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.

Wall of Silence

The 17th book I read this year was Wall of Silence. It was a free Amazon book of the month, and it was interesting enough to keep me reading until the end. I confess I didn’t see the ending coming, though the author did give hints.

I didn’t find it believable that the daughter could stab her father, even given the circumstances revealed at the end. I also found the father character poorly developed. When he was young, he was a perfect, sheltered golden boy. But sweet. And then he grew up to be paper thin. An adulterer, a win-at-any-cost politician, a sociopath? It’s not a clear trajectory and there doesn’t seem to be trauma to explain how it happened. He just became this way to make the plot twist work out, I guess.

This book was interesting enough to finish, but may make you resentful because, on the whole, it isn’t interesting. Take my opinion for what it’s worth though: I felt the same about Slaughterhouse Five and wished a painful death to the author every time “and so it goes” was repeated.

In an Instant

Book 16 this year was In an Instant. This was an Amazon First Reads book, and probably the best one I’ve picked. The characters are vivid and I can see them being real people. No one is that ideal hero you’re rooting for. (Okay, maybe Mo). Everyone makes mistakes.

Maybe one reason the book is so well-written is that the author had an experience in her childhood similar to the accident at the beginning of the story. The story illustrates the idea that regardless of our everyday personas, when it comes to life and death, we become selfish and protect ourselves and family first. None of the characters are painted as sociopaths: they’re normal, average people. They seem happy and generous; their friendships look strong. But once they’re put into a life-threatening situation, they begin to scrabble like rats for any small advantage: warm boots, who drinks water first, etc.

Most of us will never be in that situation, so it’s hard to say what we would or wouldn’t do. That’s probably what makes this book so interesting. None of the characters would have seen themselves as the type of person who would choose to help themselves to the detriment of their friends. We don’t like to see ourselves that way: it makes us uncomfortable. But what if we would make the same choice if we were faced with the same situation? How strong is the instinct for self-preservation? The parental imperative to protect our children?

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.

Designing Your Life

Books 10 and 11 of 2020 are a funny story. My friend recommended a book, which I misheard as Design Your Life. I’m cheating by calling it book 10 because I only got through about half of it before giving up. The book she actually recommended was Designing Your Life. The book was recommended as something that could help me apply design principles to improve my life. My friend thought I would like it because it’s similar to one of my bibles, Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

So, I tried reading Design Your Life. At first I was puzzled. Sure, maybe personal style is somewhat important to living a satisfying life. I went with it. But when chapter after chapter featured long-winded expositions on the author’s personal style and personal opinions about what pieces make her look and feel the best, I was puzzled. I don’t care what makes the author feel feminine yet powerful. I don’t care what she thinks every woman should own. I don’t believe in the “law of attraction.” There were sections about shoes, jewelry, accessories and story after story where the author name drops people like Anna Wintour and brands like Chanel. Vapid. I gave up reading this book after it became clear it wasn’t about designing my life so much as designing my wardrobe to be a copy of the author’s.

No way my friend could be as vapid as this book. I went back to look for the correct book and found it. Thank goodness I did. It was so much more useful than the first book. The authors of Designing Your Life do not believe in telling people to find their passion and make a career out of it. Although some of their tools seem a bit woo, like “mind-mapping” and “grokking” or a bit goofy to implement, like having brainstorms with a group of 5-6 people specifically about how to improve your life, I want to try many of the exercises given.

I especially like all of the “reframing” statements and stories. In Marie Kondo’s book, it was these reframing arguments that helped me give up a lot of things I had been hoarding. Similarly, reframing in this book will help me get over inertia, fear of failure, fighting against gravity, and many other detrimental beliefs and behaviors.

The book offers techniques to figure out which parts of your life you need to work on: work, play, love or health. It seems basic that in order to improve something, we have to find a metric and determine the baseline, but I had never thought to sit down and think of it this way. There are also tools to determine which activities are engaging and energy-boosting. With such analysis, it’s easier to see the components of a good job, and to excise the aspects of your current job that you don’t like.

The book covers principles that I’d like to incorporate into my own thinking. For example, becoming immune to failure by categorizing failures to either get over them or learn something useful from them. I also appreciate the section on making choices, then moving on instead of agonizing over whether you’ve made the right choice. The bias towards action, prototyping, and failing fast/failing forward are also concepts I really need to implement. I am finding things hard to implement, so maybe I do need outside help for brainstorming. We’ll see.

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.