(TMN co-founders Rosecrans Baldwin & Andrew Womack introducing the evening)
Well, I think I’m sufficiently recovered enough now. But, boy, that sriracha shot…
The Tournament of Books, as readers of this blog will know, happens every March over at The Morning News. We’re deep in it right now, with the championship coming up on Friday 3/28. But last night (Monday, 3/24) a whole load of people took time off from commenting fiercely via the internet to come celebrate the Tournament’s 10th birthday. The always-delightful Housing Works Bookstore in Manhattan hosted and all kinds of special guests were in attendance.
TMN co-founders Rosecrans Baldwin & Andrew Womack kicked off the evening by introducing the Tournament and talking about its gestation. Apparently Andrew was (and still maybe is) less than enthusiastic about the idea – but ten years later, here we are. They shed further light, too, onto the manic behind-the-scenes work that goes into the Tournament each year – pretty much all of it nowadays done by the delightful and talented Nozlee Samadzadeh. It should be noted, she also hand-painted that banner in that photo and made sriracha candies. And helped MC the evening and ran the raffle. In addition to making the actual Tournament run, with copy-editing and book sending and all that. Yeah, she’s pretty cool. MacArthur people, I’m just saying: for your consideration – I mean, who else is crazy enough to do all these things for a tournament of books?
Also crazy/cool was getting to meet people who I’ve only ever e-corresponded with. I’d actually say it was my favorite part, honestly – from Rosecrans and Nozlee to fellow commentariat like C.D. and Alex, it was so much fun to chatter away with people in real time. You got the sense that there’s an actual, huge community around this tournament – and it was such a pleasure to see part of the community (or at least a small sliver thereof) in the same room for a spell.
Speaking of spells and the same room – so the actual on-stage entertainment portion of the evening should be mentioned. A panel of judges past and present (Elif Batuman, Choire Sicha, Elliott Holt, Roger Hodge, and John McElwee) were scheduled to talk about some of their favorite books from the last year that didn’t make the ToB cut. Elif, unfortunately, was sick and couldn’t be there – but I’ll get to that in a moment.
There was a gimmick to this “talk about your favorite book” thing, you see. And the gimmick was: you had to drink a shot of sriracha (like, a shot glass. of sriracha hot sauce.) and then do the fast-paced review shout-out thing. Our judges were bold, but not too bold – after all, that’s a daunting thing. There was lots of good-humored spluttering and lots of beer drinking to wash it down – and they recommended some awesome books: Vol. 2 of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More, and more – as well as (by virtue of their appearances) their own terrific works.
But okay, now the bragging part. So, seeing as I was dressed kind of like a rooster (tweed jacket, black jeans and shirt, red cravat, and a red coxcomb [the
intern who magic spell that runs the TMN Twitter challenged me and how could I say no?]) and they were down a panelist due to Elif’s illness, Rosecrans came over to ask me if I’d take the stage for a shot and a review.
In a haze of beer, books, and anticipation, I took the stage to Rosecrans’ generous introduction – and took that shot of sriracha straight down the hatch. The whole thing, reader – I drank the whole thing. At least, I’m pretty sure I did. See, it has the consistency, as we were all saying that night, of gazpacho – so tough to really do a shot of. But my training in college took over (to the delight of college friends who happened to be in the audience) and WHAM.
Seriously, WHAM. There were stages of it. The first was a near inability to speak, then there was heat, then there was a full body shaking, then there was the brief sensation of having done some sort of drug like coke or speed or something because I was jittering and wanted to run laps around the room… and then there was sort of a cold clarity that ran through my blood like “yes, your body is CLEAN, MY SON!” It went on like this, over the space of about two hours.
Anyway, after having done the shot, I managed to ramble out a recommendation for Marisha Pessl’s Night Film that was, I’m told, coherent – although I had several moments of being unable to speak due to the sriracha – and I don’t think I made too much of a fool of myself. It was one of the most wonderful moments of my life to this point, without exaggeration. And they gave me one of the Rooster-branded Field Notes from this year as a thank you / hope-you-didn’t-char-your-esophagus gift!
Once it was all said and done, we milled about Housing Works and talked and drank and when the time came to kick us out, we all went to another bar and drank and talked more – there were cut-out masks of Andrew Womack’s face? I was telling a whole table of people at this bar who’d come into the back room where we were sitting about the ToB and why it’s awesome and I’m pretty sure I gave one of the girls in said group my number? There was impassioned debate about whether The People in the Trees is a good book?
It all happened, reader. And the best part is, I woke up on Tuesday without a hangover OR intestinal distress. Perhaps sriracha is, like apple cider vinegar, some kind of wonder drug. It also may’ve just been that after a weekend in New Orleans and having eaten next-to-nothing all day, my body just didn’t even register what was going through it. Regardless… it was an amazing evening. This recap was a little more gushy, a little less professional than they sometimes are, but that’s the point in a way. The Morning News and the ToB are indispensable pieces of my life – I’m so thankful to them, to Housing Works, to the readers and writers and judges, and to everyone who makes this community one I’m so proud to be a part of. I walked onto the subway on Monday night grinning from ear to ear at the thought that we are all parts of the community. And I might be slightly infamous in literary circles now, or at least this one.
Make sure you tune in for the final on Friday – and join us all in the comments, this year or in years to come. I promise we won’t bite (although the rooster might).
(ed. note – that photo of me is c/o Christopher (C.D.) Hermelin – one of the new real-life friends spawned from the party on Monday. You guys should all check out his site here!)