Readings

Ancillary Sword (Ann Leckie) and Ancillary Mercy (Ann Leckie). These were the second two books in the Ancillary series, following the story of Justice of Toren, the last remnant of a ship AI, and her struggle to maintain order and do right by people. The last two felt a bit more feel-good than the first one, which had a more ambiguous arc, but I really enjoyed these books. Given how rough the semester was for me, it was nice to occasionally sink into a story.

Child of All Nations (Pramoedya Ananta Toer). A sequel to This Earth of Mankind and part of the Buru quartet, this novel follows the story of Minke, an young Indonesian man in the late 19th century who was educated in a Dutch-mediun school on Java. Minke, now a graduate, runs up against colonialism in its many ugly forms, from outright theft to the moderate incremental anti-colonialists. In this book we can see him struggle towards and understanding and of and connection to the cause of Natives on their own terms. He starts to see things from heir eyes, in particular the struggle of tenant farmers. I’m looking forward to reading the last two books!

Colline (Jean Giono). I picked this up on an impulse at the NYPL (it was in the new books section) since I generally learn a lot from reading the NYRB series of reprints — they are things I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. This is Giono’s first novel — his experience in WWI (he was at Verdun) affected him deeply, and apparently many of his books deal with the relationship between humans and nature. This is about a small community in Provence which experiences a series of mysterious and terrifying events — perhaps they have violated nature and are being punished, but perhaps they can root out the evil that curses them and kill it. Is all that we humans do? Killing and scything and scarring nature? Recommended if you like sketchily narrated books with lots of pastoral mysticism.

The Day of The Owl (Leonardo Sciascia). This is one of the first novels about the Mafia — at the time (the early 60s) people were debating whether the mafia really existed or not. The book follows the investigation of a murder by a zealous carabinieri, Inspector Bellodi. His investigation is hampered by intransigent witnesses and Sciascia keeps up a running commentary from Bellodi’s subordinates’ internal monologue to faceless individuals discussing the progress of his investigation. The tone is slightly humorous, despite the body count. The preface really helped contextualize the novel. Without having grown up in Italy I don’t think I would have understood the relationship between Sicily and the rest of Italy, the omnipresence of and complete silence about the Mafia, and the politics of mid-20th century Italy. Recommended for those who like historical detective novels (plus it’s a quick read).

The Tijuana Book of the Dear (Luis Alberto Urrea). I haven’t read poetry in ages so this was a welcome change of pace for me. Urrea’s collection, as the title suggests, is about the borderlands. It’s also about his becoming a poet — one poem describes him copying out poems on a battered typewriter, producing a “second rate Morrison. / a $4.95 Bukowski. / a $1.98 Wakoski.” Unsurprisingly, I liked the overtly political ones, like Arizona Lamentation, which says “This was always Odin’s garden / A clean white place,” and “No Mexican was ever born / In our land,” lamenting that

We had something grand here
We had family values, we had clean sidewalks.

Then these strangers came. These mudmen.
They invaded our dream

And colored it.

There are also some striking love poems. I really enjoyed the dark humor in Urrea’s poems. Maybe this will start a summer of poetry for me.

Readings

Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman). This was recommended by Vivek Goyal, and is Kahneman’s popular nonfiction book about the psychology of decision making in humans (as opposed to rational-decision making models like those in economics). The System 1/System 2 model was new to me, even though the various biases and heuristics that he describes were things I had heard about in different contexts. While quite interesting and a book that anyone who works on decision making should read (I’m looking at you, statisticians, machine learners, and systems-EE folks), it’s a bit too long, I think. I found it hard to power through at the end, which is where he gets into prospect theory, a topic which my colleague Narayan Mandayam is trying to apply in wireless systems.

Men Explain Things To Me (Rebecca Solnit). A slim volume collecting several of Solnit’s essays on feminism and its discontents, from the last few years. I was familiar with some of the essays (including the first one) but was surprised by her ultimately hopeful tone (many of the essays come with introductions describing their context and how she feels about them now). Highly recommended, but I don’t think it will help with any Arguments On The Internet.

The Idea of India (Sunil Khilnani). This book is a bit older now but provides a lot of crucial context about the early Indian state, the relationship between urbanism and social change, and the nature of electoral politics in India. Reading this gave me a more nuanced view of the complexity of contemporary Indian politics, or at least a more nuanced view of how we got here (beyond the usual history of communalism). The origins of the cronyism of Congress and the causes and effects of the Emergency were also a new perspective for me.

The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen). This is about an undercover Vietnamese (well, half-Vietnamese, as people keep pointing out) undercover agent who leaves during the evacuation of Saigon and embeds himself in the refugee community, sending coded messages about counter-revolutionary plans. Our unnamed narrator has a an epic adventure, darkly comic and tragic, initially told as a confessional in some sort of prison interrogation. He was educated in the US before going back to Vietnam — this puts him between two worlds, and the novel is fundamentally about this tension. Throughout people are archetypes: The General, The Auteur, the crapulent major. Although long, the novel is rewarding: the last quarter really put me through the wringer, emotionally.

Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel). A novel about a post-apocalyptic future (split between pre-slightly post-and much post) in which much of the world has been decimated by a mysterious infection. The novel revolves around a series of connected characters: an actor who dies on stage in a production of King Lear, his ex-wife, who wrote a series of comics about a remote station, a child actor from the same production who survives to become part of a traveling theater company in the post-apocalyptic wasteland that was once Michigan, an audience member who was once a paparazzo following the actor. The whole novel has a haunting air to it, a bit of a dreamy sensibility that makes it easy to read (too) quickly. The connections between the characters were not surprising when they were revealed, but they didn’t need to be — the book doesn’t rely on that kind of gimmickry. Read it while traveling: you won’t look at airports the same way again.

Readings

The Buddha in the Attic (Julie Otsuka). This was a beautifully written short book written as the collective experiences of Japanese picture brides from the 19th century to the present. It’s one of those books you have to read all at once or in a short period of time in concentrated bursts. Each chapter is a different era and a different set of experiences. It might make you want to read more.

Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (Bohumil Hrabal). Another stream of consciousness, Hrabal’s novella is from the perspective of an old man, a “palaverer” in the language of the introductory essay, addressing a group of young “beauties.” The narrator is unreliable, he tells stories that are shocking and backtracks to make himself seem better, he digresses into rants and waxes poetic about the “beauties” he has seen in his life. The introductory essay does a good job of situating the text and explaining Hrabal, about whom I knew nothing.

Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie). This is the first in a trilogy which I swear I will take my time reading so I can enjoy them more. It’s impossible not to compare the world-building here to a point of reference like Banks’s Culture novels, but there’s quite a bit that’s different here. The main conceit is that ship-level AIs can spin of “ancillaries” into other bodies to act as surrogates. Beckie’s insistence on the default “she” for a genderless society angers whiny MRA-type sad puppies, but I didn’t find that it played a central role in the story, although it made me aware of my default assumptions and “desire to know” characters’ genders. I’m looking forward to the next two!

Between The World And Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates). Written as a letter to his son, Coates tries to work out the meaning of his college friend Prince Jones’s murder at the hands of police. The book stakes out a strong critical position on America as an enterprise, but, as Michelle Alexander’s review puts it, feels unfinished. It is, however, necessary reading.

Cannery Row (John Steinbeck). A classic that I never read until now! Steinbeck’s prose feels dated and his way of describing people like Lee Chong, made my skin crawl at times, but that man could write a sentence. The book surprised me.

Readings

Mirrors (Naguib Mahfouz): This is a collection of character sketches that were serialized in a magazine that Mahfouz wrote for. Each chapter is a different person — they are related, living through the same era in Cairo, but there is not a story here. Collectively they evoke a sense of how much Egypt changed between independence and 1970, and I found myself having to look up a lot of things, like the history of the Wafd party. If you already like Mahfouz or you’re interested in literary takes on mid-20th century Egypt, then it’s worth reading.

Rebetiko (David Prudhomme): Set in 1936 Athens, this graphic novel is about a day in the life of a group of rebetiko musicians. The dictatorship is on the rise, and fascism has no room for degenerate music like rebetiko. There is a slight arc to the story and links to specific historical figures, but it’s more about the time and the place and the music. My quondam co-blogger and co-author Alex is in a rebetiko band down in Austin.

Odysseus Abroad (Amit Chaudhuri): A recasting of Ulysses, a bit, starring Ananda, a poetry student from India going to university in London, and his uncle, who lives in a bedsit in Belsize Village after years of working in the accounting end of a maritime shipping business. They wander, eat, and talk. Ananda confronts his own sense of out-of-place-ness. He cares deeply for his uncle, who is still a bit frustrating. Both are alienated and the similarities and differences, carefully observed, are what make this novel worth reading.

Oreo (Fran Ross): I was on a Greek-inpsired modern fiction kick, apparently. Oreo is a satire starting a half-black half-Jewish kid named Oreo who goes on a Thesus-like journey to find her father. The book is full of allusions to the myth (there’s a helpful gloss in the back) and is sprinkled with many Yiddishisms. It’s received a bit of a resurgence in interest because it confronts these issues of hybridity and identity, although the aesthetic is rooted in a 70s broad farcical style that reminded me of Ishmael Reed. I want more people to read it so that I can talk to them about it — so much to discuss!

The Philosopher Kings (Jo Walton): a sequel to Walton’s The Just City, set several years later. If you liked the first book you might like this one too, but it’s definitely more of a “more adventures in the land of.” While it addresses some more weighty topics such as revenge and power/divinity and other knotty philosophical issues, I didn’t find it as “surprising” as the first book. There are some lovely scenes in there and Walton’s deftness at switching between different first-person narrators is really a delight. The structure of the story feels almost… architectural (but not in a David Mitchell way). Recommended if you liked the first.

Readings

WordPress ate 90% of this in an editing problem, so here is an abbreviated version.

Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie): A really powerful book set during the Biafran War in Nigeria. I had read Americanah first, and this book could not be more different. In reading I kept thinking that the Biafran War occupies the same place as Partition only the outcome was very different and it was much more recent. I put it up there with the must-read books of postcolonial literature.

The Annihilation Score (Charles Stross): This is a Laundry novel, and the n-th in the series, so if you haven’t read the rest it won’t be the right place to start. I liked this bits about government bureaucracy and coverups and shell games, but somehow it was less engaging than some of the previous novels. One of the strong points to me is the change in narrator — this one is from the perspective of Dominique O’Brien, as opposed to her husband Bob. Definitely some good bits in there about women in positions of authority and so on. Recommended if you’re a Laundry fan already.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie): This novel is about a teenage kid growing up on the Rez. It’s definitely pitched for the YA crowd, but it doesn’t really pull that many punches. I think he captures with some lightness the early high school anxieties, despite the really grim reality of the situation. I wonder what students reading it think versus adults. Highly recommended.

Anya’s Ghost (Vera Brosgol): a lovely YA graphic novel about a teenage girl who becomes friends with a ghost who seems to have… other plans.

Range of Ghosts / Shattered Pillars / Steles of the Sky (Elizabeth Bear): Really great high-fantasy series set in a fictionalized Central Asia (plus China plus Russia). Distances are vast, and communication is poor as Henry Farrell noted, so the book has very different themes than most. There’s some nods to this being a post-apocalyptic Earth but those are not pursued, which was the right tactic I think.

The Just City (Jo Walton): Have you ever wondered what would happen if people tried to actually create Plato’s Republic in real life? In this book, Athina (the goddess) tries to just that, and Apollo decides to become mortal to see what “volition” and “equal significance” are all about. The Masters are Plato fans from across the ages, snapped up out of time. The students are Greek slave children, rescued from markets to live in the Just City and become their best selves. Socrates makes an appearance. There are robots. Do they have free will? Lots of philosophy here, but there’s a story too, and character development, and all that. Really a great read, but you have to like talking about Ideas. Unlike other fictionalized philosophies, this one is actually a novel first, which makes it a delight.

Readings

I had a rough semester this Spring, but I did manage to read some books, mostly thanks to an over-aggressive travel schedule.

Dead Ringers: How Outsourcing is Changing How Indians Understand Themselves (Shehzad Nadeem). Published a few years ago, this book is a study of how two kinds of outsourcing — business process (BPO) and information processing outsourcing (IPO) — have changed attitudes of Indians towards work in a globalized economy. Nadeem first lays out the context for outsourcing and tries to dig behind the numbers to see where and to whom the benefits are going. The concept of time arbitrage was a new way of thinking about the 24-hour work cycle that outsourcing enables — this results in a slew of deleterious health effects for workers as well as knock-on effects for family structures and the social fabric. This sets the stage for a discussion of whether or not outsourcing has really brought a different “corporate culture” to India (a topic on which I have heard a lot from friends/relatives). The book brings a critical perspective that complicates the simplified “cyber-coolies” versus “global agents” discussion that we often hear.

Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille (Steven Brust). Mind-candy, a somewhat slight novel that was a birthday gift back in high school. Science fiction of a certain era, and with a certain lightness.

Hawk (Steven Brust). Part n in a series, also mind-candy at this point. If you haven’t read the whole series up to this point, there’s little use in starting here.

Saga Volumes I-IV (Brian K. Vaughan / Fiona Staples). This series was recommended by several people and since I hadn’t read a graphic novel in a while I figured I’d pick it up. Definitely an interesting world, angels vs. demons in space with androids who have TV heads thrown in for good measure, it’s got a sort of visual freedom that text-based fiction can’t really match up to. Why not have a king with a giant HDTV for a head? Makes total sense to me, if that’s the visual world you live in. Unfortunately, the series is at a cliff-hanger so I have to wait for more issues to come out.

This Earth of Mankind (Pramoedya Ananta Toer): A coming-of-age story set in 1898 Indonesia, which is a place and time about which I knew almost nothing. Toer orally dictated a quartet of novels while imprisoned in Indonesia, of which this is the first. The mélange of ideas around colonialism, independence, cultural stratification in Java, and the benefits and perils of “Western education” echo things I know from reading about India, but are very particular to Indonesia. In particular, the bupati system and relative decentralization of Dutch authority in Indonesia created complex social hierarchies that are hard to understand. The book follows Minke, the only Native (full Javanese) to attend his Dutch-medium school, and his relationship with Annelise, the Indo (half-Native, half Dutch) daughter of a Dutch businessman and his concubine Nyai Ontosoroh. Despite their education and accomplishments, Minke and Nyai Ontosoroh are quite powerless in the face of the racist hierarchies of Dutch law that do not allow Natives a voice. This novel sets the stage for the rest of the quartet, which I am quite looking forward to reading.

The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell): The latest novel from David Mitchell is not as chronologically sprawling as Cloud Atlas. I don’t want to give too much away, but there is an epic behind-the-scenes struggle going on, some sort of mystic cult stuff, and a whole lot of “coincidences” that Mitchell is so good at sprinkling throughout his book. There are also some nice references to his other books, including Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I liked the latter novel better than this one, despite its gruesomeness, because it felt a bit more grounded. I think fans of Mitchell’s work will like the Bone Clocks, but of his novels, I don’t think I would recommend starting with this one.

Readings

The Magician’s Land [Lev Grossman] : The finale of Grossman’s series. In a sense it had all the right pieces, but somehow it felt less specific and grounded to me, perhaps because the world was no longer “new” or because I felt like there was a need to “finish things up.” Of course, if you read the first two you have to read this one, so it’s not like I could not-recommend it. I was still quite enjoyable.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage [Haruki Murakami]: This also felt a bit slight with respect to other books of Murakami, but also “clean” in a way that I appreciated. I also now have to listen to more Liszt. Tsukuru Tazaki feels “colorless” and empty, shunned by his old childhood friends. He finally tries to seek out why, which turns out to be more surprising than he thought. As with much of Murakami’s work, the “mysteriousness” of women has this negative tint that makes me uncomfortable. This book, unlike 1Q84 or others, has very little magical realism going on, so it could be a good recommendation for someone who is less of a fan of that aspect of Murakami’s work.

Soy Sauce For Beginners [Kirstin Chen]: The story of Gretchen Lin, a 30-year old who has moved back to Singapore from SF to work at the family soy sauce factory after her marriage fell apart, this novel is part Gretchen’s painful journey towards self-discovery and resolution with her family, and partly an introduction to Singapore for the non-familiar reader. The latter part will appeal to some but at times I wanted less explanation and to be forced into trying to make sense of cultural elements myself. In this sense it’s a sort of novel of cultural translation. That being said, the best part of this book is how true and messy the story really felt. The family (and business) are dysfunctional, and Gretchen has a lot to come to terms with regarding herself, her marriage, and her relationship to this family.

The Name of The Wind / The Wise Man’s Fear [Patrick Rothfuss] : I should make myself promise to not read epic fantasy series that are not completed. Told in a kind of story-within-a-story, these books were a great way to unwind over the vacation. If you like those bards plus wizards coming of age stories, this one is for you. Also: plenty of unrequited love.

The Lowland [Jhumpa Lahiri] : I had read the opening of this book as a short story, but the novel is another beast entirely. Two brothers in Kolkata, one a Naxalite, the other looking to go to grad school in the US, and a torn apart and stitched together family in the US. While reading this I kept thinking of the movie Boyhood, which rather abruptly jumped years into the future to catch the family’s story at another time. This book does the same, but the shifts felt more jarring to me; I did not understand who there characters were quite as well. I think I had to suspend my disbelief a few times for some of the narrative choices. However, in retrospect it is because I think I didn’t quite get the characters, or I had misconceptions. Regardless, I think this is a story that helps complicate the story of middle-class Indian immigrant families, and is worth giving a read.

House of Suns [Alastair Reynolds] : Space opera, on a grand scale, but still grounded in our galaxy with humans, rather than the more distant and alien Culture novels of Banks. As Cosma would put it, mind candy, and a nice beach read.