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Is it bad to relate super hard to a narrator that other reviewers describe as “unlikable”? Asking for a friend.

(But seriously, is it?)

Weike Wang’s debut novel is a patchwork of the narrator’s internal monologue, memories from her painful childhood, and vignettes of her relationship with a fellow graduate student. Oh, and scientific factoids. Despite how disjointed and piecemeal that sounds, it all comes together into a flowing, almost hypnotic read. The narrator (never named) has a perfectly nice boyfriend and is working on a perfectly adequate advanced degree in chemistry, but both aspects of her life come up against hurdles around the same time. The boyfriend wants to marry her, but her own parents’ dysfunctional disaster of a marriage makes her resistant to the idea. To move forward in her studies she has to have an original idea for research, but now she’s not sure why she even went into science in the first place. Was it because she was good at it, or because she enjoyed it? Neither? Both? The narrator doesn’t know. So she does (what seems to me to be) the logical thing: she burns it all to the ground. She quits grad school in a scene loud and glorious in its destruction, and trashes her relationship too by way of total immobility.

I suppose if I squint, I can see how some readers wouldn’t like being inside this narrator’s head—she overthinks everything, she self-sabotages, she is seemingly incapable of normal human interaction—but for me it was quite comfortable, because it felt a whole lot like being in my own head. While I didn’t suffer the unhappy childhood or fear of romantic commitment the narrator does, her constant discomfort with the unknowableness of life resonated deeply with me. How can a person get married, or choose a career, or gain independence from their parents, when there’s no way to know what happens next? How do we ever know we’re making the right choices? If you think too hard about it, that line of thinking is paralyzing.

If you’re looking for readalikes, this book reminded me of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, even though Lab Girl is a memoir. They’re both about women in science, but they’re also about existential dread and what depression can do to relationships.

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I really enjoyed Colson Whitehead's memoir about the time he spent playing in the World Series of Poker, but almost a month after finishing it, I'm having a hell of a time articulating why.

Whitehead freely admits he isn't that great of a poker player—his greatest advantage seems to be his deadpan expression, a hard-to-read poker face he presents to the world all the time, not just at the card table. When a magazine agreed to bankroll his entry fee in the tournament, he wasn't in a great place in his life, newly divorced and a little aimless professionally and creatively. He spends a good chunk of page space talking about how dreary his life was at the time.

How is that fun reading?

I've concluded that what it comes down to is Whitehead's voice. He's so dry and witty, and while he may complain at times, he always does so with an ironic glance in the mirror first. He knows he's a little bit of a sad sack, and if he laughs at himself first, it gives us permission to laugh too. Just be warned, his humor is very much on the cerebral side. It's not the kind of word play that causes spit-takes. It's the kind that makes you smile, slyly, with just one side of your mouth. If you have a mustache to twirl and a cat to pet, you could do those things too.

I personally have spent more time than I care to admit watching televised poker tournaments. I was in college when Texas Hold 'Em exploded in popularity, and you could waste hours upon hours of your day watching poker “celebrities” on ESPN trying to outwit and outbluff each other into the big money. I also played in a home game for a while, and was bad enough to think I was pretty good. So I recognized a lot of the names Whitehead dropped in the book, which was kind of fun but also kind of sad, to think how many brain cells I've used up on something like poker. Based on this book, I think that's pretty much how Whitehead feels about his poker experience, too.

I know I'm becoming a broken record when it comes to audio books, and if that's not your thing I totally respect that, but this is yet another book where the audio version really added to my enjoyment. First of all because Whitehead has a lovely deep voice and is a fantastic reader, but also because his sardonic vocal tone perfectly matches the tone of the book. They're his words, after all, and he knows exactly how to deliver them for maximum—yet deadpan—effect. I think some of the jokes are subtle enough that they could fall flat if you just read them off the page without knowing much about Colson Whitehead or his darkly funny outlook on life.