2016 reading roundup | recs from friends

As I was creating categories for my posts, I realized a group of books were emerging as ‘miscellaneous’, in terms of genre. Many of them were among the most challenging to get through, and all of them were recommendations from friends, so I gave them this post. Several of the books I sorted into other categories could go here, but catch-alls gotta catch-all:

Await Your Apply | Dan Chaon

This book wayras pitched heavily on a plot twist, a good portion of which I guessed at early. But as a person who believes strongly that figuring out the plot doesn’t ruin a story, I have to say my lukewarm feelings toward the story don’t come from ‘spoiling’ it for myself, but from a distaste for the characters. From a sad, desperate man searching for his shitty, delusional brother, to Lucy, the quintessential teenage-girl-as-written-by-adult-man, I didn’t care what happened to any of them. They all could have been redeemed if I felt I could trust the book to be saying something true and necessary about schizophrenia, but instead mental illness was used as a crutch for a plot twist, like in a Hollywood horror movie. That isn’t always a bad thing, but since this novel has literary fiction aspirations, I think it’s a worthwhile criticism to make. I did think the ending was fairly well crafted, and became somewhat drawn in at the last moment, but were it not a such a high recommendation, I would never have read that far.

Night Film | Marisha Pessl pessl_night-film

Marley recommended this book because it is a mystery unfolding around a cult film director, with the caveat that the final 30 pages are to be ignored. I completely agree with her on that last part. This book completely sucked me in with the ‘is it supernatural or not’ mystery, and even though it is 600+ pages long, it never drags and I tore through it. I found the each of the noir-lite characters bland, and the mystique around both the film director and his dead daughter quite cheesy at times. But I so rarely find compelling mysteries, so Night Film still remains one of the better ones I’ve read.

Waiting for the Barbarians | J. M. Coetzee

This book came as a recommendation from a friend who said it’s one of his top 3-5 of all time, so I feel guilty about just how much I couldn’t stand it. It’s actually a little insane how much the explicit politics of the book conflict with my reading of it. The main character is a magistratwaiting-for-the-barbarians-by-j-m-coetzeee of an unnamed (white) Empire in some made up land of brown people, and spends the book struggling with conflicted feelings about his people’s abuse of locals. The microcosm of this feeling is focused on this blind native woman who he has a weird fetish for, and takes in and ritually bathes for some reason, and doesn’t sleep with, until he does. Her point of view is totally opaque to him, because he’s just such an awful person he can’t empathize with her at all, despite being fascinated and infatuated. The book is supposed to reflect what it’s like to be part of a society that is oppressing others but also entangled in it and victimized by it, which as an American, I thought would be interesting, but I honestly was just disgusted the whole time. I can’t believe it won a Nobel prize.

Sunshine | Robin McKinleysun

This book came passionately recommended by three long-time friends and I was disappointed to find I did not like it. The main character was profoundly uncompelling and annoying. She felt like grown-up Lyra from His Dark Materials, but somehow even less special. Also, I am mystified by the sex scene in the middle of the book: sudden, unnecessary, and totally without practical or emotional consequence. Again, some decent world-building, but in an era of a thousand books and shows where magic is real in modern times, it wasn’t especially mind-blowing given how thin the plot was.

Lexicon | Max Barry lexicon-max-barry

Yet another female lead in the school of Sunshine and Lyra that I could never quite bring myself to care about (while the male lead is boring until he very suddenly isn’t). Nevertheless, Like Night Film, this was an entertaining and compelling read, if not nearly as intellectual as it thinks it is. Reading it shortly after Snow Crash highlighted very clearly how similar the core ideas are. I finished it quite quickly, because the central mystery benefits from the alternating narrator structure. It would be a real waste if it were never made into a film, since the pace and visuals almost scream out to be adapted.

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