what I've been reading

Revisiting and reinforcing the learnings from the Tao of Pooh was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Hoff added to his first book by delving into Piglet and the importance of meekness and humility in Taoism. He also includes criticism of American government and society - unfortunately this criticism is more relevant than ever thirty years after publishing.
Reading this book in 2022 makes Andrew Keen look like somewhat of a prophet. Okay, sure, some of his predictions might not have exactly come true (3D printing certainly hasn't led to a global piracy crisis). His core points, though, have moved to the forefront of American political and societal discussions. How do we deal with big tech companies that have become more powerful than major governments? How do we provide gainful employment in an era where jobs are rapidly being automated away? What can we do to stop our society from being increasingly split into the wealthy and a servant class? As Keen notes in his afterword, at least we've begun to talk about these issues. Meaningful action is yet to come.
Having read Brooklyn, certainly one of the best books I read in 2021, I was very excited when The Master was selected for my office's book club. I hoped for the same slow-boil drama from Brooklyn, the same gripping dialogue where implication rules and only the narration reveals the characters' understanding of what was left unsaid. The dialogue is present in The Master, but without any of the drama; indeed, the book doesn't have much of a plot at all. Each chapter presents a fictionalized interpretation of a section of Henry James' life, with a focus on a specific person or people with whom he interacted during that period. Though we occasionally see him reflecting on previous periods of his life, there's not much continuity to the plot nor character development. The research that went into this book is certainly impressive, and the writing itself is excellent. It's just hard to get excited about a novel that occurs entirely inside the unchanging, recreated mind of Henry James.
[Re-read] Rare to find a book that tackles philosophical issues in both a light-hearted and practical way. The book covers Taoism in its practical aspects rather than going into dogma; Hoff is concerned with how Taoism can helps us to live better lives. Though it's advice we're all quite familiar with (live in the present moment, avoid comparing oneself to others, don't overthink things, be yourself), Hoff planted these lessons firmly in my mind by weaving them into stories from Winnie the Pooh books, along with his own fanfic dialogue. Characters from the books come to represent different ways of going about one's life, with Pooh's happy-go-lucky attitude serving as an analogy for the pinnacle of Taoist life philosophy. A great read for anyone interested in Eastern philosophy or a more spiritual approach to self-improvement.
If ever there were a book that deserved not to be judged by its cover, it would be this one. My copy looks like a rather trashy beach read, with the word HOMICIDE writ large in red lettering on the front. Though the writing is informal, it's neither trashy nor salacious. Simon kept my attention through his descriptions of the Baltimore detectives that he followed, not through his characterizations of the crimes themselves or the mystery of finding the killer. The connection to The Wire is undeniable as the show pulls tiny details from Simon's reporting to make its own narrative accurate. Those details are what make this book fascinating, but Simon's completeness and depth of analysis do make for often slow reading.
An at times unbelievable view of what New York city was like in the late 19th century; who could have thought that New York would remind me of the movie Slumdog Millionaire. The descriptions of families packed in tenements, abusive landlords, revolting sanitary conditions, and division of neighborhoods by origin country are fascinating. Riis spends a great deal of time discussing the causes and solutions to the tenement situation in New York; these sociological discussions often feel irrelevant to the modern reader. His prose is quite dated, which makes the book read a bit slowly.
One of the more disturbing books that I've read, but much appreciated for the novelty of the idea and the dramatic execution. Bazterrica's dystopian vision of a world where humans are deprived of animal meat often feels fantastical, but it's totally engrossing and compelling. The book reads like a study on human psychology and group dynamics, and makes you wonder: could people really devolve into doing all the things she describes? And what parallels are there with our behavior in the world as it stands? I wasn't surprised to learn that the author is vegan, but I wouldn't describe the book as having a vegan agenda; rather, it's a self-contained thought experiment that provides commentary on various aspects of human society: gender roles, hierarchical work structures, conformity, and the expression of sexual desires. Sure, meat consumption is something that she wants us to reconsider, but the book isn't a propaganda piece.
Wikipedia classifies this book as a non-fiction novel, a genre of which I'd previously been unaware. By removing any mention of himself from the narration, Capote blurs the lines between reality and fiction so convincingly that only the surrounding circumstances reveal what's been made up (such as the detailed dialogue for which Capote could not possibly have been present). Unfortunately, I found the sections that were most clearly fictional to be the least compelling - the dialogue between the two murderers and their inner thoughts, for example. Capote was no doubt an innovator, but I prefer the less inventive style of contemporary narrative non-fiction.
Michael Lewis can do no wrong. This book came out over twenty years ago - what's so shocking is how much of it still applies today. Lewis depicts a world of eccentric programmers and founders, companies valued on promise instead of profit, dramatic IPOs and the overnight creation of wealth. He captures brilliantly the excitement around rapidly growing companies that promise to disrupt industries. The Bay Area emerges as a concentration of both wealth and brainpower, and we see how closely this two concepts are intertwined nowadays. Lewis also shows us the darker side: brutal workdays, greed, and the hedonic treadmill that leaves even billionaires unhappy with their status. Essential reading for tech workers.
I'm somewhat guilty of being a Sam Harris fanboy, so it should be no surprise that I enjoyed this book. Harris brings a neuroscientist's and meditator's perspective to the subject of consciousness and spirituality, tempered with more than a healthy dose of religious skepticism. As in his podcast, he's guilty of overwrought analogies and sesquipedalia, but his writing is clear and concise overall. In his highly successful efforts to draw a firm line between scientific spiritual pursuit and religion, his attacks on religion do feel a bit like dunking on the faithful. I'd posit that he fails to understand how skeptical his audience already is; perhaps those pages would have been better served going into more depth about the scientific evidence supporting spiritual pursuits rather than beating a dead horse about organized religion.
More than a bit of a let-down. Being charitable, I hope that this book has simply suffered from the same aging process that plagues movies such as Annie Hall - often, comedy ages much worse than drama. And the book certainly contains several laugh-out-loud moments (along with more than a handful of punchlines that fall completely flat). These bright spots don’t do much to outweigh the utter lack of character development and trite repetitiveness of the narrative, though. I’m a bit shocked that the book hasn’t been canceled for its attempts at African American Vernacular English and its depiction of gay characters.
An engaging read - shocking how much fraud went on at Enron. The book is quite comprehensive and goes into a lot of detail about the ploys, scams, and overall dishonesty that went on at each department in the company. I know little about corporate finance but was able to follow along quite well due to relatively simple explanations by the authors, though the intended audience seems to be people who read the Wall Street Journal. To that end, the authors focus more on the fundamental issues with Enron and its business model rather than giving juicy details about how the company fell apart - this is no Bad Blood.
Enthralling. To the unfamiliar American, football hooliganism is both repellent and, like a car wreck, difficult to look away from. This is the perspective that Bill Buford brings to the subject, and it’s one that I share, having seen a few films on the subject and read the novel The Football Factory. The book reads very much like Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson: Buford recounts his experience being initiated into the Man United Firm, describes the main players, analyzes the psychology behind the members of the group (and crowd behavior in general), and explains how he eventually extricated himself from these associations. It’s an engaging read from beginning to end, if a bit shallow for readers like me who are already well acquainted with the subject matter.
Feinstein is masterful at hooking readers in; the whole book is a series of cliffhangers that leave you eager to learn what happens to the Minor League players, coaches and umpires who form the characters of the book. Though Triple-A baseball may not seem dramatic, the stories told here are quite engaging as they tend to focus on people whose personal drama and struggles add depth to their backgrounds. Feinstein also does a good job of providing general info and insider knowledge about how the Minor Leagues work; surely this aspect of the book will be interesting to any baseball fan. The sheer number of people introduced, along with Feinstein’s rapid jumping from person to person and team to team, makes it difficult to keep the stories apart after a while, which makes the book a bit of a dizzying ride.
About ten years ago in high school, I was assigned to read this book for a comparative religion class. I'm sure I didn't appreciate it much at the time - perhaps I questioned its relevance to the subject of religion in the first place. Upon rediscovering this book, I am astounded. The subject matter is reminiscent of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart - a description of life in an African village - with the substitution of tribal religions and Christianity for Islam, given that the stories here take place in Sudan, in North Africa. Salih is just as talented as Achebe at turning village gossip into dramatic storylines. His characters feel completely real, to the point that the stories feel as though they'd been told orally rather than written. I look forward to reading more by him.
Few topics are as important to American culture and our future as this one. Alter wrote an absolutely gripping book explaining how the technology got to where it is, how it keeps us so addicted, and what we can do about it. This being a topic that I'm somewhat well-read on, I was disappointed with the book's lack of weight. He does make ample reference to the research that's been done on behavioral addiction in general and technology specifically. However, I felt that he glazed over some of the more troubling aspects of the future of technology, such as how porn use is re-writing human sexuality and how big tech companies have such extreme power over us. Alter gives us some tips on how to reduce our tech use, but makes no mention of how tech companies are doing everything they can to keep us more hooked than ever - that feels like the real story here. This is a topic that demands an in-depth, probing analysis, not a gloss-over.
Gripping, despite having seen the movie a couple times. Tóibín's spectacularly depiction of the inner thoughts of the protagonist, Eilis, makes us identify with her so deeply that you can't but feel soak up the drama of the difficult decisions that she has to make. What stood out to me most was how brilliantly Tóibín captures the feeling of living abroad, the sense of having two separate lives that run in parallel, the distance that you feel from your home and the people there, the freedom to be a different person than you were in the place that you grew up.
Gladwell may be the most readable non-fiction writer I've come across. His sentences fly off the page and enter your mind so effortlessly that the book is a true breeze. As far as the content, the book reads like a layman's version of Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow. The examples and anecdotes make the concepts quite easy to grasp, but Gladwell provides less of a guide in terms of applying the ideas of the book to your own life. In fact, as he acknowledges himself in the afterword, there's no easy formula for determining which decisions should be made quickly and which need more careful deliberation. Ultimately, that fact renders this book more interesting than useful.
Having recently spent a week in Oaxaca and visited many of the places mentioned in Oaxaca Journal, I can confidently say that he captures the city much better than I ever could. From his descriptions of his journey to reach the city to his characterizations of those he traveled with to his perfect mixture of visual and historical detail, travel writing really doesn't get much better than this. A fun, quick read that served as a sort of after-the-fact guidebook to deepen my understanding of the city.
Brilliantly funny and fresh. Shows no age. Bukowski lays out his joys and miseries so clearly that you can't read the book without feeling a connection to his way of understanding the world. Reminds me of Raymond Carver.
Fascinating explanation of Chomsky's ideas about a Universal Grammar. Pinker also corrects the main incorrect cultural beliefs that exist about language (Sapir-Whorf, differences between first language acquisition and second language acquisition, "good" vs "bad" grammar). There may be a newer book or newer edition with more updated info about the neuroscience bits - surely a lot has changed since the mid-90s - but most of the book seems to hold true today. The writing style can be a bit dense and textbook-y at times, though I'm not convinced that this could be avoided given the complexity of the subject matter. Pinker's wit had me laughing out loud at various points.
I was amazed at how relevant his understanding of physics is nearly two millennia after the book was written - his description of atoms and chemical changes holds true to this day. While his viewpoints on how to live a good life will seem a bit dreary to many, the stoical way of living is quite powerful once you get past the acceptance of life's fleeting character. The book reads somewhat like a Western take on Eastern works such as the Dhammapadda, both in terms of subject matter as well as the structure of short passages or "meditations". As these passages appear to have been composed in the form of a journal, there is some repetitiveness as the author returns frequently to his favorite theme of remembrance of death. When I return to this book, I'll try a different translation. Though I'm confident that Robin Hard was quite concerned with not altering the original meaning of the text - resulting in phrases such as "ruling-center" - the sentence structure felt overly complicated in many instances, rendering many passages difficult to parse. I glanced at a more contemporary translation and was surprised at the difference in readability. Note: didn't read correspondence
It ended too quickly! Even if you're (like me) not normally into dystopian books, this one is worth your time. The depiction of televisions taking over our living rooms is frighteningly close to reality , though the idea of firefighters coming into homes to burn books seems a bit far-fetched even in the dystopian context.
Enjoyable for it's musings on Fordism and laugh-out-loud anecdotes, and will be of particular interest to those attuned to Ford's life, Brazil, or agriculture. As companies like Amazon plan their return to the era of company towns, it's interesting to look back at the successes and failures of past examples. Ford sought not only to build a successful business - he wanted to use Fordlandia to instill his values in the local workers (talk about a white savior complex). Interestingly, he more-or-less succeeded at his social goals; the failure was more on the business end as his plantation couldn't compete with the Asian market.
My dad tells me that he read this in high school French, which makes me glad that I took Spanish. At that age, this book would have either flown straight over my head or made me unbearably depressed. On the bright side, it's as good as it is depressing, and reminds me of Auster and Coetzee.
Oh, if I could go back in time and read this before watching the movie. This, to me, is a perfect book: brilliant pacing, engaging characters, and a creative plot that made me question my own attitudes and beliefs. The novel serves as a well-considered critique of backpacker culture that highlights both the idealism and naïveté of Westerners who find themselves spending long stretches in Southeast Asia or similar destinations. Gen Xers will identify best with the cultural references, but overall the subject matter still feels quite fresh for a book that's now 25 years old.