Books of October 2017

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

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

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

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

 He looks INCREDIBLE. Team Gucci

He looks INCREDIBLE. Team Gucci

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

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

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

The Best of Roald Dahl - Roald Dahl

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

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

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

Born a Crime and Other Stories - Trevor Noah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Auguste Rodin - Rainer Maria Rilke

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

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

Some quotes I really like from the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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