This past year was a good one for reading, propelled in large part by the Libby app. I’m working to write up all the summaries and ratings. DNF = did not finish (Note: All links are Amazon affiliates.)
The Great Believers by Rebekka Makkai
The story of the early days of the AIDS epidemic in Chicago’s “Boys Town” in the early 1980s. This new virus claims victims by the day well before there were treatments and limited public empathy for the dying. The book covers two story lines. First, there’s the ascending career of Yale Tishman who finds himself as a lone survivor. Then there’s Fiona, who lost her brother to AIDS and becomes the momma bear of gang… but at the expense of her own relationships. I wanted to like this book, and it was solid with two drawbacks: the intertwining story line was unnecessary and the writing was solid, but not beautiful.
Setting the Table by Danny Meyer
I’m always a sucker for business books told through the lens of non-corporate industries and this book has come highly recommended. The crux presents Meyer’s philosophy of Enlightened Hospitality, that is truly and deeply caring about your clients. I found good little nuggets in the first couple of chapters about personalized touches I could directly employ in my own small business, but the book (around Chapter 4) turned into trite examples blended with Danny Meyer lore that was flat out boring.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celestine Ng
Shaker Heights is a pristine planned and gated community in the suburbs of Cleveland. Its residents are educated, wealthy and care about those with less and who look different. So they think. One day a single mom and her teenage daughter move in, instantly juxtaposing their incongruous values and life experiences with both teens and parents at Shaker Heights. A Shakespearean tragedy emerges. This is a total page turner, very well written that will deceptively make you question your altruism, your views on race and your willingness to live outside of the status quo imposed by your socio-economic peers.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
What would life be like if you spent it chasing waves around the world? Now this isn’t about the care-free and sun-drenched Hang 10 lifestyle. It’s about the rigorous, dangerous and methodical pursuit of the world’s best waves. The beauty and detail about surfing is magnificent, but the book is laced with existential questions. How much adventure is enough? What does it mean to assimilate into society? Does one need to grow up? And can one put their life on the line when they have responsibilities to others?
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko is the story of four generations of Koreans living in Japan dating back to World War I. The protagonist is a young girl named Sunja, who is forced to leave Korea with a son she has out of wedlock. Once in Japan, her life is racked with struggle – poverty, racism, and continued tragedy – that stays within the family up until today. Pachinko and A Little Life were my two favorite reads for 2019.
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
I rarely read books about race relations, particularly those between whites and African Americans. As a straight Asian man I can count on one hand how often I’ve felt discriminated against. I also have never felt that our institutions are designed to inhibit my social and economic mobility. I do believe that there is systemic racism against African Americans and this book made me look inward and deeply about how my actions, inaction, and belief systems might contribute to this.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
This is one of the best books I’ve read in years (possibly a decade), a contemporary (fictional) story that traces the lives of five guy friends who graduate from a prestigious Boston college. Yanagihara takes us through their friendship for one another – and how that evolves (or devolves) with time.
But there’s a twist. One of the five (and I’m not giving anything away here) has suffered from massive childhood trauma. What responsibilities do the friends have to heal this trauma? Is that even possible? Are there limits to how much love you can bestow on somebody?
There are many reasons to not read this book. It’s 800 pages. It’s dark and haunting. It will stay with you for well beyond its last page. But the writing is absolutely stunning. Every word is emotionally precise and you live the lives of these five friends – for better or worse.
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
- Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin
- The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi
- Educated by Tara Westover
- Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs
- Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
- Becoming by Michelle Obama
- This is Marketing by Seth Godin
- The Secret History by Donna Tart
- Atomic Habits by James Clear