Sentimental Education

I will count as book 18 Sentimental Education, even though we can only say I read this book using a very loose definition of “read.” You see, I’ve succumbed to the world of Korean dramas and I’ll never be the same. A book cannot compete with a kdrama (in the realm of romantic storytelling) unless it’s truly stellar. Like Call Me By Your Name. But I have read only one or two books of that calibre in my entire life. Maybe I should start writing detailed metas for the kdramas I watch. Wouldn’t that be hilarious?

I wanted to read this book because of a boy I once knew. We were on a ski cabin trip and I saw him putting away his kindle, so I asked what he was reading. He looked at me, startled.. eyes wide, exposed. As if I had caught him committing a crime. He stuttered the name of this book, nothing else, and fled. This was years ago, but I have not forgotten his reaction.

So this book, it must be a revelation, right? Some truly guilty pleasure? I saved it all this time, waiting for the right moment to savor it. What better time than a lockdown.

I should have saved it forever because it’s just an annoying book. I am so disappointed. The author takes too much time describing clothes, furniture, decor, parties. Badly. As if he’s an intern at a museum doing inventory. He spends too much time on side characters that we never get to know well enough to be invested in: characters that all blur together or are flimsy enough to be summarized in a few words. He allows himself the luxury of opining on the politics of the day through his characters. Long-winded entreaties that have nothing to do with the story. It’s every sin that a first year writing course would beat out of you, but maybe it was acceptable in Flaubert’s day. Or maybe this book is read today to appreciate the zeitgeist of the French Revolution.

I got through the entire first volume and there was very little except unrequited longing which was poorly explained. A young man moves to Paris and falls in love with his mentor’s wife. For no reason. I guess she has nice hair? Now, in the second volume, the wife finds out the young man is engaged and decides she loves him too. Out of nowhere. Where does it go? Nowhere. He has a few side romances, has a child out of wedlock who then dies right away, has an engagement with a society woman, leads a country girl on for a bit. But there’s never a good motivation given for any of it. Was the prompt for this book “write some fluff about a young man’s sexual adventures, and make sure he’s driven by not much more than his libido and his basest social climber instincts”?

Maybe I’m judging a classic by today’s standards. Unfairly. Or maybe I’ve completely missed the lesson I’m supposed to learn. That young men are shallow and ambitious? Inflamed by senseless passions? Have no thought or significant motivation behind their actions? I love frivolity as much as anyone, but when frivolity reads like a slog, it earns a hard pass from me.

Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You

Book 15 of 2020 was Dog is Love. I appreciate the title and I’m more inclined to believe it than the religious phrase it’s a play on. The author is long-winded and repetitive, but does cover some interesting research. The basic premise of the book is that dogs are not uniquely intelligent in the animal kingdom: that they make such good pets and companions and even workers because they are motivated by their love for us.

Some new things I learned:

  • It’s unlikely dogs evolved from wolves because friendly wolves started helping humans hunt. It’s more likely that they evolved as scavengers of human trash dumps who were less fearful of humans, and this conferred reproductive advantage. The helping humans hunt came later.
  • Dogs have a “socialization period” during which they need to get used to humans. If this doesn’t happen, they will be feral. Like cats or humans.
  • Wolves don’t have as much interest in staying near humans as dogs do. Even wolves who were hand-raised by humans.
  • Most dogs will prioritize spending time with their humans over eating food, even if they haven’t eaten all day.
  • Showing dominance with physical force is unnecessary: dogs already know who’s boss because you decide when they eat, when they go outside, where they can do their business, etc
  • Animal shelters complete more adoptions when they don’t post breed info for their dogs. Breed info is guesswork anyway: shelter employees put down whatever they think the dog looks like.

Overall, I found the book informative, and I learned a good amount of new stuff. I’m surprised because I’ve been obsessed with dogs since I wrote a book report on them in grade school.

If all this talk of dogs has given you a yearning for one, or even just a desire to try being a dog owner, you’re in luck! The current coronavirus pandemic has resulted in shelters throughout the country being shut down, and many are looking for foster homes for their dogs (and other animals). If you’re a bit lonely or sheltering alone, maybe an animal companion could improve your days. Check out Stay Home and Foster.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (and sequels)

Books 12, 13, 14 of 2020 were To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, PS I Still Love You, and Always and Forever, Lara Jean. Yeah, it’s teen romance. No, I’m not ashamed. I forgot where I heard about it. Maybe Subtle Asian Traits? A bit of background: when someone says they need a role model that looks like them, or that a book is boring because they characters don’t look like them, I roll my eyes and think “give me a break.” Is representation in fiction important? Only if you don’t have an imagination. Only if you can’t learn from or appreciate a well-written story just because the protagonist doesn’t look like you. Only if you’re so closed-minded you’re only able to relate to others of the same race. So, when I heard about this series and the inevitable discussion about “representation,” I rolled my eyes but decided to give it a go.

I’m glad I did. The value of representation isn’t in catering to those who lack the imagination to find characters of other races engaging. It’s to share stories from different experiences. We should encourage people to read stories from cultures that aren’t their own. About people who don’t look like them. I’m sad for the people who only want to read about people who look like them: it’s a deliberate and unnecessary narrowing of their worldview.

The book centers around a teen girl who’s stereotypically Asian in some ways, but balancing that with being a “normal” teen in America. Sure, not every Asian high schooler is a high-achieving “goody-goody” who’s sheltered and has very little experience dating, but it’s pretty common. I appreciate how aspects of the main character’s Korean heritage were incorporated lightly into her story (with descriptions of Korean cooking and traditions), but the series is not about race, and we aren’t bashed over the head with race issues. It’s about teen romance, and the letters she wrote to various boys she loved. Letters that were never meant to be read, but mysteriously got sent to their addressees. It’s about first love, and high school and college admissions.

The books are really fun, lighthearted reads that I got through in 1-2 days each. Perfect lockdown material. The author writes in an engaging way and makes you want to keep reading, even after bedtime. Her characters are also quirky and have personalities that could belong to real people. I love that there is a good amount of food description. Lara Jean loves baking and the author describes this in detail. It reminded me a little of Murakami. Overall, the series is like a warm blanket or an old sweater. So comforting.

Our Revolution

Book 9 of 2020 was Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In. A little background: at this time of year in 2016, I was deep in the throes of democratic primary delegate math fanfiction. I was fantasizing about an increasingly implausible path for Sanders to win over Clinton. This year, I was more cavalier about his chances, since Joe Biden can’t tell his wife from his sister, or whether he’s running for the presidency or a senate seat. But it seems I’m wrong again. Instead of subjecting myself to the same emotional drama of fanfiction, I decided to read Bernie Sanders’ book and get to know his philosophy more in-depth.

The first third of the book is just his political history and some name dropping of celebrities who support him. If you’re not interested in the nitty gritty political behind-the-scenes of running for office, you can skip this part. He summarizes where he went, what he ran for, the outcome, some achievements, who he talked to along the way, etc.

The rest of the book looks at his policy positions. If you’ve heard him speak or debate, you know the broad strokes of his ideas. Healthcare as a human right. Free public college. Break up big banks. $15 minimum wage.

When he discusses the need for stronger worker protection and a $15 minimum wage, he shoots down the idea that a higher minimum wage is bad for small/local businesses. He gives a few examples of businesses making more money and having to hire more workers after minimum wage hikes are implemented. Then he explains that when low wage workers have more money, they tend to spend most of it in the local economy, boosting business.

The most interesting thing I learned from this book was a matter of framing. He re-framed Medicaid, food stamps and other safety net programs as welfare for large corporations. This comparison is similar to the argument that tipping at restaurants pushes the responsibility to pay waitstaff from the restaurant owner onto the customer. Taxpayers pay for social safety net programs, and these would not be so commonly needed if employers were legally required to pay workers higher wages. In essence, our taxes are paying the difference in what a low wage worker makes and a living wage. If it’s a choice between me paying the difference or Walmart paying it, I choose Walmart! After all, I’m not employing them, so I shouldn’t be responsible for their standard of living.

He also makes a point in his book that I wish he would make more on the debate stage or in speeches. Especially when others press him about the cost of single payer health care. That is, that the US government spends more per capita than almost all other governments, including those with single payer! And this is just government expenditures: it doesn’t include expenses paid by the individual or insurance premiums paid by employers. Other countries use monopsony power to set reasonable prices for everything in the healthcare industry, from drugs to procedures to hospital stays. They also save money in administration costs because there aren’t complicated billing codes for each procedure that differ from insurer to insurer. Do we really have to raise taxes to pay for single payer? Maybe we can just raise efficiency. If most other countries can have single payer for what our government pays already, it seems we’re just getting a bad deal.

This book gave me some measure of comfort despite knowing Sanders will probably lose the democratic primary again. He reminds us that it’s not about electing him in particular, but about implementing policies that will improve the lives of all Americans.

Less Than Zero

For book 8 of 2020, I read Less Than Zero. I first heard about this book in the documentary Generation Wealth. The characters in this book are floppy knockdown cardboard cutouts of people. There is no plot. There’s no organization. It’s less of a book in the traditional sense than an experience or a feeling: for that I give it credit.

It’s not a good feeling, though. American culture has an obsession with wealth and excess. I’m sure everyone has watched at least one episode or read at least one magazine article about the rich and famous. What their houses look like, their closets, their vacations, their parties. And I’m sure we’ve all imagined how wonderful life would be if we were that rich: “Fuck you rich.” This book, told from the perspective of one such teen, tells a story of emptiness, pointlessness, neglect, apathy, boredom, endless parties, drugs and taboo for the sake of it. It doesn’t sound like that much fun.

Near the end, one character challenges another, asking him to name one thing he doesn’t have. He says “I don’t have anything to lose.” I guess meaning is something you can’t buy. Figuring out what matters to you rather than what feels good in the moment isn’t fun, but maybe the point of the book is that having that level of wealth can make it unnecessary to do the work. And then, you’re left with a lifetime of anesthetizing yourself against the feeling of emptiness with drugs and taboo sex acts with children.

What a buzzkill. Who wants to hear that being rich is just as dull as being poor? If I had any confidence that the poor were literate enough or motivated enough to read this book en masse, then I would conjecture that it was written to encourage them not to rise up in a proletarian revolution. But I looked up the author, and according to him, it comes from a place of personal pain. So. That makes it even more depressing. I can’t recommend it for pleasure reading, but it is well-written in the sense that it “takes you there.”

Thief River Falls

For book 7 of 2020, I read Thief River Falls. Like the previous book, this was also an Amazon First Reads book. From a long time ago that I never got around to reading. I used to be a fan of mystery novels, but I opted for a few on Amazon First Reads and they were so bad that it put me off the genre for a while. You know the kind: formulaic, bad writing assisted by thesaurus, a forced romance in there somewhere, unnecessarily detailed descriptions of people’s bodies. But this book does none of those things, and I didn’t even see the plot twist until nearly the end!

There is a lot of foreshadowing, and there are also many clues along the way that something unusual is going on because it’s mentioned frequently that the main character’s book is “coming to life.” Also, many of the plot points are extreme and require a suspension of disbelief. Do we really believe cops would want to kill a little boy? Or that a DA would go to the extreme of torture?

It’s hard to write about this book without giving too much away, but the writing was good and didn’t impede the story. The author did a good job of describing the scene and characters just enough that you could picture it, but not so much that the point was belabored and boring. When the plot twist is revealed, everything does make sense and you get a satisfying closure. There’s no stupid Deus Ex Machina fix to tie up the ending. Overall, a great book to take on your next plane ride or vacation.

The Likely Resolutions of Oliver Clock

For book 6 of 2020, I read The Likely Resolutions of Oliver Clock. This was a free monthly book for Amazon Prime members, and the reviews weren’t great. People found it boring, unreadable. What do they know.

Oliver Clock is a charming and relatable man. Maybe just relatable to millenials. He was in love with a business associate for years, but found himself unable to confess. She was in love with him too! But he didn’t find out until after she died. That’s around when the story starts. I thought the author did a good job with the inner life of a middle aged man trying to improve his life. It’s like a man version of Bridget Jones’s Diary. He’s a pushover and has to learn how to stand up for himself, get out of a relationship he doesn’t like, get his mother to stop meddling in his life, rescue his failing business. I didn’t find it boring at all.

There are two kinds of people: those who are inspired by examples of seemingly unachievable greatness, and those who are inspired by the opposite. I am the latter. For example, I find Donald Trump’s presidency inspiring. Much more inspiring than Barack Obama’s or than Hillary Clinton’s would’ve been. Why? Both Obama and Clinton are very smart people who have reasonably good credentials and work experience. It should be no surprise that they make good leaders, or that they were able to convince a country to elect them. On the other hand, Trump is an idiot with no relevant experience. His presidency shows me that truly anyone can be president of the United States. A cardboard box could be president. Now, how is this relevant to my book report? Well, Oliver Clock inspires me too. If he can get it together enough to innovate and save his business, stand up to his mom, all of that? I mean, he’s sort of an amoeba of a human. If he can accomplish all of that? Well, maybe so can I! Read this if you need some low-grade inspiration to become less of a grub and slightly more of a human being. The writing is easy, entertaining, pleasant: it doesn’t get in your way or in the way of the story.

Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales

Book 5 of the year isĀ Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales by Oliver Sacks. I remembered reading and enjoying another book by the same author, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Confession: I started this book thinking that he would literally be telling us about his first loves. You know, sweet, heart-wrenching puppy love told by a talented author. But alas, there was nothing salacious or even very emotional. His “first loves” are things like the library in his childhood home. And not-very-well-known chemist Humphry Davy. And a herring-eating club. And a fern-hunting club. If I wanted to read about first nerd loves, I would’ve just gone back to my middle school diaries. (Yes, it’s true that I asked my mom for the Merck Index for Christmas back then).

The book is set up as a series of stand-alone essays that are chapter length. They’re a mish-mash of random ideas, many of which could have become new books, if the author had had more time. I did learn a lot from this book, and it was invitingly written, without the obvious dumbing down that is often done in popular science books. Did you know there’s a town in Belgium where families take on mentally ill strangers as boarders and have been doing so for centuries? Geel! There’s also a chapter on dementia that’s reversible, and due to a B12 deficiency. Another chapter covers insane asylums. I had no idea they used to have farms and gardens where the occupants would work!

In last few chapters, he mentions that he’s near the end of his life and sounds like an old man. He gripes about the lack of physical large-print books. He says it’s not the same to be read to, and he just doesn’t like e-readers because he likes the feel and smell of physical books. I don’t understand why he can’t feel and smell other books (if that’s his thing) and get his reading from an e-reader. Maybe its too much to demand that all our desires be fulfilled by one object. He also rails against how young people these days go around glued to their cell phones, walking into traffic and ignoring their young babies. I’m deeply sympathetic to this gripe and also frequently guilty. My last iPhone report said I spent an average of 2.5 hours a day looking at my phone. I have friends who pull their phones out at social gatherings and mindlessly scroll. But something about his tone makes it easy to dismiss him as a grumpy old man who doesn’t understand the benefits of smartphones. I know he’s a brilliant scientist, I just wish his parting words to us conferred some of his amassed wisdom instead of only grumbling about ways in which things have changed for the worse.

Overall, this was an okay book, but depending on what you’re looking for, his other works may be more enjoyable.

Little Men

For the 4th book of 2020, I read the kind of sequel to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Little Men. I had just watched the 2019 remake of the movie Little Women, and was still puzzled by the ending. Spoiler alert: I read the book, watched three versions of the movie (not all at once) and I still don’t get how Laurie ends up with Amy. Take it from someone who’s ever been into a person with a sibling. Feelings don’t casually swap from one to the next. Not feelings that have been developing over years of closeness, anyway.

I took to reading Little Men thinking maybe there could be some insight there. What I found was the same mediocre writing, the same heavy-handed moralizing and the same predictable “life lessons.” Maybe I’m jaded or maybe I’m too used to modern fiction where there isn’t a clear moral and the author doesn’t follow every story with a paragraph on her own views about what makes a great man. There’s something un-American about her writing. She glorifies poverty. But not just any poverty: poverty accompanied by hard work and diligence. Isn’t that the worst case though? Doesn’t that just translate to inefficiency? If you’re going to work yourself to an early grave, shouldn’t you at least be well-paid?

Maybe the book was written for young children, the same age as the target audience of Der Struwwelpeter: a delightful book of German bedtime stories where grave bodily injury or death is usually the consequence of small children not listening to their parents. Every chapter in Little Men has a standalone story and moral. Of course, nothing ever goes unpunished. The truth is always found out at the end. Those at fault are always brought to justice. It’s the sort of thing you expose children to that will satisfy them in the moment, then lead to a lifetime of disappointment that the world doesn’t actually work that way.

To answer the burning question, did I ever get a satisfying answer about Amy and Laurie? Not really. The best thing I could come up with is that Laurie wanted to keep Jo in his life, and stay close to her always (but we already knew that from the attic scene in Little Women when they’re reunited after his grand Euro trip). Also, he was convinced by her speech that she would never change her mind about marrying him. With Meg married, Beth dead, that left only Amy as a route to stay in the family. No wife outside the family would accept his continued closeness with Jo. Not back then, and probably not even now. Plus, on paper, Amy is an even better option for a society wife: pretty hair, pretty manners, likes pretty clothes. They even have a pretty daughter who’s basically a carbon copy of her mother. Not a bad compromise after all?