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2023 Book Recommendation List

Please note: These are my thoughts on the books at the time that I read them and wrote about it. My opinions change with time, with experience, etc. These are not gospel on what I think of a book - they are snapshots of a particular time.

The list

2023 Book List Screencap

The image is ordered by the date of publication, not by any particular rating system. I will, however, share with you what I rated each book as. First, a quick explanation of my rating system - I use a 5-star rating system, where the different scores mean the following:

The books, ordered by rating

Here are the books ordered by their rating, descending:

Commentary on the books, by descending order of rating

This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladwell

This is How You Lose the Time War is a wildly unique book - I don’t think there’s any other book in my lists that I could compare it to without doing it a disservice. Perhaps the closest I could come to an accurate comparison is Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, but only in the very small sense that they were both composed through similar mechanics, where two authors collaborate by writing different sections of the book asynchronously. That, however, is about where the comparisons stop holding any water.

Unlike many of the other books I’ve marked in my personal library as five stars, This is How You Lose the Time War is not a big, dense book, and it does not contend with tremendously complex subjects. Where It, my favorite book last year, was fundamentally about the border between childhood and adulthood and the inherent terror that comes with it (you even try saying that without sounding pretentious, I dare you), This is How You Lose the Time War is more akin to a spy thriller. You can find its basic premise in plenty of B-list, straight-to-DVD science fiction movies: in a future far, far away, two elite operatives from warring factions commit the capital sin of engaging with the enemy. What begins as a casual exchange or an attempt to get information might spiral into something else entirely… Surely you see where this is going.

Two things, however, elevate This is How You Lose the Time War past the echelons of familiar spy thrillers.

The first of them is the quality of the prose. This book is gorgeously written. The metaphors are elegant and vivid when they should be, purple and alien when it should be, too. It is the sort of book that takes the wind out of aspiring writers and simultaneously inspires them and annoys them simply by virtue of existing as a point for comparison. The sentences flow beautifully from one point to another, and more than once I stopped to appreciate the imagery. It’s the literary equivalent of a beautiful landscape, built in a way that only a few writers can (Nabokov comes to mind, when I think of the make-up of the sentences in this one).

The two titular characters, Blue and Red, are both dripping with personality and have distinctive, recognizable, interesting voices. They are opposing forces and yet easy to root for, more so the more you read from them. There’s more sense of the human in them than in many present day characters I’ve seen recently. The chapters alternate between one and the other, and they each have their quirks, their strengths and weaknesses, their impulses and longings. No other character is particularly relevant besides Blue and Red, yet they loom large enough to fill the entire space of the book.

What I’m trying to say is that the prose is not just pretty, which is often the case when books are praised primarily for the quality of their writing. This is no praise of the mechanistic sense of composing sentences to please one’s aesthetic sensibilities. Don’t get me wrong, the prose is very pretty - but it is also good well beyond that, in characterization and all the other domains that matter, in a way that few books manage.

The second thing that elevates this book is the creativity contained within it. This is How You Lose the Time War feels fresh and alien in a way I wish more science fiction did. Sure, at the end of the day it is a human-centric story with human longings and values at its core - but it goes a hell of a lot farther into the alienness of the future than others, and it has plenty of ideas that made me go “wow, that’s cool. I had not seen that before”.

A quick example: Blue and Red communicate with each other via futuristic letters woven into the fabric of the futuristic reality they inhabit. Experienced time travelers, they write their messages to each other into the patterns of a beehive they leave behind in a world their counterpart will visit centuries later; they nurture their words into the seeds of plants the other will harvest. Yeah, members of warring factions sending each other letters is a well-trodden path. But how many of those are writing the letters into the fabric of the universe around them, choosing the medium for their message carefully from the array of things that exist, both to dodge the ever-watchful eyes of their tyrannical superiors and to surprise and delight the recipients? Say what you will, that’s freaking cool.

There are many more examples of This is How You Lose The Time War’s creativity (the warring factions themselves, for instance, I found supremely interesting), but I don’t want to deprive you of the joy of discovering them yourself.

That creativity, married with the caliber of the prose, makes this book far better than any of its parts give it any right to be. It’s a cohesive package where everything clicks that has to click, and that means the mundane in it is not a failure, but depth of flavor.

Suffice it to say this was my favorite book of the year and I recommend that you read it. Even if you do not usually like science fiction, give this one a try - you probably haven’t read one like it. If you have read books like it, please send the name my way. I sure would like to read them.

Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver

Demon Copperhead is an homage to David Copperfield, both in name and in the representations of the consequences of institutionalized poverty, except that this time that representation happens against the backdrop of 20th century, deep south United States.

The prose is interesting, in a good way. I will admit it took a moment to grow on me, but I ultimately found that it fits the voice of the first person narrator, Demon. Demon himself was a strange character as well, similarly taking a long time to grow on me - for much of the first part of the book I feared it would devolve into something akin to misery porn, mostly because of Demon’s constant lamentations that the world is against him and everything good eventually comes to an end, while at the same time being the agent in the bad decisions that bring good times to said end. For the first half of the book it seemed like there would be no light at the end of the tunnel, everything was fucked, and the rug would keep being yanked from under Demon and the reader whenever they dared feel something resembling hope.

Demon, however, ends up finding his light at the end of the tunnel, and ends up realizing he is in fact the cause of much of his misery - turning the gruesome and oppressing sense of fatality of the first half of the book into more of a contrasting mechanism that shows how someone deep into the environment of institutionalized poverty can be pushed over and over towards those bad decisions, nudged towards paths where nothing good lies. The contrast is important, though - by showing that Demon can overcome it Barbara Kingsolver rejects the cowardly inevitability of poverty’s impact on one’s life, while never minimizing the magnitude of the setback it represents. The book refuses to romanticize poverty, but it also refuses to demonize it. Poverty is poverty, honestly depicted. It has serious consequences and is not a death sentence. It is enormous in magnitude and yet can be addressed. The characters are not excused for their flaws, as much as the reader is made to understand the circumstances that would lead to one having them, and that lends them an impressive breadth of character and a sense of being genuine. This is perfectly represented by several moments towards the end of the book. Demon is almost like an addict, one slip up away from going back to his old habits, from going back to his bad decisions. It is a comfortable habit and a deeply alluring one - but he can get out. Maggot is not so lucky; Emmy is ambiguous. The story ends up being neither happy go lucky nor depressingly gloom - it ends up being honest and lifelike.

There are some highlights to the book that were particularly touching, like Demon’s relationship with Emmy.

About halfway through the book, the opioid epidemic begins taking center stage. It was around this time that this book started reminding me of The Goldfinch, by Donna Tart, and I started making comparisons between Theo, that book’s main character, and Demon. At the end of it, I found that Demon just had far more heart, and therefore so did Demon Copperhead (the book). Demon’s descent into drug abuse happens because it must happen, because the environment he’s inserted into wills it so, but there is none of the existential (and privileged) nihilism of Theo here, rationalizing his own demise and turning it into an aesthetic experience. Where Theo was criminally passive, a spectator to his own life, Demon is always engaged in it, an active participant - he makes plenty of bad decisions, but he genuinely tries his best at all times.

Overall, this is a book worth reading - and if you can only get to one of them, between Demon Copperhead and The Goldfinch, I’d recommend the former.

Legends and Lattes, by Travis Baldree

You thought you were only getting litfic in the 4 and 5 star categories, huh? Think again. Legends and Lattes is definitely not “literary”, whatever that pretentious word evokes in you, but it’s a damned good book - probably the best of the “cozy” books I’ve read in the past couple of years.

This is not a complex book or a saga spanning continents - rather it’s a self contained story about an Orc that decides she’s had enough of her warring life, and instead decides to open a coffee shop. Admittedly I might be a little bit biased - who in tech hasn’t dreamed of leaving it all behind and living off of something else, something quaint like owning a coffee shop or a book store, or maybe owning some chickens? At the same time, I’ve read plenty of “cozy” books where the aesthetic, the vibes are all it’s got going for it, and it forgets to actually tell a compelling story on top of them.

Fortunately, Legends and Lattes is both competently written and interesting enough to hold my attention well beyond vibes. The central plot conflict does feel a bit tired and forced, as if the author was struggling for a reason for conflict to exist in this world. The central question of whether Viv the Orc could reasonably withstand the pressures that come with abandoning a life for another, the internal struggles that come with not wanting to solve problems by resorting to tools from an old life, and the strong cast of supporting characters would have been enough for the book to be an enjoyable experience without the need for a gizmo that justifies why people have it out for Viv.

Even with that small gripe, though, the book is strong, and the biggest reason for it is the strength of its characters. Viv is interesting and multidimensional, but so are Tandri the succubus, Cal the carpenter dwarf, and Thimble the ratkin cook - the last of which delighted me enough that I would die for him. All of Viv’s helpers and many of her regulars at the Legends and Lattes coffee shop are just about different enough from established fantasy tropes to hold your interest, but not different enough that they send the book into wholly unfamiliar territory, taking it away from the cozy space.

The stakes are, for the most part, high, but centered on the characters - it is a book about the right to self determine. And as far as it is that, it’s a damn good book. I just wish it leaned more into it, and was a little bit less about crime gangs and magical artifacts, too.

If you’re looking for a cozy book, though, definitely recommend picking this one up.

Notes on the Remaining Books

As for the three stars, two stars and one star books this year, as usual, I’ll give them a shorter review than the rest - I prefer to linger more on what I enjoyed most.

In no particular order:

All The Sinners Bleed was marketed to me as a mostly southern book, but I didn’t find much characteristically southern from it. It stands mostly as a crime thriller that happens in a southern state, almost by happenstance - the South is there, yes, but mostly as the backdrop against which things happen. The prose is competent enough and there was more than enough here to keep me entertained from page to page, but do not go into it thinking you’re going to take any part in solving the mystery - this is more a thriller than a whodunnit, and the information required to solve it is mostly withheld from you. I did not find any of the characters particularly interesting nor any of their inner lives particularly rich. All in all, think of it as a non-offensive, if slightly gory, book with the vibe of a Hannibal Lecter story, a decent execution of that formula, but definitely nothing new to add to it. If that’s what you’re looking for, this is a good bet.

Fairy Tale continues the trend of me liking Stephen King’s recent books less than many of his older ones. Don’t get me wrong - King is a masterful writer still, and it is mostly the strength of his writing that carries this through. I suspect it might be intentional for this one, but the best way I could describe Fairy Tale is that it feels toothless. There are many moments in the novel where I expect things to turn a bit darker; I expect King to peel away the curtain to a character’s most vicious corners of the mind. Every time, the book does not go there. Incisiveness and willingness to look what’s horrible in the eye is usually the mark of King’s most excellent works. Fairy Tale feels like less of a brave book, like King does not have the guts to go where he usually goes. I can’t imagine that is possibly the case for a writer like King, so I must arrive at the conclusion that he was experimenting, trying to do something else that just did not land as well for me. The main character struck me as unlikable throughout, and he was an odd mish-mash of constant reference to the “horrible things” he had done in his past, and a near childlike refusal to cross certain lines, even when more than justified. Villains walk away (mostly) unscathed in ways that they never would in many of King’s other books. It’s still a King book, and he is still a tremendous writer who knows his way very well around stories, so it’s not boring or frustrating, but it did feel less honest to me, like I could see the puppet master pulling the strings more than usual, and that took away from the immersion. It feels, ultimately, jilted and a little bit artificial.

Mr. Mercedes is basically everything that All The Sinners Bleed was - a perfectly serviceable, interesting, and fine thriller with nothing much to add in terms of novelty or excellent characterization, with the added writing chops of Stephen King. If you are only reading one of them, I’d recommend Mr. Mercedes instead, because King is simply a better writer - but there’s nothing earth shattering here.

The same holds true for Night Shift, with the exception that it’s a short story collection, and that it includes a few wacky and truly fresh short stories, as long as some excellent execution of the usual King brand of horror. Notably, there is a short story about trucks one day turning on humans (aptly named Trucks), there’s The Mangler a story about a demonic speed ironing and folding machine inspired by King’s time working in an industrial laundry, and The Lawnmower Man, a story in which the ancient god Pan employs a monster-man to cut people’s lawns and then murder them if they get too weirded out by the whole thing. Not all the short stories in the book are that interesting, but there’s definitely enough here to be worth a solid read.

Rage is a book Stephen King pulled from circulation after a few, real school shooters mentioned it when going on their respective rampages. I don’t particularly think King is at any fault for any of it, although I do understand the reason he pulled the book from bookstores. In any case, Rage is character study at King’s best - sort of a micro Lord of the Flies happening in a classroom with a deranged student, and highlighting how thin the line between sanity and insanity often is. It’s not a subtle book and it lacks the strength of climaxes you will find in King’s best work, but it’s as lucid as he ever was, and on the more interesting side of his body of work.

The Dead Zone is the first book of King’s I read where I was completely unsatisfied with the ending. In some parts of the internet King has a reputation for writing excellent books with poor endings, and I’ve never really agreed with that assessment. It is, however, entirely accurate when applied to The Dead Zone. It feels like this was meant to be a much larger book, and the third act feels rushed and out of place - like King had to wrap things up quickly and the only way he could manage to do it was accelerating what was supposed to happen to the point of it being uncanny. There’s also an entire “serial killer” side plot of the novel that feels strangely out of place - the novel is clearly a character study about Johnny, its main character, but for a second (and multiple chapters) it flirts with being a thriller, like King’s The Outsider. Eventually the mystery section is resolved very swiftly, with barely any investigation, and the novel continues. If the section was supposed to help characterize Johnny, less emphasis should have been placed on the killer (perhaps we did not need perspective chapters from him); if it was supposed to be a mystery, it should not have been resolved with no investigation. The tangent occupies a very strange space between genres, and it did not work for me in the slightest.

The Goldfinch, like I mentioned earlier, felt to me like an inferior version of Demon Copperhead. It shares many of the same themes, and it’s equally excellently written, but the main character is infinitely whinier and less engaging, almost a spectator to his own life, which dampened my enjoyment of the book. Funnily enough, I loved the first and last acts of the book - it was everything in the middle that was less engaging. In the first act, the book is almost horror, or at least a little bit harrowing. It perfectly captures all the flights of fancy I had when I was a small child, imagining the possibility of my mother dying when I was being raised only by her. The same anxiety was perfectly expressed by Theo, the main character, when he is actually forced to face the possibility of having to live without his own mother. In those moments, the characterization is excellent.

After Theo’s mother dies in the first couple of chapters, I also quite liked where the book took Theo: his difficulty to find a place that he felt like he belonged in felt true and believable. First the Barbours and then Hobie are clearly interested in helping Theo, and still the way he navigates their help, feeling like he does not belong, was masterfully written.

It is then that everything collapses a bit, though, and Theo’s passivity as things spiral out of control had me frustrated for a large portion of the book, until it finally recovered my interest closer to its end.

Don’t get me wrong: The Goldfinch is a good book and you should read it if you have the chance. However, like I mentioned earlier, if you only want to read the best in this space of exploring the consequences of institutionalized poverty (and in Theo’s case, a slightly heavier focus on abandonment) on someone’s formative years, Demon Copperhead feels like a more competent execution.

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches was chosen as my palate cleanser after the heaviness of The Goldfinch, and it for the most part it did exactly that. I had some problems with the prose - a few too many adverbs (do I really need to know the character said that shyly when it’s perfectly understandable from context?) - and I was not particularly fond of the romance subplots, although I understand that romance undertones are often a characteristic of the “cozy” genre. Jamie (the main character’s love interest) and the rest of the residents of the house don’t have much of a personality - Ian has a line that reveals he fears his own mortality and that is what explains his matchmaking efforts, and that was about all the characterization he got - and are, for the most part, just caricatures or walking tropes. The children, however, are lovely in their characterization, and for the most part carry the novel. If they don’t do it by themselves, it’s because Primrose also deserves some love, especially in the asymmetrical relationship between how she sees herself and how Mika sees her. I would have liked to have more time with Primrose - her revelations and development felt like they happened very off screen and had little time to settle in, especially in relation to how interesting the character was. All in all, that’s a common problem with the book - it feels like conflicts are resolved too fast, rushing from beat to beat without having time to properly bask in the impact of whatever has just happened. It’s fast paced and not boring, but also very rarely reflexive. There are also a couple of soap-operay plot twists which, while relatively predictable and executed simply, worked pretty well and kept me engaged. All in all, the book did what I wanted it to do quite competently, and never reached for heights beyond its ability, so there’s not much to criticize it for; except that when I put it next to something like Legends and Lattes, and while some of its characters stand above the rest, it lacks the expertise and consistency in good characterization that would take it to the next level. It’s just a little bit too cheesy for me at times, you know?

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is another one of those books that blew up on Goodreads (it won the Goodreads Choice Award for best Fiction) and that, as I’m quickly learning, only did so because it’s kind-of-good, without any of the depth or mastery that makes for a really good book. Putting it bluntly: it’s written better than fan-fiction, but it has those vibes anyway.

It is effectively a coming of age story, which means the characters, especially the two main characters, frequently act dumb and immature and require the auxiliary characters to act like adults to serve as a counterweight. This is accurate for the age brackets involved, except the immaturity continues well into adulthood, to the point that I was getting frustrated at the two main characters' inability to function like competent adults. The book feels a little bit too Californian (pejoratively) for me: there’s plenty of normalization of toxic practices, from E and cocaine usage in the video game industry to the teenager-in-emo-stage idea that “happy people don’t make art”. These ideas are just kind of there, as if they’re matter of fact or the background of life, and maybe they are in the Hollywood circles this is clearly inspired by. But seeing as they’re never properly challenged, they come across as if the book itself thinks these things are normal, par for the course in ways that I doubt anyone not living in L.A. would think them to be. Many of the issues are also very Americanized, which can read as ham-fisted to an European audience for whom random mass shootings to progress the plot are less of a poignant critique of society, and more of a plot device taking advantage of the idiocracy that is America. Don’t get me wrong, it’s accurate, and I can’t really criticize it much for it, but it does feel like the book lacks the ability to adopt a bird’s eye view and understand the localized aspect of the problems it’s depicting, instead painting them as universal human strife. They are most definitely not. This california-tinted experience bleeds into the book’s depiction of video games, too. The author is clearly passionate about games and likes a lot of the same games I do, but there is a clear disconnect between her experience of gaming and mine. I don’t think this is actually the book’s fault, as much as our experiences being simply different. Gaming is, for me, a much more lonely experience than the author seems to acknowledge, even with friends. The companionship it provides is of a different kind than “boys-band” style of companionship the main characters find in it, and the book failed to ever depict the differences in a way that I found satisfying.

Finally, we don’t spend much time in the character’s inner lives in general compared to how many anecdotes we get from them, which is an interesting stylistic choice. I’m not sure whether I like it - a lot comes through in dialogue instead of being considered explicitly, which allows for more self insertion by the author and less of a look into the characters' inner lives as existing separately from the author’s lens. This, like many things in the book, feels like something I know is technically a good practice, yet it just doesn’t exactly work, and ends up ringing less true than something like The Luminaries, which is filled with gratuitous exposition, and yet whose characters feel much more like real people, instead of artificial aesthetic constructions of the idea of a video game developer.

The two stars

Where the Crawdads Sing was recommended to me by a coworker, after I’d already heard a bit of buzz surrounding it, and so it pains me a bit to give it a negative review. Robyn, if you’re reading this - no hard feelings? In my defense, part of my problem with this book comes from foiled expectations. I thought it would be somewhat closer to literary fiction, and it feels in the writing as if the author was also attempting to cater to that crowd - except she’s not skilled enough at writing to do so, and it ends up being closer to a romance novel. As such, it also inevitably fell into a lot of romance novel tropes which I did not particularly appreciate, and I’m actually quite surprised that I was recommended this book by avid feminists.

Here’s one of my gripes, so you have an idea of the sort of thing that bothered me: the protagonist is a malnourished, uneducated swamp child who does not take care of her own appearance, own clothes, eat properly or go to the dentist, in great part because she is a victim (of her abusive father, of institutionalized poverty, of prejudice). Nevertheless, the moment she becomes of age, she is now described as an incomparable beauty, exotic, and pretty enough for star athletes to prefer her over cheerleaders. It is wholly unbelievable and minimized the impact of her growing up in the swamp - it felt more like a Disney Princess sort of plot line, cheapening the book to the point of it sounding like a rom-com.

In the same vein, the main character’s educational deficits are extremely underplayed. At one absolutely laughable moment she makes fun (in her own thoughts, at least) of aforementioned star athlete when he asks about the twinkling of stars, thinking to herself that he could not possibly understand the principles of physics at play there. In doing so, she goes from someone with no formal education whatsoever to a snobbish and judgmental person the moment she has a reason to feel superior to someone else - even though those “someone elses” are the sources of her major insecurities throughout the novel.

In short, I found the way the main character’s “glow-up” happens borderline disrespectful to the impact growing up in the swamp would have had on her, and at the very least an incompetent depiction of it.

If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal came up in an episode of Ologies (at the time of writing, my favorite podcast) about dolphins. I enjoyed the author’s expertise and amusing stories enough that I wanted to give his book a try. Unfortunately, it did not live up to his participation in Ologies. Without Alie Ward’s unrelenting optimism and love for life carrying the conversation, Justin Gregg just comes across as a bit of a doomer. Many of his concerns are very real things that we should be concerned about, but he comes at them from a perspective of despair, and comes across as someone who’s on the verge of giving up. That sort of attitude grates on me, and I find it at odds with the very idea of writing it out. Gregg clearly does not wish to give up - in fact, writing the book is an act of not giving up. Unfortunately, he wallows a little bit too much for my tastes. He makes some interesting points, but fails to connect them to pragmatical applications, seeming to instead get stuck in how damning they are.

My feelings about this book were made even more relevant after reading How to Blow Up a Pipeline early this year - if you’re interested in the subject of climate activism and want a perspective on interaction with climate science that is both more grounded in history and keener on finding a path forward with the circumstances in front of us, I recommend trying that one instead.

An Immense World should have been far more enjoyable than it was. I loved the new perspectives about how understanding the ways different animals perceive the world can help us grow as humans and be practically useful. Similarly, I loved the idea that animal’s inner lives is valuable not because it is interesting to us, but in itself.

Unfortunately, the book overstays its welcome and is just, quite frankly, boring.

I found the listing of characteristics of different animals often too technical and not as interesting as the meta-view of science. I think this is in part because of how alien the Umwelt of certain animals is, so it is, to some degree, expected. However, I also think it has to do with the author’s writing style, and their inability to move enough away from technical jargon and into useful analogy. Analogies were often used to good effect, but they were not used enough - perhaps as a way to not only see the Umwelt of different animals through the lens of relating it to human characteristics. This effort made it harder to read and keep enjoying the book thoroughly.

I also liked the state-of-science anecdotes and the author’s sense of humor when he wasn’t being so technical that it became prohibitive to read. I could easily see this landing in the 4 or 5 star section of this list, if it wasn’t for the constant repetition and large sections of dense, technical depictions in between the nuggets of science communication. It’s a book that markets itself as being for a general audience, but for the most part fails to cater its contents to the target audience. This is the distinction between great science books and not so great ones - the likes of Eric Kandell and Robert Sapolsky manage to make the most complex concepts accessible in a way Ed Yong never quite achieves.

How to Sell a Haunted House was the worst horror book I’ve read this year, which is a shame because it’s filled with potential. I was not particularly sold on the puppets-as-scary-thing aspect of it, but Pupkin, the villain, did actually become quite scary by the end, mostly through the creative usage of body horror and gore-ish scenes to establish stakes. However, How to Sell a Haunted House committed the cardinal sin of horror in my eyes, which is that its plot is almost entirely fueled (and dependent on) character stupidity. Why oh why are we again going into the house at night by ourselves? Why not call Agnutter again the moment they realized that Pupkin was behind everything? Why did Louise not rip out Pupkin from her daughter’s hand again, and just not get bit the second time around? If needed, literally tie her up first and then rip out Pupkin. Why did we lose the ghostbuster family of Aunt Gail and Barb, leaving them behind for no particular reason, just to go back to the house again? So many of these problems would not be problems if the two main characters stopped YOLO’ing into the haunted house filled with demonic puppets by themselves. Or, alternatively, if they properly equipped themselves - how oh how are you going back into the haunted house without weapons, after the only way you survived the first time was because you took a weapon? Go get a flamethrower! You’re in America - buy an assault rifle at Walmart! Do something to prepare against the demonic puppet besides waltzing back into the house with no preparation or equipment, and then being surprised you lose the fight.

All in all the prose was competent and the book was tense and gripping enough in its pacing, so I don’t want to sound too harsh, but by the time it was over, I was rooting for the main characters to both die, just so there would be some punishment for the constantly nonsensical way they were acting.

Okay, before everyone forms a mob to get me - yes, I gave Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Restaurant at the End of the Universe 2 stars. I suppose that must mean I’m the Grinch, I hate humor, and every other opinion I’ve ever voiced is forever invalid in the eyes of the internet. Hear me out, though: they’re clearly good books, just not for me. They are basically a book-long Monty Python skit, and I (gasp) also do not like Monty Python. They are absurdist humor through and through, with no particular plot or characterization. The humor is amusing enough, but not laugh out loud hilarious except for a couple of moments - perhaps because I expect sitcom style of humor, with narrative weight behind it, and am not fond of absurdism. Give me Frasier any day of the week, but not this. And just to make sure I really bury my internet reputation forever and ruin any chances that me and Neil Gaiman will ever be friends: the writing itself isn’t particularly good, either. It’s witty, but there is no depth to the prose and punctuation is often wrong. Humor can’t mask all deficiencies. Clever enough, but clever can’t carry everything for 900 pages, and around 400 pages into the second book, I was ready to be done with it.

Finally, While Time Remains. This was a hard book to give two stars to, considering I gave Yeonmi Park’s first book, In Order to Live, five stars last year. And I do believe Yeonmi Park remains an intelligent writer and someone worth listening to because she writes earnestly, and that’s about the only precondition for whether or not it’s worth taking what someone says into consideration.

Her description of the dangers of some extremely progressive agendas is accurate, including and particularly the description of how the environment in a liberal arts university is counterproductive when the goal is dialogue, intellectual growth and challenge. I have a master’s in Philosophy - I saw it first hand, and was also deeply frustrated by it. The idea that people have the right to not be made uncomfortable (especially by ideas) is ridiculous, and the thought that there is a conscious effort to make a safe space out of universities in a world that is increasingly uncertain was an interesting idea.

I felt much of the same admiration Yeonmi did for figures like Jordan Peterson early on in his career, so I understand where she is coming from.

Park, however, also expresses admiration for people like Ben Shapiro and Joe Rogan, who are a bit more problematic . It’s okay to admire Rogan’s earnestness and willingness to listen to his guests, but one must also be able to question whether giving people like neo-Nazis access to platforms is problematic, which Yeonmi does not. The same goes for Peterson, who wrote good books in 12 Rules and 12 New Rules, but has since gone off the deep end with untenable far right, anti-trans, anti-science positions. Now that she’s escaped North Korea, simply changing idols is not something that Yeonmi should be looking for - she needs to be able to critically look at her new idols as well and realize that they have their own problems and are not deserving of unabashed adoration. This is ultimately what she fails to do in the book, and what leaves a sour taste in my mouth. In terms of points, she has a few - but those points seem to have opened the door for her to be duped by radical conservatives into thinking their bigotry is how you address them, which is a real shame considering how well read she is. The hope remains that she can educate herself out of it at some point, as she has done before, but I cannot in good conscience recommend this book as it stands now, now matter how accurately it identifies some problems - the way it goes about trying to solve them (by attaching itself, and validating, dishonest thinkers and problematic figures in the public space) is not it. Liberal arts universities do need a reform - but Ben Shapiro and similar grifters are not the one to herald it, nor the ones to identify the problems to begin with.

The one stars

The Enigma of Room 622 feels like the sort of crime novel I would have liked when I was young, so it’s not particularly surprising that my (much younger) brother recommended it to me. And if you’re reading this, little brother, I appreciate the recommendation and I hope you get a chuckle out of this at some point.

Unfortunately, as an adult, I feel like the characters are the worst kind of parody. Anastasia’s struggle, for example, is that she has no spine to stand up to her mother, plus she’s cheating on her husband and rationalizing it like only an emotionally stunted highschooler could. Every member of the cast is so unlikable that all I could do was roll my eyes at their problems and wish someone sane would show up. The main character is a self insert of the writer as a sex symbol that actually had me laughing at one point, because to laugh at him was the only way to deal with how poorly written he is: women are apparently magically attracted to him, as he keeps bumping into them in hotel bars and situations that are straight out of the trashiest airport novels. And yes, he has the same name as the actual writer of the book. The self-insert is not even subtle.

The writing itself is quite weak. At one point, to describe Macaire’s defeated emotional state, the writer says he is “literally annihilated”. Much of the mystery is also predictable - a couple of cliffhangers I knew the answer to immediately, because it was what sounded most like an episode of NCIS. Overall, a pulpy, disappointing novel that at least doesn’t take any brain power to get through. In fact, I recommend getting through it with your brain turned off - or better yet, not at all.

In the opposite vein, The New York Trilogy is too smart for its own good. I like Paul Auster - namely, I liked Moon Palace and Man in the Dark - but The New York Trilogy was a complete miss. In fact, I’d call it the worst Paul Auster book I’ve read so far. It is a monument to postmodernism and to the absurdity of it, a monument to nonsensical narratives and a protest against narrative structures themselves. A few enjoyable setups lead to no particular payoff, and Paul Auster tries mask it as if that’s “the point”. Unfortunately, like in much of the deepest trenches of postmodernism, the sleight of hand is that there is not much to “get”. The post structuralism is aesthetic, but lacks the density to be anything else. This is an intellectual trying to write a book on vibes. What a waste.

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