Books of December 2018

The Lonesome Bodybuilder: Stories - Yukiko Motoya

If you are into weird but weirdly normal short stories then read The Lonesome Bodybuilder.

The Lonesome Bodybuilder is a collection of short stories by Japanese author Yukiko Motoya, the first of her works translated into English. There’s weird, and then there’s “what the fuck did I just read,” and The Lonesome Bodybuilder falls squarely into the second category. In these eleven stories, a lonely neglected wife becomes a bodybuilder, a wife notices that she and her husband look more and more similar as time goes on, a saleswoman tries to find the perfect dress for a customer who won’t leave the fitting room… each of the stories surreal and sometimes disturbing.

What I think really sets the collection apart though is the weirdness never regresses to unintelligibility. What holds the collection together and makes it even more surreal is that they are all grounded in very normal, everyday domestic situations, like marriage or work. Motoya then carefully peels back the mundane to reveal a world that is bizarre and alien, imposing a weird normalcy on situations far from normal. Her style, unflinchingly calm and sober, is applied evenly to describing a newlywed couple and to describing a woman arguing with her husband, who is a literal scarecrow, while tiny musical instruments stream from his body. The writing is so cozy and domestic that while reading, I started to second guess myself. Am I the weird one here? Or is the story the weird one? From another lens, is my life just as weird as the people in these stories?

My favorite stories were The Lonesome Bodybuilder, Fitting Room, An Exotic Marriage, Q&A, and The Straw Husband. Some of my favorite quotes:

  • On confidence and individuality in relationships:
    I knew the reason. Living with my perfectionist husband had made me think that I was a person with no redeeming qualities. It hadn’t been like that before we were married, but gradually, as I constantly tried to compensate for his lack of confidence by listing all my own faults, I’d acquired the habit of dismissing myself.

  • On bodybuilding:
    “Of all athletes, I most respect bodybuilders, because there’s no one more solitary. They hide their deep loneliness, and give everyone a smile. Showing their teeth, all the time, as if they have no other feelings. It’s an expression of how hard life is, and their determination to keep going anyway.”

  • On shopping:
    In terms of reasons a customer might not come out of the fitting room, one possibility is that they’ve actually finished changing but the clothes are hopelessly unsuitable. It’s happened to me too: there are some clothes in the world that, the moment you put them on, make you feel so miserable you just want to smash the mirror in front of you as your reflection looks on in surprise. The kind of clothes that make you think, You’ve got to be kidding, and wonder if perhaps you’ve always looked like a clown, whether your entire life up until that point has been an embarrassing mistake.

  • On dependence:
    Men entered into me through my roots like nutrients dissolved in potting soil. Every time I got together with someone new, I got replanted, and the nutrients from the old soil disappeared without a trace. As if to prove it, I could hardly recall the men I’d been with before. Strangely, too, the men I’d been with had all wanted me to grow in them. Eventually, I’d start to feel in danger of root rot, and would hurriedly break the pot and uproot myself.

  • On the varieties of relationship woes:
    Your concerns when it comes to love are much less unique and interesting than you imagine. The majority are variations on the following: How can I get the person I’m interested in to talk to me? He’s having an affair. He won’t have sex with me! My boyfriend is an asshole. And so on.

Children of Blood and Bone - Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone is set in prehistoric Africa and is about a girl’s journey to bring magic back to the lands. The premise is kind of cool but really unoriginal, but nothing really sets it apart except for the names of the people, places, and the African gods. This could’ve really easily been the same story with the African elements removed, and I don’t think the story would really lose very much. The characters are also very poorly written, and their motivations for doing things are either nonexistent or nonsensical. I wasn’t really able to empathize or relate to any of the characters, and she alternates between the four main characters and their perspectives but you can’t tell who the narrator is without the chapter headers because they’re all written the same -.-

The Incendiaries - R.O. Kwon

If you are interested in the relationship between faith, love, and obsession then read The Incendiaries.

The Incendiaries is centered on two main characters that meet at college: Will, who transfers from bible school after he loses his faith, and Phoebe, still wracked with guilt over her mother’s death but keeps it a secret. Their relationship becomes strained when Phoebe gets drawn into a religious extremist cult, and Will struggles to “save” her and their relationship. I’m not sure I really personally vibe with the themes, but they were interesting. I understood the book to be mostly centered on faith and love, and specifically the similarities between obsessive love and religious fanaticism. Both have elements of giving yourself up in dangerous ways, and devoting yourself to the wrong temple is one of the most dangerous things you can do.

One of the standout things about the book is R.O. Kwon’s writing. Her descriptions in the book are very lush and powerful, and some specific phrases like “disheveled with morning” and “still so God-haunted” were very enjoyable to read. She does go overboard sometimes with her language, the starkest example I can remember being the scene when Phoebe and Will meet John Leal and she is describing the food. “Pink meat bled when I cut it open, the charred bits crunching like minute bones. A torn roll steamed; butter liquefied. Oil dripped, gilding white porcelain.” I was also often confused by the Will and Phoebe chapters and who was narrating, but I think that’s more due to me being bad at reading rather than R.O. Kwon being bad at writing :-(. The setup of the story was also nice— the important parts of the book plot wise happen pretty late, and most of the book is character exposition & slow buildup of tension, which is always very fun to read when done by a good author like Kwon.

She also replied to our twitter DM suggesting some questions for our book club discussion, which is really cool. Here are some quotes that I like:

  • On grieving:
    I noticed him crying, in the kitchen: I pretended I hadn’t. If he was grieving, I didn’t think he had the right.

  • On a strong opener:
    I asked Julian questions. He tried to reciprocate, asking about life before Edwards. No, I said. First, I have to know everything about you. I want all your secrets, Julian. Let’s start at the beginning. Big or small, what’s the first lie you told? I watched him smile, each wide tooth showing. It was like a picket fence swinging open: his smile invited me inside.

  • On losing faith:
    No loss occurs in isolation, and a side profit of the faith that I missed at times like this was how easily, while Christ shone in each face, I loved. If hatred cuts both ways, to forgive can be a balm, and I often missed, as I would a friend, the more tranquil person I now had no reason to be.

  • An example of good writing, and showing rather than telling:
    I sat in the apartment through morning: I took a bus to Michelangelo’s. Though I didn’t have a shift, I helped at the front until I noticed a five-top littered with used plates. I carried them back to the kitchen, spilling pesto on my shirt. I dropped a knife. I took the table’s busboy out back, and I yelled at him. I asked what the fuck he’d been thinking. Looking down, he muttered that it wasn’t his table. It’s Gil’s, he said, his childish face bagged with fatigue. I excused him. I left, riding the bus home again.

Steppenwolf - Hermann Hesse

If you are interested in the loneliness and pain of a man divided between his human self and his wolf self then read Steppenwolf.

My friend Trisha has very similar thoughts on this book but was much more articulate than me on them so I’m going to cop out of a real review by quoting her in entirety (with minor edits):

ok so like a lot of the books i like steppenwolf captures specific instances of the human experience that are quite transformative or fundamental (to some). so in the preface when the nephew says that the events are "tangible representations of intangible events" i really like that because it means that the events of steppenwolf are representations of spiritual feelings through physical acts that aren't realistic but are representative

for example, harry haller and hermine are jungian opposites (anima and animus) and while i'm not too caught up on the psychological facet of that representation, i think it fundamentally comes down to one of the "splits" that the personality has - both of which are very real parts of him

i like that at first haller thinks he has to either be the man or the wolf, but through his interaction with hermine he realizes that each individual is made out of infinite parts (a discovery that culminates in the magic room) because i suppose i relate quite a bit to that - there's this fundamental self but at the same time by sticking to one identity you lose out on other, sometimes paradoxical, identities that are worth something as well and that are part of you as well. there's the independent, 'wolfish' part of harry that desires to be away from the rest of humanity. then there's the part of haller that wants to be loved as a whole and feels attracted to bourgeois society, even though he is still skeptical of it. and hermine teaches him that this isn't two contradictory selves, but different parts of one self

steppenwolf to me is about seeing identity as something multidimensional and something not to be too fixated by. it's also about the phrase "learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest.” haller's really serious at first but he learns to loosen up and appreciate things in the world through hermine, who is meant to be the lighter part of his personality. he learns to appreciate mozart through the gramophone, he learns to dance, he learns to see the heroic in the every day. and so when he finally kills hermine, it's symbolic of the unification of his personality where he learns to not be a dichotomy or a split in any number of ways but a unified self. in a way, accepting paradoxes within, and he's conflicted about the division because he feels both

The only thing I have to add is while I was reading Steppenwolf I found myself getting drawn into Harry’s monologues because I also often feel a sharp division in myself and struggle with what I perceive to be the “wolfish” parts of myself, but then he would follow these passages up by saying Harry was stupid and the division was artificial, and fuck… he’s right… Sometimes I do think the whole thing is pretty juvenile, akin to being a middle schooler and sulking because you feel misunderstood. Is the Steppenwolf just an angsty puppy? Hesse wrote Steppenwolf in his 50s but I am not surprised at all that it has been enduringly popular amongst teenagers for decades.

Some quotes I liked:

  • On the division in the Steppenwolf:
    These persons all have two souls, two beings within them. There is God and the devil in them; the mother’s blood and the father’s; the capacity for happiness and the capacity for suffering; and in just such a state of enmity and entanglement towards and within each other as were the wolf and man in Harry. Their life consists of a perpetual tide, unhappy and torn with pain, terrible and meaningless, unless one is ready to see its meaning in just those rare experiences, acts, thoughts and works that shine out above the chaos of such a life.

  • On the artificial division:
    The division into wolf and man, flesh and spirit, by means of which Harry tries to make his destiny more comprehensible to himself is a very great simplification. It is a forcing of the truth to suit a plausible, but erroneous, explanation of that contradiction which this man discovers in himself and which appears to himself to be the source of his by no means negligible sufferings. Harry finds in himself a human being, that is to say, a world of thoughts and feelings, of culture and tamed or sublimated nature, and besides this he finds within himself also a wolf, that is to say, a dark world of instinct, of savagery and cruelty, of unsublimated or raw nature. Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two. His life oscillates, as everyone’s does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousand and thousands.

  • On dancing:
    She danced wonderfully and I caught the infection. I forgot for the moment all the rules I had conscientiously learned and simply floated along.

  • On lightness:
    I suspect you of taking love frightfully seriously. That is your own affair. You can love as much as you like in your ideal fashion, for all I care. All I have to worry about is that you should learn to know a little more of the little arts and lighter sides of life. In this sphere, I am your teacher, and I shall be a better one than your ideal love ever was, you may be sure of that! It’s high time you slept with a pretty girl again, Steppenwolf.

Timequake - Kurt Vonnegut

If you like Vonnegut or are interested in the problem of hopeless determinism, read Timequake.

Narrated by Vonnegut, Timequake's main character is Kilgore Trout, who also appears in many of Vonnegut’s other books. The eponymous timequake sends everyone from the year 2001 back to 1991, where they have to relive every decision they made and action they took in the last 10 years. As in all other Vonnegut books, style and how the story is told are just as important as the plot, and Vonnegut mixes past with present as the story moves through the timequake, jumping in between current day and timequake flashback freely. In typical Vonnegut fashion, he also goes off tangent very frequently, and adds small stories, weird tidbits, and stray thoughts, like plots of sci-fi books, the plot of the Scarlet Letter, and some psalms. Here, as in Slaughterhouse Five, the irregular time in the story allows Vonnegut to jump back and forth in past and present and in fact and fiction, slicing the story into irregular chunks where chapter breaks are just as significant as paragraph breaks. In most of these small stories, the characters are forced to remember and relive their bad choices, and when time finally jumps back to 2001, they are all rendered helpless by their apathy and their inability to exercise their will and change.

Some quotes that I liked (and man Vonnegut books always have so many):

  • On good art:
    I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, “The Beatles did.”

  • On the embarrassment of existence:
    It appears to me that the most highly evolved Earthling creatures find being alive embarrassing or much worse.

  • On being alive:
    “being alive is a crock of shit.”

  • On appreciation:
    He said that when things were really going well we should be sure to notice it. “He was talking about simple occasions, not great victories: maybe drinking lemonade on a hot afternoon in the shade, or smelling the aroma of a nearby bakery, or fishing and not caring if we catch anything or not, or hearing somebody all alone playing a piano really well in the house next door. “Uncle Alex urged me to say this out loud during such epiphanies: ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’ ”

  • On helplessness:
    “Listen, if it isn’t a timequake dragging us through knothole after knothole, it’s something else just as mean and powerful.”

  • On our purpose:

    • We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.

    • For Christ’s sake, let’s help more of our frightened people get through this thing, whatever it is.

    • I go home. I have had one heck of a good time. Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different!

  • On the purpose of books:
    Still and all, why bother? Here’s my answer: Many people need desperately to receive this message: “I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone.”

Holidays on Ice - David Sedaris

If you like David Sedaris’s writing style and particular brand of humor then read Holidays on Ice. I read it on the plane because I thought it would be a nice read and it was quick but be warned, it’s definitely not a normal heartwarming Christmas read :p

Bluebeard - Kurt Vonnegut


If you like Vonnegut or are interested in the possibility of art with meaning and soul then read Bluebeard.

Bluebeard’s main character is Vonnegut’s other alter ego and recurring character Rabo Karabekian, a painter who is also a minor character in Breakfast of Champions. In Bluebeard, Karabekian is a wealthy old man, twice married, who lives in a big house with just his friend. Part of the abstract expressionist movement, Karabekian became friends with several of the famous painters of the movement, and built a large collection of their paintings. Like other Vonnegut books, Bluebeard mixes fact and fiction freely, so it’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s not, and he specifically notes in the introduction that Bluebeard is not supposed to factually recount Abstract Expressionism.

In the book, Karabekian meets a woman Circe Bergman, who forcefully enters his life and makes him change. He starts to write his autobiography (which ends up being this book), and we learn his background. Son to two Armenian parents who escaped the massacre and came to America, Karabekian apprenticed under another Armenian painter, meets the abstract expressionists, makes a lot of failed paintings, and then through a series of accidents, fortune, and misfortune ends up mostly alone in this big expensive house in the Hamptons with lots of expensive paintings, and a potato barn with his final work locked away from anyone else to see.

What sets Bluebeard apart from Vonnegut’s other stories, besides Karabekian as the main character, are two stylistic things. He doesn’t hop around quite as much in Bluebeard as he does in his other backs, and although moves from past to present, the past generally progresses chronologically, and the flashbacks are all sequentially interspersed between present day. This is typical for most books, so atypical for Vonnegut. Bluebeard also has a pretty happy ending, in the sense that the external situation is good, whereas while other Vonnegut books don’t necessarily end tragically, the satisfaction and happiness is more internally harmonious, and the plot always wraps up nicely but it’s not like anyone is having a particularly swell time.

I interpreted the book to be about the possibility of creating art with real meaning, i.e. art that has soul in it, which is something Rabo struggles with in the book. Karabekian is a very skilled painter and copier, and his original pieces that he created when he was painting with the abstract expressionists were big monocolor panels with strips of tape on it. They are supposed to mean nothing, but actually secretly symbolized souls, which is a really sad metaphor because the paint he uses is defective and eventually disappears, and the tapes (souls) just fall off. He is technically skilled, but his art lacks soul, which I think maybe is also an indictment of Vonnegut’s works, and something that he feared, since Rabo is one of his alter agos? That would be somewhat surprising though, because I think I like his work so much because of the amount of soul they have, and how solid and real they feel despite how weird most of them are.

Some of my favorite quotes:

  • On the embarrassment of existence:
    Paul Slazinger says, incidentally, that the human condition can be summed up in just one word, and this is the word: Embarrassment.

  • On loneliness:
    My mother was shrewd about the United States, as my father was not. She had figured out that the most pervasive American disease was loneliness, and that even people at the top often suffered from it, and that they could be surprisingly responsive to attractive strangers who were friendly.

  • On making good art, and thinking of an audience:
    “That’s the secret of how to enjoy writing and how to make yourself meet high standards,” said Mrs. Berman. “You don’t write for the whole world, and you don’t write for ten people, or two. You write for just one person.”

  • On being open:
    Circe Berman asked me about being one eyed after we had known each other less than an hour. She will ask anybody anything at any time.

  • On women:
    And then she added: “Women are so useless and unimaginative, aren’t they? All they ever think of planting in the dirt is the seed of something beautiful or edible. The only missile they can ever think of throwing at anybody is a ball or a bridal bouquet.”

  • On the postcoital mood (a big mood, for sure):
    When we reached this house, and although we had not and never would make love, our moods were postcoital.

How Asia Works - Joe Studwell

If you are interested in Asian economics in the 1970s, and in general how countries develop successfully, then read How Asia Works.

This is one of my favorite non fiction books of the year. How Asia Works examines the successes and failures of different Asian countries in the 20th century to develop, aiming to understand what set apart successful countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and China from countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. His primary thesis is that different stages of development for a country require different policies, and applying the IMF/ World Bank policy of financial deregulation & free market is terrible advice for developing countries. The recipe for success is very simple: household farming that maximizes the surplus of labor, export-oriented manufacturing that engages farmers in the modern economy and forces a country to technologically mature and develop, and closely controlled finance that supports these two areas of development. The book is split into four sections: the first three each devoted to a part of the recipe, and the last a specific chapter focused on China.

What I love about this book is even though the subject matter is a little niche and could easily be dry, Joe Studwell really really breaks down the subject very well, and writes in such a cogent way that the lessons he is trying to impart are so simple they sometimes seem obvious. I was initially very reserved about reading a book about Asia called How Asia Works written by someone who wasn’t Asian, but it's clear that Joe Studwell is a real expert on the subject, so much so that he is able to distill sharp insight into easily digestible and well organized chunks. If you have even a remote amount of interest in how different countries develop economically, this book is a very very interesting and informative read. In a nonfiction of this length, I typically have about 50 highlights, maybe 100 if the book is very interesting. In How Asia Works, I had 369.