Books of April 2017

In April I read:

Gils All Fright Diner, Monster, Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain,
Chasing the Moon, The Last Adventure of Constance Verity, Nigh Omnipotent
all by A. Lee Martinez

sample book cover, won't include them all

sample book cover, won't include them all

There are only a few authors whose works I've read in their entirety and will always support in the future. A. Lee Martinez is on that short list; I've read all 20-ish of his books. I first picked up Gil's All Fright Diner a few years ago in the library, and I loved it so much I bought all of his other books soon afterwards. His style is refreshing and funny, his writing is easy to read and his characters are relatable. All of his stories are "real," in the sense that he puts realistic, relatable, normal people in difficult situations and crazy fantasy worlds. The premises are always SO interesting (e.g. an ordinary man who keeps on getting resurrected gets put in charge of a failing military company, a modern day Minotaur and a popular Asian high school boy get sent on a quest by a banished god, etc) and they're executed really well. The twists are actually unpredictably twisty and the ending is always surprising and satisfying. I recommend his books to everyone.

Books of his I especially liked:

  • Gil's All Fright Diner
  • Helen and Troys Epic Road Quest
  • In the Company of Ogres

Try them and tell me what you think!!!

Poorly Drawn Lines: Good Ideas and Amazing Stories - Reza Farazmand

I love his stuff, he's my favorite comic artist still active (2nd ever after Bill Watterson). This book is weird and funny and weirdly funny, check out his Instagram @poorlydrawnlines and buy his book. Love his art style and his humor. 

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End - Atul Gawande

This is a really thoughtful book written by Dr. Gawande, a surgeon. He explores the failings of modern medicine to provide adequate end of life care, and addresses the difficult question of our inevitable mortality and failing of our body despite the advancements of modern medicine. It is really well written, with plenty of personal examples and stories, although at points I felt like the book was too long. I especially enjoyed the final chapters of the book when he was describing the struggle he and his family had when dealing with his father's cancer and final years, and how the lessons he was explaining earlier in the book were applied in providing the best care for his father.

I found this book particularly interesting because of my recent surgery, and together with When Breath Becomes Air have fundamentally changed my views of medicine. These are things that I haven't really thought about, and even though I was never at risk of dying, my brief stint in the hospital and my surgery put me in closer contact with the failings of my body than I had ever been. It is weird to think about what quality of life you want, and what makes existence meaningful, especially in a world where medicine is capable of keeping you alive often at a greater cost than death. 

The parts I found interesting were:

  • He discussed a study where people became more short term oriented when faced with mortality or less time, emphasizing time with friends and family instead of personal achievement
  • The focus is not only to heal the body, because sometimes that is impossible. The goal of medicine is to provide the best quality of life possible- often that is to cure and to treat but sometimes that is not the best option. For example if my 4 days in the hospital were extended to the rest of my life I would probably rather pass gracefully than forever pee through a catheter
  • So few people want to get into geriatrics... not a glamorous field and kind of depressing, but a really important and neglected area
  • Very important for us to embrace our mortality- death is the enemy. But "the enemy has superior forces," and eventually it always wins
  • Questions to consider when the time comes:
    What are your biggest fears and hopes? What goals are most important to you? What tradeoffs are you willing and unwilling to make?

In particular I hope as my family members grow old and as I grow old (hopefully far into the future...) I will be able to keep these lessons in mind and accept being mortal with grace and dignity.

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman

This is a suuuuuper feel good, typical heartwarming story, but one written really well and really tugs at your heartstrings. It's about a crotchety old man who lives alone and holds a lot of sadness in a thick shell of anger and general grouchiness. He meets a vibrant, pregnant Iranian women who moves in nearby, and over the course of the story, you learn about his family, his neighbors, and his childhood (i.e. what makes Ove Ove today). I won't spoil anything, but almost everything in the book is tied up wonderfully. The chapters alternate between present and past, and often something inconsequential happening in the present is revealed to be very significant through a short chapter-long backstory. The parallelism is very satisfying and I enjoyed being surprised by Ove many times. It is perhaps also a good lesson on reading people too quickly, and a grumpy old man is revealed to have great depth and sadness. 

The book is easy to read and very short, and honestly it's so cute and enjoyable I might read it again soon. I cheered continuously for Ove in the last few chapters, and really grew to love all the characters. 

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.D. Vance 

Good book, pretty eye opening. This book is a memoir of a Yale law school graduate who is self professed to be average, but it is his average accomplishments that are deserving of a memoir, because he grew up in Kentucky in a "hillbilly" family where people are often not set up for success. The people in the Rust Belt and Appalachian mountains live in some of the toughest and poorest conditions in America, and it is eye opening to see and understand their background (or at least Vance's experience). He paints a grim childhood with a lot of trauma, a father who abandoned his family, an unstable drug addicted mother, and a tumultuous environment, but still speaks with great pride of his roots, which I deeply respect.

I found particularly interesting:

  • His ideas of social mobility and how climbing up is never a one way path. Even when he "made it" there was always the fear of slipping back down, and he would always be affected by his upbringing. There is no permanent escape from where you are from
  • Theory of learned helplessness, that people don't try to help themselves and believe they are incapable or odds are stacked against them. He describes his grandparents and sister as providing the necessary encouragement and stability for him to eventually thrive and beat that mentality
  • Social networks have real economic value- connections are important and making connections is learned behavior plus luck plus a lot of help

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories  - Ken Liu

This is a collection of short stories by Ken Liu. Some of them are heartwarming, a couple of them are brutal, a few of them really fuck you up, and most are very thought provoking.

Several of his stories can be classified as science fiction, and explore the ways humanity changes as new technology is produced, especially as we leave the earth to explore and evolve, providing a lot of insight about ourselves. Many of his stories are heavily influenced by Asian history, society, and culture, and stories often feature heavy elements of Asian mythology, such as Nu Wa or the Monkey King. Liu also explores stories of Asian history, often basing his stories on the pains and hidden brutality of our past, such as the 228 massacre, the Yangzhou massacre, and Unit 731. Those stories in particular are very heavy. The eponymous Paper Menagerie is a different style of story, melding together Western and Eastern, examining how Asian values are challenged and change in the face of strong Western influence. My favorite of these types of stories Liu tells is the one where Guan Yu moves to California as part of the gold rush. 

His stories are imaginative and diverse, and I was impressed by how his stories explore difficult themes and events. My minor gripe is with his style of writing. I think it suits the subject and his stories, but his writing is very delicate and flowery, which I am personally not the biggest fan of (although he is undoubtedly a fantastic writer).

My favorite stories from the collection are:

  • State Change
  • Mono no aware

but I also liked The Literomancer, All the Flavors, Good Hunting, and The Paper Menagerie.

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future - Ashlee Vance

I haven't really read a biography in years, but my good friend Gary recommended me this book, so I gave it a try. This book is a biography about Elon Musk, focusing in particular on his "quest" to make humanity better through clean energy and ultimately making humanity a multiplanetary species. 

I thought Vance did a wonderful job of creating the narrative of Musk's life, providing interviews from many people who have worked with or known Elon Musk. I particularly appreciated the nuanced perspectives he provided on a very polarizing figure, interviewing disgruntled ex employees and quoting from his most vocal critics. The book is written very well and is very funny and informative, and provided a lot of insight into Musk's life and his current superstar status + how he got there.

Threading the book together is Musk's conviction to make humanity better. I was deeply impressed by how long term his plans were, and how genuine and dedicated he seemed to be to his goals. Vance's account of 2008 was especially good, when Musk was under enormous pressure with SpaceX and Tesla both threatening to fold and with his messy divorce. I admire his willingness to get his hands dirty, to tackle difficult problems, to always search for the best solution, to never accept nos or compromises, and his conviction to his goals through pressure and pain.

One point Vance returns to a lot in his book is Elon Musk's relationship with other people, especially those closest to him and those working under him. Famously abrasive and perfectionist, Musk attracts the greatest talents with his lofty goals and incredible drive, but also burns out many employees with long work hours and difficult demands. I find that a unique approach (to put it mildly) and doubt that would work for many other companies without a CEO with as inspiring a mission as Musk.

This is a good book and it gives good insight into Musk's personality and mission as well as an appreciation for how close he was to failure, how much they've achieved, and how much more they have to go.

Joel on Software: And on Diverse and Occasionally Related Matters That Will Prove of Interest to Software Developers, Designers, and Managers, and to Those Who, Whether by Good Fortune or Ill Luck, Work with Them in Some Capacity
- Joel Spolsky

Damn that is an annoying title to type. Joel Spolsky is the CEO of StackOverflow, and co founded Fog Creek Software. He runs the site Joel on Software, which I found in sophomore summer and then read a bunch of articles at work. I recently found out he wrote a few books, so I read Joel on Software and share some of my thoughts on the book here.

I think this book is a very valuable resource and he writes very humorously and intelligently on some very interesting topics. Would highly recommend "to Software Developers, Designers, and Managers, and to Those Who, Whether by Good Fortune or Ill Luck, Work with Them in Some Capacity."

The Grace of Kings - Ken Liu

This is the first book in The Dandelion Dynasty, a trilogy of epic historical fiction in the style of Game of Thrones. Instead of a vague historical Western land, The Grace of Kings is loosely based on the transition from the Qin Dynasty to the Han dynasty, albeit with very different names and invented characters. There are 7 states in the land of Dara, paralleling the 7 states unified by the Qin emperor, and rebellions begin due to the harsh legal system put in place once Xana (Qin) became the dominant power. The book also has a lot of references to Asian mythology, culture, society, and history, such as the Qin emperor's efforts to unify language and measurements, his public works and those who died building them, his premature death from his search for immortality immortality, the debates between different philosophies (Legalism, Confucianism, etc.), and the Japanese system of Sankin-kotai. There are many more I didn't mention and I'm sure there are many I missed, but I really enjoyed those references in the book. 

I thought his writing style was really appropriate for this type of story, and the book is written very well. It's very long but very fast and easy to read, and the plot is pretty good. There aren't too many surprises but it's satisfying to see how things unfold and the story as a whole is pretty solid. 

The weakest part of the book, in my opinion, is similar to the one in Paper Menagerie. I thought his characters were very 1 dimensional, and there was very little significant character development outside of the two main characters (and even that was pretty minimal and lackluster). It feels like he first comes up with a cool plot point or a cool twist, and then fills it in with a character later. The characters are all pretty predictable, and even though they often have cool backstories, their motivations aren't really fleshed out and they serve their purpose then fade to obscurity. I didn't feel a connection with any of the characters and didn't really care what happened to them.

Outside of that, the book is interesting and fun, and the plot is engaging and immersive, well making up for its slightly weaker characters.