Morning Reading, May 17, 2018

This morning’s reading feels very Trump- and Mueller-centric, which I suppose makes sense given all of yesterday’s news:

  • In honor of the Mueller investigation’s one-year birthday, Politico profiles the FBI agents working on the Mueller probe:

    Mueller’s FBI crew appears to be a combination of agents who were already working aspects of the investigation before the former FBI director took over a year ago, either because of their expertise or their location, and a set of volunteers who jumped aboard or were invited to join as the special counsel staffed up.

    “The agents come two ways,” said Jeff Cramer, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago, now with Berkeley Research Group. “One is geographic. But, as you’re constructing your perfect investigative team, if you have your druthers and there’s agents you’ve worked with in the past, wherever they are in the country, on a case like this you do reach out and say, ‘Would you like to be involved in this?’”

  • The Weekly Standard also marks the Mueller probe’s anniversary–with an editorial calling for it to end swiftly:

    Special Counsel Mueller is everything we value in a public servant—honest, competent, utterly averse to partisan hackery. He has done valuable work, and—we repeat—the deputy attorney general was right to appoint him. But it has been a year of acrimony. If Donald Trump and his aides received help from the Russian government to win the election, Americans should know it and offenders should stand trial. If they did not, or if such a thing can’t be proved, Americans should be told that, too. The hour is late.

    One assumes the Weekly Standard‘s editorial board is beside themselves with outrage over the numerous and extended investigations into Benghazi.

  • Joan Walsh writes about Tuesday’s primary results in the Nation, touting the success of women and progressives:

    Of course, within the Beltway, where good news for Democrats is always turned into a “Dems in disarray” story line, all of this winning is being spun as… losing. “The far left is winning the Democratic civil war,” screamed The Washington Post on Wednesday morning. But none of the women who won US House nominations in Pennsylvania can be termed “far left.” Susan Wild is excoriated for attacking the anti-choice, anti-immigrant Morganelli, while the fact that she beat an actual Our Revolution candidate is ignored, since it doesn’t fit the narrative. Scott Wallace is attacked, essentially, for being Henry Wallace’s grandson, and for declaring after his victory: “Arise, ye children of starvation…” Just kidding. Wallace declared: “Together, we can make America sane again.” Is that really “far left” today? And sure, Nebraska’s Eastman is well to the left of Ashford—but Ashford already lost the same seat, to Republican Don Bacon in 2016. He sure doesn’t have a magic formula for victory.

    As I said yesterday, I’m skeptical that these are wins for progressives as much as they are losses for the conservative wing of the Democratic party. (As Walsh notes above, Susan Wild beat Bernie Sanders’s preferred candidate.) And I’m not at all sure the progressives who won in Nebraska and Idaho can win the general. But I do think these are encouraging signs for the long-term future of the Democratic party. (Also, I just love Joan Walsh, and I was really happy to see her font this morning.)

  • Finally, more on Israel in the New York Times, this from Matti Friedman. Friedman argues that the Palestinian casualties in the conflict with Israel are not always what they seem:

    At the end of 2008 I was a desk editor, a local hire in The Associated Press’s Jerusalem bureau, during the first serious round of violence in Gaza after Hamas took it over the year before. That conflict was grimly similar to the American campaign in Iraq, in which a modern military fought in crowded urban confines against fighters concealed among civilians. Hamas understood early that the civilian death toll was driving international outrage at Israel, and that this, not I.E.D.s or ambushes, was the most important weapon in its arsenal.

    Early in that war, I complied with Hamas censorship in the form of a threat to one of our Gaza reporters and cut a key detail from an article: that Hamas fighters were disguised as civilians and were being counted as civilians in the death toll. The bureau chief later wrote that printing the truth after the threat to the reporter would have meant “jeopardizing his life.” Nonetheless, we used that same casualty toll throughout the conflict and never mentioned the manipulation.

    Friedman’s basic point is that everything happening in Israel is complex, and the video of dying Palestinians tells only part of the story. It’s a fair point, but although he notes that “Israeli soldiers facing Gaza have no good choices,” he never acknowledges that the Palestinians also have only bad options. So in the end the piece feels unfinished and incomplete, as unfairly weighted against the Palestinians as he believes the bloody video is weighted against the Israelis.

Morning Reading, May 16, 2018

So when I checked the primary results this morning I was amused to discover these dueling takeaways: Politico says that “moderate Democrats took it on the chin,” while Slate proclaimed that “Democratic voters responded by playing it safe, picking a bevy of establishment-friendly candidates.” And both articles talk about some of the same races! I think the disconnect here is that the candidates Politico considers moderate (specifically John Morganelli in Pennsylvania’s 7th district and Rachel Reddick in Pennsylvania’s 1st) seem more conservative to me, almost in the mold of Joe Manchin or Joe Donnelly. Morganelli doesn’t support abortion rights, which puts him solidly outside the Democratic mainstream; and Reddick was a Republican not too long ago. The winners of these primaries (Susan Wild in the 7th district and Scott Wallace in the 1st) are progressive but more “establishment-friendly” than the Bernie Sanders crowd; in fact, Wild beat Sanders’s preferred candidate, Greg Edwards. So (somewhat to my surprise) I think Slate got this one more right than Politico did.

The most interesting result of the night, to my mind, was Paulette Jordan’s victory over A. J. Balukoff in the Idaho governor’s Democratic primary. Now here is a win that really is progressive over establishment: Balukoff had sewn up most of the Idaho Democratic establishment’s endorsements, while Jordan was endorsed by Cher and Khizr Khan. To a degree, the progressive vs. establishment divide is cosmetic: Balukoff and Jordan have strikingly similar policy positions. But she’s younger and female and, if elected, would be the nation’s first Native American governor; it’s hard not to think (or, maybe, hope) that she represents the future of the Democratic party and Balukoff the past.

Having said that, she’s almost certainly going to lose to Brad Little in November.

Other stories I read this morning:

  • In the New Republic, Eric Cortellessa argues that moving the American embassy to Jerusalem without extracting any concessions from Israel is only going to make peace negotiations more difficult than they already were:

    It is a foreign policy axiom that the U.S. is the only third party that can give both sides the kind of guarantees they need to make the compromises necessary: It’s why in the past, throughout the Oslo Peace Process, Israelis and Palestinians alike wanted American officials in the room for negotiations, not a delegation from the United Nations, not the European Union. Of course, only Israelis and Palestinians can ultimately cross the rubicon of peace, but the Palestinians now rejecting American leadership has far-reaching ramifications, effectively sidelining the only international actor that can facilitate a deal.

    This isn’t an original argument, I realize, but Cortellessa does a good job here of summing up the issues with the embassy move.

  • Marc Thiessen has a Washington Post op-ed that is both weird and dumb: Trump has had two “major foreign policy achievements” over the past week and Democrats are not giving him enough credit. The achievements? Bringing home three North Korea hostages, and moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

    I’m sorry, I found this piece completely infuriating. Granted, I am a Democrat and I recently blamed Trump for the leak in my dishwasher so I am not a disinterested observer. However, moving the embassy isn’t a diplomatic achievement; it’s something that any president could have done since 1995–including George W. Bush, the president for whom Thiessen worked. They all chose not to. Moving the embassy didn’t require any negotiation skills; it just required signing something. The reason the three earlier presidents didn’t do it wasn’t because they couldn’t but because it was a bad idea (see Cortellessa’s article above). “Americans see Trump being criticized for doing exactly what Congress demanded, and his Democratic and Republican predecessors promised, and they rightly see hypocrisy,” Thiessen writes, conveniently ignoring the polls that show that only 36% of Americans actually support the move.

    Also, Thiessen doesn’t even mention the dozens of Palestinians who were killed in protests during the opening of the embassy. “This is a huge victory for Trump, pay no attention to the dead people behind the curtain” seems to be his thesis.

    Meanwhile, as Thiessen himself acknowledges, Democrats aren’t unhappy that the hostages are home; they are unhappy that the president effusively praised Kim Jong Un for returning them. Kissing up to an authoritarian dictator is not a foreign policy achievement and not worthy of praise! (I continue to be shocked by the things that have to be said out loud in 2018.) It is also not particularly effective, as this morning’s news that North Korea will reconsider attending the summit if denuclearization is on the table. So in addition to being weird and dumb, this article has also aged very poorly since it was published at 4:41 yesterday afternoon.

  • In Foreign Policy, Dahlia Scheindlin makes the enormously depressing argument that Benjamin Netanyahu’s political survival depends on continual conflict with the Palestinians:

    The result of strongman leadership is that people become much less enthusiastic for the foundations of democracy, favoring splashy personal achievements or controversy instead. And the irony of consolidating power is that it harms democracy but simultaneously generates an environment in which one person gets credit for everything going well, reinforcing support for that same leader.

    Such a leader could also be blamed for all bad things. But many Israelis have apparently traded personal economic frustrations for an occasional celebration, be it Israel’s victory in the Eurovision contest or the U.S. Embassy moving to Jerusalem. Voters have lowered their standards on personal integrity in return for domestic tranquility, punctured only by the occasional war that most believe could not have been prevented. And, so the logic goes, it’s better to have Bibi fighting that war — or killing those protesters in Gaza who dare to seek a way out after 11 years of closure — than a despised left-winger.

    Sooner or later, Netanyahu will eventually exit the political stage. But given the way that every crisis reinforces his power, and what his years in power have done to Israel, the pendulum doesn’t look likely to swing in the other direction soon.

  • And in Lawfare, Harry Litman has a fascinating post about how one might go about flipping Michael Cohen:

    Step one in that transition is the isolation of the lieutenant from the family and the daily social life, which usually consists largely of a lot of hanging out and killing time and not all that much actual criminal activity. That much seems already to have happened, notwithstanding that Cohen has yet to be arrested. The Times reported recently that Cohen has told associates that he feels isolated since the FBI search.

    With the spell of daily connection to the family broken, the feds will seek to persuade the made man that the Don doesn’t esteem him—or worse—doesn’t even respect him. Here, again, Trump has provided the FBI and the New York prosecutors quite a lot of material to work with, should they need to. Cohen appears to have endured years of petty slights from his narcissistic boss. One such humiliation recently reported by the Wall Street Journal was Trump’s boorish speech at Cohen’s son’s bar mitzvah, when he arrived late and gave a speech telling guests he had only come because Cohen called him, his secretary and the Trump children begging Trump to attend.

    I’ve just started rewatching The Sopranos for the first time in a decade and it feels very timely. Michael Cohen reminds me forcefully of Big Pussy Bonpensiero. But comparing Trump to Tony Soprano feels a bit insulting to the memory of James Gandolfini.


Morning Reading, May 15, 2018

Happy Primary Day! Vox and FiveThirtyEight both have previews of today’s primary elections in Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Idaho, and Oregon. Spoiler: it’s not a hugely interesting election day if you’re not in one of those states, although I am curious about turnout in some of the Pennsylvania districts.

Also this morning:

  • In the New Republic, Jeet Heer argues that Trump’s affinity for strongmen may lead to a new nuclear arms race:

    In theory, the U.S. has long been committed to nuclear non-proliferation. But in practice, the world’s only superpower is always more willing to negotiate with fellow nuclear powers (such as Russia and China) while saving regime change for those nations which either didn’t acquire nuclear weapons or gave them up (Iraq and Libya). But traditionally this realpolitik has been combined with efforts to bring non-nuclear powers into accord with the international non-proliferation regime, as with the Iran deal.

    Under Trump, even that modest effort at taming proliferation is now abandoned, to be replaced by a candid recognition that only those in the nuclear club deserve respect. This discounting of international systems, very much in keeping with Trump’s instincts as a nationalist, bilateral dealmaker, could easily ignite a new age of nuclear proliferation. While Iran so far has been cautious, it could look at the North Korean precedent and think that their wiser course is to develop nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia has warned that if Iran does so, it too.


  • The New York Times editorial board weighs in against the new embassy in Jerusalem:

    The day the United States opened its embassy in Jerusalem is a day the world has longed for, because of what it was supposed to represent: the end of a seemingly endless conflict, a blood-soaked tragedy with justice and cruelty on both sides. Israelis and Palestinians have envisioned a capital in Jerusalem, and for generations the Americans, the honest brokers in seeking peace, withheld recognition of either side’s claims, pending a treaty that through hard compromise would resolve all competing demands.

    But on Monday President Trump delivered the embassy as a gift without concession or condition to the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, and as a blow to the Palestinians. The world did not witness a new dawn of peace and security for two peoples who have dreamed of both for so long. Instead, it watched as Israeli soldiers shot and killed scores of Palestinian protesters, and wounded thousands more, along Israel’s boundary with the Gaza Strip.

    Also in the Times, Michelle Goldberg calls the ceremony that opened the new embassy–a ceremony that featured not one, but two evangelical preachers who’ve declared that Jews are going to Hell–“grotesque”:

    This spectacle, geared toward Donald Trump’s Christian American base, coincided with a massacre about 40 miles away. Since March 30, there have been mass protests at the fence separating Gaza and Israel. Gazans, facing an escalating humanitarian crisis due in large part to an Israeli blockade, are demanding the right to return to homes in Israel that their families were forced from at Israel’s founding. The demonstrators have been mostly but not entirely peaceful; Gazans have thrown rocks at Israeli soldiers and tried to fly flaming kites into Israel. The Israeli military has responded with live gunfire as well as rubber bullets and tear gas. In clashes on Monday, at least 58 Palestinians were killed and thousands wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

    The juxtaposition of images of dead and wounded Palestinians and Ivanka Trump smiling in Jerusalem like a Zionist Marie Antoinette tell us a lot about America’s relationship to Israel right now. It has never been closer, but within that closeness there are seeds of potential estrangement.

  • The Weekly Standard continues to flummox me by featuring sensible, well-informed articles right next to maddening silliness. This morning I read Robert Zubrin’s suggestions for the new NASA administrator, which struck me as entirely reasonable:

    One thing that could really help is for you to take immediate action to reverse the administration’s dumb decision to cancel the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) space telescope.

    WFIRST is a 2.2 meter space telescope with field of view 100 times greater than Hubble, made possible on a bargain budget of $3 billion by the donation of a surplus spy satellite to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office. It has been approved and strongly backed as a high priority by every science review committee advising the government. It promises breakthrough discoveries of exoplanets, and could potentially reveal the truth about the nature of the dark energy that is driving the expansion of the universe, and numerous other questions in astrophysics. Particularly exciting is the possibility of using WFIRST to obtain spectra of the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars. If it finds free oxygen—which did not exist on Earth until we had a biosphere and which does not exist on any other planet in our solar system—that would be strong evidence of the presence of plentiful life.

    This is exactly the kind of mission that NASA should be doing, and saving it would do much to mitigate the political polarization that delayed your confirmation, and which could potentially derail any effort on your part to accomplish anything significant during your turn at the space agency helm.

    (I should point out here that, as my sons frequently remind me, I had a subpar science education. But certainly Zubrin’s ideas seemed to pass basic logic tests.)

    The very next article I read, however, was an absolutely infuriating complaint about Planned Parenthood by Jeryl Bier:

    A visit to Planned Parenthood’s website to find any information about adoption is something of a seek-and-find exercise. The home page offers four featured “health topics”: STDs, birth control, abortion, and emergency contraception. Clicking on “See more topics” doesn’t reveal adoption either, nor does clicking on the “Learn” tab at the top of the page. Not even the “Our Services” page contains a reference to adoption; it does, however, include “abortion services”, “abortion referrals”, “LGBT Services”, “Pregnancy Testing”, and eight other services.

    I’m just spit-balling here but maybe there isn’t more about adoption services on the Planned Parenthood site because adoption isn’t a service provided by Planned Parenthood? The author is also upset that Planned Parenthood disses Crisis Pregnancy Centers on its site, without engaging Planned Parenthood’s actual critique of Crisis Pregnancy Centers: they lie to the women who visit them. Does Bier think this is inaccurate? I honestly don’t know.

    (The Planned Parenthood article was also surprisingly badly edited, with a repeated phrase in the very first sentence and a “[link to this?]” request further down the page. Say what you will about the Weekly Standard, it’s usually more polished than that.)

Morning Reading, May 14, 2018

This morning:

  • Charles Sykes says we’re living in a crab bucket:

    Wikipedia defines the crab mentality as “a way of thinking best described by the phrase ‘if I can’t have it, neither can you.’”

    We all live in Trump’s crab bucket now.

    If you can’t win respect, then try to destroy the basis by which respect is granted by flattening the moral landscape. Because Trump is incapable of appreciating or emulating the senator’s sense of duty and honor, Trump resorts to the petulance of the bitter and the envious. “You’re no better than me,” is the timeworn playground taunt of the bully, the cretin, and the coward.

  • Matthew Yglesias cautions against praising Trump’s diplomacy in North Korea prematurely:

    [T]here are at least three big ways this could end up going badly:

    Trump could make a big show of a decisive diplomatic breakthrough at some strategically opportune moment in the fall to try to gain the upper hand in the midterm elections, only for the actual details to prove meaningless when there’s time for analysis later.

    Trump could sell out American interests by agreeing to an unfavorable deal, simply for the sake of the positive PR of a major breakthrough — with Republicans in Congress backing him up out of partisanship and nobody able to do anything about it for years.

    Trump could show up in Singapore, discover that Kim is not in fact interested in the kind of thorough disarmament that Trump has in mind, and then, feeling miffed by the North Koreans, embrace National Security Adviser John Bolton’s preference for an unprovoked American military strike.

    Meanwhile, at the Washington Post the director of Voice of America and the chief of the VOA Korean service urge us to intensity the efforts to get information about the world to ordinary North Koreans:

    Now, as the world’s eyes are once again focused on North Korea; as U.S. citizen prisoners are released from their captivity and there is a whiff of a promise of change, North Koreans need more information about the rest of the world and are willing to take risks to get it. It is time to step up efforts, public and private, to satisfy this thirst. Objective news retains power even in — perhaps even more in — the places that have the least experience of it.

  • In the New York Times, a lawyer who worked on the [expletive deleted] Clinton email probe makes the obvious point about Comey’s October surprise:

    What was Mr. Comey’s third option on Oct. 27? Wait and see. Monitor the progress of the review closely. Do nothing until there was something to report.

    Even a delay of a few days would have afforded the F.B.I. investigative team time to get a very good idea of what most likely was and was not in the new evidence. As it turned out, the team was able to complete its work days before the election, and Mr. Comey informed Congress in his Nov. 2 letter that the F.B.I. investigation was again closed.

    If he had waited a few days, Mr. Comey would have made a better-informed decision. The F.B.I. would have done meaningful due diligence. Had that course been followed, perhaps he would not have ever sent the letters.

  • In Foreign Policy, Peter A. Coclanis defends Aung San Suu Kyi:

    Emerging democracies are often marked by populist, ultranationalist behaviors that seem unseemly, if not repellent, to citizens in more mature democratic states in the West. Muslim-Buddhist conflict in Myanmar — including the bloody campaign against the Rohingya — can be seen as an extreme example of the same. That’s not totally surprising in a fractious, divided country that is just beginning to emerge from generations of military control.

    Any and all assessments of Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance regarding the Rohingya must take all of this into account. The fact that she is a nationalist, a Buddhist — as are somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of the Burmese population, and a Burman matters a lot. Like the vast majority of Burman Buddhist nationalists — including her late father, Aung San, the “George Washington” of Myanmar — Aung San Suu Kyi seeks more than anything else to keep whole her large, unwieldy, ethnically diverse country, which despite its formal name (“The Republic of the Union of Myanmar”) is at present a “union” in name only. Right now, taking up the cause of the Rohingya — or even mentioning their name —is not conducive to this end.

The Morning News Tournament of Books: Week 1

(If you have no idea what the Tournament of Books is, here’s a handy synopsis.)

March 7, 2018
The Play-In | The Idiot v. Savage Theories v. Stephen Florida

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The 2018 Tournament of Books begins with a “campus novel” play-in round, and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, an account of a young woman’s freshman year at Harvard in 1995, takes it. (I originally said this win was “to no one’s surprise” but the comments revealed that, in fact, many people were banking on Stephen Florida, by Gabe Habash, which is about a college wrestler in his final season.) The Idiot would have been my pick, too, although I have to admit that I didn’t particularly respond to any of these novels, and couldn’t even bring myself to finish Pola Oloixarac’s Savage Theories, which is set at a university in Argentina (and which I can’t really describe further because I didn’t finish it). A week or so ago I tweeted that I simply wasn’t a “campus novel” sort of person, and maybe that is true. But what is probably truer is that this is my daughter’s first year of college, and my son is headed to college next year, and maybe I can only handle so much youthful narcissism/wistful middle-aged nostalgia (depending upon your point of view) before the weight of it sinks me.

I spent this past weekend at Cornell College, where my son matriculates in August, and although its architecture looks nothing like that of my own alma mater, Rhodes College, it still had enough of that small-liberal-arts-feel that at moments I felt like I was stepping back in time, waiting for my friends in the lounge, thinking about classes for next year. The model dorm room set up for the parents’ admiration was arranged so much like my junior year dorm room that I had chills. (Granted, it was noticeably neater, and–my former roommate pointed out–lacked the multiple cans of Secret aerosol deodorant that, based on photographs of the era, seemed to dot every surface in our room. Why did we need so many cans of deodorant? Why are they in all the pictures?)

None of the three books in the play-in round affected me as much as this weekend did. Someone should write a novel about weekends like that one, I think, weekends when you’re slapped in the face with the stark contrast between the life you anticipated and the life you ended up with. That’s a campus novel I would be interested to read.

March 8, 2018
Opening Round | Lincoln in the Bardo v. Fever Dream

If I had made a bracket, this decision would have busted it, because I expected George Saunders’s first novel Lincoln in the Bardo, about the real-life death and fictional afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, to go quite a long way. And yet, here it is, out of the tournament on day one. But upsets can be fun, and this should make for an exciting, wide-open tournament.

I didn’t really appreciate Lincoln in the Bardo the way others did; for reasons that escape me I never quite seem to get Saunders. I had high hopes: I am a lifetime Lincoln-phile, and the death of Willie Lincoln has always struck me as an enormously tragic loss. And indeed, the opening pages of the book are wrenching — am I going to cry the whole way through? I wondered — but after a while I just felt restless, and irritated by the Purgatory conceit. I would have preferred to read a more straightforward novel about the same events; which, to be fair, is how I often feel about experimental work. (Although for some reason I adore Ali Smith, so I don’t know what to tell you.)

Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, on the other hand, lost me at the very beginning, when we’re introduced to a woman named Amanda and a boy named David and we don’t know quite who they are, except that David is not well; I could never get my bearings, and although that may have been intentional, and reading it truly did feel like reading an account of someone’s fever dream, that doesn’t make me like it any more. (Lincoln in the Bardo started its literary life as a play, but I think the stage is where Fever Dream might really shine.) But it won the ToB’s summer series this year and it won this round, and there were a lot of delighted commenters, so I seem to be in the minority on this one.

At any rate, I am not terribly sorry to see Lincoln in the Bardo go, and curious to see what future judges make of Fever Dream.

March 9, 2018
Opening Round | White Tears v. The Idiot

Sigh. Today I feel like Kat on Survivor: Worlds Apart, when she proclaimed “Blindsides are exciting and fun!” about five minutes before she was shocked to find herself being voted off the island. Because yesterday’s upset was, you know, exciting and fun, and today’s was heartbreaking. That is a bit of an exaggeration, but I cannot deny that I was legitimately bummed out for much of the morning over the defeat of Hari Kunzru’s White Tears by, of all books, The Idiot.

It’s very difficult to explain to people who are not as invested in the tournament as I am (*cough* my husband *cough*) why the loss of a novel that I loved but didn’t (after all) write to another novel that I liked somewhat less can cast a pall over my morning. It should, if anything, make me happy that a novel centered on a young woman’s experience of the world is doing unexpectedly well in the tournament, right? And this is, after all, a tournament that is intended to be meaningless but fun. (The big prize in this tournament, for those not in the know, is a rooster. An actual, live rooster. Assuming the winner is zoned for it.)

And yet. I am invested. To me, White Tears–which is about a couple of twentysomethings who create a fake blues recording purporting to be from the 1920s, and I am deliberately not explaining further–was a tour de force, a ghost story, a thriller, a comedy of manners, and a commentary on race and class in America all rolled into one with a great story to boot. I wanted to see it go far; I wanted to have several days to talk about its structure and its plot and its characters. And now — although I still hope to see it resurrected in the Zombie round in a couple of weeks — it’s gone and I have to talk about The Idiot, which is witty and epigrammatic but also meandering and too long and ultimately tedious, instead. And that made me irrationally grumpy when I read the decision.

I’ve been following this tournament since it was born in 2005 and when a favorite wins its round it’s enough to boost my mood for the rest of the day. And when a book that for whatever reason just does not speak to me goes inexplicably deep (I’m looking at you, How Should a Person Be?) I am perplexed and dismayed. The Tournament has been so good for my reading life: I’ve picked up books I would never have encountered otherwise; I’ve seen books that I hated and books that I loved from fresh perspectives; I’ve learned to recognize that the books to which I do not respond can be life-changing for other readers. But I can’t quite get rid of the rooting interest. Maybe it’s just human nature to pick a horse in a race, or maybe it’s a vanity-driven desire to see my own taste validated. Whatever the cause, I always have a handful of books that I believe should go the distance and I am always crestfallen when they lose.

I’m still hoping that White Tears will live again to fight another day.

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