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

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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 20528-57559%
Jul 20 - Jul 23575-62063%
Jul 23 - Jul 27620-66668%
Jul 27 - Jul 30666-71173%
Jul 30 - Aug 3711-75577%
Aug 3 - Aug 6755-79581%
Aug 6 - Aug 10795-84586%
Aug 10 - Aug 13845-89691%
Aug 13 - Aug 17896-94196%
Aug 17 - Aug 20941-981100%

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

Books of March 2018

How to Solve It - George Polya

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If you solve problems then read Polya's How to Solve It.

How to Solve It describes George Polya's system for solving problems. Because Polya is a mathematician, the book primarily focuses on math problems, but what I think is very cool about the book is his model also applies to other types of problems, and I've found his four basic principles of problem solving (understanding the problem, devising a plan, executing the plan, and reviewing the plan) to be useful for almost every single problem I've encountered, from how to set up an nginx reverse proxy to how to get better at laning in league. 

I've also recently been trying to use Polya's method in the class I teach. I especially like how the method focuses on finding the right set of questions to ask for every problem, because I used to ask very specific questions about the problem to try to guide the students to the right answer, but I realized after reading How to Solve It that it's better to ask very general questions first to help the students understand how they can learn to solve similar problems with this general approach. (As a side note, this is also a good reason why people should study math. Problems in math have very well defined inputs & desired outputs, and as a result provide really good practice for being able to reason about problems and develop a model for solving them.)

The book is fantastic, but most of it focuses on definitions of useful terms & methods which may not be super helpful (unless you study math, in that case you should read it all). I think an easier way to learn & adopt Polya's model is to just reference this pdf from Berkeley and try to apply it to every problem you solve.

The Thief Lord - Cornelia Funke

If you're interested in a nice story set in Venice about youth and innocence then read The Thief Lord.

The Thief Lord is about two brothers, Prosper and Bo, who run away from their aunt after their mom passes away, and lives in Venice with a group of homeless children supported by a young thief (the eponymous thief lord). 

I have really similar thoughts on The Thief Lord as I do about Dragon Rider, with two additional notes:

  • I like how the characters are more complicated than they are in Dragon Rider, and have to make more difficult decisions. The Count and Scipio in particular are very interesting characters, and it's much harder to divide the characters in the book into distinctive buckets of good and bad. I pretty much felt exactly the same about every character in Dragon Rider in 8th grade as I do now, but I found I have a pretty different opinion of Scipio on this reread. 
  • I only realized this after I got older but it's actually super fucked up how they tricked Esther into adopting Barbarossa. Esther is not the nicest person, but she really doesn't deserve adopting a kid who's actually an adult turned young. 

神鵰俠侶 - 金庸

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If you're interested in a dope love story set in the late Song dynasty with a super cool lone wolf protagonist then read 神鵰俠侶.

Set in the late Song dynasty a few years after the events of 射鵰英雄傳神鵰俠侶 is the second part of the 射鵰三部曲 and revolves around 楊過 and his lover and master 小龍女 in a time when romantic relationships between master and disciple were taboo. The book primarily focuses on their relationship, but like all of 金庸's works, 神鵰俠侶 touches on themes of nationalism and patriotism and refers heavily to Chinese culture/society/philosophy, and the Mongol invasion of the Song dynasty is an important subplot of the book.

神鵰俠侶 is one of my favorite 金庸 books because I love the characters- 楊過 is my favorite character in all of the 金庸 books I've read. He's super independent and very 我行我素, but is consistent in his philosophy and approach to life. He's stubborn and individualistic even before he becomes OP, and he really is the same character from start to finish, just more mature and levelheaded. He's also a really fun protagonist not only because he's very smart and one of the strongest characters in 金庸's universe, but also because he doesn't have one master and learns from a bunch of random people and a giant condor (lol), and later in the book develops his own individual style. 楊過 is also very much not an asshole, which is not a common pair with stubborn + independent, and has a strong moral compass which I find even cooler because he makes those decisions on his own and chooses to live the way he wants to. A good example of someone similar but is an asshole is 黃藥師 (and they happen to be friends, which is great, because 黃藥師 is a lonely dude and they're so far apart in prestige and age). I also like all of 楊過's relationships in the book, especially his friendships with 陸無雙 and 程英 and later on 郭襄. They are all really cute and because of 楊過's personality he is extremely devoted and loyal to his friends. 

Most of the book is really frustrating though because so many sad things happen to 楊過 and 小龍女 from misunderstandings or just really unfortunate accidents, but things work out in the end and it's super satisfying and I'm really happy that *spoilers* they reunite.

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng

If you're interested in a book about racism and family set in 1990s suburban Ohio then read Little Fires Everywhere

Set in Shaker Heights, a planned suburban wealthy neighborhood in Ohio, Little Fires Everywhere is about two very different families that come together and clash through their children. The simmering racial tensions in Shaker Heights and the tense family dynamic of the Richardsons are complicated by a court case that shakes the town, when poor waitress Bebe and the rich white McCulloughs enter a custody battle over Bebe's daughter, May Ling Chow (renamed Mirabelle by the McCulloughs). 

I had a really hard time with this book because I feel like it does so many things really well, yet I just didn't really like it that much. Little Fires Everywhere has all the elements of a good book: vivid depictions of characters and a big cast with many different views that Ng navigates and switches between nicely, some pretty interesting dynamics of race and family and wealth, and smooth, well crafted prose, but there's just something about the book that I just didn't warm to and it never really touched me. I never felt invested and didn't really care that much about what was going on.

I initially thought it was because of the themes or the ideas, but I definitely find racial and economic conflicts in suburban America pretty interesting (especially with Asian families). The book does presents a very complex situation, but where I think it falls short is it feels more constructed and crafted and never really comes alive. A good parallel are books like The Sympathizer or The Hate U Give, books that feel real and urgent, even rushed to exist. That is not true for Little Fires Everywhere. The characters never feel real and their desires and fears don't really emerge except in pretty straightforward character archetypes (moody male teenager, literally nicknamed Moody, jock that ends up being sort of 2D, a bitchy older sister, a rebellious younger sister, a very stuffy mom, etc.) and they feel more like they are serving roles in a situation that Ng wanted to create. Despite their variety, the characters feel one dimensional, and a lot of the Asian characters don't get the same depth of emotional life (however limited), and at the end you never really get to know Bebe that well, despite being central to the plot of the book. Everything is set up beautifully, but I just never felt the heat in the book. 

The book is good, and I think it's still worth reading, but I found it a little disappointing. 

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It - Chris Voss

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If you're interested in learning about how to negotiate better from a clear negotiations expert then read Never Split the Difference. 

Never Split the Difference is FBI negotiator Chris Voss's advice and tips on how to approach negotiations. I thought the book was well written and easy to understand, and he doesn't repeat himself a lot, which is a blessing in these types of books. The examples he picks for his chapters are actually helpful for understanding his points, and keeps the book pretty interesting (he's had a very cool career). I also like the structure and the organization, with each chapter focusing on one useful thing to learn about negotiations. I do wish that he did a summary at the end of the book, but he offers a brief one in chapter 1 and closes each chapter with key lessons, which I found pretty helpful.

The primary gripe I have with this book is I don't really like Voss and his style. He comes across as very arrogant throughout the book, and seems to have a weird inferiority complex (he keeps on talking about how his methodology is way better than any of the ones the experts have come up with), and it definitely turns me off the book a little.

But for my nonfiction I mostly value the type/usefulness of the knowledge I'm learning, and this was a helpful book for sure, so I'm still pretty happy I read it and I would comfortably recommend it.

Also, who recommended me this book? I actually cannot remember at all.

Books of February 2018

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince - J.K. Rowling

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This is my least favorite book in the series, because

  • The characters are a lot less fun. Malfoy is not only a bad person but also a fairly boring villain, Snape is still slimy (and now you know he's a traitor), Ron and Lavender Brown is yuck, Harry obsessing over Ginny is weird (especially the monster metaphor), Ron and Hermione arguing the entire book is annoying, Fred and George are gone... everyone in general is a lot more subdued because of Lord Voldemort and generally less fun.
  • The plot of the story- Dumbledore dies :-((((((((((((((
  • Once again Dumbledore doesn't tell Harry what's going on and Harry makes all these crazy assumptions and does dangerous stuff. You would think Dumbledore would learn, and more importantly, you would think Harry would realize after 5 years Dumbledore is probably not an idiot and knows more than he does, but nope.

My least favorite book in the series is still a pretty good book though, which says a lot about what I think about Harry Potter ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Slughorn is also a cool character. 

How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC - Paul Edwards 

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If you're interested in the various aspects of being a good rapper, compiled by interviewing tons of rappers, then read How to Rap

In How to Rap Paul Edwards breaks down the different areas of rap, covering stuff like rhymes, themes, rhyme schemes, rhythm, recording, style, performing, etc. Some of it was interesting and educational, like rhyme schemes and different types of rhythms, but some of it was simple to the point of being useless (like explaining what alliteration is), and some of it was just not very relevant or interesting to me (like how to record music or how to perform).

I also really disliked the format. The overall structure was OK and pretty straightforward, but every chapter is formatted the same way: <very simple statement or explanation from the author> + <bunch of very broad, not very in depth reiterations of the idea from famous rappers> which was boring and also made simple things unnecessarily long.

Doki Doki Literature Club - Dan Salvato

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If you're interested in an insane experience with a psychological horror visual novel that breaks the fourth wall in incredibly clever and innovative ways, then read (play?) Doki Doki Literature Club

Not knowing what the game is about is a pretty integral part of the experience so I thought a lot about trying to write a review without ruining it, but I think it's more important to give fair warning. The game has a disclaimer in the beginning: "This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed," but the disclaimer is wildly inadequate. DDLC does not just deal with heavy topics- it is a horror game and the trigger warning is absolutely serious. You should not play DDLC if you are affected by or are likely to be triggered by depression, anxiety, self harm, suicide, or abuse.

That being said, DDLC is a phenomenal piece of work. It starts as an innocuous dating sim, starring you as an unmotivated high school boy who gets dragged to join an after school literature club by your childhood friend. The four members of the literature club are all cute girls who seem to be into you, and for the first few meetings you write poetry at home and share poetry with the other club members. About an hour into the game, there's an insane twist that completely changes the game, and DDLC descends from cute dating sim to abject psychological horror. That experience is really crazy and nothing else I've read or watched really compares.

======================== It's hard to talk about the rest of the game without spoilers, so everything below has potential to be a spoiler ========================

The most obviously admirable part of DDLC is how well thought out the game is, which takes shape in a lot of different ways. I generally dislike works that break the fourth wall and directly address itself or the reader, but DDLC does it in such a clever, creative, and purposeful way. Characters that talk to you, dialogue options that change or disappear, portions of the game repeating or resetting, and interactions with literal game files all reinforce DDLC as a game, and in the latter half you are painfully aware that you are just playing a game despite the game feeling so uncomfortably real. I think this dissonance is a very big part of why DDLC is so scary- the line between the game and you blurs because DDLC constantly reminds you that it is a game while it is actively interacting with you and bringing you into its world.

The game is also very detailed. It is obvious that a lot of effort that went into DDLC: there's a ton of dialogue, a bunch of art, and even custom music that the guy wrote and made (the music is so good). There are also a lot of random easter eggs (the DDLC wiki has a very comprehensive list) and a lot of small details that together make the game so tremendously impressive. --heavy spoilers-- For example, one of the main characters Monika says she is late to a meeting because she was learning piano in study hall, and for the rest of the game, when weird or ominous stuff starts to happen, you hear the same music as before but with slightly off key piano music. When you meet Yuri out of school, she wears a long turtleneck and mentions her obsession with knives, a hint that Yuri cuts herself. Dialogue in your first play through before the game repeats seems very normal and innocent, but on the 2nd and 3rd run (after the game changes) takes on wholly different meanings. The tagline of the game is "will you write the way into her heart?", not their hearts. Monika has an active Twitter account that she reveals sometime in her 20 minute+ monologue. --end spoilers--

What I also really liked about DDLC after I thought more about the game and got over the scary parts was how the game engages with its heavier topics. Depression and mental illnesses are not treated lightheartedly or used as props or gags; instead they are given serious and honest portrayals.

The game is very haunting and I would never play it again, but if you feel like you are able to, I highly recommend the game. It is an incredible experience. 

P.S. if you were wondering I didn't try to play a dating sim on a Friday night, my friend Ben played the game before and recommended it to me

P.P.S I find it hilarious my friend Steve played it on a plane ride from NY to Taiwan

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K Rowling

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is one of my favorite Harry Potter books, and it rounds out the series so well. I remember coming back from Harry Potter themed camp right when the book was released and being extremely hyped to read it (those who know me will know this is especially significant because I only have something like 4 memories before 7th grade, and one of them is being excited about reading Harry Potter 7 after a week of camp).

This is the most unique book in the series because past HP books were all roughly structured by the school year, but this time there is no school year, because the book is centered on Harry, Ron, and Hermione trying to find and kill horcruxes and defeat Lord Voldemort. The story is really enjoyable and interesting, and also neatly ties up a lot of big questions and nicely resolves the series. There are a lot of very cool parts of HP 7: breaking into the ministry, escaping from Malfoy Manor, breaking into Gringotts, Ron destroying the locket, the final battle at Hogwarts... every part of the story was fun to read and built on the hype of the last 6 books in the series. More than just excitement though, plot points like Ron leaving and then coming back, Harry defending McGonagall, Tonks and Lupin having a son, Dobby sacrificing himself, and Snape's real motivations and background story were all very touching and heartwarming and quintessentially HP.

I also thought the ending was very good in both content and intent. It very satisfyingly follows through on the good triumphs over evil story that's been built up over 6 years, is engaging, remains consistent in themes, and best of all, address the biggest annoyance for me in all of HP. In the end of Book 7, when Harry and Dumbledore meet on King's Cross, we find out that this time Dumbledore intentionally doesn't tell Harry all the details because of his past experiences with the Hallows, and wanted Harry to not rush into searching for the Hallows to dominate death but rather truly understanding his sacrifice and embracing death. 

J.K. Rowling has continued to hammer ideas of loyalty and love and friendship over the past 6 books, and all of those shine beautifully in Book 7. All in all it is a wonderful end to the series, and reading about Harry and his family and Ron and Hermione on Platform 9 3/4 19 years later... man... :')

Oblivion - David Foster Wallace

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I like short story collections because in these stories authors explore and flesh out many focused variations of their project, so since I am an unabashed DFW fanboy I obviously also love Oblivion.

None of DFW's fiction is particularly positive, which is kind of sombering because DFW wanted to write fiction about what it is to be human, but Oblivion is especially depressing because it is focused on the bleakest aspects of being human. The stories are about wanting/needing to be remembered despite our inevitable insignificance and oblivion, about the painful feeling of objectively knowing you are small despite subjectively feeling like you are big and important, about feeling like a fraud and never being able to communicate who you are to other people, and about the soul rotting boredom and gut dread that make up the lives of so many Americans.

This was a really short review but I have a half finished review of 3 short stories from Oblivion that I'm still working on. It's hard to write about DFW :-(. 

The Comedy of Errors - Shakespeare

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If you're interested in a Shakespearean comedy masking a tragedy about identity, family, and community then read The Comedy of Errors

In The Comedy of Errors, Egeon and Emilia get separated by a storm, and their two twins (both Antipholus) and two serfs (also twins, both Dromio) get separated, one with the father and one with the mother. Several years later, Antipholus of Syracuse come to Ephesus to search for his brother, accompanied by Dromio of Syracuse. A series of misunderstandings and mistakes and confusion happens, where there are a lot of amusing mix-ups between the two Antipholuses and the two Dromios, eventually ending up in the family reuniting. 

The Comedy of Errors is the first Shakespeare play I read that made me understand how malleable and open to interpretation Shakespeare's works are, and how important it is that he wrote plays to be performed and not novels to be read. In Titus Andronicus, small differences make big changes in the play, but nothing that completely flips the interpretation of the play. What struck me the most about The Comedy of Errors was when I first read it I thought it was just a cute and funny comedy, but in class when we discussed it we learned that under its comedic surface there is a very dark tragedy, and with certain readings and interpretations, the play could take on a whole different meaning. It was the first play that made me realize the multiplicity of Shakespeare and see Shakespearean comedies as thinly veiled tragedies divided by a very blurred and fragile line. Something always has to bend to make comedies and not tragedies, and it is the seething anxiety about identity and marriage underlying The Comedy of Errors that makes it such an interesting play.

Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation - Jeff Chang

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If you are interested in the cultural and social context of hip hop from its birth in the 1970s to the 1990s then read Can't Stop Won't Stop

Can't Stop Won't Stop chronicles the early hip hop scene from its roots in the 1970s to its widespread popularity in the 1990s, placing hip hop in context of the times and discussing it as a cultural, political, and societal force. It starts in Jamaica and begins in the US in the Bronx with DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation, Sugarhill Gang and Rapper's Delight, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, continuing to hip hop's new sound Run-DMC and Sucker MCs, to political hip hop groups like Public Enemy in the East Coast and gangsta rap in the West Coast with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. Along the way, Chang gets into a wide variety of different topics, including radio, legislation, gangs, graffiti, break dancing, police brutality, government intervention, racial tension, and gangs. 

Reading Can't Stop Won't Stop was a very new experience for me because I thought pretty hard about quitting after the first few chapters but ended up putting it in my cream shelf after I finished because it changed the way I understood hip hop. Hip hop today is the most popular genre of music in the US, but it started in the Bronx as nothing, a very underground and niche genre of party music. In tracing hip hop's initial 30 years of growth, Jeff Chang establishes the context in which hip hop was created and spread, explaining the anxiety and fears and anger from violence and oppression that birthed and inspired hip hop. 

In many ways it is a very infuriating book, especially the chapters about Public Enemy, N.W.A., and gangs in the 90s (Chang does a very good job defending and explaining gangsta rap in the West Coast). Very heavy structural racism deprived minorities of opportunities to work, make money, find housing, support their families, or even just to walk outside without fear of the police, and things like the policy of containment and police brutality resulted in a lot of boiling existential fear and anger. It was out of that seething anxiety and helplessness that songs like Straight Out of Compton, Fuck Da Police or Fight the Power were created, and the same feeling that drives songs like Alright or King Kunta today. It is incredibly important to have that context to understand these songs and not just think of them as just cool sounding angry black music, but rather as genuine responses to desperate circumstances. 

One of the big areas where I feel the book is lacking is the rap music itself. It's titled The Hip Hop Generation but discusses hip hop mainly in terms of political impact and social context, missing out on a lot of actual discussion of the music (for example, he talks a lot about Public Enemy and only mentions a couple of their songs in passing). I've read similar criticism in other reviews and I think it's a fair point, but as Jeff Chang says, his work is not the definitive work and it definitely helps contextualize and understand hip hop. 

I also didn't find the chapters on Jamaica and the Bronx that interesting, although that's more to do with what I personally like to read about, so YMMV, and regardless, if you're remotely interested in hip hop, I definitely recommend reading Can't Stop Won't Stop to understand why hip hop is so important and how it is both an influence on and a reflection of America in very deep and resonant ways. I also found it a very good complement to The Rap Year Book because it focuses a lot on the music, whereas Can't Stop Won't Stop emphasizes the societal and cultural impact of rap.

Fullmetal Alchemist - Hiromu Arakawa

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If you're interested in the goat shounen then read Fullmetal Alchemist.

Fullmetal Alchemist is about two brothers, Ed and Al, who are on a quest to restore their bodies after they performed human transmutation to bring back their dead mother. Because of the law of equivalent exchange in alchemy (to obtain, something of equal value must be lost) and because there is nothing as valuable as the human soul, Ed loses his left leg and Al his entire body to their failed transmutation, and Ed sacrifices his right arm to bind his brother's soul to a suit of armor. 

FMA is the best shounen I've ever read, and comfortably sits at least top 3 in my favorite manga of all time. It is an incredible work, fantastic on many levels, and not only hits but smashes basically every dimension you can think of to evaluate a shounen.

Art:
The combat panels are very easy to follow, and have very clean lines. Characters generally look pretty good and are fairly proportional and consistent, and I especially like how Arakawa does eyes. The character design is also very good; even in a manga with a lot of characters it's generally very easy to tell different characters apart (especially the important ones). The art is nothing phenomenal like Berserk or OPM but generally pretty good.

Characters:
The characters are arguable the best part of the manga. There's a crazy good cast of characters in FMA, many of them sympathetic and diverse and complex and well-developed. They all have different motivations and backgrounds and very distinctive strengths and weaknesses and character traits, like Riza being loyal, Mustang ambitious, Ed hot headed but good hearted, Ling ambitious and dutiful, etc. I think because Arakawa does such a good job with character exposition there are so many characters to like in FMA that really make the manga a lot of fun to read.

The villains are also pretty interesting and very multi-dimensional, which is a beautiful thing for shounen manga where most villains are power hungry uncreative edgelords. Each of the homunculi (the major antagonists) in FMA are a different sin, and each of them have very different personalities driven by the sin they represent. I especially like how --spoilers-- Envy's real body is a tiny bug, and he chooses to commit suicide after Ed pities him, and Pride gets killed by Kimblee when he tries to take over Ed's body. Scar especially is a very cool antihero and I really like how he symbolically defeats Wrath and becomes an Ishvalan high priest. --end spoilers--

There are just so many characters that you can understand and relate to and really root for. The only mangaka I can think of that's capable of doing this is Urasawa, and that is insanely high praise. 

Humor:
It's a funny manga, there are lots of gag panels and recurring character jokes (mostly centered on Armstrong and Ed). I also really like when she caricatures her characters:

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Combat concept:
This is another really important part of shounen which really makes or breaks a lot of manga. The concept of alchemy is cool, and the different types of alchemists are cool, but more importantly, the system of alchemy itself makes a lot of sense. It's cohesive and doesn't suddenly change, there are no random asspulls or deus ex machinas (Bleach, 7DS, Naruto, Fairy Tail are all egregious offenders) which is very important for immersion and allows for suspension of disbelief. 

Emotion:
There are a lot of very emotional moments in the manga!! These include some of the very sad moments like Nina Tucker and her dog Alexander transmuted into a chimera and Hughes getting killed, some heartwarming moments like Marcoh returning to Ishval as a doctor or Doctor Knox having coffee with his family, some bittersweet moments like Captain Buccaneer and Fu fighting Wrath, some very satisfying moments like the butcher and Major Armstrong defeating Sloth, and some very happy and proud moments like when Scar becomes an Ishvalan priest and when Ed and Al both get their bodies back. In general only very good authors and books can make you feel emotions very strongly, and FMA pulls your heartstrings in a million ways.

Story:
The overall story is also very good! It's cohesive and well structured overall, a large part of which is probably due to its length. FMAis about 108 chapters long which is pretty short (although each chapter is 45 pages, so about 200ish for a traditional manga) and it's clear that the ending was already planned from the inception of the manga. Each arc leds to the next very smoothly and in a very natural way, and the story as a whole is tied well together. That's also a big issue with some mangas where some arcs just seem pointless or completely unexpected, and it hurts the cohesiveness of the story as a whole. 

The ending is also insanely good. I completely did not expect the ending but I found it very satisfying and thought it was the perfect ending to the story to accompany and really bring home the theme. 

Theme:
Speaking of the theme, I really like FMA's approach to engaging the dangers of hubris and blindly seeking truth. FMA is fundamentally about arrogance and the abuse of power, and a lot of the suffering and pain in the manga stems from the belief that we can learn everything and achieve everything, whether it be the hubris to think we can bring people back from the dead or the hubris to think that we can become immortals or gods. The question posed by the manga is resolved by accepting limitations of being human, and this is beautifully represented in the manga's ending when --spoilers-- Ed gives up his Gate of Truth and says "I've always been an ordinary human. A puny human who couldn't even save a little girl." --end spoilers-- This is explored in alchemy in the manga, but acknowledging and accepting our limitations also extends to war, science, power, and our search for knowledge.

Semi related to characters, one of the really cool things Arakawa does is that each person who opens the Gate of Truth has a different thing taken from them. Hohenheim loses his ability to die & to live and connect with others, Izumi loses her organs and her ability to have kids, Mustang who has a vision for the country becomes blind, Ed loses his leg to stand on and support his family, and then his right arm to bring back his brother (his metaphorical right arm), and Al loses his body and ability to feel warmth. "The truth is cruel but right."

I usually don't think this about manga or even most books, but I really think anyone will enjoy FMA in either its manga or its anime form (although the manga is better).

Richard III  - William Shakespeare

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If you're interested in a charismatically evil anti hero, a historical play, or Shakespeare's breakthrough play, then read Richard III. 

Richard III is a semi-fictional historical play about the rise to power and short-lived reign of the eponymous King Richard III of England who deceives, connives, and kills his way to the throne but is ultimately defeated in battle by Richmond, ending the reign of the Plantagenet House of York and beginning the rule of the House of Tudor.

In some sense his historical plays are also propaganda because Shakespeare is obliged to present the House of Tudor in a favorable light and R3 as a villain, but what his plays are really concerned with is what it means to be an effective ruler, and what happens when rulers get destroyed. Because the goalposts and ending are already set, Shakespeare's primary focus in his historical plays is how history is being created and how political change happens, an interest no doubt driven by the anxieties of succession his contemporary audience was feeling.

Some parts I liked or found interesting:

  • R3 is a very charismatic antihero. He's a terrible person but you can't help but like him, kind of like a cool Bond villain. He doesn't take the throne by force; instead, in the first scene of the play and R3's first soliloquy, he shows his mastery over and love of language, and it is despicable but still admirable how he charms and deceives to get what he wants.
  • Shakespeare suggests in R3 that the nature of kingship is acting, and R3 is a superstar- he can "quake and change thy color, Murder thy breath in the middle of a word, And then begin again, and stop again, As if thou wert distraught and mad with terror." Being an effective ruler is not about violence but about playing many roles, and R3's downfall begins when he reaches the top and starts to fail as an actor, becoming easily irritable and gullible. 
  • My favorite scene in R3 is Act 5 scene 3 when R3 has anxiety dreams before his big battle, dreaming that ghosts of his past victims have come to curse him. His painful soliloquy about the terrible loneliness of building and living the R3 persona is phenomenal, and for me this soliloquy made his character so much more interesting and sympathetic.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting - Milan Kundera

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If you are interested in a lovely but haunting meditation on laughter and forgetting then read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a collection of 7 short stories by Milan Kundera, all of which are structured as variations on a theme and a form. They are all about laughter and memory, connected by an exploration of how losing the past (historical or personal) undermines the identity of people and countries. The novel is about memory and the past, crucial things that make us who we are, and the terribly light laughter that comes when we lose these things.

Kundera knows this because he's experienced this firsthand. "The first step to liquidating a people is to erase its memory," and Kundera felt this liquidation when he lost his teaching position and his books were banned and removed from Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Prague Spring and the beginning of the Soviet communist regime. This erasure of identity is characterized by a profound lightness that is symbolized by laughter. Laughter makes light of the serious, making even the most important things cheap and absurd, and so together with forgetting drives the us further away from ourselves and into insignificance and meaninglessness. There is pleasure in laughing and forgetting and sometimes we want a carefree life without the weight of our memories and ourselves, but what that also means is a life without context, without purpose, and without progress.

My favorite stories are Part 1: Lost Letters, Part IV: Lost Letters, Part V: Litost, and Part VI: The Angels.
Some of my favorite quotes are:

  • On the struggle for identity:
    “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” 
  • On the frightful innocence of children:
    “Children, Never look Back!" and this meant that we must never allow the future to be weighed down by memory. For children have no past, and that is the whole secret of the magical innocence of their smiles.” 
  • On writing as the struggle for permanence:
    “For everyone is pained by the thought of disappearing, unheard and unseen, into an indifferent universe, and because of that everyone wants, while there is still time, to turn himself into a universe of words.”

Decoded - Jay-Z

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If you're interested in Jay-Z's autobiography then read Decoded.

Decoded is Jay-Z's autobiography and memoir following in rough chronological order his childhood years in Marcy to his fame and success as a rapper. The book combines lyrics, annotations, anecdotes, and reflections, and is intended to defend rap as a poetic art form and share a generational experience that people can relate to.

Some of it is interesting and it was cool to read about Jay-Z, but I honestly didn't really like Decoded that much especially compared to Gucci's autobiography. I think one of the main reasons is just that I'm not that interested in his artistic project (or at least the one that he explains in the book). I respect and like Jay-Z and I think his music is very cool and his success as a rapper is very admirable, but the story of "being a hustler" just doesn't really resonate with me as much. The book also does not feel personal enough and doesn't provide a lot of detail about Jay-Z's life, despite being an autobiography. Decoded felt very filtered through Jay-Z, and read much more like a constructed and thought out story rather than a genuine presentation of himself. Decoded talks about Jay-Z like Jay-Z wants you to think of Jay-Z, not the more interesting and raw-er Jay-Z from the perspective of Shawn Carter, which I'm know exists because in his newest album 4:44 he talks a lot more about himself and his struggles and shares deeper revelation and introspection that just isn't present in his book.

He also says some kind of stupid things sometimes, like "I have a photographic memory so I'd I glance at something once I could recall it for a test. I was reading on a 12th grade level in the sixth. I could do math in my head but I had no interest sitting in a classroom."  

Zatch Bell - Makoto Raiku

If you're interested in a fun and pretty good shounen with a decent concept then read Zatch Bell

I used to really like Zatch Bell, but recently I've been rereading some of the mangas I like more critically and on this reread I found Zatch Bell pretty average (although to be fair I just read FMA and FMA is goat). Zatch Bell follows demon child Zatch and his human partner Kiyomaro in their fight to make Zatch king. Every 1000 years, 100 demon children go to earth to battle to be king of the demon world. Each demon child has a human partner that has to read from a spell book in order to unlock their powers, and if the spell book is burned, the demon child returns to their world and they lose the battle. The last one remaining becomes the king for the next 1000 years (coincidentally, this would be an extremely cool battle royale game like PUBG except instead of guns and armor you pick up spells and maybe mana). 

I liked the breakdown of FMA, so along the same lines, what Zatch Bell does well is:

  • Art: The combat is pretty good. It's generally pretty easy to follow, and there are a lot of cool looking panels.
  • Characters: arguably the best part of the manga. There are a lot of different characters (100 demons, 100 human partners) and they all have very different personalities and motivations. Some of them are kind of heavy handed and follow very basic archetypes, but they still add a lot to the story and their diversity is pretty impressive.
  • Humor: the manga is funny. I like when Kiyomaro's face changes and strangling Tio.
  • Combat concept: another really good part of the manga. The concept is fairly creative and interesting, and there's a lot of flexibility and diversity in how different characters fight.
  • Emotion: on second thought probably the best part of the manga. There are a lot of very powerful emotional moments in the manga, especially towards the end of the manga.

Where Zatch Bell falls a little short is:

  • Story: the story as a whole is pretty entertaining, and it gets a lot better with the last three arcs, but there's a bunch of filler chapters that don't tie together up until the Millennium Demons arc. There's also a lot of weird plot holes and story developments that are never really explained (why does no one use guns?! Why is everyone so accepting of random demon children shooting lightning from their mouths? How does no one notice massive missiles flying through the air?) 
  • Emotion: especially early on, some of the arcs are a little heavy handed with the emotional response.
  • Characters: the characters are a little simplistic and are weirdly OK with sacrificing themselves to help make the children king. If a small child came up to me, handed me a book only I could read, and when I read it, he would shoot lightning or fire or gravity balls then hell no I wouldn't want to fight other demon children that could do the same thing, but everyone in the manga seems to have no problem with that.
  • Art: The art style is a little silly, which not everyone will like, and I also don't like how he proportions the demon children (they have very doughy limbs and big heads).

Letters to a Young Poet - Rainer Maria Rilke

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If you are interested in a beautiful collection of letters on what it means to be a poet and a person then read Letters to a Young Poet.

Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of 10 letters written from poet Rainer Maria Rilke to a young aspiring poet about to enter the German military. Over the course of these letters, Rilke advises Kappus on how a poet should feel, experience, think, see, and understand the world, emphasizing the difficulty but importance and beauty of solitude and patience, and in these letters we get lovely insight into ideas and themes that show up in Rilke's other works and his philosophy and perspective on life. I haven't read much of Rilke besides his book Auguste Rodin, but Letters to a Young Poet is just as poetic and beautiful, and similar to Auguste RodinLetters is better quoted than explained, so here are some of my favorite quotes from his letters:

  • On your passions:
    "This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write?"
  • On patience:
    "You are so young, you have not even begun, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and to try to cherish the questions themselves, like closed rooms and like books written in a very strange tongue. Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer."
  • On embracing sorrow:
    "If it were possible for us to see further than our knowledge extends and out a little over the outworks of our surmising, perhaps we should then bear our sorrows with greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new, something unknown, has entered into us; our feelings grow dumb with shy confusion, everything in us retires, a stillness supervenes, and the new thing that no one knows stands silent there in the midst."
  • On doubt:
    "
    And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become aware, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will perhaps find it helpless and nonplussed, perhaps also aggressive. But do not give way, demand arguments and conduct yourself thus carefully and consistently every single time, and the day will dawn when it will become, instead of a subverter, one of your best workmen,—perhaps the cleverest of all who are building at your life."

I wish I read this book earlier in my life because I feel like those ideas would've resonated very strongly with me as a teenager, but I enjoyed it nonetheless and I look forward to reading it again. 

Dragon Rider - Cornelia Funke

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If you are interested in a cute children's story about friendship with fantastic creatures then read Dragon Rider.

Dragon Rider is about a silver dragon Firedrake, a brownie Sorrel, and a human boy Ben who travel to the Himalayas to look for the legendary Rim of Heaven, the last safe haven for dragons when they find out that humans intend to flood the valley they live in. There's not much to say about Dragon Rider; it's not a terribly complicated book but it is a cute children's story and it's very hard to dislike this book: it's got a fun story, simple but endearing characters, and a pretty straightforward theme of courage and camaraderie presented via a classic good beats evil story. 

Harry Potter is Good

I recently reread Harry Potter, which was awesome and amazing and lots of fun, and it got me thinking about why I like the books so much. There's obviously something about them that I really like, since I've read these books at least 10 times, but before this reread I've never really thought about why. 

So, what makes Harry Potter good?

Characters
The first thing and probably the most immediately obvious thing is the characters. The characters in the series are phenomenal. There are so many of them that are so well fleshed out that you have to relate to at least one, especially because a lot of them follow basic archetypes that you've probably seen in real life: the bitchy teacher Umbridge, the grumpy and scary teacher Snape, the firm but fair teacher McGonagall, the bookworm Hermione, the eccentric weirdo Luna, the paranoid old veteran Moody, etc. These simple character also become more layered and complex as the series progresses, and over the course of the books you really feel like you get to know them and you start to genuinely care about them.

Because of how strongly you connect with each character, every death in Harry Potter cuts extremely deep. Every time I reread and relive Dobby apparating to Shell Cottage with a knife in his chest or Fred getting killed by a curse is genuinely upsetting, and it's a mark of a good author and a good book to make you really feel and lurch when characters die.

But sadness is only a very small part of the emotional range you feel with the characters. Neville going from a small chubby boy getting bullied by his grandma and Snape in Potions to defying Lord Voldemort, pulling Griffindor's freaking SWORD out of the burning Sorting Hat, and decapitating a giant snake housing a fragment of Voldemort's SOUL in Book 7 is an immensely satisfying moment of strange pride in a fictional character, almost as if you're celebrating the growth of a close friend.

You also hate Snape, from Book 1 to Book 5, and then feel weirdly vindicated in Book 6 when it turns out he's been a spy all along and kills Dumbledore, and then angry when he cuts off George's ear, and then, in an insane twist in Book 7, turns out to be a TRIPLE agent who actually has remained in love with Lily for years and has actually always been loyal to Dumbledore. The reader's relationship with Snape is a crazy rollercoaster, and if you're telling me you weren't surprised by that then you're either lying or a lot smarter than I am.

The most important part though is that for those of us who started the series as kids and ended them as young adults, we grew up with these characters. I remember Ron and Harry becoming friends on the train, Ron, Harry, and Hermione becoming friends after beating up a troll, Hermione getting petrified, Hermione and Harry saving Buckbeak and Sirius, Ron and Hermione arguing over Krum, Ron sucking at Keeper, Hermione organizing the DA, the three of them sneaking into Gringotts, their kids going to Hogwarts, 19 years later... I read these books in my most formative years, and experiencing the series in my youth made the characters feel like friends that I've had for decades.

As a side note, making readers despise characters is also a wonderful authorial skill, and it's objectively impossible to read Book 5 without feeling a deep, deep loathing of Umbridge and associating hem hem with all authoritative bitchiness. 

Story
Harry Potter is a pretty long series. It goes on for seven books, each of which is pretty long (especially towards the end) and a ton of shit happens, but it manages to remain consistently entertaining and creative. This is a very tough thing to do, as often writers get confused by their own story threads (GRRM, where is book 6), or just run out of material to write about (Bleach), but each HP book has a pretty different and interesting story, and no matter what type of story you like, there's something in HP that you'll probably enjoy.

  • If you're into fantasy, HP is a very large and intricate universe of magic, yet with enough normal, human elements to make it believable and immersive. That is the fantasy dream.
  • If you're into mystery, most of the books in the series has some sort of mystery and some sort of big twist (who is trying to get into the locked door on the 3rd floor? who killed the Potters? who opened the Chamber of Secrets? who put Harry's name in the Triwizard Tournament?). I can't really remember what I was thinking when I first read book 4 but I'm sure finding out Professor Moody was actually a Polyjuice potion'd up dark wizard probably fucked 4th grade Justin up a lot. 
  • If you're into love stories, there's plenty of those in HP: Ron and Hermione, Harry and Ginny, Tonks and Lupin, Bill and Fleur, Snape and Lily (doesn't technically count but I'm counting it anyways and I'm willing to fight you over it).
  • If you're into intense thrillers, parts of the story are crazy hype, like Harry finding out Quirrell has Voldemort stuck on the back of his head, the Triwizard cup secretly being a Portkey, or when Dumbledore comes to the ministry in Book 5 (announced by Neville shouting DUBBLEDOOR, which I still find tremendously funny).
  • If you're into a classic "good triumphs over evil" story all of Harry Potter is basically that. There are some sad parts but HP is fundamentally a very happy series.

Universe/ Background
HP takes place in a very immersive and expansive universe. There are a bunch of spells, a bunch of cool magical creatures (nifflers, hippogriphs, dragons, thestrals...), a bunch of history, a sport, tons of cool places (Hogsmeade, The Burrow, and especially Hogwarts). People I talk to about HP still remember spells, some people literally play Quidditch as a real sport with brooms between their legs, and I still hear people describe beautiful, awe inspiring places as being "like Hogwarts!!!"

Theme
The theme in Harry Potter is not mind bogglingly confusing or difficult to understand and remains pretty consistent from the first book to the last, but that doesn't mean that these simple themes are not important. Loyalty and love and friendship and solidarity and courage are ideas that resonate with children and adults alike, and it doesn't matter who you are or how old you are, everyone can enjoy and appreciate Dobby's loyalty, Harry, Ron, and Hermione's friendship, Neville and Luna's courage, and Harry's loving sacrifice for his friends.

Obviously the series is not perfect, and people love to point out all the random plot holes in Harry Potter (I especially hate Time Turners), but what all these things boil down to is that Harry Potter is relatable. As kids, confused and unsure of ourselves, J.K. Rowling built a universe for us where we felt like we were home, we had friends, and we were taught that love, loyalty, and friendship are the most important things. This is something that so strongly resonated with so many of us that even now, people are still taking "Which Hogwarts house are you in" quizzes, people still brag about the amount of HP trivia they know (try mispronouncing Wingardium Leviosa with your friends, guarantee at least one person will correct you immediately), and people still remember the bitter disappointment we all felt when a Hogwarts owl didn't come before we turned 13. That's good stuff.

Books of January 2018

I liked the format of my Books of 2017 post, so I'm going to add a one liner before every book review, in the same form:

If you're interested in _________, then read _________

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
- Ben Horowitz

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If you're interested in Ben Horowitz's story or in his management tips, then read The Hard Thing about Hard Things. 

(this is from December, but I didn't write it until now, because I got tired after writing all those Vonnegut posts). Written by Ben Horowitz, cofounder of Opsware and now cofounder and general partner of a16z, The Hard Thing About Hard Things talks about how hard it is to run a company and be a CEO. It is half advice, and half autobiography backing up the advice.

My biggest takeaway from the book is more confirmation that I probably don't ever want to be a CEO, but I found it interesting and useful nonetheless, especially his advice/ thoughts on management and staffing and attitude. He covers a broad range of stuff in the book, like how to hire executives, how to fire friends, how to hire people from your friend's companies, when to sell your company, etc. Like most books in this genre, Horowitz has a very strong model for how he thinks a business should be run and what a good CEO looks like, and communicates that in a very functional and clear way (although it isn't what I'd really call good writing).

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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If you're into a bunch of interesting, well thought out characters, or a particularly deep dive into a poor suffering soul, then read Crime and Punishment.

I read this book in LitHum in my freshman year at Columbia, but unfortunately because I was/am a shitter I only read like 6 chapters of it, and besides some random plot details I only remember spending something like an hour discussing the horse dream. Because I was supposed to have read this book already and am kind of vaguely familiar with it, I thought it would be a nice way to start my chunk of Russian literature. 

Crime and Punishment is centered around Raskolnikov, a poor Russian student in St. Petersburg. Raskolnikov is obsessed with figuring out whether he is what he calls a "Napoleon," someone who is able to break the law for the greater good and transcend crime and punishment, so he commits a crime (kills two people, not a spoiler) and then spends the rest of the book suffering through his punishment (legal, psychological, social, etc.)

The strongest part of the book is definitely its characters. There are a ton of great, detailed characters with wildly different personalities and motivations, and Dostoevsky does an especially deep dive into Raskolnikov's thoughts and mental state, which make the book a much more engaging experience. Admittedly, the book is a little slow in the beginning, but picks up after about 150, 200 pages when you get more into the characters (for me, right about when I started thinking Razumikhin was very awesome and Luzhin was very lame).

C&P is definitely very engaging and thoughtful, but I didn't find it very insightful and I thought the ending was a little abrupt and did not fit the rest of the story well. We discussed this as well in LitHum, but Dostoevsky was on a time crunch when he wrote C&P, which is maybe why the book is very cohesive and interesting but not revelatory. Also, while I liked the in-depth analysis of Raskolnikov's tortured psyche, he is honestly a pretty annoying and unsympathetic character. To be honest I enjoyed the book and I thought it was good, but I'm not sure why it's so respected in the Western canon. If you really love the book and think I'm an idiot please let me know.

Gamaran - Yousuke Nakamaru

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If you're looking for a fairly brainless, standard shounen with pretty standard shounen strengths and weaknesses, then read Gamaran

Gamaran is a very typical shounen manga, featuring a small but fast and deadly swordsman in a small martial arts school, who fights and kills a bunch of people to improve as a swordsman and to get revenge on his dad (with some minor differences that literally is the plot of a million stories and movies and mangas and animes).

It does what standard shounens do very well:

  • Characters are well designed. All the characters look different without looking very weird and not human, and they all use different weapons
  • Art is very good. Things I particularly like:
    - Energy and hype expressed well (think DBZ)
    - Many, many cool looking panels
    - Conveys motion very clearly, using big brush strokes to show arcs (path of a swinging sword, for example). Kingdom also does this very well, although Gamaran has less noisy panels with cleaner lines and less detail
  • Cliche cheesy lines and situations

It also doesn't do well what standard shounens don't do well: 

  • Characters are very one dimensional and not very interesting as characters. Not very clear why they do stuff besides "I WANNA BE THE STRONGEST"
  • There are many weird plot holes, especially in the final arc when something like 10 people fight a whole town's worth of soldiers and martial artists, and everyone that isn't fodder decides to mostly 1v1 instead of bum rushing them or even just shooting arrows from far away. Literally they pick the most terrible plan ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 
  • Cliche cheesy lines and situations

Siddhartha - Hermann Hesse

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If you're interested in an insightful and thoughtful meditation on enlightenment then read Siddhartha.

Siddhartha is a fictional novel by Hesse about a man seeking enlightenment in the time of the historical Buddha. The title is a little misleading, but Siddhartha is not a factual or even fictional retelling of the Buddha's life- Siddhartha, the main character, is actually not the same person as Gautama, who is also in the story (even though the historical Buddha's original name was Siddhartha).

Siddhartha instead felt more like a very personal exploration of Hesse's philosophy, centered on the idea of the totality of experiences, meaning that enlightenment can only be achieved not through teachings but through experiencing things in their completeness, and understanding all of them as oneness. A friend mentioned the concern of Orientalism in a book about an Asian subject written by a German author, but I think Siddhartha is a very intimate and personal product of Hesse's experiences and engagement with Buddhist theosophy. It seems pretty clear to me that Hesse deeply respects these philosophical ideas, and Siddhartha feels much more like appreciation and inspiration than appropriation.

It is a very short book, with many poignant passages of self reflection. It is fairly easy to read but has some deep ideas. 

The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever - Teri Agins

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Still good, 2nd time around! She is a fantastic writer and each chapter is a very interesting case study. 

Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe

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If you're interested in a well written modern African story, then read Things Fall Apart.

Things Fall Apart takes place in late 19th century Nigeria, and follows the story of Okonkwo, a leader in his village Umuofia. The first part of the book describes his personal life, his history, his family, and the customs and society of his people, and the latter half focuses on the influence British colonialism and Christian missionaries have on the Igbo society. 

The book is well written and a fairly easy read. The characters are complex and sympathetic, and I was able to understand and connect with them even though I know nothing about their beliefs, culture, and way of life. The story is interesting and engaging, and provides good commentary and context on imperialism and colonization, and most impressively, presents their customs and traditions very honestly, showing how they can be simultaneously important and also toxic.

The Book of Tea - Kakuzo Okakura

I didn't like this book and can't recommend it.

The Book of Tea introduces the philosophy Teaism and Japanese tea ceremonies. The main reason why I didn't like this book is because the author is so incredibly pompous, and makes all these grandiose statements without a lot of backing that seem ridiculous to accept at face value. He spends a lot of pages in a very small book talking down a lot of Western philosophy and aesthetics, which is ironic given his introduction lamenting that the West has ignored the learnings from the East. 

Some of the book was kinda interesting, like the part on tea room architecture and art appreciation in tea ceremonies, but most of it I already learned in class. Honestly I probably would've dropped it if it was longer than its 50 pages.

Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A. Heinlein

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If you're interested in good, classic science fiction on society, religion, and happiness then read Stranger in a Strange Land.

Stranger in a Strange Land is about a man raised on Mars who returns to Earth, and is centered on his interaction with human philosophy, society, and religion and his trouble understanding and connecting with people as a Martian. This book used to be one of my favorite books in high school so I'm very sad about this, but on this reread I didn't like the book very much. 

I think there are two main reasons for this. The first (and major) reason is that I no longer agree with a lot of the ideas in the book, and actually find some of them very problematic. He makes a bunch of big claims about religion and art and society and human nature, very difficult and complex subjects, and presents them as obvious truisms, which I have a lot of problems with because for example, I don't think it's reasonable to dismiss all organized religions in a few paragraphs or even a few pages. He also has some very questionable views on homosexuality, masculinity, and rape, and in parts of the book he feels uncomfortably sexist. The second, semi related reason is I find Jubal very annoying. One of the main characters in the book, Jubal Harshaw is the grumpy and very cynical but very smart old man in the book. I thought he was so brilliant the first time I read the book, but a lot of the stuff I disagree with is said by Jubal (who probably is the mouthpiece of the author), and he's so pompous and certain about himself that it pisses me off.

The crux of the book is driven by an attempt to examine ourselves from a completely alien perspective which is a very interesting premise, and it's still a pretty decent book; I'm just disappointed because I remembered it so fondly.

Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, and Illustrated
- Shea Serrano

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If you're into basketball or Shea Serrano (everyone should be, he's funny and amazing and I want to be his friend), then read Basketball (and Other Things)

I loved The Rap Year Book so much I decided to read a book about basketball, something I don't know or care very much about. Because of that I didn't enjoy the book as much as The Rap Year Book (a subject I enjoy very much) and I skimmed some parts of the book and missed some important context that would've made some chapters way more interesting (like who Patrick Ewing or Scottie Pippen are). 

Nonethless, Shea Serrano is funny and amazing and the best, and I still enjoyed the book immensely, so if you even remotely like basketball you should definitely read it, and if you don't like basketball you should still read it because Shea is that great. I aspire to be as funny and awesome as he is.

Some of my favorite chapters in the book include:

  • Which Dunks are in the Disrespectful Dunk Hall of Fame?
  • Was Kobe Bryant a Dork? (And Also: How Many Years During His Career Was the Best Player in the League?)
  • Am I Allowed to _____ During Pickup Basketball?
  • How Do Player's Legacies Change if We Change Their Name?
    (examples include Michael Jordan to Morgan Jordan, Kevin Durant to Keith Durant, Lebron James to Lebron Jones, and my favorite, James Harden to John Harder, action movie star)
  • What's the Plot for Death Hammer 2: Hammergeddon? (my favorite chapter)
    This is the plot for the fake movie that John Harder (James Harden) directs and acts in.

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

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If you are interested in a more worryingly realistic dystopia than 1984, and if you want to read the most impassioned defense of unhappiness I've ever read, then read Brave New World.

I read this book I think in my senior year of high school and it very strongly influenced me then and who I am now. Brave New World takes place in an alternate world where people are engineered and created in artificial wombs, and separated from conception into predetermined classes (Alphas, the highest caste, to Epsilons, who are stunted mentally and physically and do menial labor). Every aspect of life, from work to entertainment, is closely controlled by the government not through violence and force but through brain washing and a soothing drug called soma

Perhaps the best encapsulation of the dystopia Huxley creates is in Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

I won't go into it here but I think that those same ideas, our "almost infinite appetite for distractions" and "what we desire will ruin us" are also a big part of Infinite Jest.

What makes the book good is its technical aspects. The writing is eloquent and smooth, making for a pretty easy read, and the characters are diverse and really help expound Huxley's ideas. I especially like how he uses roughly 4 different types of characters to make his point about society and purpose very clear: there's Bernard, the different but cowardly psychologist, there's John, the "savage" who grew up away from civilization reading Shakespeare, there's Helmholtz, the tall, very popular man who feels a lack of strength in his writing, and everyone else, happily addicted to soma and their place in society.

What makes the book great is chapter 17, when John, speaking with the Controller Mustapha Mond, discusses the sacrifices society has made to be "civilized" and peaceful, and John makes the most brilliant and convincing argument for unhappiness and suffering I have ever read: (if you're going to read the book and you haven't before, I recommend skipping this part, because the build-up and that entire chapter is literary gold)

"But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."

"In fact," said Mustapha Mond, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy."

"All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy."

"Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind." There was a long silence.

"I claim them all," said the Savage at last.

Holy cow that is phenomenal.

And Then There Were None - Agatha Christie

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If you're into a creepy and very fun murder mystery that's actually suspenseful then read And Then There Were None

I read books for one of three reasons: for personal enrichment, to learn stuff, or just for entertainment. And Then There Were None falls very squarely into the third category. It is about 10 stranger gathered on an island under different pretexts, each of whom are complicit in some crime that they cannot be legally punished for, and over the course of a few days, each die in ways parallel to a nursery rhyme. 

The book is pretty short (read it in one sitting) and very easy to read. It is very fun and satisfying and manages to stay engaging throughout, and I actually had no idea who did it until the big reveal at the end (although I'm always very bad at guessing). 

Assassination Classroom - Yusei Matsui

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If you're interested in a fun gag manga with a very thoughtful message on education and potential, then read Assassination Classroom. It also manages to be surprisingly heartwarming. 

Assassination Classroom takes place in a middle school in Japan, where students are divided into 5 classes (A to E, ranked by performance). Class E, the "worst" students of the school, serve as motivation for  the other students to study and not be sent to Class E, where they study in a dilapidated classroom isolated on a mountain. In the same year, a large, humanoid octopus creature with tentacles blows up 70% of the moon, and threatens to do the same to Earth in a year. The only way to stop him is to assassinate him, and the best chance is in Class E, where he becomes their homeroom teacher, and the students learn regular subjects like math, Japanese, history, and English along with assassination.

The premise is definitely pretty goofy, and as a gag manga it's very good. It does a couple of important things well:

  • It's generally pretty tough to make an entire classroom of characters look and feel different, but it wasn't too hard to tell the students apart, especially because each student is different in their strengths, weaknesses, and motivation.
  • Very related to this is character design, especially for Korosensei, who is literally a big yellow blob with tentacles and a smile that spans his entire face. 
  • The panels of assassination attempts are really well drawn. They mostly center on one person, focus on their face, depict aura well, and eliminate most of the background which amplifies the person's presence and makes the scene very tense. 
  • There's a lot of fun and funny parts of the manga, like Korosensei (the big octopus teacher)'s various weaknesses (gets embarrassed easily, juicy gossip, succumbs to road rage) and some of the assassination plots (putting a bomb in the middle of a giant pudding). 

As a manga though, the one thing that makes Assassination Classroom great is that it has a very clear message and a theme that the story services. Assassination Classroom is the clash of two ideals- the belief that people are fixed and inherently different in abilities, and the belief that all people have potential to improve and change. The former is manifested in the teaching style of the principal, who split the students into 5 classes, and the latter is manifested by Korosensei, who teaches the students of Class E who no longer believe in themselves that they can still accomplish anything that they want. In an Asian culture where grades often determine their entire lives, the message that you are more than your grades and you can always change for the better is a very important one. 

Let me reiterate, because I think this is amazing: in a manga where a bunch of middle school kids regularly shoot the homeroom teacher (who is a giant yellow octopus and can move at mach 20) with assault rifles during roll call, Assassination Classroom manages to still be a thoughtful and positive manga. 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - J.K. Rowling

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If you haven't read Harry Potter please read Harry Potter. 

I started thinking about Harry Potter again recently because my roommate Greg told me he never read Harry Potter, and decided to read the entire series again because I was concurrently reading Lolita and J.K. Rowling seemed like a pretty nice, easy complement to Nabokov.

I don't know anyone else besides Greg who hasn't read Harry Potter before or at least seen the movies, but Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is about a kid who learns that he is a wizard, leaves his horrible uncle and aunt, and goes to a wizarding school somewhere in Great Britain. 

I love Harry Potter and grew up reading Harry Potter. I've reread Harry Potter many many times over the years (it's been 17 years since?) and I am very happy that even now I still really enjoy reading the series. Book 1 is good for several reasons:

  • It's well written. Book 1 is both interesting and easy to understand for kids as well as enjoyable for adults. 
  • The story is fun, appropriately tense, and immensely satisfying. Harry learning how to fly, Neville standing up to his friends, Hagrid busting in the door to give Harry a cake... super fun to read.
  • The characters are likable. For example, everyone loves when Hermione, Harry, and Ron become friends, because it's fucking cute. 

While good, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is only the precursor to the impressive universe that J.K. Rowling eventually builds out and the wonderful breadth and depth of characters that she develops. This is not to say the characters are not done well- really quickly, you learn to love Hagrid, admire Dumbledore, and hate Malfoy, but the character development and growth that made me feel like I grew up with the students at Hogwarts is not yet there. It is a simple, short, and easy to read and enjoy introduction to her masterpiece.

Some miscellaneous thoughts:

  • Only on this reread did I realize how brutally unfair the points system is. Dumbledore literally waits until the Slytherins have their banners up in the Great Hall before rewarding the exact number of points Gryffindor needs to beat Slytherin. How fucked up is that?
  • A very consistent theme gets developed in Book 1: Harry, Ron, and Hermione discover some half facts, draw some very wrong conclusions, and then gets in a lot of danger, sometimes completely unnecessarily. 

Mob Psycho 100 - ONE

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If you're interested in a very cute and funny manga about accepting yourself featuring a ridiculously overpowered but very nice kid, then read Mob Psycho 100.

Mob Psycho 100 is a Japanese webcomic made by ONE, the same guy who was the initial author & artist of One Punch ManMob Psycho 100 is kind of similar in the sense that it also features an unbelievably OP protagonist, this time Shigeo Kageyama, a student at Salt Middle School. Although he looks like a very average kid (his nickname is Mob, i.e. background character), he is actually a very powerful esper. Because Mob is scared of hurting others with his power, he suppresses his emotions to keep his powers under control, but when the percentage of his accumulated feelings reaches 100%, he is overcome by the strongest emotion he is feeling at the time and fully unleashes his power. 

Probably the most immediately noteworthy thing about Mob Psycho 100 (and also the original One Punch Man webcomic) is how bad the art is. The characters are all lumpy and misproportioned, and facial features are abstracted to their most basic. However, the art style is very consistent, and while not very polished or precise, never really detracts from the manga. On the contrary, I think it actually adds to the charm of the manga, and works because ONE doesn't always take himself very seriously (as a counterexample, I cannot imagine Bleach in the same style; it would look so fucking stupid).

Mob Psycho 100 is also very funny. Dimple the spirit looks like a cloud with bright red rouge on his cheeks, Reigen is a psychic without any powers who throws salt and gives massages during his consultations, Mob unwittingly becomes the leader of a gang and the head of a cult... everything in the manga is just ridiculous.

What I liked most about Mob Psycho 100 though is Mob himself. Mob is a very unique protagonist- he has a lot of power but doesn't see his power as anything special. Instead, he treats everyone with respect, works hard to improve himself, and genuinely cares for those around him. He is a little oblivious, but that's part of his charm- there is just something very endearing about a 8th grader with enough psychic power to destroy multiple buildings struggling to train in the Body Improvement Club to impress his crush. He also has dope helmet hair. 

I especially loved the ending (special shout out to the non cliche middle school crush subplot), and the last panel of Mob Psycho 100 is some of the most wholesome shit I've ever read in any manga ever. 

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - J.K. Rowling

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In Book 2 the Chamber of Secrets opens, a bunch of students get hurt, and Harry Potter saves the day. The book is pretty much the same as Book 1, just with a different plot (same characters, same fun wizarding world!!!). The big difference is that it is a little scarier than Book 1, and I remember being really fucked up by bathrooms as a kid because of this book and a deep misconception that the grudge (from the movies) came out of the toilet and not the well. Between the two I only felt comfortable taking a shower, and even then I was scared of getting snuck up on while I was washing my hair with my eyes closed. :-( 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J.K. Rowling

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Book 3 starts to feel a little bit different from the first two books, mostly because the adventure doesn't wrap up very neatly and nicely at the end of the day, and Harry is saving someone instead of stopping nefarious plots. The good things about the series remain the good things here, but this is the least favorite of the first 3 Harry Potter books because of the time turner. I think introducing time travel in general is very iffy, and it generally just makes for massive plot holes.

Lupin is awesome though.

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

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If you're interested in style, flair, and beautiful English wrapping some truly abhorrent things, then read Lolita.

The fictional memoir of Humbert Humbert, written in prison while awaiting a murder trial, Lolita is the lovingly sordid story of Humbert and Dolores Haze, privately nicknamed Lolita. Obsessed with what he calls "nymphets," 9-14 year old girls, Humbert falls in love and becomes sexually involved with Lolita, who is 12 when they meet. 

The content of the book is obviously pretty fucked up, and Humbert Humbert is very clearly a terrible person, but part of the charm in the book is that despite being horrified by Humbert and Lolita, Nabokov makes you admire how he writes and understand Humbert. I didn't enjoy the book as much as I thought I would though, mostly because I had a really hard time getting through the book and staying consistently interested. While Humbert was a unique character, you spend a lot of time in his head in the book (it is his self narrated memoir, after all), and unfortunately a lot of times I just found him annoying. Because of that, I felt like the book moved a little slowly, and while it's interesting to read about Humbert silently obsessing and anguishing over Lolita, chapters and chapters of it start to drag on. I think for similar reasons I didn't love Crime and Punishment; I just tend to find fancy wordplay and writing for the sake of itself kind of boring. 

To be fair though, I was really tired the two weeks I was reading Lolita and reading Nabokov's flowery and flamboyant style is very hard if you can't completely focus on his writing, plus it's very easy to miss a bunch of the allusions he makes in Lolita. There's a book that catalogs and notes most of the references in Lolita called The Annotated Lolita which I think would be interesting, but nonetheless I am definitely going to read it again sometime, next time hopefully more carefully. If you love Lolita and think I'm an idiot please let me know, I'd love to know why you liked the book. 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - J.K. Rowling

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In high school my friend rewatched all the Harry Potter films and remarked that The Goblet of Fire is when Emma Watson becomes very hot. While this is a weird observation, in a similar sense Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire marks a good halfway point for the series, when the series becomes a lot darker and shifts into more serious content. For example, Book 4 opens and closes with deaths, and (spoilers Greg please don't read this) Moody gets trapped in his trunk for 9 months, Barty Crouch gets put under the Imperius Curse for months and then gets killed by his son, Cedric gets murdered, and Lord Voldemort comes back to his full powers. Because they take place after Voldemort comes to power, Books 5-7 feel wholly different from Books 1-3, and 4 is an important segue way between them. 

Although it's changed a little in structure, story wise Book 4 is still very good, and the Quidditch World Cup + the Triwizard Tournament were very fun and exciting to read. It's also nice to have a lot of new characters introduced, especially with all the new students from Beauxbaton and Durmstrang. 

An interesting observation: when I first read the series I took a more Ron & Harry stance towards Hermione on S.P.E.W. and house elves ("haha Hermione is so crazy") but now that I'm a little older I'm a little more aware of how fucked up some of the stuff in the wizarding world is. 

Titus Andronicus - William Shakespeare

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If you're interested in a satisfying but very gruesome revenge play, and you want to read some early Shakespeare, then read Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus, set in latter day Rome, tells the story of the cycle of revenge between Roman general Titus Andronicus and Tamora, the Queen of the Goths. It is Shakespeare's first tragedy, and also the first of his plays I read in my Shakespeare class at Columbia. It was one of my least favorite plays of the ones I read in class, and is generally regarded as one of his worst plays, but there's a bunch of interesting stuff going on in Titus Andronicus that I really like:

  • Shakespeare is very interested in pivotal moments, and is restless in exploring the contemporary pressures and anxieties of his time. Issues like succession, racism, and definitions of community drive the action in Titus Andronicus, and continue to come up over and over again in his plays.
  • For me, in class, it was the first time I realized how important it is that Shakespeare wrote plays to be acted & watched and not novels to be read. There are a million different ways to direct and act out his works, and they are different in incredibly significant ways. For example, some questions that completely change the play: does Lucius get support from everyone or just his uncle Marcus? Does Aaron's child live or die? Does a Roman or a Goth say "let Rome be a bane unto herself?" 
  • The subtle differences are also very striking, making each production of the same Shakespearea play completely different. My professor told a story about a play where Lavinia gags reflexively in horror when she is writing the names' of her rapists in the sand with a stick, because she is triggered by the stick in her mouth.

The Musical Artistry of Rap - Martin Connor

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If you like rap and are interested in an in depth analysis of rap from a music theory perspective, then read The Musical Artistry of Rap.

This is the second book I've given up on because I found it too hard :-(. I know very little about music theory, and in the book he talks a ton about traditional Western music theory and creates his own deviation of it to archive and discuss rap. It went way over my head but if you're into that kind of stuff I'm 100% sure you'll enjoy it; he seems very knowledgeable and it's clear that he really likes rap. 

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - J.K. Rowling

 I know this doesn't fit with the other covers but I don't care because this is the version I had when I was a kid.

I know this doesn't fit with the other covers but I don't care because this is the version I had when I was a kid.

Harry Potter 5 is where the series completely changes and feels very different, but the things I like about the series still hold, with two differences (one good, one bad). The good is that Book 5 has the most exciting climax out of all the books so far, and the rush to the Department of Mysteries, fighting the Death Eaters, Neville shouting Dubbledore (so funny), Sirius dying, Voldemort and Dumbledore dueling, and Fudge realizing he's an idiot is all very exciting stuff. The bad is that a lot of characters are profoundly stupid in Book 5, most of all Harry and Dumbledore. The former is surly most of the year (understandably, but still annoyingly so), ends up not practicing Occlumency, and gets tricked into a death trap, and the latter completely ignores Harry witohut explaining anything to him despite the fact that Harry gets in trouble every year because of his strong convictions in the wrong information. 

Book 5 gets bonus points though for having one of my favorite Ron stories:

'Well, we were always going to fail that one,' said Ron gloomily as they ascended the marble staircase. He had just made Harry feel rather better by telling him how he had told the examiner in detail about the ugly man with a wart on his nose in his crystal ball, only to look up and realize he had been describing his examiner's reflection.

Books of 2017

I always loved to read but couldn't find time in college until my second semester of my senior year. I had a pretty rocky year but one of the consistently great things for me this year was books. In 2017 I wanted to read more, set a goal of 100 books, and ended up reading 130 amazing books, all of which taught me something, improved the way I think, or changed who I am. 

2017 in books

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Cream

I made a favorites shelf on Goodreads for books I liked but then wanted to make a subset of books that really changed my life, so I made a shelf called "cream" because of "cream of the crop" but also because I was really into the Wu Tang song C.R.E.A.M. at the time. Although I'm just now realizing that likes and favorites would've been better names... fuck.

Anyways, here are the 30 beautiful books I put on my cream shelf this year, with a short one line review:

  • If you're interested in math, music, art, and how consciousness arises from unconscious things, then read GEB by Douglas Hofstadter
  • If you're interested in an informative and insanely detailed history of 19th century Arabs read The Arabs by Eugene Rogan
  • If you're interested in how American pop culture manifests in the Middle East (rap in Palestine? Lionel Ritchie in Libya?) read The Sheikhs Batmobile by Richard Poplak
  • If you're interested in an epic clash between good and evil and some of the best character development I've ever read in manga read Monster by Naoki Urasawa
  • If you're interested in the dangers of machine learning and algorithms and recognize the importance of socially conscious computer science then read Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil
  • If you're interested in an examination of happiness from a psychologist's perspective and a very funny book then read Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Todd Gilbert
  • If you're interested in a thoughtful and loving doctor's writing in his last years fighting terminal cancer then read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Thought I made it through tear-free but then his wife's epilogue made me cry a little.
  • If you're interested in how marketing has changed fashion via a bunch of case studies then read The End of Fashion by Teri Agins
  • If you're interested in the best depiction of depression I've ever read (sans maybe DFW) then read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Don't read it if you're not doing so well recently though.
  • If you liked Ender's Game (smart kids fight each other and aliens in space) and if you're interested in a more psychological version of that with an even smarter kid then read Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card
  • If you want to read about mortality, and finding peace in death and authenticity in life then read The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
  • If you want a beautiful answer to the question of the meaning of life from a man who has suffered with dignity and nobility then read Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
  • If you're interested in the dichotomy between Nietzschean weight and lightness or if you just dig beautiful writing on love then read The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  • If you want to read about the various ways in which love can be laughable and horrifying then read Laughable Loves also by Milan Kundera (short stories!)
  • If you like to read about incredible insights distilled from very simple, common things then read Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. If you are curious about my undying and deep love of David Foster Wallace this is a good first book to introduce him.
  • If you want to read some heavy shit about how communities are formed and the choices we make that determine who we are & what we want to be, if you're interested in fantastic characters showing what it means to be brave and to be forgiving then read Beartown by Fredrik Backman
  • If you're interested in the toxic relationship with success & family and feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, or if you're interested in one of two authors I've read this year that I think use short abrupt sentences well, then read Chemistry by Weike Wang. Chemistry is also a hilarious book and I want to be her friend.
  • If you're interested in healthcare systems across the world and what lessons America can learn from them then read The Healing of America by T.R. Reid
  • If you're interested in addiction, in American loneliness, in the default mode, in being earnest, and in nourishing and life changing literature, then read Infinite Jest by DFW. Seriously please read Infinite Jest it will make me very happy.
  • If you're interested in an 8 page essay/book/speech on the importance of actively combatting your defaults, the purpose of a liberal arts education, and the complexity of simple things then read This is Water by DFW. Probably the best intro to how DFW thinks and his genius in writing and in thought. 
  • If you're interested in the most insightful essay on tv and fiction for understanding DFW's fiction or some bomb ass narrative pieces then read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again also by DFW
  • If you're interested in a children's book about the importance and beauty of art then read The Artsy Smartsy Club by Daniel Pinkwater. It is one of two things that pushed me to doing my art history minor and spawned my original interest in art.
  • If you are interested in love and interesting people and the CUTEST story ever then read 等一個人咖啡 by 九把刀. I've read this book over 20 times. 
  • If you are interested in the history of rap or some great pictures and diagrams and the best reviews of anything I've ever read then read The Rap Year Book by Shea Serrano. I am greatly indebted to this book because it changed how I listen to and enjoy rap. Also I aspire to his level of reviewing skill. 
  • If you want to learn about the economics behind the drug business, then read Narconomics by Tom Wainwright
  • If you're interested in some good, important YA about the structural oppression and the hate we give as a society, then read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and then listen to some Tupac. 
  • If you're interested in the folly of man and the capability of people to make decisions independent of supernatural forces, or if you're just into an intense, well drawn manga then read Billy Bat by Naoki Urasawa
  • If you want to read about the dangers of blind faith in technology and the stupidity of man and how we should cope with it, then read Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Also has the one of the best ending of any book I've read. 
  • If you're into the weight and meaninglessness of human existence and want to feel some crushing sadness followed by the most uplifting and hopeful speech ever then read The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. It is my favorite Vonnegut book; it fucked me up so hard.
  • If you want to read about a good man who genuinely cares about the poor and the discarded of America and if you want to know how to love those who have no use, then read God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

Some favorites

My favorite three authors: 
Vonnegut, Kundera, David Foster Wallace
My favorite book:
Infinite Jest
My favorite fiction not IJ, because honestly the comparison is unfair: 
The Sirens of Titan? Tough one though...
My most frequently recommended books:
Chemistry, Beartown, The Sirens of Titan
My favorite non fiction:
The Rap Year Book

This year, next year

So far I've been pretty goal oriented with my monthly reading (inspired by the Warren Buffett + Bill Gates talk I went to in January) and every month I read books about some topics or by a specific author, so my read shelf has a lot of distinct blocks.

My chunked history of the year:
On the Middle East (4), by A. Lee Martinez (6), on fashion (1, looking for more recs!), by Kundera (4), from the Strand (~15), from Econtalk (4), on healthcare (2), on communication (2), on business & process (5), children's books I used to really like (4), by Vonnegut (7).

Chunks I'm interested in for next year:
By Shakespeare, Russian literature, wuxia, on specific artists (Manet, Goya), Infinite Jest

It's been a great year of books. Looking forward to another in 2018!

Books of December 2017

The Last Interview and Other Conversations - David Foster Wallace

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The Last Interview and Other Conversations is technically not a book written by DFW but rather a collection of his interviews gathered into a book posthumously. The 4, 5 interviews in the book cover a variety of topics, including conversations about his writing style & process, his attitude towards his fiction/non fiction, how he feels about being famous, his experiences teaching, his time at Amherst, and his fights with magazines about cutting the length of his articles. 

I think the book is probably best enjoyed after you read a few of his works, and especially after you read Infinite Jest, because it helps answers some questions on what he intended to do when he started writing the book. At this point I adore anything with DFW's voice and writing and thinking, so I immensely enjoyed reading his interviews, although I do feel some reservations about buying a book of his interviews that are available for free online and think he would find the consumerism and opportunism funny. My other problem with The Last Interview was I enjoyed the book because of DFW's wit and charm, not because the interviewers were particularly astute with their questions. I found many of the interview questions were frustratingly shallow and didn't give good insight into how he thinks. One particularly infuriating question asked him about the lengths of Infinite Jest (1000+) and McCain's Promise (124) and why he "decided to drop a few weight classes," which I found a really stupid question because anyone who's done the tiniest amount of research will know that McCain's Promise was originally a Rolling Stone's article, re-released in longer form in Consider the Lobster, and reissued in stand alone book form for the 2008 cycle. I mean, you get time with DFW, and you ask him a question like that?

My favorite interview in the book was the Salon interview with Laura Miller after Infinite Jest was published. The interview wonderfully describes what he wanted to accomplish with fiction and shows how compassionate of an author he is. Some of my favorite bits in the interview:

  • On what it's like to be American around the millenium:
    "There's something particularly sad about it, something that doesn't have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It's more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. Whether it's unique to our generation I really don't know."
  • On the toxicity of the intellectualization and aestheticization of principles in America and the importance of being earnest:
    "It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that's gutted our generation... The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting -- which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff -- can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can't, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel."
  • On the unique magic of fiction:
    "There's a kind of Ah-ha! Somebody at least for a moment feels about something or sees something the way that I do. It doesn't happen all the time. It's these brief flashes or flames, but I get that sometimes. I feel unalone -- intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I'm in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don't with other art."

How Money Got Free: Bitcoin and the Fight for the Future of Finance - Brian Patrick Eha

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How Money Got Free chronicles Bitcoin's early history, told from the perspective of its early adopters, innovators, and evangelists. The story starts from Cypherpunks, cryptocurrency predecessors, and Satoshi, the unknown creator of Bitcoin, and leads to a lot of the influential people & major projects involved, like Nic Cary, Charlie Shrem, BitInstant, Coinbase, Mt. Gox, Roger Ver, Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, the Winklevoss twins, and Barry Silbert + DCG.

Eha sets up the ideological tension between the original Bitcoin purists + libertarian anarchists and the later Bitcoin pragmatists very well, and I found his account of Bitcoin's history really interesting. The book helped me understand a little of cryptocurrency's value & purpose, but I wouldn't recommend reading the book to understanding cryptocurrencies, because the book's primary emphasis is on the people and events leading from 10,000 BTC for two Papa John's pizzas to 1 BTC at 17k. 

One of my major complaints about the book is while he contextualizes the debates about cryptocurrencies and the different positions well, I thought he was way too opinionated, and brought in a lot of personal bias without convincing arguments or evidence. This was most egregious in the portions of the book about legislation & regulation of cryptocurrencies in his very obvious disdain for government. He also introduces a lot of characters through his very libertarian lens, and has a tendency for saying very debatable things in the book in a very objective way, like 

HSBC executives thus benefited from something like the transformative formula of modern art. A bag of rubbish is a bag of rubbish, but if one builds a Tate Britain around the rubbish it becomes art.

Wtf is that supposed to mean...?

Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut

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I read Slaughterhouse Five in my junior year of high school in IBHL year 1 English, and did my IB oral presentation on the book. I dogeared and highlighted the shit out of my book- Slaughterhouse Five is one of the first books I remember spending a lot of time analyzing, and one of the first books that showed me that a close read of literature can be very rewarding and deep. 

Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who fought in WW2 and survived the Dresden bombings. Billy, a fatalistic, poorly trained soldier with no survival instinct, stumbles through the war and through a series of accidents gets captured by the Germans and sent to Luxembourg. During his transport, Billy becomes "unstuck in time" and begins to experience flashbacks from his past. A few years after he returns from war, Billy is abducted by Tramalfadorians, aliens who see all time simultaneously rather than continuously, and lives in a glass dome in a zoo, but continues to experience moments in his past and future after he is sent back to Earth in a time warp.

If the book seems confusing or weird, it's even worse in the book itself because all of this is told out of sequence. Slaughterhouse Five is the quintessential Kurt Vonnegut book, and many stylistic elements are repeated in his other books, including the nonlinear narrative (fits well here because like Billy, the narrative is unstuck in time). Others include:

  • Unreliable narrator:
    The narrator is a part of the book as an author, and Billy Pilgrim is the main character in a story that the narrator is writing about war. Kurt Vonnegut also experienced the Dresden bombings, and often in the book it is hard to separate fiction from reality and figure out what parts of the story are actually experienced rather than imagined.
  • Short sections:
    The book is split into really small pieces. Kurt Vonnegut described his books as "essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips...and each chip is a joke." This is especially cool for this book because these small pieces align nicely with Billy's abrupt jumps in time, and help create the jarring feeling of disorder.
  • Heavy dependence on black humor and irony:
    Basically every other part of the book, if not more.
  • Lots of repetition:
    "So it goes" follows every death in the book, "If you're ever in Cody, Wyoming, ask for Wild Bob" is repeated by Billy a lot, the serenity prayer is repeated a lot, "Listen" prepends a lot of passages, "Everything beautiful and nothing hurt"... This is another cool stylistic element because the repetition connects disjointed, nonlinear narrative pieces, and becomes itself a joke when used heavily like in this book.
  • Simple syntax & sentence structure:
    I think this has a similar effect to the short sections. Terrible things stated simply and abruptly are more powerful, and are worse when delivered toneless and matter of fact. 
  • Drawings:
    This is also in Breakfast of Champions. I like his drawings; they're very simple but expressive line drawings.

There are also lots of common themes:

  • Anti-war (the topic of my IB presentation!) 
    The style serves the theme well here, and how starkly everything is laid out really highlights the absurdities of war, like the Children's Crusade, Roland Weary's bravado & the Three Musketeers, Billy Pilgrim stumbling into Luxembourg with a blue toga and silver shoes, and one of my favorite passages from SH Five:

“It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans though and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”

  • Fatalism, and the lack of free will:
    The Tramalfadorians see all time as a hill, and so simultaneously see the past, present, and future. We are described as being "trapped in the amber of the now," and so everything, already predestined and predetermined, will always stay the same and can never be changed. In the Tramalfadorian philosophy, our actions mean nothing, and so death means nothing besides a "so it goes." Our individuality and notions of free will also don't exist, because the answer to "Why anything?" is "Because the moment simply is." 

The Giggler Treatment - Roger Doyle

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I know I read a lot of kid's books, but I really enjoy them because I think writing good ones is tremendously difficult and so many of them are done so well. Because children's books are constrained by length, the author has to set up and wrap up a complete story with very few words, forcing them to be very deliberate and intentional with what they say. 

The Giggler Treatment is about a dad who works as a biscuit taste tester. The eponymous "gigglers" punish adults who are mean to kids and they overhear him scolding his kids for breaking stuff and misbehaving the night before, so they conspire to put some dog poop on his way to work the next day as a punishment. The story of the book is not that special (although it's a lot of fun)- what's really interesting about the book is its narrative structure and literary techniques. When he recommended me The Giggler Treatment, my friend Andy said it was the first book that showed him how creative and different books could be and the possibilities they afforded. The Giggler Treatment does a lot of interesting different stuff that I really enjoyed, like adding a bunch of self-referential stuff, playing with the length, naming, and meaning of chapters, breaking the fourth wall, and even changing the story in the story itself. I usually hate stuff like that in books, but The Giggler Treatment was so fun I enjoyed it anyways, and I'm sure as a kid it would've been revelatory. 

Personally, the book that made me think- "wow, I didn't know books could do that" was The Phantom Tollbooth, and it's still one of my favorite books today.

Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut

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Cat's Cradle was the other Vonnegut book I read in IB English (year 2...?) in high school; it is one of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut books. Cat's Cradle is about a writer (John/ Jonah) who is writing a book about famous people's reactions to the dropping of the atomic bomb. In his research, he goes to Ilium to interview the colleagues and the children of the father of the atomic bomb, Felix Hoenikker, and finds out about a substance called "ice-nine" created by Felix, an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature. When it comes in contact with water, ice-nine will seed it to make all the molecules of liquid water rearrange themselves into solid ice-nine. After Felix's death, his three children, Angela, Frank, and Newt Hoenikker receive small chips of ice-nine, and the Hoenikker children meet Jonah on the small island country San Lorenzo, one of the poorest countries in the world. Ruled by dictator Papa Monzano, San Lorenzo has an unusual culture & history and its own religion, Bokononism.

There are a lot of quintessentially Vonnegut stylistic elements in Cat's Cradle like black humor, irony, small disparate pieces (Cat's Cradle is 304 pages with 127 chapters), parody, straight-faced emotionless delivery, etc. Unlike Slaughterhouse Five though, Cat's Cradle is not nonlinear, which I honestly prefer because I think it's easier to follow and I find nonlinear narratives really annoyingly distracting.

Thematically, I think there are two separate but closely related threads running through the book, two big ideas he is tackling. The first is the danger of blind faith in technology, and the immensity of human stupidity, and the second is, in the face of all this shit, does this all matter? How do we handle it? Ice-nine was conceived with indifference by a scientist who cared only for the truth, who had no real human connections and did not give a shit about anything else, a man who didn't know God, or Love, or Sin, and he passed his last creation to his children, who selfishly exploited it for their own temporary happiness. Ice-nine is just science fiction, but it has parallels in the nuclear arms race, and is a warning story for the stupidity and selfishness of people. As written in the Books of Bokonon,

Man is vile, and man makes nothing worth making, knows nothing worth knowing

and this filth is paired by an innate drive for meaning.

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, "Why, why, why?"

Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.

But if capital-T Truth is not the answer, how do we live as meaningless mud? Vonnegut's answer is in Bokononism, the religion of San Lorenzo, an elaborate farce constructed to give them some kind of meaning in their life. All of it is fake and none of it is any more real or meaningful than science or technology or any other religion, but that's OK. The Truth is terrible, so all we can hope for and rely on are better and better lies. This is neatly summed up in the epigraph of the book:

Nothing in this book is true.
Live by the
foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.
The Book of Bokonon 1:5

Cat's Cradle also has one of the greatest book endings I've ever read (also good: A Tale of Two Cities): 

(obvious, if mild, spoilers)
If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.

If On a Winter's Night a Traveler - Italo Calvino 

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If on a winter's night a traveler is about a guy reading the eponymous book. He reads only the first chapter, realizes the book is published with only first chapters, and tries to find and finish the rest of the book, but every chapter he reads is the first chapter of another, different book. Each chapter of If on a winter's night a traveler is divided into two parts: the first half the story of the reader trying to find the book, and the latter half the first chapter of a book he finds during his search. The first chapters of all these books are very different in content and style, and their background & story drive the plot of their succeeding narrative sections. 

This was definitely a unique reading experience, but I didn't finish the book because I tend to dislike books that use weird narrative techniques and structure for the purpose of just pushing the envelope of literary technique, rather than for some explicit external purpose (I also really really don't like when authors break the fourth wall). If playful postmodern puzzles are more up your alley than mine though, you will probably enjoy this book.

Farewell Waltz - Milan Kundera

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Farewell Waltz happens over 5 days in a small spa town in Czechoslovakia in the early 1970s, and follows 8 characters: Ruzena, the young and pretty nurse, supposedly pregnant from Klima; Frantisek, her boyfriend who desperately wants to marry her; Klima, a famous trumpeter who has a one night stand with Ruzena and is frequently unfaithful despite his devotion to his wife; Kamila, his wife, jealous & always suspicious of Klima having an affair; Skreta, the gynecologist working in the spa who wants to be adopted by Bertlef; Bertlef, the rich, sick American staying at the spa town; Jakub, an ex political prisoner leaving the country, and Olga, Jakub's ward, whose father betrayed him and eventually dies as a political prisoner. 

Farewell Waltz has really similar elements to many of his previous books that I've read.

  1. All the characters suck. They all have super shitty character traits and all of them say, do, or believe in some really shitty, slimy stuff.
  2. But despite that, the book is still fantastic, still really engaging, and despite yourself you still get drawn into the story and the characters even thought they're all terrible people. It is the mark of a great author that you can still feel sympathetic and still understand and empathize with characters that on a fundamental level you disagree with and dislike.
  3. Farewell Waltz engages with some serious topics like love, patriotism, hate, and accidents, but examines all this really dark stuff with a very light touch. On the surface the book is a comedy, and certainly there are some funny and absurd bits, but some terrible shit happens in the story and some heavy, dark elements lie very close beneath the surface. This is juxtaposed, as in all of his books, by how lightly he tells his stories, drawing you in more and making it even more abhorrent with the sharp contrast.

I think Kundera is a fantastic author, and I've very much enjoyed all four of his books I've read. 

Breakfast of Champions - Kurt Vonnegut

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Breakfast of Champions follows the story of two characters, "two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast." The first is Kilgore Trout, a minor recurring character in his other novels, and an unsuccessful science fiction writer. Kilgore Trout gets a rich fan, Mr. Rosewater (also another recurring character in other books) and is invited to a convention in a small town, where the second character, Dwayne Hoover, is a successful and rich white Pontiac dealer. Dwayne Hoover is deeply mentally unstable, and because of "bad chemicals" in his brain, acts out in ways he cannot control. Eventually, Trout meets Dwayne unwittingly, and after reading one of Kilgore Trout's books, Dwayne erroneously believes that he is the only person in a universe and everyone else is a machine. 

Stylistically, Breakfast of Champions is quite similar to Slaughterhouse Five (I believe BoC was written after SH5). An interesting difference is while both have pen drawings from Vonnegut, BoC has even more, some illustrating parts of the story and some tangentially related. My favorite of these drawings is:

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The presence of a narrator is also much stronger in this book than in any of his other books. Instead of the main character being a character in a story written or told by the narrator, Kurt Vonnegut is directly involved and a part of the story, and there are times when he directly influences or even changes the story. Kurt Vonnegut also has a knack for beautiful endings, this one not even textual- the last page is just a full page drawing of Kurt Vonnegut crying.

Breakfast of Champions is critical of American society and the way it treats its citizens, focusing largely on race and socioeconomic status, and points out the hypocrisy of a country founded on the principles of freedom exploiting its own people. 

They used human beings for machinery, and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines.

This is starkest in the parallels between Dwayne Hoover, a rich and powerful but terrible white man, and Wayne Hoobler, a black ex-convict who has never been free and dreams childishly of a place called Fairyland. Like many of his other books, BoC also calls into question the nature of free will, this time through the presence of an omnipotent and omniscient narrator and through the "bad chemicals" in Dwayne's brain that prompt him to act so violently and uncontrollably. 

As for myself: I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide. For want of anything better to do, we became fans of collisions. 

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions - Brian Christian

Algorithms to Live By, written by two computer scientists, discusses how insights from CS, math, and statistics can be applied to everyday common situations. The book is based on the idea that we all face problems in our everyday lives that either relate to or can be directly reduced to common CS problems, examining a different problem/algorithm in each chapter.

The book does a few things well:
- The book discusses interesting, relevant problems. I found many of them personally useful, like the explore/exploit problem (finding new friends), optimal stopping (parking and apartment hunting), sorting (my books), and caching (organizing my notes at work). 
- The authors break down tricky concepts in CS (Bayes, game theory, concept of intractable (NP) problems, etc.) and explains CS problems very clearly (multi-arm bandit, traveling salesman, caches). 

What the book does really well:
The premise of the book is really great- that problems in real life often map, if not perfectly, to problems that serious research has been devoted to, and in really useful and interesting ways the search for optimal solutions for very well defined problems can be applied to real and much fuzzier problems in our lives. The big problem with that is most people feel like algorithms is the realm of computers and nerds and not applicable to most people, but that's treated admirably in the book as well. The authors acknowledge pretty frequently that problems in CS are more rigorous and can't be strictly applied, and approach every problem by looking at the naive case with lots of assumptions then takes away certain assumptions and discuss the more relevant (but harder to solve) problem. I like this approach a lot because it helps the reader understand algorithms as fundamentally just a way to solve a problem, and this helps in thinking about problems by defining the problem, clarifying assumptions and understanding inputs/ outputs. A good real life example of this is sorting/ organizing stuff. Most people just do insertion sort when they're sorting a deck of cards or organize by putting like with like, but both problems are pretty straightforward CS problems with provably better solutions (any n log n sort, LRU caches).

What the book is bad at:
I didn't really like their style that much. They suffer from the overuse of "quirky but not really relevant and honestly kind of annoying" quips that are so endemic in these types of books (e.g. "It turns out there’s no Godfather quite like God the Father"). My second complaint is less a general complaint and more a personal one: I wish he went more in depth on some algorithms instead of just presenting the answer, but I understand that the book is intended for more general audiences. 

Player Piano - Kurt Vonnegut

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Player Piano takes place in an almost totally mechanized world where the need for most workers has been eliminated, and the pervasive mechanization of work causes a chasm between the educated engineers & managers who run the factories and the lower class whose livelihood and purpose have been largely replaced by machines. This massive division is decided entirely by test results and fed into unchanging and unsympathetic machines, who determine what kind of jobs and what kind of lives they have. The story follows two separate characters: Dr. Paul Proteus, a factory manager in Ilium, New York, and the Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of six million people in a distant, underdeveloped nation on a tour of America. Dr. Proteus, who goes from an unthinking but skilled cog in the machine to one of society's biggest and most outspoken critics and the Shah present two different perspectives of the system: the insider representative of the system and the outsider looking in. 

Of all the dystopias described in Vonnegut's books, this one seems the most plausible (I would argue we have moved even closer to that world since the publication of this book). The crux of the problem is blind faith in technology without recognition of its repercussions, i.e. what it means for people to lose their place in the world and become subordinate to machines, yet still live in a world where the comforts afforded by technology seem indispensable. While the technology may be new, these ideas are not particularly modern. Many seem to come directly from Marxism, like:

  • Alienated labor
    Workers in Player Piano are mostly unthinking assembly line workers
  • Labor as commodity
    Workers are valuable only until they can be replaced by machines
  • People lose ability to determine their life and destiny and cannot define themselves or their relationships to others and society
    People's lives are decided by a test and machines, with the results determining where they live, how much they make, what job they have, what kind of people they spend time with, and what kind of people they become. 
  • Workers cannot own stuff produced by their own labor
    This is true of upper class engineers & managers as well as lower class workers. Dr. Proteus cannot run a farm and live alone; Rudy Hertz the master machinist is replaced by a machine built from a recording of his hands.

My favorite part of Player Piano is (-- spoilers --) the courtroom scene where Dr. Proteus defends himself as leader of the Ghost Shirt Society (-- end spoilers --). I'm not really sure why but courtroom scenes fucking hype me up (see: Portia in Merchant of Venice, Mersault in The Stranger, John in The Crucible, Lisbeth in The Girl Who Kicked Over the Hornet's Nest...). I find the buildup plus the opportunity in the court for stirring speeches so exciting & satisfying, and in Player Piano Dr. Proteus gives some bomb ass speeches.

What distinguishes man from the rest of the animals is his ability to do artificial things,” said Paul. “To his greater glory, I say. And a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.

"The sovereignty of the United States resides in the people, not in the machines, and it’s the people’s to take back, if they so wish. The machines,” said Paul, “have exceeded the personal sovereignty willingly surrendered to them by the American people for good government. Machines and organization and pursuit of efficiency have robbed the American people of liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

“The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings,” said Paul, “not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems.”

Stylistically Player Piano is very similar to his other works (black humor, irony, biting social commentary) and address familiar themes, with one noteworthy exception: Vonnegut's use of metafiction & self-contained, well divided chapters was not yet developed when he wrote Player Piano, his first book. The book is still a very good book, but it feels a lot less weird, for lack of a better word, and a lot less Vonnegut. 

The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut

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The Sirens of Titan is probably my favorite book by Vonnegut out of the couple I've read. It tells the story of Malachi Constant, a rich billionaire playboy, and Winston Niles Rumfoord, a rich space traveler who enters a phenomenon known as the chrono-synclastic infundibulum and becomes a wave phenomenon. Existing on a spiral between the Betelgeuse and the sun, Rumfoord and his dog materialize only temporarily on planets when his wave intersects with the planet, but lives on Titan, the only place where he materializes permanently. In the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, Rumfoord becomes aware of the past, present, and future, and under his machinations sets Malachi on a journey where he plays a key role in the purpose of human history, taking him to Mars, Mercury, Earth, and then finally Titan, one of the moons of Jupiter.

Sirens of Titans, Vonnegut's second novel, is when I think Vonnegut becomes Vonnegut, and when all the things I think of as Vonnegut begin to come together. It is in this book that he develops and engages with what becomes one of the hallmark themes of his books, the question of fate versus fate will. Multiple characters lack control or even understanding of the powerful forces that drive and direct them, and it is revealed later in the book (-- spoilers --) that all of humanity has been secretly manipulated by an alien race (the Tramalfadorians, also present in Slaughterhouse Five) to deliver a broken space ship part. Salo, a Tramalfadorian, is an explorer delivering a message to a galaxy far away, stranded on Titan when small component on his spaceship breaks. Salo sends a distress signal to Tramalfadore, and they use a force called the UWTB (Universal Will to Become) to manipulate humanity to deliver the part to Salo (Kremlin, Stonehenge, the Great Wall, etc. are all messages informing Salo of their progress). All of human civilization and history, the Martian invasion, the establishment of the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, everything that happens is for the purpose of Salo's message, and the message turns out to be a single dot, which means fucking "greetings" in Tramalfadore. (-- end spoilers --)

None of Vonnegut's other stuff has had the same gut-punching strength as when Salo opens the sealed message he's been carrying for 200,000+ years. What you feel is the weight of the worthlessness and senselessness of everything we've built and everything we are. Everything, like monuments, history, government, and religion, but also personal, like friendships, love, family, everything we think gives us meaning- all of it is shit, and no one is free from it. No one can overcome or even comprehend it- the humans are controlled by Rumfoord, Rumfoord is controlled by Salo & the Tramalfadorians, and the Tramalfadorians are all unthinking, programmed machines, and in the end of all of this, after a lifetime of exploitation and a race of exploitation, Malachi Constant still manages to say this:

It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.

And that is fucking nice.

What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine - Danielle Ofri

What Doctors Feel discusses the powerful impact emotions have on the practice of medicine and how often they are neglected. We generally think of emotions in medicine as a negative thing, and in our TV shows and movies we respect cool, logical doctors like Dr. Cox or Dr. House, doctors that are ideals of the idea that medicine should be practiced with as less emotion as possible. But acknowledged or ignored, emotions affect medicine, and Dr. Ofri argues that they are ignored to the detriment to both the doctor and the quality of care the patient receives, ultimately coming back to harm both patient and doctor.

In the anecdotes, research, and personal stories and experiences she shares, Dr. Ofri touches on both positive and negative emotions but focuses mostly on negative emotions like grief, shame, burnout, and fear because of how badly they're often addressed. These emotions are definitely not unique to medicine, but the scale is very different for doctors. Doctors experience huge extremes in joy and grief and endure lots of crushing responsibilities, and many of them are directly responsible for other people's lives. That's fucking nuts- in comparison, when I fuck up a deploy, it sucks but no one ever dies.

What Doctors Feel is a very raw, very honest look at what doctors feel in the everyday practice of medicine, and provides very good insight into how tough it is to be a doctor. A lot of what she says is definitely not very new, but she tells it in a very real way that I really admire, sharing tough, honest stories about the mistakes she's made and the patients she's cared deeply for but ultimately lost. 

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas

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The Hate U Give is a YA novel about a young black high school student Starr, who witnesses a white policeman shoot and kill her unarmed childhood friend Khalil. Stuck between the poor black neighborhood she lives in and the fancy suburban school she attends, Starr is the only witness besides the policeman to the event, and wrestles with her fear of danger and her desire to speak out for justice.

The Hate U Give is important, topical, and necessary, because it is impossible for me, someone not in the same situation, to truly understand the lived experiences of people who feel the same anger, fear, and frustration Starr and her community feel. The best and really the only substitute is listening, trying to be open to learn and to acknowledge the realities of the situation and how they feel. Angie Thomas says

 I look at books as being a form of activism because a lot of times they'll show us a side of the world we may not have known about.

and she does such a fantastic job with The Hate U Give, tackling a bunch of tough subjects in a very real and honest way. The book never feels preachy or moralistic; instead she uses characters and dialogue to make complicated ideas and topics accessible. I particularly like the conversations Starr has with her dad about T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E. (The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody), and what form the hate given to the oppressed takes. On top of all that, The Hate U Give is just a good book. It deftly balances its political and social commentary with humor, fun characters, and a really beautiful family dynamic, thoughtfully addressing the heavy shit while remaining a very accessible & realistic read. The characters are varied and human, the corny bits in the story fit well and are very satisfying, and the book has a distinctive and natural voice.

At times it was frustrating and painful to read the book, and I was reading it at home or in a coffee shop. This is not my life, so I am grateful to any book that can expand my horizons and help me understand.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking - Samin Nosrat

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Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat is a cookbook split roughly into two parts: the latter a more traditional cookbook with recipes, and the former lessons on how to cook. These lessons are organized into roughly four sections, each addressing an element of good cooking: Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat. 

I don't really cook, so it's kind of weird that I read a cookbook, but I really enjoyed Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat because Samin has such a strong model for good cooking. She explains the science and the why's behind the techniques, and emphasizes understanding these elements to allow freedom and flexibility in the kitchen. In Samin's model there are four main elements of good cooking: salt enhances flavor, fat carries flavor, acid balances flavor, and heat is applied at the right level and right rate so that the surface of the food and its interior finish cooking at the same time. Once you understand these concepts, build a strong model, and know what results you want, you can use ingredients and apply techniques to achieve them. You keep pies cold to create flaky pastry, you cook water out to make food crisp, you eat cranberry sauce to counter rich Thanksgiving meals, and you salt cookies to bring out the sweetness; behind all of these techniques is salt, fat, acid, and heat.

I found her approach especially cool because a lot of these ideas apply to good programming. There's a course online called The Programmer's Stone that discusses what distinguishes effective engineers, and in the first lesson, focuses on the idea of "mapping" vs "packing." Packing is collecting information as a storehouse, contrasted by mapping, which refers to storing, analyzing, and breaking down information in order to build a map of the world. What Samin does so effectively and clearly in Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat is distill 15 years of cooking experience into a very strong and generalized map, and by sharing that, helps elevate how I appreciate and create food. 

The design of the book is lovely- instead of using pictures, Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat is filled with illustrations of food, serving as both a reference and a reminder to not try to follow the cookbook too strictly. Samin is also a good writer. She explains the techniques and defines the terms clearly, and paints a vivid picture of her experiences traveling, eating food, and working in the kitchen. She very obviously loves cooking and it makes reading the book a lot more exciting and fun. 

Also if you just wanted to read a helpful cookbook the book is very educational, and I learned a bunch of random cooking facts & cooking techniques, like the difference between table salt, kosher salt, and fleur de sel, what "browning" is and how to achieve it, and how to "sweat" vegetables. The recipes in the second half also look pretty good and there are a lot of different ones that are supposed to complement the earlier lessons, although I haven't tried any of them yet.

Mother Night - Kurt Vonnegut

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Mother Night is the fictional memoirs of Howard Campbell Jr., an American playwright who moves to Germany and becomes a Nazi propagandist during WWII. Now in prison in Israel to be tried for war crimes where he is writing his memoirs, Campbell is actually secretly (not a spoiler, revealed really early on) an American spy recruited by the U.S. War Department, and his speeches/ radio broadcast all contained secret information sent to the US.

This book is interesting because I think it extends one of the key themes in Vonnegut's works. We all have to tell lies to accept and tolerate being human, but Mother Night is centered on the importance of the lies that you choose. Campbell pretends to be a Nazi and does his job so convincingly well that not only does no one believe he is actually an American spy, his work inspires thousands of racists and Nazis and convinces them of the righteousness of their beliefs. (-- spoilers --) Kraft is a communist Soviet Union sleeper agent, sent to undermine the US, but likes to paint and genuinely cares for and loves his friend. Resi is complicit in Kraft's plot and pretends to be Helga (his wife)'s sister, but she genuinely loves Campbell, so much so that she dies for love. (-- end spoilers --)

All of these people are defined by their actions and what they pretend to be. We all cling to something, and it turns out that the lies you believe in define not just what you do but who you are. To pretend to be what you are not is not the sin, because everyone participates in some farce to get by- the real crime against yourself is picking the wrong thing to pretend to be. 

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater - Kurt Vonnegut

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God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is the last Vonnegut of the month! It is the story of Eliot Rosewater, a millionaire & the legal steward of the Rosewater fortune who develops a social conscience, leaves his glamorous city life, and establishes the Rosewater Foundation in Rosewater Indiana where he goes to "love these discarded Americans, even though they're useless and unattractive." Eliot's drunkenness, his poor relationship with his wife and his father Senator Rosewater, and his unbridled generosity for the poor make him appear mentally ill, to the joy of Mushari, a lawyer who wants to prove Eliot insane and give ownership of the foundation to his poor cousins, taking a big cut in the process.

Eliot Rosewater is unlike any other Vonnegut character because he is good. All other Vonnegut characters are flawed in some ways- even the good guys & the titular heroes are sometimes selfish, indifferent, stupid, and powerless. On the other hand, Eliot's only flaw is being sane in an insane world, being the only one to truly care about the discarded and the downtrodden of America. He is amazing because he gives up "everything a man is supposed to want, just to help the little people," shedding his big fancy family, his beautiful wife, his bright future, and his money to give love freely to those who can receive it from no where else and from no one else. 

"A Sum of Money is the leading character in this tale about people," and the book is about how we are as a society dominated by money, and how as we grow more and more industrial and capitalist, we continue to "hate all those who will not or cannot work." What Eliot does, "to give that kind of love over a long period of time", is extraordinary but not impossible, and it is a personal choice we all have to make. Especially in the current political climate where many political issues are fundamentally moral issues, we each must decide "love people who have no use," and if we can "find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings." We must decide if we can give uncritical love, and if we can "learn to love and help whomever we see."

Here is this idea, summed up beautifully in a baptism speech:

’Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—: " ’God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ "

The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor - Howard Marks

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Chairman and cofounder of Oaktree Capital Management, Howard Marks is known for his Oaktree memos to clients where he details his investment strategy and thoughts on the market. In The Most Important Thing, he distills his investment philosophy built from years of investment experience and study into 20 chapters (really 19, the last is a summary), each titled "The Most Important Thing is..." and explains one important idea in investing. 

The Most Important Thing has very few specific, actionable tips, focusing mainly on sharing his investment mindset and model and reinforcing the important concepts in investing. This is particularly useful because Marks breaks down his thoughts and opinions very well, expressing complex things in a very clear and witty way. His writing style is good and the basics merit emphasis, but the book is way too repetitive- he says it, then quotes it in a past memo, then says it again, then again, and then again in another chapter. It's good if these concepts are new or unfamiliar, but I think the book could be 40% its length without losing any of its message.

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's only book, is about a beautiful young man in Victorian era England and the full body painting his friend Basil Hallward does of him. Beautiful and pure, the eponymous Dorian Grey is struck by the youth and beauty of the painting, and laments that his beauty is fleeting while the painting will endure, wishing that they could switch places. His prayer comes true, and as Dorian explores even more vices and indulgences, Dorian in the painting becomes older and uglier, absorbing and reflecting his age and sin while Dorian himself maintains his youthful energy and charm.

The premise of the book is really cool and the story has a really cool ending, but man the rest of the book was hard to read. I think it may be because I just spent a big chunk of my month reading Vonnegut, but The Picture of Dorian Gray felt so stuffy and boring. The book gets bogged down by a lot of unnecessary detail and really long dialogue, and it takes almost 100 pages in a 184 page book literally named after the painting for the painting to start changing. The characters were also terrible in character and as characters. Lord Henry and Dorian Grey, two of the three major characters, are both fucking terrible and terribly boring people, and more than half of the book is just Lord Henry jacking himself off and talking about how witty he is or dropping cynicisms or Dorian alternatively obsessing over himself or justifying the latest fucked up thing he did- all of it in what felt like excessively flowery language. It is basically just two pompous and vain assholes talking. 

Again, this might be all the Vonnegut I read this month, but I think The Picture of Dorian Gray would've been better as a short summary of one of Kilgore Trout's science fiction books.

My Favorite Thing about Kurt Vonnegut

My favorite thing about Kurt Vonnegut is that he is simultaneously the greatest cynic and the greatest humanist. 

I've read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut this month (Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle, Player Piano, Breakfast of Champions, Mother Night, The Sirens of Titan, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater) and a lot of his works are centered on the same couple of pessimistic, depressing themes: the lack of free will and choice in the universe, the immense stupidity, selfishness, and violence of man, and the dangers of blind faith in technology, in religion, in anything.

This obviously lends itself to fairly bleak books. In Cat's Cradle, an indifferent scientist, his foolish children, and a selfish dictator cause the death of most of the world's people. In Breakfast of Champions, a rich white man goes on a rampage in a society where the poor and the minorities are oppressed. In Player Piano, people live in a dystopia where most find their meaning and purpose replaced by machines. In The Sirens of Titan, the entire human race is manipulated for centuries to deliver a replacement spaceship piece to a machine of another race on Titan.

Reading Vonnegut can be tough sometimes, but running counter to that in most of his books is a glimmer of hope and beauty and an assertion that life is still worth living and people are still worth loving. I first noticed this in The Sirens of Titan, and in my month of reading, thinking, and writing about Vonnegut, I realized he also says the same thing in his other books. Despite the soul crushing relentlessness of his books, that is what makes reading Vonnegut so rewarding and so rejuvenating, and it is a reflection of what I think is the best part about Vonnegut's books.

I am not saying that this thing is an absolute good. It would be a flagrant and complete misread of Vonnegut's works to think that his message is to find that pure, truthy, good hope, and hang on to it as a buoy in a sea of shit, because some of it, or even all of it, might just be a total fucking lie. Edgar Derby, Boaz, Bokonon, Newt, Rezi, Proteus, Eliot, all the heroes, all the real characters in his books, are just as stupid and just as shitty as everyone, live in the same terrible world as everyone does, and are just as powerless in a universe that doesn't give a fuck. Vonnegut knows this, and he writes about this in his books. The epigraph of Cat's Cradle declares the book and Bokononism a foma (a well intentioned lie). Boaz's discovery of love in The Sirens of Titan is dimmed by the fact that he loves semi-sapient organisms that feed on music and is planning to live in a deep cave in Mercury. The idea that at our core we are bands of light despite being wrapped around a machine of meat is delivered by a fool in Breakfast of Champions, an artist described as a "vain and weak and trashy man." 

Vonnegut knows that this is a foolish thing to believe, that just like everything else, this hope of something that isn't bullshit could be, and might even very likely be, complete bullshit- and that's ok. It is the existence of this hope that is important, not the veracity of it, and that glimmer is a uniquely beautiful and human thing. This message is even more impressive because bearing the weight of all this, Vonnegut delivers his message through writing characters that still have a shred of dignity and nobility and decency. 

In The Sirens of Titan the main character Malachi Constant is sent to Mars, has his brain wiped multiple times, gets sent to and lives in an underground cave in Mercury with another soldier, forgets his wife and child, gets exiled from Earth to Titan, and literally strangles his best and only friend to death with his bare hands unknowingly. This stuff is just fucking relentless. What's amazing about Vonnegut is that he truly, seriously believes that the world is shit, that man is vile, that we are nothing but powerless machines with no free will, and yet can still write stuff like

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'
(God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater)

still think

We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.
(Timequake)

and still believe that

A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved. (The Sirens of Titan)

That's a man who has faith in people, and it makes me feel like it's ok for me to too.

Books of November 2017

佐賀的超級阿嬤  - 島田洋七

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My Chinese has been getting a little rusty recently so I wanted to reread some Chinese books to practice a little. This is why there are more Chinese books in this month's review, most of which are rereads from a while ago.

佐賀的超級阿嬤 is the autobiographical story of 昭廣's childhood years in 佐賀. After 昭廣's dad dies in the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing, his mom struggles to simultaneously work and take care of 昭廣, so she sends him to live with his grandma in a small town in rural Japan. Their family is poor, struggling to put food on the table type poor, but his grandma is this incredibly positive woman who with a lot of ingenuity and dignity raises 昭廣. In the book, 島田洋七 shares stories about his grandma, his friendships, his teachers, and baseball, and 佐賀的超級阿嬤 is full of funny stories like how 昭廣 unknowingly stole oranges from his crush's house only to gift the same oranges back to her, interspersed with a lot of heartwarming stories like how his teachers would always feign stomach aches on field day as an excuse to swap bentos with 昭廣 to cheer him up because his mom couldn't come see him compete or how his grandma took out a 10,000 Yen note to buy 昭廣 spike shoes the day he became baseball captain.

The star of the book by far though is his grandma. Creative and resourceful, his grandma walks around the island with a magnet tied to her back to collect scrap metal, gets groceries from the river floating produce from the upstream supermarket, and encourages 昭廣 to run as a free alternative to kendo or judo, and then later to run without shoes to avoid wearing them out. Despite having to struggle month to month, she lives life very bracingly, and the book is full of her small wisdoms & sayings like "我們家是窮得開朗". Her positive mental attitude is amazing, and even with little, she gives very freely, and she is never ashamed or apologetic for their poverty.

佐賀的超級阿嬤 is a cute story, and pretty light in style (vocabulary too) and content, but there were two parts of it that I remembered and was particularly impactful from years ago. One is the idea of 活得燦爛, (living positively) embodied by his grandma, and the other is the idea of 體貼 (thoughtfulness) being invisible, that the greatest level of care and support is the invisible kind, where the recipient isn't even aware. In the book, the stories of 昭廣's teachers swapping his bento on field day, and a tofu seller breaking perfectly good tofu as an excuse to sell tofu for cheaper are good examples of that. I didn't realize it then, but looking back the latter especially was actually a pretty big influence on how I viewed charity and generosity and kindness. 

Ship of the Dead - Rick Riordan

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Ship of the Dead is the last book in Rick Riordan's trilogy Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. The series is based on Norse mythology, and its plot revolves around eiherjar (dead heroes brought to Valhalla) Magnus Chase and his friends trying to stop Loki from starting Ragnorak by sailing out in his ship of the dead made from the nails (not metal ones, toes and fingers) of the dishonorable dead. Norse mythology is hardcore. 

Like his other 20 books that he churns out at an insane cadence, this book is good. I have no idea how he does it but every couple months he just pumps out quality books and every few years he starts a new equally entertaining series. They are all good books and they're all written well and all the characters are great and they're well researched and the story is a lot of fun. Rick Riordan is just a quality author. 

I've expressed this opinion before, but I think what really sets him apart and contributes heavily to his popularity is the human element of his books, i.e. how well thought-out his characters are in motivation and in background. The characters were especially good in this series (my favorites were Jack, the talking Sword of Summer, and Magnus's friends Blitzen the fashionable dwarf and Hearthstone the mute elf rune magician). I think this is partly due to the rife opportunities provided by the gory hardcore nature of Norse mythology, because almost every character has a sad and brutal background story (for example, rune magic requires you to empty yourself and give yourself fully, so Odin spent 9 days and 9 nights hanging from a branch of Yggdrasil (the world tree) with his spear piercing his side looking down into the Well of Urd), and partly due to how diverse his characters are. Alex Fierro is probably one of the first gender fluid characters I've encountered in any book, and he/she is written really well and actually integrated into the story (he/she is a daughter of Loki and a shapeshifter).

At this point I am probably going to stop writing multi paragraph Rick Riordan reviews, because like the McDonalds breakfast menu, all of them are pretty consistent and all of them are pretty good.

Team Ben: A Year as a Professional Gamer - Christopher Fabiszak

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Smash is one of those games that I just never got into. My Smash strategy is the same as my basketball strategy: I do the same thing over and over again and hope it works eventually, which in execution means picking Falco every game and just spam falcon punch constantly until someone accidentally drifts into my path. I know really little about competitive Smash except that it is very micro intensive and the levels of skill are very clearly delineated.

That's why, on recommendation from my friend Brian, I read Team Ben, a pretty short read about the Smash community and an autobiographical recount of pro player Wife's competitive Smash experience. Chris played in Team Ben as part of a duo called The Newlyweds (his partner Husband played Marth, and he played Peach in a white dress, hence the name Wife). I found the sections of the book explaining what makes Smash a difficult game, how high level competitive Smash play works, and the history of the scene the most interesting parts of the book. He participated in what's called the Golden Age of Smash when Smash was starting to get a lot more visibility and sponsorship, and started in the scene even earlier in more local communities. It was cool to read about the experiences he had being a part of Smash when Smash was getting its most external popularity, but stylistically the book is pretty meh. It is a fairly short read though (100 pages or so) so if you're interested in Smash you will probably also enjoy this book.

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel - Tom Wainwright

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I listened Tom Wainwright's Econtalk podcast a few months ago, really enjoyed it, and saw this book in a bookstore so decided to give it a shot. I realized while reading this book that a lot of my favorite non fiction I've read this year are books about economics being applied to different fields, like the book on water scarcity and water economics also from another Econtalk guy (I should listen to more Econtalk...). Narconomics looks at the drug industry as a big business, and in particular spends a lot of time analyzing cartels. It is full of really interesting stuff evaluating our current policies and suggesting better economic solutions, and changed my perspective and opinion on the topic of drugs and regulations, which is an awesome outcome from reading a book.

Before sharing some of what I learned from the book, a quick note on style:
I love his style. It's clear, well-written, funny, easy to understand, and his introductory hooks actually lead somewhere and have some kind of related meaning to his points, which is a real blessing in non fiction. The book is also very well organized & divided into clear sections, each examining a different part of the drug business. 

Some stuff from the book that I liked/ found interesting:

  • There is overwhelming focus on limiting the supply of drugs, when economics suggest that cutting demand would make more sense. The demand for drugs does not drop much with the culling of its supply, and limiting supply actually makes the price of the drug market go up, and as transporting and making drugs becomes even more dangerous and expensive, only the most dangerous and well funded cartels can participate in the drug business. An analogy he makes that I really like is with art. Paintings are much much more expensive than the paint used to create it, just like a drug like cocaine is much much more expensive than its raw materials when it gets to the consumers. Destroying supply of raw materials is about as effective as restricting paintings by destroying paint. 
    • The inelasticity of demand for illegal goods and services has two worrying implications for a policy that focuses on supply. First, it means that even big successes in forcing up the cost of drugs (or coyote crossings, for that matter) translate to only small victories in what counts, namely, the number of people buying the drugs (or crossing the border illegally). Governments are thus condemned to invest large amounts of resources in return for only meager gains. Second, large increases in price coupled with only small decreases in demand mean that with every enforcement “success,” the value of the market increases.
  • A chapter I liked a lot focused on the legal highs industry in New Zealand. Drugs are hard to bring into New Zealand, so synthetics are much more common and popular there, where regulation has struggled to squash new, slightly tweaked, even more dangerous synthetics. Wainwright uses this chapter to illustrate the misaligned incentives that drive manufacturers to produce even more dangerous drugs to escape regulations instead of working to provide a safer product,
    • At the moment, they are driven by the need to synthesize new varieties that avoid existing bans, with little care for whether the resulting product is safe. Under a regulated market, the incentives would be different. Manufacturers would have a powerful motive to perfect (and patent) drugs that were less harmful and more satisfying to customers.
  • Narconomics ends with Wainwright highlighting four common mistakes governments make in regulating drug usage, like mistaking prohibition for control, and emphasizing prohibition over prevention, and he suggests in a very convincing argument that all drugs should be legalized. 
    All the chapters in the book suggest that current policies are ineffective, and instead of treating drugs like a moral issue ("drugs are bad so ban them!") instead we should look at the realities of the situation and think about how we can really provide an effective solution.
    • The boring but unsurprising truth is that it costs less money to get someone off drugs and into a job than it does to chase that person down in a BearCat.
    • But everything that this book has described about the drugs trade—from its roots in South America to its traffickers in the Caribbean, and from its consumers in Colorado to its retailers in cyberspace—points to the conclusion that if you really want to get drugs under control, to put the cartels out of business and protect the public, prohibition is not an effective way to do it.
    • The case now most often made for legalizing drugs is not that drugs are safe—it is that they are dangerous, and that bringing them within the law is a more effective way to control them than leaving them to the mafia.

As a final side note I also really respect what he did to research this book. Investigative journalists are in general just pretty insane people doing crazy brave things for the sake of sharing knowledge with the world, and that is to me very very admirable.

侯文詠極短篇 - 侯文詠

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This is the second of my get-better-at-Chinese books this month. My sister Jessica bought this book a few years ago and I think I last read this book late middle school or early high school. The format of this book is really interesting, and I haven't seen anything else like it. 侯文詠極短篇 is a collection of super short stories that people have shared with the author, some of them just a few pages long and a couple only a few paragraphs. A lot of them are punchline based, and are just outrageous and funny in a very Roald Dahl-esque fashion (although without the darker elements). 

Reading 侯文詠極短篇 feels very similar to sitting with your friends trading interesting and funny stories. A lot of them I genuinely laughed out loud at, but what I liked the most is that he manages to capture in his stories what I think is a really representational slice of being Taiwanese and living in Taipei. Most of his stories and the people who tell them are just so quintessentially Taipei in content and style, and he captures a very Taiwanese mix of earnestness and resignation and sarcastic wit. The only other artist that I can think of that does something that feels similar is Duncan and his comics. 

As a side note, I am pretty interested in writing a book or a collection of short stories in a similar format, so if you have any funny or insightful short personal stories please come tell them to me.

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace

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My review of Infinite Jest is here.

等一個人咖啡 - 九把刀

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I borrowed this book from my Chinese teacher almost a decade ago and never returned it :p. I'm not 100% sure, but I think this book has the unique distinction of being the book that I've read the most times. I've read it through cover to cover at least 10, 15 times, and read bits and pieces of it probably over 20 times. 
I really really love this book and now that I'm reading it again a few years later I'm realizing just how formative this book was to me in terms of how I saw and understood my friendships and my romantic relationships. 

等一個人咖啡 is about this high school/ college girl who works at a coffee shop, has a crush on a really good looking and smart dude, but also has a really close guy friend. The friend takes her around 新竹, and together they meet weird people (like a mafia boss who really likes watching movies, an ex 5 star restaurant chef turned laundrymat owner, a self claimed "human body magician" who can blow milk through his nose without drinking any, etc.) and they just in general do really fun and interesting things together.

The primary reason why I really liked this book is because it's so damn cute, and there are so many amazingly well-written short background stories to each of the characters that by themselves would be phenomenal short stories. All the characters are so fun, so endearing, and I want to be friends with all of them. I really appreciated how they interact and got to know each other, and I think that was a big reason why the book had such a large influence on me, because it prompted me to think about meeting new people as an exploration. It made me excited and feel more open minded about meeting new people, to try to find and appreciate what makes people weird and unique, and that was definitely very good for me. 

The second big influence that I'm not sure were as healthy for me is the romantic parts of the book. The book talks a lot about destiny, of stories being "written," of things being already set romantically ("有些事,一開始就已經決定好了,努力是沒有用的"), ideas which appealed a lot to me when I was younger. I think its unrealistic representation of relationships fed my equally unrealistic notions of romanticism unhealthily, although to be fair, I'm not sure how much the book can be blamed versus just being a teenager. It is still a lovely story, written very well with super great characters, and I adore the book, enough that I thought it was worth my time to read it literally dozens of times in my life.

Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works - Ash Maurya

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In Running Lean, Ash Maurya discusses his strategy for vetting product ideas and his process for building successful products. This book is a pretty good supplement to the more philosophical and higher level The Lean Startup and provides some very concrete, actionable advice, but I think for that reason I didn't like the book as much.

The good parts of the book:
- It is very easy to understand
- It is short & to the point (a rare blessing in these types of books)
- It is well organized
- It has some decent case studies and concrete examples/ advice

The bad parts of the book:
- I didn't learn that much more than what I got from The Lean Startup, but maybe the book will be more practical if/when I actually start a business?
- This is a very subjective opinion, but this book was not that interesting
- The cover is really terrible. What kind of O'Reilly book doesn't have an animal? 

The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed - Shea Serrano

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A birthday gift from my roommate Greg, The Rap Year Book is a top five non fiction of the year for me. From 1979 to 2014, Serrano picks the most important rap song of every year (not the best, which is a slight but important distinction). In his explanations & justifications for his choices, he covers a lot of history of rap, various trends in rap, and the innovative rappers who changed the scene, which I all found very interesting because I am pretty unfamiliar with a lot of stuff pre-2000s-ish. 

There are three things that make this book particularly outstanding. The first is that he is very knowledgeable and passionate about the subject. It is clear that he has been deeply involved in the music scene and has loved rap and followed it ardently for many years. He cares a lot about the music, listens to the music, and is undeniable a real fan of rap. He is very passionate about the songs, artists, and events he describes, and nothing is more interesting to me than someone who knows a lot and cares a lot about a subject.

The second is that he is such a great writer. I've been writing reviews since February every month, and the two parts I have the most trouble with are a compelling introduction to the book, and a distillation of what the book is about and what is really important about the book- Serrano does both of these things SO well. In every section, he very clearly articulates why he thinks the song is important, and how the song either epitomizes the apex of a movement or innovated an entirely new one. He is very conversational and casual, a deceptively difficult thing to do, so his style and voice come through very clearly, and I feel like I got to know him over the course of reading his writing. He marries the simplicity of his writing with an astonishing ability to explains complicated ideas eloquently, most evident in how he captures the artistry of rap (his piece on Dear Mama is incredible). Also, and at this point it seems unfair how great of a writer he is, Serrano is seriously funny.

The third is the incredible design of the book. Every chapter has art of the rapper, and every chapter has some kind of infographic or a style map, where he tags some lines in the song with an icon indicating certain traits/trends. I loved the infographic on Nas vs Jay Z, where he details famous rap rivalries and includes Lil B and Kevin Durant, Run-DMC and sucker MCs, and the infographic for Gold Digger, where he provides a helpful decision graph for determining if your girl is a gold digger.

This was an unbelievably enjoyable read, and to put the cherry on top, I enjoyed almost all of the songs he picked.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments - David Foster Wallace

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A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is another set of essays by David Foster Wallace. Very similar to Consider the Lobster in style and in content, this collection had a mix of commissioned journal articles and  essays presenting arguments and theories, on subjects like the influence of television on fiction, his experiences at the state fair and on a cruise trip, and his competitive tennis history. 

There's one particular essay in the collection that I think deserves special mention: E Unum Pluribus, his essay on how TV and fiction are connected. It definitely isn't the most interesting essay in the book, but more than any of his non fiction that I've read, provides his perspective on fiction that drives a lot of the fiction that he writes. I can't do his fairly complicated argument justice in a short summary, but in the essay he argues that fiction and TV are related through their use of irony, and laments the popularity of meta-fiction in fiction. Irony overused becomes a prison, and in the essay, DFW describes his aspirations to free fiction from the bounds of cool and hip indifference and bring back earnest, honest writing. This essay lays out his project really well, giving a sense of the type of fiction he wants to write, and helped me understand Infinite Jest a lot better.

I also really appreciate and admire how he thinks so analytically and perceptively about something really mundane and distill deep insight from it. His essays on the state fair and the cruise trip were so interesting, and made me want to be more aware of the things around me and write more about my personal experiences.

Also man I am so jealous of the people that got to sit on a cruise with DFW for an entire week and play ping pong and chess against him. 

The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View - Ellen Meiksins Wood

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The Origin of Capitalism is a political and economic argument about the history of capitalism, sketching out how far from being the natural and unavoidable consequence of technological advancement and economic freedom, capitalism is a historically specific and unusual development. I wanted to read this book because I share that view despite some misgivings about capitalism, so I thought it would be interesting to read.

I felt bad about giving up on this book because I usually quit on books only if I really dislike them for reasons of style or content. I quit on this book because while the subject is kind of interesting to me, the writing is so academic and dry I had trouble finding the focus to trudge through it. I might pick it back up some other day, but it reads like the stuff I had to read in CC.

The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind is the first book of the fantasy trilogy The Kingkiller Chronicles. As a rule I usually don't read fantasy novels, and I definitely don't usually read books where the name of the author is the same size as the title, and together they take up more than half of the book (see: James Patterson novels).

But The Name of the Wind is good. It does the standard fantasy novel very well in three different ways:

It hits all the cliches in a really satisfying way
The Name of the Wind has all the standard things that we love and expect in a good fantasy novel: the hyper-competent hero, an Orphan from the Streets who goes to a Super Special School of Magic and meets the Beautiful but Aloof and Unattainable Girl, investigates Ancient Mysteries and Scary Bad Guys (there are 7 of them, of course), learns magic (sympathy) from a Weird but Respected and Mysterious Master, etc.

It has impressive depth and consistency in a big story that takes place in a large world with a lot of characters
This becomes more obvious after you read the second book, but as the story builds, you see that Rothfuss is really careful and deliberate about the stories he tells and the names of things, and there are an abundance of interesting and unresolved mysteries in the book that remain consistent and meaningful. It is clear he's thought all of this stuff out before, and the small fragments of information and detail that Rothfuss slowly builds out over the course of the story weave into some bigger thread. The presence, or lack thereof, is what makes or breaks a lot of fantasy novels and contributes to bloat (see: book 4 of ASOIAF).

The writing is smooth and flows nicely, carrying the plot along well
My only gripe is how he uses foreshadowing. A lot of it feels heavy handed, like ending a chapter with an ominous future declaration ("I hope they enjoyed their final night of happiness together..."), and in my opinion is an effective but cheap cop out from building suspense. 

The book is long but goes really fast. The story is engaging and the characters are interesting, so if you're looking for something light and easy to read, this is definitely good bedtime material.

射鵰英雄傳 - 金庸

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This is the first book I've read by 金庸, although since then I've reread some of his works a bunch of times. 金庸 is the pseudonym of a very famous Chinese author, who wrote a bunch of wuxia novels that are very popular in China. References to his books in movies and books and TV shows are rife if you pay attention and know them (the best example for Western audiences is probably the masterpiece Kung Fu Hustle). 

Wuxia refers to a genre of Chinese literature about the adventures of ancient Chinese martial artists. Many of 金庸's novels explore the themes of Chinese nationalism and patriotism very strongly, and many of his stories are set during times of Chinese occupation by foreign forces, like the Song dynasty. 金庸 also refers very heavily to Chinese culture, and his books have references to Chinese philosophies and religions, music, art, poetry, history, weiqi, etiquette, Chinese medicine, acupuncture, etc. His characters are also heavily motivated and his stories heavily driven by traditional Chinese values, like filial piety, respect, honor, and Confucian hierarchical relationships.

射鵰英雄傳  is set in the Song dynasty, in the beginning of the Jin dynasty's invasion of Northern China. The story is centered around 郭靖 and his development as a hero and as a martial artist, as well as the Jin invasion and the growing influence and power of the Mongols led by Genghis Khan. 射鵰英雄傳 has such an exciting storyline and so many diverse characters, and honestly is some of the hypest shit I've ever read. This is doubly impressive because the book is so long (4 volumes in total) yet still ties together nicely, flows very smoothly, and constantly delivers on the hype.

One very frustrating part of the book is that most of the story's conflict is driven by misunderstanding and people being too proud/ stubborn/ rash. In many many parts of the story, if someone just took the time to think and find out what really happened instead of swearing a bloody vendetta and trying to beat up a bunch of people, the story would be a lot shorter and there would be a lot less need for all the fighting and dying.

These books are classics, so I would definitely recommend reading them if you can. I read them because I enjoy them but also to practice my Chinese, but I found the vocabulary pretty hard, and I had to search up about a word a page. I also had a lot of trouble with the poetry, the songs and the ancient Chinese in the book and a lot of it went over my head, although YMMV. 

And Every Morning The Road Home Gets Longer and Longer - Fredrik Backman

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And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer is a short novella about an old man with Alzheimer's who is struggling to remember his most important memories and learning to let go. This is a dreamy love story and goodbye to family and loved ones all in one short novella, and is a lovely distillation of Backman's charm and compassion. It was good, but Backman's strongest suit in my opinion is character development, and there was very little opportunity for that in <100 pages. The message was classic Backman, but I think it loses the strength from his other books without the support of a strong cast of characters.

The Wise Man's Fear - Patrick Rothfuss

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The Wise Man's Fear is the second book in the Kingkiller Chronicles. It's basically the same as The Name of the Wind, with some awesome differences:

  • It's longer.
  • The plot is more unique, and there are less cliched story points/ plot lines. I especially like the Felurian and the Ademre parts of the book.
  • There are a lot more details and stories, and the way they all fit together while furthering the mysteries and questions of the book is very impressive.
  • The writing is better (no more egregious use of foreshadowing).
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I gave up on this book because I disliked the writing style and didn't find the content of the book that interesting. They were more like a random collection of anecdotes rather than interesting insight or experiences about being a pornstar. The cover/design is very nice though, and she shares one of the best haikus I've read in a book before:

Home from Trader Joe's.
Was it there that en-tire time?
Dried cum on my neck

The Entertainment

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace

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My favorite book in the world is Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.

I am a DFW fanboy through and through, and I have not felt such great unstinting admiration for an author and a person in a super long time, maybe ever. I loved Consider the Lobster, I loved his speeches, and I loved his interviews, so I decided to pick up Infinite Jest earlier in September, which was a way bigger commitment than I thought it would be. I usually clip through books in a few days, maybe a week if it's an especially long read, but I spent 2 months, at least 30 minutes every day, beating my way through Infinite Jest.

This blog post is my review of Infinite Jest, and it is organized along the two dimensions that I think are the most important to the book: how brilliant and amazing and phenomenal and mind-blowingly addictive and great the book is, and looming equally large, how fucking insanely difficult it is to read. But before I get into that,

What is Infinite Jest about?

In an alternate world, the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have merged into a unified superstate known as the Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N. for short (lol). On orders of U.S. president Johnny Gentle, a star turned politician (lol) and a clean freak who campaigned on the platform of cleaning up the U.S., toxic waste is literally catapulted into the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada, rendering it an uninhabitable wasteland either devoid of all life or terrorized by herds of giant feral hamsters. 

The book mainly takes place in two locations, both in Boston: Enfield Tennis Academy, where students train in tennis and compete to attend The Show, and Ennet Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, where residents try to kick their drug addiction. Most of the characters in the book are either students in the academy or people living in the house.

There are four primary plot lines in the book, eventually interwoven:

  • The students that train and study at Enfield Tennis Academy
  • The addicts at Ennet Drug and Alcohol Recovery House
  • A fringe group of Quebecois terrorists, Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (The Wheelchair Assassins; A.F.R.) and their violent geopolitical coup, opposed by high level US operatives
  • The history of the Incandenza family, especially Hal, a brilliant student and tennis player

The thread that connects these four narratives is a film made by James Incandenza, founder of Enfield Tennis Academy and the main character Hal's dad. The eponymous Infinite Jest (also referred to in the novel as "The Entertainment" and the "samizdat"), the film is so entertaining to its viewers that they lose interest in everything but viewing the film until they eventually die. 

Why is Infinite Jest Hard?

The vocabulary:
DFW has an immense mental dictionary at his disposal, and somehow his fiction has even denser vocabulary than his non fiction. I'm not sure how much it adds to the book itself, but based on his speeches and his other works I think he actually does use words like "avuncular" and "uremic" in his everyday vocabulary. The vocabulary in this book is so ridiculous that someone compiled definitions for all of these words, page by page here.

The length:
The book is long, like hard to carry around and dangerous if dropped long. Infinite Jest is over 1000 pages, including footnotes, and the book is so unwieldy to read that some readers actually recommend cutting the book in three parts. Amazon sent me two copies of the book, so with an exacto knife I actually cut the book into three: one at page 531, the other at the start of the footnotes.

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The organization:
The organization of this book is best described as "aggressive." Eschewing chronological plot development, Infinite Jest is atemporal and jumps around from date to date seemingly randomly (although apparently it models the Sierpinski triangle) and his endnotes are insane. At one point in the book he puts entire chapters in the footnotes, and early on in an endnote (24), he details the complete filmography of one of the characters, James Incandenza. Each entry looks something like this:

“Fun With Teeth” - B.S. Latrodectus Mactans Productions. Herbert G. Birch, Billy Tolan, Pam Heath; 35 mm; 73 minutes; black and white; silent w/ non-human screams and howls. Kosinski/Updike/Peckinpah parody, a dentist (Birch) performs sixteen unanesthetized root-canal procedures on an academic (Tolan) he suspects of involvement with his wife. MAGNETIC VIDEO, PRIVATELY RELEASED BY LATRODECTUS MACTANS PRODUCTIONS

and this goes on for almost 20 pages, in tiny footnote font. This filmography is packed with references and details and several films directly foreshadow and mirror future events in the book, but the endnote is literally almost incomprehensible and painfully boring to read the first time you read it. 

The individual sections:
The chapters/ sections of the book are individually really hard to consume. Part of it is definitely because of the vocabulary, but mostly I think it is because as a fiction author, DFW feels no qualms about hosing you down. You know how the first time you go to class, the teacher usually spends some time going over the basics? The professor doesn't start a modern algebra class by immediately talking about groups and rings; he/she generally spends some time going over some basic set theory and easing you into the subject. DFW is completely not about that. Infinite Jest covers a million different topics, from media theory to optics to mathematics to tennis to complicated North American politics to drugs, and for each of these DFW just starts talking, with seemingly no regard for how much you know. On the first read, you have to grip desperate at every bit of knowledge DFW throws at you, hoping that you retain enough of it for any of it to make any fucking sense.

The overall map:
But by far the most significant obstacle is the book's map is very unclear, meaning that it is very hard to build out a mental model for what the fuck is going on section by section, let alone character by character, let alone general plot. There are just so many seemingly completely divergent and random plot lines and character backgrounds that are traced in back and forth and up and down that I felt not only lost but actually assaulted when I was reading this book. 

Why is Infinite Jest good?

So why is the book worth it? Hard things are only worth it if there is an equivalent or greater reward, but like yanking your teeth out one by one, there are a lot of difficult and painful things that yield pretty minimal reward. Infinite Jest is not one of them. The early pages are definitely rough, and up until page 150 or so the book is pretty much absolutely meaningless and profoundly confusing, and I can totally understand and respect the desire to give up before that. He remains pretty consistently abusive throughout the book, but it gets better around page 200ish and then progressively improves until it basically becomes your Entertainment, your samizdat. Even after spending 2 months on it, I feel like I've barely even scratched the surface of DFW's masterpiece and labor of love, and I barely understand the book or really appreciate its greatness.

The style:
The easy one to point out is his brilliant language and phenomenal style. He has a really unique way of writing, a really special DFW way of communicating that is clearly evident in his non fiction but shines through even greater in his fiction. 

The endnotes:
I love reading his endnotes. A lot of them are punchlines to jokes that I didn't even know he was setting up. 

The individual sections:
Especially early on, Infinite Jest feels a lot like DFW just saying some random shit and telling you random stories, which is actually by itself great because DFW is a genius, so you get these individual sections that are just brilliant stand-alone short stories or phenomenally profound essays. The story of Steve Erdedy preparing for a marijuana binge or Hal's essay on the modern hero are just tiny sections of the book, but by themselves they are better than anything I could ever hope to write.

The breadth:
This isn't to say many of his sentences aren't painful to read, but in between long moments of deep confusion there are flashes of insane brilliance and insight. While I was reading the book, I would often read a sentence or a passage and stop to think: "man, this guy is really smart." Part of the greatness of the book is that he hits on so many topics in such a deeply thoughtful way, and what makes his writing so special is that he looks at a small but common element of modern American life and thinks very deeply about it and then writes very beautifully and incisively about it. I have never read a better description of hip irony than:

“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human [...] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.” 

or a better argument for the importance of what we worship than:

“Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. 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.” 

or a more compelling reason to not watch porn than:

"Himself felt his jaw and pushed his glasses up several times and shrugged and finally said he supposed he was afraid of [porn] 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'd 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."

The book is full of this kind of stuff. He is an awe-inspiring writer and thinker.

The map:
A big source of pleasure from reading the book is figuring out how things connect, and DFW leaves plenty of satisfying hunts and clues. Separate sections constantly refer back to each other or connect in a surprising way, and the more you pay attention and remember details and people and events from earlier in the book, the more enjoyable reading the book becomes (for example, the Great Concavity/Great Convexity controversy). This becomes more clear as you read more of the book and start to see the references he litters liberally throughout the book, but this was most obvious to me when I was explaining a plot point that especially fucked me up to a friend. To set the context for that story, I had to explain a bunch of random stuff about inter Canada-US relations and tennis and filmography and geometry and addiction, and 10 minutes into my explanation I realized somehow I absorbed a lot more from his firehose than I realized. 

The motivation:
My favorite part of the book is what I think the book is about, but I'm going to skip that in this review, because it took me up to around 850, 900 pages to really start to have an opinion on what the book is about. For me a large part of the brilliance and beauty of reading Infinite Jest is the process of coming up with your own ideas of what the book is about, and I would hate to spoil that experience for you if you haven't read the book. If you have and want to talk about the book, please let me know; I'd really love to hear what you think!

I didn't realize this until I wrote out reasons for why I think this book is both difficult and so good and found there was a lot of overlap, but in my opinion the two dimensions of the book are deeply intertwined in a very significant and meaningful way, and the book would be much less richer without its difficulty. I think he writes fiction very much for the reader, and despite a lot of evidence otherwise, I don't think Infinite Jest is intentionally written to be difficult to read just to fuck you up. 

Should I read Infinite Jest?

The book is massive and takes a lot of time, but if you have the time and investment then yes, it is the greatest book I have ever read. The book gets a lot better around page 150 and picks up around page 200-300 ish when you pick up enough pieces to start understanding what the fuck is going on (it is no accident that page 233 is the "Chronology of Organizations of North American Nations' Revenue-Enhancing Subsidized Time, by Year"). It's like the folks in AA say in the book- it might not make any goddamn sense but Keep Coming Back, keep trying, keep paying attention, because by god, it works.

I am blessed by this book, and I am a different person after reading it. There are very few books that have so profoundly shown me new horizons.

Books of October 2017

The Autobiography of Gucci Mane - Gucci Mane, Neil Martinez-Belkin

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This was such a crazy book. The Autobiography of Gucci Mane tells the story of Gucci's life from his perspective, from his childhood to his successes as a rapper to his most recent arrest and release. In the book, Gucci shares his background as a super fucking hard dude from the streets, and his incredible music career, with all of its glamor and all of its shit. From a poor kid selling drugs on the street, he built up the Atlanta hip hop scene and had a huge hand in its widespread popularity now. His roots run so deep, and it was really interesting to read him casually name drop some huge artists he either worked with or personally brought up. A lot of the artists he brought under his wing he found way before any of their songs were popular, and so many people are connected to or indebted to him- Nicki Minaj, Migos, Waka, Young Thug, etc.

He's definitely done some pretty nasty stuff, some shitty and slimy stuff in the industry and in his life, but he's the first to admit his faults in the book. He had a tough life and grew up in some bad circumstances, but his hustle and work ethic are so admirable. He works so freaking hard- I tried to listen to a song he quoted in his book from 2008 on Spotify, and just couldn't find it, because he's made so many mixtapes and albums since then that scrolling through the 2010s took a solid minute.

He's also really turned himself around after his most recent arrest: he's apparently now a family guy, devoted to his kid and his fiance Keyshia, quit the drugs cold turkey, lost a ton of weight from working out and quitting lean, and still makes a ton of music. I really respect how much he believed in himself, and how dedicated he was to making music and furthering his craft. Recently, Rihanna posted this Gucci Mane meme:

 He looks INCREDIBLE. Team Gucci

He looks INCREDIBLE. Team Gucci

Sidenote: while I was reading the book, I realized an interesting problem with me learning most my stuff from reading- I tend to not really know the source material that well compared to a real fan. For example after reading this book I have a decent understanding of Gucci's background and his philosophy on work and his history as an artist, but I've only listened to something like 3 of his songs...

Here are some quotes that I really like from the book:

  • On trap music:
    "Trap music. To some it’s the subject matter. Stories of serving fiends through burglar bars. To others it’s a style of beatmaking. Shit, today there’s a whole audience of white kids who think trap music is about popping molly and going to a rave. In a way it’s all those things. But when I think about trap music I think about those early days in Zay’s basement. When I would go over early in the morning after a night spent juugin’ in my neighborhood. When Zay would mix our songs and he didn’t even know how to mix. The whole process was crude and unrefined. What we were making wasn’t radio-ready and definitely not destined for the charts. When I think about trap I think about something raw. Something that hasn’t been diluted. Something with no polish on it. Music that sounds as grimy as the world that it came out of."
  • On Gucci's insane work ethic:
    • "It was a 24/7 operation with an open-door policy for any rapper or producer I fucked with to come be a part of what we had going on. I gave those boys hell whenever they tried to leave. Take a nap on the couch if you tired, I’d tell ’em. If one of the engineers got tired, I’d sit down and record Peewee or Thug myself. If you need a break from recording, let’s roll something up. Or pour something up. Or shoot some dice. Ain’t no need to leave the studio. The Brick Factory was some hippie commune shit. Outlaws playing by our own set of rules. A tale of true American counterculture."
    • "I hit up every DJ I knew and told them I wanted to do a mixtape with them. EA Sportscenter with Holiday, Mr. Perfect with DJ Ace, So Icey Boy with Supastar J. Kwik, Ice Attack with Dutty Laundry, WILT CHAMBERLAIN with DJ Rell, Gucci Sosa with DJ Scream, From Zone 6 to Duval with Bigga Rankin."
  • On Gucci's insane A&R:
    • "I already had a reputation as an A&R man—someone with an ear for new talent. My early involvement with Waka, OJ, Nicki, and Mike Will spoke for itself. But the Brick Factory was where I took an active role in grooming the careers of the next generation of young talent coming out of Atlanta. This was because one by one, all the young guns I’d taken under my wing at the Brick Factory were blowing up. My fingerprints were all over their music and they were making their reverence for me known."
    • "The other reason nobody broke artists in Atlanta the way I did was because my method didn’t make much sense on paper. An established recording artist, a multimillionaire, hanging out with twenty-year-old street niggas in a studio off Moreland in East Atlanta every day, that shit doesn’t add up. But for me it did. Because I always made myself accessible. No matter how much money I made or how famous I became, I was never able to withdraw myself from that world. That’s something that’s given me the reputation I have, but it’s something that’s had its drawbacks. Big ones."
  • On 2017 Gucci:
    "I remembered that as low as my lows had gotten, I always had faith in myself. That I always knew if I could get past those temporary moments, eventually I’d be up again. Jail couldn’t beat me. Lean couldn’t beat me. No situation could beat me. I was the only one who could beat me."

The Best of Roald Dahl - Roald Dahl

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I spent 2 months reading this book on and off, mostly because I kept getting distracted by other physical books and because the layout of this book is so brutal. The text is tiny and the pages are so flimsy it feels almost Bible-like. I thought I would really like this book, because I really enjoyed Skin, a collection of short stories also by Roald Dahl, but this felt like a superset of Skin with additional short stories that weren't as great.

Nevertheless, there were some interesting stories in there, and he definitely has a twisted fucked up mind. This collection supports my theory that good children's book authors are only a thin line away from being good at writing horror stories, and the storylines of children's books are a small hop from becoming horror stories. A lot of his stories take a similar form in content and style- many of them are about a setup (someone trying to con someone else), and then realizing in the end that they're the ones that got tricked. Most of these stories really come together only in the end, and the ending is the big reveal and the satisfying finish that makes these stories good.

Some of my favorite stories from the book were: Man from the South, Taste, Skin, Lamb to the Slaughter, Parson's Pleasure, Mrs Bixby and the Colonel's Coat, The Great Switcheroo, and The Wonderful Tale of Henry Sugar.

Born a Crime and Other Stories - Trevor Noah

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Born a Crime and Other Stories is about Trevor Noah's crazy childhood in South Africa. I honestly had no idea he had such a crazy past; the first time I heard of him was when they announced he was taking over The Daily Show from Jon Stewart, and after that I stopped watching The Daily Show. I thought he was just some British comedian, but the name of the book is not a joke and he was literally born a crime, born during apartheid when white and black people were not allowed to marry and have kids.

Besides the legality of his existence and the racism, Noah went through some pretty tough circumstances- growing up in poverty, raised by a single mom, living with an abusive stepfather, etc. His book shares a lot of his interesting thoughts on poverty traps and racism, especially as someone treated as a white man who thinks of himself as black. 

He's also very very funny- his stories about jail, going to the winter dance, selling bootleg CDs, and his brief meditation on pooping were all actually fucking hilarious, but more importantly, his description of his family dynamic, what it was like being colored in South Africa, and his views on racism and apartheid have that beautiful combination of humor applied to very serious topics without trivializing them that all great late night news comedians like Jon Stewart and Colbert share. 

On a quick sidenote: this is not really related to the content of the book or the author, but the book is also printed with really big words and huge margins, which I think its an under appreciated thing in books that is often hogged by children's books. Adults like margins too!!!

People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts - Robert Bolton

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People Skills, written in the 80s, is a collection of tips/advice/skills from Robert Bolton about interacting more effectively with people. This book has some useful information, but like almost every other book from this time in this category, the book is just so freaking unnecessarily long. Every author of this variety writes the same fucking thing 4 or 5 times and tops it off with a quote or two saying the same thing, and while I appreciate the summary he adds at the end of every chapter, I can't help but think that the summary is probably a more appropriate length for the chapter than the chapter itself. The other reason why I skimmed this book is because, also like every other psych/ business book from the 80s, they all write in the same rage inducing style. Every section

  • includes weird semi-related literary references, often to the Bible
  • abuses common idioms ("It takes two to tango, but it also takes two to tangle")
  • liberally uses some super scripted examples where people say stuff like "Oh darn!" or "Jolly good!"
  • adds a shit ton of quotes, mostly in the form of "as [famous person] said, [insert already repeated idea]"

At one point he literally uses a dictionary definition to open a chapter, something I haven't used or even seen since middle school. The only merit to this style is that these books tend to be very well organized, and its easy to understand if not very annoying to consume. I thought some of the book was helpful, but most of it was pretty formulaic and I haven't disliked a book so long in a while, but who knows... YMMV.

Auguste Rodin - Rainer Maria Rilke

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Rodin is my favorite artist ever, and my trip to the Musee Rodin in Paris last summer was amazing. I love his work because when you engage with his pieces you feel like Rodin has captured some fundamental essence of life and humanity, some painful and broken element and made it monumental and beautiful and dynamic in static sculpture. It is hard to accurately describe the sense of grandeur and weight in his works, but in Auguste Rodin, Rodin's friend and secretary Rilke (the poet) does a beautiful job of capturing a lot of what you feel when you look at a Rodin sculpture in his discussion of Rodin's work and development as an artist.

The book is pretty short, but still takes a while to read because Rilke's prose, while lovely, is also very dense.

Some quotes I really like from the book:

  • On the dedication of a great artist:
    "He possessed the quiet perseverance of men who are necessary, the strength of those for whom a great work is waiting."
  • On doubt, and the sureness of greatness:
    "At the moment when they began to doubt him, he doubted himself no longer, all uncertainty lay behind him. His fate depended no more upon the acclamation or the criticism of the people; it was decided at the time they thought to crush it with mockery and hostility. During the period of his growth no strange voice sounded, no praise bewildered, no blame disturbed him."
  • On completeness:
    "Hence his work was so invincible. For it came to the world ripe, it did not appear as something unfinished that begged for justification. It came as a reality that had wrought itself into existence, a reality which is, which one must acknowledge."
  • On the self containment of Rodin's work:
    "It must not demand nor expect aught from outside, it should refer to nothing that lay beyond it, see nothing that was not within itself; its environment must lie within its own boundaries."
  • On life distilled as art:
    "Here life became work; a thousandfold life throbbed in every moment. Here was loss and gain, madness and fright, longing and sorrow. Here was a desire that was immeasurable, a thirst so great that all the waters of the world dried up in it like a single drop. Here was no lying and denying, and here the joys of giving and taking were genuine and great. Here were the vices and blasphemies, the damnations and the beatitudes; and suddenly it became evident that a world was poor that concealed or buried all this life or pretended that it did not exist. It was!"
  • On the greatness of Rodin:
    "With his own development Rodin has given an impetus to all the arts in this confused age. Some time it will be realized what has made this great artist so supreme. He was a worker whose only desire was to penetrate with all his forces into the humble and difficult significance of his tools. Therein lay a certain renunciation of Life, but in just this renunciation lay his triumph, for Life entered into his work."

Diversifying Barbie & Mortal Kombat: Intersectional Perspectives and Inclusive Designs in Gaming - Yashin B. Kafai, Gabriela T. Richard and Brendesha M. Tynes

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Diversifying Barbie & Mortal Kombat is a collection of essays by various academics providing intersectional perspectives and research in gaming. I really enjoyed this book; I found it a very insightful read and I learned a ton from the book. Not all the subjects were that interesting or useful to me (like game design for sex education or college applications, how to organize gaming conferences, etc.) but the essays on GamerGate and intersectional feminism in gaming were really eye-opening. It was helpful in introducing me to some of these new ideas and giving me some new vocabulary to think and talk about this stuff. The writing is sometimes a little academic and dry, but in general the book is pretty accessible and easy to read, and it is very clear that the authors are very deeply involved and understand the gaming community (my favorite example of that was in an essay when the author quotes someone from an X-Box forum with the gamertag SheBangs123).

Some of the things I learned/ enjoyed from the book (there's a ton of good stuff here, I had to take out a bunch for the sake of length):

  • On Taking Play Seriously: while games on played out on virtual environments, games are a very real part of people's experiences and it is important to remember behind the summoner name, the gamer tag, the steam id, there is a very real person interacting with the game.
    • "But this popular cultural conceit, comprising a near-consensus view of the internet, transcending lines of class, ideology, nationality, gender, has led many people to become implicitly socialized into viewing actions taken online as somehow less real or otherwise lacking in serious consequences."
    • "The solution lies in asserting, more powerfully than ever, that the Internet is a real place and that avatars are us, a digital manifestation of our flesh and blood existence, a vulnerable form onto which we may project all that we are and hope to be, and which is thus lumbered with many of the same vulnerabilities as our physical selves."
  • On gamer gate and broadening our perception of "gamers":
    • "In this way, GamerGate is a death rattle of a dying regime. White male-presenting players were never the only consumer base for games nor the only important one, and even marketing these days cannot afford to solely cater to their fancy."
    • "There have always been women at the forefront of leadership in games. Many of these women have stood with their female finger in the dam of social outcry for greater regulation, legislation, and even censorship at times in our history when that position was massively unpopular and cost them politically and personally. Game enthusiasts ought to be grateful to them—and GamerGaters are right to fear them. This is no longer their industry anymore, if it ever was."
  • On the three waves of feminism in gaming:
    • "The first wave tended to focus on “how most games featured narrow gender stereotypes, how few games on the commercial market were of interest to girls and women, how female players wanted different gaming experiences, and how women were not a visible part of game production” During the second wave, the emphasis was on understanding sociocultural context, and the experiences of women who play and participate in gaming. In particular, scholars critiqued how women and girls’ preferences and motivations to play games were “unproblematically reported” as being linked to their supposed “natural” preferences for cooperation, non-violence and exploration. Now in the third wave, the current research on gender and game culture is heading toward understanding intersectional concepts like sexuality, ethnicity, race and class, and the nuanced experiences across gender, which includes revisiting how we define and study masculinity."
  • On the external barriers minorities feel in participating in games and gaming communities:
    • "when non-players are queried directly about their reasons for not playing a particular game, they provide answers that fall outside what would typically be classified as “personal choice”."
    • "an individual’s “lack of interest” is misread as a choice to not participate in gameplay and/or gaming cultures. And yet, as chapters in this collection have illustrated, dropping out or disengaging from gaming cultures is often far more complicated than what could be attributed solely due to “personal interest”."
    • "Violently silencing women, whether in The Odyssey or in Call of Duty, is as old as the hills."

And my favorite takeaway: "When you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum. —Leigh Alexander."

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Man I have been waiting for this book for ages. I started reading John Green's stuff in middle school, and I've really liked his stuff ever since. I think his books were more meaningful to me when I was younger, but I am still a fan; I still think he's a good writer and I like the topics that he chooses to write about. Turtles All the Way Down is about Aza, a young teenage girl suffering from OCD, and her search for her old childhood friend Davis Pickett's billionaire father.

I enjoyed this story as well, but I think it misses the epic element that made his books before so enjoyable. In The Fault in Our Stars it was their Amsterdam trip, in An Abundance of Katherines it was their uproariously funny hunting trip, in Looking for Alaska it was the prank; it didn't feel like there was a similar equivalent in Turtles All the Way Down. But the strongest parts of his books are always his characters (especially the best friends: Hassan, the fat, smart, unmotivated Arab, the short smart bookworm who goes by "The Colonel," the blind friend who loves video games and takes blindness in stride). Turtles All the Way Down is no exception, and features a strong and lovable cast. Like all of John Green's protagonists, Aza is funny, smart, caring, heroic, and also flawed in painful and deeply relatable ways (also Aza's best friend Daisy writes Wookie centered Star Wars romantic fan fiction). 

I really like how John Green addresses some important and painful topics in his books, and I think part of why his books had such a big impact on me was because he made these heavy complicated topics digestible for teenagers. His characters are so easy to understand and relate to that it's clear he thinks a lot about how to make his characters real. You don't need to be in love with 17 Katherines or to have cancer to feel very strongly for Colin or Hazel, and you don't need to have OCD to empathize with Aza- you just need to know the very human experience of feeling trapped with your mind in your body. 

On a side note I noticed while reading this book that he uses a particular writing technique over and over again: a description and/or observations, followed by a short but deep and profound statement. I used to really like it and those short statements would fuck me up but I feel like they've lost a bit of their appeal now.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

  • On enduring friendship:
    ‘Holmesy and Daisy: They did everything together, except the nasty.’
  • On self:
    “Nobody gets anybody else, not really. We’re all stuck inside ourselves.” “You just, like, hate yourself? You hate being yourself?” “There’s no self to hate. It’s like, when I look into myself, there’s no actual me—just a bunch of thoughts and behaviors and circumstances. And a lot of them just don’t feel like they’re mine. They’re not things I want to think or do or whatever. And when I look for the, like, Real Me, I never find it. It’s like those nesting dolls, you know? The ones that are hollow, and then when you open them up, there’s a smaller doll inside, and you keep opening hollow dolls until eventually you get to the smallest one, and it’s solid all the way through. But with me, I don’t think there is one that’s solid. They just keep getting smaller.”
  • On doubt:
    “There’s a moment,” she said, “near the end of Ulysses when the character Molly Bloom appears to speak directly to the author. She says, ‘O Jamesy let me up out of this.’ You’re imprisoned within a self that doesn’t feel wholly yours, like Molly Bloom. But also, to you that self often feels deeply contaminated.” I nodded. “But you give your thoughts too much power, Aza. Thoughts are only thoughts. They are not you. You do belong to yourself, even when your thoughts don’t.” “But your thoughts are you. I think therefore I am, right?” “No, not really. A fuller formation of Descartes’s philosophy would be Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. ‘I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.’ Descartes wanted to know if you could really know that anything was real, but he believed his ability to doubt reality proved that, while it might not be real, he was. You are as real as anyone, and your doubts make you more real, not less.”

The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses - Eric Ries

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The Lean Startup is Eric Ries's description of his Lean Startup Methodology of developing new products, designed to quicken the product development cycle by shortening what he calls the Build-Measure-Learn loop. I found this book surprisingly valuable given that I work at a pretty big company, but I think there's a lot of stuff in here that's relevant and useful even for people not working at traditionally defined "startups." Ries defines entrepreneur as anyone working to provide value in a space with a lot of uncertainty. This is not necessarily tied to size, but rather by problem space and the type of value you're trying to provide, so by this definition my team operates pretty similarly to a startup.

The basis of his methodology is in answering the question of how to build a valuable product in a space of uncertainty. Great engineering directed at the wrong product is a brutal waste of resources, and Ries argues that the best way to figure out what to build is to try a bunch of stuff, but try it intelligently. Think about what the key assumptions are, think about how to validate them through the correct metrics to measure success, and then think critically about what value the product is providing. All the tools and tips in the book in some way help tighten that feedback loop and are driven by the pursuit of validated learning. Even as an engineer not doing PO work, this book has a lot of great ideas for engineers to think about how to wear the product hat better. 

Like all books of this genre, the book is super well organized, and I especially liked how he precedes each chapter by ending the previous one describing the motivating problem of the chapter. He is also a pretty good writer, and actually varies his sentence structure, which is actually kind of rare for the business related books I've read. I also like how he uses a lot of concrete examples to help make his points clearer. My one gripe stylistically and content wise is that I hate books that refer to their ideas as a "methodology" or even worse, a "movement," and Ries is a little too cultish for my liking about the "Lean Startup Movement" that's poised to fundamentally transform the way we work and change the world forever.

But that's a small complaint and most of it is concentrated towards the end of the book. It's definitely worth a read and I liked it enough to actually buy a physical copy too.