Books of June 2017

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

I've been meaning to read the LOTR trilogy ever since I read The Hobbit for a class in middle school, so I am glad that I finally got to them. I also never saw the movies, which along with never having seen Star Wars is one of my fun I-am-a-fob facts. For those similarly oblivious to Western pop culture, the LOTR trilogy is an epic high fantasy novel centered around the One Ring, the key to the dark lord Sauron's campaign to conquer the Middle Earth, and the hobbits' (plus their faithful companions) quest to destroy the ring. 

I had a pretty good time reading the books, but to be honest I didn't love them. My favorite novels are the ones with a lot of character development, and there is little to none of that in LOTR, with the exception of maybe the hobbits who were established early on to be unusually and unexpectedly brave. The books are exceptional because of its setting and background. The universe of the LOTR is really impressive, and I think is the primary reason why he has so many die hard fans. The depth of Middle Earth is amazing, from the stories to the topography to even the full blown languages. I was particularly impressed by this Quora post describing how even the short 9 line poem about the One Ring has proper and consistent conjugation. Tolkien didn't write a story; he created a universe.

To be fair, the characters were very endearing, and I especially love Sam and Frodo's friendship. Their journey to Mount Doom and Sam's undying support and loyalty to Frodo is so touching.

My main gripe with the trilogy is that there was a bit too much description for me. I am bad with directions in real life so I have even more trouble visualizing all the different locations on the map, and I lose interest really quickly when he's describing the 20th hill in a row, making the books a lot more difficult to read than I thought it would be. Because the story is so description rich, I think this may be one of the few books that translate to film really faithfully, so I look forward to watching the movies sometime.

Billy Bat - Naoki Urasawa

 First volume cover

First volume cover

This is the third manga I've read by Urasawa, and also the third work in 3 months that my good friend and book birb James has recommended. Relative to his other works, I think Monster > Billy Bat, and Billy Bat = 20th Century Boys

Billy Bat is about a mysterious bat symbol that can talk to certain people, and through its manipulations of those who can see the bat, has influenced and directed the course of history since ancient times. In modern times he speaks to mangakas, and direct history and the world through the prophetic Billy Bat comics that they draw. Billy Bat reimagines important historical events such as Jesus's crucification, the moon landing, JFK's assassination all under the direction and influence of the bat.

As always, Urasawa's build up is top notch and his characters are amazing. He is a master at creating suspense and mystery, and similar to Monster and 20th Century Boys, after a point the manga just sucks you in and all of a sudden you've read 50 chapters in 1 sitting. The story is super ambitious, spanning many different time periods, characters, and themes and the premise is really unique and executed brilliantly.

I particularly liked the first half of the manga, but unfortunately it seems like most of his works have pretty weak endings. There are a lot of things that I wish he went into more detail with and some unresolved questions that I wish he addressed. Despite that, I liked the message in the ending of Billy Bat- to encourage us to think for ourselves independent of the prophet/god/devil, the Bat, and to keep on "drawing" and stand on our own feet independent of a supernatural influence (maybe an allegory for organized religion?). It is a hopeful ending to complement a gritty and realistic manga. 

His art style I've written about before, but I like his clean lines and character design. Another wonderful work by Urasawa.

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath

 The original cover, under her pseudonym Victoria Lucas

The original cover, under her pseudonym Victoria Lucas

I loved this book; this is one of my favorites of the year. The Bell Jar is poet Sylvia Plath's only novel, and follows Esther Greenwood, a smart, successful, beautiful young woman in her struggle with depression. The book is allegedly semi autobiographical, and there are lots of parallels between the events of The Bell Jar and Plath's life. 

I found Esther's account of her years trapped under the bell jar a wonderfully honest depiction of depression, and I was most drawn by its stark immediacy and intimacy via Esther's detached and emotionless narration. You feel the tension, the chaos, and the violence enveloping and suffocating Esther, made even more horrifying and realistic when seen through the veneer of depression's horrible nonchalance and indifference. It is as if you are standing with Esther in the middle of the eye of the storm, fixed by her side in her glamorous New York internship, in the asylum, at her suburban home, and always in her ever increasing mental instability.

The back cover of the edition I have describes the book as "a shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity," and Esther's mental illness as a "breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational." I find that tremendously unfair and a pretty shitty description, because it suggests that Esther is herself insane and the reader is supposed to be amazed at Plath's amazing writing because we are so surprised by how _real and "rational"_ Esther is. The book is relatable and Esther seems so real and rational because she is- The Bell Jar is primarily about Esther's struggle with her identity, the same struggle we have all faced at some point in our lives.

This is closely related to her difficulty with fitting into the traditional mold of womanhood. Esther wants many different things in her life but feels trapped by other people's expectations of her, the eponymous bell jar. Her relationships are all ones of dominance, but the men in her life in particular all inflict some kind of violence on her, whether physical or psychological. Everyone wants her to be something, but no one cares enough to understand what she wants or even try. That is the source of Esther's mental instability, not some inconceivable insanity, and is what makes Esther so sympathetic and her pain so relatable.

Here are some quotes that I like from the book: 

  • On silence:
    "The silence depressed me. It wasn't the silence of silence. It was my own silence."
  • On apathy:
    "After Doreen left, I wondered why I couldn't go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn't go the whole way doing what I shouldn't, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired."
  • On choice paralysis:
    "I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out."
  • On expectations and security:
    "That's one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows from a Fourth of July rocket."
  • On suicide:
    "I thought it would be easy, lying in the tub and seeing the redness flower from my wrists, flush after flush through the clear water, till I sank to sleep under a surface gaudy as poppies. But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenceless that I couldn't do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn't in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at."

The Vegetarian - Han Kang

 i

Such a haunting story. The Vegetarian is about a Korean housewife who becomes a vegetarian after she starts having disturbing nightmares. Her personal choice to stop eating meat and animal products changes much more than just her diet, and the events that transpire range from bizarre and brutal sexual encounters to horrifying episodes of physical violence and emotional trauma. 

There are three parts to the book, each told by a different family member (her husband, brother-in-law, and her sister). It is interesting because you get to know the protagonist without actually ever hearing the story from her perspective (although I guess that is appropriate, because the book is about withdrawal from the world as a reaction to its violence and impurity). 

I am really divided about the book, and it was a pretty difficult one to read. It is very dark and engages with heavy themes of violence, despair, and identity, and frequently grapples with questions of sanity (definitely not light bedtime reading). At times I wanted to put the book down, but the story is unique and gripping, and trying to figure out what Kang is doing keeps the pages turning. 

I thought the book was at first similar to The Bell Jar because like Esther, Yeong-Hye is repeatedly victimized by men that are manipulative, predatory, or just cruel, all united in their failure to understand and empathize with her. This book is actually a lot darker, less personal, and more allegorical, touching on so many social issues- gender, conformity, violence, sexuality, insanity, domestic abuse, and self-identity. It is motivated and inspired by the question of how to respond to an unavoidably corrupt and violent world, and Yeong-Hye's withdrawal from the world is her answer, rejecting her humanity to become as pure as a plant. 

I can't say if I liked the book or not but it was certainly thought provoking and it's short, so if you're looking for something a bit more serious and darker this is a good choice.

Here are some quotes from the book that I like:

  • On sexuality and the body:
    "This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her—rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented."
  • On ownership:
    "It’s your body, you can treat it however you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted."

Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman

I generally don't like psychology books. The last one I really enjoyed and had a big impact on me was Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, but I think Thinking, Fast and Slow is definitely also up there. I haven't enjoyed a psych book like that in ages, and I don't think I've ever read in a book in its genre that has so concretely changed the way I think. 

Thinking, Fast and Slow is about two systems of how we think. One system (System 1) is fast, intuitive, and emotional, and the other (System 2) is slow, methodological, and more logical. Kahneman examines how the interaction between these two systems and how they contribute to our thinking is at the source of many common cognitive biases. 

The book is organized really nicely into 5 sections, and discusses three dualities: two systems, two agents, and two selves. The two systems are System 1 and 2, the two agents are Econs, the perfectly rational agents assumed in economics, and Humans (regular people), and the two selves are the experiencing self and the remembering self. I like how each chapter tackles a specific idea, and how he explains the research and the theory in detail, relating it back to the two systems.

A chapter I particularly liked explains how psychology lessons don't really sink in that well, and oftentimes we learn about cognitive biases but then go right ahead and succumb to the same biases and heuristics. A study discussed in the book shows how this can be remedied by showing particular cases and allowing the participants to extrapolate to the general. Because of this, the book is supported with short examples that you can answer and think through to show you how you are not exempt from these mistakes. He wrote the book to change the way we think about these mistakes and how we talk about these heuristics, so he ends each chapter with "Speaking about _x_" where he shows examples of how you might talk about these biases in common conversation. That's a really unique idea I haven't seen anywhere else before, and really helps relate the concepts to our everyday lives. 

Here are some of my major takeways:

  • On regression to the mean:
    Basically when something performs unexpectedly (away from the mean) eventually it most likely will regress to the standard. This is pretty obvious in theory but has interesting real life applications. An example he gives is that golfers performing really well on their first day statistically do a bit worse on their second day, because of the additional element of luck in their performance that varies day to day. That this is surprising is an indication of how we tend to focus on the causal role of skill but neglect the role of luck.
  • On interviewing:
    He suggests relying on a more objective pre determined rating system on a few dimensions rather than intuitive judgment. This is a good counterargument to the "would I get a beer with you" test that is so popular amongst startups nowadays. 
  • On estimation + planning:
    Your confidence in yourself will make you overestimate your abilities and underestimate how long things will take. A better approach is to gather statistics on similar projects and their success/failures, using historical data instead of an inaccurate heuristic. This is really similar to the idea of evidence based scheduling that Joel suggested in a great Joel-on-Software post.
  • On loss aversion + narrow framing:
    we can avoid these biases by thinking in aggregate, broader frames, and not thinking of each case individually. A good example is poker. I once took a 60/40 bet and all-in'd Frank on a hand on recommendation from Randy, and ended up losing. That sucks on a solo case, but I will likely make more 60/40 bets in the future, and if I take all of them, statistically I'll end up coming on top.

A good book, easy to read, and really useful!

Eyeshield 21 - Yusuke Murata

 1st volume cover

1st volume cover

This is my second time reading through the manga in my entirety. Eyeshield 21 is about a skinny little kid who turns out to be a super fast runner and is roped into playing American football as a running back. Their team's goal is to win the Christmas Bowl, where the top two teams (east and west) of Japan compete. The eponymous Eyeshield 21 is the title given to the best runner of each generation at Notre Dame (a title the main character uses as a codename). I actually don't know shit about American football, and I take the opportunity every year during the Super Bowl to go to the gym when it's just me and my fellow fobs working out. This manga is the only reason why I kind of know the rules of American football and how the sport is supposed to be played.

The manga is written by Riichiro Inagaki and illustrated by Yusuke Murata. Murata has recently become pretty famous for his work on One Punch Man (storyboarded by ONE). His art is actually mindblowing; I don't think there are many mangakas on his level, and you can really see how Eyeshield 21 helped him hone his amazing ability. The action is really clearly delineated and easy to follow, and the character design is also awesome. I find a lot of sports manga, or manga in general where there are tons of characters, suffer from a big problem where their characters are hard to distinguish (homogeneously athletic people). Inagaki and Murata's characters all have easy to distinguish and memorable looks as well as abilities & backstories. I think it is also very helpful that in American football players have really specific roles, so it's relatively easier to set up different abilities, designs, and back stories based on the roles. I also like how the teams are accompanied with little cartoon depictions, and the text is really big and blocky- I think it suits the manga really well. 

To Inagaki's credit, the execution and build up of the manga is also brilliant. Sports manga are interesting because they generally only span 1 year (basically until the seniors graduate) and they have really clear goals (winning the tournament), so there isn't a lot of room for surprising results since they generally have to win, or else they're eliminated. Each game in Eyeshield 21 is unique and exciting, and games unfold differently by unique strategies, comebacks, and oppponents. 

I also liked how the manga has a very positive message. A lot of the characters struggle with a difference in physical ability, but love their sport and have a competitive drive to be the best, so they accept their limitations, continue to fight, and find a niche in which they can excel. My favorite quote in the manga is this: "Even second rate lions have a single right allowed to them. That is the right to challenge the boss of the group in a fight. It's up to you to live while using that right or to live while not using it." 

The manga is also very funny- I love Kurita and my favorite recurring joke has got to be powerful-go, the really terse but super expressive language that only powerful men can understand. 

This is a great sports manga and I really enjoyed reading it. 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being - Milan Kundera

 I love this cover

I love this cover

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is Franco-Czech author Milan Kundera's most famous book, and to my great chagrin and embarrassment, I avoided reading it for years because I thought the title was pretentious. "Hey, what have you been reading recently? Oh, nothing much. Just The Unbearable Lightness of Being." This ended up being a very stupid bias because I loved this book and I think Kundera is brilliant.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is about two women, two men, and a dog in Prague in the 1960s and 1970s. It follows some very different characters: Tomas, the womanizer and surgeon, his devoted wife Tereza, the fickle and beautiful artist Sabina, her lover Franz, the university professor, and Tomas and Tereza's sweet dog Karenin. The book is a mix of philosophy and novel, each supporting the other. The philosophy provides the backbone and the motivation for the story, and the story fleshes out the philosophy in greater detail. The story is largely driven by Tomas and Tereza's relationship, and Tereza's anguish from Tomas's infidelity. 

The name of the book comes from Kundera's challenge to Nietzche's philosophy of eternal recurrence- things are given weight because everything happens has occurred already and will recur eternally. The underpinning theme is the question between this weight of eternal responsibility versus the lightness of everyone living only one life and everything happening only once. The unbearableness, the "weight" of this lightness of being is the core of the book.

Kundera has an amazing narrative style, and I loved the narrator in the book. He really comes to life; more than just someone who dictates the story and explains the stuff, the narrator is another character in the book. The writing style is also fantastic- light and easy to read, but somehow still very weighty, expressing and representing well the weight of lightness. 

One of the questions I thought a lot about while reading this was whether Kundera answers the question he poses in the first chapter: is lightness preferable to weight? I think in the end he answers the question pretty decisively, and in Tomas and Tereza we see that there is an answer to the lightness of love and life, and that commitment and weight is not only possible but also preferable. 

Some quotes that I liked from the book (there are a lot of them...):

  • On compassion: 
    "For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes."
  • On the basis of love on chance and coincidence: 
    "We all reject out of hand the idea that the love of our life may be something light or weightless; we presume our love is what must be, that without it our life would no longer be the same; we feel that Beethoven himself, gloomy and awe-inspiring, is playing the "Es muss sein!" to our own great love."
  • On the vulnerability of love: 
    "The only explanation I can suggest is that for Franz, love was not an extension of public life but its antithesis. It meant a longing to put himself at the mercy of his partner. He who gives himself up like a prisoner of war must give up his weapons as well. And deprived in advance of defense against a possible blow, he cannot help wondering when the blow will fall. That is why I can say that for Franz, love meant the constant expectation of a blow."
  • On the weight of lightness:
    "When we want to give expression to a dramatic situation in our lives, we tend to use metaphors of heaviness. We say that something has become a great burden to us. We either bear the burden or fail and go down with it, we struggle with it, win or lose. And Sabina—what had come over her? Nothing. She had left a man because she felt like leaving him. Had he persecuted her? Had he tried to take revenge on her? No. Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being."
  • On the meaningfulness of love, despite its origins from chance:
    "She, born of six fortuities, she, the blossom sprung from the chief surgeon's sciatica, she, the reverse side of all his "Es muss sein!"—she was the only thing he cared about.
  • On the no-take-backs of life:
    "Another way of formulating the question is, Is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death? Is there any answer to these questions? And again he thought the thought we already know: Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions."
  • On the death of Stalin's son:
    "If rejection and privilege are one and the same, if there is no difference between the sublime and the paltry, if the Son of God can undergo judgment for shit, then human existence loses its dimensions and becomes unbearably light."
  • On the mind/heart duality:
    "When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object."
  • On unconditional love:
    "Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company."
  • On the mission of life:
    "Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. No one has. And it's a terrific relief to realize you're free, free of all missions."
  • On the nature of love:
    "Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman)."

The Joke - Milan Kundera

The Joke is Milan Kundera's first novel, which I was pretty surprised about when I found out, because the book seems more like the work of a mature author. The Joke's protagonist is Ludvik Jahn, a communist who makes a crappy joke on a postcard to his girlfriend and is expelled from school by party leaders who take the joke seriously. He is sent to work in the mines for a few years with other subversives, but despite this setback, Ludvik becomes a successful scientist. Some years later, Ludvik returns home bitter and angry, planning his big revenge on those who have wronged him. 

Just like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the writing style is amazing. Chapters center on one of 4 characters, each with 4 distinct voices and writing styles. These characters are so unique and different that it is immediately recognizable who is speaking in the chapter. This is masterfully demonstrated in the last chapter, where 3 characters alternate in speaking. Separated by unlabeled sections, it is nonetheless very clear who is speaking in which part. 

The Joke also engages with the idea of lightness and weight, but doesn't use relationships to demonstrate this lightness. Instead, Kundera motivates the novel with the idea of trivial things that have great weight on our lives, the little decisions that end up influencing us greatly. The first joke of the book is Ludvik's harmless postcard, taken too seriously and he gets some very severe consequences. The second joke of the book is Ludvik's revenge, when he seduces his enemy Pavel's wife Helena only to realize that Pavel has a mistress and is glad to be rid of Helena (not a spoiler, explained really early on). 

But what is the eponymous joke? The joke is not just the ones that Ludvik makes, nor the way that they backfire making him the butt of the joke. The real joke of the book is Ludvik's obsession over the trivial, making his life centered around the joke, staking his existence on something so meaningless. The joke is trap of triviality, the funny tragedy of the weight of a joke created through taking the joke too seriously.

Here are some quotes I like from the book that may demonstrate that idea better:

  • On the complexity and unnaturalness of love:
    "The psychological and physiological mechanism of love is so complex that at a certain period in his life a young man must concentrate all his energy on coming to grips with it, and in this way he misses the actual content of the love: the woman he loves. (In this he is much like a young violinist who cannot concentrate on the emotional content of a piece until the technique required to play it comes automatically.)"
  • On the young:
    "The young can't help playacting; themselves incomplete, they are thrust by life into a completed world where they are compelled to act fully grown. They therefore adopt forms, patterns, models—those that are in fashion, that suit, that please—and enact them."
  • On being the butt of the joke and the comforting belief in destiny:
    "True, there was a time when I too glorified my outcast destiny as something heroic, but it was false pride. I've had to keep reminding myself that I wasn't assigned to the black insignia for having been courageous or for having fought, for sending my idea out to do battle with the ideas of others; no, my fall was not preceded by any real drama; I was more the object than the subject of my story, and (unless one considers suffering, sadness, or defeat values) I have nothing whatsoever to boast of."
  • On obsession with injustice:
    "You became bitter to the depths of your soul, convinced of the great injustice done you. That sense of injustice still determines every step you take."
  • On the triviality of life:
    "And I was horrified at the thought that things conceived in error are just as real as things conceived with good reason and of necessity."

The Design of Everyday Things - Don Norman

I was really looking forward to this book because it is so highly lauded as the design book (also it has really high ratings on goodreads). This book ended up being kind of a disappointment, and I finished it with some reluctance, skimming a lot of the chapters. It made a lot of kind of out of the blue, really general assertions, and I'm not saying that the author doesn't know what he's talking about, but I think in his book he simplifies a lot of stuff to the point of being not very factual or very useful. 

When I picked up the book, I was hoping for an analysis of specific examples to demonstrate principles of good design (possible even with outdated examples!). I thought it would be more about how common things are actually designed, like teapots or elevators, leading to a discussion of more general design principles. Instead, the book had a lot of grandiose statements about human behavior and psychology that aren't really backed up with any kind of reference to any studies, just stated as if they are inviolable facts. I also thought he seemed a little pompous and he was pretty into himself, a pretty big turnoff for me. 

I did get some useful stuff out of the book, and some of it was pretty interesting. For example, he describes some different ways of approaching designs that I thought were helpful, such as emphasizing discoverability (finding new features) and understanding (being able to understand what to do/ how to interact with it) in good design. I also liked the idea of blaming machines and products for being poorly designed when we make mistakes, and to center the design process around the human. Instead of forcing people to follow the archaic specifications of the design, the design ought to anticipate how people will approach, use, and interact with the product. I also liked his bit on the 7 stages of action (goal, execution: plan, specify, and perform, and evaluation: perceive, interpret, and compare). I thought it was interesting how the process described is really similar to the debugging process I learned from Kyle at Riot. There were a lot of useful chunks and gems in the book, there was just also a lot of it that I felt was unnecessary or unsupported. 

I also felt like some of it was kinda obvious, but to be fair, maybe that's because the book has been so popular that its lessons have already been adapted ubiquitously?

Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl

I encountered Man's Search for Meaning in a reddit thread about books that changed your life. I love this book and I found it both inspiring and deeply touching. The book is authored by Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist who was sent to 4 different concentration camps during WW2. The book is divided two parts, the first about his experiences in concentration camp, and the second explaining his psychology theory, logotherapy.

The main idea of Man's Search for Meaning is that we are driven and motivated by meaning. We want to have some kind of purpose, some kind of higher goal, and more than just the will to power (Nietzsche) or the will to pleasure (Freud), we have an indomitable will to meaning. But instead of asking and searching for the meaning of life, we should ask what life expects of us and to aspire to reach those goals. Frankl describes three ways to find meaning: through accomplishment, through loving something or someone, or through suffering. The last is especially poignant and personal, and he explains it in detail through his experiences in the concentration camps. Frankl argues that we can find dignity and nobility and purpose in suffering, and that people can always rise above their circumstances, and become more. Even in depths of great despair there can be human triumph and heroism. It is short, but such a powerful read. 

I'm going to stop poorly reviewing it and share quotes instead because there are so many good ones:

  • On the honorable endurance of suffering for love:
    "The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way —an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”"
  • On the capability to appreciate even in the worst conditions:
    "One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!”"
  • On spiritual and inner freedom:
    • "Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress."
    • "Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevsky said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful."
  • On choosing your attitude:
    "They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way."
  • On bearing your cross:
    "The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most diffcult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a diffcult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not."
  • On the opportunity of growth in suffering:
    "Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself."
  • On hopelessness:
    "They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning."
  • On pain, pleasure, and purpose:
    "Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life."
  • On old age and reminiscence:
    “Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.”
  • On the tragic optimism of our generation:
    "Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips."

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman
- Richard Feynman

This is a collection of Feynman's writings, speeches, talks, interviews, articles, etc. He talks about all sorts of interesting stuff in there, and I thought most of it was pretty cool. In these various pieces we learn about his background and his work, his views on science and the place of science in society, and the exciting new possibilities and advances of science in the future.

Feynman is a tremendously interesting person with a storied and exciting career, having worked on the Manhattan Project, done a lot of weird stuff (detailed more in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman), and won a Nobel Prize for his work in physics. He is also kind of a dick. Admittedly, he is aware of it, but that just makes him a self-aware asshole, a marginally better distinction. In his books, he seems like a very nice person in general, albeit a little condescending, is a super smart guy, and a really accomplished physicist, but some of his views are a bit distasteful. He dismisses the social sciences and philosophy as being "unscientific," which strikes me as a little rude, but even worse, in one chapter he describes how he was surprised that "the female mind is capable of grasping concepts in analytical geometry." It baffles me how someone who is such a strong proponent of the scientific method can believe that men and women have unequal mental capabilities, and was such a strong turn off I almost stopped reading.

The good bits... I liked his views on science, and his discussion of the importance of curiosity in science. I learned a lot from his talk on how to teach science, to avoid teaching rote definitions and instead try to understand the deeper motivation and meaning behind the definition. I think there is a lot to be improved in STEM education, and Feynman has some interesting ideas. I also really liked his accounts of his past work, especially on the Manhattan Project, and the trajectory of his career, but my favorite parts of the book were the chapters where he talks about future advances in science, especially on the future of computing. "There's Plenty of Space Down There," about the possibilities of micro computing, was REALLY interesting and I think is a good look through the lens of physics into the potential of hardware. 

Some quotes I liked from the book:

  • On definitions versus learning:
    "I finally figured out a way to test whether you have taught an idea or you have only taught a definition. Test it this way: You say, “Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language.” “Without using the word ‘energy,’ tell me what you know now about the dog’s motion.” You cannot. So you learned nothing except the definition. You learned nothing about science."
  • On the importance of intuition and motivation:
    "Dirac said that to understand a physical problem means to be able to see the answer without solving equations. Maybe he exaggerated; maybe solving equations is experience you need to gain understanding–but until you do understand, you’re just solving equations."
  • On curiosity in everything:
    "I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough."
  • On living with doubt:
    "I’ve learned how to live without knowing. I don’t have to be sure I’m succeeding, and as I said before about science, I think my life is fuller because I realize that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m delighted with the width of the world!"

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon

This book gave me a lot of anguish because I gave up on it halfway through, and I hate quitting on books. I REALLY wanted to like it, because I really loved his other book Summerland, I thought the premise was really unique and interesting, and this book won a Pulitzer Prize. I read 200 or so pages and just couldn't get into the story. I didn't find the characters that interesting and just didn't care that much about the story. If you've read it and loved it, I would love to hear why. Maybe I'll give it another shot in the future.

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories

I bought this book at a used bookstore in East Village and I feel kind of jipped. I thought the book was a collection of Roald Dahl's ghost stories, since his name is bigger than half the title, but actually this is a collection of ghost stories gathered and curated by Roald Dahl. Nevertheless, I enjoyed two stories out of this 14 story collection before giving up, because to be totally honest with you, I get scared too easily. Maybe I will return to it when I feel braver, but more likely it will sit in my bookshelf until I gift it to a more thrill seeking friend. 

Laughable Loves - Milan Kundera

This is the third book by Kundera that I've read this month, and I enjoyed it sooo much- maybe even more than The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Joke. I have always enjoyed short stories, because even more so than novels, the central theme and motivating vision is extremely clear, and it is a pleasure to see how these various ideas get developed and fleshed out over the course of a short story. In short stories I think you really get to understand the author's project. In Laughable Loves, Kundera explores a variety of romantic relationships, expanding on themes such as the weight of brevity and lightheartedness, and the closeness of tragedy and comedy (ideas central to The Joke and The Unbearable Lightness of Being).

In these stories, two middle aged men explore the game of seduction, a young man and a woman engage in a make believe hitchhiking game only to become real strangers to each other, and a old man struggles with detachment from his younger, more seductive and attractive self. They are all wonderful and thought provoking works of grace and illusion, and Laughable Loves is Kundera at his best. 

My favorite stories are Nobody Will LaughThe Hitchhiking Game, and Eduard and God

Some quotes I liked from these stories:

  • On the malleability of the past:
    "Every human life has many aspects," said the professor. "The past of each one of us can be just as easily arranged into the biography of a beloved statesman as into that of a criminal."
  • On the intermingling of tragedy and comedy:
    "Only after a while did it occur to me (in spite of the chilly silence that surrounded me) that my story was not of the tragic sort, but rather of the comic variety. That afforded me some comfort."
  • On experiencing versus remembering:
    "We pass through the present with our eyes blindfolded. We are permitted merely to sense and guess at what we are actually experiencing. Only later when the cloth is untied can we glance at the past and find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has."
  • On the mind body dualism:
    "She often longed to feel free and easy about her body, the way most of the women around her did. She had even invented a special course in self-persuasion: she would repeat to herself that at birth every human being received one out of the millions of available bodies, as one would receive an allotted room out of the millions of rooms in an enormous hotel; that consequently the body was fortuitous and impersonal, only a ready-made, borrowed thing. She would repeat this to herself in different ways, but she could never manage to feel it. This mind-body dualism was alien to her. She was too much at one with her body; that is why she always felt such anxiety about it."
  • On the worship of purity:
    "This was all the worse because he worshiped rather than loved her; it had always seemed that the girl had reality only within the bounds of fidelity and purity, and that beyond these bounds it simply didn't exist; beyond these bounds she would cease to be herself, as water ceases to be water beyond the boiling point. When he now saw her crossing this horrifying boundary with nonchalant elegance, he was filled with anger."
  • On the illogic of love:
    "This sounds illogical to you, but love is precisely that which is illogical.""
  • On balding:
    "Naturally he was silent about the bald spot that was beginning to appear (it was just like her silence about the canceled grave); on the other hand the vision of the bald spot was transubstantiated into quasi-philosophical maxims to the effect that time passes more quickly than man is able to live, and that life is terrible, because everything in it is necessarily doomed to extinction; he voiced these and similar maxims, to which he awaited a sympathetic response; but he didn't get it."
  • On the perceived self:
    "It was far more important to him how he himself was seen in the eyes of his partner than how she appeared to him."

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly - Anthony Bourdain

Kitchen Confidential is Anthony Bourdain's hilarious and inappropriate account of his professional story plus industry commentary, a behind-the-scenes look at how kitchens and restaurants are run. The book is a lot of fun, and Bourdain honestly recounts the intense and insane environment of the commercial kitchen, a story of profanity, debauchery, and general vice.

In the early chapters he says that he hopes his book will be eye opening for outsiders of the restaurant world, and I certainly learned a lot from reading his book. I liked the descriptions of different management styles of restaurants, and especially the chain of failing restaurants that he took over, teaching him how to smell a dying restaurant a mile away. I thought the section on chef's tools + professional cooking at home really helpful, especially since I recently threw away all my crappy and abused cooking stuff from college.

I've seen some of the insanity and mayhem of a kitchen during lunch and dinner rush on TV, but his descriptions paint a non-edited, even more vivid image of the chaos and brutality of the food industry. Far from an idyllic, clean paradise where chefs with pristine hats drizzle sauce artistically over tastefully plated food, the kitchen as Bourdain describes and has experienced is a bawdy battleground, shared from a perspective only possible from one who has sadomasochistically crawled in the culinary trenches for decades.  

I always liked his show and his book is very similar in tone and style. He doesn't pull any punches, doesn't dole out any bullshit, and doesn't gloss over anything- the glories and the horrors are described side by side in full detail, and he is harshest on himself, detailing his mistakes and misdeeds. It is obvious that he sincerely and profoundly loves food, and adores the crazy, dirty world of cooking professionally. I was surprised by the brilliance of his writing, and I absolutely love his style. He is descriptive and funny, obscenely eloquent and unapologetically frank, and his style is very conversational and personal. His personality consistently shines through in the book. I think he writes in a very similar style to me (albeit with less swear words...), but he is a much much better writer and I aspire to his level. We both write with a lot of adjectives, interject long sentences with short thoughts led with "-"s, and use a lot of lists & parallelism to describe things, but I especially admire how he builds up long sentences to culminate emphatically on a short sentence, bringing a nice punch to his work. I am working on that in my own writing. His passionate description of his first oyster, the one that drew him to love food and chase unknown culinary thrills, and his pensive description of his scarred hands after 20 years in the kitchen is just good writing.

This book is a delight, I loved it and look forward to reading his other stuff!