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