Strong Book Recommendations

Books I've read that I treasured; something like a 8/10 or above.

see all the books I've read.

If on a winter's night a traveler

by Italino Calvino | translated by William Weaver

genre: Postmodern Fiction published: 1979 translated: 1981 time read: May 3rd - May 10th 2024

I read this book in two sittings, the first during the middle of an all-nighter. It felt like a fever dream - and I originally chalked that up to the lack of sleep - but in my second attempt, I realized that’s just the experience of reading this book. The core feeling of tension and slight unease in a thriller is perfectly captured in every page of this book, and Calvino keeps your head spinning as you tag along for the ride. It’s hard to explain more without fundamentally spoiling this - but it’s certainly a unique and splendid read.

The Housekeeper and the Professor

by Yōko Ogawa | translated by Stephen Snyder

genre: Fiction published: 2003 translated: 2009 time read: Mar 24th 2024

A beautiful book that hits home for me personally in so many ways: a working single mother and her son, a professor so in love with his craft, a childhood joy in baseball, and a pure love for math - with an equally beautiful overarching narrative. I’m particularly pleasantly surprised by just how well Ogawa naturally weaves in real mathematical problems throughout the story. Each of the characters have a unique relationship with math - and each other - that mirrors what I’ve seen in years of math education. There’s a simple beauty in how this book combats the “math person” personality. Without spoiling the ending, the last chapter was one of the neatest ways imaginable to wrap up this book. An easy recommendation for most!

Exhalation: Stories

by Ted Chiang

genre: Short Stories published: 2019 time read: Feb 9th 2024

Just as floored as I was when I read Stories of Your Life or watched Arrival for the first time. It’d be hard for me to overstate how innovative and impactful these stories feel. I am once again impressed by the breadth of ethical issues that his stories touch on - while simulatneously engaging in a level of depth worthy of a novella. It also features many of the same (absolutely wonderful) elements of Stories of Your Life: the exploration of antiquated pseudoscientific theories, immersion into religious allegory, fictional reframings of foundational scientific and social texts (Walter Ong was an inspiration?!), and vignettes that’d inspire the best Black Mirror episode. Honestly all of these stories were entrancing, but I was particularly moved by The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, Exhalation, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Omphalos, and Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom. Thanks to many for the recommendations, but particularly to Helena who drove it home.

Dearborn

by Ghassan Zeineddine

genre: Short Stories published: 2023 time read: Jan 6th - Jan 14th 2024

Even though I had never heard of Dearborn, Michigan before reading this book, Zeineddine teleports me - in the cliché way - into the homes and hearts of Dearbornites over multiple decades. I’m particularly impressed by how much identity-driven turmoil he’s able to fit within 10 sub-40-page stories. At the same time, I’m glad that he bucks the trend within some diaspora literature that only focuses on trauma. Almost all of his stories are filled with enduring glimmers of hope - and the absurdity of life is sprinkled throughout each story (especially Speedoman). In short, this book is incisive in every definition of the word; strong recommend. My favourite stories were Money Chickens, Zizou’s Voice, and Yusra! Thanks Sav for the recommendation and gift!

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

by Gabrielle Zevin

genre: Fiction published: 2022 time read: Oct 14th 2023

Life forced me to take an unplanned break from reading, but Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is almost a perfect book to bring me back. A chunk of this book feels like lived experience: from Boston and Los Angeles (I didn’t expect to be so surprised by zip codes) and being completely immersed in the culture of video games to a full life of trauma and pain - it all felt almost a little too real. In broad strokes, I think this book occupies the same space as Scott Pilgrim and Ready Player One: a cult classic that leans into (elements of) nerd culture and a terminally-online mastery of references to drive home a point about the human condition (and in particular, love). While it’s not perfect - in many ways, for the same reasons as Scott Pilgrim and Ready Player One - this is a fantastical book in its own right. A hefty recommendation, particularly for anybody who’s a bit too online or delved a bit too much into making games.

Stories of Your Life and Others

by Ted Chiang

genre: Short Stories published: 2002 time read: Aug 7th 2023

Arrival is one of my favourite movies; I owed it to myself to read the original, and wow, am I impressed! Stories of Your Life is remarkably moving for such a concise short story. But, it doesn’t steal the show. Tower of Babylon shows off Chiang’s amazing world-building skills, while Hell Is the Absence of God demonstrates his unique take on seemingly over done science fiction and fantasy tropes (in this case, angels on Earth). Liking What You See and Seventy-Two Letters provide opposite approaches in how science fiction engages ethics (ranging from as in-your-face as possible to an ambient background noise). All in all, a wonderfully short set of reads, and a strong recommend!

The Shame of the Nation

by Jonathan Kozol

genre: Education published: 2005 time read: July 15th - 17th 2023

Three strong recommendations in a row - I can’t get enough of Kozol. I’m surprised at how versatile and personable he is. This book reads just like Death at an Early Age and Letters to a Young Teacher, even though the latter two are first-hand and epistolary in nature. He makes a blistering argument against the regression back into segregated schooling by providing a delicate balance between individual stories about children and teachers, arguments about school districts and states, and heavy-handed analysis of federal policy. His argumentation is so effective yet so polite; filled with rage, but directed with a measured approach. It’s a depressing read, and unfortunately, the backslide has continued. For example, the Thurgood Marshall school he writes about still is almost entirely black and hispanic. This is one of those books that I really wish every American would read; I’m honestly even going to recommend this to my students.

Brotopia

by Emily Chang

genre: Technology Culture published: 2018 time read: July 6th - 8th 2023

In a depressing way, this is a great read for anybody who works adjacent to tech. Brotopia serves a great balance between delving into individual experiences (which much of tech reporting doesn’t) while still tacking the underpinning social dynamics and properly attributing blame (which is lacking from books like Lean In). I’m quite impressed by how ahead of the curve some of Chang’s reporting has been; in 2018, I don’t think the relationship between tech, polyamory, and sex was as commonplace as it is now (post-SBF/FTX). I did chuckle a bit at some of her examples of “good” companies - Riot strikes me as one that seems particularly poor in retrospect. If anything, it’s a reminder that tech doesn’t inherently create good examples of anti-sexism; it requires deliberate, prolonged work. I’m curious what Chang would add if she rewrote this book today, and look forward to her next work!

A Brief History of Equality

by Thomas Piketty | translated by Steven Rendell

genre: Economics published: 2021 translated: 2022 time read: March 2023

I’m too used to the American political battleground and culture. Living in the US for almost 5 years is making me a bit complacent! Piketty rips me straight out of this bubble in his most accessible work yet; analyzing in-depth the history of equality from the 1800s to the present-day. He doesn’t pull any punches; it’s been a while since I’ve read an economics book that is so concise, ambitious, and at times, ruthless. I’m just in awe of how much he’s able to convey in so few pages; I’m particularly impressed by just how well he argues points about slavery and colonialism, inequality in education, and environmental justice. His ambitious future is one that I want to fight for. I can’t recommend this book enough for anyone remotely interested in economic justice. And, it’s pushing me to reread Capital again … which I’ll do soon :)

What If? 2

by Randall Munroe

genre: Pop Science published: 2022 time read: March 2023

I love love love all of Randall’s work (this is especially apparent if you’re my student). No exception here - an extraordinarily fun and slightly educational read. I loved the focus on kids’ questions this time around!

Bad Samaritans

by Ha-Joon Chang

genre: Economics published: 2007 time read: February 2023

With no exaggeration, this book is one of the best critiques of economic neoliberalism that I’ve ever read. Ha-Joon masterfully engages with free trade on all fronts: through history, theory, case studies, and counter-examples; with die-hard theorists and relentless empiricists. He’s effective at challenging the assumptions of predominant economic models, centering on myopic views of technology, culture, and policy. I particularly enjoyed his commentary on the absurdity of calling entire cultures “lazy”. And, I love Ha-Joon’s writing style - it feels like a wonderful conversation between two friends. Overall, a book I’d recommend to the vast majority of my friends!

Failure to Disrupt

by Justin Reich

genre: Education published: 2020 time read: January 27th 2023

Justin Reich clearly enunciates a lesson that I wish I knew earlier: tech hasn’t, and probably never will, “solve” education. He nails many of the things that have been on my mind over the past ten years; I grew up in the age of MOOCs and hypergamification and have lived his area of expertise. An extraordinarily fitting book for me to read before my UW interview, and a stellar recommendation from Shriram. I’m a bit biased, but I think this is mandatory reading for anybody in EdTech (or CS Ed). My only wish is for more depth.

Everything I Never Told You

by Celeste Ng

genre: Drama published: 2014 time read: December 13th 2022

Celeste Ng’s debut book is already a masterclass in family drama. Every character is motivated perfectly, every twist and turn is unexpected but completely reasonable. I’m especially moved by Lydia’s trials and tribulations. It makes me even more excited for her next work!

Severance

by Ling Ma

genre: Satire published: 2018 time read: August 27 2022

Embarassingly, I thought this was related to the Apple TV show. The embarassment ends there - Ling Ma creates a page turner out of corporate monotony, office politics, and offshore manufacturing. The zombie experience alternates between the literal and metaphorical almost seamlessly. It was too easy to read the entire book in a day. Stellar recommendation.

Recursion

by Blake Crouch

genre: Science Fiction published: 2019 time read: August 2022

Recursion blends the heart-pounding nature of a straight thriller with some of the philosophical questions that classic science fiction poses: what, really, is a memory? Crouch’s protagonists are convincingly human; like great sci-fi, the core is about people, not technology. This is exactly where I want to see the sci-fi thriller genre in the future! As an aside, it’s funny reading sci-fi that also incorporates recent current affairs - like namedropping Glenn Greenwald (staying with the Guardian?).

The Martian

by Andy Weir

genre: Science Fiction published: 2011 time read: August 2022

This was one of the easiest books to read: Mark Watney’s inner dialogue rolls off of each page effortlessly. The science satisfies the part of me that wanted to become an astronaut, and the character almost feels more lively than the movie. I’m flabbergasted that this is Weir’s first novel, and that he’s a software engineer by training! Certainly a book I’d recommend to people who find it hard to get back into reading!

Piranesi

by Susanna Clarke

genre: Fantasy published: 2020 time read: July 29th 2022

Wow, just wow - this book is making me rethink all of my previous strong recommendations. Susanna Clarke brings you along for what I can only describe as calm psychological thriller. It’s a book that I imagine I’ll want to read again for the first time for many years to come. In some ways, the Portal 2 of books? Strong strong recommend.

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

genre: Dystopian Fiction published: 1985 time read: July 27th 2022

I feel like I’ve done my due diligence as a Canadian - but beyond that, Atwood is concise and provocative. The book itself reads well, and the stream-of-consciousness / metafiction elements are done quite well. However, what I think is most interesting is Atwood’s framing of the book itself - that, in writing it, she hasn’t invented a new reality, but simply extended upon history. For that reason alone, I find The Handmaid’s Tale spectacular.

Debt: The First 5000 Years

by David Graeber

genre: Anthropology/Economic History published: 2011 time read: June 2022 - July 2022

I’m now torn. On one hand, I think the storytelling and narrative of this book is resoundingly novel. It challenges the creation myths of barter, coinage, and ultimately, modern economics. Many of its ideas are revolutionary and provide a stellar alternate perspective on the world. That being said - I think I’ll need to think a bit more about how verifiable these claims are. Still, an absolute stellar recommend for anybody interested in economics and/or human history - the intro chapter alone is all worth it.

Little Fires Everywhere

by Celeste Ng

genre: Drama published: 2017 time read: May 2022

Celeste Ng’s sophomore novel is an absolute sucker punch. Without spoiling the main premise of the book, it is a masterpiece in family and relational drama. I’m teleported to Shaker Heights and feel the stress of the Richardsons and Warrens. I’m especially impressed by the last third of the book, where all of Ng’s setup and various moving parts all click into place. A strong and timely recommendation.

Watchmen

by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, John Higgins

genre: Alternate History / Comic Book published: 1988 time read: March 2022 - April 2022

Who watches the watchmen? The comic book that changed societal perspectives on comics as a medium is as poignant as ever. Watchmen is a stellar commentary on superhero vigilantism, American imperialism, and the fundamental nature and morals of humanity. It also juxtaposes the icons of Western culture with the horrific reality of its product. My only regret is reading the book after watching the movie. The HBO series is definitely next on my list.

Design Justice

by Sasha Costanza-Chock

genre: Intersectional Design published: 2020 time read: December 2021

Wow, I’m in awe. Sasha Costanza-Chock does a stellar job of deconstructing design and analyzing it through the lens of intersectionality and the matrix of dominantion. This book is in rare form - the ideas are novel and groundbreaking, but the text is extremely accessible with strong ties to real practice. I especially enjoyed their discussion on design sites, challenging the exclusive culture of hackathons, makerspaces, and other hacker clubs. I wish I read this book before I ran Teach LA; a must-read for anybody with decision-making in the design process.

Slaughterhouse-Five

by Kurt Vonnegut

genre: Dark Comedy published: 1969 time read: November 26th 2021

This book was not at all what I imagined it to be. Vonnegut’s breakthrough is the prototypical everything: an anti-war book, a satire, humanistic science fiction, and a razor-sharp prose and style that has defined postmodernism. It is memento mori. So it goes.

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.

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.

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: Family 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 (almost) cry for a long while. Please read this book.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.