Book Reviews!

No spoilers.

January 2, 2020 - 21 minute read -
personal books

Why We’re Polarized

Ezra Klein (2020)
Why We're Polarized

Categories: Nonfiction, Politics

TL;DR: In an interesting analysis of the current moment in American history and politics, Vox co-founder Ezra Klein first builds a framework to understand systems of polarization before examining those systems at work in recent history.

Since I think Ezra Klein is a thoughtful person and I also enjoy listening to his podcast, I decided to pick up his self-recorded audiobook of Why We’re Polarized as a long-form podcast of sorts about polarization.

In the first half of the book, Klein builds up a theory of polarization that references interesting psychology and sociology research, before delving into the history of how the political system of the United States has become more polarized in the past fifty years. Much of what he goes over is insightful and makes a lot of sense in the current political moment; a lot of it is also information that I’ve already been exposed to through the media that I regularly consume.

A particularly interesting conclusion explored in the book is that our political identities have become mega-identites that consist of a compilation of our other identities (i.e. left: coffee-drinking, coastal dwelling, atheist, pro-choice, pro-marijuana legalization, etc.), and when an individual identity is threatened, it threatens our broader political identity. Instead of making a judgment about whether polarization is good or bad, Klein argues that it is here to stay and we should adapt our systems to better function under political polarization – ideas like eliminating the filibuster and the electoral college, ranked choice voting, and being mindful of the identities that we inhabit.

Quick comment about the actual recording: Ezra Klein speaks quickly, which means this is hard to listen to on 1.5x or 2x speed – I ended up listening at the actual pace, but it’s a relatively short book and easy listen so I didn’t mind much. It did take a while to get used to him strongly emphasizing parts of sentences to get his point across (moreso than other narrators), and chuckling to himself when reading something particularly surprising.

Overall, I thought this was an insightful book that describes the current political moment thoughtfully and accurately.

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The Power

Naomi Alderman (2016)
The Power

Categories: Science Fiction, Dystopia

TL;DR: Written as a historical dramatization of the events spurred on by women suddenly manifestating the ability to produce electrical shocks from their bodies, this novel reads like pushing a snowball down a mountain: at first exciting and even cathartic, then slowly building and building until it becomes a destructive avalanche.

For me, the two most interesting aspects of The Power were the framing of the story, and the parallels of certain scenes to modern-day life. The story starts and ends five thousand years in the future in a matriarchal world with a series of letters from a male author writing to get advice to a female author. The man is a part of a male writers club, and is struggling to find an audience for his non-fiction books which proclaim that women were not always the dominant gender – a version of history that is inconvenient to those in power. It’s a thought-provoking exercise to compare their relationship, and many of the other relationships in the book, to how power dynamics play out today.

There are scenes of women standing up for themselves with their newfound power that are genuinely satisfying to read, but there is also a sense of uneasiness from the very beginning about how power can be a corrupting force. We follow four main characters: a male reporter from Nigeria who documents uprisings around the world, a young girl from America who uses her power to kill her abusive father, the daughter of a mob boss in London, and an American politician who becomes an advocate for young girls with power.

I finished the book with a strange feeling of unresolved anxiety; the entire story builds up to a climax, but the climax is implied and never actually shown. The last couple of chapters are short and sparsely detailed, and there is a lot left open to interpretation (so much so that I went back and re-read the last couple of chapters immediately after finishing). I would have liked more details at the the end, and perhaps more detail about the history that was taught five-thousand years afterwards, but overall, this was an enjoyable and engrossing read.

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Winners Take All

Anand Giridharadas (2018)
Winners Take All

Categories: Non-fiction, Politics, Business, Philanthropy

TL;DR: This book breaks down the traditional win-win narrative of business – that it’s possible to effect transformational, positive change on the world while making a profit – and offers a compelling case that real and lasting change will not come from the very wealthy.

Anand Giridharadas is a very articulate speaker; I came to this book after stumbling upon a couple of videos of his speaking engagements that I couldn’t turn away from. People like me – graduates of elite universities wondering how we can positively impact the world – are one of the subjects of his writing as he examines why we worship businesses as vehicles for change.

The book coins the term MarketWorld, which is used to represent the philosophy around business in our age that has been perpetuated by billionaires and large corporations: that the best way to bring about positive change is through the lens of business, which helps both the businesses and its customers live a better life.

Young people are flocking to jobs in consulting, technology, and finance in order to gain the tools to “change the world” that we’ve been taught from a young age to admire, and the people in charge genuinely believe that they’re making the world better. However, the book introduces us to a host of people that help deconstruct this idea, from a disillusioned employee of a consulting firm, an academic whose work has been taken out of context and adopted in lieu of actual systemic change, and the president of the Ford foundation who holds his own misgivings about how philanthropy is carried out.

Check out this longer post I wrote for a summary of the book’s main argument. I’ve included this as a recommended book because its ideas resonate with me, but to be honest, I’d recommend his speaking engagements or appearances on podcasts as a more concise, easier to digest medium of absorbing this information.

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The Poppy War

R. F. Kuang (2018)

The Poppy War

Categories: Adult Fantasy, Historical Fiction

TL;DR: If you’re interested in the the brutality of war, fantasy school settings, or questionable decision making, then you’ll enjoy the story of Rin, a bright and obsessive young woman desperate to escape her abusive parents and arranged marriage who tests into the most prestigious university in the country during a time of impending danger.

The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic are the first two books of the Poppy War Trilogy, with the third book set to come out in late 2020.

I first heard about this book through an interview with the author on YouTube. During the interview, she describes the fundamental question that she wanted to explore in this series: How does someone born into a peasant family in rural China rise to power and become a megalomaniac, mass murderer like Mao Zedong?

I think that’s a profoundly interesting question, and it’s why I picked up The Poppy War. The book draws inspiration for its setting from the Song Dynasty and its events from 19th and 20th century China.

The Poppy War tells the story of a young girl named Rin who is incredibly driven. She goes to college, learns some secrets about the world, and is thrust into the middle of a war as her country is invaded. There is magic in this world, but it’s not the typical western-style Harry Potter/LOTR magic system that we normally see - it’s a spiritual connection with one of the many gods of the world that can be accessed by doing lots of drugs.

The prose is not the most beautiful that I’ve read, and there are so many characters that many come off as one-dimensional. I definitely don’t think this series is for everyone — there is a lot of tragedy and death, and our main girl Rin is an easily manipulated, morally questionable, and a pretty bad decision maker.

That being said, I found the story completely addicting to read. I could hardly put it down, and I bought the second book immediately after finishing the first.

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The Dragon Republic

R. F. Kuang (2019)
The Dragon Republic

Categories: Adult Fantasy, Historical Fiction

TL;DR: The second book in the Poppy War Trilogy is an exciting sequel that manages to raise the stakes, improve upon the action, and dive deeper into the lore of Rin’s world as Rin finds herself at the center of a civil war between competing ideologies.

The Dragon Republic is the sequel to The Poppy War, and it’s even better than its predecessor. The story continues with Rin shortly after the conclusion of the previous book, and there’s even more fighting, betrayal, heartbreak, death, blood, and gore. The plot jumps from important event to important event as we see Rin and her allies endure massive suffering that ultimately leads to a surprising and impressively executed ending.

Both of these novels in this series don’t shy away from the atrocities committed during war and take their time dwelling on the haunting consequences of those atrocities. It gets very dark, not in the most dramatic and emotional way, but in a precise, calculating, morbid way.

Kuang does a great job of pivoting the story toward a broader scope than the first book. The shortcomings I mentioned in my review of The Poppy War – the prose and characterization – are both improved upon in this book. I’m looking forward to reading the conclusion of the trilogy later this year, which I’m sure will raise the stakes even higher. The series’ historical perspective is fascinating, and Kuang does a great job creating tense situations, high stakes, and a war story that is definitely worth following.

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The Sword of Kaigen

M. L. Wang (2019)
The Sword of Kaigen

Categories: Adult Fiction, High Fantasy, Military Fantasy

TL;DR: This is easily one of my new favorites – the characterization, world-building, and gripping action in The Sword of Kaigen feels at once both deeply personal and cosmically sweeping as we follow a warrior family through a time of great unrest in their household and their country.

This book is seriously so good!!

We follow two main protagonists: Misaki Matsuda, a wife and mother who feels oppressed and disillusioned in the traditional patriarchal village that she has married into, and her firstborn son Mamoru, who must balance the pressure to live up to the high expectations of his Matsuda bloodline and the faltering narrative of history that he has been taught.

The adult military fantasy novel is set in a country called Kaigen, and Wang does a great job seamlessly introducing Japanese-inspired cultural concepts and an elemental magic system to create a beautiful, character-driven story with two (!) climaxes and many beautiful fight scenes.

Misaki is such a strong character, and her story arc was immensely compelling and satisfying to read. At the beginning of the story, she is a housewife who has been forced into a subservient role, and we learn about her intriguing past as she struggles to come to terms with her role as a mother, a wife, and a warrior. Misaki’s old memories began to resurface as her son Mamoru begins to question the stories around him and struggles to master his family’s fighting techniques.

It only took me a couple of days to read The Sword of Kaigen because I just could not put it down. Definitely one of my favorite fantasy books of all time!

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The Theonite Series

M. L. Wang (2016, 2017)
Theonite: Planet Adyn

Categories: Young Adult Fantasy

TL;DR: If you loved The Sword of Kaigen and you’re looking for a casual read that provides interesting insight into the same world, then check out the first two books of the now-discontinued Theonite series, which centers around Joan, a teenager from Earth with the ability to control a variety of substances.

After reading The Sword of Kaigen and finding out that there were two more books set in the same world, I had to read them as well.

Theonite: Planet Adyn and Theonite: Orbit are the first two books in a now-discontinued young adult fantasy series. If either of those things – young adult novels or unfinished series in limbo – are not up your alley, then these aren’t the books for you.

We follow Joan, a middle-schooler who has been hiding the power to control metals, wind, water, and fire for her entire life, as she encounters Daniel and his father Robin, world-hopping crime hunters from Planet Adyn with the ability to control fire.

I did enjoy reading them and discovering interesting details about the world, but the story wasn’t as fleshed out or mature as The Sword of Kaigen. If you’re not into YA, then I wouldn’t recommend reading these unless you really want to get a deeper dive into the world in The Sword of Kaigen. While I liked reading the Theonite series, the characters and story are only a fraction as compelling as M. L. Wang’s later work in my opinion.

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10 Percent Happier

Dan Harris (2014)
10% Happier

Categories: Non-fiction, Self Help, Memoir

TL;DR: In classic self-help fashion, a news anchor goes on a journey of self-discovery by practicing meditation and shares his learnings through this book.

This book is meant an an introduction to meditation for the skeptical observer: Dan Harris describes his journey as a stressed-out reporter who slowly comes to realize the importance of mindfulness and meditation. I listened to this as an audiobook, and quickly realized that the only way I was going to get through it was by setting the audio to 2x speed.

I’m not the biggest fan of self-help books in general. I tend to think that: 1. there is not enough content in most self-help books to merit writing an entire book about it, and 2. their greater effect in the world is to promote an unearned, self-congratulatory celebration that often replaces broader critical thinking about the complicated solutions to problems in the world, even if the author doesn’t intend it (in fact, I think Dan Harris would add the counterpoint that by bringing people into meditation, he is giving them a toolbox that allows for more critical thinking in the world. It’s a valid point, but it doesn’t change my feelings about the self-help genre as a whole).

That being said, I think this book is fine. It’s a very light read, and if you’re in a specific demographic – young tech-adjacent person living in a big city and looking for an introduction to meditation – I think you’ll enjoy it. Otherwise, there aren’t many lasting lessons that I took away from this book.

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For the Love of Men

Liz Plank (2019)
For the Love of Men

Categories: Non-fiction, Psychology, Feminism

TL;DR: Journalist and prolific Tik-Tok creator Liz Plank dives deep into the the concept of masculinity in a well-researched, thought-provoking, intersectional book interspersed with stories of men from around the world.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and I found a lot of truth in the way that Plank describes the traditional rules of masculinity, how they impact men, and how we can address masculinity in a healthy way.

The book is divided into two parts. The first section addresses common addages that often surround masculinity, such as: men don’t need intimacy, manhood is never fully earned and needs to be constantly renewed, and that masculinity is under attack. The second section focuses on expanding our definitions of masculinity, noting that “while we’re comfortable with women existing outside of the bounds of femininity, we’re not comfortable with men existing beyond the bounds of masculinity.”

Plank argues for the gendered expectations holding both men and women back are born out of the same ideology, and that a mindful conversation about gender will have only winners.

Listening to this book got me thinking about the impact that traditional masculinity has had on my own life. Would recommend for anyone interested in thinking critically about masculinity!

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Catch and Kill

Ronan Farrow (2019)
Catch and Kill

Categories: Nonfiction, True Crime, Politics

TL;DR: Ronan Farrow recounts a disturbing tale in which his an investigation into the sexual misconduct of film producer Harvey Weinstein produces a stunning amount of evidence and attempts to conceal his crimes.

In October 2017, two stories broke about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct that catalyzed the #MeToo movement and changed the landscape of sexual harrassment in the world. The first was a story by Jodi Cantor and Megan Twohey at the New York Times, and the second was a story by Ronan Farrow at The New Yorker.

Ronan Farrow wrote Catch and Kill about his experience reporting on the story, and Jodi Cantor and Megan Twohey wrote She Said about their own experience. From what I’ve read, She Said focuses more on the stories of women, the grueling process of being a reporter, and the importance of supporting journalists, while Catch and Kill focuses more on the danger of corporate influence on independent journalism.

This was a captivating read that really emphasizes the overwhelming amount of evidence of wrongdoing that surfaced against Harvey Weinstein, and the great lengths that those in power went to in order to conceal that evidence and prevent Farrow from publishing his story. Weinstein and his allies hired private investigators to track Farrow’s movements, threatened women who talked with reporters, and made backhanded deals with large corporations while those around him turned a blind eye to his misconduct.

Truly fascinating, compelling, and horrifying to read.

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The Black Swan

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007)
The Black Swan

Categories: Nonfiction, Economics, Business, Philosophy

TL;DR: This frustratingly dense and enlightening book centers around black swan events – “improbable” events that “experts” cannot predict, but shape the world as we know it.

This book explores our blindness to large, random deviations from the norm, which Taleb coins as “Black Swan” events. Let me just start by saying that it’s not easy to read – there are a lot of complex ideas, stories, metaphors, and references that are structured in a way that’s not obvious upon first reading. Some might also object to his classification of experts who tend to not be actual experts (economists, traders, psychiatrists, college admissions officers, court judges, political scientists).

However, this book creates a very intelligent and compelling framework for understanding uncertainty and the types of reasoning that lead us toward misunderstanding the world’s largest events. I’m not going to attempt to summarize Taleb’s full argument, but the basic structure of the book revolves around understanding the limits and mistakes around black swan events, prediction, and uncertainty.

This is a book that deserves to be read, ruminated on, and re-read. Although this book is challenging in many ways, it convincingly articulates some of my own hesitancy about trusting predictions, contains a lot of smart ideas, and was overall rewarding to read.

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The Truth About Keeping Secrets

Savannah Brown (2019)
the-truth-about-keeping-secrets

Categories: Young Adult Fiction, Mystery

TL;DR: A high school girl navigates life after losing her dad in a car crash, struggling to cope with grief, angst, and a nagging sense that her dad’s death was not an accident. This is a well-written book with a satisfying story arc and climax.

After stumbling upon a deliciously existential video from Savannah Brown on YouTube, I decided that I wanted to read more of what she has written. I listened to The Truth About Keeping Secrets as an audiobook, narrated by the author.

This is a young adult novel about about a high school girl named Sydney dealing with the grief and mystery of her father’s unexpected death. Sydney is insecure and angsty, and has a feeling that her dad’s death was not a simple accident.

There are a whole cast of typical high school characters – the Most Popular Girl, the Rich Sporty Jock, the Childhood Friend, the Bully – but these relationships and their struggles felt surprisingly authentic and enjoyable to read. The story is filled with tension that kept me guessing at what was going to happen, and it paid off with a dramatic climax.

The prose was great (it makes sense that Savannah has a background in poetry), and the book was nice to listen to. I liked it!

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Eyes to the Wind

Ady Barkan (2019)
Eyes to the Wind

Categories: Nonfiction, Memoir

TL;DR: Ady Barkan writes an inspiring story about his life as a lawyer and progressive activist, as well as his diagnosis with ALS and how living with his condition has shaped his activism.

I don’t remember how I first heard about Ady – maybe it was through his viral video confronting then-Senator Jeff Flake on an airplane, or his appearance on a podcast that I listen to, or his activism for Medicare for All – but his story was moving enough for me to read his memoir when it came out in late 2019.

Ady Barkan typed the beginning of his book with his own hands, but finished the book with the help of an assistant due to muscle atrophy from ALS. His determination to keep fighting for the issues he believes in in spite of ALS is inspiring to read.

The content itself was more dense than I was expecting. Ady Barkan spends a significant portion of the book detailing his work as a lawyer and the slow pace at which progressive policies actually move forward. He then talks about the struggle of being diagnosed with ALS, how it reinforced his commitment to the issues that he has cared about for his entire life, and why he continues to fight for those causes.

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I Can’t Make This Up

Kevin Hart (2017)
I can't make this up

Categories: Nonfiction, Memoir, Comedy

TL;DR: Kevin Hart is a funny dude who has worked very hard to get to where he is, and in this memoir, he shares life lessons and tells stories about his rough upbringing, personal troubles, and career trajectory with an entertaining honesty.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and enjoyed Kevin Hart as a narrator.

He tells stories about his strict mother, his childhood dream of becoming a Nike Rep, the struggle of working his way up the comedy world, along with other stories that shaped his growth. There were funny and inspiring moments as well as difficult and disappointing moments, but they’re held together by Kevin Hart’s positive attitude and ability to shrug off any situation.

Would recommend if you like comedy, or if you just want an laid-back listen about a guy who’s worked hard for his success.

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The Girl With All the Gifts

M. R. Carey (2014)
The girl with all the gifts

Categories: Science Fiction, Horror, Dystopia

TL;DR: In this gripping novel, Miss Justineau teaches a class of unusual students under draconian restrictions, but develops a special relationship with an intelligent girl named Melanie before both of their worlds are turned upside-down.

The best way to experience this book is to go in blind, so if you’re interested in reading a thrilling dystopian story that is both relationship-driven and action-packed, then this book is for you. Avoid any spoilers!

Melanie, a brilliant and naive child, is our protagonist who loves her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau, more than anything else in her world. However, there are signs that not everything is as it should be from the very beginning: Melanie and her classmates are strapped into wheelchairs, strictly monitored, and kept in isolated cells at night.

Then several big things happen, and we’re thrust into a journey of survival and science. The first act of this book is brilliant, but in my opinion it tapers off into a less satisfactory middle before ending with a bang.

This is an original take on a traditional dystopian story that I enjoyed reading.

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Bad Blood

John Carreyrou (2018)
Bad Blood

Categories: Nonfiction, Business, Crime

TL;DR: One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read – reporter John Carreyrou documents the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and her blood testing company Theranos.

This book is truly and utterly engaging from start to finish.

Chronicling the rise and fall of the Silicon Valley startup Theranos, reporter John Carreyrou takes us on a true journey of almost unbelievable proportions.

We follow along as CEO Elizabeth Holmes drops out of college and grows her company to be worth billions of dollars based on a technology that never worked. Along the way, she is backed by some of the most powerful and wealthy people in the world — including Rupert Murdoch, the Waltons (founders of Walmart), and former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz— and is recognized by Forbes as the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire before falling from grace in 2015.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and was captivated for the entire ride.

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Becoming

Michelle Obama (2018)
becoming

Categories: Nonfiction, Memoir

TL;DR: In Becoming, Michelle Obama recounts her personal story with the intelligence and grace that we’ve come to love and respect from her.

Of course, you have heard of this book. It’s been on signs at airports, all over social media, and in front of every bookstore for months.

Michelle Obama is a fantastic role model, a dedicated public servant, and a caring mother — and we’re able to see this clearly while following her thought process throughout the book.

From a childhood on the South Side of Chicago, to Stanford University and Harvard Law School, to her professional career and time in the White House, Mrs. Obama tells her story with honesty and openness that bespeaks her character.

I find her story so compelling and inspiring because of the responsibility that she carries as one of the most powerful, well-known and widely-respected black woman in the United States, and the grace she holds while carrying that responsibility. Through all of her experience and success, Michelle Obama still writes with humility in Becoming.

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