Books

This is just a list of books I've read (2020-onward), and my thoughts on them. Nothing too exciting. Oh, and this is a spoiler-free zone.

See: favourites/strongest recommendations, just Murakami books.

The Memory Police

by Yōko Ogawa | translated by Stephen Snyder

genre: Science Fiction published: 1994 translated: 2019 time read: July 9th 2021

The Memory Police is a harrowing exploration of humanity grounded in memory. Ogawa creates a mysterious authoritarian state that rivals Orwell’s or Bradbury’s, but brings a certain balance of intimacy and coldness that renders this novel particularly terrifying. Her writing style is terse, exploratory, wrapping tendrils around your mind - and she doesn’t let go. Overall a strong recommend.

Crying in H Mart

by Michelle Zauner

genre: Memoir published: 2021 time read: June/July 2021

I’ve never been a huge memoir person, but Michelle Zauner is changing my mind. Crying in H Mart is a direct channel for her emotions: pain, love, and loss bleed through each page. She brings us intimately into her family and tells a story that you can taste and smell as much as you can read. She juggles a set of experiences that I find all too relatable: of parental struggle, fitting in neither in America nor in Asia, and ultimately, a feeling of hopelessness. A strong recommend.

First Person Singular

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Philip Gabriel

genre: Short Stories published: 2020 translated: 2021 time read: June 20th 2021

Another neatly-wrapped set of short stories from Murakami. Nothing too much to say, other than they are an enjoyable read - I wouldn’t strongly recommend or not-recommend the series to anybody. The one-two punch of With the Beatles and Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey were my favourites.

The Three-Body Problem

by Cixin Liu | translated by Ken Liu

genre: Science Fiction published: 2008 translated: 2014 time read: June 15th - June 19th 2021

The Three-Body Problem is everything I love about science fiction: not just pushing the limits of technology and imagination, but exploring the nature of humanity at technological extremes. Cixin Liu balances the philosophical nature of science and interstellar physics against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution; Ken Liu’s translation is immaculate.

Grotesque

by Natuso Kirino | translated by Rebecca Copeland

genre: Crime Thriller published: 2003 translated: 2007 time read: May/June 2021

Per recommendation, I forayed a bit deeper into modern Japanese literature, and I’m horrified. Grotesque is like watching seven different train-wrecks happen one after another: each one is more gruesome than the last, but somehow you can’t peel your eyes away. I hated every single character in this book, in the best way possible. Definitely a shaky recommendation, though an equally interesting book. The writing (and/or translation) is also uncanny at times, toeing the line between immersive and jarring.

Because Internet

by Gretchen McCulloch

genre: Internet Linguistics published: 2019 time read: March - June 2021

Because Internet is everything I love about linguistics and the internet. McCulloch is a masterful (but witty and hip) writer, and deconstructs the history, sociology, and ultimately the core language of the ~ online ~. Each chapter gave so much context to internet-isms I’ve taken for granted, from lowercase texting to sparkle sarcasm to a history of memes. Strong recommend for … literally anybody. (I didn’t get a chance to read at all during spring quarter, but that’s no reflection on the book)

Pachinko

by Min Jin Lee

genre: Korean Epic published: 2017 time read: March 23rd - March 25th 2021

I’m in awe. Pachinko is a master class in epic fiction. I would say it is one of the best books I have ever read, period. It is a story of tragedy, perserverance, identity, and family like no other. I don’t have much else to say, other than that it’s been the first piece of media to make me cry for a long while. Please read this book.

The Tyranny of Merit

by Michael J. Sandel

genre: Political Philosophy published: 2020 time read: March 22nd 2021

Sandel offers a scathing critique of meritocracy on several fronts: as a backdrop to justify prejudice, as a means to demoralize the worse-off, and ultimately, as a flawed way to structure society. He unites the views of Hayek, Rawls, and Frank Knight to reject merit in economics and in morals. I particularly enjoyed his exploration of college admissions as a flawed form of credentialism, what he calls the “last acceptable prejudice”. To be honest, I think I subconsciouly take part in this credentialism - and it’s always good to read books that spark introspection. Overall a solid recommendation, even if there are a few strange tangents.

Twilight of Democracy

by Anne Applebaum

genre: Political History published: 2018 time read: March 17th 2021

In an effort to diversify my news intake and relive my debate nostalgia, I splurged on Twilight of Democracy. It does not disappoint. Anne Applebaum writes an electrifying page-turner that deconstructs the rise of modern authoriarianism. She balances a blunt and concise telling of history with an inside look at the European and American centre-right, and its spiral into … what we have today. In some ways, she is the perfect person to tell this story, from her husband’s political career in Poland to awkward drinks with Boris Johnson and her chance interactions with Conrad Black. She effortlessly interleaves post-Cold War anti-communism with English nationalism and the Republican party. Ultimately, I’m glad I took a chance on Applebaum, even if her politics is at odds with mine.

Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design

by Kat Holmes

genre: Design published: 2018 time read: March 2021

Mismatch is a quick primer on inclusive design. As someone who’s struggled through design and fights for inclusivity, this was a must-read. I really enjoyed how Kat Holmes frames exclusion as a set of mismatches between humans and systems. And, Holmes brings forward interesting case studies and historical trends that shape inclusive and exclusive design. However, I can’t help but wish that the book went on longer: either in depth, exploring specific design choices and Kat’s design style, or in breadth, in examining more arenas for inclusive design. In some senses, Mismatch reads like a foreword for a book that isn’t there. Nevertheless, an enjoyable read!

Weapons of Math Destruction

by Cathy O'Neil

genre: Data Science / Public Policy published: 2016 time read: February/March 2021

It’s been a tough past few weeks, but I finally got around to reading - and I’m glad I picked Weapons of Math Destruction. Cathy O’Neil is concise but hard-hitting in a surprisingly accessible read on the dangers of big data algorithms and their inequitable outcomes. She balances a mathematical and industry-backed understanding of data with the nuance of sociology and public policy, a combination that’s unfortunately all to rare to find. Weapons of Math Destruction deserves the strongest of recommendations. Not just for those who work with data, but those who are affected by data: everyone.

Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

by Joshua Foa Dienstag

genre: Philosophy published: 2006 time read: January 2021

Finally finished the first book I started in 2021. This is, without exaggeration, one of the densest books that I’ve read. Dienstag takes us on a whirlwind tour of the philosophy of pessimism - an often misused and misunderstood school of thought. I’ll admit, much of this book went over my head: I am barely familiar with Nietzsche, Freud, or Foucault, and I am no scholar of Don Quixote nor Cioran. Still, Dienstag’s deep dive into the linearity of time and the constant human struggle was intriguing. Certainly, it’s reinvigorated the interest in philosophy I’ve had over the years. I’ll probably revisit this book in a decade or so.

Bullshit Jobs

by David Graeber

genre: Cultural Anthropology published: 2018 time read: January 2021

A stark, nuanced peek into meaningless jobs and the ruthless capitalism that underpins it. I think Graeber produces a very convincing paradigm of “bullshit jobs” and their impacts on the human psyche, productivity, and capitalism. Compared to many of the cut-and-dry economics books I’ve read, I especially appreciated Graeber’s human take on fulfilling jobs. My one wish: I hope we get more quantitative research into this field, whether or not his theory is empirically correct. RIP to David Graeber.

The Strange Library

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Ted Goossen

genre: Surrealist Fiction published: 1983 translated: 2014 time read: January 9th 2021

Not the first book I started in 2021, but the first I finished. A refreshing illustrated take on Murakami!

Killing Commendatore

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

genre: Surrealist Fiction published: 2017 translated: 2018 time read: December 2020

And with that, I finish all of Murakami’s fiction novels. Admittedly, Killing Commendatore is long - and at times, it almost feels drawn out - but I’m never bored. I’m no painter, but I loved the exploration of art and an artists psyche. Murakami effortlessly blends historical flashbacks with a slightly surrealist world à la The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or A Wild Sheep Chase. I’m also more drawn to our unnamed hero more than the typical Murakami protagonist. All-around, a book worth the lengthy buy-in, though it’s not the first Murakami book I’d recommend you.

Pinball, 1973

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Ted Goossen

genre: Realist Fiction published: 1980 translated: 2015 time read: December 20th 2020

What a strange book. Compared to Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball really develops the Murakami eccentricity: unnaturally lonely men, mysterious women, and hyperfixation on the most normal, strange parts of life. It’s also a very jumpy, loose book - this is the start of the dual narrative that Murakami uses so frequently in his later works. Reflecting on reading the Trilogy of the Rat + Dance Dance Dance, it’s interesting to see just how stylistically different each of these books are.

Hear the Wind Sing

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Ted Goossen

genre: Realist Fiction published: 1979 translated: 1987 time read: December 19th 2020

Murakami’s first novel reminds me of Americana literature, in the best way. Our narrator meanders through life, aimlessly - but briefly - interacting with an ensemble of unique characters. An enjoyable ennui, if you will.

Between the World and Me

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

genre: Autobiographical Nonfiction published: 2015 time read: December 2020

Coates gives a scathing deconstruction of the American Dream and race in this startingly-concise book. His prose his razor sharp; his stories are heart-breaking; his critiques ring true. Each page packs a heavyweight punch. Coates masterfully juggles American history, appeals to violence and the self, and a justified pessimism towards the future. I agree with Toni Morrison: this is indeed required reading.

After Dark

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Jay Rubin

genre: Surrealist Fiction published: 2004 translated: 2007 time read: December 2020

Another curiously unique Murakami piece. Instead of a grand narrative epic, we have the happenings of just one night in Tokyo. There’s a startingly different, but equally inquisitive omniscient-ish narrator. The tone and environment is masterfully set. Yet, as much as I loved the writing, I think the ending is a bit vague - even for a Murakami book. The narrative strings are just a little too loose to be intertwined. Still quite enjoyable, but not my most enthusiastic recommendation.

Dance Dance Dance

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Alfred Birnbaum

genre: Surrealist Fiction published: 1988 translated: 1994 time read: December 2020

A unique Murakami piece. Even though it’s a “sequel” to A Wild Sheep Chase, the difference in tone and story direction is palpable. This is the most American our narrator gets - I can easily see why Murakami had fun writing this book. The prototypical Murakami protagonist is further developed, with a somewhat unique ensemble cast of supporting characters. The book is also more anti-capitalist than I expected! Mostly a strong recommend from me. I will say - not the largest fan of adults dating 13 year-old girls, even in literature - but maybe that’s just me.

After the Quake

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Jay Rubin

genre: Short Stories published: 2000 translated: 2002 time read: November 26th 2020

Another great set of short stories. I can’t say I’ll ever understand how devastating the Kobe earthquakes were. But, beyond that, each story has some deep sadness within it. Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed each and every short story - but my favourites would have to be ‘super-frog saves tokyo’ and ‘honey pie’.

Sputnik Sweetheart

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Philip Gabriel

genre: Romance published: 1999 translated: 2001 time read: November 20th 2020

Murakami keeps the formula without making it too repetitive. Sputnik Sweetheart is a story about sweethearts, but not in the conventional blend of romantic fantasy or tension. Murakami mixes in his elements of surrealism, nihilism, and esoteric pop culture. K and Sumire are an especially memorable pair of characters, toeing the line of brazenly unique and easily relatable. Quite an enjoyable late-night read.

South of the Border, West of the Sun

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Philip Gabriel

genre: Romance published: 1992 translated: 1999 time read: November 17th 2020

Another rollercoaster romance novel from Murakami. I’ve definitely settled into his writing style and pattern, yet each new book is still a page-turner. South of the Border, West of the Sun mostly abandons the mystical to explore a damaged lonely man. The book manfiests most of Murakami’s archetypal characters, but still finds nuance in our protagonist. In some senses, this book reads very similarly to Norwegian Wood, but it also shines in its own way.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Alfred Birnbaum

genre: Surrealist Fiction published: 1985 translated: 1991 time read: October 2020

It’s absolutely delightful reading another one of Murakami’s split-narrative stories; I can see the lead up to 1Q84 or Kafka in full technicolor. I also really the worlds that Murakami effortlessly juggles: a mundane protagonist, science fiction, detective thriller, and Kafkaesque surrealism have never looked better. The investigation of consciousness, mind, and identity are certainly intriguing. A definite recommendation on my end.

Men Without Women

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

genre: Short Stories published: 2014 translated: 2017 time read: October 2020

As with The Elephant Vanishes, Murakami writes another enjoyable set of short stories. The overarching motif - men, who for some reason or another, are lonely and without women - is by no means new, but Murakami applies it in a very intriguing and exciting way. Still, short stories from Murakami always leave more to be desired - I want more exploration, more world-building, more twists and turns. And of course, the stories get a bit weird sometimes. I still enjoyed reading this compilation; Yesterday and Kino are definitely my favourites.

A Wild Sheep Chase

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Alfred Birnbaum

genre: Surrealist Fiction published: 1982 translated: 1989 time read: September 2020

Working my way through the Murakami catalogue, I’m still in awe how innovative (and sometimes, just weird) each of his surrealist stories is. A Wild Sheep Chase is no exception: I was once again immediately transported to his slightly magical rendition of Japan, seamlessly exploring the world through the narrator’s eyes. Compared to some of his other works, I think this book is a bit more open-ended and tangled - in a charming, page-turning way.

Death at an Early Age

by Jonathan Kozol

genre: Education published: 1967 time read: September 2020

Wow. Just wow. This book makes me angry. It is, truly, the classic indictment of inner-city education - beyond that, a cold hard look at the American public education system at large. Even though the events of this book precede the Voting Rights Act, the institutions that Kozol criticizes still continue to marginalize students 55 years later. Each chapter is a cycle of sobering insight, heartbreak, and rage against the system. An essential read for anybody looking to get into education.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

by Paulo Freire | translated by Myra Bergman Ramos

genre: Pedagogy published: 1968 translated: 1970 time read: September 2020

To be fully honest, swathes of this book have went straight over my head: I’m a complete amateur when it comes to critical theory, let alone critical pedagogy. Yet still, I can clearly see the elements that make this a foundational, revolutionary text: Freire wastes no time nor space as he defines a new educational world order, one with inclusivity, cooperation, and empowerement at its core. Definitely a book that I’ll revisit in the future.

Poor Economics

by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

genre: Development Economics published: 2011 time read: September 2020

This book is ultimately a manifesto for the work that Banerjee and Duflo (and to an extent, Michael Kremer) undertook that ultimately won them their Nobel prize: a granular, experimental approach to alleviating global poverty (especially with RCTs). I really enjoyed their systematic analysis of what causes poverty, and likely more importantly, their ability to admit that there is no silver bullet to fixing inequality. Definitely one of the first books I’d recommend to anybody looking to get into economics.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin

genre: Short Story published: 1973 time read: September 6th 2020

I’ve discussed the premise of this short story for years on end, but I never actually got around reading the original piece that inspired it all. I’ve got to say, it’s a bit strange - but still, it packs a powerful moral punch, and the idea of a utility pump (or the survival lottery, on steroids) is one well worth considering.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Philip Gabriel

genre: Realist Fiction published: 2013 translated: 2014 time read: September 2nd 2020

Murakami does it again, trapping me within the confines of his narrative world: I finished the entire book in just one night! Yet in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, Murakami isn’t exploring a surrealist or fantastical world: we follow a normal person - someone almost too mediocre - as they go through a muted mid-life crisis. There is a strong sense of intimacy as Murakami delves deep into pain, protection, and human psychology. I’m left feeling both introspectively pleased and depressed, in a light-and-dark sort of way - but certainly with colour.

1984

by George Orwell

genre: Dystopian Fiction published: 1949 time read: August 2020

George Orwell’s magnum opus is just as much of a page-turner on the fifth read as it is on the first. Throughout the years, I’ve always held this book in a special place in my heart: what Orwell has to say has profound impacts on how we view our past, how we live our present, and how we decide our future. So many things cement this book as a literary classic: its countless neologisms that have pervaded pop culture and political science, its genre-defining exploration of totalitarianism, imperialism, and power, and its commentary on the relationship between language, thought, and freedom. Excited to take it up again soon.

What Money Can't Buy

by Michael J. Sandel

genre: Philosophical Economics published: 2012 time read: August 2020

This short and sweet book is a great exploration into the moral limits of markets. Sandel showcases the skill that made Justice so famous (and probably makes him a great professor, though I can’t comment firsthand on that): he clearly distills moral conundrums into separate and distinct philosophical issues, and tackles each of them in methodical but easily-understood steps. As he explored a set of personable (and sometimes, absolutely absurd) markets, I feel like I’ve come away with a better understanding of why some things shouldn’t be commodified. My only complaint is that this book isn’t longer.

Why Nations Fail

by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

genre: Political Economics published: 2012 time read: July/August 2020

One of the most influential economics books in the past decade. The most cited economist of the past 10 years. Possibly the most important question at the crossroads of political science and economics. Why Nations Fail pulls no punches as Acemoglu and Robinson explain their simple but crucial theory: that nations thrive from inclusive economic and political institutions, and fail by their extractive counterparts. They analyze nations throughout human history, starting with the Roman Empire and ending with the status quo and American neoimperialism; and in each case, they prove their mettle as award-winners in their field and reinforce the importance of inclusive institutions. At the end of the day, this has been one of the most comprehensive magnum opus-style books that I’ve read, and one that I’d wholeheartedly recommend to anybody.

Narrative Economics

by Robert J. Shiller

genre: Economics published: 2019 time read: June/July 2020

Robert Shiller conjures up a lens to examine the economic world through the idea of economics narratives: popular stories that have undue power over people, companies, and governments. I’m not sure if I’m fully ready to buy into narrative economics just yet, but he makes a solid case; Shiller comes equipped with the modern tools of data science and textual analysis to examine the most important economic stories of the West.

The Elephant Vanishes

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin

genre: Short Stories published: 2005 translated: 1993 time read: May 2020

The Elephant Vanishes is an intriguing set of short stories, combining seemingly banal life stories and environments with a deep dive into surrealism, loneliness, and trauma. As with most short story compilations, some stories hit harder than others, but every story was memorable in a very unique, Murakami way. Favourite stories are probably Sleep, Barn Burning, and The Silence.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Jay Rubin

genre: Surrealist Fiction published: 1994 translated: 1997 time read: May 2020

To many, this is Murakami’s magnum opus, and I wouldn’t disagree. From an extremely mundane and typical man and environment, Murakami conjures yet another fantastical story: one that touches on Japanese suburbia, war crimes in World War II, and a set of relationships set around existentialism and death. As magical as this book is, it’s definitely in the “odd reads” category; but still, it has my complete recommendation.

Norwegian Wood

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Jay Rubin

genre: Coming of Age published: 1987 translated: 2000 time read: April/May 2020

The novel that really shot Murakami into national and international fame is beautiful, nuanced, and emotional. Granted, I haven’t read many coming-of-age books, but Norwegian Wood is amazing regardless of genre: our protagonist’s journey is as much of a whirlwind as it is a slow burn, as the book explores the process of trauma and its long-lasting impacts on life.

Flowers for Algernon

by Daniel Keyes

genre: Science Fiction published: 1959 time read: April 2020

For a book published in 1959 (and penned as a short story in 1958), Flowers for Algernon ages surprisingly well. We watch the transformation of a man who has been failed by society time and time again; it’s telling that this story could’ve been very well set in 2020, with little impact on its narrative. By far one of the tamest controversial banned books that I’ve ever read, and if anything, a great introspective short read for young adults.

Good Economics for Hard Times

by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

genre: Economics published: 2019 time read: March/April 2020

Economics has the reputation of being the dismal science, with arcane (and often wrong) predictions and little statistical backing. The recent Nobel laureates do a great job of disproving that, showcasing what “Good Economics” really looks like: examining the world through an analytical lens, blending together innovations from statistics, mathematical modeling, and medicine to get a solid grasp on world phenomenon. Easily one of my favourite (~pop) economics books I’ve read.

The Stranger

by Albert Camus | translated by Matthew Ward

genre: Philosophical Fiction published: 1942 translated: 1946 time read: March 2020

Camus’s brief tour into absurdist existentialism is as intriguing as it is concise. I won’t claim to fully understand all of the philosophical implications of this novel (I’d need a much better philosophy training for that), but I can clearly recognize why it’s immortalised as one of the best books ever written, period. My only regret is that I couldn’t read it in (my admittedly terrible) French.

Cloud Atlas

by David Mitchell

genre: Science Fiction published: 2004 time read: February/March 2020

Cloud Atlas, no doubt, is a very unique book. David Mitchell seamlessly switches between narrative and historical styles to build dramatic, engaging worlds. I will say, I was less wowed by the fantastical journey through time than most - I think Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi still takes the cake for me in this genre - but nevertheless, it’s an amazing and special journey.

1Q84

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel

genre: Surrealist Fiction published: 2009 translated: 2011 time read: February 2020

Fresh off of Kafka on the Shore, I was motivated to binge some Murakami, and 1Q84 received a strong recommendation from a friend. Murakami dips you head-first into a truly entrancing literary universe, with amazingly elegant world-building and one of my favourite set of leads. Yet, I can’t also help but feel that the plot is a bit unfocused compared to his other, more concise books, and that the book gets… a little disturbing. Still, for fans of Murakami or surrealist fiction, I’d definitely recommend 1Q84.

how to

by Randall Munroe

genre: Pop Science published: 2019 time read: January 2020

I love xkcd, and I loved reading Randall Munroe’s previous book-length absurd scientific escapades in the form of “what if?” and “Thing Explainer”. “how to” is just another great book in this amazing series, and it’s a book that I think almost anybody would enjoy.

Open Borders

by Bryan Caplan

genre: Economics published: 2019 time read: January 2020

At ICYD 2016 (a debate competition in London), I watched some of the world’s best youth debaters argue over the concept of open borders. At the time (especially given the rise of anti-immigration sentiment in Europe), it seemed like a tough principle to advocate for, but Bryan Caplan does a pretty solid attempt at doing just that in Open Borders. I do think that the comic book medium is narratively interesting (and I love SMBC), but I think it might’ve hindered Caplan’s message just a bit - especially as he has less leeway to delve deep into rigorous economic experiments. And at the end of the day, many open borders arguments are in a “what if” limbo, but Caplan really does them justice.

Kafka on the Shore

by Haruki Murakami | translated by Philip Gabriel

genre: Surrealist Fiction published: 2002 translated: 2005 time read: January 2020

Kafka on the Shore was my first Murakami venture, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The world that Murakami weaves is immaculate; I feel at home in a place that I’ve never been in. Kafka’s ensemble of characters bring just enough to the table to make every chapter a page-turner, but leave plenty to the imagination - and something that makes this coming-of-age story easily and eerily relatable.