Books of 2018

Another great year of books!! Thank you books!!

2018 in books:


I really ought to rename this shelf to be more descriptive because people always ask me what “the cream shelf” is, but by now the name is kind of stuck and I’ve already gotten used to it :-(. My rough criteria for putting a book in ‘cream’ is if the book either changes my opinion on something or changes my view of the world. Here are my 34 favorite books of the year that did that for me, along with a short description (link takes you to a fuller review, if you’re interested in more info):

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

  • 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 by Aldous Huxley.

  • 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 by ONE.

  • 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 by Dan Salvato. 

  • If you like magic and fantasy then read the entire Harry Potter series? But especially Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. If you haven’t read them yet I’m not sure if my one liner is going to help convince you though…

  • 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: A History of the Hip Hop Generation by Jeff Chang. 

  • If you like depressing short stories or if you’re interested in DFW’s project as an author or if you like his writing then read Oblivion by David Foster Wallace. It also has one of my favorite short stories in the world, Good Old Neon.

  • If you're interested in the goat shounen then read Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa.

  • 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 by Inio Asano

  • 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 by Jules Norton. 

  • 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: Food and the Making of Thai America by Mark Padoongpatt.

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

  • If you like Rick Riordan or if you like good characters and immersive modern day mythology then read The Burning Maze; it's so good and Rick Riordan is great.

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

  • If you are interested in cheap fashion and how it has affected the fashion industry (and the world) then read Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline.

  • If you are interested in learning how to appreciate ballet then read Celestial Bodies: How to Look at Ballet by Laura Jacobs.

  • If you are interested in short, funny, and occasionally thoughtful short stories then read One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak.

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

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

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

  • If you're interested in the process of self realization or the struggle between the world of illusion and the world of truth then read Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth by Hermann Hesse.

  • If you’re interested in a fuking great sequel to Beartown then read Us Against You by Fredrik Backman. Alternatively, if you’re interested in a gripping story and great characters about community, then read Beartown and then read Us Against You.

  • If you’re interested in art, loneliness, and art about loneliness then read The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing.

  • Everyone should read this book, but if you’re interested in how all struggles for freedom are interconnected, then you would like Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Davis.

  • If you like well written love stories with a lovely element of magic then read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

  • If you are interested in Augustan era Roman art (unlikely) or if you are interested in the power of art to influence society (much more likely) then read The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus by Paul Zanker.

  • If you are interested in why some things should not be for sale then read Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets by Debra Satz. Sometimes (and this is especially true with non fiction) the titles are pretty descriptive…

  • If you are interested in wonderfully moody short essays about desire and commodification and identity then read Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson.

  • If you are interested in how racial identity is developed (mostly in America) then read Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum.

  • If you are interested in the feminist movement in China then read Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China by Leta Hong Fincher, but honestly if you’re interested in feminism or in China it’s also really worth a read!!!

  • If you are interested in the loneliness and pain of a man divided between his human self and his wolf self then read Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse.

  • If you like Vonnegut or are interested in the problem of hopeless determinism, read Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut.

  • If you like Vonnegut or are interested in the possibility of art with meaning and soul then read Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut.

  • If you are interested in Asian economics in the 1970s, and in general how countries develop successfully, then read How Asia Works by Joe Studwell.

Some general notes on the year:

  • My nonfiction was a lot less focused this year in that they clustered less neatly into topics, but I did spend a lot of my year reading a variety of books on politics & economics & gender studies & ethnic studies that really changed my political views. Most of the non fiction books in cream fall under that category, and all of the books in that category are in this goodreads shelf.

  • I read a bit of Vonnegut again in December and will continue in January. I thought it would be a nice way to round out this year and start the next, and so far it’s been pretty fun.

  • I am hoping to read with less focus, so I don’t have any particular reading goals or specific genres/ authors I want to read for next year, although I’ll probably keep going through my current to-reads.

  • As always I greatly appreciate your recommendations!

  • My absolute standout favorites of the year are: Oblivion, Flavor of Empire, Celestial Bodies, The Lonely City, Freedom is a Constant Struggle, The Moral Limits of Markets, Tonight I’m Someone Else, and How Asia Works.

Books of December 2018

The Lonesome Bodybuilder: Stories - Yukiko Motoya

If you are into weird but weirdly normal short stories then read The Lonesome Bodybuilder.

The Lonesome Bodybuilder is a collection of short stories by Japanese author Yukiko Motoya, the first of her works translated into English. There’s weird, and then there’s “what the fuck did I just read,” and The Lonesome Bodybuilder falls squarely into the second category. In these eleven stories, a lonely neglected wife becomes a bodybuilder, a wife notices that she and her husband look more and more similar as time goes on, a saleswoman tries to find the perfect dress for a customer who won’t leave the fitting room… each of the stories surreal and sometimes disturbing.

What I think really sets the collection apart though is the weirdness never regresses to unintelligibility. What holds the collection together and makes it even more surreal is that they are all grounded in very normal, everyday domestic situations, like marriage or work. Motoya then carefully peels back the mundane to reveal a world that is bizarre and alien, imposing a weird normalcy on situations far from normal. Her style, unflinchingly calm and sober, is applied evenly to describing a newlywed couple and to describing a woman arguing with her husband, who is a literal scarecrow, while tiny musical instruments stream from his body. The writing is so cozy and domestic that while reading, I started to second guess myself. Am I the weird one here? Or is the story the weird one? From another lens, is my life just as weird as the people in these stories?

My favorite stories were The Lonesome Bodybuilder, Fitting Room, An Exotic Marriage, Q&A, and The Straw Husband. Some of my favorite quotes:

  • On confidence and individuality in relationships:
    I knew the reason. Living with my perfectionist husband had made me think that I was a person with no redeeming qualities. It hadn’t been like that before we were married, but gradually, as I constantly tried to compensate for his lack of confidence by listing all my own faults, I’d acquired the habit of dismissing myself.

  • On bodybuilding:
    “Of all athletes, I most respect bodybuilders, because there’s no one more solitary. They hide their deep loneliness, and give everyone a smile. Showing their teeth, all the time, as if they have no other feelings. It’s an expression of how hard life is, and their determination to keep going anyway.”

  • On shopping:
    In terms of reasons a customer might not come out of the fitting room, one possibility is that they’ve actually finished changing but the clothes are hopelessly unsuitable. It’s happened to me too: there are some clothes in the world that, the moment you put them on, make you feel so miserable you just want to smash the mirror in front of you as your reflection looks on in surprise. The kind of clothes that make you think, You’ve got to be kidding, and wonder if perhaps you’ve always looked like a clown, whether your entire life up until that point has been an embarrassing mistake.

  • On dependence:
    Men entered into me through my roots like nutrients dissolved in potting soil. Every time I got together with someone new, I got replanted, and the nutrients from the old soil disappeared without a trace. As if to prove it, I could hardly recall the men I’d been with before. Strangely, too, the men I’d been with had all wanted me to grow in them. Eventually, I’d start to feel in danger of root rot, and would hurriedly break the pot and uproot myself.

  • On the varieties of relationship woes:
    Your concerns when it comes to love are much less unique and interesting than you imagine. The majority are variations on the following: How can I get the person I’m interested in to talk to me? He’s having an affair. He won’t have sex with me! My boyfriend is an asshole. And so on.

Children of Blood and Bone - Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone is set in prehistoric Africa and is about a girl’s journey to bring magic back to the lands. The premise is kind of cool but really unoriginal, but nothing really sets it apart except for the names of the people, places, and the African gods. This could’ve really easily been the same story with the African elements removed, and I don’t think the story would really lose very much. The characters are also very poorly written, and their motivations for doing things are either nonexistent or nonsensical. I wasn’t really able to empathize or relate to any of the characters, and she alternates between the four main characters and their perspectives but you can’t tell who the narrator is without the chapter headers because they’re all written the same -.-

The Incendiaries - R.O. Kwon

If you are interested in the relationship between faith, love, and obsession then read The Incendiaries.

The Incendiaries is centered on two main characters that meet at college: Will, who transfers from bible school after he loses his faith, and Phoebe, still wracked with guilt over her mother’s death but keeps it a secret. Their relationship becomes strained when Phoebe gets drawn into a religious extremist cult, and Will struggles to “save” her and their relationship. I’m not sure I really personally vibe with the themes, but they were interesting. I understood the book to be mostly centered on faith and love, and specifically the similarities between obsessive love and religious fanaticism. Both have elements of giving yourself up in dangerous ways, and devoting yourself to the wrong temple is one of the most dangerous things you can do.

One of the standout things about the book is R.O. Kwon’s writing. Her descriptions in the book are very lush and powerful, and some specific phrases like “disheveled with morning” and “still so God-haunted” were very enjoyable to read. She does go overboard sometimes with her language, the starkest example I can remember being the scene when Phoebe and Will meet John Leal and she is describing the food. “Pink meat bled when I cut it open, the charred bits crunching like minute bones. A torn roll steamed; butter liquefied. Oil dripped, gilding white porcelain.” I was also often confused by the Will and Phoebe chapters and who was narrating, but I think that’s more due to me being bad at reading rather than R.O. Kwon being bad at writing :-(. The setup of the story was also nice— the important parts of the book plot wise happen pretty late, and most of the book is character exposition & slow buildup of tension, which is always very fun to read when done by a good author like Kwon.

She also replied to our twitter DM suggesting some questions for our book club discussion, which is really cool. Here are some quotes that I like:

  • On grieving:
    I noticed him crying, in the kitchen: I pretended I hadn’t. If he was grieving, I didn’t think he had the right.

  • On a strong opener:
    I asked Julian questions. He tried to reciprocate, asking about life before Edwards. No, I said. First, I have to know everything about you. I want all your secrets, Julian. Let’s start at the beginning. Big or small, what’s the first lie you told? I watched him smile, each wide tooth showing. It was like a picket fence swinging open: his smile invited me inside.

  • On losing faith:
    No loss occurs in isolation, and a side profit of the faith that I missed at times like this was how easily, while Christ shone in each face, I loved. If hatred cuts both ways, to forgive can be a balm, and I often missed, as I would a friend, the more tranquil person I now had no reason to be.

  • An example of good writing, and showing rather than telling:
    I sat in the apartment through morning: I took a bus to Michelangelo’s. Though I didn’t have a shift, I helped at the front until I noticed a five-top littered with used plates. I carried them back to the kitchen, spilling pesto on my shirt. I dropped a knife. I took the table’s busboy out back, and I yelled at him. I asked what the fuck he’d been thinking. Looking down, he muttered that it wasn’t his table. It’s Gil’s, he said, his childish face bagged with fatigue. I excused him. I left, riding the bus home again.

Steppenwolf - Hermann Hesse

If you are interested in the loneliness and pain of a man divided between his human self and his wolf self then read Steppenwolf.

My friend Trisha has very similar thoughts on this book but was much more articulate than me on them so I’m going to cop out of a real review by quoting her in entirety (with minor edits):

ok so like a lot of the books i like steppenwolf captures specific instances of the human experience that are quite transformative or fundamental (to some). so in the preface when the nephew says that the events are "tangible representations of intangible events" i really like that because it means that the events of steppenwolf are representations of spiritual feelings through physical acts that aren't realistic but are representative

for example, harry haller and hermine are jungian opposites (anima and animus) and while i'm not too caught up on the psychological facet of that representation, i think it fundamentally comes down to one of the "splits" that the personality has - both of which are very real parts of him

i like that at first haller thinks he has to either be the man or the wolf, but through his interaction with hermine he realizes that each individual is made out of infinite parts (a discovery that culminates in the magic room) because i suppose i relate quite a bit to that - there's this fundamental self but at the same time by sticking to one identity you lose out on other, sometimes paradoxical, identities that are worth something as well and that are part of you as well. there's the independent, 'wolfish' part of harry that desires to be away from the rest of humanity. then there's the part of haller that wants to be loved as a whole and feels attracted to bourgeois society, even though he is still skeptical of it. and hermine teaches him that this isn't two contradictory selves, but different parts of one self

steppenwolf to me is about seeing identity as something multidimensional and something not to be too fixated by. it's also about the phrase "learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest.” haller's really serious at first but he learns to loosen up and appreciate things in the world through hermine, who is meant to be the lighter part of his personality. he learns to appreciate mozart through the gramophone, he learns to dance, he learns to see the heroic in the every day. and so when he finally kills hermine, it's symbolic of the unification of his personality where he learns to not be a dichotomy or a split in any number of ways but a unified self. in a way, accepting paradoxes within, and he's conflicted about the division because he feels both

The only thing I have to add is while I was reading Steppenwolf I found myself getting drawn into Harry’s monologues because I also often feel a sharp division in myself and struggle with what I perceive to be the “wolfish” parts of myself, but then he would follow these passages up by saying Harry was stupid and the division was artificial, and fuck… he’s right… Sometimes I do think the whole thing is pretty juvenile, akin to being a middle schooler and sulking because you feel misunderstood. Is the Steppenwolf just an angsty puppy? Hesse wrote Steppenwolf in his 50s but I am not surprised at all that it has been enduringly popular amongst teenagers for decades.

Some quotes I liked:

  • On the division in the Steppenwolf:
    These persons all have two souls, two beings within them. There is God and the devil in them; the mother’s blood and the father’s; the capacity for happiness and the capacity for suffering; and in just such a state of enmity and entanglement towards and within each other as were the wolf and man in Harry. Their life consists of a perpetual tide, unhappy and torn with pain, terrible and meaningless, unless one is ready to see its meaning in just those rare experiences, acts, thoughts and works that shine out above the chaos of such a life.

  • On the artificial division:
    The division into wolf and man, flesh and spirit, by means of which Harry tries to make his destiny more comprehensible to himself is a very great simplification. It is a forcing of the truth to suit a plausible, but erroneous, explanation of that contradiction which this man discovers in himself and which appears to himself to be the source of his by no means negligible sufferings. Harry finds in himself a human being, that is to say, a world of thoughts and feelings, of culture and tamed or sublimated nature, and besides this he finds within himself also a wolf, that is to say, a dark world of instinct, of savagery and cruelty, of unsublimated or raw nature. Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two. His life oscillates, as everyone’s does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousand and thousands.

  • On dancing:
    She danced wonderfully and I caught the infection. I forgot for the moment all the rules I had conscientiously learned and simply floated along.

  • On lightness:
    I suspect you of taking love frightfully seriously. That is your own affair. You can love as much as you like in your ideal fashion, for all I care. All I have to worry about is that you should learn to know a little more of the little arts and lighter sides of life. In this sphere, I am your teacher, and I shall be a better one than your ideal love ever was, you may be sure of that! It’s high time you slept with a pretty girl again, Steppenwolf.

Timequake - Kurt Vonnegut

If you like Vonnegut or are interested in the problem of hopeless determinism, read Timequake.

Narrated by Vonnegut, Timequake's main character is Kilgore Trout, who also appears in many of Vonnegut’s other books. The eponymous timequake sends everyone from the year 2001 back to 1991, where they have to relive every decision they made and action they took in the last 10 years. As in all other Vonnegut books, style and how the story is told are just as important as the plot, and Vonnegut mixes past with present as the story moves through the timequake, jumping in between current day and timequake flashback freely. In typical Vonnegut fashion, he also goes off tangent very frequently, and adds small stories, weird tidbits, and stray thoughts, like plots of sci-fi books, the plot of the Scarlet Letter, and some psalms. Here, as in Slaughterhouse Five, the irregular time in the story allows Vonnegut to jump back and forth in past and present and in fact and fiction, slicing the story into irregular chunks where chapter breaks are just as significant as paragraph breaks. In most of these small stories, the characters are forced to remember and relive their bad choices, and when time finally jumps back to 2001, they are all rendered helpless by their apathy and their inability to exercise their will and change.

Some quotes that I liked (and man Vonnegut books always have so many):

  • On good art:
    I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, “The Beatles did.”

  • On the embarrassment of existence:
    It appears to me that the most highly evolved Earthling creatures find being alive embarrassing or much worse.

  • On being alive:
    “being alive is a crock of shit.”

  • On appreciation:
    He said that when things were really going well we should be sure to notice it. “He was talking about simple occasions, not great victories: maybe drinking lemonade on a hot afternoon in the shade, or smelling the aroma of a nearby bakery, or fishing and not caring if we catch anything or not, or hearing somebody all alone playing a piano really well in the house next door. “Uncle Alex urged me to say this out loud during such epiphanies: ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’ ”

  • On helplessness:
    “Listen, if it isn’t a timequake dragging us through knothole after knothole, it’s something else just as mean and powerful.”

  • On our purpose:

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

    • For Christ’s sake, let’s help more of our frightened people get through this thing, whatever it is.

    • I go home. I have had one heck of a good time. Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different!

  • On the purpose of books:
    Still and all, why bother? Here’s my answer: Many people need desperately to receive this message: “I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone.”

Holidays on Ice - David Sedaris

If you like David Sedaris’s writing style and particular brand of humor then read Holidays on Ice. I read it on the plane because I thought it would be a nice read and it was quick but be warned, it’s definitely not a normal heartwarming Christmas read :p

Bluebeard - Kurt Vonnegut


If you like Vonnegut or are interested in the possibility of art with meaning and soul then read Bluebeard.

Bluebeard’s main character is Vonnegut’s other alter ego and recurring character Rabo Karabekian, a painter who is also a minor character in Breakfast of Champions. In Bluebeard, Karabekian is a wealthy old man, twice married, who lives in a big house with just his friend. Part of the abstract expressionist movement, Karabekian became friends with several of the famous painters of the movement, and built a large collection of their paintings. Like other Vonnegut books, Bluebeard mixes fact and fiction freely, so it’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s not, and he specifically notes in the introduction that Bluebeard is not supposed to factually recount Abstract Expressionism.

In the book, Karabekian meets a woman Circe Bergman, who forcefully enters his life and makes him change. He starts to write his autobiography (which ends up being this book), and we learn his background. Son to two Armenian parents who escaped the massacre and came to America, Karabekian apprenticed under another Armenian painter, meets the abstract expressionists, makes a lot of failed paintings, and then through a series of accidents, fortune, and misfortune ends up mostly alone in this big expensive house in the Hamptons with lots of expensive paintings, and a potato barn with his final work locked away from anyone else to see.

What sets Bluebeard apart from Vonnegut’s other stories, besides Karabekian as the main character, are two stylistic things. He doesn’t hop around quite as much in Bluebeard as he does in his other backs, and although moves from past to present, the past generally progresses chronologically, and the flashbacks are all sequentially interspersed between present day. This is typical for most books, so atypical for Vonnegut. Bluebeard also has a pretty happy ending, in the sense that the external situation is good, whereas while other Vonnegut books don’t necessarily end tragically, the satisfaction and happiness is more internally harmonious, and the plot always wraps up nicely but it’s not like anyone is having a particularly swell time.

I interpreted the book to be about the possibility of creating art with real meaning, i.e. art that has soul in it, which is something Rabo struggles with in the book. Karabekian is a very skilled painter and copier, and his original pieces that he created when he was painting with the abstract expressionists were big monocolor panels with strips of tape on it. They are supposed to mean nothing, but actually secretly symbolized souls, which is a really sad metaphor because the paint he uses is defective and eventually disappears, and the tapes (souls) just fall off. He is technically skilled, but his art lacks soul, which I think maybe is also an indictment of Vonnegut’s works, and something that he feared, since Rabo is one of his alter agos? That would be somewhat surprising though, because I think I like his work so much because of the amount of soul they have, and how solid and real they feel despite how weird most of them are.

Some of my favorite quotes:

  • On the embarrassment of existence:
    Paul Slazinger says, incidentally, that the human condition can be summed up in just one word, and this is the word: Embarrassment.

  • On loneliness:
    My mother was shrewd about the United States, as my father was not. She had figured out that the most pervasive American disease was loneliness, and that even people at the top often suffered from it, and that they could be surprisingly responsive to attractive strangers who were friendly.

  • On making good art, and thinking of an audience:
    “That’s the secret of how to enjoy writing and how to make yourself meet high standards,” said Mrs. Berman. “You don’t write for the whole world, and you don’t write for ten people, or two. You write for just one person.”

  • On being open:
    Circe Berman asked me about being one eyed after we had known each other less than an hour. She will ask anybody anything at any time.

  • On women:
    And then she added: “Women are so useless and unimaginative, aren’t they? All they ever think of planting in the dirt is the seed of something beautiful or edible. The only missile they can ever think of throwing at anybody is a ball or a bridal bouquet.”

  • On the postcoital mood (a big mood, for sure):
    When we reached this house, and although we had not and never would make love, our moods were postcoital.

How Asia Works - Joe Studwell

If you are interested in Asian economics in the 1970s, and in general how countries develop successfully, then read How Asia Works.

This is one of my favorite non fiction books of the year. How Asia Works examines the successes and failures of different Asian countries in the 20th century to develop, aiming to understand what set apart successful countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and China from countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. His primary thesis is that different stages of development for a country require different policies, and applying the IMF/ World Bank policy of financial deregulation & free market is terrible advice for developing countries. The recipe for success is very simple: household farming that maximizes the surplus of labor, export-oriented manufacturing that engages farmers in the modern economy and forces a country to technologically mature and develop, and closely controlled finance that supports these two areas of development. The book is split into four sections: the first three each devoted to a part of the recipe, and the last a specific chapter focused on China.

What I love about this book is even though the subject matter is a little niche and could easily be dry, Joe Studwell really really breaks down the subject very well, and writes in such a cogent way that the lessons he is trying to impart are so simple they sometimes seem obvious. I was initially very reserved about reading a book about Asia called How Asia Works written by someone who wasn’t Asian, but it's clear that Joe Studwell is a real expert on the subject, so much so that he is able to distill sharp insight into easily digestible and well organized chunks. If you have even a remote amount of interest in how different countries develop economically, this book is a very very interesting and informative read. In a nonfiction of this length, I typically have about 50 highlights, maybe 100 if the book is very interesting. In How Asia Works, I had 369.

Books of November 2018

"Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and Other Conversations About Race - Beverly Daniel Tatum

If you are interested in how racial identity is developed (mostly in America) then read “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations About Race (henceforth abbreviated as WAABK).

WAABK focuses on the development of racial identity, especially during adolescence, and details the biases and prejudices that we unconsciously develop and perpetuate. First written 20 years or so ago (although now rewritten with new chapters), the book remains relevant because

in the chapters that follow, readers will find tools that help them better understand themselves and other people and how we are all shaped by the inescapable racial milieu that still surrounds us and that, in some ways, has grown more opaque and seemingly more impenetrable. Twenty years after I first wrote these chapters, how we see ourselves and each other is still being shaped by racial categories and the stereotypes attached to them. The patterns of behavior I described then still ring true because our social context still reinforces racial hierarchies, and still limits our opportunities for genuinely mutual, equitable, and affirming relationships in neighborhoods, in classrooms, or in the workplace.

This book is so important because whether we like it or not, and whether we are aware of it or not, race affects us in hugely important ways, and developing a better understanding of how we understand ourselves and our racial identity is crucial in getting to know ourselves better. Most of the book is centered on the black experience in America, but there is also a chapter dedicated to Latinx, a chapter dedicated to Asians, and a chapter dedicated to white people (which was actually really interesting, because I never really think about how white people come to terms with racism on the other side of the table). WAABK helped me understand how pervasive and passive racism is, and how important it is to confront who we are racially in a healthy and constructive way.

It is a bit different from the other books I’ve read on similar topics before, because it’s less about history or politics and more grounded in figuring out how to deal with it today. I think the most useful / important lesson from the book is that learning about racism and prejudice can be painful (no matter where you come from), but it is very important to understanding who you are. It also helps show how stupid claiming to be color blind is…

Some quotes I liked:

  • On the systemic damage of prejudice:
    Racial prejudice combined with social power—access to social, cultural, and economic resources and decision-making—leads to the institutionalization of racist policies and practices.

  • On the importance of representation:
    The truth is that the dominants do not really know what the experience of the subordinates is. In contrast, the subordinates are very well informed about the dominants. Even when firsthand experience is limited by social segregation, the number and variety of images of the dominant group available through television, magazines, books, and newspapers provide subordinates with plenty of information about the dominants. The dominant worldview has saturated the culture for all to learn.

  • On why talking about racial identity is important from an early age:
    Why do Black youths, in particular, think about themselves in terms of race? Because that is how the rest of the world thinks of them.

  • On camaraderie:
    As one’s awareness of the daily challenges of living in a racist society increases, it is immensely beneficial to be able to share one’s experiences with others who have lived them. Even when White friends are willing and able to listen and bear witness to one’s struggles, they cannot really share the experience.

  • On fairness in America:
    In other words, most Americans have internalized the espoused cultural values of fairness and justice for all at the same time that they have been breathing the smog of racial biases and stereotypes pervading popular culture.

The Heroes of Olympus - Rick Riordan

I got kind of tired of my normal reading so I wanted to take a break and read something more chill that I would enjoy (I was also traveling). Rick Riordan is always good; I’m not sure how he keeps popping the fuck off like this but I deeply respect it. He took what he did well with the original Percy Jackson series and did it like 7 times over with way more characters, and somehow made each of them (and more!!!) just as interesting as he makes Percy. Like c’mon how do you even do that so consistently, year after year?!

Also Nico and Frank are the best characters for sure, let me know if you disagree so I can fight you.

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Companies that Addicted America - Beth Macy


if you are interested in the opioid epidemic in america then read Dopesick.

In Dopesick Macy paints a grim picture of how the opioid epidemic spread across America. Starting in the Appalachian mountains, the story begins with Oxycontin, a narcotic & painkiller that was heavily marketed to doctors by drug companies. Incentivized to prescribe Oxycontin to their patients, and either unaware or willfully ignorant of the addictiveness, doctors excessively prescribed the drug to their patients, causing these massive drug addictions. The freely available and powerfully addictive drug combined with structural problems of poverty and unemployment created the opioid crisis we have today.

Intertwined with the macro story of the opioid epidemic are stories of people Macy met while researching the book, ranging from drug dealers to struggling opioid users to doctors fighting the epidemic. I appreciated those chapters because especially with drug addicts it is common & easy to demonize them as morally fallible and guilty of their own condition, but these chapters really help humanize the people and families suffering from this epidemic.

I definitely didn’t have a good grasp of how serious the epidemic was, and this is another good example of how much damage unbridled capitalism and greed can cause. It was frustrating to think of the current narrative on drugs, because “drugs are bad” is so reductive and unhelpful to actually fix the problem. There are many underlying structural causes that lead people to use or to deal drugs, and it is disingenuous and actively harmful to sweep it all under the rug of bad people. I was particularly frustrated when she was discussing medically assisted therapy (MAT) as an alternative to traditional abstinence based 12 step programs, because the research shows that MATs are more effective, and recovery from narcotic addictions are very unlikely by sheer force of will. In order to really address the epidemic, we have to reduce the stigma of drug abuse and treat it as a real legitimate problem and its victims deserve compassion.

Unaccustomed Earth - Jhumpa Lahiri

if you are interested in short stories about family and diaspora and clashing cultural values then read Unaccustomed Earth.

Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of short stories, all about Bengali Americans adjusting to their multi culture environment in America. Most of them focus on family and gender roles, but what’s a bit different about them is they are mostly told from the perspective of the children of immigrants rather than the experience of being a first generation American. I liked the stories, and especially the writing style, because the stories flow very smoothly and the tension is built up really well over the course of the story. All of them feel kind of similar though? with similar characters and backgrounds. I was wowed by the first story, but at the end I felt like the repetitiveness got a little boring. I also was not a fan of the endings. Most of the stories just end really abruptly, almost as if she just got tired of writing, and I really didn’t like that, especially in short stories because a huge part of my enjoyment of them comes from the ending.

Some quotes that I like (and there are many):

  • On estranged father-daughter relationships:
    All his life he’d felt condemned by her, on his wife’s behalf. She and Ruma were allies. And he had endured his daughter’s resentment, never telling Ruma his side of things, never saying that his wife had been overly demanding, unwilling to appreciate the life he’d worked hard to provide.

  • On second generation children:
    My mother and I had also made peace; she had accepted the fact that I was not only her daughter but a child of America as well.

  • Some nice sounding words:
    the place was without character, renovated in pastel colors, squiggly gray lines a part of the wallpaper’s design, as if someone had repeatedly been testing the ink in a pen and ultimately had nothing to say.

  • On youthful devotion:
    And after all these years, Amit felt both quietly elated and solicitous, as contact from Pam and the Bordens had always made him feel, causing him to set aside whatever it was that he was doing and pay them his full attention.

  • On depression as an immigrant:
    What could there possibly be to be unhappy about? her parents would have thought. “Depression” was a foreign word to them, an American thing. In their opinion their children were immune from the hardships and injustices they had left behind in India, as if the inoculations the pediatrician had given Sudha and Rahul when they were babies guaranteed them an existence free of suffering.

Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China - Leta Hong Fincher

If you are interested in the feminist movement in China then read Betraying Big Brother, but honestly if you’re interested in feminism or in China it’s also really worth a read!!!

Betraying Big Brother is mostly focused on the story of the Feminist Five, but also discusses the feminist movement as a whole in China. The Feminist Five are five women’s rights activists that were arrested on International Women’s Day in March 2015 for planning a demonstration against sexual harassment on public transportation. Arrested under one of China’s vague legislations against “provoking trouble,” the women were imprisoned for a month until international & domestic outrage and pressure led China to release the five activists.

I really liked reading about the Feminist Five because they are inspiring and brave, but it was also really interesting to think about feminism in Asia because I think it is an oft neglected topic, and just the very basic, non inflammatory things are huge battlegrounds. Stuff that seems like it should be obvious and no brainers are still big problems, like not getting sexually harassed in public or more restrooms for women, and even fixing the surface level symptoms are difficult. But while the struggle is long and there’s a lot more to fight for, it’s also encouraging to think of the power that the feminist movement in China holds, and the “passionate intensity, unwavering commitment, and resilience of feminist activists in China.”

Some quotes that I like:

  • On what’s at stake:
    Betraying Big Brother is about the conflict between the Chinese government’s unprecedented crackdown on young feminist activists and the emergence of a broader feminist awakening that is beginning to transform women in cities across China. The outcome of this conflict between the patriarchal, authoritarian state and ordinary women who are increasingly fed up with the sexism in their daily lives could have far-reaching consequences for China—the world’s second largest economy—and the rest of the world.

  • On the origins and concerns of the feminist movement in China:
    “The feminist movement is about women’s everyday concerns and building a community, rather than just having one or two famous individuals who can enlighten everybody else,” says Lü Pin, founding editor of Feminist Voices. “Chinese women feel very unequal every day of their lives, and the government cannot make women oblivious to the deep injustice they feel.”

  • On solidarity:
    Wang listened to Wei’s singing voice and was overcome with gratitude, knowing that her activist sister was just on the other side of the wall.

  • On progress, and being a good ally:
    Feminist activists today no longer have to take the lead in calling out misogyny in the Chinese state media, because over the past several years, ordinary women—and men—have become emboldened to criticize sexism and sexual violence on their own.

  • On the potential of intersectionality:
    The ability of Chinese feminist activists to connect the grievances of different marginalized groups—potentially combining them to create a mighty, intersectional force of opposition—is another reason that the Communist Party sees feminism as a threat.

Books of October 2018

Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement
- Angela Davis

Everyone should read this book, but if you’re interested in how all struggles for freedom are interconnected, then you would like Freedom is a Constant Struggle.

Freedom is a Constant Struggle is a collection of interviews, speeches, and essays by Angela Davis. It is a wonderful primer on intersectionality and probably the best introduction to the idea that struggles everywhere for freedom are one and the same. Minorities and the oppressed everywhere have things to learn and share from each other, but more than just that, all of these struggles are connected because the source that powers and builds the system that necessitates these struggles is the same. People in Ferguson are connected to people in Palestine not just because their experiences are similar, but also because these experiences stem from the same global system of racism and capitalism.

  • On the importance of people, not just politics:
    What we have lacked over these last five years is not the right president, but rather well-organized mass movements.

  • On the intersectionality of Black feminism:
    Black feminism emerged as a theoretical and practical effort demonstrating that race, gender, and class are inseparable in the social worlds we inhabit. At the time of its emergence, Black women were frequently asked to choose whether the Black movement or the women’s movement was most important. The response was that this was the wrong question. The more appropriate question was how to understand the intersections and interconnections between the two movements. We are still faced with the challenge of understanding the complex ways race, class, gender, sexuality, nation, and ability are intertwined—but also how we move beyond these categories to understand the interrelationships of ideas and processes that seem to be separate and unrelated. Insisting on the connections between struggles and racism in the US and struggles against the Israeli repression of Palestinians, in this sense, is a feminist process.

  • On feminism as a methodology:
    I often like to talk about feminism not as something that adheres to bodies, not as something grounded in gendered bodies, but as an approach—as a way of conceptualizing, as a methodology, as a guide to strategies for struggle. That means that feminism doesn’t belong to anyone in particular.

  • On foundational work and hope:

    • Sometimes we have to do the work even though we don’t yet see a glimmer on the horizon that it’s actually going to be possible.

    • movements require time to develop and mature. They don’t happen spontaneously. They occur as a result of organizing and hard work that most often happens behind the scenes.

  • On intersectionality of struggles, not identities:
    the greatest challenge facing us as we attempt to forge international solidarities and connections across national borders is an understanding of what feminists often call “intersectionality.” Not so much intersectionality of identities, but intersectionality of struggles.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing - Hank Green

If you are interested in a very millennial book then read An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (I use “millennial” here purely as an apt adjective and not at all intended as an insult).

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is about a girl April who finds a giant alien robot, names it Carl, and becomes incredibly popular. I read it because I follow John Green on twitter and I kept seeing people getting really hyped about it, but I thought it was alright? The story was pretty interesting, but my primary gripe is I found the main character super annoying. This book is an interesting case because the reason why I didn’t like April is completely unrelated to the writing (which is rare), and Hank actually did a great job creating April and making her feel real. He really makes the book feel contemporary, not just because he throws in social media references (especially because if poorly done really fucks up the mood), but because of how the characters interact and think. Nonetheless, and I hate to sound old, I just found April’s character kind of annoying. I get the struggle between wanting to be popular versus the destructive spotlight of popularity, and the painful disparity between the constructed, social media you versus the real you, but I just don’t find that problem that engaging.

Inclusion Dividend: Why Investing in Diversity & Inclusion Pays Off - Mark Kaplan

If you are a middle manager and kind of care about diversity but also not really then read The Inclusion Dividend.

I was recommended The Inclusion Dividend by a coworker who was recommended it by another coworker. It’s a bit of a dry read, but relatively simple, and covers a lot of really basic stuff about diversity and inclusion, mostly focused from a corporate point of view. The book is written for managers (he explicitly refers to the audience as “CEOs” and “managers”) which is fine… I guess… but I think if you’re actually interested in diversity and inclusion then you should probably just read the actual source material, and learn about the historic and current struggles and experiences of minorities and the oppressed rather than read a book for businessmen to explain why diversity is good for business. Sure, diversity is good for business, but diversity is also good for people???

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus.jpg

If you like well written love stories with a lovely element of magic then read The Night Circus.

I will forever use The Night Circus and all of the Shopaholic books as my primary defense in my case that I Don’t Hate YA and I Don’t Hate Sappy Romantic Love Stories, because this book is both, and this book is GOOD. I’ve read this a few times over the last couple of years, and it’s been super fun and satisfying to read every time. The premise is about two people bound to each other and set up from a very young age to face off in a challenge to determine which of two very different, clashing approaches to magic is superior (so obviously a love story). The events of the book take place mostly in a circus, although it also traces other characters and their backgrounds (primarily Bailey, who plays a prominent role in the latter half of the book). The circus is designed in all black and white, hence the artwork of the cover. I won’t even mention the other cover again after this, because it’s so fucking bad… I firmly believe YA gets a bad rap also because the covers are so bad.

The premise is cool but not anything earth shattering. Why I like the book so much is it is so well executed!!! Specific phrases and sentences are an absolute joy to read, and the pages just fly by. Stuff like

It takes her three courses to determine which of the Burgess sisters Mr. Barris favors, but by the time the artfully arranged plates of what appear to be whole pigeons spiced with cinnamon arrive, she is certain, though she cannot tell if Lainie herself knows.

I admire every time I read, because it’s so easy to just give that information to the reader all ham fisted. The story is also so cute! I am a sappy romantic and I love a good love story, and it is to my great chagrin that I find most love stories end with the greatest of ass pulls. Not The Night Circus though! The ending is tremendously satisfying and appropriately cheesy, and stays within the logical confines of the book.

Unfortunately, just like 等一個人咖啡, this book greatly contributed to my childish notions of romance and love when I was younger, which I guess is also a testament to how good this book is. It’s nothing revolutionary, but within its lane it absolutely kills it.

Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris

If you are interested in a sarcastically and sometimes caustically funny collection of short essays, then read Me Talk Pretty One Day.

I read this book a few years ago and felt like reading it again because I really wanted to read the short poop story again, so we might as well get that out of the way first in this review because that story looms pretty large in my remembrance of this book. The poop story is tremendously fucking funny. It’s so short, just a few pages long, but it is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. The source material is pretty good but what really makes the story work is the way it’s written. It traces a perfect arc of the dramatic structure, culminating in a perfect punchline, but more importantly, it is a gift for writers to be able to send the audience into the story, and I felt and empathized with his helplessness, all the while laughing at how absurd the entire situation is.

The rest of the stories are pretty funny too, and he’s had a lot of cool experiences that he makes a lot funnier through his observations, his wit, and his descriptive ability. Some of my favorites include: Go Carolina, Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities, You Can't Kill the Rooster, The Learning Curve, Big Boy (the aforementioned poop story),, Jesus Shaves, Make That a Double, Picka Pocketoni, and Smart Guy.

The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus - Paul Zanker

If you are interested in Augustan era Roman art (unlikely) or if you are interested in the power of art to influence society (much more likely) then read The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus.

I read this book for a paper in my Roman art and architecture class at Columbia, and specifically I mostly remember reading it on the way to the Met on the bus (I think maybe for the same class??). I remember that experience so vividly because I remember how much this book changed my perspective on art. I always understood that art could be influenced by politics, with lots of examples in contemporary art, like Warhol’s prints, and old pieces of propaganda (especially cartoons) that I studied in history, but this book helped me understand that in turn, art also has a huge influence on politics and society. Augustan art in particular is interesting, because it is pretty ugly (also the first thing my professor said in the first class). It’s just not that interesting to look at— they repeat a ton of very similar motifs, and there’s some creativity but very very restrained. What makes it interesting to study is how pervasive Augustan art was, both in depth and breadth, because it wasn’t at all an absolutely directed program of propaganda. Especially in the Roman provinces, people adopted that imagery because it was a way for them to Roman-ly flex, and as a result exposed themselves organically to the themes and stories Augustus wanted to portray. It shows that art is powerful!!! It can influence how people behave and think, and it is more than just a manifestation of society, society is also a manifestation of art.

Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets - Debra Satz

If you are interested in why some things should not be for sale then read Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets. Sometimes (and this is especially true with non fiction) the titles are pretty descriptive…

Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale is about the moral limits of markets, specifically what she calls “noxious markets,” and provides a framework to explain what constitutes a noxious market, why some people inherently find certain markets distasteful, like selling organs, prostitution, or child labor, and what we should do about them.

Satz spends the first few chapters laying out some context and explaining previous theories on capitalism. She focuses mostly on classical liberal economics and the LTV, and specifically on how those theories considered the economy as more than just a set of exchange relationships between people, but rather understood the economy as having important effects on relationships with one another, democracy, and society. This means that even though some markets might drive us towards optimal efficiency, based on that there might be still reason to limit some markets or outright ban them (related to the idea of pareto efficiency).

In the next few chapters, she explains the four dimensions of her framework, split into two sources: weak agency, exploiting the most vulnerable, and two outcomes: extreme half to self, and extreme harm to society. If any market scores high on any of these dimensions (and several of the ones we mention score highly on multiple) then they can be considered a noxious market. In the rest of the book, she uses that framework to examine a bunch of different examples. I found it a really interesting read!! If any of that piqued your interest I think it’s definitely worth a shot because I really oversimplified her argument, and the book definitely changed my mind on free markets. Satz does a good job of making the concepts digestible, but this was still definitely a pretty difficult read and I had to reread a lot of sections and/or stop and google things while reading.

Tonight I’m Someone Else - Chelsea Hodson

If you are interested in moody short essays about desire and commodification and identity then read Tonight I’m Someone Else.

This is a really weird book to review, because I read this on the plane and I really like this book, but I also have no idea what this book is exactly about. It is a collection of personal essays, most of them relating in some way to desire and commodification. In these essays, Hodson explores feeling like a person and feeling like an object, and the ways in which desire, so deeply personal to everyone, can sometimes erase your identity when commodified (although honestly I have no idea if that’s right, like I said I’m not really sure how to pin down the themes of this book).

I like it a lot though because despite its weirdness, the essays feel deeply intimate, and they read in a really genuine way. Her personality and character shine through in the book, and it feels obvious that she really pored herself into these essays. She also writes a bunch of lines that are just wonderful to read and chew on, and even just the title of the book is great!! “Tonight I’m Someone Else” is so wonderfully evocative of the intoxicating thought of being able to transform yourself and become a different person, if only temporarily.

I don’t think me and Hodson are at all similar or that I would even like spending time with her, but I loved this tender distillation of her.

Some quotes I enjoyed (and I only went through 1/3 of my highlights):

  • Against all logic, I perceived touch from a burned hand as a form of greatness. I hope to make a mistake like that again someday.

  • Money can do that if you let it—if you close your eyes and enter its dream, the one where you are well dressed, fit, successful, in love with exactly the right person. The gym I used to belong to cost $30 a month, but sound judgment gets lost so easily in unhappiness: the new price seemed justifiable because I would have paid almost any price to become a new person.

  • I buy what I can’t afford; I idolize people who have nothing to do with me; I refuse to believe one thing leads to another, which is to say I don’t believe in logic, not all the time—not the way this world rotates and orbits. I feel slower than it, too poor to live in it; I want to sleep until I’m someone else.

  • I have listened to music I hated until I loved it. I have looked at ugly clothes so long they began appearing as desirable objects. I have lived in America so long that money started to seem like a good idea.

  • When I rode my bike alone at night in Tucson, it seemed as if I were the last person on earth. That’s a wonderful feeling if you’re a certain kind of person (I am).

  • I never remember feeling the pain of not sleeping. I just remember the joy of being awake with my friend when everyone else had given up.

  • I once loved so hard I almost lost everything, including his life, including my own. Only then did I realize: perhaps love’s physicality is death itself. I think I was taught that love, in its ideal form, is like a newborn baby: full of possibility, still warm from the heated privacy of the womb. But I think, at the end of my life, I won’t see a figure cloaked in black velvet or a swirling void waiting to take me—I will see the face of love. It will be a recognizable light, the one that lived behind all those other faces I knew up close, the light I suspected but could never prove. When I see the face of love, I won’t be afraid. I will see what I’ve been searching for all my life.

  • I think loving him that year was one of the best things I ever did.

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

If you like Gaiman’s particular brand of realistic mythology then read Anansi Boys.

I always like Gaiman's books because they’re wonderfully moody. He creates a really good atmosphere in his books where the fantasy easily coexists with reality, and intermingles in ways that make you believe magic and mythology are still alive and just around the corner, especially because so many of his protagonists are painfully ordinary. Anansi Boys is just like that. Charlie Nancy, a perfectly normal dude, finds out on a trip home that his dad was Anansi the spider and he has a brother that inherited all of Anansi’s godly powers. His brother enters his life, totally fuck its up, and Charlie has to figure out a way to restore normalcy to his life.

Like all the Gaiman books I’ve read so far, the premise is very cool, he knocks it out of the fucking park with his characters, his story telling, and his writing, and he wraps it all up in this very satisfying but not ass pull-y way, where things aren’t necessarily happily ever after but at least it’s good in a very gritty and real way. Anansi Boys is much more condensed than American Gods though, and also much more fleshed out than his short stories, so if you liked either types of his writing you’ll definitely enjoy Anansi Boys.

Books of September 2018

臺北人 - 白先勇


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

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

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

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

The Breaker.jpg

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

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


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

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

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

Serve the People.jpg

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

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

Some things I liked:

  • On being Asian American:

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

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

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

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

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

Daytripper - Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba


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

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

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

Men Without Women - Haruki Murakami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Us Against You - Fredrik Backman

Us Against You.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conference Room, Five Minutes - Shea Serrano


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

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

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

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

Infinite Jest, Week 13 (911-981)

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

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

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

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

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

Anyways if you’re actually curious about what happens at the end there are a bunch of cool theories but this one is my favorite:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • What happens to Moms?

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

  • Do the AFR get the Entertainment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infinite Jest, Week 12 (845-911)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other quotes I enjoyed:

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

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

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

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

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

Infinite Jest, Week 11 (774-845)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other interesting parts:

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

  • HAL shows up at ENNET house… incredible…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infinite Jest, Week 10 (701-774)

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

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

Some other bits that I found interesting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some quotes that I liked:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books of August 2018

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari


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

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

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

Some parts I liked:

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

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

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

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

Artemis Fowl - Eoin Colfer

Artemis Fowl.jpg

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

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

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

Women, Race, and Class - Angela Y. Davis

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

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

Some of the quotes I liked a lot:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of my favorite quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

Infinite Jest, Week 9 (619-701)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some notable quotes:

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

Books of July 2018

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

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

Creativity Inc.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

絕代雙驕 - 古龍


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

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

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

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

And Then We Danced.png

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

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

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

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

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics - Stephen Greenblatt


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

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

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

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

Code - Charles Petzold

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some quotes I liked:

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

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

Makes me want to re watch The Office. 

Constance Verity Saves the World - A. Lee Martinez

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


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carceral Capitalism - Jackie Wang

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

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

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

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

Some of the things I learned from her book:

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

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

Infinite Jest, Week 8 (538-619)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other things I found interesting:

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

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

Infinite Jest, Week 7 (461-538)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infinite Jest, Week 6 (380-461)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other interesting things:

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

And some quotes I liked:

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

Infinite Jest, Week 5 (317-380)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other great parts of that chapter include:

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

Infinite Jest, Week 4 (242-317)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other interesting parts (there are a bunch):

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

Some things to remember:

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

And finally, some quotes I like:

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

Books of June 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some quotes from the book I liked: 

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

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

The Burning Maze - Rick Riordan

The Burning Maze.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

China in Ten Words - Hua Yu

China in 10 words.jpg

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

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

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

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

All About Love: New Visions - Bell Hooks

All About Love.jpg

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

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

The things I liked about the book:

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

Things I didn't like:

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

Some quotes that I liked though:

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

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


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."