2018 Tournament of Books: The Longlist

The last few days have . . . not been my favorite news cycle of all time. The Al Franken news has put me in mind of an old Henry Kissinger quote: “Politicians are like dogs. Their life expectancy is too short for a commitment to be bearable.” Dammit! I got attached again!

But luckily it’s that most wonderful time of the year and even the most depressing political stories can’t keep me down in this most joyous of seasons. No, I don’t mean the annual Thanksgiving/Chanukah/Christmas circus; that just stresses me out. I mean that the Tournament of Books just announced its 2018 longlist, a reminder to us all that blue skies and good book conversations await us once we make it past the winter.

I am not going to link to all 72 books (which is actually about fifty books fewer than last year’s). It’s a happily diverse list: nearly evenly split between male and female writers, and my impression based on names and subject matter is that there is a lot of ethnic diversity as well. Also of note: three short story collections made the cut, and I am crossing my fingers that at least one of them ends up in the tournament. I’ve read sixteen of these novels already, and although there are some I’m not absolutely dying to revisit I think all of them will give us a lot to talk about. The other 56 all look interesting and I didn’t see anything (with the possible exception of the Laurent Binet novel billed as a “madcap secret history of the French intelligentsia”) that I absolutely did not want to read.

This year’s notable omissions are Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1, Daniel Alarcón’s The King Is Always Above the People, and most shockingly of all, Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling. The Tallent novel strikes me as a real loss to the tournament; I am reading it now and I was already imagining the, ah, animated discussions it was going to provoke. Joyce Carol Oates’s A Book of American Martyrs isn’t here either, and although that doesn’t surprise me (Oates isn’t a very ToB-y writer, somehow, and it’s quite a long novel) I do think it would have a great book to discuss.

The themes this year appear to be apocalyptic political fiction (I can’t help but wonder if all of these writers got inspired and wrote a novel the week after the 2016 election results, or if they just saw the political winds blowing ahead of time?) and suspense. So many of these books, based on their descriptions, seem to feature dark, nervous forebodings and the sense that there is more going on than appears on the surface. Which, of course, is very much what it feels like to live in the United States in 2017. I blame Trump for this national feeling of unease, but then I also blame Trump for the leak in my dishwasher.

Now to the fun part: predictions! Let me preface this with the disclaimer that I am terrible at predictions and always get them wrong. Primarily because I choose with my heart rather than with my head. But here we go, unseeded and in no particular order:

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  1. Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin. (This won the summer series so it is definitely in.)
  2. White Tears, Hari Kunzru.
  3. Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders. (This won the Booker this year.)
  4. Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward. (And this won the National Book Award.)
  5. Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan. (I am reading this now, and I am in love.)
  6. The Leavers, Lisa Ko. (One of the best books I’ve read this year.)
  7. Idaho, Emily Ruskovich.
  8. The Dark Dark, Samantha Hunt.
  9. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid.
  10. Dear Cyborgs, Eugene Lim.
  11. Autumn, Ali Smith. (Because I am counting on the Tournament of Books judges to right the wrong done by the Booker committee. No, I still haven’t read Lincoln in the Bardo, why do you ask?)
  12. All Our Wrong Todays, Elan Mastai.
  13. Universal Harvester, John Darnielle.
  14. So Much Blue, Percival Everett.
  15. Smile, Roddy Doyle.

Play-in round (Mysterious Disappearances):

The actual tournament entries will be revealed on January 3, and then the real fun begins in March. I can’t wait. Dear Tournament of Books, please promise me you will live forever. I am more attached to you than I was to Al Franken.

The Best Thing I Read This Week

My Absolute Darling“You’ve ruined it,” she says.
“Ruined it?” he says, hurt. “No, that’s just because—No, kibble, this is a hell of a lot better than whatever edge Grandpa put on there. That grindstone, it’ll put a perfect edge on that blade, a hundred microscopic serrations, that’s what really gives the blade a cutting edge. The razor edge you had on before, that’s just the vanity of patient men—that’s no good for the real activity of cutting, kibble, which is to saw through things. A mirror polish like that—that’s only good for a push cut, you know what that is, kibble?”
Turtle knows what a push cut is, but Martin can’t resist.
He says, “A push cut, kibble, is the simplest kind of cut, when you lay the knife down on a steak and press without drawing the blad across it. That, what you had before, was a glorified straight razor. In life, you drag a blade across something. That’s the business of cutting, kibble, a rough edge. That mirror polish is meant to distract from the knife’s purpose with its beauty. Do you see— Do you see—? That razor edge, it is a beautiful thing, but a knife is not meant to be a beautiful thing. This knife is for slitting throats, and for that you want the microscopic serrations you get from a rough grindstone. You’ll see. With that cutting edge on there, that thing will open flesh like it was butter. Are you sad that I took your illusion away? That edge was a shadow on the wall, kibble. You have to stop being distracted by shadows.”

My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent

The Best Thing I Read This Week

The Leavers

Snow melted. Pink buds appeared on the trees. One night Leon and Vivian spoke in the kitchen but when Deming walked in, they stopped and looked at each other. That week, Deming and Michael packed away their winter coats and took out their T-shirts. Deming saw his mother’s spring jacket in the closet, the one she called her Christmas coat because the green was the color of pine needles, and turned away fast. He apologized to Travis Bhopa in hope that it would set thing right, that by sacrificing his pride it would guarantee her safety. “Are you crazy?” Hung said, and Michael looked like Deming had tripped him instead. Travis grunted, “Whatever.” She stayed gone. The worse he felt, the more it would make her return. He decided to not eat for a day, which wasn’t hard as Vivian and Leon were always out and dinner was a bag of potato chips, a cup of instant ramen. Bodega pizza four times a week. Now she would have to come home. He fell asleep in school, lightheaded from skipping breakfast. She would take him out for enchiladas but be glad he lost weight because she would n’t have to buy him new clothes. She stayed gone. If he cracked an A in Geometry, she would come back. He pulled a B-minus on a quiz and doubled down for the next one–B-plus. She stayed gone. Vivian was right. She’d left for Florida and left him, too.

— Lisa Ko, The Leavers

Yes, You Should Blame Roy Moore Voters For Sticking With Him

It’s Saturday, which is supposed to be the day I bask in the joy of all the awesome things I’ve read over the past week. But the Roy Moore scandal happened, and the sound of a thousand conservative voices defending Roy Moore have pissed me off, so here we are.

But I don’t really want to talk about Roy Moore. I want to talk about Erick Erickson, or more broadly, the bizarre persecution complex that so many conservatives seem to have.

(Before I launch into my screed, by the way, I want to acknowledge a couple of things. First, although there are a lot of conservatives–particularly in Alabama–either arguing that the 34 witnesses in the Washington Post story are lying or proclaiming that, hey, child molestation isn’t that bad, many conservatives are also insisting the Moore leave the race: I think John McCain was the first, but there have been others. Secondly, I haven’t checked the Weekly Standard, but the National Review has pretty consistently been on the side of morality and human decency. And Erickson’s own site has also argued that Moore’s behavior with teenagers is unacceptable. So consider this your #NotAllRepublicans caveat.)

The article I really want to talk about is Erickson’s “I Don’t Blame Roy Moore Voters For Sticking With Him.” The very title of this article simply infuriates me. Even if I sympathized with Erickson’s persecution complex, this would be an absolutely ridiculous stance. Feeling left out of the national zeitgeist is not an excuse for defending child molestation! It just isn’t, full stop. The two things are not parallel.

Further, how badly treated can he and his fellow conservatives really be? They hold both houses of Congress. They hold the Presidency, insofar as Trump has any grasp on a political philosophy. They hold 34 of 50 governorships (about to go down to 32, yes, when the new governors of New Jersey and Virginia take office, but that is still a pretty hefty advantage). And they control 32 of 50 state legislatures. And they have plenty of control over media outlets: Fox News and Breitbart are the best known, but the notoriously conservative Sinclair Broadcasting controls 173 local stations in almost 80 markets, and this number is due to go up to 233 soon. So just looking at the raw numbers, it’s difficult to take this claim seriously.

But let’s examine Erickson’s argument a little more closely. Here is Erickson’s evidence: a “militant atheist” committed a shooting in Texas. Now I’m not sure if he is holding all progressives everywhere responsible for this shooting, but the shooter seems not to have been motivated by an animus toward religion but rather by a dispute with his ex-wife’s family. Also, he seems to have had long-standing mental issues. But I’m going to assume that Erickson wasn’t using this single incident in a small town as an example of how conservatives in general are mistreated by progressives, because I think he’s surely smarter than that. Erickson also claims people on social media said that the congregants “got what they deserved.” Really, Mr. Erickson? I follow approximately seventeen million people on Twitter, and most of them are progressives, and I never saw anything remotely like that. And when I Googled “Texas church shooting deserved it,” the first entry was an article from a reporter at the Dallas News expressing chagrin for the way the media had descended on the town, and none of the other search results had anything to do with the victims deserving it. Did someone somewhere say something stupid? There are more than 300 million people in the United States, so probably. But it certainly wasn’t a general sentiment. Most of the commentary I saw was horror at how many children were involved. Erickson also says something news stories about “chainsaws attached to machine guns,” which I admit I never saw and don’t understand. Googling that got me a bunch of how-to videos on YouTube that I have no desire to explore. Moving on.

The next claim is that “a Muslim ran over a bunch of people in New York” (true, although I don’t think he was a progressive) while “Democrats were patting themselves on the back for showing Trump voters running over muslim [sic] kids on television.” Again I did not comprehend what Erickson was talking about so I turned to Google. (Nota bene, Mr Erickson: linking to your examples makes it much easier to follow your argument.) This time the first four entries were to Erickson’s own site and his Twitter account, but I did finally hit pay dirt: this was a Latino Victory Fund ad attacking the Republican candidate for governor, Ed Gillespie. Important point: it was not run by “Democrats”; it was run by an independent progressive group, who was forced to take it down after a backlash from pretty much everyone, including the Washington Post, which I’m sure Erickson considers a liberal rag. It is difficult to see this ad as part of a mainstream trend since the ad barely survived a weekend. Certainly I don’t think Erickson’s claim that “Democrats patted themselves on the back” for it holds up.

Let us not forget, by the way, that Gillespie himself ran ads attempting to tie his Democratic opponent to MS-13 and child pornography. If I were Erick Erickson I would use these ads to claim that the right is “out to get” the progressives in the country and it is therefore justifiable for me to defend child molestation. (I’m sorry, I’m still not following the steps of that argument very well. Also it’s not clear why I would want the right to defend child molestation. I am happy to say I am solidly against child molestation.) I’m not Erick Erickson, so I will just chalk it up to Ed Gillespie trying to win an election.

Next: Erickson brings up the CBS lawyer who made fun of the victims in Las Vegas. At last! A story prominent enough that I remember it and do not need to Google! That happened. That was horrible. Everyone I knew thought it was horrible. Which is why the woman was summarily fired. Again, there are more than 300 million people in this country. You cannot hold the progressive movement as a whole responsible for every gross, awful thing that someone says on Twitter. You seem like a smart man, Mr. Erickson. Do you want me to hold you responsible for everything Sean Hannity says? I bet you don’t. While we’re on the subject, Sean Hannity has spent the last several days essentially calling Roy Moore’s victims liars. Guess what? Unlike the CBS lawyer, Sean Hannity still has his high-paying job. (Oh, and to Erickson’s point about a national media “complicit” with progressives? Where did I learn about that CBS lawyer? Oh, yeah, the national media. Whereas all the anchors on Fox News tend to stare at their shoes and mumble when, for instance, the president’s former campaign manager is charged with conspiracy against the United States. I’m just saying.)

Erickson’s list goes on and on: it’s not fair that gay people are suing bakers and florists. It’s not fair that trans people have the audacity to live in the world. It’s not fair that the left wants to revoke the tax-exempt status of churches. (Erickson’s assumption that all religious organizations are his particular stripe of conservatism is interesting. I belong to a synagogue full of liberals, and it would also lose its tax-exempt status. Lots of churches are also progressive.) None of these things are aimed at conservatives! That is to say, gay people, trans people, progressives in general do not wake up in the morning and think, “How can I screw over the Religious Right today?” Making room for people who are not cis or heterosexual or white or Christian to fully exist in the world may be inconvenient, but it is not an attack. It’s not about Christian conservatives at all.

Here’s what Erickson concludes from all this: “I don’t blame the Roy Moore voters for thinking people are out to get them because people really are out to get them.” I do not think that conclusion follows from the evidence. Some isolated apparent liberals said some dumb things on social media, true. Guess what? There are some conservatives who say some really dumb, offensive things on social media. It’s not reasonable to assume that outliers represent an entire movement on either the left or the right.

But more importantly, progressive policies are not weapons aimed at conservative Christianity. Gay people don’t want the right to adopt children or get married because they are “out to get” Erickson and his friends; they want these rights because they want to be acknowledged as full members of society. Similarly, people who argue for gun control aren’t trying to take your toys away just to be mean; they are legitimately concerned about violence in society. They aren’t pretending; this isn’t some anti-Christian-conservative agenda. This is true of every issue that progressives care about: we (like you, I assume, Mr. Erickson) want the country to be the best country it can be. We may disagree with you on how to achieve that goal. But we don’t hate you and we aren’t trying to hurt you. It’s just that Christian conservatives aren’t the center of the world, and they aren’t the only people in the country whose needs have to be accommodated, no matter how much you want to believe that they are. That’s not an attack. That’s just a fact.

And no, Mr. Erickson, since apparently it must be said, facing disagreement, no matter how vigorous, does not entitle Roy Moore voters to defend child molestation.

Reading the News: The Civil War

So this week the White House chief of staff, in an apparent attempt to distract the nation from the fact that the president’s former campaign chairman had just been indicted for conspiracy against the United States, decided to speculate on the causes of the Civil War: namely, that the Civil War had arisen from a national failure to compromise. Oh my God, General Kelly, take a damn history class. Failing that, please read the books on this list.

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  • Property, by Valerie Martin. Among other things, this novel is a master class in inhabiting the voice of an unlikable character. Manon is a plantation owner’s wife who detests her slaves despite (and also because of) the fact that her husband treats them terribly. It can’t have been easy for Martin to write such an unsympathetic character, and Manon comes across as a real human being, if a terrible one. Why is Property on this particular list? Well, partly because Valerie Martin doesn’t get enough attention; but mostly because I think fiction can bring home the inhumanity of slavery in a way that a dispassionate history can’t.
  • The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. Chances are you’ve already read this book — it was the big literary novel of 2016. But it’s an important book because Whitehead forces the reader to confront the real brutalities of slavery. Yes, it’s fiction; but let’s remember that Whitehead drew his novels’s scenes from actual recorded incidents. Every time I thought, oh, this one can’t be real, a little digging revealed that it was an actual thing that had happened.
  • The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed. A brilliant, meticulously researched history of Sally Hemings and her children by Thomas Jefferson. Long, but every word is worth reading. It’s a chronicle of one family that again illuminates what a peculiar and dehumanizing institution slavery really was.
  • Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union, by Robert V. Remini. And now we turn from the evil institution that Kelly thinks we should have been compromising over, to the man who came up with a lot of the compromises. Henry Clay, literally known as the “Great Pacificator” for his ingenuity in keeping the North and South together. A fascinating account of his life and career as well as a window into the tumultuous years before the Civil War; it’s more accessible than you think it is.
  • President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, by William Lee Miller. At last, a book that is actually about the Civil War: specifically about the battle that Lincoln waged in his own soul between pragmatism and idealism. A fascinating look at the politics and, yes, the compromises of the Civil War.

The Best Thing I Read This Week

Between the World and Me

Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams, their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerability becomes real — when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities — they are shocked in a way that those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Reading the News: The Kennedys

That’s right, I’m studiously ignoring the elephant in the room to bring you five books that concern the Kennedy assassination. (If you do not already know, the president is eager to tell you that the Kennedy files were released this week on his watch. Pay no attention to the fact that this release was scheduled back in 1992; Donald J. Trump presided over their 2017 release and that is all that matters.) There’s no question that Americans have been fascinated by the assassination for years, and you can make an argument that there’s a straight line connecting the conspiracy theories that surround Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby to today’s Birthers and fake news purveyors.

At any rate, I cannot resist an opportunity to recommend Adam Braver. (Please, people, read more Adam Braver.)

So here we go. Five books to read when considering the Kennedy assassination:

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  • The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw. If you want to start from the very beginning, start with this biography of JFK’s father, and concentrate on the way he raised his children. It gives you real insight into JFK’s character to learn more about where he came from.
  • President Kennedy: Profile of Power, by Richard Reeves. There isn’t a lot of dirt here, but it is a closely detailed look at the Kennedy presidency, which is truly fascinating if you want to look past the mythology and learn more about what kind of president John F. Kennedy really was.
  • November 22, 1963, by Adam Braver. An impressionistic, fictional take on the day that Kennedy was shot, told from many different perspectives. The theme here is memory and history and their relationship. Brilliantly done. It’s a shame this book isn’t better known.
  • Libra, by Don DeLillo. A well-known fictionalized account of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life, possibly DeLillo’s best novel. I confess I haven’t read it since grad school, but it strikes me that DeLillo’s conspiratorial sensibility is an amazingly good match for our current time.
  • Lincoln in American Memory, by Merrill D. Peterson. OK, so this book isn’t actually about Kennedy. It is, however, about how Americans turn fallen presidents into cultural icons and so I think it speaks to the way we remember Kennedy today.