Book Reviews: October 2023

I do a poor job of documenting and reflecting on books that I read; earlier this fall, I decided to start using the Weekly Link Roundup space to comment on books as I finish them, and I am finding it to be a helpful exercise, especially for books that I don’t particularly enjoy.

My goal for November: Read more mystery novels.


Book Reviews: The Last Flight; Yellowface; A

The Last Flight by Julie Clark

It’s been months since I last touched a thriller, and I didn’t realized how much I was craving one until I read Julie’s Clark’s The Last Flight (free if you have Kindle Unlimited). I would’ve finished it in one sitting if not for the fact that I started reading the night before a busy work day. It’s a perfect palate cleanser, which I desperately needed after slogging through Walter Isaacson’s Musk biography. There’s a lot to like: a female-characters driven plot, Clark’s easy prose, the lack of gotcha! twists, and the interesting premise– two strangers on the run trade boarding passes at an airport bar… then one of the planes crashes. It’s a 4-out-of-5-stars book for me, as the leads’ characterizations occasionally verged on conventional stereotypes and the mystery stewed at a low-heat intensity throughout (I’d argue it never reaches a satisfying crescendo). I think I would’ve enjoyed it even more if I didn’t immediately try to read Clark’s follow-up, The Lies I Tell, which I abandoned after three pages (but plan to pick up after some distance) as the formula felt too similar to TLF.

VERDICT: 👍👍👍👍


Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

Yellowface followed me around the web for months, from Amazon to Goodreads to fashion blogs I read. I finally capitulated after getting an offline recommendation and… finished it in one-sitting!

In Yellowface, two aspiring writers–Athena “a Chinese Anne Hathaway” Liu and June “I don’t know what a soup dumpling is, but it sounds gross” Hayward–who met as undergrads at Yale but who found vastly different levels of professional success, were out celebrating Athena’s Netflix deal one night, when things took a dark turn with Athena dying in a freak accident. June proceeded to steal Athena’s freshly-completed secret manuscript that’s “better than anything [June] could write, perhaps in this lifetime,” then submitted it for publication as her own. Yellowface, beyond satirizing the commercial publishing industry that its author knows well, also asks (but only explores superficially) the question of who’s allowed to tell the stories of suffering.

The book’s intensity was helped by Kuang’s choice to write in the first-person voice of June who, while severely lacking in depth, nuance, and awareness, narrated in increasing desperation as paranoia set in; she also held a mirror to modern-day fame culture, asking readers how far they were willing to go to secure validation and meaning. But I can’t understate how annoyed I was by June, to the book’s credit and detriment. I had to turn to the audiobook, after starting in Kindle, to get me across the finish line because the only way I could tolerate June’s rants was to rest in Balasana.

VERDICT: 😕😕😕


A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy by Nathan Thrall

A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy, a narrative nonfiction penned by Nathan Thrall, follows Abed Salama on the worst day of his life: Abed’s son, five-year-old Milad, had been on a school bus that burst into flames after colliding with a tractor-trailer, killing six and leaving some survivors with burns so severe they couldn’t be identified. In the chaos of the crash, Abed goes on a wild goose chase to find Milad, and his struggles along the way show readers the difficulty of life for Palestinians living near separation barriers.

One problem I find with books first written as magazine or newspaper articles is that in zooming out the lens to expand the story, writers sometimes lose focus of the compelling main storyline. And it happens here: the narrative occasionally meanders into a digression, especially when it shifts away from Abed.

For anyone looking to read more about why Palestinian discontentment keeps boiling over and how 70 years of conflict wound into a Gordian Knot, Abed Salama’s story opens a window into the segregationist bureaucracy that governs millions of Palestinian lives.

VERDICT: 😔😔😔😔


Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon by Michael Lewis

My faith in celebrity biographers fell to a new low after reading Walter Isaacson’s Elon Musk; even after calibrating my expectations, I was still disappointed by how Michael Lewis chose to tell Sam Bankman-Fried story in his latest book. In Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon, SBF is presented as a peculiar but naive “young man” (he’s 31); Lewis seems to suggest that SBF’s oddness and aloofness explain why FTX had such poor accounting practices, but this characterization minimizes SBF’s culpability. Lewis comes across as incapable of writing objectively about villains, insisting that his subject is misunderstood and could be redeemed.

I also recoil at the way that Lewis writes about Asian women, describing one as “small and agreeable and ill-designed for rebellion”; the only mannerism of this former FTX employee that Lewis deems important enough to describe is how “she still reflexively covered her mouth with her hand when she laughed.” (Disclosure: I am oversensitive to instances of r/menwritingwomen.)

Look, I am sympathetic to Lewis; he clearly did not expect for FTX to implode so spectacularly and completely when he set out to profile SBF–still, it reflects poorly on him to Surprise Pikachu after spending more than a year with SBF and not finding more reasons for suspicion, especially after this podcast aired. It’s clear that Lewis isn’t interested in FTX’s business or cryptocurrency more broadly, and this indifference shows in Going Infinite.

VERDICT: 🙁🙁


Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks by Patrick Radden Keefe

I will read anything that Patrick Radden Keefe puts out into the world: he is a master of long-form journalism and his dedication to the genre is on full display in 2022’s Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks, which is a collection of twelve essays PRK wrote for The New Yorker. In Rogues, we are introduced to Judy Clarke, a defense lawyer who represents “The Worst of the Worst“; spend time with Astrid Holleeder, sister and accuser of Amsterdam’s most notorious criminal, De Neus; play detective with Bill Koch–the Koch brother who is “as compulsive about filing lawsuits as he is about collecting”–as he tries to prove wine fraud, among other adventures.

PRK writes with empathy for his subjects, fleshing them out for readers in colorful characterizations, but never losing sight of their fallibility and complexity–he reminds us that they may be destructive or recalcitrant or dishonest, but their stories speak to greater themes of “crime and corruption, secrets and lies, the permeable membrane separating licit and illicit worlds, the bonds of family, the power of denial.”

VERDICT: 🫶🫶🫶🫶🫶


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