Books of September 2018

臺北人 - 白先勇

臺北人.jpg

If you are interested in stories about nostalgia and diaspora set in Taipei then read 臺北人.

臺北人 is a collection of short stories about people living in Taipei. Although these people are called 臺北人, all of them moved from China in the 1950s and 1960s, and no one is really originally from Taipei. Stuck reminiscing about the good old times in Mainland China, these people and their stories are steeped in nostalgia, loss of identity, and their resulting insecurity. I really enjoyed these stories because 白先勇 does a really good job capturing the feeling and mood of a very specific time. His stories are heavily rooted in what it’s like to be Chinese and living in Taipei in the 60s both in physical motifs: dance halls, tea houses, mahjong, the KMT military, opera, and pleasure quarters, and in an ephemeral mood: not really angry so much as bitter and hollow, emptied by what they’ve experienced and what they’ve lost.

I actually started reading 臺北人 in January, but I took a long break because the language was really difficult and also very dated, so I had to stop really frequently to look up words :-(

The Breaker - Jeon Geuk-jin & Park Jin-hwan

The Breaker.jpg

If you’re interested in a standard pretty shitty shounen with cool panels, then read The Breaker.

Every couple of days I peek at /r/manga to look for updates on manga I follow, which is how I chanced upon this reddit thread titled “Best panel in The Breaker : New Waves

cizxlx8bi7m11.jpg

which looked pretty cool, plus I haven’t read any new manga in a while so I decided to read The Breaker (technically a Korean webtoon). It’s a pretty simple shounen with a very straightforward typical premise: weak protagonist gets bullied, finds out his high school teacher is a martial arts legend, begs him to get trained, shows surprising aptitude, and then gets thrown in the complicated world of martial arts. It’s the same plot as a million different manga, and nothing really distinguishes it except some of the panels are pretty cool, so if you’re into those moments, if you like the art style, or if you just find that story line entertaining then The Breaker is pretty worth reading.

I don’t though, I just mildly enjoy brain rotting material every now and then.

Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties - Karen Ishizuka

Serve the People.jpg

If you’re interested in Asian American activism in the 1960s and 1970s then read Serve the People.

Serve the People is about Asian American activism in long sixties (60s to mid 70s). I found it really interesting to learn about all of that history, because they were things that I was never really exposed to as an Asian. I’ve never really thought about the experience of being Asian in America or born Asian in America, and the associated (and very different!) problems and challenges that are often ignored or unacknowledged, and reading Serve the People really challenged my totally misguided misconception that the Asian American experience has always been good and Asians experience less racism. The only thing about this book is it’s quite dry— it is mostly a recount of people and events, and halfway through the book started feeling like a bit of a slog for me.

Some things I liked:

  • On being Asian American:

    • But Asian America has always been about being in-between.

    • Being non-white in a Eurocentric society, we were subject to the dominance of whiteness and subsequent subordination faced by all Americans of color. Yet not being black in a society that was defined and rendered in black and white rendered us inconsequential, if not invisible.

  • On the battle to claim Asian-ness:
    Currently when you say Asian American, all it means is that you are of Asian descent. But originally, it was a loaded word, an explosive phrase that defined a position, a very important position: I am not a marginalized person. I don’t apologize for being Asian. I start with the premise that we have a long and involved history here of participation and contribution and I have a right to be here.

  • On the importance of the Asian American movement of the Long Sixties:
    The Asian American movement of the 1960s and 1970s was the turning point in our history in this country. It marked the end of our being sidelined as “Orientals” and the emergence of a homeland we called Asian America. It was a time, as Ron Chew remarked, “of fierce idealism, radical politics, and boundless optimism.”

  • On being the complacent minority:
    As we recovered our history, our ancestors told us we were not, and never have been, the complacent minority.

Daytripper - Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba

Daytripper.jpg

If you’re interested in a gorgeous graphic novel about life, death, and the little moments in between then read Daytripper.

Daytripper is a graphic novel about the meaning of life and death, presented through the story of Bras de Oliva Domingos. Son of a famous writer, when the story begins Bras is writing obituaries for a newspaper and dreaming of becoming an author, and as the story unfolds we learn about Bras at different stages of his life and the little moments that seem innocuous but define who Bras becomes.

What’s unique about Daytripper is that at the end of every chapter, Bras dies, so each chapter not only builds his backstory but also presents a fork, a place where Bras’s life brushed by death. As you read on, getting to know Bras better and better, you watch Bras die over and over again at the closing of each chapter at various moments of his life, which seems kind of depressing but actually oddly ends up being a very life affirming book. In a very raw and tenderly hopeful way, Bras’s many deaths help us understand how life is shaped by the quiet, unseeming moments, and life is necessarily delineated by death; the latter giving the former meaning. Seems kind of cliche, but this is where I think the graphic novel medium shines- the combination of short, thoughtful dialogue and beautiful, detailed art makes the story feel very real, and the authors never really explicitly moralize. They just lay out and share with you a multitude of Bras’s stories, asking at each step what makes life worth living? What are the most meaningful moments of life?

Men Without Women - Haruki Murakami

Men Without Women.jpg

If you’re interested in stories about loneliness and estrangement then read Men Without Women.

Men Without Women is a collection of short stories by Murakami about… men without women. Some of them are more magical realism-y than the others (Kino, Samsa in Love), but all of them feature a male protagonist that is lonely and estranged because of their relationship with a woman or women in their life. Most of the stories are also about melancholy and loss, taking place after the woman has gone and the man is alone.

I’ve only read two books by Murakami so far, but it seems like there’s a pretty consistent style in his writing and it’s the same in these stories. I really like how he begins every story, bringing you immediately into the narrative without feeling jarring. As the details unfold or are unwrapped by the reader, nothing feels forced, and Murakami manages to achieve a very dreamlike quality in his writing.

What I find most interesting about the people in these stories is they don’t really feel strong emotions. Their identity is grounded in the women in their life, and when they leave, they become reduced to nothing, and their stories are told after that pervasive melancholy and hollowness has settled into their lives and permeated through their being. I’m not super familiar with most of Murakami’s books, but that seems like a very Murakami subject to be writing about.

My favorite stories were Drive My Car, An Independent Organ, and Kino. Some of my favorite quotes:

  • On the necessity of knowing:
    He didn’t want to imagine such things, but he couldn’t help it. The images whittled away at him like a sharp knife, steady and unrelenting. There were times he thought it would have been far better to never have known. Yet he continued to return to his core principle: that, in every situation, knowledge was better than ignorance. However agonizing, it was necessary to confront the facts. Only through knowing could a person become strong.

  • On release:
    But he doubted the dead could think or feel anything. In his opinion, that was one of the great things about dying.

  • On the wholeness of feeling lonely:
    Like dry ground welcoming the rain, he let the solitude, silence, and loneliness soak in.

  • On the importance of feeling pain:
    I wasn’t hurt enough when I should have been, Kino admitted to himself. When I should have felt real pain, I stifled it. I didn’t want to take it on, so I avoided facing up to it. Which is why my heart is so empty now. The snakes have grabbed that spot and are trying to hide their coldly beating hearts there.

Us Against You - Fredrik Backman

Us Against You.jpg

If you’re interested in a fuking great sequel to Beartown then read Us Against You.

I am really wary about reading sequels, especially 2nd books because so many of them are so disappointing, but I was SO impressed with this book. Us Against You is the sequel to Beartown, which I absolutely loved but was also a grueling emotional rollercoaster to read, so I had pretty high expectations for Us Against You.

The first few chapters of Us Against You feels a little bit heavy handed. Maybe partially because he pulls from the same literary bag of tricks as Beartown, the way he sets up the plot made it really obvious, and he uses a bunch of cliffhangers and short sentences and stuff like that. Usually I hate that shit, and it really turns me off books, but here I actually really really enjoyed it, because of how much it fuking got to me. I read Us Against You in two days, and I was extremely emotionally invested the entire time. It felt like watching a very good magician do a magic trick that you know. It’s very obvious to you what they’re doing to accomplish the trick, where they’re hiding the contraption, how they’re doing the sleight of hand, but you still gotta admire the skill and you’re still bought into it.

The ideas in the story are good too. There are still a lot of characters that are very enjoyable to read (although maybe too many?), but what really makes Us Against You grippingly great are the concept and the themes of the book. Like Beartown, Us Against You is about community not hockey, but where Beartown focuses on the choices that define a community, Us Against You focuses on the violence that is causes and is caused by divisions between people. It is consistently miserable and heartwrenching, but as in all his books there are some really lovely, life affirming scenes. I think I was also less fucked up by this one because I expected it more after reading Beartown, whereas after reading A Man Called Ove you really just don’t expect an author to drop that kind of emotional damage onto you.

Some of my favorite parts of Us Against You *super heavy spoilers*:

  • On the importance of sports, and on good repetition:

    • And when Teemu leans forward and whispers, “The new coach is holding an open A-team tryout for you. If you’re good enough, you’ll be allowed to play!” Vidar’s joy sings so loudly inside his head that there’s no room for him to think about anything else. It’s only sports.

    • Maya doesn’t heal inside that barn. She doesn’t build a time machine, she doesn’t change the past, she isn’t blessed with memory loss. But she will come back here every day and learn martial arts, and one day soon she will be standing in the line at the supermarket when a stranger accidentally brushes past her. And she won’t flinch. It’s the greatest of all small events, and no one understands. But she will walk home from the store that day as if she were on her way somewhere. That evening she will come back to train some more. And the next day. It’s only sports.

  • On love and loss and the multiplicity of a person:
    People come up to Hog afterward, trying to sum her up. It’s impossible, she was too many things: a talented nurse at the hospital, a much-loved colleague who was always willing to help, a loyal and cherished friend. The great love of one man’s life and the only mother three very different children will ever have. There’s only one person being buried, but she was many more women than that for those left behind.

  • On reconciliation and meeting in between:
    Kira washes up afterward. Teemu dries. They don’t make peace, but they take a break. The complicated thing about good and bad people alike is that most of us can be both at the same time.

  • On support:
    Vidar doesn’t say a word. It’s the finest thing anyone has ever done for Ana.

  • On support:
    When Ana steps into the ring to confront her opponent, a section of the audience stands up, as if on command. They don’t shout out, but they’re wearing black jackets, and they all put one hand very briefly on their hearts when she looks at them. “Who are they?” the referee asks in surprise. Ana blinks up at the roof. She imagines the sky beyond it. “Those are my brothers and sisters. They stand tall if I stand tall.”

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest.jpg

Omfg I’m finally done reading… I wrote a blog post a week for 13 weeks and have one last summary one to go… :’-)

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone - Olivia Laing

The Lonely City.jpg

If you’re interested in art, loneliness, and art about loneliness then read The Lonely City.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone is about author Olivia Laing being lonely in New York and exploring her loneliness through the work of four different artists: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger. In the book, she talks about the history of each artist and their work, and discusses how each artist interacted with loneliness in different ways. Hopper’s paintings captures the “cramped, anxious, sometimes alluring experience of urban living,” Warhol’s art explores the spaces between people and the way technology enhances the loneliness of modern day connectivity, Darger’s paintings demonstrate the social forces that lead to isolation, and Wojnarowicz’s art fights against it, resisting silence and the burden of solitude. Loneliness is not the only thing that defines these artists, just a thread that connects their work, but a particularly personal one for Laing.

Over the last few years, especially with my art history minor, I’ve read a lot of writing on art, but The Lonely City is my favorite book on art I’ve read so far. She’s good at explaining the art and the artist, and I definitely understand these four artists’ work much better, but what she does great is that she humanizes the art and gives it a real, visceral purpose. She helped me understand what the artist was aiming for and helped me emotionally feel the art better, and in this case it was also particularly poignant, because I spend a lot of my time thinking about loneliness. One of her main points is that loneliness makes people shut off from one another, and the way to counter that is to be aggressively open and hopeful and communicative. In that way, through the work she presents and by sharing the artists’ loneliness (and hers), The Lonely City makes you feel less lonely.

That is a lovely function of art, and also why I enjoy engaging with art by focusing on the art, because art makes you feel less lonely. It is not just that someone felt the same things you felt, someone felt the same things you felt and felt it so strongly that they had to make it real, make it art, and when you are feeling lonely, there is nothing more comforting than that.

Conference Room, Five Minutes - Shea Serrano

CRFM.jpg

If you like Shea’s work or The Office then read CRFM.

Shea is incredible and hilarious and everyone should buy his stuff and support his work!!! (his twitter is also very good).

Conference Room, Five Minutes is a collection of 10 essays on the TV show The Office. I’ve actually only watched The Office to season 4 (every time I tell an American that they’re extremely horrified) so some of the references went over my head, but that’s ok, because what I appreciate the most about his work is he looks at very common things like basketball, rap, or The Office and brings his very special brand of humor and deep insight. Reading his books makes those subjects so much more interesting to think about and so much easier to appreciate, and really deepens and broadens how I engage with those things. It makes me not only like those things more but also see them in a new way, which is the best outcome of reading non fiction.

Shea is also really nerdy and very funny, which are both qualities you really need to have in an author in order to be able to write compelling and also deeply detailed chapters on a basketball draft report of The Office, ranking Michael Scott’s alternate personas, and an email chain discussing whether Jim Halpert is hot.

Infinite Jest, Week 13 (911-981)

One of the ways I judge how good a book is is by how I feel after I finish the book. There’s not really a specific thing I’m looking for: for nonfiction, I enjoy the satisfaction of learning something new; for fiction, I enjoy thinking about the story, relating to the characters, or just admiring the writing or the style.

For all the books I’ve read though, I’ve never felt the way I did after finishing IJ. Reading that last line about Don Gately is profound, because at that point you’ve spent hours and hours reading a long ass book and your expectations just keep getting built up higher and higher as DFW continually demonstrates his genius as an author, and holy shit you can’t fucking wait to see how all the separate plots get connected and resolved and then the book’s just done, and you find yourself wanting to look for lost pages or hoping that a 1000+ page book was longer. It's sad how much I believed, even up until the last couple of pages, but it’s funny how fucking badly DFW pranked the shit out of me. It’s even funnier when you think about it more (or when you reread the book) because he fucking tells you that he’s going to end it like that, what with the lengthy description of all of Himself’s plotless films and the whole spiel on anticonfluential film.

It seems hard to be more hostile to the reader than that, and it feels like there’s no better support for the “DFW on some level hates his readers and IJ is intentionally obscure” argument than the ending. But if you read IJ carefully, that’s not just wrong; it’s the complete opposite of his entire project and philosophy as an author. In his interviews he says fiction is about what it is like “to be a fucking human,” and there’s no one he reaches out more desperately to connect with than the people he is writing for.

To be fair though, it's much more evident the second time I read the book that it’s easy to totally misread the ending, and the way I better understood IJ was by comparing it with Himselfs’ films. DFW is not just exploring the medium of writing, just like Himselfs’ films aren’t just the work of a technically gifted auteur. Like Pre-Nuptial, there is a much more moral thesis in IJ than the trite “hey! you should learn to appreciate books that end in unconventional ways.” Instead, it’s not that DFW deprived me of the final enjoyment; it’s that there is no final satisfaction and work and sacrifice are baked into the experience of enjoyment. IJ would be a worse book if it ended by tying everything together nicely explicitly for you, and I bet realizing that it doesn’t just work, it’s the only thing that could possibly work is how it feels to be a drug addict realizing that those shitty AA sayings actually work. To quote my friend Mad:

sometimes you just have to keep doing futile seeming activities and efforts
and that those things that you think arent shit
will eventually show you what life is
that life is just trying

Anyways if you’re actually curious about what happens at the end there are a bunch of cool theories but this one is my favorite: http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/ijend.

Some other things I enjoyed, interspersed between pages and pages of Gately and people that aren’t Hal or Marathe or Joelle so I don’t care about them:

  • Gately on crying:
    he found himself starting to cry like a babe. It came out of emotional nowheres all of a sudden, and he found himself blubbering at the loss of organized ball, his one gift and other love, his own stupidity and lack of discipline, that blasted cocksucking Ethan From, his Mom’s Sir Osis and vegetabilization and his failure after four years ever yet to visit, feeling suddenly lower than bottom-feeder-shit, standing over hot laminates and Polaroid squares and little stick-on D.M.V. letters for rich blond male boys, in the blazing winter light, blubbering amid fraudulent stink and tear-steam. It was two days later he got pinched for assaulting one bouncer with the unconscious body of another bouncer, in Danvers MA, and three months after that that he went to Billerica Minimum.

  • On drugs as escape:
    he now realizes that that was the first time it really ever dawned on him in force that a drug addict was at root a craven and pathetic creature: a thing that basically hides.

  • On porn:
    Himself felt his jaw and pushed his glasses up several times and shrugged and finally said he supposed he was afraid of the film giving Orin the wrong idea about having sex. He said he’d personally prefer that Orin wait until he’d found someone he loved enough to want to have sex with and had had sex with this person, that he’d wait until he’d experienced for himself what a profound and really quite moving thing sex could be, before he watched a film where sex was presented as nothing more than organs going in and out of other organs, emotionless, terribly lonely.

  • Mario on the redemptive qualities of kindness:
    Mario, being alone and only fourteen and largely clueless about anti-stem defensive strategies outside T-stations, had had no one worldly or adult along with him there to explain to him why the request of men with outstretched hands for a simple handshake or High Five shouldn’t automatically be honored and granted, and Mario had extended his clawlike hand and touched and heartily shaken Loach’s own fuliginous hand

And here are a list of questions that despite everything I just said I really want answers to:

  • Does Hal take the DMZ or no? Does Hal ever watch the Entertainment?

  • What happens to Moms?

  • What happens when the Enfield Tennis Academy kids meet the AFR?

  • Do the AFR get the Entertainment?

  • Is Joelle actually disfigured, and is her name actually Joelle?

  • Where the fuck does Lyle come from, and can he actually float? Does he eat anything else besides sweat?

  • How did the Antitoi brothers get a copy of the Entertainment?

  • Does Pemulis get expelled? Where does he go? Why does DFW hate him so much?

  • Does Marathe betray the AFR? What happens to his wife? Does she get the treatment she needs?

  • Who is Orin referring to when he shouts “Do it to her!”

  • Is John Wayne, the Moms, or Poutrincourt AFR agents?

Infinite Jest, Week 12 (845-911)

Almost a year and a half ago I got shoulder surgery to remove my PVNS, and I spent three or four days in the hospital hooked up to a morphine drip, mostly delirious or in pain or both. Because the first month is most important for future mobility, when I was discharged the doctor prescribed some pretty simple physical therapy for me to do at home— just body weight bicep curls, as high as I could go, and as many as I could do. The first time I tried them was my 2nd day out of the hospital, standing in the bathroom supporting myself on the edge of the sink, and holy shit those bicep curls were the hardest thing I’ve ever done with my body. I did maybe five of them before I started hyperventilating and my vision started blurring, and I walked back to bed heaving and sobbing. When I finally laid down (the worst 10 steps of my life), I couldn’t stop shaking and I was literally crying for juice (cranberry, btw, which I really developed a newfound appreciation for that day) because I felt like I was going to pass out.

That is the worst physical pain I have ever felt in my life.

In my sophomore year of college, I struggled with depression and I spent most of my time either crying or feeling numb. One particular night, I was sitting and crying in my friends’ room and I couldn’t move or say anything except repeat “no.” I kept trying to get off the floor and stop crying, literally pull myself together, but I felt like I was simultaneously disassociating into the air and melting into the floor. That night, and I am eternally grateful for them for that, my friends “seemed to be the piece of string by which I hung suspended over hell itself (650).”

That is the worst emotional pain I have ever felt in my life.

But despite feeling impossible both times, I endured them, and Gately experiences something similar in page 859-861, when Joelle visits him in the hospital and tells him about quitting crack.

‘And I’d bunker up all white-knuckled and stay straight. And count the days. I was proud of each day I stayed off. Each day seemed evidence of something, and I counted them. I’d add them up. Line them up end to end. You know?’ Gately knows very well but doesn’t nod, lets her do this on just her own steam. She says ‘And soon it would get… improbable. As if each day was a car Knievel had to clear. One car, two cars. By the time I’d get up to say like maybe about 14 cars, it would begin to seem like this staggering number. Jumping over 14 cars. And the rest of the year, looking ahead, hundreds and hundreds of cars, me in the air trying to clear them.’ She left her head alone and cocked it. ‘Who could do it? How did I ever think anyone could do it that way?’

‘And yet it wasn’t til that poor new pipe-fellow from home pointed at me and hauled me up there and I said it that I realized,’ Joelle said. ‘I don’t have to do it that way. I get to choose how to do it, and they’ll help me stick to the choice. I don’t think I’d realized before that I could- I can really do this. I can do this for one endless day. I can. Don.’

The look he was giving her was meant to like validate her breakthrough and say yes yes she could, she could as long as she continued to choose to… He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering.

Everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news then somehow believed.

I recovered from my surgery and my depression, but some things you must abide for a lifetime because life can’t be separated from “life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without (84),” which I agree seems impossibly hard and kind of unfair until you realize (like Don does here) that you don’t have to do that, because you can abide moment to moment for a lifetime.

Later on in the book, when Don is remembering past memories of Demerol and drug abuse, he describes himself as “lying there, working on Abiding and not-Entertaining.” That is what I think IJ is about— choosing to abide instead of entertain.

Some other quotes I enjoyed:

  • On crying while depressed:
    I’d felt for almost a week as if I needed to cry for some reason but the tears were somehow stopping just millimeters behind my eyes and staying there. And so on.

  • On real empathy:
    Joelle seems not even to be pretending not to notice.

  • On the difficulty of abiding:
    Gately wants to tell Ferocious Francis how he’s discovered how no one second of even unnarcotized post-trauma-infection-pain is unendurable. That he can Abide if he must. He wants to share his experience with his Crocodile sponsor. And plus, now that somebody he trusts himself to need is here, Gately wants to weep about the pain and tell how bad the pain of it is, how he doesn’t think he can stand it one more second.

  • On synovial pain:
    ‘Synovial inflammation: nasty nasty. The pain of synovial inflammation is compared in the medical literature to renal calculus and ectopic labor.’

  • On devotion:
    It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately—the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat? To what purpose?

Infinite Jest, Week 11 (774-845)

In this week’s reading Marathe and Kate meet at a bar, and it’s possibly the greatest crossover episode ever and definitely the best bar conversation to happen in any book ever. Marathe, while struggling between the choice of defending his country or betraying his friends for his wife, sees Kate Gompert in a bar, who looks awfully like his wife, and decides to get drunk and tell Kate about how he met his wife.

‘Katherine, I am, in English, moribund. I have no legs, no Swiss honor, no leaders who will fight the truth. I am not alive, Katherine. I roll from skiing lodge to tavern, frequently drinking, alone, wishing for my death, locked inside my pain in the heart. I wish for my death but have not the courage to make actions to cause death.

The more pain in my self, the more I am inside the self and cannot will my death, I think. I feel I am chained in a cage of the self, from the pain. Unable to care or choose anything outside it. Unable to see anything or feel anything outside my pain.’

Rolling around the countryside, legless, chained in himself, Marathe wishes for his death until he meets his wife and without thinking saves her life.

It was this frozen with the terror woman, she saved my life. For this saved my life. This moment broke my moribund chains, Katherine. In one instant and without thought I was allowed to choose something as more important than my thinking of my life. Her, she allowed this will without thinking. She with one blow broke the chains of the cage of pain at my half a body and nation. When I had crawled back to my fauteuil and placed my tipped fauteuil aright and I was again seated I realized the pain of inside no longer pained me. I became, then, adult. I was permitted leaving the pain of my own loss and pain at the top of Switzerland’s Mont Papineau.’

Kate misinterprets Marathe’s story as a feel good story where Marathe and his wife fall blindingly in love despite her skulllessness and Marathe’s leglessness, but Kate is wrong— Marathe’s story is about love, sacrifice, and the chains you choose.

‘I had to face: I had chosen. My choice, this was love. I had chosen I think the way out of the chains of the cage. I needed this woman. Without her to choose over myself, there was only pain and not choosing, rolling drunkenly and making fantasies of death.’

‘This is what is hard to tell. To ask any person to see. It is no choice. It is not choosing Gertraude over the A.F.R., my companions. Over the causes. Choosing Gertraude to love as my wife was necessary for the others, these other choices. Without the choice of her life there are no other choices. I tried leaving at the commencement. I got only very few revolutions of the fauteuil.’ ‘Sounds more like a gun to your head than a choice. If you can’t choose the other way, there’s no choice.’ ‘No, but this choice, Katherine: I made it. It chains me, but the chains are of my choice. The other chains: no. The others were the chains of not choosing.’

‘You think there is no love without the pleasure, the no-choice compelling of passion. My opinions are only that the love you of this country speak of yields none of the pleasure you seek in love. This whole idea of the pleasure and good feelings being what to choose. To give yourself away to. That all choice for you leads there—this pleasure of not choosing.’

I can Identify, because all my life I have believed that the best things require sacrifice, and the only way to consistently achieve good things is through giving up short term hedonistic pleasure in exchange for long term, “purer” happiness. Like Marathe, I believed that there are always chains, but at least with the pain of choosing something bigger than yourself and your short sighted enjoyment there is still a choice. DFW shares really similar ideas in his commencement speech This is Water:

I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

I don’t think he has it completely right though. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about my choices and my priorities, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not enough to just reject pleasure, because there are plenty of other temples to give yourself away to besides pleasure that are just as painful and self destructive. Just look at Marathe: he loses his brothers and both his legs in an obscure Quebecois ritual, he is part of a fringe group of Quebecois assassins, and he loves a woman who he chose to save without thinking and has no skull— fucking fluids leak out of her facial cavities. Consistently struggling against the default mode is hard, but it’s not the only part of the challenge— the real challenge is figuring out what’s worth sacrificing for and giving yourself away to. I have always been goal oriented and high achieving at the sake of my present pleasure, and it’s paid off in a lot of different ways, but was it worth it? I chose the chains of discipline and accomplishment rather than give into pleasure without thinking, but is that really any better?

The other really important part of this week’s reading is the continuation of Mario and Hal’s conversation when Hal tells Mario that he is addicted to marijuana. These few pages are a small part of this week’s reading and a tiny part of the book, but they are an incredibly important part of IJ because after describing 800 pages of misery and suffering DFW finally directly lays out a solution. Hal asks Mario for help:

Hal: ‘Tell me what I should do.’
Mario: ‘I think you just did it. What you should do. I think you just did.’
Hal: ‘…’
Mario: ‘Do you see what I mean?’

Trite as it sounds, the antidote to loneliness is to be honest and to be earnest, and Mario & Gately (maybe Joelle?) are the only two characters in IJ who get it.

Some other interesting parts:

  • Pemulis gets three very long footnotes: one where he talks to Hal about addiction while teaching him math, one where he discusses math and reliability with Possalthwaite, and a final one where Wayne accidentally drugs himself with Pemulis’s stash, Pemulis gets busted, and he gets expelled. All of this happens in footnotes, which is incredibly troll.

  • HAL shows up at ENNET house… incredible…

  • Joelle’s real name is Lucille Duquette and apparently she really is disfigured? (although who knows, Molly’s technical interview begins with the claim that she says a lot about stuff she knows and stuff she doesn’t know)

  • Tiny Ewell’s third grade story, and Don Gately’s beautifully tender response:

    • Gately wanted to tell Tiny Ewell that he could totally fucking I.D. with Ewell’s feelings, and that if he, Tiny, could just hang in and tote that bale and put one little well-shined shoe in front of the other everything would end up all right, that the God of Ewell’s Understanding would find some way for Ewell to make things right, and then he could let the despicable feelings go instead of keeping them down with Dewars, but Gately couldn’t connect the impulse to speak with actual speech, still. He settled for trying to reach his left hand across and pat Ewell’s hand on the railing.

  • We finally get to hear from Himself, albeit in wraith form with an incredibly fucked up Gately at the hospital. Combined with Joelle’s perspective on Himself, this chapter paints a picture of a very pained and lonely man that just wants to communicate with his art to help break out his son. He sees his son withdrawing into himself, and tries to help by creating something so entertaining it can’t possibly be taken ironically, which is funny, because that’s probably at least in part what DFW wanted to do with IJ.

    • Just imagine the horror of spending your whole itinerant lonely Southwest and West Coast boyhood trying unsuccessfully to convince your father that you even existed, to do something well enough to be heard and seen but not so well that you became just a screen for his own (the Dad’s) projections of his own failure and self-loathing, failing ever to be really seen, gesturing wildly through the distilled haze, so that in adulthood you still carried the moist flabby weight of your failure ever to make him hear you really speak, carried it on through the animate years on your increasingly slumped shoulders—only to find, near the end, that your very own child had himself become blank, inbent, silent, frightening, mute. I.e. that his son had become what he (the wraith) had feared as a child he (the wraith) was.

    • The wraith feels along his long jaw and says he spent the whole sober last ninety days of his animate life working tirelessly to contrive a medium via which he and the muted son could simply converse. To concoct something the gifted boy couldn’t simply master and move on from to a new plateau. Something the boy would love enough to induce him to open his mouth and come out—even if it was only to ask for more.

Infinite Jest, Week 10 (701-774)

One of the many crazy things about IJ that I admire is this: DFW managed to write a book whose key parts are an elite tennis academy founded by an avant-garde film director, a halfway house full of recovering addicts, a group of Quebecois separatists distinguished by their abject hatred of the US and their wheelchairs, a dystopic future where years are named by corporations and parts of the US and Canada have become a wasteland where giant feral hamsters and massive babies roam, and a film that is so addictive that everyone who watches it is rendered catatonic and watches to their death, and nothing has happened. In almost 800 pages, almost 80% of the way through the book, very little narrative wise has been developed. There’s been a lot of stuff, but most of it has been more exposition than narrative, though at this point in my first read through I’d gotten used to it and I just had faith that somewhere down the line everything is going to make sense in one cohesive story. And my god its finally happening! Marathe interviewing at Ennet House with Pat Montesian and her dogs is two what has so far been totally separate worlds colliding, and it’s weird— like your high school friends hanging out with your college friends or your mom meeting your coworkers. It’s funny that with such a ridiculous premise in such a detailed background the most exciting story element that has happened so far is just two characters meeting.

The flip side of lack of narration is IJ’s breadth of exposition, and for me the first time I realized just how much esoteric knowledge DFW crammed into me through IJ was in this section of reading. In a footnote, presented as research Struck is doing for his paper, DFW finally explains why the AFR are in wheelchairs, and it’s fucking crazy. I read that while pacing in my kitchen, and when my roommate Greg came out I tried explaining to him that footnote, and to properly do it, I had to explain not just the A.F.R. but the tape, O.N.A.N., the Concavity, subsidized years, and completely fictional intra-North-American politics. I stumbled through months of DFW explaining obscure things in weird and often seemingly pointless detail, and holy shit some of it actually stuck!

Some other bits that I found interesting:

  • Around page 740, while she is cleaning, Joelle thinks about the Incandenza family, and we get our first outsider perspective on the family, and it’s fascinating. We’ve spent 800 pages reading about the Incandenzas, mostly from the perspective of Hal and Orin, and they seem like the most abnormal and dysfunctional family ever. Like Joelle says though, “never trust a man on the subject of his own parents,” and from her perspective things that were mostly alluded at are now much clearer, like how scary Moms really is, how neurotic Orin is, and how annoying Hal is.

  • Joelle also shares some insights on Himself’s works. His films come across as “mordant, sophisticated, campy, hip, cynical, technically mind-bending; but cold, amateurish, hidden,” but when Joelle watches and studies closely enough she realizes that there is something very real and human hidden in flashes in his films. Joelle’s experience also applies to Infinite Jest itself. IJ is a technical masterpiece, and at times its language and structure and density seem very hostile to its readers, but hidden and intentional, IJ is centered around a very unironic and moral thesis.

  • On page 726, “an employee at the Academy of Tennis of Enfield had been recruited and joined the Canadian instructor and student already inside for closer work of surveillance.” Poincourte and John Wayne? Who is the new employee?

  • On page 766, “A couple odd long crinkly paper strips of bright red hung over the side of the wastebasket, which was normally totally empty and clean” are probably the remnants of the pom poms Moms was holding while having sex with John Wayne in her office, and “An old folded pair of U.S.A. football pants and a helmet are on top of one of the file cabinets by the flag. Her one memento of Orin, who won’t talk to them or contact them in any way.” might be the helmet Wayne was wearing

  • Mario, while filming his ETA video, walks to visit Moms, and asks her “how can you tell if somebody’s sad?” Moms gives Mario a wonderful answer of disassociation, and feeling existentially “not yourself" (which I can painfully Identify with), but Mario asks:

    ‘You explained it very well. It helped a lot. Except what if it’s that they’re almost like even more themselves than normal? Than they were before? If it’s not that he’s blank or dead. If he’s himself even more than before a sad thing happened. What if that happens and you still think he’s sad, inside, somewhere?’

    Initially I thought Mario was obviously talking about Hal, but rereading that first conversation Mario has with Hal about sadness, I think Mario could also be asking about Moms, and whether Moms is still sad, despite seeming happier and taller and smiling more after Himself’s death.

  • Hal and Mario talk about monsters while Hal is explaining how Pemulis lied his way out of a scan, and Hal explains how

    ‘The truth is nobody can always tell, Boo. Some types are just too good, too complex and idiosyncratic; their lies are too close to the truth’s heart for you to tell.’
    ‘Boo, I think I no longer believe in monsters as faces in the floor or feral infants or vampires or whatever. I think at seventeen now I believe the only real monsters might be the type of liar where there’s simply no way to tell. The ones who give nothing away.’ ‘But then how do you know they’re monsters, then?’ ‘That’s the monstrosity right there, Boo, I’m starting to think.’ ‘Golly Ned.’ ‘That they walk among us. Teach our children. Inscrutable. Brass-faced.’

    I think about this in relation to Pemulis (who thus far has seemed like an innocent prankster) and Mrs. Incandenza, who everyone finds inscrutably perfect.

Some quotes that I liked:

  • “post-carrot anhedonic and existentially unmoored” is a big mood:
    when a sudden infusion of patent-receipts left him feeling post-carrot anhedonic and existentially unmoored

  • She feels good that he makes no chitchat and probably doesn’t know her name.

  • On parody:
    Even as an undergrad Joelle’d been convinced that parodists were no better than camp-followers in ironic masks, satires usually the work of people with nothing new themselves to say.

  • On family:
    We’re all a lot more intuitive about our lovers’ families than we are about our own families, she knew.

  • On existential, blunting sadness and self obliteration:
    ‘There are, apparently, persons who are deeply afraid of their own emotions, particularly the painful ones. Grief, regret, sadness. Sadness especially, perhaps. Dolores describes these persons as afraid of obliteration, emotional engulfment. As if something truly and thoroughly felt would have no end or bottom. Would become infinite and engulf them.’

    ‘Engulf means obliterate.’ ‘I am saying that such persons usually have a very fragile sense of themselves as persons. As existing at all. This interpretation is “existential,”

    ‘My point here is that certain types of persons are terrified even to poke a big toe into genuinely felt regret or sadness, or to get angry. This means they are afraid to live. They are imprisoned in something, I think. Frozen inside, emotionally. Why is this. No one knows, Love-o. It’s sometimes called “suppression,” ’ with the fingers out to the sides again. ‘Dolores believes it derives from childhood trauma, but I suspect not always. There may be some persons who are born imprisoned. The irony, of course, being that the very imprisonment that prohibits sadness’s expression must itself feel intensely sad and painful. For the hypothetical person in question.

    ‘People, then, who are sad, but who can’t let themselves feel sad, or express it, the sadness, I’m trying rather clunkily to say, these persons may strike someone who’s sensitive as somehow just not quite right. Not quite there. Blank. Distant. Muted. Distant. Spacey was an American term we grew up with. Wooden. Deadened. Disconnected. Distant. Or they may drink alcohol or take other drugs. The drugs both blunt the real sadness and allow some skewed version of the sadness some sort of expression, like throwing someone through a living room window out into the flowerbeds she’d so very carefully repaired after the last incident.’

  • On love:
    ‘Hal, pretty much all I do is love you and be glad I have an excellent brother in every way, Hal.’
    (I particularly like how Mario repeats Hal’s name twice)

Books of August 2018

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens.jpg

If you're interested in a brief history of humankind then read Sapiens.

Sapiens is split into four separate parts, each devoted to a major part of human evolution: the cognitive revolution (c. 70,000 BCE, developing imagination), the agricultural revolution (c. 10,000 BCE, developing agriculture), the unification of humankind (consolidation of groups of people into one large globally unified group), and the scientific revolution (c. 1500 CE, the emergence of science). Each of these four revolutions profoundly changed and shaped the history of homo sapiens. 

Obviously an entire history of humankind is a lot of material to cover (literally every single part of human history is contained in one of these four parts), but Harari's writing is very easy to read. The book reads very conversationally, which makes complicated topics that might be difficult to digest like the development of language/ religion/ money easy to understand. It's also definitely true that a lot of stuff is simplified, but I don't think that can really be avoided, given the scope of his project. The criticism of reductivism is fair, but I think it's better (and probably what he intended as well) to take the book's material and information more as an interesting starting point. He also does a pretty good job caveating a lot of the stuff he covers, which seems to also influence the organization of the book. The history of humankind Harari presents is very sequentially connected, and each section flows into the next via questions. Harari presents a question, answers it, has a follow up or a caveat about his previous answer, and then extends his answer. I really enjoy that organization and it connects his ideas very nicely, which combined with his writing style makes Sapiens very easy to follow.

Some parts I liked:

  • On the rapid ascension of Sapiens:
    That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc... In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.

  • On the importance of communication:
    Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

  • On the rapid evolution of Sapiens:
    In contrast, ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been able to change their behavior quickly, transmitting new behaviors to future generations without any need of genetic or environmental change... In other words, while the behavior patterns of archaic humans remained fixed for tens of thousands of years, Sapiens could transform their social structures, the nature of their interpersonal relations, their economic activities and a host of other behaviors within a decade or two.

  • On the difference between culture and biology:
    How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realise this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realise this possibility.

Artemis Fowl - Eoin Colfer

Artemis Fowl.jpg

If you're interested in reading a chill YA book about a 12 year old criminal mastermind/ evil genius then read Artemis Fowl.

I picked up Artemis Fowl because I got tired of reading hard stuff lol (mostly as a break from IJ). I last read the Artemis Fowl series in middle school (although up to the 6th book, I think they're up to 8 now?). The series were fun to read back then, and while I liked the series a lot more when I was younger, they're still pretty fun to read! The story is interesting and the main premise of hidden underground fairy police with crazy tech is fun.

The most annoying thing about the book though is that the characters are all kind of lame and super archetypal (I noticed this back then too but it bothers me a lot more now). Most character exposition is Butler being Big and Scary, Artemis being Smart but Morally Grey, Holly being Courageous but Cavalier, Root being Gruff but Secretly Soft, etc. and it gets old really fast. I originally wanted to read the first 5, but back to IJ it is!

Women, Race, and Class - Angela Y. Davis

If you are interested in learning about the intersection b/w women, race, and class in America then read Women Race & Class, but honestly I think everyone should read it (especially if you're *not* interested).

This was the first of my book recommendations from Keva. The book is pretty self explanatory from the title- Women Race & Class is about the intersection of women, race, and class in America. Angela Davis discusses the ways these three things have intersected with and influenced each other in ways that are often ignored or unnoticed. This was an incredibly insightful read; I learned so much from reading this book and I am grateful for having read it. I'm really looking forward to reading more of her books and I cannot recommend this book more to everyone!!! There is so much that I don't know!!!

Some of the quotes I liked a lot:

  • On the relationship between slavery and sexual equality:
    This bears repeating: Black women were equal to their men in the oppression they suffered; they were their men’s social equals within the slave community; and they resisted slavery with a passion equal to their men’s. This was one of the greatest ironies of the slave system, for in subjecting women to the most ruthless exploitation conceivable, exploitation which knew no sex distinctions, the groundwork was created not only for Black women to assert their equality through their social relations, but also to express it through their acts of resistance.

  • On the strength of women (quoting a speech from Sojourner Truth:
    I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

  • On the lived experiences of black slaves versus white middle-class women:
    As blunt and polemical as this argument may have been, there was a lucidity about it that was unmistakable. Its vivid visual imagery demonstrated that the former Black slaves suffered an oppression that was qualitatively and brutally different from the predicament of white middle-class women.

  • On the myth of "immorality" of Black women as a cyclical trap:
    Since slavery, the vulnerable condition of the household worker has continued to nourish many of the lingering myths about the“immorality” of Black women. In this classic “catch-22” situation, household work is considered degrading because it has been disproportionately performed by Black women, who in turn are viewed as “inept” and “promiscuous.” But their ostensible ineptness and promiscuity are myths which are repeatedly confirmed by the degrading work they are compelled to do.

  • On racism as planned class conflict:
    Contrary to Kearney’s and Tillman’s logic, racial conflict did not emerge spontaneously, but rather was consciously planned by the representatives of the economically ascendant class. They needed to impede working-class unity so as to facilitate their own exploitative designs.

  • On the relationship between the myth of the "black rapist" and the "bad black woman":
    The myth of the black rapist of white women is the twin of the myth of the bad black woman—both designed to apologize for and facilitate the continued exploitation of black men and women.

Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair's Youth - Hermann Hesse

If you're interested in the process of self realization or the struggle between the world of illusion and the world of truth then read Demian

Demian is protagonist Emil Sinclair's coming of age story, titled Demian because of Sinclair's friend Demian who helps him achieve self realization. Presented as the reflections of an older Sinclair, the crux of the story is Sinclair's struggle between the world of illusion and the world of truth. Sinclair grows up in a world of religious safety and "goodness" with his family, but still feels irrevocably drawn to what is "bad" and evil, and for most of his younger years suffers from holding both of these diametrically opposed things in him. Through a long and painful period of self realization, Sinclair opens up to his unconsciousness and his true desires and understands the duality of good and evil as a false dichotomy, instead embracing both of them as united and necessary.

I haven't really figured out exactly why, but there's something about these books that feel lofty and unattainable, like they sit in the ivory tower of philosophy abstracted away from real life. I think I feel it especially contrasted with IJ where characters feel real and gritty and the book reads in a very honest and human way. It is easy to appreciate these books but difficult to really feel them. There is much to appreciate about Demian though- I found it a thoughtful and engaging read with a lot of very thought provoking ideas.

Some of my favorite quotes:

  • On embracing duality within yourself:
    "I see that you think more than you can express. But if that is so, then you also know that you have never lived in experience all that you have thought, and that is not good. Only the thought that we live through in experience has any value. You knew that your 'world of sanction' was simply one-half of the world, and yet you tried to suppress the other half in you, as do the parsons and teachers. You will not succeed. No one succeeds who has once begun to think.”

  • On scorn birthed from pain:
    Superficially I appeared to despise the world in most manly fashion, whereas in reality I was secretly consumed by melancholy and despair.

  • On the difficulty of being a real person:
    I wanted only to try to live in obedience to the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?

  • On philosophy:
    "Come here," he called after a while, "we will practice a little philosophy. That means keeping one's mouth shut, lying on one's stomach and thinking."

  • On your only duty:
    A man has absolutely no other duty than this: to seek himself, to grope his own way forward, no matter whither it leads.

Infinite Jest, Week 9 (619-701)

One of the things I really like about Infinite Jest is how wonderfully sticky a lot of the ideas in the book are, and this week had a few of my favorite ones.

Day, on the horrors of depression and anxiety
It is easy for most people to imagine and understand why lots of physical things are scary, like spiders or roller coasters or horror movies, but I've always had trouble first understanding and then explaining why depression is scary and what those feelings feel like, which is why I really like how Day describes his experience with horror. When he was a kid, he played the violin in his basement, and the particular vibration from the violin plus the vibrations from a fan caused this large horrible billowing shape to emerge from some backwater of his psyche. Horrified but curious, Day goes back, plays the specific combination of sound again, but this time awakens it and brings it back, now permanently. After that experience, Day lives with the fear of it for the rest of his life and the guilt for bringing it upon himself:

‘Some boy I hardly knew in the room below mine heard me staggering around whimpering at the top of my lungs. He came up and sat up with me until it went away. It took most of the night. We didn’t converse; he didn’t try to comfort me. He spoke very little, just sat up with me. We didn’t become friends. By graduation I’d forgotten his name and major. But on that night he seemed to be the piece of string by which I hung suspended over hell itself.’

‘ I understood the term hell as of that summer day and that night in the sophomore dormitory. I understood what people meant by hell. They did not mean the black sail. They meant the associated feelings.’ ‘Or the corner it came up out of, inside, if they mean a place.’

‘From that day, whether I could articulate it satisfactorily or not,’ Day says, holding the knee of the leg just crossed, ‘I understood on an intuitive level why people killed themselves. If I had to go for any length of time with that feeling I’d surely kill myself.’

Although not really explicitly laid out, I think DFW uses this sail as a metaphor for the type of depression and anxiety that is viscerally painful and scary, and I can Identify, because when I'm very nervous or anxious about something, that's exactly how I feel- like something big and incomprehensible is sailing overhead towards me, but also somehow simultaneously rising out of me. It is a terrible and terrifying feeling that I've been unable to properly describe or find a good metaphor for until Day's.

DeLint, on self transcendence through pain, and the immense danger of being seen
During Hal and Stice's show match, Steeply gets into ETA disguised as Helen and speaks with DeLint about the philosophy of ETA. DeLint explicates the philosophical underpinnings of ETA that Schtitt laid out early on in the book with Mario, specifically focusing on transcendence and attention. Schtitt's original spiel is that tennis, like life, is about destroying the limits of yourself, the very thing that makes the game possible.

‘Get Tavis in the right corner and he’ll tell you about seeing and being seen. These kids, the best of them are here to learn to see. Schtitt’s thing is self-transcendence through pain. These kids—’ gesturing at Stice running madly up for a drop-volley that stopped rolling well inside the service line; mild applause—‘they’re here to get lost in something bigger than them. To have it stay the way it was when they started, the game as something bigger, at first. Then they show talent, start winning, become big fish in their ponds out there in their hometowns, stop being able to get lost inside the game and see. Fucks with a junior’s head, talent. They pay top dollar to come here and go back to being little fish and to get savaged and feel small and see and develop. To forget themselves as objects of attention for a few years and see what they can do when the eyes are off them. They didn’t come here to get read about as some soft-news item or background. Babe.’ (660)

The villain of Schtitt's philosophy that DeLint describes is sight & attention. 

The point here for the best kids is to inculcate their sense that it’s never about being seen. It’s never. If they can get that inculcated, the Show won’t fuck them up, Schtitt thinks. If they can forget everything but the game when all of you out there outside the fence see only them and want only them and the game’s incidental to you, for you it’s about entertainment and personality, it’s about the statue, but if they can get inculcated right they’ll never be slaves to the statue, they’ll never blow their brains out after winning an event when they win, or dive out a third-story window when they start to stop getting poked at or profiled, when their blossom starts to fade. Whether or not you mean to, babe, you chew them up, it’s what you do.’ (661)

To be good and be able to endure being seen, you must learn to hold onto something greater than yourself and not care about being seen, "to map out some path between needing the success and mockery-making of the success. (681)"

Bain, on sincerity and abuse
DFW gets more and more troll about the footnotes as the book goes on, and now puts full on important plot points in the footnotes. Bain's letters about Orin to Steeply shed a lot of light on the relationship between Orin and Moms, and near the beginning he explains Orin's pathological and kind of disingenuous sincerity.

I am not sure I would stand and point at Orin as an example of a classic pathological liar, but you have only to watch him in certain kinds of action to see that there can be such a thing as sincerity with a motive.

It's short, I know, but I find it particularly salient because I always try to be as sincere and honest as possible, but sometimes I feel like just being sincere is itself a form of insincerity, because, like Orin, it has 

this quality of Look-At-Me-Being-So-Totally-Open-And-Sincere-I-Rise-Above-The-Whole-Disingenuous-Posing-Process-Of-Attracting-Someone-,-And-I-Transcend-The-Common-Disingenuity-In-A-Bar-Herd-In-A-Particularly-Hip-And-Witty-Self-Aware-Way-,-And-If-You-Will-Let-Me-Pick-You-Up-I-Will-Not-Only-Keep-Being-This-Wittily,-Transcendently-Open-,-But-Will-Bring-You-Into-This-World-Of-Social-Falsehood-Transcendence, which of course he cannot do because the whole openness-demeanor thing is itself a purposive social falsehood; it is a pose of poselessness.

It's a weird loop that I usually resolve by deciding that being sincere is good anyways. In the same letter, Bani also makes some very astute comments about abuse from your parents. 

The word “abuse” is vacuous. Who can define “abuse”? The difficulty with really interesting cases of abuse is that the ambiguity of the abuse becomes part of the abuse.

I am not sure whether you could call this abuse, but when I was (long ago) abroad in the world of dry men, I saw parents, usually upscale and educated and talented and functional and white, patient and loving and supportive and concerned and involved in their children’s lives, profligate with compliments and diplomatic with constructive criticism, loquacious in their pronouncements of unconditional love for and approval of their children, conforming to every last jot/tittle in any conceivable definition of a good parent, I saw parent after unimpeachable parent who raised kids who were (a) emotionally retarded or (b) lethally self-indulgent or (c) chronically depressed or (d) borderline psychotic or (e) consumed with narcissistic self-loathing or (f) neurotically driven/addicted or (g) variously psychosomatically Disabled or (h) some conjunctive permutation of (a)… (g).

Why is this. Why do many parents who seem relentlessly bent on producing children who feel they are good persons deserving of love produce children who grow to feel they are hideous persons not deserving of love who just happen to have lucked into having parents so marvelous that the parents love them even though they are hideous? Is it a sign of abuse if a mother produces a child who believes not that he is innately beautiful and lovable and deserving of magnificent maternal treatment but somehow that he is a hideous unlovable child who has somehow lucked in to having a really magnificent mother? Probably not. But could such a mother then really be all that magnificent, if that’s the child’s view of himself?

I read a book by Mitch Albom that talks about a similar thing many years ago. I can't really remember what the book was about/ what the book even was, but I still clearly remember the metaphor he used to explain the idea. He described all children as mirrors, and says that all parents leave some kind of mark on the mirror. 

All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair.

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about childhood trauma, and how even the most well-intentioned parents leave marks. 

DFW, on depression
I can't do this passage on depression justice by squeezing it into two paragraphs or cherry picking quotes, so instead I'm going to point you to page 692-698, where DFW shares some of the best insights into depression I've ever read.

Most of these insights are accompanied with or shared in Hal's musings on American anhedonia and depression, but remember DFW's classic slow burning revelations! Since the first chapter of the book, set chronologically after everything else in the book so far, the big question looming over every Hal chapter has been: What is wrong with Hal? What terrible thing happened to him that made him crazy, unable to speak, so terrifyingly trapped in his own body? How did dictionary memorizing television theorizing tennis prodigy Hal become screaming wreck Hal? But this chapter is where DFW completely flips that question. The real terrible thing that's happened to Hal is how empty and robotic he feels, how desperately lonely being wearily cynical is, and how much he craves the sentimental gooey parts of him. With that context, the first passage is transformed, and the burning question is no longer what terrible thing happened to Hal, but rather, what wonderful thing happened to Hal, to take him from knowing that he is empty and there is nothing inside to shouting internally "I am in here?"

Some other notable things, in part because of their importance to the plot, in part because they're just crazy:

  • The sound engineer of Madame Psychosis gets kidnapped by AFR, which means, slowly and slowly, the four subplots are converging towards a crash
  • Stice almost beats Hal in a show match before Whataburger
  • That insane story about Orin killing Moms' dog and then Moms forgiving him
  • Matty Pemulis's terrible story. Literally no one has a happy story in this book
  • "Hal looks just as perfectly dead out there, but he’s more vulnerable in terms of, like, emotionally."
  • The vibrating strings in The American Century as Seen Through a Brick, esp w.r.t. Day's story about vibrations from fan and the violin
  • Nov 14 YDAU Pemulis gets drugs from his ceiling

Some notable quotes:

  • On the repellence of certain types of charity:
    For some reason now I am thinking of the sort of philanthropist who seems humanly repellent not in spite of his charity but because of it: on some level you can tell that he views the recipients of his charity not as persons so much as pieces of exercise equipment on which he can develop and demonstrate his own virtue. What’s creepy and repellent is that this sort of philanthropist clearly needs privation and suffering to continue, since it is his own virtue he prizes, instead of the ends to which the virtue is ostensibly directed.
  • On getting high and foraging:
    This tendency to involuted abstraction is sometimes called “Marijuana Thinking”; and by the way, the so-called “Amotivational Syndrome” consequent to massive Bob Hope–consumption is a misnomer, for it is not that Bob Hope-smokers lose interest in practical functioning, but rather Marijuana-Think themselves into labyrinths of reflexive abstraction that seem to cast doubt on the very possibility of practical functioning, and the mental labor of finding one’s way out consumes all available attention and makes the Bob Hope–smoker look physically torpid and apathetic and amotivated sitting there, when really he is trying to claw his way out of a labyrinth. Note that the overwhelming hunger (the so-called “munchies”) that accompanies cannabis intoxication may be a natural defense mechanism against this kind of loss of practical function, since there is no more practical function anywhere than foraging for food.
  • On occurring:
    ‘You just never quite occurred out there, kid,’

Books of July 2018

A brief update on the blog: I am going to explore a new format that hopefully will be easier to do, and focus my energy/time on writing more detailed, complete reviews for the books I have really strong opinions (especially the ones I really liked). 

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
- Ed Catmull

Creativity Inc.jpg

If you are interested in how to cultivate a creative culture at the workplace, then read Creativity, Inc.

Creativity, Inc. describes how Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, thinks about cultivating a creative culture. A lot of the cultural values he describes are very similar to Riot's, so I found the book super helpful and interesting (my coworker Shane actually recommended it to me). It also avoids the common pitfall many books in this genre fall into, where the book stays at such a high level that it becomes almost useless. Instead, Creativity, Inc. mixes theoretical models describing "how to see things" with practical advice suggesting "how to actually make things happen." 

Some of the helpful things I learned from this book (there are lots more!):

  • On talent, and unblocking talent
    We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them. 
  • On actively identifying problems instead of passively solving problems
    Being on the lookout for problems, I realized, was not the same as seeing problems. This would be the idea—the challenge—around which I would build my new sense of purpose.
  • On culture as an intentional and thoughtful process
    Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture—one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality, and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became—wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job. And one that I wanted to do.
  • On good feedback
    A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem. A good note doesn’t make demands; it doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix. But if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer. Most of all, though, a good note is specific.
  • On building trust
    Be patient. Be authentic. And be consistent. The trust will come.

The big dark cloud that hangs over this book is the recent news about John Lasseter, a legend in the animation world. It is very disappointing and tough to reconcile the creative, open, and supportive Pixar Catmull describes in the book with the reality that Pixar was also a toxic workplace that tolerated (or even fostered) sexism and harassment. 

絕代雙驕 - 古龍

絕代雙驕.jpg

If you're interested in an entertaining and long but easy 武俠小說 then read 絕代雙驕.

絕代雙驕 is a 武俠小說 about two brothers with a very simple premise: twin brothers get separated at birth after their parents die tragically, a nefarious plot is spun to force them into enemies, they meet as adults as diametrically opposed foils, they reconcile their differences and become friends, there's a love triangle somewhere in there too, etc. etc (very standard stuff). This is the first wuxia novel I've read not by 金庸, so this was a nice change of pace and despite its length this was a fairly easy read. The story is simple but engaging, there are lots of interesting characters in the book, and the Chinese is much easier to read. If you are looking to practice your Chinese a little (I was trying to brush up a bit) this is a pretty decent choice that you can just zip through.

The book is made a lot worse by its sexism. Women are constantly simplified and disparaged in the book, and every female character is defined relative to the men in their lives. It fails the Bechdel test (does a work feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man?), which is bad in a 90 minute movie but just straight appalling in a 1200 page book with hundreds of characters.

And Then We Danced: A Voyage into the Groove - Henry Alford

And Then We Danced.png

If you are interested in the different forms and purposes of dance from the hilarious perspective of someone learning to dance then read And Then We Danced

And Then We Danced is humorist and journalist Henry Alford's exploration of different forms of dance and the different ways in which dance is meaningful to different people, the latter of which I especially enjoyed because I've never really thought about why people dance. In the chapters, he describes his experiences learning ballet, social dancing, and a movement meditation practice called 5Rhythms and discusses dance as rebellion, emotion and release, intimacy and socializing, and healing, to name just a few.

I like to dance but I was never good at it (or really tried to be), so I really admired his openness to trying new stuff. The book is a lot of fun to read because his personality and flair in his writing is phenomenal. There is so much life and character in his writing, and it really shines through on every page. I feel as if I know him personally after reading this book. A lot of books describe themselves as a voyage, but this one is one of the few that really feels like it- it is thoughtful and adventurous and tremendously entertaining.

The book also made me a little sad, because now I want to try taking some dance classes but that's tough because of my shoulder. 

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics - Stephen Greenblatt

Tyrant.jpg

If you are interested in a description of tyrants and a criticism of Trump through Shakespeare then read Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics.

About a third of the book in, I started to realize that a lot of his comments on tyrants and their behavior seemed particularly salient to our current political situation. About two thirds of the book in, I was pretty sure this book was written as a very thinly veiled criticism of Trump (and tyrants) through Shakespeare, which was pretty satisfying because he corroborated my theory in the epilogue, explaining that his original inspiration for the book was his reaction to the election. 

In Tyrant, Greenblatt explores different aspects and types of tyrants through Shakespeare's plays (mostly the historical ones). I liked this book a lot, because in my Shakespeare class I took at Columbia we mostly just talked about what my professor thought about the plays, so it was enjoyable to get a different perspective. The book also reinforced a lot of stuff that I learned in class, especially that Shakespeare wrote for a very contemporary audience but the anxieties and fears that he captured in his plays remain powerfully relevant.

I think it speaks to Shakespeare's influence and greatness that tyrants he described centuries ago like Richard III and Macbeth and King Lear are still prevalent and worth studying today, showing that we still have lots to learn and benefit from reading Shakespeare.

Code - Charles Petzold

If you are interested in learning how to build a computer from first principles then read Code.

Code is basically the Fundamentals class they teach at Columbia in a book. It starts from first principles (seriously first- it starts with Morse code with flashlights) and builds on that foundation with the goal of helping you understand completely how a computer is built. I really like how the book is structured and I wish I read this book instead of going to class, but to be honest I'm not super interested in knowing how to build an adder or specifically how a 8-Line to 1-Line selector works, so I skimmed a bunch of the circuit sections. Unfortunately I also knew a bunch of this stuff at one point but promptly forgot it after fundamentals. I did like learning how memory works though; I remember being out that week and missing those two classes. 

I will say if you're interested in this kind of stuff, this is the best book I've ever read for that, and if you're taking a CS class (or early on in your CS major at college) this book will probably be better than your professor.

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories - B.J. Novak

One More Thing.jpg

B.J. Novak is so funny. One More Thing is the kind of book that inspires me to write more, but once I actually sit down and try again I realize how much I suck and how difficult it is. The book has so much personality and is so quirky and clever. It is one of the few books I remember just having a lot of fun reading.

My favorite stories: The Rematch, Romance (Chapter One), Julie and the Warlord, The Girl Who Gave Good Advice, All You Have to Do, 'Rithmetic, The Ambulance Driver, Missed Connection: Grocery spill at 21st and 6th 2:30pm on Wednesday, The Man Who Posted Pictures of Everything He Ate, and The Walk to School the Day after Labor Day.

Some quotes I liked:

  • On romance (this is the entire chapter)
    “The cute one?”
    “No, the other cute one.”
    “Oh, she’s cute too.”
  • On writing that reads like speech
    ‘The … Something.’ ‘The … Something.’ ‘The SOME-thing.’ Do you get it, Dale?! It was going to be ‘The … … … SOMETHING’!!! I was going to decide that part later!”
  • On creative work
    Do you know what it’s like to sing a song that started inside you to a room full of laughing, dancing children, who keep singing it even after you stop? It feels like the world is made of music, and you are the world. One or two more people died each year in Grant County than before, but it was always a number within the statistical margin of error.
  • On the type of perfect that is frustratingly elusive
    The first is the type that seems so obvious and intuitive to you and everyone else that in a perfect world it would simply be considered standard; but, in reality, in our flawed world, what should be considered standard is actually so rare that it has to be elevated to the level of “perfect.” This is the type of perfect that makes you and most other people think, “Why isn’t everything like this? Why is it so hard to find …” a black V-neck cotton sweater, or a casual non-chain restaurant with comfortable booths, etc.—“that is just exactly the way everyone knows something like this should be?” “Perfect,” we all say with relief when we finally find something like this that is exactly as it should be. “Perfect. Why was this so hard to find?” The other type of perfect is the type you never could have expected and then could never replicate.
  • On the infinitude of love
    “One more thing,” she said. “You meet a finite number of people in your life. It feels to you like it’s infinite, but it’s not. I think it’s the biggest thing I can see that you can’t. Because your brain doesn’t work the way mine works, with all these calculations and everything. You think you meet an infinite number of taxi drivers, but you don’t, it’s probably not even a thousand, in your whole life. Or doctors or nurses—do you get what I’m trying to say? At all?... There’s always going to be one more thing. Because that’s what infinite feels like. And the difference between love and everything else is that it’s infinite, it’s built out of something infinite, or it feels like it is, anyway, which is the same thing to us. Or to you, and to simulations like me—I know what I am. But you can’t see it, because to you everything is infinite. You think a million billion more things will come your way, a million billion more versions of everything. But no, everything that actually causes that infinite feeling, the circumstances of every infinite feeling, is so, so finite. And I know you can feel this. I mean, if I can, you can!” She laughed, desperately. “If I can? Come on! I’m a robot! If I can feel this, you can feel this! You can feel this.”

It's been about a month since I've read the book, and I still find myself thinking about that last quote about love from time to time.

Makes me want to re watch The Office. 

Constance Verity Saves the World - A. Lee Martinez

Constance Verity.jpg

I am a huge A. Lee Martinez fan and I love his stuff, but man this book sucked. This series is so disappointing- the first one was bad and this one isn't any better (actually arguably worse, since there's been more time to develop the characters and the story). I didn't like any of the characters, which is strange because the main thing I loved about his other books were how relatable and real his characters were. He just kept on hammering the same stupid theme- "Constance Verity is awesome and saves the world and is generally really great, but at the same time she just wants to be normal! Isn't that conflict so interesting and worth devoting an entire [whiny] book to?"

No

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami

Colorless Tsukuru.jpg

If you are interested in a wonderfully dreamy read about a journey of self discovery then read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

I finally read my first Murakami! After years of being recommended Murakami from a ton of friends I finally actually read a Murakami novel, and man... I loved it.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a very dreamy read. There is a very delicate quality to the writing, which is so difficult to achieve- it requires enough words and description to be evocative but not too much to be heavy handed and too detailed. Every word feels necessary and incisive, and nothing (from the writing to the story) feels excessive or extraneous. It is well constructed not just chapter to chapter but as an entire story. The book flows beautifully as a whole, and I particularly love how he starts and ends chapters, which is tricky, because there are a lot of time jumps from Tsukuru's past to Tsukuru's present and lots of backstories of characters, but the transition always feels very smooth. The entire way through, reading it felt like a dream.

I also love the premise of the story. Tsukuru Tazaki works as an engineer on train stations in Tokyo, and back in high school, he was part of a group of 5 friends (2 other guys and 2 girls). They all had colors in their name besides Tsukuru (hence the title Colorless Tsukuru), and had very different personalities but were a very tightly knit group. Tsukuru worries that his colorless name reflects his colorless personality, and that he doesn't really contribute to or belong in the group. One year in their sophomore year, his fears are realized, and Tsukuru gets abruptly cut off from his friends, who say they never want to speak with him again. He leaves that box unopened in his heart until many years later, when someone encourages him to go back and resolve his past trauma, and Tsukuru goes on a pilgrimage to find answers and understand what happened. 

This was a super light and easy read, and a wonderful introduction to Murakami. I'm really looking forward to finally reading his other works. I read half of this book at WiSpa and the other half between 6-8am at the DMV, and it speaks to how good this book is that I think of both those periods almost equally fondly. 

As a final sidenote, this is not a real complaint but the ending is not satisfying enough :< I want it to appeal to my brainless adoration of happy satisfying conclusive endings

Carceral Capitalism - Jackie Wang

Carceral Capitalism.jpg

If you are interested in capitalism and the incarceration system and the way the two of them intertwine and interact then read Carceral Capitalism, although to be honest I think everyone should read this book.

Carceral Capitalism is one of the four, five books I've read over the past few months that have completely changed my perspective on capitalism. Instead of summarizing the main thesis of the book shittily, I'm just going to quote her: 

Rather than focusing on the axis of production by analyzing how racism operates via wage differentials, this work attempts to identify and analyze what I consider the two main modalities of contemporary racial capitalism: predatory lending and parasitic governance. These racialized economic practices and modes of governance are linked insofar as they both emerge to temporarily stave off crises generated by finance capital. By titling this book Carceral Capitalism, I hope to draw attention to the ways in which the carceral techniques of the state are shaped by—and work in tandem with—the imperatives of global capitalism.

Each chapter of the book is a separate essay focusing on a separate topic, roughly bundled under the twin axes of incarceration and global capitalism. Topics examined along this spectrum include the biopolitics of juvenile deliquency, algorithmic predictive policing, speculative and predatory financialization, and the political revenue of fines and fees, but the collection also includes a very thought provoking critique of liberal anti-racist policies, "Against Innocence." In these essays, Wang shows that as technologies improve and societies change, new carceral modes become possible and realized, and for many, the lines between imprisonment and freedom blur. 

Some of the things I learned from her book:

  • On the dangers of governments funded by private creditors
    As the public debt is financialized and the money to cover government expenditures is increasingly supplied by the financial sector, government bodies become more accountable to creditors than to the public. Over time, this has a de-democratizing effect. 
  • On the negative interaction between policing and revenue
    As this article suggests, in the new fiscal environment, police are increasingly taking on the role of directly generating revenue, which ensures that their departments do not suffer extensive budget cutbacks and layoffs when there are municipal revenue shortfalls. In other words, their survival and expansion becomes bound up with their capacity to use the police power and the court system to loot residents.
  • On the exploitation of borrowers as an opportunity for financial growth
    Thus, as growth in the “real” economy remains low, in our perverted debt economy, falsely categorizing borrowers as delinquent has become a financial opportunity in itself.
  • On all space being carceral space
    I also argue that predatory police practices turn the space that is being policed into a carceral space. Not only do these practices turn entire jurisdictions into zones marked for looting, they effectively limit the mobility of mostly black residents and “box” them in a myriad of ways. Algorithmic forms of power—and predictive policing in particular—do this as well. Whether it is a covert municipal financial structure that authorizes plunder or an algorithm that generates hot spots on a map, invisible forms of power are circulating all around us, circumscribing and sorting us into invisible cells that confine us sometimes without our knowing.
  • On domestic extraction and looting as an externality of capitalism
    While extraction and looting are the lifeblood of global capitalism, it occurs domestically in the public sphere when government bodies—out of pressure to satisfy their private creditors—harm the public not only by gutting social services, but also by looting the public through regressive taxation, fee and fine farming, offender-funded criminal justice “services” such as private probation services, and so forth.
  • On predation as a central feature of contemporary capitalism
    Stock promotions, ponzi schemes, structured asset destruction through inflation, asset-stripping through mergers and acquisitions, and the promotion of levels of debt incumbency that reduce whole populations, even in the advanced capitalist countries, to debt peonage, to say nothing of corporate fraud and dispossession of assets (the raiding of pension funds and their decimation by stock and corporate collapses) by credit and stock manipulations—all of these are central features of what contemporary capitalism is about.
  • On risk as a new form of color blind racism
    I hold that risk is a new color-blind racism, for it enshrines already-existing social and economic inequalities under the guise of equality of opportunity. When thinking about risk, we should ask ourselves if market mechanisms will have the capacity to redress hundreds of years of structural inequality.

OK I'm going to stop here, but I'll leave one last note about this book: on average for nonfiction I have about 20, 30 highlights, and in this book (shorter than average too, a little over 200 pages) I had 119 highlights.

Infinite Jest, Week 8 (538-619)

Three important plot developments happen in this week's reading (things are finally converging a little!):

  1. Lenz starts killing animals as an outlet for the rage and powerlessness he feels that commonly beset drug addicts in their first few months of abstinence. On one of his trips, he kills a bunch of big burly Canadians' (insurgents?) dog, they come to Ennet House for revenge, and they get fucked up by Gately, who gets shot in the fight
  2. Pemulis finds out Mrs. Inc is Xing John Wayne in her office
  3. Orin finally actually meets and speaks with someone from the A.F.R.

Plot development one takes up most of this week's reading (Lenz, Green, and Gately), but I really don't like Lenz and I find reading about him exhausting, so I'm going to devote most of this post to Mario. From page 589-593, Mario goes on a walk late at night to Ennet House, hears a recording of Madame Psychosis's show, and chews on a core theme of the book from his very unique perspective. On his walk, Mario thinks about Hal, and it's wonderfully wholesome how much Mario loves Hal:

"Hal had asked him when he’ll start coming back to their room to sleep, which made Mario feel good."
"Mario loves Hal so much it makes his heart beat hard
." followed a page or two later by "when he thinks of Hal his heart beats and his forehead’s thick skin becomes wrinkled."

This is especially interesting because all the Hal Mario interactions so far have made Mario seem like a child: Hal unwittingly saving Mario from Millicent Kent, Mario keeping Hal up asking him questions about Himself and Moms, and Hal threatening the people from UHID when they come to recruit Mario, but actually Mario might be the only person who really knows what's going on in the book (with the possible exception of Lyle, who I think we can safely discount because he dispenses advice in a high school gym in exchange for sweat, his primary form of sustenance). 

Mario’d fallen in love with the first Madame Psychosis programs because he felt like he was listening to someone sad read out loud from yellow letters she’d taken out of a shoebox on a rainy P.M., stuff about heartbreak and people you loved dying and U.S. woe, stuff that was real. It is increasingly hard to find valid art that is about stuff that is real in this way. The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.
...
what was unpleasant was that Mario was the only one at the big table whose laugh was a happy laugh; everybody else sort of looked down like they were laughing at somebody with a disability. The whole issue was far above Mario’s head, and he was unable to understand Lyle’s replies when he tried to bring the confusion up. And Hal was for once no help, because Hal seemed even more uncomfortable and embarrassed than the fellows at lunch, and when Mario brought up real stuff Hal called him Booboo and acted like he’d wet himself and Hal was going to be very patient about helping him change.

Mario is severely physically disabled (this passage opens with Mario getting severely burned by a stove because he can't feel pain), but almost everyone in the book hurts more than he does because they don't understand a core theme of IJ- that there is very little more important than honestly and respectfully engaging with what is real. 

Some other things I found interesting:

  • John Wayne is wearing nothing but football pads and a football helmet, and Mrs. Inc is wearing a cheerleader's outfit. Is this a gross Orin and JvD reference? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ we shall see
  • The DFW penchant for wrapping important information or horrifying backstories in unremarkable if a little weird situations should be pretty obvious by now. Annulation and its disastrous environmental side effects is the primary scientific cause of the Great Concavity, a key part of the plot, and it is explained in a conversation between Pemulis and a blindfolded Idris in a sly attempt to acquire Idris's urine for Pemulis's upcoming urine test for his role in the Eschaton debacle. 
  • On page 549, "The Berkeley cartridge had vanished from an S.F.P.D. Evidence Room an electron-microscopy toss of which had revealed flannel fibers." Marathe covers his legs with a flannel blanket, and in the Antitoi brother's chapter every A.F.R. member also had a flannel blanket. 
  • On page 560, "Or like e.g. of a suicidal Nuck cult of Nucks that worshipped a form of Russian Roulette that involved jumping in front of trains and seeing which Nuck could come the closest to the train’s front without getting demapped."
  • Mario's passage also highlights something very wrong with Hal:
    He can’t tell if Hal is sad. He is having a harder and harder time reading Hal’s states of mind or whether he’s in good spirits. This worries him. He used to be able to sort of preverbally know in his stomach generally where Hal was and what he was doing, even if Hal was far away and playing or if Mario was away, and now he can’t anymore. Feel it. This worries him and feels like when you’ve lost something important in a dream and you can’t even remember what it was but it’s important. Mario loves Hal so much it makes his heart beat hard. He doesn’t have to wonder if the difference now is him or his brother because Mario never changes.

Pay attention to the small, seemingly irrelevant details from now on, because most of them are important, and it's so satisfying when you catch one of his self references later on.

Infinite Jest, Week 7 (461-538)

Mad:
IM staying in the world's squeakiest sublet in nyc
Everytime it squeaks I think of infinite jest
the floor is squeaky
the door is squeaky
... everything past p400 I feel like is full of mentions of squeaks

The word squeak pops up a bunch in the section about the Antitoi brothers, starting with the squeaky door hinge that Lucien Antitoi is oiling. The sound masks the squeaky wheelchairs that signal the arrival of the A.F.R., and the two brothers are brutally murdered amidst "a symphony of squeaks." In that short chapter alone the word squeak shows up 25 times. A few pages later, in the section about Himself, his father, and his parent's squeaky bed, the word squeak shows up 20 times. None of the other chapters are quite so squeaky, but if you pay attention squeak does show up fairly regularly: Marathe's wheelchair squeaks (and has squeaked consistently for the last 500 pages), Hal's ankle squeaks, and Pemulis and C.T.'s chairs both squeak. 

What is up with all this squeaking? In footnote 206 DFW explains that "to hear the squeak" is "itself the darkest of contemporary Canada's euphemisms for violent and sudden de-mapping," which may be his subtle way of foreshadowing and establishing tone and mood. The multiple squeaks also tie together something explicitly gross and viscerally violent (the murder of the Antitoi brothers) with something less ostentatious but equally chilling (Himself's father, face down in a mixture of dust and vomit) and something ominous (Pemulis and Hal, waiting to be punished for Eschaton). 

Besides the squeaking, that scene with JOI's father and the bed is another example of how DFW reveals great emotion and insight through what appears to be very impersonal writing. On the surface, the chapter's primary focus are the physical details (the furniture of the room, his father's appearance) and what stands out is how precise and strangely specific his memory is. All three chapters about JOI's dad are like that- the tennis match that destroyed his knees, the psychotic insistence for respect of objects in the garage, and the drunken oblivion face down in the dust. They all have a weird vividness and striking quality that signals a horror so complete that it has simultaneously dissociated Himself from his emotions and seared itself in his memory (which, come to think of it, might be why his nickname is Himself, in the third person). That chapter is deeply sad and haunting not despite of the blandness and the sharpness but because of it. 

Contrast this with the chapter about Erdedy at the NA meeting, telling Roy Tony "Thanks, but I don't particularly like to hug." The emotional distance of JOI is wonderfully squashed by Roy Tony's physical proximity.

‘You think I fucking like to go around hug on folks? You think any of us like this shit? We fucking do what they tell us. They tell us Hugs Not Drugs in here. We done motherfucking surrendered our wills in here,’ Roy said. ‘You little faggot,’ Roy added. He wedged his hand between them to point at himself, which meant he was now holding Erdedy off the ground with just one hand, which fact was not lost on Erdedy’s nervous system. ‘I done had to give four hugs my first night here and then I gone ran in the fucking can and fucking puked. Puked,’ he said. ‘Not comfortable? Who the fuck are you? Don’t even try and tell me I’m coming over feeling comfortable about trying to hug on your James-River-Traders-wearing-Calvin-Klein-aftershave-smelling-goofy-ass motherfucking ass.’ Erdedy observed one of the Afro-American women who was looking on clap her hands and shout ‘Talk about it!’ ‘And now you go and disrespect me in front of my whole clean and sober set just when I gone risk sharing my vulnerability and discomfort with you?’

...‘Now,’ Roy said, extracting his free hand and pointing to the vestry floor with a stabbing gesture, ‘now,’ he said, ‘you gone risk vulnerability and discomfort and hug my ass or do I gone fucking rip your head off and shit down your neck?’

...but by this time Erdedy had both arms around the guy’s neck and was hugging him with such vigor Kate Gompert later told Joelle van Dyne it looked like Erdedy was trying to climb him.

I love that. The Erdedy we first met really early on in the story, the guy helplessly waiting to go on a days long binge of marijuana, too weak to decide between phone and door, now has enough strength and desperation and faith to surrender his will and give himself up to Roy Tony. He doesn't have any more control than before, but at least he's swapped out "the pointless pain of active addiction" for a "sober pain [that] now has a purpose."

And I think it speaks to DFW's skill as a writer that he can write two diametrically opposed chapters almost right next to each other with the same gut wrenching impact.

Infinite Jest, Week 6 (380-461)

We are deep in it now!! Everything is great and every chapter is so interesting. In this week's reading we finally get some background on ONAN and President Gentle, and learn where those weird "whump" sounds DFW has referenced sparsely in the past 400 ish pages come from.

We get this info through Mario's film O.N.A.N.tiad played every year at the E.T.A. Interdependence Day celebrations. describing the events that led to the Reconfiguration. The film is a reinterpretation of Himself's film of the same name, neither of which is super historically accurate, and the characters in Mario's film are sock puppets made by middle school students. At this point DFW's style of sharing important info through several layers of indirection should be pretty familiar (here, a chapter about students watching a film reinterpreted from another film about real events).

The politics are very detailed and weirdly engrossing, but what I found really interesting about the O.N.A.N.tiad is that along with the Marathe and Steeply conversation, it reveals that the real dystopia of IJ is not the Reconfiguration, the crazy US president, the trash being launched by gigantic catapults across states, or the hopelessly irradiated territories. The real dystopia is all internal- it is the need to find someone to blame, Gentle's America First policies, and the inability and/or unwilling to choose wisely that makes IJ a dystopia.

Also this week we read another one of my favorite passages from IJ (there seems to be at least one every week, which is nice): Lyle and LaMont Chu's conversation about fame. I am going to quote big chunks of it here, because it is so good (bolded by me):

‘You feel these men with their photographs in magazines care deeply about having their photographs in magazines. Derive immense meaning.’ ‘I do. They must. I would. Else why would I burn like this to feel as they feel?’ ‘The meaning they feel, you mean. From the fame.’ ‘Lyle, don’t they?’

‘LaMont, perhaps they did at first. The first photograph, the first magazine, the gratified surge, the seeing themselves as others see them, the hagiography of image, perhaps. Perhaps the first time: enjoyment. After that, do you trust me, trust me: they do not feel what you burn for. After the first surge, they care only that their photographs seem awkward or unflattering, or untrue, or that their privacy, this thing you burn to escape, what they call their privacy is being violated. Something changes. After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines. They are trapped, just as you are.’

‘LaMont, are you willing to listen to a Remark about what is true?’ ‘Okeydokey.’ ‘The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.’ ‘Maybe I ought to be getting back.’ ‘LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of Michael Chang: namely Michael Chang’s enjoyable feeling of being-envied-by-LaMont-Chu. No such animal.’ ‘Animal?’ ‘You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.’ ‘This is good news?’ ‘It is the truth. To be envied, admired, is not a feeling. Nor is fame a feeling. There are feelings associated with fame, but few of them are any more enjoyable than the feelings associated with envy of fame.’ ‘The burning doesn’t go away?’ ‘What fire dies when you feed it? It is not fame itself they wish to deny you here. Trust them. There is much fear in fame. Terrible and heavy fear to be pulled and held, carried. Perhaps they want only to keep it off you until you weigh enough to pull it toward yourself.’ ‘Would I sound ungrateful if I said this doesn’t make me feel very much better at all?’ ‘La-Mont, the truth is that the world is incredibly, incredibly, unbelievably old. You suffer with the stunted desire caused by one of its oldest lies. Do not believe the photographs. Fame is not the exit from any cage.’ ‘So I’m stuck in the cage from either side. Fame or tortured envy of fame. There’s no way out.’ ‘You might consider how escape from a cage must surely require, foremost, awareness of the fact of the cage.

This is some of the most astute writing I've ever read about fame. I find it particularly interesting because in a lot of his interviews he talks what it's like to suddenly become famous and struggle with being a "successful" and well known author. 

The second weird piece of Lyle wisdom is dispensed to Ortho Stice, who is complaining about objects moving around in his room (we will see more of him later in the book so we'll come back to him). Lyle's advice to him is "do not underestimate objects," which is an incredibly weird thing to say. I didn't really understand it the first time and I still don't know what it really means, but maybe he's referring to addiction? Don't underestimate the objects of your addiction, whether it is a drug, or it is a lethally enjoyable film, or it is fame. Don't underestimate objects because the world is made up of them and it's very easy to get snared in the untruth of the importance of the object.

Some other interesting things:

  • At one point during Mario's film Rod Tine says "Allow me to illustrate what Lur—just what the president means" while explaining the proposed Reconfiguration. Luria P is a high level anti-ONAN operative- what is she doing advising Rod the God, theorized to be the one pulling the strings behind the formation of ONAN? How does this relate to the Hal/Orin phone call and the motivations of the Quebecers? 
  • It was brought up really briefly during the Joelle Van Dyne at the party chapter, but the US calls the Reconfiguration the Great Concavity and Canada calls it the Great Convexity. That seems like just a normal math term until you consider that the math terms don't seem exactly right- a concave line looks roughly like a valley, and a convex curve looks roughly like a mountain. The new property line goes from NY up to Vermont and down to Boston, which, from the US perspective is a convex curve, so why do they call it the Great Concavity? They call it the Great Concavity because they don't want that territory, so instead of looking at it from the US perspective, they look at the land from Canada's perspective, which looks like a concave curve. The same in reverse holds true for Canada. 
  • The guy that keeps writing headlines that are too long and keeps on getting demoted or fired in Mario's film
  • Eric Clipperton's story, the guy who wins tennis games by threatening to kill himself. My favorite bit is the very last sentence in the story:
    when an E.T.A. jr. whinges too loudly about some tennis-connected vicissitude or hardship or something, he’s invited to go chill for a bit in the Clipperton Suite, to maybe meditate on some of the other ways to succeed besides votaried self-transcendence and gut-sucking-in and hard daily slogging toward a distant goal you can then maybe, if you get there, live with.
    which really nicely illustrates the dangers and destructions of success and fame and how maybe the only way to achieve it is through persistent and patient self destruction.
  • Hal's paper on the relationship between broadcast TV and advertising, especially w.r.t. free will amongst consumers. It reminded me a lot of DFW's essay E Unibus Pluram except this one describes fictional events. The distinction that the ad company makes between passively picking between channels versus actively playing anything you want made me think of TV versus Netflix/ internet streaming, and I wonder how our viewing habits have changed in today's day where you can watch virtually any show or movie at any time.
  • Moms cheated on Himself with C.T.! Mario is maybe C.T.'s son!! C.T. refers to Mario as it!!!
  • I think about this sentence a lot: Marathe sniffed so deeply that it became a sigh. 

And some quotes I liked:

  • On pain:
    There’s serious pain in being sober, though, you find out, after time. Then now that you’re clean and don’t even much want Substances and feeling like you want to both cry and stomp somebody into goo with pain, these Boston AAs start in on telling you you’re right where you’re supposed to be and telling you to remember the pointless pain of active addiction and telling you that at least this sober pain now has a purpose. At least this pain means you’re going somewhere, they say, instead of the repetitive gerbil-wheel of addictive pain.
  • On God:
    He can’t even look at F.F. in the Crocodile’s row as he says that at this point the God-understanding stuff kind of makes him want to puke, from fear. Something you can’t see or hear or touch or smell: OK. All right. But something you can’t even feel? Because that’s what he feels when he tries to understand something to really sincerely pray to. Nothingness. He says when he tries to pray he gets this like image in his mind’s eye of the brainwaves or whatever of his prayers going out and out, with nothing to stop them, going, going, radiating out into like space and outliving him and still going and never hitting Anything out there, much less Something with an ear. Much much less Something with an ear that could possibly give a rat’s ass.
    I particularly like and relate to the image of brainwaves or prayers going endlessly outward.
  • On tennis as cerebral, as a sport you play in a world you build in your head:
    ‘Hit,’ he suggests. ‘Move. Travel lightly. Occur. Be here. Not in bed or shower or over baconschteam, in the mind. Be here in total. Is nothing else. Learn. Try.'

Infinite Jest, Week 5 (317-380)

This week's reading is neatly divided into three parts: more Marathe and Steeply on a hill, Eschaton, and a White Flag Boston AA meeting. 

This part of the Marathe Steeply conversation is so great. It is one of those things you read once and never forget. Marathe claims that the real root of the threat is not from Canada but from the American people themselves, because the samizdat is only dangerous because the American people do not know how to choose and willingly watch a tape that will kill them for pleasure.

Someone taught that temples are for fanatics only and took away the temples and promised there was no need for temples. And now there is no shelter. And no map for finding the shelter of a temple. And you all stumble about in the dark, this confusion of permissions. The without-end pursuit of a happiness of which someone let you forget the old things which made happiness possible.

America is obsessed with freedom, but Marathe makes a key distinction between freedom from and freedom to. The freedom described by Steeply is the freedom from constraints and forced duress, not the freedom for people to freely choose and to be guided to make the correct choice. This conversation reminds me a lot of DFW's commencement speech This is Water, where he argues that the purpose of a liberal arts education is to learn what to focus on, what to care about, and how to choose what is obviously and simply good but difficult to persistently do. We care a lot that we are free to make choices, but who teaches us what the right things to focus on are?

‘Always with you this freedom! For your walled-up country, always to shout “Freedom! Freedom!” as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean, this word. But look: it is not so simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress.’ Marathe over Steeply’s shoulder suddenly could realize why the skies above the coruscating city were themselves erased of stars: it was the fumes from the exhaust’s wastes of the moving autos’ pretty lights that rose and hid stars from the city and made the city Tucson’s lume nacreous in the dome’s blankness of it. ‘But what of the freedom-to? Not just free-from. Not all compulsion comes from without. You pretend you do not see this. What of freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?’

Steeply does bring up a good counterpoint though. If we are children that need to be taught how to choose, how do we guarantee that the adults who teach us are good?

Then we get into Eschaton (which appropriately means the end of the world). It's a super DFW chapter, because there are so many elements of his style present. The 5 pages of acronyms, the obscure but weirdly specific story setting (teenagers playing out an end of the world scenario with semi accurate politics where nuclear arsenals are deployed through tennis lobs), and the gruesome detail shared in a weirdly detached way are all hallmarks of his story telling that make his writing so instantly recognizable. 

I'm still not really sure what the point of that chapter was though, besides the greatest description of map versus territory ever:

Players themselves can’t be valid targets. Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game. They’re part of the map. It’s snowing on the players but not on the territory. They’re part of the map, not the clusterfucking territory. You can only launch against the territory. Not against the map. It’s like the one ground-rule boundary that keeps Eschaton from degenerating into chaos. Eschaton gentlemen is about logic and axiom and mathematical probity and discipline and verity and order. You do not get points for hitting anybody real. Only the gear that maps what’s real. Pemulis keeps looking back over his shoulder to the pavilion and screaming ‘Jaysus!’

The meat of this week's reading though is the AA meeting. In an interview DFW explained that he wrote about AA in IJ because he went to some meetings and he was really struck by their earnestness. There is something especially human about that combination of desperation and disbelief with no other option but to believe, and something especially mysterious about how what seems senseless at one point just starts to work. 

And then the palsied newcomers who totter in desperate and miserable enough to Hang In and keep coming and start feebly to scratch beneath the unlikely insipid surface of the thing, Don Gately’s found, then get united by a second common experience. The shocking discovery that the thing actually does seem to work. Does keep you Substance-free. It’s improbable and shocking.

You ask the scary old guys How AA Works and they smile their chilly smiles and say Just Fine. It just works, is all; end of story. The newcomers who abandon common sense and resolve to Hang In and keep coming and then find their cages all of a sudden open, mysteriously, after a while, share this sense of deep shock and possible trap; about newer Boston AAs with like six months clean you can see this look of glazed suspicion instead of beatific glee, an expression like that of bug-eyed natives confronted suddenly with a Zippo lighter. And so this unites them, nervously, this tentative assemblage of possible glimmers of something like hope, this grudging move toward maybe acknowledging that this unromantic, unhip, clichéd AA thing—so unlikely and unpromising, so much the inverse of what they’d come too much to love—might really be able to keep the lover’s toothy maw at bay.

The process is the neat reverse of what brought you down and In here: Substances start out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw’s missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they’ll never let you down; you just know it. But they do. And then this goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons… and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’d had and then lost, when you Came In.

Most people's lives are not quite so bad as the stories told in that AA meeting, but what you choose is very similar. Your temple is your addiction, what you would die twice over for is your substance, so say whatever you want, just Sit Down, Listen, Share, and Keep Coming.

I also want to mention how lovely the phrase "it was good to hear you" is, especially if you connect it with one of the first things Hal said in the very first chapter of IJ, "I am in here." There's no condescension, no presumption of comprehension, no empathy or sympathy, just a simple, reassuring, "it was good to hear you." I really really like that. 

Some other great parts of that chapter include:

  • On why things get trite:
    How do trite things get to be trite? Why is the truth usually not just un- but anti- interesting? Because every one of the seminal little mini-epiphanies you have in early AA is always polyesterishly banal, Gately admits to residents.
  • On giving and receiving:
    The term’s derived from an epigrammatic description of recovery in Boston AA: ‘You give it up to get it back to give it away.’
  • On the rock bottom of addiction:
    You are, as they say, Finished. You cannot get drunk and you cannot get sober; you cannot get high and you cannot get straight. You are behind bars; you are in a cage and can see only bars in every direction. You are in the kind of a hell of a mess that either ends lives or turns them around. You are at a fork in the road that Boston AA calls your Bottom, though the term is misleading, because everybody here agrees it’s more like someplace very high and unsupported: you’re on the edge of something tall and leaning way out forward….
  • On honesty and sincerity:
    The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. Irony-free zone. Same with sly disingenuous manipulative pseudo-sincerity. Sincerity with an ulterior motive is something these tough ravaged people know and fear, all of them trained to remember the coyly sincere, ironic, self-presenting fortifications they’d had to construct in order to carry on Out There, under the ceaseless neon bottle.
  • On the difficulty of being honest:
    Gately’s most marked progress in turning his life around in sobriety, besides the fact that he no longer drives off into the night with other people’s merchandise, is that he tries to be just about as verbally honest as possible at almost all times, now, without too much calculation about how a listener’s going to feel about what he says. This is harder than it sounds.
  • On the dangers of irony:
    So but also know that causal attribution, like irony, is death, speaking-on-Commitments-wise.

Infinite Jest, Week 4 (242-317)

If you're still following along, you made it!!! The next 600 pages of IJ are incredible. Every chapter from now is either pretty interesting or extremely interesting, and you now have the context to continue to enjoy the things that he keeps on building on :-)

In this week's reading we get our first peek into how Ennet House relates to the rest of the story, and why so many chapters have been devoted to its residents. In Gately and Geoffrey Day's conversation (mostly taking place in a footnote), Day complains to Gately about the circular logic of AA in hopes of convincing Gately that he doesn't have the Disease. This is an interesting passage because I actually agree with Day's logic- if you have an addiction, you should be in AA, but if you say you don't, then you're in Denial, so you should be in AA- but I find Gately's point much more compelling.

‘For me, the slogan means there’s no set way to argue intellectual-type stuff about the Program. Surrender To Win, Give It Away To Keep It. God As You Understand Him. You can’t think about it like an intellectual thing. Trust me because I been there, man. You can analyze it til you’re breaking tables with your forehead and find a cause to walk away, back Out There, where the Disease is. Or you can stay and hang in and do the best you can.’

What Gately is saying is there are some things that just can't be explained intellectually, that have to be come at with nothing but earnestness and blind belief, and that over intellectualization and justification will prevent you from doing what is simple to say but hard to do.

If Day ever gets lucky and breaks down, finally, and comes to the front office at night to scream that he can’t take it anymore and clutch at Gately’s pantcuff and blubber and beg for help at any cost, Gately’ll get to tell Day the thing is that the clichéd directives are a lot more deep and hard to actually do. To try and live by instead of just say. But he’ll only get to say it if Day comes and asks.

This seems to me to be another core idea of IJ: to Keep Coming Back

Other interesting parts (there are a bunch):

  • Hal's musings on being in the Zone, prompted by an uncanny streak of toenail clippings landing in a faraway wastebasket
  • The dynamic between CT, Moms, Himself, and the other Incandenzas. The Hamlet vibe is feeling especially strong with CT's speech.
  • Orin's incredibly interesting transition from almost successful tennis player to superstar football kicker, and his relationship with Joelle van Dyne/ Madame Psychosis/ P.G.O.A.T.
  • Poor Tony's disgusting and terribly pathetic story. If you have an idea why Poor Tony is in the story please let me know, because the character honestly just seems like DFW's punching bag.
  • Hal's beautiful touching relationship with Mario (we also learn that Mario was born prematurely and has some serious physical disabilities):
    But in the Year of Dairy Products From the American Heartland it was Hal, not she, who, when the veiled legate from the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed showed up at the E.T.A. driveway’s portcullis to discuss with Mario issues of blind inclusion v. visual estrangement, of the openness of concealment the veil might afford him, it was Hal, even as Mario laughed and half-bowed, it was Hal, brandishing his Dunlop stick, who told the guy to go peddle his linen someplace else.

Some things to remember:

  • Orin thinks he is being followed by people in wheelchairs.
  • Orin and Hal start talking about separatism in footnote 110 because of the profiler from Moment, which, if you recall from Marathe and Steeply's conversation, is OUS agent Hugh Steeply's current disguise. From the same conversation, Marathe described "Helen" Steeply as hideously masculine, but Orin finds Hugh/Helen attractive enough to call his estranged brother. The only other girl on that same level for Orin is Joelle, allegedly so pretty that people are too scared to talk to her, but when we meet Joelle at the party, she is wearing a veil, something that only members of the Union of the Hideously and Improbably deformed do in the book. So does Orin have strange taste, or is Marathe wrong about Hugh, or is Joelle actually hideous? 
  • In the same footnote (110) & the same conversation about separatism, Orin asks why these fringe Canadian separatist groups that have historically railed against Canada have suddenly united against America on the issue of the Concavity/Convexity. There are a lot of arguments that they bring up that are shot down, and before the conversation finishes the footnote ends mid sentence. The fun thing is I forgot all of the details of the argument except that there is one coming later and it's both convincing and satisfying, so I look forward to finding out too.

And finally, some quotes I like:

  • On success:
    Schtitt’s philosophical stance is that to win enough of the time to be considered successful you have to both care a great deal about it and also not care about it at all.
  • On loss, and missing what kills you:
    Gately often feels a terrible sense of loss, narcotics-wise, in the A.M., still, even after this long clean. His sponsor over at the White Flag Group says some people never get over the loss of what they’d thought was their one true best friend and lover; they just have to pray daily for acceptance and the brass danglers to move forward through the grief and loss, to wait for time to harden the scab. The sponsor, Ferocious Francis G., doesn’t give Gately one iota of shit for feeling some negative feelings about it: on the contrary, he commends Gately for his candor in breaking down and crying like a baby and telling him about it early one A.M. over the pay phone, the sense of loss. It’s a myth no one misses it. Their particular Substance. Shit, you wouldn’t need help if you didn’t miss it. You just have to Ask For Help and like Turn It Over, the loss and pain, to Keep Coming, show up, pray, Ask For Help.
  • On the passing of time:
    Time is passing. Ennet House reeks of passing time.
  • On a crush:
    But this was different. He’d been smitten before, but not decapitated.
  • On dread (a salient example might be fear of failure leading to failure):
    He said he was just speculating here, ad-libbing; he was meeting her eye and not drowning, his dread now transformed into whatever it had been dread of.

Books of June 2018

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance - Barack Obama

If you are interested in Obama before he became Obama or if you are interested in a thoughtful meditation on race & inheritance & blackness in America then read Dreams from My Father.

Dreams from My Father is Obama's memoir up until he went to law school at Harvard. It is split into three parts: his childhood in Hawaii/Indonesia/Hawaii and his college years in LA/NY, his years working in Chicago at a non profit as a community organizer, and finally his return to Kenya to see his paternal family. The book was written after Obama graduated from law school at Harvard, before he went into politics and way way before he became President Obama.  

It's a really interesting self reflection on his life, especially because at that point not much particularly exciting or special has happened to him yet. I actually found the first third of the book (about his childhood) pretty boring and almost quit reading, but I'm glad I stuck with it because the rest of the book is so thoughtful and engaging. He's just a wonderfully introspective person and such a phenomenal writer. 

His meditations on blackness in America and his personal experiences working in Chicago to help organize under served communities are especially amazing. You can disagree with Obama the politician on a lot of his policies and perspectives- that is fine and reasonable- but you can't argue that Obama didn't give a shit. In his 20s he was organizing poor and underprivileged communities in Chicago not for any future political aspirations but because he cared; in comparison in his 20s Trump was selling hotels and probably dodging the draft or something. Obama is so great.

Here are some quotes from the book I liked: 

  • On the encagement of minorities in America: 
    Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger.
  • On hearing the stories of the people you serve: 
    That’s what the leadership was teaching me, day by day: that the self-interest I was supposed to be looking for extended well beyond the immediacy of issues, that beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions people carried within them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them. Sacred stories.
  • On what binds a community: 
    What is our community, and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom? How far do our obligations reach? How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love? The answers I find in law books don’t always satisfy me—for every Brown v. Board of Education I find a score of cases where conscience is sacrificed to expedience or greed. And yet, in the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately,  prevail.

p.s. this book is also technically from book club in May, sorry :-(

The Burning Maze - Rick Riordan

The Burning Maze.jpg

If you like Rick Riordan then read his new book; it's so good and Rick Riordan is great.

I am a big Rick Riordan fan so I like all of his books but he's really outdone himself with The Burning Maze. It is one of my favorite books of his, which is doubly impressive because he's written so many good books and because I didn't like the first two books of this series that much (mainly because I found Apollo's human character Lester super annoying). In The Burning Maze though Riordan builds on the foundation he set up in the first two books and Apollo gets some phenomenal character development, really completing his transformation from annoying and whiny god to annoying and whiny human to sympathetic and empathetic person. Apollo's main companion Meg also continues to be great, and in The Burning Maze we learn more about her backstory. The supporting characters are equally fun- each book in The Trials of Apollo series has featured some characters in his previous Greek/Roman mythology series, and it is always nice to see old characters come back.

What's good about his books have always been the same two things: an engaging story and great character development, but what's astonishing about his books is how he continues to innovate in a genre that's already so saturated and does so on a regular annual cadence. In most of his books he introduces a crazy twist that I haven't read in any other similar books, and he pulls it off so incredibly well (this one too, but I won't spoil it).

This book in particular was funny and touching. My favorite parts __spoilers__ are:

  • On being a tree:
    “We have many powers!” shouted one. “We were born from the Earth Mother’s blood!” “The primordial strength of life flows through us!” said another. “We nursed Zeus as a baby!” said a third. “We bore an entire race of men, the warlike Bronze!” “We are the Meliai!” said a fourth. “We are the mighty ash trees!” cried the fifth. This left the last two without much to say. They simply muttered, “Ash. Yep; we’re ash.”
  • On remembrance, forgiveness, and the warmth of the sun:
    “You have a right to be angry,” I said. “But I remember you—your brilliance, your warmth. I remember your friendship with the gods and the mortals of the earth. I can never be as great a sun deity as you were, but every day I try to honor your memory—to remember your best qualities."... "I will endure,” I told him. “I will regain the sun chariot. As long as I drive it, you will be remembered. I will keep your old path across the sky steady and true. But you know, more than anyone, that the fires of the sun don’t belong on the earth. They weren’t meant to destroy the land, but to warm it! Caligula and Medea have twisted you into a weapon. Don’t allow them to win! All you have to do is rest. Return to the ether of Chaos, my old friend. Be at peace.”
  • On being human:
    I looked at the diorama of Temple Hill—all the little Monopoly tokens carefully labeled in Jason’s hand. I read the label: APOLLO. I could hear Jason’s voice in my mind, saying my name, asking me for one favor: Whatever happens, when you get back to Olympus, when you’re a god again, remember. Remember what it’s like to be human. This, I thought, was being human. Standing on the tarmac, watching mortals load the body of a friend and hero into the cargo hold, knowing that he would never be coming back. Saying good-bye to a grieving young woman who had done everything to help us, and knowing you could never repay her, never compensate her for all that she’d lost.

China in Ten Words - Hua Yu

China in 10 words.jpg

If you are interested in how China has changed in the last 60 years then read China in Ten Words.

China in Ten Words is a collection of 10 essays about China, each centered around a different work (like People, Grassroots, Copycat, etc.). Author Yu Hua relates each of these 10 words to a personal story, and through that illustrates how China has changed from the 1960s to now.

One of my favorite things about this book is his style. It's hard to articulate exactly what it is: maybe it's how concise and economical he is with his words, maybe it's the content or experiences he shares, or his deadpan style of delivery, but China in Ten Words is the English book that most read like Chinese for me, which makes a lot of sense because Hua Yu is a famous Chinese author. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution (from age 7 to 17), was a traveling dentist who just pulled teeth without any formal training, and then wanted to work in the cool air conditioned culture centers so became a writer. He's had a super interesting life, because he grew up in a very tumultuous and violent period and has since then seen such astronomically different Chinas. 

My favorite essays were all of them- they were all really entertaining and interesting. I grew up in Taiwan, very close to China, and I still learned so much about China from this book.

All About Love: New Visions - Bell Hooks

All About Love.jpg

If you are interested in reading about love (which I'm generally down for, to be honest), then read All About Love

All About Love was a bit of a polarizing book for me, because half of it I liked a lot, and the other half I really didn't like (and mostly skimmed or occasionally skipped).

The things I liked about the book:

  • Her thoughts on what love is, especially her definition of love as a verb and a conscious action
  • Her lovely writing on the transformation and healing power of love, recognizing that love is a difficult but redeeming choice
  • Her chapters on self love, love for family, and love for friends, because I learned a lot more from those since we are already pretty aligned on romantic love

Things I didn't like:

  • The chapters on spirituality, especially the parts on Christianity and religion
  • She throws out a lot of grandiose but not really backed up statements like "Nowadays we live in a world where poor teenagers are willing to maim and murder for a pair of tennis shoes or a designer coat; this is not a consequence of poverty." or "Truly, there would no unemployment problem in our nation if our taxes subsidized schools where everyone could learn to love. Job sharing could become the norm. With love at the center of our lives, work could have a different meaning and focus." 
  • She sets up a super strong dichotomy between men and women. I concede that these may be generally true, but also doesn't really back up anything that she says, so I have trouble with her sweeping statements about men being like "x" and women being like "y," especially since they don't really match my own experiences

Some quotes that I liked though:

  • On cynicism: 
    Young people are cynical about love. Ultimately, cynicism is the great mask of the disappointed and betrayed heart.
  • On the consciousness of love: 
    “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” Since the choice must be made to nurture growth, this definition counters the more widely accepted assumption that we love instinctually.
  • On love as a transformative force for good: 
    When we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth, it becomes clear that we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive.
  • On love as understanding: 
    The essence of true love is mutual recognition—two individuals seeing each other as they really are.
  • LOVE REDEEMS.

A Tale for the Time Being - Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being.jpg

If you are interested in a book about time, science fiction, Zen Buddhism, and history then read A Tale for the Time Being.

A Tale for the Time Being combines two stories: one narrated by Nao, a 16 year old Japanese American living in Tokyo, and the other narrated by Ruth, a Japanese American writer living off an island in British Columbia. Nao moves with her family from California to Tokyo after her father gets laid off, and bullied and friendless, she resolves to kill herself. Ruth moves with her eccentric husband to British Columbia from New York, where she is working through writer's block and feels a little estranged on the island. The two people & their lives are connected through Nao's diary that Ruth finds washed up on shore after the 2011 tsunami. The story reads lightly, especially the chapters narrated by Nao, but several parts of the story are harrowing and painful. Lots of sad and terrible things happen in the book (mostly to Nao), although the story as a whole resolves in a very life affirming way. 

I wasn't too crazy about Ruth and Oliver's story, because everyone on the island is weird and I didn't really feel connected to Ruth ever despite her being the other half of the story. I found the Nao chapters a lot more interesting and engaging, but I struggled with the book a lot initially because I didn't like Nao's voice. Ozeki intentionally writes the Nao parts with a very young voice, which is definitely an appropriate choice, but that style just annoys me (same reason why I didn't like Perks of Being a Wallflower). Surprisingly though the magical realism near the end was good. I usually don't like magical realism, but here I felt like it had a very distinctive and clear purpose, propelling the story forward and felt dreamy but still realistic.

My friend Keva recommended me this book, and she has a lot of opinions, so her thoughts on it are (all direct quotes):

  • I like how its a quotidian take on speculative fiction, that at its core it's a story of everyday occurrences that take on grander significance.
  • I think it tells a lot of different stories in one large narrative, between the two Haruki's, Nao, Ruth, Oliver, and Jiko who all give something to think about for me.
  • I love Ozeki's usage of quantum mechanics to structure her novel. Lots of science fiction is like superheroes, hackers, time travel, apocalypse, etc. which I all love (except hackers lol) but I think this, and Ozeki's other work, provides a different take on the genre. At its core it embraces randomness as a storytelling possibility which I love. Ruth is walking down a beach, finds a bag of trash. She's about to throw it away and her eccentric husband is like why don't you look through it, and that's how the tale comes to fruition. I find a lot of beauty in that
  • There's a quiet rumination on the kinds of history preserved in 'trash' while the digital remains of Nao's life have been completely erased
  • It also asks us as readers to think about our role as readers in this novel, just like Ruth as a reader plays a role
  • There's a lot of little things that i just love about this book which is why I like it so much, it's much less of a grand narrative than a collection of little things that randomly structure a story. Like there's both a lot to love but also a lot to write about as someone who writes about these things

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion - Elizabeth L. Cline

Overdressed.jpg

If you are interested in cheap fashion and how it has affected the fashion industry (and the world) then read Overdressed

Overdressed is about how fast cheap fashion took over the fashion industry, and the resulting myriad of negative consequences. Cline covers labor, both domestic (losing jobs) and foreign (terrible working conditions), environmental costs (fashion is one of the most environmentally destructive industries, and now operates at incredible scale), consumer's connections to fashion, and the fashion industry itself (stifling innovation). Each chapter, she discusses a different aspect of the problem, and writes about her experiences visiting & investigating these places. For example, in her chapter on foreign labor in the fashion industry, she visited several factories in China and Bangladesh posing as a representative from an American apparel company trying to get an order of skirts made.

Cline is a little wordy and repetitive sometimes, but overall the book is super interesting and it has definitely changed my perspective on where I want to shop and why. Ultimately the book boils down to a simple idea: if I want pieces that reflect who I am and will last longer and are higher quality, it will be more expensive than mass produced fashion, but the ability to express myself uniquely is a huge benefit that a lot of people don't consider. There are also a bunch of associated costs (environmental, humanitarian, economic) with the fast fashion industry that are invisible to most consumers when they buy a 5 dollar shirt, costs that are definitely worth me paying more for my clothes, buying things that I really like, and buying from places that produce fashion sustainably.

I judge nonfiction by how much they change my perspective, and I was so blown away by the book that I won't shop at fast fashion retailers anymore and I'm actually considering learning how to sew. HMU if you want to take sewing lessons with me in LA.

Celestial Bodies: How to Look at Ballet - Laura Jacobs 

If you are interested in how to look at ballet then read Celestial Bodies

I have seen 3 ballets in my life, all at the Metropolitan Opera House: The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, A Midsummer Night's Dream. I was really excited for all 3 of them, and during all 3 of them I was just so confused. People were dancing, it was obviously difficult, spinning is something to be excited about, there was some music, but more than that I just had no idea what was going on. So after those 3 excitements and those 3 disappointments I wrote ballet off as something that I just didn't get or I just didn't enjoy. 

Which is why this book was so cool for me!! Top 3 non fiction of the year so far. Celestial Bodies starts with the basics of ballet, covering the techniques like the 5 positions, pointepleis, etc. and different roles in a ballet like choreographer, ballet master, corps, soloists, principals, etc., and then goes through a history of ballet chronologically. In those chapters, Jacobs highlights famous ballets, ballerinas (male and female, although mostly female), and choreographers/ artistic directors and how they introduced something new to the art of ballet. She also devotes a few chapters here and there to ideas in ballet, like perfection and balance. 

The book helped me understand some of the technical aspects of ballet and shared some history of ballet, but more importantly, she writes so beautifully about ballet and really helped me see what she sees. In her writing I clearly felt her excitement and passion and awe of ballet, but more than that I could feel my own as she described ballet in her eyes. It is gorgeous stuff- I cant wait to go see a ballet soon.

Some interesting caveats (learned from a conversation I had after I wrote that review):
- Ballet is incredibly damaging to the body, and while she does touch on the negative aspects of forcing your body to do something so unnatural, Jacobs mostly paints the constant attainment of perfection in ballet in a very romantic light. 
- Ballet also pushes a very Eurocentric idea of beauty, especially since in addition to being extremely physically demanding, ballet is also very much about beauty and aesthetics, which means that it's necessarily rooted in some ideal of beauty. Jacobs talks about the Dance Theater of Harlem, but that's by far the exception in ballet and in all 3 ballets I saw I don't think I saw a single ballerina who wasn't white.

Infinite Jest, Week 3 (169-242)

This is my least favorite chunk of IJ because it's sandwiched between two super long chapters about Madame Psychosis/ Joelle van Dyne, beginning with her radio show and ending with her intentional cocaine overdose in her friend's bathroom during a party. I can't really articulate why, but I just found both passages so grueling to get through both times I've read them.

Nonetheless, some important bits to remember:

  • Pemulis, and the incredibly potent DMZ (also note the date of the chapter)
  • The introduction of Madame Psychosis and her radio show, specifically what makes her show so compelling to Mario

One of the reasons Mario’s obsessed with her show is that he’s somehow sure Madame Psychosis cannot herself sense the compelling beauty and light she projects over the air, somehow. He has visions of interfacing with her and telling her she’d feel a lot better if she listened to her own show, he bets. Madame Psychosis is one of only two people Mario would love to talk to but would be scared to try.

and my favorite parts:

  • Hal's description of being a tennis player and an ETA student

- Here is how to avoid thinking about any of this by practicing and playing until everything runs on autopilot and talent’s unconscious exercise becomes a way to escape yourself, a long waking dream of pure play. The irony is that this makes you very good, and you start to become regarded as having a prodigious talent to live up to.
- Try to learn to let what is unfair teach you.
- If you are an adolescent, here is the trick to being neither quite a nerd nor quite a jock: be no one. It is easier than you think.
- Be a Student of the Game. Like most clichés of sport, this is profound. You can be shaped, or you can be broken. There is not much in between. Try to learn. Be coachable. Try to learn from everybody, especially those who fail. This is hard. Peers who fizzle or blow up or fall down, run away, disappear from the monthly rankings, drop off the circuit. E.T.A. peers waiting for deLint to knock quietly at their door and ask to chat. Opponents. It’s all educational. How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away. Nets and fences can be mirrors. And between the nets and fences, opponents are also mirrors. This is why the whole thing is scary. This is why all opponents are scary and weaker opponents are especially scary.

  • Don's description of being an addict at Ennet House (look for similarities in these two passages!)

- That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable.
- That ‘acceptance’ is usually more a matter of fatigue than anything else.
- That, perversely, it is often more fun to want something than to have it.
- That it is permissible to want.
- That everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else. That this isn’t necessarily perverse.

I'm so excited about the next parts though!!! This week marks the hump of IJ; after page 250 ish I really started to get into IJ.

Infinite Jest, Week 2 (85-169)

By page 169 we're still in very solid wtf is going on territory, but there's at least been some groundwork laid for all the subplots in IJ, and while we still have to get to know a lot more characters (especially the people at Ennet House), we've already read about a bunch of important ones. So far we've:

  • met all of the Incandenzas (C.T, Himself, Moms, Orin, Mario, and of course Hal)
  • been introduced to a couple drug addicts (Steve Erdedy, Kate Gompert, Poor Tony, etc.) at Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House and some Enfield Tennis Academy students (Pemulis, John Wayne, Ortho Stice, etc.)
  • learned more about the eponymous Entertainment and some intra ONAN politics, specifically US Canada relations via triple agent Remy Marathe and cross dressing Office of Unspecified Services agent Hugh Steeply

I know that's a daunting amount of information to remember, but I promise eventually it'll all come together and you'll know more about tennis, optics, drugs, and fake politics than you probably want. 

This week's post builds on an idea introduced last week: if the only difference between life and death is the choice of what you erase and destroy yourself for, what should that choice be? What are you willing to "die twice for?"

This is laid out most obviously in Marathe's argument about attachments in his and Steeply's conversation on the hill in Tucson Arizona, prompted by Steeply calling Marathe a "fanatically patriotic Wheelchair Assassin."

Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you. 

You U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self. 

This, is it not the choice of the most supreme importance? Who teaches your U.S.A. children how to choose their temple? What to love enough not to think two times? For this choice determines all else. No? All other of our you say free choices follow from this: what is our temple. What is the temple, thus, for U.S.A.’s?

But what if there is no choice, and you just do without thinking?

Then in such a case your temple is self and sentiment. Then in such an instance you are a fanatic of desire, a slave to your individual subjective narrow self’s sentiments; a citizen of nothing. You become a citizen of nothing. You are by yourself and alone, kneeling to yourself. In a case such as this you become the slave who believes he is free. The most pathetic of bondage. Not tragic. No songs. You believe you would die twice for another but in truth would die only for your alone self, its sentiment.

Some other things I found interesting or liked:

  • John Wayne and Lamont Chu's speech on the progression towards mastery, and how the only way to climb to the next plateau is "a whole lot of frustrating mindless repetitive practice and hanging in there"
  • The essay on videophony and why the technology became obsolete. I still think about it every time I'm on the phone or I'm facetiming someone.
  • Hal's essay on the evolution of the North American hero, from active -> reactive -> non active
  • "Urine trouble? Urine luck!"
  • The visceral pain of Himself's dad's story about getting injured in a tennis game.
    "It's a pivotal, it's a seminal, religious day when you get to both hear and feel your destiny at the same moment, Jim."

Infinite Jest, Week 1 (3-85)

In IB psych in high school I remember watching a video of these two guys talking about "organizing things into groups" and "doing less is more," and it was totally incomprehensible until one of them explained that they were reading a paragraph about doing laundry. Reading IJ for the first time feels a lot like listening to them talk about washing clothes, except instead of a minute to watch it takes 3 months to read. The first 200 ish pages of IJ are tough, and DFW launches straight into a couple of distinct subplots with a bunch of new characters, none of which get any but the most minimal backstory. 

Reading IJ again with some context is like watching the video knowing they're talking about laundry. Things actually make sense! It's like reading a totally different book. Without spoiling anything coming up, in the first 100 pages DFW introduces two very important ideas, both of which I missed initially.

The first happens in the very first chapter (Hal's college admissions interview). It's a very confusing chapter with no background. Hal is with some teachers from his tennis academy, interviewing with some deans, and all of a sudden he starts convulsing and screaming and no one seems to be able to understand him despite us getting a very cogent view of his thoughts. Juxtaposed with people panicking and sending Hal to the hospital restrained is his wonderful monologue and defense of his thoughts and his existence (I quote it in my about page), and it's unclear if there's actually something wrong, if there's just a terrible misunderstanding, or if the whole thing is just imagined.

A similar thing happens a few chapters later when Hal talks to his dad (Himself), disguised as a professional conversationalist. Some kind of breakdown in communication happens, and while it's obvious that Hal and his dad can understand each other somewhat (Hal says he is 11 and his dad corrects his notes), towards the end Hal is speaking and his dad seems to not be able to hear him. 

‘Praying for just one conversation, amateur or no, that does not end in terror? That does not end like all the others: you staring, me swallowing?’
‘…’
‘Son?’
‘…’
‘Son?’

Both chapters are similar in nature- in both, Hal has things to say but no one is able to understand them. The concept and the struggle of not being able to communicate with other people is a very core part of IJ. When Hal starts to explain himself to the admissions officers, he says "I am in here," which, if you think about it, is an unusual way®ew of expressing yourself. He doesn't say "I am here," referring to some location, he doesn't say "I am me," referring to him as a being, he says "I am in here," implying that he is stuck somewhere inside something.

If you've ever felt the panic and frustration and loneliness of isolation, then you also know that feeling. It is feeling like there's something huge inside of you, but it's trapped inside of yourself, and no one will ever understand and no one will ever be able to understand. "I am in here" is a painful plea saying this is the real "I", please try to hear me. That loneliness and pain will continue to be a huge part of IJ.

The second thing I found much more interesting the second time around is Schitt and Mario's conversation about tennis and infinities. Schtitt describes tennis as a "Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response,... mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained," ultimately bounded by boundaries of self. Like life, tennis is infinite, but to play and to improve is to try to destroy the limits of yourself, the very thing that makes the game possibly in the first place. The tragedy of a junior pro tennis player is "but one facet of the real gem: life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without." If life is about battling yourself, and battling yourself is the same as destroying yourself, then life is "pro-death," and the two are no different, except the chance to play. That's what defines your life- the chance to play, and why you choose to play.

Remember these two ideas, because they weave important threads through IJ.

Some other parts that I liked:

  • The Steve Erdedy marijuana chapter is such a good short story; you can practically taste his desperation. I wish I could write like that T_T
  • The chapter introducing Kate Gompert where she explains her depression is the bit that first convinced me that DFW was not fucking around and this book was going to be insane
  • Footnote 24 (I'm sorry I made you all read it). The entire filmography probably seems unnecessarily long and boring right now, but it actually provides a lot of interesting info because 1) it's one of the only chronological things in the book, so it helps set the timeline, 2) there are a bunch of small references and jokes he slips in there, and 3) the plots of the movies foreshadow a lot of stuff. It's a lot more interesting reading those if you pay attention to the date and if you try to map actors to characters in IJ.

Infinite Jest Reading Schedule

DatePagePercentage
Jun 4 - Jun 83-556%
Jun 8 - Jun 1155-859%
Jun 11 - Jun 1585-12613%
Jun 15 - Jun 18126-16917%
Jun 18 - Jun 22169-21923%
Jun 22 - Jun 25219-24228%
Jun 25 - Jun 29242-28332%
Jun 29 - Jul 2283-31737%
Jul 2 - Jul 6317-34342%
Jul 6 - July 9343-38045%
Jul 9 - Jul 13380-41850%
Jul 13 - Jul 16418-46154%
Jul 16 - Jul 20461-50359%
Jul 20 - Jul 23503-53863%
Jul 23 - Jul 30break68%
Jul 30 - Aug 3538-58977%
Aug 3 - Aug 6589-61981%
Aug 6 - Aug 10620-66286%
Aug 10 - Aug 13663-70191%
Aug 27 - Sept 2701-77496%
Sept 3 - Sept 9774-845100%
Sept 17 - Sept 23845-911100%
Sept 24 - Sept 30911-981100%

Some notes on the schedule:

  • The schedule starts on Monday and goes on for 11 weeks. Each week I planned on reading about 90 pages, 50 pages Monday to Friday, 40 pages Friday to next Monday.

  • Blog posts will come out every Monday (hopefully), so the 50/40 split Monday to Monday is just suggested. If you're interested in reading along with the blog posts, then as long as you're at or past the given page by Monday's blog post then you're good to go.

  • Feel free to skip ahead, but the blog posts will be spoiler free up to the page read in the schedule.

  • All physical editions of IJ are 981 pages long; I think the Kindle version is as well.

  • There are really long endnotes, so the book is really more 1100 pages, which means the reading cadence is really about 100 pages a week. It'll vary a little week to week because some sections have lots of endnotes and some have none, but it averages out over the 3 months :-)

Books of May 2018

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go.jpg

If you're interested in a book about bitterness and memory and love and loss then read Never Let Me Go.

Never Let Me Go revolves around Kathy and her two friends, Tommy and Ruth, who all went to the same boarding school in England, Hailsham. Even though the story is narrated by Kathy in the present, many years after their time at Hailsham, most of the book takes place in Kathy's memories.

The book starts out pretty confusing, because Ishiguro doesn't give you a lot of context or background before jumping into flashbacks, and the backstory unfolds very slowly. It reminds me a lot of the manga The Promised Neverland, especially the first arc where you feel that something fucked up is going on beneath the idyllic surface, but it's not revealed exactly what it is until much later. A big part of the enjoyment of this book for me was just figuring out what's going on, but not in a mystery thriller exciting way. There are no strong emotions or big tense climatic buildups in the book- instead, emotions are gently diffused across the story, felt more as soft undertones. They color the book and their influence is obvious, but they're never overtly in your face.

I really admire that kind of dreamy quality in writing. I think it's so hard to get that type of very subtle mood right, and that style feels especially appropriate given that most of the book takes places in flashbacks, because it imbues the book with a very soft nostalgic feel.

As an interesting sidenote, I talked to my friend Keva about it, and her thoughts on the book were: "to me its a rumination on the constructed sociopolitical category/species of the human and a speculative account of eugenics," which is a completely different takeaway, so YMMV.

Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America - Mark Padoongpatt

If you're interested in Thai food in America and how seemingly innocuous areas like food reflect asymmetrical relations of power, then read Flavors of Empire.

Flavors of Empire is about Thai food in America, specifically in Los Angeles. It examines why there are so many Thai restaurants in America, and explores how food is much more complicated than what most people imagine, using food as a way to demonstrate how socioeconomic and cultural structures of power extend to unexpected areas. In particular Padoongpatt presents food culture as a manifestation of how "the relationship between white culinary appropriators and the groups they extract from are deeply embedded in historically constituted relationships of power." 

The book covers America's burgeoning interest in Thai cuisine during the Cold War, how Thais established Thai foodways in America, the boom in Thai restaurants in the 70s and 80s in LA, Thai food festivals in American suburbs, and the creation of Thai Town in East Hollywood. Along the way, he examines how neocolonial relationships established circuits of exchange between Thailand and America, how Thais grappled with race, gender, and class structures in the restaurant industry, how food festivals challenged the "white spatial imaginary of the neighborhood," and how "food buttresses white supremacy through well-meaning, liberal racism exemplified by a love and passion for ethnic food."

Flavors of Empire is an academic text and some parts feel a little dense, but overall it's not too bad to get through. I learned a lot from it, and I thought it was an incredible book- one of my favorite non fictions of the year.

倚天屠龍記 - 金庸

If you're interested in some hype wuxia then read 倚天屠龍記

倚天屠龍記 is the last of the 射鵰三部曲, the Condor Trilogy, and takes place near the end of the Yuan dynasty. Centered on 張無忌, in the story his parents pass away, he gets injured heavily as a kid, almost dies, and becomes incredibly OP through some even more incredible luck- pretty standard 金庸 stuff. 

張無忌 is a fun character to read about, mostly because over the series he becomes insanely strong. After he learns 九陽神功 and 乾坤大挪移心法, there's basically no one on his level, unlike the first two books in the trilogy where there was always the 天下五絕. He sits heads and shoulders above everyone else, and that's satisfying to read in the same way watching the Hulk beating people up is satisfying. The 2-3 chapters where he fights to defend 明教 on the mountain are the most hype chapters in any 金庸 book I've ever read.

He's also very loyal and righteous, which are admirable qualities, but despite his superhuman skill he gets led around by other people all his life, and has no real sense of direction or purpose. Because of that he's my least favorite of the three protagonists in the Condor Trilogy. 范遙 describes it well in the book: 張無忌武功既高,為人又極仁義,實令人好生心服,只是不夠心狠手辣,有些婆婆媽媽之氣,未免美中不足. Most of his major struggles in the book are with different women who like him, which just isn't as compelling or sympathetic as 楊過 who fights for a taboo love or 郭靖 who balances his personal desires with his commitments to his masters and his country.

倚天屠龍記 's supporting cast is great though, especially the sect that he is in and 明教. The sect is small, everyone is super close, and the 7 disciples are all super good people, and 明教 also has a lot of interesting antiheroes. 

Helen and Troy's Epic Road Quest - A. Lee Martinez

If you're interested in a refreshingly fun take on road quests and modern day mythology then read Helen and Troy's Epic Road Quest (one of my favorite A. Lee Martinez books!).

Helen and Troy's Epic Road Quest is about Helen, a modern day minotaur, and Troy, a very attractive and talented Asian guy and their road trip across enchanted America. Both in high school, and both working at the same fast food burger place, Helen and Troy accidentally get involved in a ritual to summon a banished god (with frozen hamburger meat), and when it goes south, they get unwilling put on a quest to gather artifacts of power.

The book is classic A. Lee Martinez: good characters and good story. The characters are fun and feel wonderfully genuine (I especially like the reluctant orc assassins), and they are always normal people who just happen to be mythical creatures or live in fantasy worlds. The story is also super cohesive. Organized around gathering the artifacts, the story moves at a very satisfying pace, and every part of the story builds on top of each other. There are also tons of meta references to itself and the genre, and A. Lee Martinez takes all the tropes of this type of road quest story and inverts it. I've read this book I think 3 or 4 times now, and every time it's been a lot of fun.

The Secret Lives of Color - Kassia St. Clair

The Secret Lives of Color.jpg

If you're interested in the history of interesting colors then read The Secret Lives of Color

The Secret Lives of Color is split into multiple sections, each devoted to a color, and each section is split into multiple chapters, each centered on a shade of that color. In each chapter, Clair talks about the history of color and gives some interesting context on how it's made, where it came from, how it was used, etc. It's pretty much exactly what you would expect; it's a pretty history book about colors. 

My interest gets piqued by a bunch of random things so I pick up a lot of random books, but sometimes (like with this book) halfway through a book I realize I'm just not that down to read two, three hundred pages about colors... but if you're into that kind of stuff I bet this book will be great. I did appreciate my new understanding of how acquiring different colors to paint with 

Solanin - Inio Asano

If you're interested in a lovely coming of age story in short manga form then read Solanin.

I read Oyasumi Punpun last month and I loved it, so I picked up Solanin this month by the same author. It's a lot shorter than Punpun (28 chapters) and a lot happier. Solanin is about a couple in their early 20s, Meiko and Taneda, who both work doing jobs they don't really like. Taneda also plays guitar in a band with their college friends, but they play more as a hobby, even though they dream about performing to a large audience. Unhappy with the trajectory and rhythm of their lives, Meiko decides to quit her job and Taneda decides to devote time to practice seriously and promote their music, when a tragedy happens that disrupts their plans (it's a really cliche twist, but I still don't want to spoil it). 

Solanin has a really simple setup and plot, but it's a very cute story about taking risks and being free in your 20s. Asano tells you in Solanin that it's ok to be confused and unsure, and encourages you to see the world as possibility instead of as obligations, which I think is sometimes difficult to believe as an aimless and anxious person in their 20s.

Some panels I liked:

solanin ch 8.PNG
solanin ch 28.PNG

Maekawa Kunio and the Emergence of Japanese Modernist Architecture
- Jonathan M. Reynolds

Maekawa Kunio.jpg

If you're interested in modern Japanese architecture then read Maekawa Kunio and the Emergence of Japanese Modernist Architecture.

I took Modern Japanese Architecture at Columbia in my junior year, and my professor wrote this book. I actually read a good amount of it for class, but I don't really remember much of it. I also really like the class, and I learned a lot from it, but I also forgot almost everything, so I wanted to refresh my memory.

The book focuses on the architect Maekawa Kunio and his designs but paints a good picture of Japanese architecture from the end of the Meiji era to the 1980s. Professor Reynolds spends a lot of time in the book talking about the tradition/ modernist debate, and the various forms the debate took over the years of Maekawa's architectural career. All of the buildings are also accompanied by nice pictures, a lot of them that he took. 

Some of my favorite buildings are the Kanagawa Prefectural Library and Auditorium, the Gakushuin University, the Tokyo Metropolitan Festival Hall, the Saitama Community Center, and the Saitama Prefectural Museum, and my favorite quote in the book is: 

In 1931 Maekawa had portrayed himself as a rebel scaling the ramparts of the architectural establishment. By the early 1960s entry was no longer a problem: he owned his own set of keys.

Books of April 2018

Oyasumi Punpun - Inio Asano

Oyasumi Punpun.jpg

If you're interested in a masterpiece of characterization, a dark and depressing story, or the manga that I think best employs the medium of manga, then read Oyasumi Punpun. 

Oyasumi Punpun is an incredible work about the eponymous little boy Punpun, who is depicted in the manga as a little bird. The story follows him from elementary school into high school, college, and adulthood, as he copes with his dysfunctional family, his love interest Aiko Tanaka, his adolescence and maturity, and his self destructive thoughts and urges.

One of the things that I love about Punpun is its art. Asano uses the medium of manga better than any other manga that I've read. Manga is intended to be read from panel to panel, unfolding and transitioning from page to page, and that is brilliantly incorporated in Punpun. From hyper realistic close ups of eyes, hands or grotesque expressions, Asano quickly shifts the POV to a wide panorama on the next panel where the characters are almost hidden in the backdrop of what's around them. It's a very lonely and jarring experience to move without transition from the intimacy of a closeup of a character's turbulent emotions to the homogeneity of a wide frame panel of a busy street, a type of art and expression that is only possible because of the way manga is created and consumed.

Punpun Street.jpg

The art in Punpun also combines this highly detailed backdrop with very simple and abstract art and the contrast really adds to the impact whenever Asano draws full page panels like this:

Part of what makes the art so good is how it supports the characters, and Punpun is a masterpiece in characterization. Depicting Punpun and his family as birds is a fucking genius move, and the juxtaposition of Punpun and his family's normal simplicity as birds and the occasional hyper realistic panels of certain body parts is just insane. It's terrible to read.

Uncle Yuichii.jpg

How Punpun evolves and changes from innocent little bird to what he becomes in the end of the manga is also terrifying, and makes his destructive and depressing transformation that much more vivid and visceral and horrifying.

A manga with such fucked up art can only be accompanied by a fucked up story, and the stories and themes in Punpun cut deep. Punpun is a sad story because Punpun is a fundamentalist, and [--spoilers--] never gets over breaking his promise as a child to Tanaka. He is torn between his clear distinctions of good and bad, and ends up in vicious cycles of self destruction and hatred when he is inevitably unable to always live up to his concepts of good. A lot of characters (Uncle Yuichii, Tanaka, Punpun, Sachi) also struggle with sex, something very terrifying and scary in the manga. Characters are torn between love as an uplifting and supportive force, and sex as something dirty and dangerous and demeaning, and many are unable to properly manage their feelings and their urges, especially Uncle Yuichii. 

A lot of serious mangas suffer from weak endings (like Monster or Billy Bat) but Punpun's ending is fantastic and satisfying in a very sad way. The adult Punpun meets his childhood friend Harumin who moved in elementary school, and thinks that Punpun is doing well and has supportive friends and a good life. In reality, at the end of the manga Punpun is broken and just wants to be left alone and forgotten, but is dragged back to life by Sachi, and seen through the innocent lens of his friend, we see the hell that Punpun lives in now and the terrible inability of anyone to truly understand and relate to Punpun. [--end spoilers--]

My only complaint with Punpun is the weird alien subplot, with Pegasus, the leader of the cult. It just didn't really seem to fit in the manga, and later on in an interview I read that he added that subplot because he sometimes gets bored or distracted and wanted to make sure to add something so readers could enjoy something other than only Punpun's story.

A Little Primer of Tu Fu - David Hawkes

A Little Primer of Tu Fu.jpg

If you want a little primer of Dufu then read A Little Primer of Tu Fu.

A Little Primer of Tu Fu is an awesome introduction to Dufu's poetry via an analysis of all of his poems in 唐詩三百首, an anthology of 300 poems from the Tang Dynasty. I found this book through one of my art history professors at Columbia, because while reading stuff about rap and Chinese rap I got interested in Chinese poetry, so I reached out to Professor Delbanco and she recommended this book to me. 

Part of why I really liked this book is because its structure is so clear and consistent. Every section of the book is organized in the same way: it starts with the poem in traditional Chinese with pinyin, continues with an explanation of the title, a description of the form, and an explanation of each line (focusing on specific terms or phrases in the poem, especially allusions or references), and ends with a translation of the poem as a whole. Even though I read some of his poems in Chinese class in Taiwan, I found A Little Primer super valuable and interesting, and the way he organizes his analysis and explanation really helped highlight some of the reasons why Dufu is such a celebrated poet and why his works are so great. I also got a much better understanding of Dufu's life and how it influenced his poetry, and the many forms of Chinese poetry in the Tang dynasty. 

I also like that he doesn't try to capture the poem in English and instead just explains its meaning, because it's very difficult to capture the essence of Chinese poems in English and I feel like any effort to would diminish Dufu's poems. I do feel sad that to learn about Chinese poetry I read an English book, so I'm planning to read a Chinese book on 唐詩三百首 soon as well, but this was a very lovely primer.

My favorite poems were 望岳, 贈衛八處士, 登樓, 登高, 月夜, and 哀江頭.

Molester Man - Yokota Takuma

If you're interested in a short but sweet manga about an awkward college dude and his relationships, then read Molester Man

Molester Man is a short slice of life manga about an otaku in college who gets accused of being a stalker from a series of misunderstandings, but he and the girl end up becoming friends and he falls for her friend. This is hard to imagine because the title Molester Man is so troll (another good example is the TV show Cougar Town), but Molester Man is actually a pretty heart warming and relatable manga, especially when I first read it as a senior in high school.

Most of Molester Man happens from the perspective of the main character, self dubbed Molester Man (other characters call him Mr. Molester, which is hilarious). Because the manga spends so much time in his head, you get a very personal look into his thoughts, so at every point in the manga you have a good understanding of what he's thinking or feeling and why. That's why I found Molester Man so likeable and relatable, because he is a great mix of good intentions and awkward earnestness, which I think captures honestly what it's like to be a stupid teenage male who is nervous about girls but always means well.

Part of why the story feels very genuine is probably because Molester Man is based on a real story from an 2ch thread where someone posted about his experiences, and a bunch of people followed his story, commented on it, or gave him advice. The art is also very simple, and focuses mainly on the characters, which is nice because it really suits the story. A super realistic style with very detailed background and people would actually take away a lot of its charm, like how One's shitty drawings make Mob Psycho 100 more endearing.

Nine Museums - Yoshio Taniguchi

If you're interested in learning about and looking at pictures of beautiful Japanese museums designed by Taniguchi then read Nine Museums.

I love going to museums and I love looking at museums. Because art is a very special expression of a country's soft power, museum architecture is intimately tied to its location, the type of art it houses, and the intended purpose of the museum, so all museums are very unique. A great example is the difference between the Met and 故宮, or Musee Rodin and the Louvre. They are different because of where they are, what type of art they have, and what they're intended to do, and the experience of Rodin's art would be much diminished in a Chinese style pagoda or in a large monumental museum like the National Gallery.

I liked Taniguchi's architecture when I studied his stuff in class, but I forgot a lot of what I learned, so I wanted to read more about his museum architecture (I was also recommended this book by a former art professor). Nine Museums by Yoshio Taniguchi starts with an essay on his architecture and then devotes a chapter to each of the nine museums. Each section opens with a short, one page introduction to the museum, shows you the floor plan, and then shares a bunch of pictures of different parts of the museum at different times of day (the night time pictures are sublime).

The pictures and the museums in the book are just gorgeous, and I would love to visit them someday. After I leave Riot I'd like to go on a trip to Japan and just go around the country looking at museums that I like. I love the materials that he uses, and how light and shadows interact in his buildings. A lot of his buildings are big and materials are solid, but somehow they recede into the background and walking around in the museum looks like a very meditative experience. 

My favorite museums in the book are the Ken Domon Museum of Photography, The Higashiyama Kaii Gallery in the Nagano Prefectural Shinano Art Museum, and the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures in the Tokyo National Museum.

Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting and Living with Books - Michael Dirda

If you like books, books about books, or sci-fi and mystery, then read Browsings

Browsings is a collection of book reviewer Michael Dirda's essays in his weekly column about books in The Washington Post. There are 52 pieces in total (he writes for a year), but they're all super short and add up to about a 200ish page book. I found Browsings really interesting for two reasons: this dude really fucking loves books, way more than I do (and I love books), and the books he likes and have read are totally distinctive from my interests. That's cool, for sure, but I'm still not that interested in reading about lists of science fiction books or British mystery thrillers, and I also don't really like his writing style. I find it a little too fancy for my tastes, which is also maybe why I don't really like a lot of older English books and some classics. Nonetheless I really admire how much he likes books, and his collection of books inspires me to want to get more :p

Some quotes I liked from the book:

  • On your personal library (I love mine):
    Books don’t just furnish a room. A personal library is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much more you’d like to know.
  • On reading the stuff you like, not the stuff you want to like:
    Well, I say if you don’t like them, don’t read them. You’re not in school any more.
  • On social interaction:
    And, yet, I’ve discovered, you have to get out, you do need to see other human beings. You can’t just read and write all day, much as I’d like to.
  • On reading:
    So just let me stress, one last time, that the world is full of wonderful stories, heartbreakingly beautiful and witty poems, thrilling works of history, biography, and philosophy. They will make you laugh, or hug yourself with pleasure, or deepen your thinking, or move you as profoundly as any experience this side of a serious love affair.

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

If you're interested in a book about life then read Anna Karenina. There are only two books that I've ever read that I think are best described as being "about life": the first is Infinite Jest (yay IJ!) and the second is Anna Karenina.

Anna Karenina is centered around the story of two characters: Countess Anna Karenina, a married noblewoman and a socialite, and her illicit affair with Count Vronsky, and wealthy landowner Konstantin Levin and his struggle managing his land, his marriage, and his reconciliation with the Christian faith. Over the course of about 1000 pages, Tolstoy unfolds a breathtaking panorama of 19th century Russian life, but the story and the development of characters are so detailed and lifelike and their thoughts and emotions so painfully intricate that really the book is just about life. Anna K explores themes like fidelity, love, faith, jealousy, family, marriage, classism, society, and passion, but Tolstoy never explicitly moralizes in the book; life just falls very organically out of its pages. 

This was a long read, and the first 100, 200 pages are a little slow, but I look forward to reading the book again at different parts of my life and see how I experience events in the books and the emotions the characters have differently. 

I tried to find some quotes I liked but I highlighted 153 things in the book, and didn't feel up to digging & picking only a few. 

The Phantom Tollbooth - Jules Norton

If you're interested in a lovely children's book about learning to be excited about life and some very fun wordplay then read The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth is one of my favorite books in the world. I don't remember many things about my childhood but I remember reading this book very distinctively, because it showed me, for the very first time in my life, how reading could be fun and how books could be impressive. I remember being blown away by how clever and fun the language and the wordplay in the book was. It was the first book I read that made me appreciate what a good book was capable of.

The Phantom Tollbooth is about a bored little boy named Milo who gets a mysterious present, and drives through a tollbooth into a fantasy land. In the Kingdom of Wisdom, its two main cities Digitopolis and Dictionopolis are ruled by two brothers who argue over the preeminence of words vs numbers. Ever since the two princesses Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason were banished to the Castle in the Air in the Lands of Ignorance, pieces of the Kingdom of Wisdom have been in disarray, so Milo, his friend Tock the watchdog (who has a big stopwatch as a body and goes tick tick tick), and the Humbug (an actual large bug) go on an adventure to rescue the princesses. 

I am a fob and didn't know a lot of the common phrases/idioms he references, so it was only on this time's reread that I think I actually understood them all (like the dirty bird, the Wordsnatcher living far away from Context). It was still an absolute delight to read though!!! The way he plays with words and double meanings was lots of fun back then and is still lots of fun now. I remember reading "A slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect" in 3rd grade and being super confused by those terms, asking my sister for help explaining them and reading that sentence over and over again. 

Also equally importantly The Phantom Tollbooth has some very lovely ideas and themes wrapped up in its story. There are a lot of educational metaphors made real (like jumping to Conclusions, the actual island, or not thinking in the Doldrums), but I especially love the end, when Milo rescues the princesses and asks them for advice, and they tell him

"You may not see it now, but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way."... "And remember, also," added the Princess of Sweet Rhyme, "that many places you would like to see are just off the map and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But someday you'll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow."

When he returns home, the tollbooth is sent to another kid, and Milo is sad about not being able to see his new friends, but at the end of his adventure he's learned and matured and is now excited by the world around him.

And yet, even as he thought of all these things, he noticed somehow that the sky was a lovely shade of blue and that one cloud had the shape of a sailing ship. The tips of the trees held pale, young buds and the leaves were a rich deep green. Outside the window, there was so much to see, and hear, and touch-walks to take, hills to climb, caterpillars to watch as they strolled through the garden. There were voices to hear and conversations to listen to in wonder, and the special smell of each day.

And, in the very room in which he sat, there were books that could take you anywhere, and things to invent, and make, and build, and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn't know-music to play, songs to sing, and worlds to imagine and then someday make real. His thoughts darted eagerly about as everything looked new-and worth trying.

"Well, I would would like to make another trip," he said, jumping to his feet; "but I really don't know when I'll have the time. There's just so much to do right here." like to make another trip," he said, jumping to his feet; "but I really don't know when I'll have the time. There's just so much to do right here."

As a kid this was transformative way to view the world, and as an adult it's still a very rejuvenating and refreshing reminder. 

Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

If you're interested in a love story set in the Middle East then read Exit West.

Exit West is about a young couple, Saeed and Nadia, who are forced to escape from their country when civil war breaks out. In their world, there are special doors linked to other doors in far away locations, and through these doors many refugees escape to other countries. The story begins in a classic boy meets girl, boy is shy, girl is bold, opposites attract way, but quickly changes when militants create unrest and the city becomes unsafe. I admired how Hamid deftly navigates and describes the jarring contradictions of trying to live a normal life in wartime, while still making a love story about refugees feel universal. It provides a very humanizing perspective by taking a very well worn story and transplanting it into very atypical circumstances. 

I also like how it ends! Despite at times reading like a normal love story, Exit West's ending feels genuine, and doesn't use any of the classic love story tropes that always seem a little lazy to me. 

I did have some issues with the writing style though. I usually don't mind run on sentences, but some of his sentences are paragraph or almost even page length, which actually actively bothered me while I was reading this book.

A World of Three Zeros: The New Economics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Net Carbon Emissions - Muhammad Yunus

If you're interested in a new system of economic and social organization as an alternative to capitalism, then read A World of Three Zeros

My mom recommended me this book! A World of Three Zeros is Professor Muhammad Yunus's explanation of a new world brought about through social businesses. Professor Yunus is incredibly well qualified to write a book like this; he started Grameen bank in Bangladesh, a microfinance bank focused on micro loans for poor women, and since then has started or helped with thousands of social businesses world wide and helped an incredible amount of people. He kind of touts his own horn a lot (his name is bigger than the title on the book), but honestly if anyone can do that he definitely can. All the great examples of doing good he brings up in the book he's personally had a hand in helping, which is incredible and inspiring because he's done so much great stuff for people everywhere. 

The basic premise of the book is that capitalism is centered on man as selfish and profit maximization as his only motivation, but that's actually inaccurate- people are also motivated by selflessness and helping others, and there can be social businesses that focus on maximizing social impact alongside with profit seeking businesses. The book is roughly structured into two parts, the first explaining the three zeros (zero poverty, zero unemployment rate, zero net carbon emissions), and the second explaining the three powers that are necessary to bring those about (youth, technology, and good governance). In each chapter Professor Yunus uses a bunch of examples of social businesses to illustrate his points.

It definitely feels a little idealistic to strive for a world like that, but even if it is, I don't think there's anything wrong with it. Professor Yunus has done an incredible amount for so many people, and I find his idea of social businesses very exciting. I had a lot of doubt while I was reading the book, but I'm not sure how much of that is because of the ideas and how much of that is speaking to how ingrained the principles of capitalism are in my mind. 

I also really like how much actionable stuff he proposes in the book, and he gives a lot of suggestions that people, businesses, and governments can start doing to help make the world a better place.

Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window - Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

If you're interested in a cute and wholesome book about a curious and excited little girl then read Totto-chan

Totto-chan is about the adventures of a very energetic girl nicknamed Totto at a very special school called Tomoe. The school is very small (about 50 students), and has a pretty unique model of education stemming from the principal's passions and beliefs about teaching. The students learn in abandoned train cars repurposed as classrooms, and each chapter is about a separate thing that Totto chan does at school with her teachers and her classmates. The book as a whole is really cute and has tons of wholesome stories about being honest, being inclusive, and being nice, and really highlights the importance of humanizing education and treating children with honesty, love, and respect. 

I only found out at the very end that it was based on a true story, and Kuroyanagi was just writing about her own experiences at Tomoe (she was Totto). Totto-chan is a really lovely story (reminds me a lot of the manga Yotsubato) and achieves the great mix in children's books of cute but thoughtful and touching.

The Data Warehouse Toolkit: The Complete Guide to Dimensional Modeling - Ralph Kimball

If you want to learn about data warehousing then read The Data Warehouse Toolkit.

This was a great guide to data warehousing. I liked how it was structured a lot, and found it very useful as an introduction to the topic, although I think it'll also be very valuable as a reference text as well. This book (and its ideas) are particularly interesting to me because these concepts and Kimball's model for data warehousing were developed many decades ago, are still useful/ commonly used today, and is still the best way to model data for these purposes, which is crazy in an industry like tech where stuff changes so much and so quickly.

The DW Toolkit is a very practical book, focusing on real world use cases. Each chapter is based on a different type of data (like finance, people, customer relationship, etc.), and Kimball works through many detailed examples. I didn't finish the entire book (going to move onto the ETL book, the next book in the series), but I look forward to revisiting this book when I start using this stuff at work.