Books of April 2018

Oyasumi Punpun - Inio Asano

Oyasumi Punpun.jpg

If you're interested in a masterpiece of characterization, a dark and depressing story, or the manga that I think best employs the medium of manga, then read Oyasumi Punpun. 

Oyasumi Punpun is an incredible work about the eponymous little boy Punpun, who is depicted in the manga as a little bird. The story follows him from elementary school into high school, college, and adulthood, as he copes with his dysfunctional family, his love interest Aiko Tanaka, his adolescence and maturity, and his self destructive thoughts and urges.

One of the things that I love about Punpun is its art. Asano uses the medium of manga better than any other manga that I've read. Manga is intended to be read from panel to panel, unfolding and transitioning from page to page, and that is brilliantly incorporated in Punpun. From hyper realistic close ups of eyes, hands or grotesque expressions, Asano quickly shifts the POV to a wide panorama on the next panel where the characters are almost hidden in the backdrop of what's around them. It's a very lonely and jarring experience to move without transition from the intimacy of a closeup of a character's turbulent emotions to the homogeneity of a wide frame panel of a busy street, a type of art and expression that is only possible because of the way manga is created and consumed.

Punpun Street.jpg

The art in Punpun also combines this highly detailed backdrop with very simple and abstract art and the contrast really adds to the impact whenever Asano draws full page panels like this:

Part of what makes the art so good is how it supports the characters, and Punpun is a masterpiece in characterization. Depicting Punpun and his family as birds is a fucking genius move, and the juxtaposition of Punpun and his family's normal simplicity as birds and the occasional hyper realistic panels of certain body parts is just insane. It's terrible to read.

Uncle Yuichii.jpg

How Punpun evolves and changes from innocent little bird to what he becomes in the end of the manga is also terrifying, and makes his destructive and depressing transformation that much more vivid and visceral and horrifying.

A manga with such fucked up art can only be accompanied by a fucked up story, and the stories and themes in Punpun cut deep. Punpun is a sad story because Punpun is a fundamentalist, and [--spoilers--] never gets over breaking his promise as a child to Tanaka. He is torn between his clear distinctions of good and bad, and ends up in vicious cycles of self destruction and hatred when he is inevitably unable to always live up to his concepts of good. A lot of characters (Uncle Yuichii, Tanaka, Punpun, Sachi) also struggle with sex, something very terrifying and scary in the manga. Characters are torn between love as an uplifting and supportive force, and sex as something dirty and dangerous and demeaning, and many are unable to properly manage their feelings and their urges, especially Uncle Yuichii. 

A lot of serious mangas suffer from weak endings (like Monster or Billy Bat) but Punpun's ending is fantastic and satisfying in a very sad way. The adult Punpun meets his childhood friend Harumin who moved in elementary school, and thinks that Punpun is doing well and has supportive friends and a good life. In reality, at the end of the manga Punpun is broken and just wants to be left alone and forgotten, but is dragged back to life by Sachi, and seen through the innocent lens of his friend, we see the hell that Punpun lives in now and the terrible inability of anyone to truly understand and relate to Punpun. [--end spoilers--]

My only complaint with Punpun is the weird alien subplot, with Pegasus, the leader of the cult. It just didn't really seem to fit in the manga, and later on in an interview I read that he added that subplot because he sometimes gets bored or distracted and wanted to make sure to add something so readers could enjoy something other than only Punpun's story.

A Little Primer of Tu Fu - David Hawkes

A Little Primer of Tu Fu.jpg

If you want a little primer of Dufu then read A Little Primer of Tu Fu.

A Little Primer of Tu Fu is an awesome introduction to Dufu's poetry via an analysis of all of his poems in 唐詩三百首, an anthology of 300 poems from the Tang Dynasty. I found this book through one of my art history professors at Columbia, because while reading stuff about rap and Chinese rap I got interested in Chinese poetry, so I reached out to Professor Delbanco and she recommended this book to me. 

Part of why I really liked this book is because its structure is so clear and consistent. Every section of the book is organized in the same way: it starts with the poem in traditional Chinese with pinyin, continues with an explanation of the title, a description of the form, and an explanation of each line (focusing on specific terms or phrases in the poem, especially allusions or references), and ends with a translation of the poem as a whole. Even though I read some of his poems in Chinese class in Taiwan, I found A Little Primer super valuable and interesting, and the way he organizes his analysis and explanation really helped highlight some of the reasons why Dufu is such a celebrated poet and why his works are so great. I also got a much better understanding of Dufu's life and how it influenced his poetry, and the many forms of Chinese poetry in the Tang dynasty. 

I also like that he doesn't try to capture the poem in English and instead just explains its meaning, because it's very difficult to capture the essence of Chinese poems in English and I feel like any effort to would diminish Dufu's poems. I do feel sad that to learn about Chinese poetry I read an English book, so I'm planning to read a Chinese book on 唐詩三百首 soon as well, but this was a very lovely primer.

My favorite poems were 望岳, 贈衛八處士, 登樓, 登高, 月夜, and 哀江頭.

Molester Man - Yokota Takuma

If you're interested in a short but sweet manga about an awkward college dude and his relationships, then read Molester Man

Molester Man is a short slice of life manga about an otaku in college who gets accused of being a stalker from a series of misunderstandings, but he and the girl end up becoming friends and he falls for her friend. This is hard to imagine because the title Molester Man is so troll (another good example is the TV show Cougar Town), but Molester Man is actually a pretty heart warming and relatable manga, especially when I first read it as a senior in high school.

Most of Molester Man happens from the perspective of the main character, self dubbed Molester Man (other characters call him Mr. Molester, which is hilarious). Because the manga spends so much time in his head, you get a very personal look into his thoughts, so at every point in the manga you have a good understanding of what he's thinking or feeling and why. That's why I found Molester Man so likeable and relatable, because he is a great mix of good intentions and awkward earnestness, which I think captures honestly what it's like to be a stupid teenage male who is nervous about girls but always means well.

Part of why the story feels very genuine is probably because Molester Man is based on a real story from an 2ch thread where someone posted about his experiences, and a bunch of people followed his story, commented on it, or gave him advice. The art is also very simple, and focuses mainly on the characters, which is nice because it really suits the story. A super realistic style with very detailed background and people would actually take away a lot of its charm, like how One's shitty drawings make Mob Psycho 100 more endearing.

Nine Museums - Yoshio Taniguchi

If you're interested in learning about and looking at pictures of beautiful Japanese museums designed by Taniguchi then read Nine Museums.

I love going to museums and I love looking at museums. Because art is a very special expression of a country's soft power, museum architecture is intimately tied to its location, the type of art it houses, and the intended purpose of the museum, so all museums are very unique. A great example is the difference between the Met and 故宮, or Musee Rodin and the Louvre. They are different because of where they are, what type of art they have, and what they're intended to do, and the experience of Rodin's art would be much diminished in a Chinese style pagoda or in a large monumental museum like the National Gallery.

I liked Taniguchi's architecture when I studied his stuff in class, but I forgot a lot of what I learned, so I wanted to read more about his museum architecture (I was also recommended this book by a former art professor). Nine Museums by Yoshio Taniguchi starts with an essay on his architecture and then devotes a chapter to each of the nine museums. Each section opens with a short, one page introduction to the museum, shows you the floor plan, and then shares a bunch of pictures of different parts of the museum at different times of day (the night time pictures are sublime).

The pictures and the museums in the book are just gorgeous, and I would love to visit them someday. After I leave Riot I'd like to go on a trip to Japan and just go around the country looking at museums that I like. I love the materials that he uses, and how light and shadows interact in his buildings. A lot of his buildings are big and materials are solid, but somehow they recede into the background and walking around in the museum looks like a very meditative experience. 

My favorite museums in the book are the Ken Domon Museum of Photography, The Higashiyama Kaii Gallery in the Nagano Prefectural Shinano Art Museum, and the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures in the Tokyo National Museum.

Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting and Living with Books - Michael Dirda

If you like books, books about books, or sci-fi and mystery, then read Browsings

Browsings is a collection of book reviewer Michael Dirda's essays in his weekly column about books in The Washington Post. There are 52 pieces in total (he writes for a year), but they're all super short and add up to about a 200ish page book. I found Browsings really interesting for two reasons: this dude really fucking loves books, way more than I do (and I love books), and the books he likes and have read are totally distinctive from my interests. That's cool, for sure, but I'm still not that interested in reading about lists of science fiction books or British mystery thrillers, and I also don't really like his writing style. I find it a little too fancy for my tastes, which is also maybe why I don't really like a lot of older English books and some classics. Nonetheless I really admire how much he likes books, and his collection of books inspires me to want to get more :p

Some quotes I liked from the book:

  • On your personal library (I love mine):
    Books don’t just furnish a room. A personal library is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much more you’d like to know.
  • On reading the stuff you like, not the stuff you want to like:
    Well, I say if you don’t like them, don’t read them. You’re not in school any more.
  • On social interaction:
    And, yet, I’ve discovered, you have to get out, you do need to see other human beings. You can’t just read and write all day, much as I’d like to.
  • On reading:
    So just let me stress, one last time, that the world is full of wonderful stories, heartbreakingly beautiful and witty poems, thrilling works of history, biography, and philosophy. They will make you laugh, or hug yourself with pleasure, or deepen your thinking, or move you as profoundly as any experience this side of a serious love affair.

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

If you're interested in a book about life then read Anna Karenina. There are only two books that I've ever read that I think are best described as being "about life": the first is Infinite Jest (yay IJ!) and the second is Anna Karenina.

Anna Karenina is centered around the story of two characters: Countess Anna Karenina, a married noblewoman and a socialite, and her illicit affair with Count Vronsky, and wealthy landowner Konstantin Levin and his struggle managing his land, his marriage, and his reconciliation with the Christian faith. Over the course of about 1000 pages, Tolstoy unfolds a breathtaking panorama of 19th century Russian life, but the story and the development of characters are so detailed and lifelike and their thoughts and emotions so painfully intricate that really the book is just about life. Anna K explores themes like fidelity, love, faith, jealousy, family, marriage, classism, society, and passion, but Tolstoy never explicitly moralizes in the book; life just falls very organically out of its pages. 

This was a long read, and the first 100, 200 pages are a little slow, but I look forward to reading the book again at different parts of my life and see how I experience events in the books and the emotions the characters have differently. 

I tried to find some quotes I liked but I highlighted 153 things in the book, and didn't feel up to digging & picking only a few. 

The Phantom Tollbooth - Jules Norton

If you're interested in a lovely children's book about learning to be excited about life and some very fun wordplay then read The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth is one of my favorite books in the world. I don't remember many things about my childhood but I remember reading this book very distinctively, because it showed me, for the very first time in my life, how reading could be fun and how books could be impressive. I remember being blown away by how clever and fun the language and the wordplay in the book was. It was the first book I read that made me appreciate what a good book was capable of.

The Phantom Tollbooth is about a bored little boy named Milo who gets a mysterious present, and drives through a tollbooth into a fantasy land. In the Kingdom of Wisdom, its two main cities Digitopolis and Dictionopolis are ruled by two brothers who argue over the preeminence of words vs numbers. Ever since the two princesses Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason were banished to the Castle in the Air in the Lands of Ignorance, pieces of the Kingdom of Wisdom have been in disarray, so Milo, his friend Tock the watchdog (who has a big stopwatch as a body and goes tick tick tick), and the Humbug (an actual large bug) go on an adventure to rescue the princesses. 

I am a fob and didn't know a lot of the common phrases/idioms he references, so it was only on this time's reread that I think I actually understood them all (like the dirty bird, the Wordsnatcher living far away from Context). It was still an absolute delight to read though!!! The way he plays with words and double meanings was lots of fun back then and is still lots of fun now. I remember reading "A slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect" in 3rd grade and being super confused by those terms, asking my sister for help explaining them and reading that sentence over and over again. 

Also equally importantly The Phantom Tollbooth has some very lovely ideas and themes wrapped up in its story. There are a lot of educational metaphors made real (like jumping to Conclusions, the actual island, or not thinking in the Doldrums), but I especially love the end, when Milo rescues the princesses and asks them for advice, and they tell him

"You may not see it now, but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way."... "And remember, also," added the Princess of Sweet Rhyme, "that many places you would like to see are just off the map and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But someday you'll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow."

When he returns home, the tollbooth is sent to another kid, and Milo is sad about not being able to see his new friends, but at the end of his adventure he's learned and matured and is now excited by the world around him.

And yet, even as he thought of all these things, he noticed somehow that the sky was a lovely shade of blue and that one cloud had the shape of a sailing ship. The tips of the trees held pale, young buds and the leaves were a rich deep green. Outside the window, there was so much to see, and hear, and touch-walks to take, hills to climb, caterpillars to watch as they strolled through the garden. There were voices to hear and conversations to listen to in wonder, and the special smell of each day.

And, in the very room in which he sat, there were books that could take you anywhere, and things to invent, and make, and build, and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn't know-music to play, songs to sing, and worlds to imagine and then someday make real. His thoughts darted eagerly about as everything looked new-and worth trying.

"Well, I would would like to make another trip," he said, jumping to his feet; "but I really don't know when I'll have the time. There's just so much to do right here." like to make another trip," he said, jumping to his feet; "but I really don't know when I'll have the time. There's just so much to do right here."

As a kid this was transformative way to view the world, and as an adult it's still a very rejuvenating and refreshing reminder. 

Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

If you're interested in a love story set in the Middle East then read Exit West.

Exit West is about a young couple, Saeed and Nadia, who are forced to escape from their country when civil war breaks out. In their world, there are special doors linked to other doors in far away locations, and through these doors many refugees escape to other countries. The story begins in a classic boy meets girl, boy is shy, girl is bold, opposites attract way, but quickly changes when militants create unrest and the city becomes unsafe. I admired how Hamid deftly navigates and describes the jarring contradictions of trying to live a normal life in wartime, while still making a love story about refugees feel universal. It provides a very humanizing perspective by taking a very well worn story and transplanting it into very atypical circumstances. 

I also like how it ends! Despite at times reading like a normal love story, Exit West's ending feels genuine, and doesn't use any of the classic love story tropes that always seem a little lazy to me. 

I did have some issues with the writing style though. I usually don't mind run on sentences, but some of his sentences are paragraph or almost even page length, which actually actively bothered me while I was reading this book.

A World of Three Zeros: The New Economics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Net Carbon Emissions - Muhammad Yunus

If you're interested in a new system of economic and social organization as an alternative to capitalism, then read A World of Three Zeros

My mom recommended me this book! A World of Three Zeros is Professor Muhammad Yunus's explanation of a new world brought about through social businesses. Professor Yunus is incredibly well qualified to write a book like this; he started Grameen bank in Bangladesh, a microfinance bank focused on micro loans for poor women, and since then has started or helped with thousands of social businesses world wide and helped an incredible amount of people. He kind of touts his own horn a lot (his name is bigger than the title on the book), but honestly if anyone can do that he definitely can. All the great examples of doing good he brings up in the book he's personally had a hand in helping, which is incredible and inspiring because he's done so much great stuff for people everywhere. 

The basic premise of the book is that capitalism is centered on man as selfish and profit maximization as his only motivation, but that's actually inaccurate- people are also motivated by selflessness and helping others, and there can be social businesses that focus on maximizing social impact alongside with profit seeking businesses. The book is roughly structured into two parts, the first explaining the three zeros (zero poverty, zero unemployment rate, zero net carbon emissions), and the second explaining the three powers that are necessary to bring those about (youth, technology, and good governance). In each chapter Professor Yunus uses a bunch of examples of social businesses to illustrate his points.

It definitely feels a little idealistic to strive for a world like that, but even if it is, I don't think there's anything wrong with it. Professor Yunus has done an incredible amount for so many people, and I find his idea of social businesses very exciting. I had a lot of doubt while I was reading the book, but I'm not sure how much of that is because of the ideas and how much of that is speaking to how ingrained the principles of capitalism are in my mind. 

I also really like how much actionable stuff he proposes in the book, and he gives a lot of suggestions that people, businesses, and governments can start doing to help make the world a better place.

Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window - Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

If you're interested in a cute and wholesome book about a curious and excited little girl then read Totto-chan

Totto-chan is about the adventures of a very energetic girl nicknamed Totto at a very special school called Tomoe. The school is very small (about 50 students), and has a pretty unique model of education stemming from the principal's passions and beliefs about teaching. The students learn in abandoned train cars repurposed as classrooms, and each chapter is about a separate thing that Totto chan does at school with her teachers and her classmates. The book as a whole is really cute and has tons of wholesome stories about being honest, being inclusive, and being nice, and really highlights the importance of humanizing education and treating children with honesty, love, and respect. 

I only found out at the very end that it was based on a true story, and Kuroyanagi was just writing about her own experiences at Tomoe (she was Totto). Totto-chan is a really lovely story (reminds me a lot of the manga Yotsubato) and achieves the great mix in children's books of cute but thoughtful and touching.

The Data Warehouse Toolkit: The Complete Guide to Dimensional Modeling - Ralph Kimball

If you want to learn about data warehousing then read The Data Warehouse Toolkit.

This was a great guide to data warehousing. I liked how it was structured a lot, and found it very useful as an introduction to the topic, although I think it'll also be very valuable as a reference text as well. This book (and its ideas) are particularly interesting to me because these concepts and Kimball's model for data warehousing were developed many decades ago, are still useful/ commonly used today, and is still the best way to model data for these purposes, which is crazy in an industry like tech where stuff changes so much and so quickly.

The DW Toolkit is a very practical book, focusing on real world use cases. Each chapter is based on a different type of data (like finance, people, customer relationship, etc.), and Kimball works through many detailed examples. I didn't finish the entire book (going to move onto the ETL book, the next book in the series), but I look forward to revisiting this book when I start using this stuff at work.