Books of June 2018

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance - Barack Obama

If you are interested in Obama before he became Obama or if you are interested in a thoughtful meditation on race & inheritance & blackness in America then read Dreams from My Father.

Dreams from My Father is Obama's memoir up until he went to law school at Harvard. It is split into three parts: his childhood in Hawaii/Indonesia/Hawaii and his college years in LA/NY, his years working in Chicago at a non profit as a community organizer, and finally his return to Kenya to see his paternal family. The book was written after Obama graduated from law school at Harvard, before he went into politics and way way before he became President Obama.  

It's a really interesting self reflection on his life, especially because at that point not much particularly exciting or special has happened to him yet. I actually found the first third of the book (about his childhood) pretty boring and almost quit reading, but I'm glad I stuck with it because the rest of the book is so thoughtful and engaging. He's just a wonderfully introspective person and such a phenomenal writer. 

His meditations on blackness in America and his personal experiences working in Chicago to help organize under served communities are especially amazing. You can disagree with Obama the politician on a lot of his policies and perspectives- that is fine and reasonable- but you can't argue that Obama didn't give a shit. In his 20s he was organizing poor and underprivileged communities in Chicago not for any future political aspirations but because he cared; in comparison in his 20s Trump was selling hotels and probably dodging the draft or something. Obama is so great.

Here are some quotes from the book I liked: 

  • On the encagement of minorities in America: 
    Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger.
  • On hearing the stories of the people you serve: 
    That’s what the leadership was teaching me, day by day: that the self-interest I was supposed to be looking for extended well beyond the immediacy of issues, that beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions people carried within them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them. Sacred stories.
  • On what binds a community: 
    What is our community, and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom? How far do our obligations reach? How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love? The answers I find in law books don’t always satisfy me—for every Brown v. Board of Education I find a score of cases where conscience is sacrificed to expedience or greed. And yet, in the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately,  prevail.

p.s. this book is also technically from book club in May, sorry :-(

The Burning Maze - Rick Riordan

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If you like Rick Riordan then read his new book; it's so good and Rick Riordan is great.

I am a big Rick Riordan fan so I like all of his books but he's really outdone himself with The Burning Maze. It is one of my favorite books of his, which is doubly impressive because he's written so many good books and because I didn't like the first two books of this series that much (mainly because I found Apollo's human character Lester super annoying). In The Burning Maze though Riordan builds on the foundation he set up in the first two books and Apollo gets some phenomenal character development, really completing his transformation from annoying and whiny god to annoying and whiny human to sympathetic and empathetic person. Apollo's main companion Meg also continues to be great, and in The Burning Maze we learn more about her backstory. The supporting characters are equally fun- each book in The Trials of Apollo series has featured some characters in his previous Greek/Roman mythology series, and it is always nice to see old characters come back.

What's good about his books have always been the same two things: an engaging story and great character development, but what's astonishing about his books is how he continues to innovate in a genre that's already so saturated and does so on a regular annual cadence. In most of his books he introduces a crazy twist that I haven't read in any other similar books, and he pulls it off so incredibly well (this one too, but I won't spoil it).

This book in particular was funny and touching. My favorite parts __spoilers__ are:

  • On being a tree:
    “We have many powers!” shouted one. “We were born from the Earth Mother’s blood!” “The primordial strength of life flows through us!” said another. “We nursed Zeus as a baby!” said a third. “We bore an entire race of men, the warlike Bronze!” “We are the Meliai!” said a fourth. “We are the mighty ash trees!” cried the fifth. This left the last two without much to say. They simply muttered, “Ash. Yep; we’re ash.”
  • On remembrance, forgiveness, and the warmth of the sun:
    “You have a right to be angry,” I said. “But I remember you—your brilliance, your warmth. I remember your friendship with the gods and the mortals of the earth. I can never be as great a sun deity as you were, but every day I try to honor your memory—to remember your best qualities."... "I will endure,” I told him. “I will regain the sun chariot. As long as I drive it, you will be remembered. I will keep your old path across the sky steady and true. But you know, more than anyone, that the fires of the sun don’t belong on the earth. They weren’t meant to destroy the land, but to warm it! Caligula and Medea have twisted you into a weapon. Don’t allow them to win! All you have to do is rest. Return to the ether of Chaos, my old friend. Be at peace.”
  • On being human:
    I looked at the diorama of Temple Hill—all the little Monopoly tokens carefully labeled in Jason’s hand. I read the label: APOLLO. I could hear Jason’s voice in my mind, saying my name, asking me for one favor: Whatever happens, when you get back to Olympus, when you’re a god again, remember. Remember what it’s like to be human. This, I thought, was being human. Standing on the tarmac, watching mortals load the body of a friend and hero into the cargo hold, knowing that he would never be coming back. Saying good-bye to a grieving young woman who had done everything to help us, and knowing you could never repay her, never compensate her for all that she’d lost.

China in Ten Words - Hua Yu

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If you are interested in how China has changed in the last 60 years then read China in Ten Words.

China in Ten Words is a collection of 10 essays about China, each centered around a different work (like People, Grassroots, Copycat, etc.). Author Yu Hua relates each of these 10 words to a personal story, and through that illustrates how China has changed from the 1960s to now.

One of my favorite things about this book is his style. It's hard to articulate exactly what it is: maybe it's how concise and economical he is with his words, maybe it's the content or experiences he shares, or his deadpan style of delivery, but China in Ten Words is the English book that most read like Chinese for me, which makes a lot of sense because Hua Yu is a famous Chinese author. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution (from age 7 to 17), was a traveling dentist who just pulled teeth without any formal training, and then wanted to work in the cool air conditioned culture centers so became a writer. He's had a super interesting life, because he grew up in a very tumultuous and violent period and has since then seen such astronomically different Chinas. 

My favorite essays were all of them- they were all really entertaining and interesting. I grew up in Taiwan, very close to China, and I still learned so much about China from this book.

All About Love: New Visions - Bell Hooks

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If you are interested in reading about love (which I'm generally down for, to be honest), then read All About Love

All About Love was a bit of a polarizing book for me, because half of it I liked a lot, and the other half I really didn't like (and mostly skimmed or occasionally skipped).

The things I liked about the book:

  • Her thoughts on what love is, especially her definition of love as a verb and a conscious action
  • Her lovely writing on the transformation and healing power of love, recognizing that love is a difficult but redeeming choice
  • Her chapters on self love, love for family, and love for friends, because I learned a lot more from those since we are already pretty aligned on romantic love

Things I didn't like:

  • The chapters on spirituality, especially the parts on Christianity and religion
  • She throws out a lot of grandiose but not really backed up statements like "Nowadays we live in a world where poor teenagers are willing to maim and murder for a pair of tennis shoes or a designer coat; this is not a consequence of poverty." or "Truly, there would no unemployment problem in our nation if our taxes subsidized schools where everyone could learn to love. Job sharing could become the norm. With love at the center of our lives, work could have a different meaning and focus." 
  • She sets up a super strong dichotomy between men and women. I concede that these may be generally true, but also doesn't really back up anything that she says, so I have trouble with her sweeping statements about men being like "x" and women being like "y," especially since they don't really match my own experiences

Some quotes that I liked though:

  • On cynicism: 
    Young people are cynical about love. Ultimately, cynicism is the great mask of the disappointed and betrayed heart.
  • On the consciousness of love: 
    “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” Since the choice must be made to nurture growth, this definition counters the more widely accepted assumption that we love instinctually.
  • On love as a transformative force for good: 
    When we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth, it becomes clear that we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive.
  • On love as understanding: 
    The essence of true love is mutual recognition—two individuals seeing each other as they really are.

A Tale for the Time Being - Ruth Ozeki

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If you are interested in a book about time, science fiction, Zen Buddhism, and history then read A Tale for the Time Being.

A Tale for the Time Being combines two stories: one narrated by Nao, a 16 year old Japanese American living in Tokyo, and the other narrated by Ruth, a Japanese American writer living off an island in British Columbia. Nao moves with her family from California to Tokyo after her father gets laid off, and bullied and friendless, she resolves to kill herself. Ruth moves with her eccentric husband to British Columbia from New York, where she is working through writer's block and feels a little estranged on the island. The two people & their lives are connected through Nao's diary that Ruth finds washed up on shore after the 2011 tsunami. The story reads lightly, especially the chapters narrated by Nao, but several parts of the story are harrowing and painful. Lots of sad and terrible things happen in the book (mostly to Nao), although the story as a whole resolves in a very life affirming way. 

I wasn't too crazy about Ruth and Oliver's story, because everyone on the island is weird and I didn't really feel connected to Ruth ever despite her being the other half of the story. I found the Nao chapters a lot more interesting and engaging, but I struggled with the book a lot initially because I didn't like Nao's voice. Ozeki intentionally writes the Nao parts with a very young voice, which is definitely an appropriate choice, but that style just annoys me (same reason why I didn't like Perks of Being a Wallflower). Surprisingly though the magical realism near the end was good. I usually don't like magical realism, but here I felt like it had a very distinctive and clear purpose, propelling the story forward and felt dreamy but still realistic.

My friend Keva recommended me this book, and she has a lot of opinions, so her thoughts on it are (all direct quotes):

  • I like how its a quotidian take on speculative fiction, that at its core it's a story of everyday occurrences that take on grander significance.
  • I think it tells a lot of different stories in one large narrative, between the two Haruki's, Nao, Ruth, Oliver, and Jiko who all give something to think about for me.
  • I love Ozeki's usage of quantum mechanics to structure her novel. Lots of science fiction is like superheroes, hackers, time travel, apocalypse, etc. which I all love (except hackers lol) but I think this, and Ozeki's other work, provides a different take on the genre. At its core it embraces randomness as a storytelling possibility which I love. Ruth is walking down a beach, finds a bag of trash. She's about to throw it away and her eccentric husband is like why don't you look through it, and that's how the tale comes to fruition. I find a lot of beauty in that
  • There's a quiet rumination on the kinds of history preserved in 'trash' while the digital remains of Nao's life have been completely erased
  • It also asks us as readers to think about our role as readers in this novel, just like Ruth as a reader plays a role
  • There's a lot of little things that i just love about this book which is why I like it so much, it's much less of a grand narrative than a collection of little things that randomly structure a story. Like there's both a lot to love but also a lot to write about as someone who writes about these things

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion - Elizabeth L. Cline


If you are interested in cheap fashion and how it has affected the fashion industry (and the world) then read Overdressed

Overdressed is about how fast cheap fashion took over the fashion industry, and the resulting myriad of negative consequences. Cline covers labor, both domestic (losing jobs) and foreign (terrible working conditions), environmental costs (fashion is one of the most environmentally destructive industries, and now operates at incredible scale), consumer's connections to fashion, and the fashion industry itself (stifling innovation). Each chapter, she discusses a different aspect of the problem, and writes about her experiences visiting & investigating these places. For example, in her chapter on foreign labor in the fashion industry, she visited several factories in China and Bangladesh posing as a representative from an American apparel company trying to get an order of skirts made.

Cline is a little wordy and repetitive sometimes, but overall the book is super interesting and it has definitely changed my perspective on where I want to shop and why. Ultimately the book boils down to a simple idea: if I want pieces that reflect who I am and will last longer and are higher quality, it will be more expensive than mass produced fashion, but the ability to express myself uniquely is a huge benefit that a lot of people don't consider. There are also a bunch of associated costs (environmental, humanitarian, economic) with the fast fashion industry that are invisible to most consumers when they buy a 5 dollar shirt, costs that are definitely worth me paying more for my clothes, buying things that I really like, and buying from places that produce fashion sustainably.

I judge nonfiction by how much they change my perspective, and I was so blown away by the book that I won't shop at fast fashion retailers anymore and I'm actually considering learning how to sew. HMU if you want to take sewing lessons with me in LA.

Celestial Bodies: How to Look at Ballet - Laura Jacobs 

If you are interested in how to look at ballet then read Celestial Bodies

I have seen 3 ballets in my life, all at the Metropolitan Opera House: The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, A Midsummer Night's Dream. I was really excited for all 3 of them, and during all 3 of them I was just so confused. People were dancing, it was obviously difficult, spinning is something to be excited about, there was some music, but more than that I just had no idea what was going on. So after those 3 excitements and those 3 disappointments I wrote ballet off as something that I just didn't get or I just didn't enjoy. 

Which is why this book was so cool for me!! Top 3 non fiction of the year so far. Celestial Bodies starts with the basics of ballet, covering the techniques like the 5 positions, pointepleis, etc. and different roles in a ballet like choreographer, ballet master, corps, soloists, principals, etc., and then goes through a history of ballet chronologically. In those chapters, Jacobs highlights famous ballets, ballerinas (male and female, although mostly female), and choreographers/ artistic directors and how they introduced something new to the art of ballet. She also devotes a few chapters here and there to ideas in ballet, like perfection and balance. 

The book helped me understand some of the technical aspects of ballet and shared some history of ballet, but more importantly, she writes so beautifully about ballet and really helped me see what she sees. In her writing I clearly felt her excitement and passion and awe of ballet, but more than that I could feel my own as she described ballet in her eyes. It is gorgeous stuff- I cant wait to go see a ballet soon.

Some interesting caveats (learned from a conversation I had after I wrote that review):
- Ballet is incredibly damaging to the body, and while she does touch on the negative aspects of forcing your body to do something so unnatural, Jacobs mostly paints the constant attainment of perfection in ballet in a very romantic light. 
- Ballet also pushes a very Eurocentric idea of beauty, especially since in addition to being extremely physically demanding, ballet is also very much about beauty and aesthetics, which means that it's necessarily rooted in some ideal of beauty. Jacobs talks about the Dance Theater of Harlem, but that's by far the exception in ballet and in all 3 ballets I saw I don't think I saw a single ballerina who wasn't white.