Books of September 2017

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee


Pachinko is the story of four generations of a Korean family in Japan in the 20th century. Sprawled over the course of seven decades, Pachinko begins with a cleft-palated lame fisherman Hoonie and his wife Yangjin, who own a boarding house in a small fishing village in Korea during Japan's annexation, and follows the family's immigration and exile to Japan, where they struggle to survive in an indifferent and unfair environment. 

Like every good multi-generational story, Pachinko defies summary. It is a rich story of sacrifice, love, suffering, ambition, loyalty, and identity, but also a story of outsiders and minorities, of devoted sisters and wives, of fathers scrambling to provide, and of sons and daughters struggling to find their identity. Every time the story seems to center around a topic- living in Japan as a Korean during Japan's occupation, Christianity, the suffering and sacrifice of women, the struggle for 2nd, 3rd generation immigrants to reconcile starkly different cultures - it quickly changes, adding to its breath-taking complexity and depth. 

Lee writes with simple, down-to-earth language, reflective of her characters and the family. Her most powerful writing is when she describes complex events and emotions with unadorned language, like Mozasu's frank conversation with his best friend over fried oysters, shishito peppers, and beer:

"In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I'm just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am. So what the fuck?” 

or Sunja thinking about her son:

“There was consolation: The people you loved, they were always there with you, she had learned. Sometimes, she could be in front of a train kiosk or the window of a bookstore, and she could feel Noa's small hand when he was a boy, and she would close her eyes and think of his sweet grassy smell and remember that he had always tried his best. At those moments, it was good to be alone to hold on to him.” 

The one thing I thought was weak about the book is its ending. Pachinko is really really long, spanning so many of stories and so much time that it becomes very difficult to tie up so many different stories together in a satisfying way. The ending is a little abrupt and doesn't really wrap things up, and it definitely doesn't help that I thought her best characters are early on in the book (although I really like Mozasu and Hana and really rooted for both of them).

Despite the wide breadth of events in the book, it is the characters and their stories that really propel the long novel forward. Lee's characters are fantastic- they are varied and complex, and they each have their private motivations, wishes, fears, and desires that manifest in how they carve out their existence in their tumultuous lives. The book is not very happy- a lengthy imprisonment is ended by torture, a disgraced man commits suicide, a young, ostracized woman resorts to prostitution, becomes ill, and dies early - but the core of the book remains hopeful. A motif oft repeated in the book is that "Go-saeng- a woman's lot is to suffer," but in the midst of great suffering these powerful and devoted women continue to survive and dream. “Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage," and even though "pachinko was a foolish game, life was not." In the chaotic landscape of life, despite stacked odds, they play on and endure for a chance to win.

Chemistry - Weike Wang


Chemistry is about an unnamed chemistry PhD candidate in her final year. The story is centered around two important questions: should she finish her PhD, and should she say yes to her boyfriend's marriage proposal? In her exploration of these questions, we learn about her toxic relationship with her parents, her wonderful relationship with her boyfriend Eric (the only named character in the book), and her feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. 

The contents and the story itself is not very groundbreaking or even particularly interesting, but what sets the book apart is its phenomenal writing style. I usually hate when authors write in short sentences because I find it is often abused as a lazy way to build suspense or to try to generate hype, but in Chemistry, Wang uses her staccato sentences and short, spare sections as a hilarious and brutally honest companion to her deadpan observations and attitude towards the crazy stuff she's going through in her life. It reminds me a little bit of The Bell Jar, because the unnamed narrator and Esther speak in the same matter of fact way. But where Esther's impassiveness heightens the horror of her situation, Wang's dry style is much more conversational, casual, and relatable, and in conjunction with the continual present tense, makes Chemistry feels more like a stand-up routine than a novel. Her account of her personal crises are interjected to great effect by a constant stream chemistry, physics, or biology facts, such as

  • "A meter is the distance between two marks on a platinum bar in Paris. A meter is how much chocolate I have eaten since he has been gone."
  • "That night, I lie with one cheek on his bare chest. I listen to heart sounds, the ones of valves opening and closing as blood goes from atrium to ventricle, ventricle to arteries, and back around. The circulatory system is a closed system, which means nothing goes in and nothing comes out. The first rule of chem lab is to never heat a closed system or it will explode."

Other gems include:

  • On Chineseness:
    "A new fear I have is that I am losing my Chinese-ness. It is just flaking off me like dead skin. And below that skin is my American-ness."
  • On calling your parents:
    "In college, I had a Chinese roommate who called her parents every Sunday. In college, I had a Chinese roommate who cried for two hours every Sunday."
  • On name calling:
    "That phrase about sticks and stones and bones. But my bones are very brittle. And I am lactose intolerant."

and my personal favorite:

  • On women in science:
    "A guy in lab strongly believes that women do not belong in science. He’s said that women lack the balls to actually do science. Which isn’t wrong. We do lack balls."

The quirkiness and humor aside, the book is definitely pretty emotionally devastating, and explores some super real and very painful topics like being pushed too hard by your parents, working impossibly hard as a young adult and trying to figure out what it is that you actually like and what it is you should really be doing. What makes the book so fantastic is all of this is shared in such a fresh and intimate and morbidly funny voice that despite never learning the narrator's name, you feel like you're listening to a friend, rather than reading fiction. 

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most 
- Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen

Difficult Conversations.jpg

I decided to read Difficult Conversations because I struggle with these types of conversations (I mean... why else would someone read a book titled Difficult Conversations?). I find that I often don't get my point across effectively in the uncomfortable times I've had to have these conversations with someone, so I hoped to get a framework to address these problems by reading some books, which, come to think of it, is my solution to most of my problems.

The book starts a little bit slow, but yields a lot of deep insight. To be honest, I didn't like the book very much at first, because I thought it was a little preachy and reductive, but while reading the book, I actually had some difficult conversations and found myself thinking through some of the lessons. I took the book more seriously then, and enjoyed it a lot more. It has a lot of really helpful gems, some useful tips and small bits of advice, but the book is most helpful in reorienting your attitude towards difficult conversations. 

On a higher level, a lot of the book is focused around changing your attitude to a learning mindset, decreasing a lot of the mental stress and defusing a lot of the hostility/baggage we bring into these tough situations. Most of the book and its pieces of advice are a reflection or manifestation of that attitude, like emphasizing listening, figuring out your feelings/identity before you start the conversation, or just helpful techniques like reframing or naming the dynamic. 

After reading the book, I thought about some of the past conversations I've had that I found difficult, and tried to think about how I would apply these lessons. I definitely feel like what I learned would have made those conversations much simpler and more productive, and actually look forward to trying this stuff out in the future (although hopefully not that often). 

Some quotes I liked from the book:

  • On working with your feelings:
    "rule number one: before saying what you are feeling, negotiate with your feelings."
  • On expressing emotion vs being emotional:
    "Too often we confuse being emotional with expressing emotions clearly. They are different. You can express emotion well without being emotional, and you can be extremely emotional without expressing much of anything at all. Sharing feelings well and clearly requires thoughtfulness."
  • On trying to justify how you feel:
    "Your feelings need not be rational to be expressed. Thinking that you shouldn’t feel as you do will rarely change the fact that you do."
  • Remembering the purpose of a difficult conversation:

    • "There’s nothing wrong (and plenty right) with not wanting to hurt someone, or wanting them to like you even after you convey bad news. Yet holding this as a purpose in the conversation leads to trouble. Just as you can’t change another person, you can’t control their reaction — and you shouldn’t try."

    • Don’t measure the success of the conversation by whether or not they get upset. It’s their right to be upset, and it’s a reasonable response. Better instead to go in with the purposes of giving them the news, of taking responsibility for your part in this outcome (but not more), of showing that you care about how they feel, and of trying to be helpful going forward.

Fair warning though, the book feels a lot longer than it needs to be. While I enjoyed reading it cover to cover, it probably isn't the most efficient way to consume the book. They provide a checklist at the end that might honestly be enough if you just read that, and if you feel like parts of the checklist are confusing or you want to read more examples, then go ahead and read the specific chapters. His style is also a little dated, i.e. he writes like an old white dude. He makes a lot of bad jokes, and has a lecture-y style that I found a little off-putting. Stuff like "Peanuts aren’t nuts. Whales aren’t fish. Tomatoes aren’t vegetables. And attributions, judgments, and accusations aren’t feelings." I actually paused and groaned at. That is a small issue though; if you truck through there's a lot of great content to unpack in the book.

The Artsy Smartsy Club - Daniel Pinkwater

The Artsy Smartsy Club is about three kids who learn to make and appreciate art during a boring summer from a famous screever (sidewalk artist) Lucy Casserole. My review of this book is a lot longer than my usual stuff, because this book is one of the few that I can point to as truly transformative in my life. I recently started thinking about it again, and got a copy off of Better World Books, a used copy from a library somewhere in Virginia (it even has the record of who borrowed the book still attached to it). 

The usual process of how I develop my hobbies & interests is I read, hear, or get introduced to something by a friend, try it out, get really into it, and either the interest dies out or it keeps a steady flame. I rarely remember what the original catalyst was, with the only exception to that being art- I can point to two very clear moments in my life as the impetus of my enjoyment and appreciation of art. The first is spring break, freshman year, when I went to the National Gallery of Art in D.C. with my friends, and we were looking at a piece of religious art (The Adoration of the Magi?), trying to figure out what the piece was about. Why was there a bird above that guy's head? Who were the groups of people around Christ? Why did some of them have that gold cross halo thing behind their heads? We were in the middle of arguing about which of the three dudes in the painting were the magi, when a tour guide leading a group came up to the painting, started explaining the piece, and just blew us away. There was a ton of depth and complexity to the work that we completely missed when we were doing our shitty analysis of the painting. That experience changed how I thought about looking at art - how could two people look at the same piece and see completely different things?

The second moment came way before the first, when I read The Artsy Smartsy Club in middle school. Before that, I went to a few museums with my mom, and took some drawing lessons (although I displayed a shocking lack of talent), but I thought of art as an incomprehensible and vaguely snotty thing that people liked to ooh and aah it. Sure, it was nice to look at, but to really appreciate and feel?

The first Daniel Pinkwater book that I ever read was The Hoboken Chicken Emergency waaay back in middle school. Since then, I've read a couple more of his books, and they are all awesome. It is fantastically difficult to write a good children's book, but all of his works have the quintessential Daniel Pinkwater combination of fun and slightly zany characters and completely crazy but very satisfying stories. He writes with an easy smooth style, and his books are just a lot of fun to read, even almost an entire decade later.

But what is so special about The Artsy Smartsy Club is that without any of the pretension or snottiness unfortunately endemic of "high art", Daniel Pinkwater explained to me why art was important, and what it meant to really look at a piece of work. It seems counterintuitive to have to "learn" how to look, but before you learn the theory, before you learn the history, you need to learn to really see the painting, to identify its stylistic features, to see its colors, to see its brushstrokes, to see its composition. 

Now I am going to look at the sunflowers, Lucy Casserole said. I will look right at them, and I will look at them out of the corner of my eye. I will look at them with my eyes wide open, and with my eyes half closed. I will try to look at just the colors, and I will try to look at just the shapes. Now I am looking at the light and the shadows.

One of my favorite parts of the book and the part that I remembered the most clearly from my first read is when the children decide to take the train to Manhattan to visit a museum. Their trip to the Frick is not how we typically engage with museums, where we try to hit a checklist of the top things to look at in a museum and walk past the galleries giving the little white description placards and the actual art equal attention. Instead, while they are walking around the collection, they're fully focused on interacting with only a few pieces, and the pieces they encounter, they really look at and appreciate them.

"She even said we shouldn't try to look at all the pictures." I said. She said we should just glance around in general, and then pick one of the rooms, and only really spend time with maybe four or five pictures. She said that is the way to look at things in a museum. If you try to take everything in, you won't really remember anything vividly.

These chapters are such a beautiful explanation of the excitement you get when you engage with a really good piece, and are a phenomenal example of the purity of appreciation that I've searched for in my relationship with art. Just take a look at his description of St. Francis in Ecstasy by Giovanni Bellini:

Saint Francis.jpg

It was the most fantastic thing I had ever seen in my life. It showed a guy wearing a monk's robe. He was standing on these greenish rocks, outside a sort of cave that had been fixed up with a little gate- and there was a little table, knocked together out of some pieces of wood, with a book and a skull on it. In the background there were cultivated fields, and there were hills and mountains, and a castle, and a sky that looked like Vincent [Van Gogh] might have painted it, if Vincent had been sane. And there was this little tree, up in the left-hand corner- just an ordinary little tree- in fact, everything in the picture was sort of ordinary, only... only...
Well, the thing about this picture was ... you could tell that everything was so important. It was magical. There was this light in the picture. It was soft, but powerful. It wasn't regular light. It was ... "wow."

And they very quickly turn to a St. Jerome by El Greco, described as

St. Jerome.jpg

Where the St. Francis was amazing and beautiful and full of details and drew you in, St. Jerome was simple and full of fire and jumped out at you. It was this skinny old guy with white hair and a white beard, wearing a red robe, with his hands on a Bible- and he had a look in his eyes that made you feel like he was about to say something astonishing. After looking at the other picture, it was as though someone had rung a bell- a loud bell. 

Really early on in my life, Daniel Pinkwater made me understand how it felt to truly be wowed by a piece, to really connect somehow with art and feel deeply that this stuff is important, this stuff is fundamental somehow. But why is art important? Is there anything else beyond the pure appreciation of art (which is reason enough)?

There was one more surprise for us. When we went outside in the street, everything looked different. Colors were different. Light was different. Everything we saw looked different- different from the way we saw it before we went inside the museum- and we knew it would never be the same.

And if that isn't the strongest endorsement of art, then I don't know what is.

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency - Daniel Pinkwater

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency.jpg

I think Daniel Pinkwater is brilliant, and this story has all of his great elements- a good story, endearing characters, funny writing, and satisfying resolution. I really like how Henrietta and Arthur get reunited, especially the CHICKENS NEED OUR LOVE blimp, and I still think about how the professor raised square goldfish (is that possible? I'm still not sure. You can PM me for a full description of how square goldfish are made and we can discuss the biological possibilities). I liked it a lot when I read it over a decade ago, and I'm happy that I still enjoyed it now.

Short review, but what, you thought every children's book I ever read was life changing?

Angela and Diabola - Lynne Reid Banks

Angela and Diabola.jpg

I read a lot of children's books this month because I thought of The Artsy Smartsy Club and bought a few children's books that I really liked second hand and they all came at once. I vividly remember reading Angela and Diabola in 5th grade. The story was pretty interesting, and the writing was decent, but what really stayed with me about the book was the ending.

Angela and Diabola are about a set of twins, the eponymous Angela and Diabola, one of which embodies pure good, and the other embodies pure evil. As they grow, Diabola gets stronger, and causes more and more problems for the family. Most of the book is just Angela being a really good girl and Diabola fucking up her family. After reading it a second time, I realized it's definitely pretty fucked up for a children's book (at one point Diabola has to be locked up in a cage), especially the ending. I didn't remember anything about the book except the ending- Diabola and Angela are fighting on a roof, with Diabola hurting people on the streets with her mind and Angela healing them, when Diabola tries to push Angela off the roof and instead falls off the side. Stunned, she grabs onto Angela's hand, who tries to save her, but Diabola hates Angela so much, she tries to pull Angela off the side instead of trying to save herself. Angela is so shocked by Diabola's evil that she inadvertently lets go, and Diabola falls to her death. "Pure good, by vanquishing evil, becomes a mix of good and evil," and balance is restored, with Diabola living on inside Angela, physically indicated by one of Angela's pure blue eyes getting replaced by Diabola's glittering green eye. 

What the fuck? That fucked me up when I was in lower school, so much so that even though I forgot everything else about the book (and I barely even remember my 5th grade teacher's name), all these years later I still remember the distinctive red cover and that crazy ending.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance - Atul Gawande


BetterA Surgeon's Notes on Performance is the third book I've read by Atul Gawande. It is a loosely related set of essays on performance, roughly grouped under 3 categories: diligence, doing right, and ingenuity. They mostly read like individual pieces, stories that are vaguely united by theme, and describe stuff like his trip on a mop-up campaign for a polio outbreak in India, the history of childbirth and the Apgar score, medical treatment on the battlefield, and the fight to treat and cure cystic fibrosis.

The pieces are all pretty interesting and he is, as always, a good writer. His writing is easy to read and he condenses complex information in a pretty digestible way. I liked all of the essays in the book, and they all had some interesting ideas on how to be better and what good performance looks like. He discusses how success comes from more than just medical or technological advancement, and technically skilled surgeons are not necessarily the most successful, pointing to simple innovations like the Apgar score for childbirth, tenacity to treat cystic fibrosis, and diligence to just wash your hands as a surgeon. While all the pieces are about medicine, I think there is a decent amount of crossover and applicability to other areas of excellence and mastery. While I was reading the book, I was also thinking about better performance as a software engineer, and I think his points on resilience, adaptability, and willingness to grow are especially salient. It is not necessarily the engineering team with the best tech stack or the greatest tools that are the best engineers, it is the engineers that are adaptable to change and are determined to push through problems that have been the best engineers I've worked with.

Some quotes from the book that I liked:

  • "We are used to thinking of doctoring as a solitary, intellectual task. But making medicine go right is less often like making a difficult diagnosis than like making sure everyone washes their hands."
  • “What will you do when polio is finally gone?” I asked Pankaj. “Well, there is always measles,” he said.
  • "To fix medicine, Berwick maintained, we need to do two things: measure ourselves and be more open about what we are doing."
  • "He believed that excellence came from seeing, on a daily basis, the difference between being 99.5 percent successful and being 99.95 percent successful."
  • "Arriving at meaningful solutions is an inevitably slow and difficult process. Nonetheless, what I saw was: better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try."

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

Ready Player One.jpg

The idea of the book was cool, and I think it had a pretty creative setup/world building, but I really didn't like his writing style and couldn't get into it. I gave it a fair shot, I think a couple of chapters and close to 100 pages, but I just couldn't look past his style (some of it may just be that I tend to dislike young narrators). It wasn't that I thought the book was childish- I reviewed and enjoyed 3 children's books this month- but rather I tend to dislike the young teenager style of narration, and even then Cline's writing felt a lot like he was telling me stuff, breaking my immersion into his very cool world.

I hear a movie is coming out though, and I'd watch that ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success - Carol Dweck

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success explores the concepts of the fixed and the growth mindset, and how they manifest in very important ways in our lives. Dweck examines areas of our lives like parenting, relationships, business, and teaching that are greatly influenced by the mindsets that we have, and suggests some ways to work towards a growth mindset. I was introduced to her research a few years ago in an article, but was recently recommended this book during my denewbification at Riot (we are big on the growth mindset at Riot). 

In a nutshell, a fixed mindset is a belief that capabilities and skills are fixed at birth, and there is little you can do to change them greatly. A growth mindset is the opposite belief, that there is always something you can do to grow and your skills are a reflection of the time and effort that you've devoted to improving yourself. This is a simple idea, but it has a deep influence on how we view the world and ourselves. I particularly liked the chapters about teaching and parenting, because I think that is where a lot of my mindset was developed. I always thought that I had a very strong growth mindset, especially after I came to college, but after reading the book and working for a few weeks I realized I have a fixed mindset in some important areas. I think of abilities and skills as flexible and growable, but I still associated success/failure in a fixed way, i.e. once you do/don't do something you are either a success or a failure. Reading her book helped me understand these ideas a lot better, and I really appreciate Dweck for that.

A quick note on style: I did not like her writing. A lot of the book reads a little like a middle school paper, and the "hooks" that she uses to introduce new topics are so jarringly out of place that they actually distracted me, stuff like how she prefaced her chapter on relationships: "What was that about the course of true love never running smooth? Well, the course to true love isn’t so smooth, either." To be fair, the content is very clear and well described, and definitely serves the purpose for the book, and any small gripes I have with the writing is largely overshone by its fantastic content.

Here are some of my major takeaways from the book:

  • On the stress of the fixed mindset:
    "Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics."
  • On relationships:
    "In the growth mindset, there may still be that exciting initial combustion, but people in this mindset don’t expect magic. They believe that a good, lasting relationship comes from effort and from working through inevitable differences. But those with the fixed mindset don’t buy that. Remember the fixed-mindset idea that if you have ability, you shouldn’t have to work hard? This is the same belief applied to relationships: If you’re compatible, everything should just come naturally."
  • On meeting new people:
    "The shy growth-mindset people take control of their shyness. They go out and meet new people, and, after their nerves settle down, their relationships proceed normally. The shyness doesn’t tyrannize them."
  • On the right question:
    “Did I win? Did I lose? Those are the wrong questions. The correct question is: Did I make my best effort?”
  • On parenting, coaching, teaching, and mentoring
    "However, the moral of this story is that parents, teachers, and coaches pass on a growth mindset not by having a belief sitting in their heads but by embodying a growth mindset in their deeds: the way they praise (conveying the processes that lead to learning), the way they treat setbacks (as opportunities for learning), and the way they focus on deepening understanding (as the goal of learning)."
  • On improvement, developing gains, and dealing with setbacks:
    "They think actively about maintenance. What habits must they develop to continue the gains they’ve achieved? Then there are the setbacks. They know that setbacks will happen. So instead of beating themselves up, they ask: “What can I learn from this? What will I do next time when I’m in this situation?” It’s a learning process—not a battle between the bad you and the good you."