books - 2018

I never read as much as I mean to - so here’s a short list of books I read last year.

The Rent is Too Damn High : Matthew Yglesias
A pretty short book about local policies that make rents so absurdly expensive in some parts of the country (looking at you, San Francisco) and what to do about it. Essentially: build more, build tall, and invest in public transportation. It’s great for understanding the causes of high rent and why NIMBY-ism is bad.

The Sympathizer : Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Sympathizer is set during the Vietnam War era and follows the narrator who is a translator for the South Vietnamese, but is actually as an agent for the North Vietnam. It follows him as he moves to America - a sleeper communist in a capitalist country. The whole book is a metaphor (I think) for how an immigrant adapts to a new country. A bit on the nose, but I enjoyed the writing.

Narcopolis : Jeet Thayil
I always enjoy books that are love letters to a city. This book is a little window into the lives of a small cast of characters in the squalor of Bombay through the hazy lens of an opium daze. I loved it, and it makes me want to read some of the poetry of Thayil

Brain on Fire : Susannah Cahalan
It’s written by a tabloid writer, which is not a bad thing but does explain the lurid and intense style of the writing. It’s the author’s experience of contracting a virus that affects her brain and makes her go seemingly insane. It’s a reminder that money buys good treatment and if you’re poor in America the healthcare system is all too happy to slap you with the easiest diagnosis. And also how easily and quickly life can spiral downwards.

How to Change Your Mind : Michael Pollan
Summary: Psychedelics are pretty great and people should do them. Pollan goes deep into the current science and research around psychedelics and also does some himself. It’s a good read around a fascinating topic.

Exit West : Mohsin Hamid
Avoid avoid avoid. We listened to the audio book - narrated by the author - as we drove across the country. It’s sci-fi fantasy-ish about a country that was idyllic but turns into a hell scape due to a civil war. Magical portals appear to other countries and people run through them seeking refuge, especially the ones to first world countries. It follows a couple as they seek to escape their unnamed home country through these portals and try to start a new life elsewhere. The portals don’t feature except as a means to skip the harrowing journey part of any refugee. It is badly written. Never read it.

Sharp Objects : Gillian Flynn
Also listened to as an audio book. I don’t often read crime/thriller fiction, but maybe I should. Flynn really knows how to give her characters an eerie lilt.

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark : Michelle McNamara
A true crime story about the author’s quest to find who the Golden State Killer was. This was also listened to as a audio book. It’s remarkable (and frightening) that someone could kill and rape and terrorize so many without being caught for so long. Books like this reveal hidden monsters in society and make you wonder how many exist around you. The author died only a few weeks before the actual Golden State Killer was caught. The way in which he was found raises some very interesting questions about the privacy of genetic testing sites like 23andMe.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test : Tom Wolfe
Wolfe writes like he’s on acid. Reading this book about the bus trip that Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters took across America (and the escape to Mexico) is a trip in itself. The writing is fluid and loopy and tangential and it makes the reader feel like he’s on acid. There are some portions in the book where he writes normally and those feel like a rare moment of lucidity. A fun and exhausting read.

Prior to reading this book, I had romantic notions of the counterculture. No longer. The Merry Pranksters (or even Leary and Alpert) never used the insight or wisdom they gleaned from psychedelics to try and enact grand societal change - this, too, in an era where racism and xenophobia were rampant. It always boiled down to white folk trying to get other white folk enlightened - damn the rest.

Fear : Bob Woodward
Palace Intrigue in the age of Trump. Shocking in parts, but not surprising.

Last Chance To See : Douglas Adams with Mark Cawardine
A collection of stories about Adams traveling with Cawardine to see highly endangered animals (one of which is extinct today). I love how Adams writes, so it was bound to be enjoyable. What we’re doing to the planet even now (this book was written in the 80s) is unconscionable. Sustainability is something I’d like to learn about and put into practice in 2019.

A Cook’s Tour : Anthony Bourdain
I’m not a huge fan of his TV shows, but Kitchen Confidential is one of my favorite books. His voice was so unique, wry, wise, and funny. I don’t cry at celebrity deaths usually, but I teared up when I learned of his suicide. This book is about the stories in his first TV series, A Cook’s Tour and has some behind-the-scenes stories about filming certain segments. Obviously enjoyable.

The Billionaire’s Apprentice : Anita Raghavan
How the Galleon Group hedge fund went down and the group of South Asians on all sides of that story. A story that I’d always considered just the usual tale of greed and hubris is also a metaphor for the rise (and fall) of South Asians in America. A great tale well told.