Jan 12: DNF
DNF is one of those words of the bookternet that may not be recognizable to people who run outside of it. It stands for Did Not Finish, and it means exactly that, a book that you put down before it was over and never came back to.
I DNF a lot of books. I have more galleys than I can possibly read so DNF'ing is a pretty likely outcome. It happens with library books, too. I get what sounds good, if it doesn't work I feel no guilt tossing it aside. Usually.
Most of the time I DNF within a chapter, often within 5 pages. I wait to be grabbed and if I'm not grabbed I move on. But sometimes it's a harder decision when I'm farther into a book.
This week I DNF'd the new Jennifer Egan, the much-anticipated book that is a not-exactly-sequel to A Visit From the Goon Squad. I liked that book very much but not as much as everyone did, it was the first time I remember thinking, "Okay okay enough already" about people talking about books on the internet. I like several of Egan's books but I just couldn't summon a lot of excitement for The Candy House, the new book.
Still, I tried it. Because why not? Egan can be fantastic, what if this book transported me? And for a while I liked it. The first few stories were interesting and absorbing. Then some I didn't care for as much. Then one I actively didn't like. And I just started to struggle to summon any enthusiasm.
It is rare that I quit a book I'm about halfway through, but I did it. In this case I needed an extra nudge, so I checked the Goodreads reviews, which were mostly full blown raves and that cemented it. I was not in full blown rave territory, I knew I wasn't going to be, I wasn't having the experience these people were having and I couldn't change that. So I moved on.
I had a second nudge because I didn't DNF a book right before that I really should have. I ended up giving a much more negative review than I expected to because it had been such a slog to finish. I'd kept at it because I was thinking it was still just fine, a 3-star read, just not my personal cup of tea. But by the end I was pretty miserable. A lesson. (Also a lesson, I just looked at several of my recent reviews and it would actually be hard to guess which book I'm talking about here because it happened multiple times! Apparently I need this lesson more than I realize.)
If you like twisty, weird Japanese crime fiction, this one is for you. And I have to emphasize that "weird" is the most important word in that sentence. These are not garden variety twists but definitely another level. If you have read Nakamura before (The Thief, The Gun, Cult X) you won't be surprised by the occasional philosophical tangent. There is an undercurrent of violence against women here, it is best to know as little as possible going in, but elements of the story involve men getting revenge against other men for violence against women, which is... well, it's complicated. It's also a major theme in East Asian thrillers so no real surprise there.
It's definitely not slow to get started! It has a killer first chapter.
From what I see of the book world, this is as much the crowned victor of January as any literary title. I think we may all be feeling an urge to have a book that moves at a good clip and that wraps it all up in under 200 pages. (192!!) If you are looking for a one-sitting book that is propulsive but still rather fancy, this fits the bill.
It's also a book that plays a bit with narration and perspective, and you know how much I love that shit.
You have probably forgotten my full review, which was very good (4 stars) but also a little navel-gazey as I wondered what the point of it all was. For a book this smart, I just wanted it to push boundaries a little more, take me somewhere new, and it didn't quite do that. I have to admit that had I read this during non-pandemic times I'm not sure I would have asked those questions.
Look I know everyone is ready to fight about Hanya Yanagihara but I have bad news for you: this is not a particularly polarizing book. I don't think it'll be so love/hate, though I'm sure there will be plenty of like/dislike.
This is a very ambitious novel set in three different time periods over nearly 200 years. It has some Cloud Atlas-y vibes if you are looking for such things, partly because of its length (720 pages!!) and partly because of how it reuses character names and themes and partly because of the alternate universes it builds. It is a bit of a puzzle as you try to figure out how one story may or may not be connected to another. But we do see themes return and return about family and romantic love and what we inherit.
There's a lot about Hawai'i and a lot of gay characters and (because such warnings are necessary) pandemic as a major plot element more than once.
Honestly I have been dreading the Yanagihara discourse and I am not any happier now that it is here. To Paradise has to change the way you look at her as a novelist, but it doesn't seem like anyone is really ready to do that yet. I am as aware of her popularity as anyone, my Goodreads review of A Little Life still gets almost daily likes. (I admit I am one of its fans, though it is not a book I recommend to anyone.) I am also not looking for a book to destroy me as the hardcore stans are. I would like to ignore the discourse here all together, but the truth of the matter is that the discourse is so extreme that it's hard to discuss the actual book here without getting an idea of where the person telling you about it stands. It is super weird and I also am annoyed by how it is sucking up all the book writing right now, I always hate when the entire conversation is about one author or book. And right now it really feels like the fancy literary world is very eager to make sure you know that no they absolutely think the trauma plot is a problem and they hated A Little Life and it makes me glad that I am just here in my lil newsletter saying "hey here are some books I liked!" because ugh how do these people get through the day?
I have been assured that the audio of this is very good and I can definitely imagine that.
What I've Been Reading
Release Date: Out now!
Shelves: Audiobooks, Sci-Fi
Sometimes it is just fine to replicate the formula that worked for you before and that's what Weir does here. Yes, there are times that you feel like you are just reading a slightly tweaked version of The Martian, but this is what Weir is good at and I am just fine with him sticking to what works.
Specifically he's very good at writing about science in a way that feels understandable and digestible for readers. It is worked into the plot very well. Much of what we get here is Chemistry and Physics, which I studied in college, and so was particularly fun for me to dive back into in the many ways Weir does.
There's definitely some growth with respect to character development. The Martian bugged me for how one-note Watney felt, and there is some of that here but our protagonist here, Ryland Grace, gets a much more complex emotional journey.
It is, however, too long. I listened to the audiobook and it could have been 3-5 hours shorter easily. (I just saw it's 476 pages! Definitely should have been 300 max.) Ultimately this is a one-problem-after-another book and a few less problems would have been just right. Audio is a great format for it, keeps you moving, has a good reader, and they do some nice production elements for parts I won't spoil.
Release Date: Out Now
Shelves: Audiobooks, In Translation
A metaphysical anti-thriller about Physics and Philosophy. I was actually with this book for a good while, following the friendship and rivalry between two physicists who have conflicting theories of time and the universe.
It was the meditative, dying detective that wore me down. Somehow we slowed to a crawl and I was actually surprised when the book presented a resolution. I had assumed it was uninterested in such things.
I have been hit and miss with Zeh, she is always doing something interesting, it just doesn't always work.
The comparison to Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is on point because this is absolutely one of those books where your eccentric protagonist has the power to do just about anything and where her charm and charisma either work for you or spoil it all.
I was charmed for the first third or so. Getting her backstory and seeing prickly chemist Elizabeth fall in love was quite nice. But when things took a turn, well, I assumed we were going somewhere with it and actually no we were not. The rest of the book was really just Elizabeth being Elizabeth, and I probably should have stopped reading when I realized that was the case because I enjoyed myself less and less as it went on.
This is the kind of book where the dog regularly has point of view chapters to comment on human foolishness and where the child of two very smart people is a precocious supergenius who is able to wisely comment on whatever is unfolding (definite Matilda vibes. It is also a book about scientists that doesn't really understand how science (or scientists) work. It is feminist and yet also it's weirdly not sometimes. It does seem to understand that Elizabeth's position is not just a cute predicament but a systemic problem that includes the danger of physical violence, it is just a whole balancing act to both be that and to try and pull off the spunky narrative it wants. It just didn't mesh for me.
Content warnings for sexual assault.