What I Read, 2019 Version

Starting with the 19th book review (Mao biography), I have decided to add a grade and, to counterbalance what can often seem like negative reviews, one interesting fact learned from each book.  I aim for a B- average.

  1.  The Sellout by Paul Beatty – Wow, what a novel.  My wife bought it for me for the holidays, and I finished it very early in January.  I love talking about race, Los Angeles, and academia, all of which this book has lots of. (Not much academia, actually, but some.  University of California – Brentwood, I’ll always remember that.)  The first 150 pages or so are better than the rest, but it’s all great.  It’s not precisely clear to me how the protagonist’s actions led to a case before the Supreme Court (not a spoiler, it’s the opening scene), but that doesn’t really matter.  Biting wit is the best way to describe this book, and you should read it.  I can’t wait to read it again, which I never say about a book.
  2. The Rap Yearbook by Shea Serrano  – The most well-written non-fiction book I have read in at least five years.  Seriously, each page is full of nerdy details told with a love and attention to wordplay that requires a rare combination of intelligence and passion.  (Also, another book my wife got me.  I should just let her buy my books.)  Each chapter is a song, making it perfect bathroom or bedside reading.  The page texture and illustrations are also great.  You are learning about songs, but really you’re learning about modern American racial politics as told through music.
  3. Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright – I definitely got stuff from this book.  I especially thought the first few chapters, which uses evolutionary psychology to explain the source of the problems with which mindfulness meditation is supposed to help, taught me something knew.  After that, however, I found the book tedious.  It became much more about pop psychology than about Buddhism, and I wanted the book to be the latter.  I also didn’t like the writing style.  Finally, I’m guessing every popular Buddhism book, of which I’ve now read 3, has to have the author discuss his or her insights gleaned from a silent retreat.  Wright’s were the least intriguing for me; it almost felt like the retreat was made with a book in mind.
  4. Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance – The memoir from someone my age who makes me feel like I’ve accomplished nothing, the book is enjoyable and worth your time. It is an easy read, well-written, and provides a window into a life foreign to people like me. Given the bipartisan, but leaning to the right, praise it received, I want to offer two semi-critical points. First, while Vance clearly puts the failings of hillbillies at the feet of their culture, he does not dismiss the importance of government. His grandparents can provide for him thanks to Social Security; his schools and teachers, by his admission, are strong enough for him to succeed; and low-interest loan programs make college affordable. I therefore read the book less as a refutation of leftist politics and more as a call to recognize the importance of family culture. I’m not sure if there is anyone who would disagree with that. (Child Services comes out very poorly in this book, as it does in every other portrayal of it I have ever read it. We should reconsider how the state approaches parenting.) Second, the book, just like data privacy or the alt-right, would have received much less attention if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election. It is good, but it is not great. Rags-to-success memoirs are not new, and the exposition of Scots-Americans reminded me large parts of Eleven Nations (a very underrated book). But since it comes from a part of the electorate that used to be blue and was published during an election cycle where that part of the electorate tilted the scale, everyone fell for it. It is better to be lucky than good, but it’s best to be both.
  5. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond –  I started the book concerned that my second read of this masterpiece would not live up to my memory of reading it in high school.  Perhaps I was not mature enough to appreciate quality writing; perhaps it was not actually well cited; perhaps its message was unclear; and so on, I kept asking myself.  Fortunately, my fear was unfounded.  This book is excellent.  Writing a book explaining the rise and fall of societies is basically a right of passage for male professors (seriously, it’s a very male dominated category), and this book continues to be the best out there.  Whereas others focus on Europe or China or start just before the Industrial Revolution, Jared Diamond surveys all continents since the earliest humanoid fossils.  His command of the material is magisterial, and no word in any sentence is waisted.  This book is a flex, and Jared Diamond is still the king.  Writing a book this good is my career goal.
  6. The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BC – 1492 AD by Simon Schama – Wow, what a beautifully written book.  A history professor writing for a broad audience, Schama strikes a tone that is at once familiar, reverential, and learned.  I especially loved the chapters relying on archeological evidence or fragments of letters.  Reading those chapters was like having a great docent guiding you, the kind you tip from desire and not obligation.  I have since bought this book for two people and will snatch up the second volume when I find it around.  I am sure I will reread chapters in the future.
  7. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin – I forget where I bought this book, but I had a hankering to read James Baldwin.  The book is two letters, so it is short.  Because many paragraphs, especially towards the book’s end, span multiple pages and I read the book before going to bed, I read the book a second time because I felt like I missed stuff the first time.  I did not miss much the first time, and the writing style is indeed difficult to follow.  I am pretty sure his paragraphs could be split into multiple ones.  I enjoyed hearing about growing up in Harlem and the the transition into adulthood.  The cynical take on religions was interesting, and an extended visit to Elijah Muhammed in Chicago was particularly fun.  Overall, I am glad I read the book and recommend it to others, but I prefer Autobiography of Malcolm X is better.
  8. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos – Evan Osnos was the New Yorker’s China correspondent from 2005-2013, and this book is based on that experience.  I generally do not like journalists’ memoirs and so avoided it when new, but I found it used at the Los Angeles Times book festival.  The book was great: I plowed through it in a week and now feel like I sound intelligent when discussing China with friends.  The book uses individual vignettes to illustrate larger developments in China, with background on Mao and Deng Xiaoping’s reforms provided as necessary. Like all good books, it humanizes what could otherwise feel abstract or exotic.  I especially liked that many of the episodes were major events that I had seen covered in our media but did not pay close attention to: the blind lawyer; the Nobel Prize winner that China jailed; the child who was run over and 28 people did not help her; Ai Weiwei; and others.  Highly recommended.
  9. Weapons of Mass Diplomacy by Abel Lanzac, Christophe Blain, and Edward Gauvin.  The pseudonymous author of this graphic novel, Abel Lanzac, worked in the French Foreign Ministry in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War.  The novel covers that American crisis from the perspective of a speechwriter for the French Foreign Minister, and it does a great job portraying the life of a bureaucrat powerless in front of his boss, international events, and a deteriorating personal life.  Funny, well-drawn, and insightful, this novel is a worth addition to the canon of great political satires (In the Loop, Wag the Dog, Veep, and so on).
  10. Why Don’t We Learn from History by B.H. Liddell Hart.  I don’t remember how I heard about this book.  It was probably from a reading list given by a guest of some podcast, probably Tim Ferriss or Barry Ritholtz.  I took it on a trip because it is then and had an arresting foreword, but overall I was not very happy.  The book itself is an interesting discussion about European general staff decision making, primarily referencing World War I but with some references to the just-finished WWII.  (My version is a 2012 reprint, but the writing style and allusions are clearly sometime between 1943-1955.)  Overall, I enjoyed the book – I especially love reading old books whose lessons are just as applicable today – but just wish the title better matched the content.
  11. Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee.  One great thing about having a well-read wife is that there are good fiction books laying around.  I grabbed this to test out before a long trip, liked the first 50 pages, and ended up finishing it about 2 weeks later.  That counts as quick for me.  The book is very well-written.  It felt like the most literary style, in a good way, of any book I remember reading in the last few years.  I thought the final 25% dragged a bit and I did not entirely understand a reconciliation between two characters, but nothing is perfect.  Lots of interesting characters, a description of a world (immigrant New York and local politics) I would not otherwise see much, and lots of great turns of phrase.  Definitely recommended and a book I would read a second time in a few years.
  12. Jewish Justices of the Supreme Court by David G. Dalin.  Another thoughtful book from my wife, JJSC is a solid history book, and I mean history in the positive and negative sense of the word.  The best part was learning about how certain Jews have experienced America over the last 150 years.  In fact, the slowest part was the beginning, a very detailed synopsis of seemingly all Jews who had served in the federal government before Brandeis.  The chapters follow a very similar structure, so it became easy to skim over a lot of the legal stuff that did not interest me but may have intrigued others.  Very clearly written but not compellingly so, I am happy I read the book and would recommend it to others.
  13. Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss.  I don’t know why, but I never realized Tim Ferriss is self-help before reading this book.  However, the book helped this self very much.  An extensive collection of condensed podcast interviews, the tome is the perfect book for our anxiety-ridden, productivity-focused, attention span-reduced world.  Some “chapters” are one page, few are more than five, and lots of bullets and bold font facilitate skimming.  I dogeared pages at a very high right and expect to consult this book for years as a reference.  The greatest benefit is that many of my habits are similar to what many of the interviewees recommend.  Nothing guarantees success, but the book at least finally got me to accept that my work habits are adequate.  Stress can now be focused on deeper questions, not on working habits.
  14. Leaving the Witness by Amber Scorah.  I have always won when following The New Yorker’s music recommendations, so I bought this book recommended book without a second chance.  That was a mistake.  The story – woman grows up a Jehovah’s Witness, leaves as her missionary work in China shows her the religion does not have a monopoly on Truth –   is the appeal, but I did not find myself drawn in by the writing or any provided details.  I did not learn anything about Jehovah’s Witnesses  except that they control your free time by requiring so much proselytizing and church social activities.  The story is told matter of factly, with very little character exploration or details on anything.  A quick, easy read, but not one I will gift.
  15. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.  Having read, and enjoyed, an excerpt in The New Yorker awhile ago, I was excited to take my wife’s copy of this book on vacation.  The front and back jacket are full of praise for its literary quality, but I don’t get it.  Dialogue is not set off with quotation marks, but otherwise I could not figure out what makes the writing so appealing.  The story itself is interesting, as it spans about 70 years and exactly two countries, but I never developed affection for any character.  Subhash, the protagonist, is the most appealing, while Udayan, who dies early, is the ghost that drives the narrative.  The book’s most appealing feature is its speed: since it is broad in scope, no chapter or paragraph dwells on minutiae the way other “literary” work can.  I also learned a bit about the academic immigrant experience in America and the difficulty of bridging two worlds.  I could see myself recommending the book, but I will not reread it.
  16. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.  I read the book three years ago on my honeymoon and took it with me again on a recent vacation, the same on which I read The Lowland.  The second time, there are parts I liked more than I remember and parts I like less.  For example, the critique of Silicon Valley type transhumanists is much sharper than I remembered, but the political economy details of America’s future decline are so nonexistent as to imperil the book’s credibility.  Instead of feeling like a near-future dystopia, as I remembered, the book’s crumbling America felt more like a device for advancing the two main characters’ love story.  Overall, however, I very much liked the book, especially Shteyngart’s attention to detail around people’s degraded intellect – poor spelling, thinking watching Chronicles of Narnia makes you smart, and vapid career aspirations, among others.  Sharply written, a quick read, and funny, definitely a book I would gift.
  17. How to be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson.  The book’s message is that work is drudgery imposed by elites, so everyday acts of idleness are actually a form of rebellion.   I’m not sure how I heard about the book, but it was probably on some some list from one of my blogs.  I probably wanted another pro-meditation, anti-treadmill book.  This book was perfectly that.  There are 24 chapters to the book, one per hour of the day, and each is an ode to a relaxing mode of living like having a drink, napping, procrastinating, or going for a walk.  What makes the book great is that the author is very literary.  Each chapter contains poems, quotes, or references to historical figures extolling the chapter’s mode of living.  In other words, the book is a fancy (and well-written) paean to life’s little pleasures.
  18. Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday.  I am not sure how I discovered Holiday, but he has stuck in my mind for two reasons.  First, he extols extols index cards to summarize and remember what one has read, and the idea is so obvious that I know it is right.  Second, a highlight of his career is having worked as Marketing Director for Dov Charney at American Apparel.  The appeal of the first felt balanced by the black mark of the second, so I never went beyond Holiday’s blog.  But when I was traveling back from Seoul, needed an English-language book, and his showed up, it seemed like The Universe giving me the answer.  It turns out The Universe as a concept is probably as bogus as I used to think it was.  The book was not a good read.  It was heavy handed on the self-esteem boosting without going deep on any concepts.  Many historical figures were alluded to, but I would have loved a couple of pages on their lives instead of a couple of sentences; since these figures were put forth as exemplars or warnings, context would have been especially useful.  Instead, I got the feeling the book was written in about the time it took to read, approximately 5 hours.  I found a couple of good chapters about resilience that I may assign to graduate students, but overall the book is forgettable.
  19. Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday.  I very much enjoyed this 616 page biography, but two shortcomings cause me to question exactly how accurate various facts are.  First, the author makes many very strong claims that are not cited, which is particularly jarring because the book is clearly well-researched, as the copious endnotes make clear.  For example, in discussing the Cultural Revolution, the author states (pg. 511), “From then on [after August 23, 1966], when important sites were being wrecked, official specialists were present to pick out the most valuable objects for the state, while the rest were carted off and melted down, or pulped.”  This assertion implies that the Cultural Revolution did not feature the random destruction so often associated with it and was instead carefully orchestrated from a small clique around Mao.  Given that it provides, I believe, a strong reinterpretation of this part of the Cultural Revolution, it should be cited.  Second, the book contains dozens of instances of the author inserting strong, unsubstantiated opinion, causing me to question which parts of the book  that sound factual actually are.  For example, in discussing the censure of Kuai Da-fu, a Quinghua University student who was more enthusiastic about attacking “counterrevolutionaries” during the Cultural Revolution (he started to gain weapons and an independent power base), the authors write (pg. 532), “Mao, too, apparently cried, quite possibly out of frustration at his own inability to reconcile his impulses with his practical needs.”  The authors often project Mao’s emotional state onto him; while interesting, these conjectures, which occur in the middle of otherwise straight forward narration, jar.  Ultimately, I am concerned that the authors visceral repulsion at their subject, though perfectly understandable, could have clouded their writing and generated extremely positive reviews via confirmation bias.  Still, I am glad I read it and recommend others read it.
    1. Grade: B+
    2. Interesting fact: China under Mao was the most generous provider of foreign aid, as a percentage of GDP (often more than 5%), that has ever existed.
  20. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.  The generous interpretation of this 228 page Pulitzer Prize finalist is that an editor is responsible for a title that does not match the book’s content.  To make the argument that the internet is causing our attention spans to shorten, Carr starts with the invention of writing.  Occasionally, these chapters discuss how those eras’ new technologies affected thought processes, but by “discuss” I mean no more than a paragraph or two.  When discussing how computers affect attention, the book then becomes a standard pop science summation of recent academic research.  I do not enjoy books that summarize academic research and then make grand claims about humanity from them, but I realize I may be unique given my profession.  Though the dual structure of the book (intellectual history, pop science) bothers, most problematic for me is that Carr treats previous technological transitions as benign or advantageous (writing better than oral, mass printing better than scribes) while the digital transition is on net negative.  This sort of historical provincialism – This time is different! – irks me in any form and ages the author.  I also think people consume digital media too much and wish we could have longer attention spans, but I am willing to assume that everything will be okay since other transitions turned out fine as well.  To conclude positively: the book encourages me to have the confidence that I can write a Pulitzer Prize worthy book, as there is nothing in the author’s prose or presentation that strikes me as particularly noteworthy.
    1. Grade: C
    2. Interesting fact: As journals moved online, citation patterns became less diverse (based on a James Evans study).   Semi-random browsing of physical volumes encourages serendipity and wider reading than search engines.
  21. Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart.  This 349 page memoir is like a meal with just a bit too many carbs and not enough veggies.  Just on the edge of satisfying, the detail is inverse to what I would like. Gary does not reach Stuyvesant High until page 206.  If he is 16 then (he was held back one year when he immigrated to the US) and 42 when the book was published (2014), that means 2/3 of the book is devoted to 38% of his life.  While imbalance is not necessarily bad, the first 206 pages hardly compelled me to keep reading.  I could never figure out the emotional points the anecdotes were trying to convey, so I felt like I was reading a recollection of facts than an emotionally compelling memoir.  Before becoming a depressed, substance abusing teenager and sub-30 adult, he was a sickly kid with fighting parents, bad clothes, and a strong imagination.  I enjoyed learning about Stuyvesant High, Oberlin, and Manhattan in the ’90s from a striving writer’s perspective, but this part of his life felt under explored.  Shteyngart alludes to a lot of emotional issues he had to figure out, but it was never clear to me what these were, except for the need for love.  Maybe that’s all there is and I am being too critical.  If the book were 412 pages or half of the first 206 were replaced with more exploration of his relationship with John, his psychoanalyst (different character), or his substance abuse, I would have found the book more enjoyable.  Also, and unrelated to my previous points, I did not find his writing to have the energy as his novels.  I have now read all of his works except his debut, and this one is my least favorite.
    1. Grade: B-
    2. Interesting facts: The Soviets agreed to let their Jews emigrate in exchange for the United States providing grain.  Chang-rae Lee directed the MFA program at Hunter College and, as part of recruiting Shteyngart, introduced him to the agent who would publish his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
  22. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.   If Karl Ove Knausgard were a bad writer, he would be Hemingway.  I picked up this obviously biographical “novel” at a bookstore after having heard, for about the 100th time, on one of the masculine podcasts I listen to (Tim Ferriss probably), how great Hemingway is.  I just do not get it.  Perhaps I could appreciate the writing style if I knew more literature from that era or just before it, but the prose is drier than the Sahara.  There is no description, almost no adjectives, and no character development.  There is, though, lots and lots of alcohol and narration of what seems like every minutiae of his life, just like Knausgard.  Knausgard, however, writes beautifully.  This boring memoir is now my bathroom reading, and I expect to replace it soon.  I am only 120 pages into it and expect to never finish it.
    1. Grade: F.
    2. Interesting fact: Hemingway loves alcohol.

 

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