post thumbnails

August 13, 2019

Reading : Favorite Five

The first half of 2019 has been blissful for reading, so I wanted to share some of my favorites before the usual annual year in review.  Incidentally, all of these books are written by women.  I realize how much of a shift this is over just the few decades I've been reading.  Despite going to an all-girls high school whose focus on feminism introduced me to the uniqueness of our sex and gender, so many of my favorite writers as an English major were predominantly men: Hemingway, Murakami, McEwan, Eggers, Franzen, Nabokov. This is largely due to disproportionate ratios in recognition and representation, so I'm really happy to see how many more female writers are showing up on lists, providing feed for what I naturally gravitate towards consuming. Though they're completely different, there's something so unifying about these powerfully woman voices--how close I feel to them, how much I crave them, how much I want to share them.


Front Desk by Kelly Yang
This is a young adult novel of the type that appeals to adults too (and if you aren't into young adult fiction, I would love to share why it's been an incredible force in my life, maybe more so at twice the age of the intended audience than when I was actually young). Front Desk is narrated by Mia, a ten year old Chinese immigrant girl whose parents manage a motel. Because the family is in charge of every aspect of running the motel, Mia takes it upon herself to manage the front desk. Despite the youth of its protagonist and the cartoon cover, this book doesn't sugar coat Mia's life. It strips bare the layers and shame of poverty, racism, and capitalism.  Somehow this all happens seamlessly amidst the pre-teen life of bullies and best friends, because that's an equal reality of Mia's life. Written through the eyes of a ten year old who is just learning how to speak her voice, in writing and in life, this book made me cry half a dozen times.  But before you shake your head knowingly at my soft spot for sadness, I'll tell you that most of the tears are fully happy ones. For all its dark themes this book is primarily fun, funny, and sweet (it's this ability to lovingly write darkness that endears me to YA).  Part of why I loved reading this in my thirties is knowing how much I would have loved reading this decades ago. It's based on Kelly Yang's childhood, and I absolutely love how much she gives by sharing her story.  Growing up helping my parents manage their convenience store, this book resonated so much with me, and I love the visibility of this tiny Asian girl taking on everything that tells her she is foreign and powerless. (If you want this for a little girl in your life or for the little girl in you, it's only $8! Buy it!)

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
As much as I love recommending a good book, I'll be the first to admit that REALLY AMAZING books are rare. If you ask me if I've read anything good lately, something usually comes to mind but if you ask me if I've read something amazingly memorable lately, I have to reach back a bit.  Really amazing books surpass even pretty good books by so much. For me, this book is one of those and I wish for everyone to have the feelings I had reading this (even if it's with a different book). That is, so full of gratitude for the complex shades of family: each person relating to the other, each person relating to the world around them, and how these threads entangle, break, and stabilize. This story of a Muslim Indian family and their strong, fractured ties to one another is less about what happens to them and more about how they see each other, how they define themselves. It's not new, these themes of identity between two cultures and conflicting loyalties to your family versus yourself. But it's rare to feel them so honestly and organically. And to really feel with the perspective of every family member: you can rage against the parents with the siblings as each one is rendered so dynamically individual, and you can melt into the place of unconditional love that achingly guides the parents to alienate their children.  I really recommend this on audio, where the rich realness of voice can be savored. I value the depth with which the author writes Islam and Indian culture, at the same time I could so easily relate with my Catholic and Vietnamese upbringing.

The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior
This collection of essays by a journalist who was one of the first peopel to predict Trump's win reads smart and sharp, and is just incredibly well-written. Writing on a number of uncomfortable topics like the immorality of college admissions and gentification in our favorite most expensive cities (subjects that are obviously close to my lived life and heart), Kendzior lays out the facts with skilled journalism and calls out our apathy with rare humanness. She couches her essays within simple values, to which most individuals can agree upon, and unravels the complicated ways in which we as a society have betrayed them. While our current state of politics has made outright greed and corruption very visible, Kendzior shows us how every day neglect of each other causes equal damage, and how every day mindfulness of each other and what we're up against can really change our course.

This Woman's Work by Julie Delporte
A graphic novel drawn with colored pencils, the imagery of this book is both sparse and overwhelming.  Delporte processes and expresses what it's been like to grow into and exist as a woman.  What it's like to be in relation to a man, what it means to participate in acts uniquely female, what it's like to be a creative woman in a male-dominated field, what it's like to be a woman in this world. There are many reasons to love the feelings Delporte's expression emotes. The top one for me might be that for all the pain and vulnerability that makes us want to renounce womanhood, this distinct state of being is so powerful, and no one who isn't in it can understand and so they can never own it.  I probably overuse the word beautiful, so I'll have to emphasize by saying this book is really, really, really beautiful. You could read it in less than an hour, but will want to savor the drawings and sentiments forever.

Normal People by Sally Rooney
While I loved this book, it's one of the few times where my audiobook experience has led to me advising people to read this rather than to listen to it. The single narrator for two protanognists of different genders doesn't work well here. I would also say that there has been a lot of hype around this book, which inevitably leads to an equal amount of dissatisfied readers.  So I'd suggest coming at it with no expectations, and just wanted to share that I loved the richness of this relationship between Marianne and Connell. As a disclaimer, I'm a sucker for stories about how trauma leads people to behavior that can be frustratingly irrational and difficult to understand.  I agree that it's hard to watch two people with such a strong connection consistently misrepresent themselves and misunderstand each other.  But when done with insight and sensitivity, this feels less unrealistic and more the natural course of damaged lives.  And while that sounds depressing and I know people want to root for romance, I think this loyalty to people's insensible complexity is the most loving act, and thereby the most hopeful. (PS Sally Rooney is doing a City Arts Lecture in November).

May 12, 2019

People : Trust

Lately, I've had many conversations and interactions with my colleagues who have made me think hard about what it means to try, and keep trying, in our work.  With people at the beginnings of their impact, already sparking change and with so much potential, who have established the goal to try everything possible, over and over--and ask: why don't others understand the value of this ideal?  With people who have forged their way into the thick middle, who are all in and can't sleep at night because they can't find themselves anymore--and ask: how do we keep going?  With people who decades into this have faced disappointment and resistance, internally and externally, and stay immersed in conflict and paradox--and ask: how do we respect experience and stay open at the same time?

In a team of people with a wide spectrum of past and future experience, I'm learning that each one of us is a shifting layer.  So thin amidst the stack of all that we do and see, it can be hard to give each slice the weight it deserves, to be mindful of how much each one fluctuates and evolves.  For me the continual far-from-attainable goal is the balance between separating the layers to allow every one a full frame, and reinforcing the common shape that enables us to form a whole.

I'm grateful for being pushed to ask these questions. If I had to choose an answer to all of them, it would be: we're all the same.

I trust that we all believe in the same mission.  This doesn't mean that we do things the same way as one another.  We give and express and care differently.  It doesn't mean that a single person is the same every day.  There are days I'll go the extra mile and there are days I'm too tired.  There are days that I'll stay calm through every frustration and days that I'll inwardly cry about every petty bump.  There are days when I manically oscillate between these points of emotion over the course of minutes and hours.  We encounter each other at different points in our belief and effort, and that tries our trust. Trust doesn't mean a stable, unquestioning faith. I'm plenty guilty of wondering why someone else doesn't do something the way I would, or why I didn't put forth the same effort as another. Shouldn't they care; shouldn't I care?  Trust means working through these natural judgments and returning to the truth of our sameness.

I trust that we all face the same challenges. This doesn't mean that we vocalize them or cope with them in the same way. But hearing from my colleagues lately about what is hard for them about their work, I'm struck by how much the same things from such different people resonate for me.  The lack of power, the sense of abandonment, the absorption of injustice, the invalidation of our ideals and efforts, the feeling of failure.  Recently having had several conversations lately about my perceived calmness and positivity, I'd like to dismantle those coping mechanisms and fully share how deeply difficult my job can be for me.

I hate the complete fissure of a three year relationship with a patient, in which I sidestepped differences in values that affronted core parts of me to put caretaking first. It hurt that he fired me after I made myself available over and over at unscheduled, unpredictable times; after I reached out over and over to ensure continuity, to ensure that regardless of outcome he knew we remembered him. I'm angry at the substances that unhinged him, I'm sad that this feels personal even though I know it isn't, I dislike the parts of me that couldn't stick with him, I wonder if someone else would have tried harder, I'm embarrassed about the ego that makes me think that I could or should be more than a rung in the ever turning wheel of this person's life.  I feel guilty for feeling traumatized when so privileged, when he needs me to be stronger and better than that in the midst of his much more severe, much less controllable trauma.

I hate the validation of inevitable failure, even as I know the ultimate goal is not to achieve but to try.  It hurts to hear about a patient dying too young, and know that I'm not surprised because early trauma made every subsequent attempt at establishing trust feel worse than Sisyphean because I could never once push the stone to the top of the hill for it to drop again.  I'm angry at the emptiness of those 15 minute visits I had with him, so many months in between of what we'd call paranoia but what is, in reality, well-founded skepticism of the world around him.  I want to throw the rawness of that insecurity in someone's face but it hits me instead because at the end of the day, I was his doctor.  I hate the reality of how little that means. I hate that on the day I learned about his death, appointments and tasks and conversations crowded me such that I forgot it happened until it suddenly resurfaced later.

I hate the fragility of our kindness and understanding. On one day, it might be enough to listen in the face of so many limitations and it seems so easy to be perceived (and function) as a giver. On another, we are the reason for all these limitations and it seems so easy to be perceived (and function) as someone who takes away. I've mostly accepted that someone who mistrusts the medical system or society at large, may at any time lose trust in me. Still, each turning of tide makes me question my behavior and my perception.  More than that, it reinforces my own mistrust of our system and society and reminds me hard that while the structure we battle is amorphous, it is strong.

And so, the trust that keeps us going isn't steady; it bends under the weight of conflict, loss, and doubting of self and others.  But through these undulations, I stay tethered to the sameness that is our frame and foundation.

March 13, 2019

Reading : Winners Take All

Within the first chapter of this book I had texted a dozen people asking if they're read it and asking them to read it if they hadn't.  While there's a lot to this book, it really comes down to bringing to the surface a few fundamental principles that make both logical and moral sense, and that have been buried deep in a society weighted by profit and technology.  What I appreciated most is that by examining what those in highest power are doing to harm others and what they could be doing to decrease harm, we're able to see our own respective power and consider what does it really take to be mindful of others?

Giridharadas focuses on the philanthropic efforts of the corporate elite.  He shows how the wealthiest entrepreneurs and venture capitalists rationalize their business practices to themselves and to the public at large.  The people at the top present their businesses as the best avenue to help people at the bottom.  They start charitable foundations and argue that their financial, intellectual and social resources offer the means to develop new technologies and networks to better the lives of the most vulnerable.

But by presenting themselves as agents of positive change for those in need, the people with most power:

1) offer solutions and ignore that they themselves have created the problems.  They try to help in response to problems instead of doing no harm in the first place. Philanthropic efforts divert attention from the fact that these corporations create the very inequities that they are purporting to eliminate.  Giridharadas argues that "generosity is not a substitute for injustice." If you create wealth at the expense of others' basic needs, you can't make up for that by giving to charity later.  You are the reason the need for charity exists.   

2) give back instead of taking less.  The elite, many of whom have good intentions to do good for people with less, aren't willing to do it in a way that requires true sacrifice on their part.  They do what it takes to acquire wealth for themselves, then give it to others.  This enables them to ignore real solutions that would weaken the power of the elite (higher taxation, labor movements, regulations to protect the working class).  People assume that they can make change by giving disadvantaged people opportunities, instead of trying to eliminate the baseline inequality that has caused such disadvantage, such a gap between the top and bottom.  This inequity has arisen from a profits-first culture, and changing it requires a redistribution of wealth that the elite will always reject.

3) Instead, they offer solutions that increase power for the already powerful and weaken the already disadvantaged.  People in power argue that by acquiring more and more wealth and opportunity for themselves, they are actually increasing wealth and opportunity for everyone.
The opposite has been shown to be trueAs those in power are enjoying longer and wealthier lives, wages for the middle class have plateaued, and life expectancy and health outcomes are declining disproportionately among the lowest classes.

4) Ultimately take agency away from those they want to help.  To say that the best way to help the least fortunate is in the hands of the most fortunate deprives people of the validity of their experience, and of the voice to change an already limited path.

In all these ways, the philanthropy of the elite is not just ineffective; it's also harmful because it allows the problems to continue and worsen.  As much as those at the top want to believe it, it's just not possible to have so much power and wealth concentrated in this narrow sliver of society and still have social equality in America.  As you add more to those who already have more, those who have less will suffer.

I love this book not just because it reveals the harm of extreme profit-driven business, but because it challenges every person to examine what we do on a daily basis, and how to be better.  It's easy to read it and think, that sucks that the top one percent is like that, but really what are we to do about it? But I think that Giridharadas is asking the same of us that he's asking of the elite: examine how much we take, and take less.  Examine how much we do harm, and harm less.  Do it to a degree of sacrifice and discomfort, not at the sake of your own basic needs, but for the sake of someone else's basic needs.

February 5, 2019

Healing in 2019

In 2017, my general philosophy was to do everything I loved as much as I could. I went all in, without too many defined goals other than to take advantage of time and space that I'd been missing up until then.  In 2018, after all this exploration, my word for the year was to be "navigation."  I wanted to clarify and sharpen, give myself more direction.  It sounded like a good transition from all the experiences in 2017--take what I saw, select what I needed.  Then 2018 turned into a string of one challenge after another, in which I had to adjust and arrange myself in ways I never had before.  There was less room for maneuvering toward one direction, and more investment in preventing a crumbling of what I'd built up until then.  I didn't so much navigate as much as I skittered up, down and around to get back to baseline.

I wrote about some of the many ways I felt broken this year in the most personal post I've published here.  (Thanks to everyone who reached out and responded so kindly).  I felt good at that time, and shortly afterwards, became overwhelmed by a stacking of minor merging difficulties. The holidays tend to be a hard time for our patients, many of whom don't have any family and many more who don't have the resources to fund the cheer we're told we should have and is particularly hard to find in winter. While my issues in no way compare to not having a support system during a season in which we celebrate relationships, the end of 2018 felt really rough.

I realized this was due to fissures in the relationships in every area of my life.  Within my family, the backbone of everything good I've been given.  Within my friendships, wherein lies the unique ability to grow in parallel.  Within romantic relationships, in which I've trusted to help me expand no matter how they end.  Within work, a community of co-workers and patients that calls me to my favorite quality of endurance. And within my relationship with myself, one that I used to rely on for a full acceptance no one else can really provide. 

Through this, I've depended a lot on endurance.  I choose so much of what I do based on the need for stamina and resilience, because I value that so much.  But this year, partly due to this mindset and partly due to the pace at which things happened (one after another), I forgot that endurance requires recovery.  Generally, I immediately want to keep going.  While there is a lot that benefited from this (I don't at all regret climbing in my cast), there is a lot that I would have liked to tended to more carefully, more slowly.  And maybe that's why everything at the end of the year hit me so hard, so fast.

So in 2019 I would like to focus on healing from everything in 2018.  Recently, I've realized in practice (instead of just in theory, which I've always known) that relationships take deliberate effort and if I want to heal them, it needs to be intentional.  I formed my resolutions, though they might seem unrelated, in ways to give me the room to do this.

Projects: I've divided these into what I'd like to do in quarters of the year, so that I don't feel like I need to tackle it all at once.
  • Second: Get a camera and take pictures.  My friends from college and med school know that I used to take a ton of pictures, and my last real camera is the SLR I used for years back then.  I I haven't touched that camera in a couple years, mainly because I now rarely travel other than for climbing and bringing a heavy camera is difficult and because climbing photography relies a lot on technique.  I'm not so much into technique as composition and I'd like to get a new camera to get back into that mode of framing.
  • Third: Write more, privately. Most of the writing I do now is here, and I'd like to get back to more personal writing. I think it'd increase my volume and reflection, and push me to flesh out a lot of what happened last year, and in all the years.
  • Fourth: Get a new bike  This is the hardest project, because I'm so bad at biking. But I like the idea of doing something you enjoy despite being bad at it, and of having an activity I can do for a long time in between giving my body a break from running.
Space: These have to do with making more room for myself, more empty space so that things can arise on their own and so I can actively consider them.
  • Consume less and waste less.  I'm like to try to plan ahead enough such that I don't have to buy anything from Amazon, and I want to continue not buying any clothes except anything needed for exercise or to replace something I use often.  This includes shoes, which if you know me, know this will be the hardest part for me (luckily 3 of my 4 ankle boots are worn out so I'm letting myself replace a pair).  I'm going to buy all my books from an actual bookstore (easy since I'm currently in love with Pegasus), and would like to use up all my groceries (difficult because I'm not so creative or disciplined when it comes to cooking).  I've generally been good about using up the big things, but I want to be more attentive to the smaller items, so that I'm not throwing away lemon wedges and slivers of ginger and half cans of tomato paste.
  • No phone at work, and no phone for an hour before bed. Most people who know me know that I don't have wireless internet at home, and while that helps keep me disconnected in some ways, it does mean I use my phone a lot.  While I love that my phone allows me to connect to my friends and family wherever we are, I also see that my desire to constantly stay connected and responsive in all directions can damage the individual relationships.
  • Spend one weeknight to myself without plans.  I'm lucky to have people I love to see and activities I love to do, but filling up my entire week can mean I have less presence for those people and activities. 
  • See and talk to my family more.  My family has always been the most enduring, stable part of my life, and this year I've had to face its multi-dimensional fragility.  Through that, I've learned that it is up to me to strengthen my relationships, that I can't rely on an assumption that they will just be there.  So aside from physically building this structure, I'd like to see my parents twice a month and talk to one of my brothers on the phone once a week.
  • Practice nonviolent communication.  I read this book, and I want to use it to strengthen the communication and empathy in all the relationships in my life.
  • Be giving even when disappointed or hurt. This is probably the hardest of all the goals for me. I've talked before about how it's easy to make giving a goal, when I feel like so much has been given to me in terms of circumstances and community.  In the rare times when I feel like something has been taken or my expectations haven't been met, it's harder to be kind.  But maybe more important.
My Body: 
  • Run. This is pretty easy because I love running and hated not running last year.  It may have seemed that not climbing was the hardest part of injury last year, but I also really missed and craved running, because running for me is very unconditional and independent of people and circumstances.  I don't ask myself for much from it, other than to do it.  So regardless of how slowly or how far I go, it's almost always easy and welcoming.
  • Climb hard and take risks without seriously injuring myself.  This mantra can kind of apply to everything in my life.  I have to admit that all the breaks (physical and otherwise) this year have made me scared in a way I haven't been before--more scared of taking falls while climbing, more scared of trusting myself and other people in interpersonal dynamics. I want to continue getting over that fear, while not hurting myself too much in the process (knowing that some level of pain is an integral part of this process).
Thanks to 2018 for paving these goals.

January 14, 2019

Reading : 50 Books of 2018

In 2017 my general approach to life was to do all the things-- to go full force at everything I loved to do.  Which is probably how I ended up reading 75 books. In 2018 my general approach was to pare down and spend time with what I love most within my loves.  I took more time to decide what I'd read, and I'd generally stop if it wasn't a book I craved in some way.  I wouldn't necessarily say that one approach was better than the other, just that both were tried.  This list is the result of my deliberate choices this year.

Favorite Five

**The Nix - Nathan Hill
I obviously can't talk about this enough because I wrote about it here and here.  I think it means something that it was part of the foundation for my most-read post this year.  It's very reminiscent of Franzen's The Corrections, but funnierEspecially on audio, and I think this is one of those books that's a hundred times better on audio--the narrator captures the voice of completely different characters in such a skilled, nuanced way.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World - Anand Giridharadas
It's been awhile since I read a book that challenged my perspective and behavior this much.  Giridharadas argues that people with power attempt to better the world without examining how their wealth has contributed to domestic and global inequality, and challenges everyone with any level of privilege to consider how to do less harm.  Longer post about this to come.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness - Michelle Alexander
I've held out on reading this for a long time because I felt it would be too hard.  But of all the difficult books, this feels too important not to read. Alexander argues (and proves) that even though we've eliminated formal discriminatory processes, we've have maintained the oppression of African-Americans in a more subtle but equally dangerous system.  Possibly more dangerous in how invisible it is to us--that this issue is often inaccurately framed in terms of drugs and crime instead of race, that these people are placed out of sight.  It's mind-blowing how we have institutionalized racism not just through the one act of incarceration, but through all the steps before and after: the targeting of specific drugs over others, the choice to punish some students over others, the inability to integrate into housing and employment.

The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson 
It's hard to describe this creative and form-defying book, which is part of the reason it breathes like a person--there's a solid, familiar structure and after that all bets are off.  The easiest description is it is beautiful.  As a disclaimer, I think it is most beautiful if you remove expectations of a narrative, and see it as a story that unfolds in proportion to your openness.  Loosely it's about Maggie Nelson's relationship with her partner, her child, and herself; and all the forms of love that takes.  She's able to infuse her descriptions with the exhausting labor of loving, at the same time that she floats with all that gives.  Her mastery of language and feelings is what I see the best gift of writing: the connection that happens when someone captures your experience in a way you've never seen yet is exactly what you mean.  One of many examples: "I like physical experiences that involve surrender. I didn't know, however, very much about experiences that demand surrender--that run over you like a truck, with no safe word to stop it. I was ready to scream, but labor turned out to be the quietest experience of my life."

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity - Katherine Boo
This book about families living in slums outside of the Mumbai airport accomplishes something that's rarely done and even more rarely done well, which is to write non-fiction in the style of fiction. The main reason I prefer fiction over non-fiction is the expressivity and depth of feeling and character that comes with fiction writing, that's missing in even well-written non-fiction where the goal is to tell a straightforward story.


On Love in Different Spaces
These are partnerships told deliberately in the context of finding another person in confusing, wondrous settings: in the whirlwind of a complicated city, in the vortex of adolescence.  And how much more difficult, and filling, it is when the love itself is seen by others as "different."  These stories take back ownership of that love, and I'm in awe of what they possess.  I wanted to include both of these in my top five, then decided to give them their own category because they are that good.

**Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe - Benjamin Alire Saenz (5)
I loved listening to this book in a voice I know nothing about: a fifteen year old boy. Aristotle and Dante become friends when they bond over their unusually literary names, and the combined isolation and depth that these titles give them.  Through this single path between two boys, the book traverses so much about identity and all the factors that play into belonging: family, ethnicity, sexuality, adolescence.  Aristotle struggles to find voice in a family that doesn't communicate: his father is a veteran who won't talk about his experience in Vietnam; his older brother is in prison and no one talks about this heavy invisibility.  The backdrop of being Mexican-American in Texas gives a general framework for feeling foreign in your home, but it's Aristotle and Dante as full-fleshed individuals who make me empathize most with what it's like to be apart: apart from a group, torn apart as a lone person.  I also loved their discovery of books and art in young adulthood (reading Grapes of Wrath, seeing Edward Hopper's paintings), reminded of how much by own way of learning about and relating to the world as a teenager was rooted in this culture.

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me - Bill Hayes (5)
Bill Hayes writes about living in New York with his partner, the neurologist-writer Oliver Sacks, in a combination of conventional narrative, journal entries, and photographs.  The variety in form lends itself well to the variety of subject, which is as the title promises--the many dimensions of New York City, Oliver Sacks, the writer, and the dynamics between all of them.  It is tender and honest, in the way it unfolds organically in real life and how it's re-structured in memory.  I can relate to the desire to document in words and images as things are happening, and the desire to go back and piece them into a narrative.


Nonfiction I Frequently Reference in Conversation: 

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life  - Marshall Rosenberg (4)
This book was recommended to me several times, and when the time it came off hold at the library many months later, I was in the throes of complex interpersonal interactions with pretty much everyone in my life (family, friends, co-workers).  So pretty much anyone who had a conversation with me during this time heard me talk about this, and I really recommend it to everyone.  When I told one friend about it, he responded: "You always communicate nonviolently; maybe you should try the other way."  Which was funny, but also speaks to how we might think of "nonviolent" as nice or conflict-avoidant.  But it's actually about being very specific and mindful, and honest about conflict.  It has really changed how I approach conversations, how I articulate my feelings and receive those of others.

So You Want to Talk About Race - Ijeoma Oluo (4)
This book so intelligently and clearly examines the conversations about race that we have all had, and how to dissect the reasons underlying common perceptions, how we can respond in productive ways without compromising our values, and how we can all be better. It convincingly explains when and why race is relevant, why it's important to separate race from other disadvantage, why everyone needs to examine how our privilege may harm others. It's uncomfortable to think of ourselves as hurting others, especially when we have good intentions. This book pushed me to confront this discomfort, to consider how to truly follow through with intention.

Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change -  Pema Chodron (4)
I talked about this book on the Buddhist practice of the Three Commitments all the time. The Three Commitments are really simple, true, and difficult to practice: do no harm, help others, and accept things as they are. This idea of do no harm was a recurring pattern in my favorite books this year, and has now become one of my conscious resolutions.


Less Plot, More Language
If we've ever talked about our preferences in anything creative, you'd know pretty soon that my preference is for mood over action, language over plot.  So keep that in mind with why I rated these so highly, and if you are curious as to how a book about not much can be so much, these were very good.

A General Theory of Oblivion - Jose Eduardo Agualusa (5)
Loosely constructed from the diaries and drawings of a woman who locks herself in her apartment in the time preceding Angola's independence from Portugal, this book contains so much and is so creative. Ludo observes the outside world without connecting to it, and the book unravels the stories of what she sees and can't see. The writing is so beautiful, I read lines over and over and want to read the entire thing again.

Winter: Ali Smith (5)
Autumn was in my top five last year, and its sequel didn't disappoint. If you're skeptical about using the trope of seasons for a series, I can tell you that this worked better than it did for Gilmore Girls.  Like Autumn, Winter is atmospheric and focused on the imagery of people's sensations and thoughts. Smith makes winter so much more complex than cold and snow. There's the honesty, beauty and complication of harsh conditions that may or may not give way. I also love that this book is political and poetic at once.  How in the same quick brush of a sentence Smith can be hard ("Human beings have to be more ingenious than this, and more generous") and languorous ("That's what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again").

Pond: Claire-Louise Bennett (4)
My co-worker described this as "Seinfeld in book form," referring to the fact that Pond isn't really about anything. Yet, I think anyone can relate to how much attention Bennett pays to the open spaces in between concrete events: "Everybody knows deep down that life is as much about the things that do not happen as the things that do." A collection of musings by a woman living alone--the narrator contemplates everything from breakfast to death--it's about how much of life is internal. 


Books Read After Seeing the Movie

The Push: A Climber's Journey of Endurance, Risk & Going Beyond Limits - Tommy Caldwell (5)
I didn't give this a 5 just because it was about climbing. For whatever reason, I'm not generally drawn to books about climbing but I started this after seeing the movie based on it (Dawn Wall). I was really impressed by the nuances of Tommy Caldwell's character, and his relationships.  The book goes into more detail about the complex dynamic between Caldwell and his climbing partner, which I loved for its honesty and openness about how we often turn to rock because relating to another person is so freaking complicated.

Notorious RBG - Irin Carmon (4)
Thank you to my friend Irene for asking me to see this, and who is the only reason I watch any non-climbing movies. I was a little disappointed because I thought the book would go into more detail about RBG's historical cases, but it was still worth reminding myself of the slow labor of equality.


Rom-Coms with Asian Leads

The Kiss Quotient - Helen Hoang (3)
Stella is awkward and unaware in the ways of dating, in part due to her Asperger's.  So she hires an escort to teach her, and that proceeds in the way you imagine a standard rom com would.  But I liked the diverse, fully fleshed-out characters; that it explicitly addresses the stigmas of mental health and socioeconomic status; and that it featured a half-Vietnamese male protagonist and snippets here and there of Vietnamese language and culture.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before - Jenny Han (3)
Okay, I gave this book a 3 but I loved the movie because Lara Jean in the movie is so much more vivid, with more surface quirks and underlying depth.  Yes, I have a lot of thoughts about the problematic lack of Asian representation in the male characters and the larger issue of the Asian woman-white male dynamic.  But for me this is not a love story about Lara Jean and Peter K, just me in love with Lara Jean.

I Believe in A Thing Called Love - Maurene Goo (2)
A teenager decides to win over her crush by studying Korean dramas and enacting the same situations in real life.  (...I don't know, I was in a mindless mood and was intrigued by another Asian lead character).

And I tried reading Crazy Rich Asians and got through about half of it before I decided I just don't care what everyone is wearing from head to toe in every scene.


In Which Race is Everything

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship: Michelle Kuo (5)
Kuo is a Teach for America teacher in rural Arkansas for two years before going to law school. Then she learns that one of her former students has been jailed for murder, and she quits her job to become his one-on-one teacher. As a believer in the powers of both narrative and generosity, this story really appealed to me. But Kuo isn't naive in thinking that even the combination of these is enough to lessen inequality.  Still, the question she presents is so important: is the endeavor to impact one person as valuable as the one to change a system?

**Long Way Down - Jason Reynolds (4)
The entirety of this book takes place in the 60 seconds it takes a 15 year old boy to decide whether he should kill the man who killed his brother.  Highly recommend listening to this on audio, because it reads more like verse than prose.  It's very short, showing how much goes into defining moments.

Kindred - Octavia Butler (4)
An African-American woman living in California is transported through time to the South during the slavery era. The idea of modern day culture facing this past brings so much new perspective on the complexity of personal relationships against cultural norms.

**Flying Lessons & Other Stories - Ellen Oh (4)
I loved the idea of this, a collection of stories for young adults focused on diverse perspectives. Stories about what it means to be a person with a difference--color, orientation disability, language, income--from the majority. I didn't love every narrative but I really loved these stories were all told naturally, without direct attention to difference. These aren't stories about a black person or a gay person or child of an immigrant; they are just people with these qualities telling their experiences. Which mirrors the rare, tight sliver of time when kids absorb information with judgment.

**Sing, Unburied, Sing - Jesmyn Ward (3)
When his father is released from prison, 13 year old Jo travels through Mississippi with his mother to see him. Along the way and within the state penitentiary, Jo faces the turbulent history of the South and how it affects his path now.

I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives - Caitlin Alifirenka (2)
Given the assignment to write to a student in another country, Caitlin chooses to write to Martin in Zimbabwe, and they continue writing to each other for six years. My dense self didn't realize this book was true until the very end, and the fact that it's true is definitely what makes the story. It obviously simplifies what it takes to overcome poverty in a place like Zimbabwe but is a nice reminder of how far simple connection and feeling for someone can go.


On Being A Woman 

Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening - Manal Al-Sharif (4)
While I'm indignant about the barriers we face as women here, I'm grateful every day that I have supportive communities enabling me to do what I love. This book about Al-Sharif's battle for women to gain the right to drive in Saudi Arabia reminds me of how much struggle has fueled what we have, and how much we are all on different points of the same frustratingly difficult road. I'm in awe of how much burden Al-Sharif bore on behalf of others. Ostracized and jailed, she put her life at risk over and over to fight for something I take for granted daily.

Men Explain Things to Me Rebecca Solnit (3)
Working at a clinic formed entirely of women except for the male management, and in love with a sport in which men constantly make assumptions about the ability of women, the title of this spoke to me. I imagine it speaks to most women and I appreciate what it expresses: the unthinking ways men exert power over women, and the psychological and physical violence this perpetuates.  The writing and thought processes aren't as good as my favorites in this category last year (Adichie's We Should All Be Feminists, especially on audio). 

The Mother of All Questions Rebecca Solnit (3)
In this collection Solnit goes into more detail about the sexual assault that results from the issues she explores in Men Explain Things To Me. Again I appreciated the attention to this topic but other books about this have been more powerful for me (Jon Krakeur's Missoula, which I recommend to everyone all the time).

Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley Emily Chang (3)
This book about the sexist culture women face in tech actually has a lot of parallels to Daring to Drive, where Al-Sharif describes the difficulty of working as a computer engineer in a male-dominated company. It's interesting to see how the same gender dynamics plays out in two entirely different cultures. But while Al-Sharif's story possessed power in its personal narrative, I think Brotopia's use of anecdotes over factual journalism was counter-productive. It made me annoyed with the situation without gaining much more understanding of it.  Still, I appreciate the intention, to publicize this really important topic.

Books on the State of the World That Are Hard, and More Important, to Read

What Happened - Hillary Rodham Clinton (4)
The main things I gleaned from what contributed to the election:
1) Russian interference, the extent and scariness of which is scarily underestimated
2) The role of the media and their depictions of both candiates, also highlighting that we just aren't ready for a female leader because we have no image of what that is supposed to look like
3) James Comey and his re-investigation of Clinton's emails days before the election (statisticians show that Clinton had the votes prior to this event)
4) The displacement of identity of rural whites, not necessarily because of economic inequity but because of a failure of expectation --the threat of the image of the white working class by "otherness"--Muslims, blacks, and the undocumented.
5) Voter suppression

Dreamland: The True State of America's Opiate Epidemic - Sam Quinones (4)
This book tells in parallel the rise of addiction to black tar heroin and prescription opiates. I think the most important part of the narrative is what it tells us about our vulnerabilities and how people take advantage of them, how our individual nature and broader societal systems contribute to the harm of so many people. Sometimes the need to reiterate certain messages took away from fleshing out individual stories. But the overarching motif is so important: the similarities between heroin and prescription pills--in physical substance, in the people who use them, in the people who make them each a corporation and business motivated by profit and willful blindness to the wreckage they create.

**Escape from Camp 14: One Men's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West - Blaine Harden (4)
I became really interested in books about North Korea after reading Nothing to Envy, one of my favorites from last year and a book I still reference all the time. This story about a man's escape from a North Korean prison camp was recommended to me by someone who had lived in South Korea. It's very hard to see how this system reduces a person while immersed in it (having no qualms about competing with your mother for food), and after leaving it (feeling guilt over the past and wondering what it means about you now). What blew my mind in Nothing to Envy blows my mind here: that what we're reading is happening now in our world.


Haruki Murakami

Underground: The Toyko Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (5) (full review)
This is nonfiction and very different than his other books, but with the same underlying goal to understand and connect people.  He interviews sixty-two people connected to the 1995 Tokyo gas attack in which members of a religious cult released sarin on three subway trains, killing thirteen people and injuring over six thousand.  The interviews focus on memories of the attack and what happened on that day, and how it has affected the person since that time. It's such a moving way of giving voice to these people, and to how trauma perpetually infiltrates life in time and space. 

Killing Commadatore (4)
When I'm reading my most loved Murakami, I have this unmatched sense of this-is-the-best-thing-I-could-be-doing. I enjoyed his last two novels (Colorless Tsukuru and 1Q84) but didn't experience this feeling.  Yet every time I read something new by him, I expect to feel it.  Within a few pages of Killing Commadatore, it arrived: immediate contentment and nostalgia.  I blew through the 700 pages in a week and was sad when it was over.  

Men Without Women (4)
I somehow missed this collection of short stories when it came out last year. I'm not generally into short stories, except for Hemingway and Murakami. And funnily enough, this book is named after one of Hemingway's short story collections. Maybe because Murakami doesn't seem comfortable writing the voice of a woman, he pays homage here to what happens to men when they are missing that voice. They're good but not super memorable (would recommend Blind Willow Sleeping Woman for a better short story collection).

Also, I saw Burning with another Murakami fan. It's an adaptation of his short story Barn Burning, and it was very good and very dark. It doesn't exactly capture the essence of Murakami, but it does incorporate motifs and themes from his work as a whole.


Books I Read Because I Liked the Title

Asymmetry - Lisa Halliday (4)
This was definitely an acquired taste for me. It includes two separate stories, one about the relationship between a young editor and much older writer, and another about a man who is detained in London on the way to visiting his brother in Kurdistan. It's the kind of book where you wonder why certain details are being included and what the overall point is. At first it's annoying that you aren't just being told, and then you get invested and keep trying to go back to figure it out.

The Wide Circumference of Love - Marita Golden (2)
I loved this title, but not so much this book about a woman caring for her husband as he suffers from Alzheimer's.  It relies heavily on the story, which is definitely one to empathize with, but I didn't really get any new perspective or feeling from it.


Takes Place in Space

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth - Chris Hadfield (4)
This book was just really fun to read. It balances the wonder of being in space and having experiences none of us can imagine, with the routine of how so much of what happens out there applies to how we can approach our lives on Earth.  I would've liked to hear more about the difficulty of being in space, but it was also super enjoyable reading about how much Hadfield loves space.

** The Wanderers - Meg Howrey (3)
Coincidentally, I came across this right after reading An Astronaut's Guide and it explores what I missed from that book: the darker side of space.  Following the (fictive) narratives of three astronauts preparing for a mission on Mars by simulating the mission, it considers how this affects each person's relationships and psyche.


Writers Drawing Their Parents

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant - Roz Chast (4)
Chast wrote this graphic novel about what it was like to watch her parents grow old.  It's both sad and hilarious, and I love how the humor isn't detracting. Instead, it gives depth to the complex relationship of seeing your parents lose independence and gain idiosyncrasy, and trying to grow with and against them.

Maus - Art Spiegelman (3)
I'd heard so much good about this Holocaust graphic novel, written by about Spiegelman's parents.  Maybe it was that hype, but while I related to the difficulty of learning your parents' history, I wasn't as moved by the story as expected.


Self-Proclaimed About Life

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End - Atul Gawande (4)
Gawande speaks to what we learned quickly in medical training: we spend too much on the wrong efforts at the end of life. My favorite part was about how placing animals in a nursing home improved health and quality of life more than any medical intervention.

Everything Happens for a Reason : And Other Lies I've Loved - Kate Bowler (3)
A young woman and new mother is diagnosed with late stage cancer, and writes about what it's really like to live this tragedy.  I appreciated the grappling with the question of why, and the acceptance of the inexplicable.

** One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter - Scaachi Koul (3)
I'll probably read any funny book by a woman of color in the hopes she can articulate our experiences with the humor I don't have.  I didn't think this one was that funny, but loved the experiences.


Books I Read Because I Loved The Previous One

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng (5)
(Because I loved Everything I Never Told You).  Ng is so good at letting a backstory unravel, reminding us how we don't know about our families, neighbors, fellow human beings. The characters seem like typical tropes: the suburban family aside the bohemian artist mom and her daughter.  But each has such intricacy, alone and connected to one another.

The Monk of Mokha - Dave Eggers (3)
(Because I loved What is the What).  I saw a Nourse Theater lecture with Dave Eggers and the protagonist of this book, Mokhtar.  Mokhtar is a Yemeni-American who travels to Yemen to cultivate coffee and becomes trapped in the midst of their civil war.  The story itself is a pretty amazing one, but lacks the complexity of character and unique voice that I loved so much in What is the What.  I also just learned that Mokhtar's coffee company is being sued for racketeering, which is disappointing as the book presents him in an especially positive light.

Feel Free -  Zadie Smith (2)
I've had a crush on Zadie Smith since I saw her read in college, but I've never loved her books as much as other people (I've read White Teeth and On Beauty; if you recommend others let me know!). I liked these essays (especially the ones on family and libraries) because I like her, but otherwise couldn't get into them (that might also be because a lot of them are about movies and music and I'm bad at pop culture).


Books I Wanted to Get But Didn't

Less** -
Andrew Sean Greer (2)

This book, about a novelist turning fifty and facing the so-called failures of his personal and work life, won the Pulitzer.  So even though I didn't like it, I want you to read it and tell me what I'm missing.

**Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders (2)
I listened to this on audio because there are 166 narrators, which sounded amazing but ended up being pretty confusing for me. A couple friends who read the book loved it, and one sent me a beautiful passage from it that I didn't remember at all from the audiobook. So maybe I should read it and re-evaluate...

**The Red Car - Marcy Dermansky (2)
A woman inherits a red car and goes on one of those classic self-discovery road trips, except I never felt like I learned anything about her.

The Immortalists - Chloe Benjamin (2)
Four siblings learn the date on which each of them will die, and we learn how each of their lives unravel toward those dates.  I felt the book relied too heavily on the plot, which is an interesting one, and catered too much to predictable emotional responses.

In 2019, I'd like to listen to more audiobooks. I've also been reasonably called out for reading mostly books that are heavy and sad.  I could have an hours long conversation about why sad fiction makes me happy, but that being said, I wouldn't mind some more humor and fluff in my reading this year.  Recommendations for that and everything else please.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...