Spring Round-up: 8 Books I Liked — and 2 I Didn't
At least three of these books made me think: "Now THIS is gonna be the best book I'll read all year." One of them I try to convince you that you should absolutely, 100% should go read it right now.
I’d like to blame the weather in England for why I’m publishing my Spring reading-round in late July. But I can’t. It’s more that I’ve either been doing an immense amount of nothing, or trying to finish my PhD dissertation—often at the same time. I’ve should’ve been keeping up with writing. I should’ve been doing podcasts. But I wasn’t. The good news, I guess, is that I did finish a draft of my dissertation. I’m almost there. Anyway, books:
Earlier this year, I wrote about my minor obsession with Jonathan Franzen. Among the contenders for the best books I’ll read this year were Franzen’s The Corrections and Rachel Cusk’s Outline. I got a lot out of Heart of Darkness, and a little out of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I bitched about how I think, despite being recommended by, like, every scientist I interviewed on Cognitive Revolution, Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem is way overrated. A lot of what I’ve read from March through June was a response to all that: More Franzen! More Cusk! A popular novel I like even less than Normal People! And most importantly: The book that actually is what Three Body Problem should be!!
I spent March and April in Vietnam. So my first reads took place there.
“The Quiet American” (1955) by Graham Greene
The classic white-person-in-Vietnam novel. I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s a little… obtuse. A little oblivious in the way that people temporarily located in a foreign country often are. Let’s just say that Vietnamese people don’t get any of the really good lines (and the novel is nothing if not spilling over with really good lines). But on the other hand, that’s not what the novel is trying to be. Graham Greene isn’t trying to convey to you, Hey, this is what Vietnam is like from the Vietnamese perspective! He’s trying to convey to you what Vietnam is like from the foreigner’s perspective: the intrigue, the romance, the danger, the unknowability. And I guess that’s what makes it the classic white-person-in-Vietnam novel.
“Saigon” (1982) by Anthony Grey
The cover described this book as War and Peace, but in Vietnam. I kinda rolled my eyes at that. What they mean by that is that the novel’s scope is huge, it alternates between abstract historical exposition and intimate personal happenings—and it takes place in Vietnam. But wow! This was sincerely one of the greatest reading experiences I’ve ever had. The story follows three families: one French, one American, one Vietnamese. It starts when Vietnam is still a French colony (1920s) and goes until the “Fall of Saigon” in April 1975. It follows the families from father to son, mother to daughter, across multiple generations. It is epic! It is beautiful! I loved every second of it. Was it really War and Peace in Vietnam? I don’t know. But here’s what I will say: It did feel like it was a book about the world. Specifically, my world—or at least the world I feel like I inhabit when I’m in Vietnam. It deals the inextricable histories of Vietnam and America, not just in terms of “war” (though that’s an unavoidably major part of it ) but with life itself: family, love, job, romance, duty, all that. If you’re a westerner spending an extended amount of time in Vietnam (by which I mean long enough to read a 700 page novel), then it’s a MUST read. Other than that, you’re probably better off selecting a different tome to scratch the War and Peace itch.
“In The Distance” (2017) by Hernan Diaz
Instant classic! To say he’s the next Cormac McCarthy is incorrect—both because he’s just a different author, and because his capabilities are honestly a lot broader than McCarthy’s. But I’d definitely make the case this is the most innovative contemporary Western novel since, let’s say, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. If you read books with cowboys, read this one!! (Content warning: it doesn’t actually feature that many cowboys. That’s one of the innovations.)
I would describe this book as visually stunning. The opening scene is this completely white ice-scape. There’s a hole in the ice. Out of it comes this massive—like inhumanly massive—dude, with white hair and a long white beard. He’s completely naked. (The book doesn’t state this explicit but you just know he’s totally hung.) The man walks across the ice, returns to his ship, and everyone on board is whispering and gossiping like Who is this guy?? The book’s story is about finding out. It plays with a ton of tropes that are common in Western novels, both paying homage to them and flipping them on their head. For example, it’s an immigrant-to-America story; but the immigrant lands in California, rather than somewhere on the East Coast. Anyway, I won’t give away any more. But if you like Westerns, you gotta read this one.
“How to Be Alone” (2002) by Jonathan Franzen
Franzen! Essays! Brilliant writing! Interesting ideas! It’s young Franzen, so he’s a bit more brash in his approach than his later non-fiction. I like that. He also hadn’t gotten into birds yet. I also read his most recent collection of his essays, which I talked about in my Winter round-up. It’s about climate change, mostly, and literally the main reason he cares about climate change (as far as I could tell) is because it’s going to be bad for birds. So there was way, way less about birds in this collection. Which is overall a positive for me. His most influential essay, about why we should read novels (known as “The Harper’s Essay”), is also in here. Probably worth reading for that alone.
“Sea of Tranquility” (2022) by Emily St John Mandel
I read this because it seemed like the cool book to be reading this spring. I’ve never read a book because it was cool before. Popular, yes. Highly regarded, yes. But never because, like, quasi-literary cool kids were into it. And… I liked it! Well enough, at least. What I liked was that it featured a non-linear narrative with several different timelines (different characters doing different things at different points in history). And they all have this really small thing that connects their experiences. I’ve been into this kind of book ever since reading Ghostwritten by David Mitchell (and then, later, All That Man Is by David Szalay). So I consider myself someone who likes this kind of novel. Not my favorite addition to that canon. But good enough. And that’s more than I can say for How High We Go In The Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu. The Mandel book featured a pandemic story, and to be honest I’m extremely done with contemplating the nature, causes, and consequences of global pandemics. And How High We Go is ALL pandemic story. Literally couldn’t get through it.
“Intimacies” (2021) by Katie Kitamura
Wasn’t a fan! This is one of these books where the hook is that we don’t really get any identifying information about the narrator. And I am definitely intrigued by that hook. The narrator/protagonist is a translator in the Hague, which is also cool. It’s just that… well, I didn’t find it very interesting. And that’s an unpardonable sin in my book of judgment.
“Trust” (2022) by Hernan Diaz
I read this book right as it came out, because I’m officially a Diaz fanboy. This one was reallyyyyy good as well. It’s also really, really complex thematically. Not in the sense that it’s hard to follow, but in that the text doesn’t reward an effort to read a single, straightforward theme from it. Diaz himself claims it is about “money.” As in, previous books—say, The Great Gatsby—are about rich people. But they never actually talk about money. This book features people actually talking about money. And by virtue of talking about money, we get this proliferation of themes which are crucial to American cultural life. For example: how the story of success is told; how women are traditionally written out of it. Basically, we get four different sections, and each one is a document where we’re getting a different version of what is essentially the same story. The first one is the classic rich white dude telling his own story featuring the secrets of his success (it reminded me PRECISELY of the kind of rhetoric used by J. Paul Getty, whose autobio/secrets of success I read in college). And then in each following document, we learn more and more layers of what really happened behind the scenes in that story. It’s brilliant! It’s fun! It’s intriguing! And above all, it deals with the construction of narratives, of (and here you can tell Diaz is a recovering PhD) the construction of literary artifacts. I love that.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” (2018) by Delia Owens
Not terrible. But definitely missable. I’d describe this as essentially your classic Southern novel, where there’s some disenfranchised person (of color or poverty or both) who has a run in with Society and by virtue of this run in grows up, but instead of taking place in the rural South it takes place in marshy (marshy! not swampy! this is a crucial plot point) rural North Carolina. It’s a nice story, and a nicely told one, too, and it keeps you wanting to go along with it. I had a very specific reason for not liking it. But honestly for the life I me I can’t remember what it was. I think the fact that my brain didn’t feel it was an insight worth retaining speaks to why the book failed to move me. Anyway, it’s definitely meant to be a book. I hear the movie sucks, and I 100% would not have wanted to consume this story cinematically even if I had liked the novel in the first place. I will say, though, I thought the ending was nice.
“Transit” (2016) by Rachel Cusk
The second installment in the Outline trilogy! Not better than the first one, not any worse, either; not super different, but also not entirely the same. Extended meditation on the two books coming next week.
“Project Hail Mary” (2021) by Andy Weir
If you only pick up one (audio-)book for the rest of your year, you could do a lot worse than this one. I have no qualms about stating that this is the single most engaging book I’ve ever read. It’s un-put-down-able. I basically had to give up two days of work to just plough through the 16 hours of audio. (I put in approximately six hour shifts during the days, then also listened at night because my body refused to sleep when I could be listening to this book.)
Where to begin? So you know the movie The Martian, with Matt Damon. This is the guy who wrote the book it’s based on. And it’s got a great plot, that movie. I bet the book is really, really good as well—though I haven’t read it. But this one (Project Hail Mail) is as good as that plot, plus tons more other really, really interesting stuff. It’s got a heavily first-person perspective. The book starts off: you’re in the perspective of this character, he’s just waking up, he’s groggy, he doesn’t know where he is. Slowly he regains use of digits, then his limbs, then his body. He’s in a pod. After protracted effort, he extricates himself from the pod. He’s in a white, sterile room. There are two other pods. He keeps exploring until he realizes, Holy shit. I’m in space. Each chapter culminates in some massive revelation like this, and honestly it never lets up. I won’t say anything more because literally even describing the next chapter would entail a massive spoiler.
As I alluded to above, this is the book that Three Body Problem aspires to be. Scientists like that book because, well, it’s about science. The main characters are scientists. The plot points are scientific. But in my opinion, it’s a superficial kind of scientific understanding. And, I mean, I’m a psychologist, so my bar for what constitutes science is not super high, and I was still like, It’s not science-y enough for me to really feel that’s a huge draw. This book, Project Hail Mary, is literally A GUY SITTING IN A ROOM THINKING THROUGH SCIENTIFIC PROBLEMS. He actually spends a non-negligible part of the book doing mental math. And you know what? It’s fucking scintillating. I encouraged a physicist friend to read it, and she felt the same way I did. When you’re reading this book, everyone around you has to hear about how you’re reading this book. And she okay’d the science as not overtly far-fetched. In fact, her biggest complain in terms of unrealism was that the guy used Excel to do his calculations, and, evidently, no self-respecting astrobiologist would ever do their calculations in Excel. In other words, the science is legit.
Anyway, in summary my point is that this is (a) the most engaging book I’ve ever read, and it’s also probably (b) the most science-y book I’ve ever read (as far as fiction books about science go, of which I’ve read admittedly very few). Go read it!
And if you do audiobooks, definitely do that!
And if you don’t do audiobooks but have always wanted to get into them, this is the one you’ve been waiting for!!
So yeah, I guess what we can all take from my reading list so far this year is that I don’t read non-fiction anymore unless it’s to prepare for an interview with a podcast guest. (And so far, I haven’t counted those books here.) If you had told me two years ago that one day I’d read almost exclusively fiction, I would not have believed you.
But here we are.
Anyway, next week. Rachel Cusk. Outline + Transit. Coming your way. See you then.