Books of November 2017

佐賀的超級阿嬤  - 島田洋七


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

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

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

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

Ship of the Dead - Rick Riordan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel - Tom Wainwright


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

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

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

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

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

侯文詠極短篇 - 侯文詠


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

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

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

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace

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My review of Infinite Jest is here.

等一個人咖啡 - 九把刀


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss

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

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

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

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

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

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

射鵰英雄傳 - 金庸


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wise Man's Fear - Patrick Rothfuss

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

  • It's longer.
  • The plot is more unique, and there are less cliched story points/ plot lines. I especially like the Felurian and the Ademre parts of the book.
  • There are a lot more details and stories, and the way they all fit together while furthering the mysteries and questions of the book is very impressive.
  • The writing is better (no more egregious use of foreshadowing).

I gave up on this book because I disliked the writing style and didn't find the content of the book that interesting. They were more like a random collection of anecdotes rather than interesting insight or experiences about being a pornstar. The cover/design is very nice though, and she shares one of the best haikus I've read in a book before:

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