered so many great reads from this competition, and I’ve cheered along with the books I loved going in. You never know what’s going to happen since personal taste among the judges can be wildly varied–and the zombie round (in which the two eliminated books that earned the most votes pre-competition are allowed to return for one last shot at the finale–think Top Chef‘s Last Chance Kitchen but with zombie books) has thrown more than a few curveballs.

For this list’s sake, I’m sticking to books that I discovered because of the ToB, which means I can’t talk about books I loved going in like Homegoing, All the Light We Cannot See, or The Underground Railroad.

Great Books from the ToB

The Good Lord Bird, James McBride (2014 champion)

This fictional take on John Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry, which helped spark the Civil War, manages to be sharply funny despite its subject matter. It follows a young slave boy who is mistaken for a girl by John Brown, and who must keep up that ruse in order to survive. McBride uses this farcical setup to make really astute points about how slaves routinely lived lies in order to survive and how a person can’t ever know who they really are under these circumstances.

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

I had certainly heard of this book before it competed in the ToB, but I was reluctant to read it since I had thought Tenth of December was disappointing. Reading the judgments on it in the ToB changed my mind, and I’m glad I read it. This novel won the Man Booker Prize but lost the ToB in a shocking upset from…

Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin (2018 champion)

… this surreal novella about a dying mother’s love for her child. I’ve already talked about this novella a lot, so I’ll be brief about it here. You can read my full review for more.

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

I had actually read Homegoing long before the ToB, but I’m including it here because I feel like it deserves justice after the harsh treatment it got in the final round. It was up against The Underground Railroad, so it was always destined to lose, but the judges criticized its structure. You see, Homegoing is a multigenerational saga beginning with two sisters in Africa. One is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the United States while the other remains in Africa. Subsequent chapters tell the stories of the generations of their family that follow up to the present day. Judges said the setup makes Homegoing feel like a short story collection, and it’s hard to take a short story collection seriously because if one story doesn’t hold up to the quality of the others, the whole thing comes crashing down. I’ve heard this argument repeated and it makes me so irritated. We are so willing to forgive novels that have flaws but a story collection needs to be perfect? Just stop.

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozecki

Take this, for example. This chunky novel tells two different stories. There’s Ruth, who lives on an island on the Pacific edge of North America. Ruth finds a lot of Japanese objects washing up on the beach and believes they may have washed across the ocean from a tsunami that hit Japan. These objects tie her to the story of Nao, a depressed and lonely teenager living in Japan and contemplating suicide. It’s an ambitious novel with some deep flaws that is nevertheless deeply humane and affecting. And because the overall impression is good, I don’t hold those flaws against it.

The Turner House, Angela Flournoy

The Turners have lived on Yarrow Street in Detroit for fifty years now. They raised thirteen children there and survived many hardships. But now their patriarch is gone, their matriarch is not well, and the house is worth only a tenth of its mortgage. The Turner children (grown and with children of their own now) must decide what to do, but each Turner has their own motive, their own history to cling to or let go of, and their own future to face up to. On the surface, it would be easy to read (perhaps even to dismiss) The Turner House as a simple family saga. To do so would be to miss the point entirely, and to miss an incredibly layered portrait of America, Detroit, racial politics, and more.

The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanigahara

Thanks to the ToB, I knew about Hanya Yanigahara before A Little Life was published–because if I had read A Little Life first, I never would have picked up this gem of a novel about an anthropologist and his, um, affairs living among a tribe. It asks profound questions about cultural appropriation, colonialism, and how the foibles crimes of celebrated people are frequently overlooked.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt (2012 champion)

This violent western tells the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two guns for hire in an old west on the brink of transition as the industrial age gets underway. This book reads like a rampage and is makes pin-sharp observations about family, redemption, and society.

Still on My TBR

The End of Eddy, Edouard Louis

This book was not actually beloved by the judges in the ToB (it was eliminated in the second round), but it sounded right in my wheelhouse, so I’ve had it on my TBR ever since. It’s a French coming of age story in which the title character stands in for the author as he grows up gay in a French factory town that wants him to be tough.

An Untamed State, Roxanne Gay

In the 2015 tournament, this and A Brief History of Seven Killings both made improbable runs through the brackets to the zombie round, where both books were defeated by the books everyone would have expected to be the finalists on day one: Station Eleven and All the Light We Cannot See. As much as I love All the Light We Cannot See, this was a cruel turn of events and actually made me angry. Watching an underdog like this book make a run at victory had been thrilling. And although it sounds like a brutal read, I would like to get to it.

The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson (2013 champion)

The ToB happens before the Pulitzer Prizes are announced in April, so it introduced me to The Orphan Master’s Son shortly before it was announced as the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. This has been described as a thrilling read that thrusts the reader into the largely unknown country of North Korea.

The Tournament of Books

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