Infinite Jest, Week 10 (701-774)

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

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

Some other bits that I found interesting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some quotes that I liked:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books of August 2018

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens.jpg

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

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

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

Some parts I liked:

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

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

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

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

Artemis Fowl - Eoin Colfer

Artemis Fowl.jpg

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

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

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

Women, Race, and Class - Angela Y. Davis

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

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

Some of the quotes I liked a lot:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of my favorite quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

Infinite Jest, Week 9 (619-701)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some notable quotes:

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

Books of July 2018

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

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

Creativity Inc.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

絕代雙驕 - 古龍

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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

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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

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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?"

No

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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infinite Jest, Week 6 (380-461)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other interesting things:

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

And some quotes I liked:

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

Infinite Jest, Week 5 (317-380)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other great parts of that chapter include:

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

Infinite Jest, Week 4 (242-317)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other interesting parts (there are a bunch):

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

Some things to remember:

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

And finally, some quotes I like:

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

Books of June 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some quotes from the book I liked: 

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

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

The Burning Maze - Rick Riordan

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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

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

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

The things I liked about the book:

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

Things I didn't like:

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

Some quotes that I liked though:

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

A Tale for the Time Being - Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celestial Bodies: How to Look at Ballet - Laura Jacobs 

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

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

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

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

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

Infinite Jest, Week 3 (169-242)

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

Nonetheless, some important bits to remember:

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

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

and my favorite parts:

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

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

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

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

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

Infinite Jest, Week 2 (85-169)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other things I found interesting or liked:

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

Infinite Jest, Week 1 (3-85)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other parts that I liked:

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

Infinite Jest Reading Schedule

DatePagePercentage
Jun 4 - Jun 83-556%
Jun 8 - Jun 1155-859%
Jun 11 - Jun 1585-12613%
Jun 15 - Jun 18126-16917%
Jun 18 - Jun 22169-21923%
Jun 22 - Jun 25219-24228%
Jun 25 - Jun 29242-28332%
Jun 29 - Jul 2283-31737%
Jul 2 - Jul 6317-34342%
Jul 6 - July 9343-38045%
Jul 9 - Jul 13380-41850%
Jul 13 - Jul 16418-46154%
Jul 16 - Jul 20461-50359%
Jul 20 - Jul 23503-53863%
Jul 23 - Jul 30break68%
Jul 30 - Aug 3538-58977%
Aug 3 - Aug 6589-61981%
Aug 6 - Aug 10620-66286%
Aug 10 - Aug 13663-70191%
Aug 27 - Sept 2701-77496%
Sept 3 - Sept 9774-845100%
Sept 17 - Sept 23845-916100%

Some notes on the schedule:

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

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

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

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

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

Books of May 2018

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

倚天屠龍記 - 金庸

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret Lives of Color - Kassia St. Clair

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

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

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

Solanin - Inio Asano

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

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

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

Some panels I liked:

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solanin ch 28.PNG

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

Maekawa Kunio.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

Books of April 2018

Oyasumi Punpun - Inio Asano

Oyasumi Punpun.jpg

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

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

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

Punpun Street.jpg

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

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

Uncle Yuichii.jpg

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

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

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

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

A Little Primer of Tu Fu - David Hawkes

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

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

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

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

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

Molester Man - Yokota Takuma

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

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

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

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

Nine Museums - Yoshio Taniguchi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some quotes I liked from the book:

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

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

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

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

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

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

The Phantom Tollbooth - Jules Norton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books of March 2018

How to Solve It - George Polya

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

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

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

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

The Thief Lord - Cornelia Funke

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

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

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

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

神鵰俠侶 - 金庸

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

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

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

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

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books of February 2018

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

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This is my least favorite book in the series, because

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doki Doki Literature Club - Dan Salvato

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K Rowling

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

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

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

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

Oblivion - David Foster Wallace

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

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

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

The Comedy of Errors - Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fullmetal Alchemist - Hiromu Arakawa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard III  - William Shakespeare

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

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

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

Some parts I liked or found interesting:

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

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting - Milan Kundera

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

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

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

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

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

Decoded - Jay-Z

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

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

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

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

Zatch Bell - Makoto Raiku

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

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

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

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

Where Zatch Bell falls a little short is:

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

Letters to a Young Poet - Rainer Maria Rilke

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

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

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

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

Dragon Rider - Cornelia Funke

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

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

Harry Potter is Good

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

So, what makes Harry Potter good?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books of January 2018

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

If you're interested in _________, then read _________

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

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

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

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

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

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

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

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

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

Gamaran - Yousuke Nakamaru

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

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

It does what standard shounens do very well:

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

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

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

Siddhartha - Hermann Hesse

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe

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

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

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

The Book of Tea - Kakuzo Okakura

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

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

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

Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A. Heinlein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of my favorite chapters in the book include:

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

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy cow that is phenomenal.

And Then There Were None - Agatha Christie

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

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

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

Assassination Classroom - Yusei Matsui

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some miscellaneous thoughts:

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

Mob Psycho 100 - ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lupin is awesome though.

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Titus Andronicus - William Shakespeare

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

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

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

The Musical Artistry of Rap - Martin Connor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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