Utterly immersed in the audiobook for Vita Nostra. What a mind blowing book! Calling it an anti-Harry Potter is such a disservice to the brilliance of the Dyanchenkos.

DNR’d two books back into 2023

Not a 2023 roundup post.

Just wanted to note that I was trying to finish 2023 with two audiobooks – To Her Credit and Classic Women’s Short Stories. Could not finish either of them. To the point that these are the only books that I picked up in 2023 that I will not finish.

“Classic Women’s Short Stories” is just too dated to read. There are a few short stories in there by some famous authors – Katherine Mansfield, Kate Chopin, Virginia Woolf. But most of the stories were just too… boring… to read. Ultimately had to drop the entire book. Woolf’s story, A Mark on the Wall, and Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Daughters of the Late Colonel, were the only ones I finished. I would recommend you to read these stories individually instead of through this book.

I thought To Her Credit would be similar to Figuring by Maria Popova, the book that kick-started my love for Feminist Memoirs. Instead, it was just a series of “here’s a woman who did amazing things and here’s a man we want to put down through her”. We need more writing like Popova’s which celebrates women’s accomplishments (or non-accomplishments, like Three Women by Lisa Taddeo) without demeaning them with comparisons. I’m still looking for anything as well written as Figuring.

I’m starting 2024 with a wondering book named Berlin by Bea Setton. It’s very along the lines of A Year of Rest and Relaxation. I’m loving the inner monologue of the main character and the audio narration by Ell Potter.

I can read non-fiction!

red and black open neon signage

I think I’ve figured out what type of non-fiction I enjoy.

It’s called a biography memoir. The idea is that it has to be a collection of memoirs of multiple people, and it shouldn’t be an autobiography. I can’t deal with that. It has to be written by someone else.

Not just that, though. I think I prefer feminist biography memoirs.

The latest one I’ve read is The Baby on the Fire Escape by Julie Phillips. I just finished the audiobook last night and will be working tonight through the bookmarks I’ve made. I have the physical copy of the book and I borrowed the audiobook from Seattle Public Library. So I’ll transport the bookmarks to my copy before I relinquish the library loan.

Before this, I read Figuring by Maria Popova. It’s quite a tome and again, I own the physical copy, but it was infinitely easier to work through the public library audiobook instead.

I believe my love for biography memoirs started with Poland by James Michener and solidified over War and Peace. They’re both fiction, but written in a very matter-of-fact, almost-non-fiction style. Then, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf turned me on to feminist writing. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon turned me away from men writing about women characters. Pynchon’s an idiot.

I know most of the titles I’ve listed above are pure fiction or semi-autobiographical. But I’ve never confessed a love for non-fiction writing. So it’s a big deal for me to recognize that there is some non-fic that’s palatable to me.

In conclusion, while I’ll continue to enjoy fiction all my life, feminist biography memoirs will be what I’ll pick up when I want to read about real people’s lives.

Year end reading review

photo of library with turned on lights

There’s a beautiful blanket of snow outside, so it’s a good time to review how the year went.

I read thirteen books this year, though “read” is a loosely based concept now. A large part of my reading nowadays is graphic novels, audiobooks, and web novellas.

But I do consider all of this reading. It’s the transmission of ideas based on the written word, even if it’s accompanied by pictures (or largely based on them) or read by someone into my ear. So, I’ve read thirteen books this year.

Of these, only two were print – Earthlings, and Incredible Doom vol 1.

Nine were digital – The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, “Teen Titans: Raven”, Cyclopedia Exotica, Turtles All the Way Down, Wallace the Brave, Bloom, Big Mushy Happy Lump, The Tea Dragon Society, and The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse. Of these, The Tea Dragon Society was in webcomic form while the rest were eBooks from the Seattle Public Library.

I also got in two audiobooks – My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Figuring

Not bad considering this is also the year my Little One was born and who is right now scurrying across the floor of our apartment, looking for things to attack!

I read most of the graphic novels in the middle of the year and in Fall, when my reading seemed to have slowed down to a snails pace. Getting a few small or quick reads under my belt made me feel better and allowed me to begin reading some larger works, which I’m still working through.

Right now I’m reading the web novel Worm and listening to Rousseau and Revolution, and these are both long enough that I’ll not be done any time soon. I’m halfway through Rousseau… and Worm… well, by the author’s own admission, Worm is “roughly 1,680,000 words; roughly 26 typical novels in length (or 10-11 very thick novels)”, so I’m a ways away from closing that book. Perhaps these will be added to my finished list next year.

This year, I depended a lot on Seattle Public Library. I loved discovering audiobooks, graphic novels, and eBooks from them. Whatever I really wanted to read and wasn’t available immediately there, I found on audible or Thriftbooks.

I own a physical copy of Figuring. But the book is massive and the writing dense. It really gave itself to being an audiobook in a perfect way. The ideas that came from it though… I wish I could bookmark every page of the book! Figuring deals heavily with the Transcendentalists and women authors, philosophers, and scientists, and introduced me to the concept of Salons. The book wanes with the works of Rachel Carson, chiefly Silent Spring, and ends with the tragic death of Margaret Fuller in a shipwreck off the coast of New York.

From there, I tried to read Silent Spring, but lost interest very quickly. The writing is interesting, but I was already being pulled in other directions. I’ve learnt a new term this year – DNF – Did Not Finish. People seem to use it like “I DNF’d this book”.

So, here’s a list of books I DNF’d this year –

  • Silent Spring
  • Braiding Sweetgrass
  • All the Sad Young Literary Men
  • Under the Sea Wind
  • Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar
  • Philosophy – a Visual Encyclopedia
  • South
  • The World of Edena
  • Representative Men
  • Thus Spoke Zarathustra
  • Thank You for Arguing
  • Enola Holmes Graphic Novel, Book 1
  • Accidentally Wes Anderson
  • The Map of Knowledge
  • Abstract City
  • Reality+
  • Irish Fairy Tales
  • All the Names They Used for God

Let me know if you, dear reader, would like links to any of the above. Since I didn’t finish them, I didn’t bother linking to them.

All of these were from Seattle Public Library, and more specifically, from the Overdrive/Libby catalog. There are yet others in my Kindle app and iBooks app which are waiting to be read, but I didn’t include them here as they’re just, sort of, suspended in animation, waiting to see if I pick them up again. Perhaps I will. There’s one of definite interest to me – Gödel, Escher, Bach : an eternal golden braid – but it’s very likely that I won’t read it, because it’s in a format that’s not easy to consume on my iPhone and there doesn’t seem to be an audiobook for it. So perhaps I’ll add it to next year’s DNF list. Let’s see.

So that was it – my year in reading. It was a good year. I peaked (in tracked reading) in 2017, (though I’m sure I read a lot more in my childhood, but who doesn’t?) and this year has come in second in number of books. Though, moving to graphic novels means that my overall page count is lower. But does it matter? I don’t think it does. It’s the quality of ideas that matters. I’ve got a lot more out of small books like A Room of One’s Own, Siddhartha, and The Last Question than any normal length novel. What I’ve got out of massive tomes like War and Peace and Figuring is a different thing, since it’s more of learning an entire way of life than one or two ideas. Graphic novels like Wallace The Brave, Bloom and Big Mushy Happy Lump are fun reads, and it’s important to just relax and enjoy a story too. Incredible Doom and Cyclopedia Exotica challenge your assumptions but in an easy way and I can’t thank the authors enough for the effort they’ve put into these worlds.

Data Courtesy TheStoryGraph

Chomp Chomp Chomp

A short status update on what’s going on in my life.

With the little one in tow, our days have sort of become more organized, if only by force of taking care of her every day. Her mealtimes, nap times, and bath time dictate what we are doing when. In our “free” time (her naps or after we put her in bed for the night) we focus either on cooking or cleaning or resting up so we can rise for when she needs us next.

In all of this, I’ve noticed that what’s flourishing is my consumption of books. I can’t say reading any more, since 2 out of the 4 books in my “Currently reading” are audiobooks.

I’m currently listening to “Rousseau and Revolution” by Will and Ariel Durant. This is Book 10 of “The Story of Civilization” series. I do not intend on reading the entire series. I picked up this one from the Seattle Public Library (through the Libby app) because I thought it’ll be about, well, Rousseau and the French Revolution. It is, but it encompasses so much more. That’s how I learnt that the series is sort of enmeshed and can be read as one long history. The book started about the life and times of Rousseau and then veered off to tell the contemporary history of every country in Europe. Then it expanded to Turkey and Iran and even went all the way up to Nadir Shah’s conquest of Delhi. So it didn’t really stick around Europe either. I love the extremely detailed descriptions of random things. How many theaters or guild workers or beggars a particular city had in its heyday during this era. How Catherine the Great is linked to her mother-in-law, in excruciating detail. What were the exact names of all the music composed by Mozart and what some of them sounded like. When coming to the Muslim world, the authors also verbatim print out some of their favorite poems by famous poets and the reader does a good job of reading them aloud. I’m also taking the book with a grain of salt. It does a fair job of describing every civilization and country it encounters as the greatest and the finest. But most of the book is written from the perspective of European countries being more advanced, if not superior, due to the Enlightenment.

I listen to this book during the time when I’m doing the dishes. It’s kinda cool to focus on that while getting my hands dirty. I can’t control the flow of the book other than playing and pausing, so I have to just listen. It’s somewhat meditative.

Before this, I was listening to “My year of Rest and Relaxation”. It’s a pretty raucous book, filled with the suicidal and petty inner monologue of the narrator and protagonist of the book. But I grew tired of it around 70% in. I’ve reached a point where I have a hint of what’s going to happen and I’m not looking forward to it. But I am. “Rousseau…” is pretty long. I’m half way in on the 60 hour book. So perhaps I’ll return to “My year of…” before I finish the former. Otherwise, it’ll end up in the “Not Finished” pile and I don’t want to do that to this book. It’s actually pretty funny and sad and grating and great. Highly recommend!

In the “Reading” section, I’ve been reading the web novel “Worm”. It’s about “parahumans” which are humans with some kind of super powers or the other. In a world that normalizes super powers and splits these people into Heroes and Villains (and almost all of them are teenagers), the story of how a teenage girl in High School gains her powers and what she does with them is fascinating. I got to the book via the LessWrong community, so it’s got a sort of hidden agenda too – to teach us readers how it would be if all our decisions are logical and based on thinking things through instead of emotions.

It’s a great contrast to Rousseau (the man and his writings, not the book above) since he was all anti-Enlightenment, Heart-not-Mind, “don’t teach a child about religion or science till they’re a teenage, just let them play”. I have thoughts there, but that may be a whole different rant.

Worm is pretty long. Again, I’m about midway through it and I read a chapter or two before bedtime. It feels a lot like when I read War and Peace – I would keep reading whenever I got even a moment free, and the book just wouldn’t end. Apparently, the follow up books in this “parahumans” series are even longer. So unless Worm ends with some major cliffhangers or unsolved questions, I won’t be pursuing the rest of the books. Besides, I started reading it as a sort of introduction to the thinking of the LessWrong community, so I’m going to use it as the primer it was meant to be and dive back into the community after I finish.

Since I am reading and listening to all these long books which will take me months to finish, I recently decided to pick up something simple and small. I had a copy of Earthlings by Sayaka Murata sitting around and I’ve just started reading it. It’s a nice and easy read. Edit: As I’ve progressed through the book, I’ve come to realize that it’s going to deal with some really heavy themes. But it’s very well written and I’m not going to put it down. I love the feel of the physical book when all I’ve been consuming are audiobooks and webpages. I love Japanese and Chinese authors (along with Russian and Eastern European authors) and I love the world that Murata is creating. I have Convenience Store Woman also sitting somewhere. Will unpack that if I absolutely love this book.

It’s not all books though. We’ve been working through the latest season of The Crown and have finished House of The Dragon (except for the last episode. I don’t think we will watch that till the next season comes along) and we didn’t really like it that much. We’ve also watched a string of movies recently – Fantastic Beasts being the latest one. I loved Grindelwald in it, though the dialog writer must have blacked out through much of the movie as a lot of characters just don’t have lines . Also drunk was the dialog writer of the movie Brahamastra. The dialogs in that one were somewhere between horrible, missing, and cringy.

I’m feeling that there aren’t a lot of great movies or TV out there right now and books and audiobooks are doing the perfect job of replacing them as media. Added bonus that book reading is so individualistic. I have essentially spent days in the number of hours working through these books alone.

Hmmm. This was supposed to be a short post. Oh well, this is why blogs are fun and Twitter is not. I get to write as much or as little as I want on here and you, dear reader, can choose to skip it or read till the end. If you’ve reached here, thanks!

Finished reading the Three Body Problem Trilogy

black hole galaxy illustration

Officially, it’s called the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy, but everyone knows Cixin Liu’s series as the “The Three Body Problem” books.

I finished reading the last book – Death’s End – last night and it was an exceptional and fitting end to one of the most beautiful sagas I’ve ever read. This series is not just a science fiction story, but one of humanity in its rawest form. Truly, Cixin Liu is a master of the art of the written word.

I highly recommend it, specially because much of the first book is simply a history of the Cultural Revolution in China. The entire series is focused on China and the Chinese point of view of the past, present, and future, which is very refreshing.

Good luck competing with Goodreads

Every once in a while, I come across a book management and listing tool. This is a broad category – it covers lists of the books you’ve read/want to read, your book notes, a social network inbuilt, and perhaps even the ability to buy books through them. Sometimes this is in the format of an app, and sometimes it’s a web service. Never mind that I actively seek these out (hey, everyone should have a past time), I always come out exasperated.

Why? Well, do you really want to build your entire book library all over again? I’m on the low-end of a prolific reader spectrum, and I’ve got about 260 books in my lists; that’s over a hundred books I’ve marked as read, and over one fifty that I want to. Most people have a lot more books than that in their lists, and almost all of them just hope in the back of their heads that Amazon doesn’t ever decide to kill Goodreads. Amazon has already been cozying up Kindle and Goodreads – you can post your Kindle reads, reviews, and notes directly to Goodreads through the Kindle apps. What’s to say that in a few years time they don’t decide that they’re done collecting our data through Goodreads and can shut the service down?

Oh, but don’t worry, you can export all your Goodreads data!

Really? Thanks! What do I do with it once I’ve exported it?

Uhhhhh…

See, this is the problem. This is why I keep looking for alternatives. But every time I come across one, I immediately realize the blind spot they aren’t addressing. If you’re an app/service, what you need to jump-start your platform is data. The ‘elegant’ way of doing this is to ‘ask’ the user for it. I put that in quotes because it’s more mandatory than just a small ‘ask’. If I come to a service, spend some time poking around, and realize I need to input all of my books all over again, that’s an immediate turn off. Services like Goodreads aren’t like conferences, where you can slap on a name tag and wander around till you find someone interesting to talk to. They’re more like parties, where if you don’t know anyone, you’ll just end up bored and.

So, this is what I ask of you if you’re making a service to compete with Goodreads – ask the user to export their data in an ugly .csv format and import the entire file to your service. Then you’ve got the entire library the user has curated on your rival service since the dawn of time without lifting a finger. You don’t even have to have this as the front and center of your UX. Get your user onboarded, get them talking, and then somewhere along the way, gently tell them you’ve got this amazing import feature that’ll help them quickly ramp up. If they care about books, they’ll do it. Those are the serious users of your platform anyways.

But nowhere have I seen this happen. I’ve recently come across a few apps – Litsy (by LibraryThing), Reading List (which seems to allow CSV imports, but needs them to be in its own format, instead of the Goodreads format; you’re this close folks!), BookBuddy (again, imports only its own data, god knows why) and some web services which I’ve already forgotten about, none of which seem to understand this basic concept of stealing from the enemy.

But what am I saying? I wrote all the way back in 2012 about how useless exporting data from Internet behemoths is. Nothing has changed in the last seven years. Till today, companies and apps come and go, without realizing that using prior data is a jump-start, not poisoned fruit.

Indie services actually get this. If you install the Goodreads plugin on Calibre, it lets you quickly import your data so your library is complete. Similarly, if you use the WordPress Book List plugin, there’s a way to import your Goodreads data. Because people who care about data, understand reuse of data. That tells me that if you’re not reusing my data, you’re not building a platform for me.

So good luck competing with Goodreads. Unless you can get my data from them and reuse it, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.

2018 and 2019 in books

2018 has come and gone. I had a goal of reading 15 books in it, and I fell short – I read only 12. Though, considering that one of them was War and Peace, I’d say I’ve read enough books.

Very quickly, the highlights are as below. If you want the full list, it’s on Goodreads (no login required afaict).

I thoroughly enjoyed the Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. It’s part 1 of a 3 book series and I hope to read the rest of it soon.

All Our Wrong Todays was a gut-wrenching time travel story. I reviewed it here. I also reviewed The Devourers here. It’s an epic tale that takes the history of India and weaves an excellent story into it. I believe I’m a fan of historical fiction now. From War and Peace and Poland (which are more fact) to Devourers and Three-Body Problem (which are more liberal with their facts), I love this form of writing that melds truth and fiction together.

My favorite non-prose was Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal. It’s a beautiful look at a pseudo-post apocalyptic world that doesn’t have any men in it. Though, I must say – since there are no men in the world, it’s not really an apocalypse. It’s quite pleasant, in fact.

I also read a book I’ve long held on to – Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. It’s pure YA, and perhaps aimed at an even younger audience. But it’s full of surprises and a very interesting take on fairies. It was a fun read!

Moving on, I hope to read a lot more in 2019. I’ve set myself up for even bigger failure – my new goal is 19 books for the year! (It’ll only increase with each passing year, maybe I’ll catch up with the goal one of these years)

I’ve already got a few books that I want to read lined up –

  1. Today Will be Different by Maria Semple – I’ve read and loved “Where’d you go Bernadette?” and I have this one sitting in paperback at home. I’ve heard good things!
  2. The Symposium by Plato – why the heck not? It’s a good story till now (I already started reading it in 2018). Loads to learn!
  3. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Giun – I wanted to read at least one Le Guin book this year and this one seems just as good as any to start off the author’s works. Is there any other you’d recommend instead?
  4. V, Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon – I want to read a lot of Pynchon this year. Let’s see how it goes. I read somewhere that I should read V before Gravity, because of something something. I have Lot 49 sitting in paperback at home. Maybe I’ll tackle that first.
  5. The Dark Forest, and The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu – these are the other books in the series I talk about above. The first book was really, really, really good!
  6. Dubliners, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce – I’ve wanted to read Joyce for some time now. I am going to read these in preparation for –
  7. Ulysses by James Joyce – I’ll probably read this in eBook form, considering its supposed sheer size. War and Peace was conquered in a similar fashion!
  8. Murder by Misrule by Anna Castle – I have the eBook burning a hole in my Kindle app. Will read it and mark it as done!
  9. Young India by Lala Lajpat Rai – I’ve noticed this book around. It too is burning a hole in my Kindle app. But more importantly, it should be an interesting historical document.
  10. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – I read A Room of One’s Own in 2016 and it had a profound impact on my thinking about creativity and ‘own space’. I think I should read one Woolf book a year.
  11. Bonus points – Walden by Thoreau and Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson – Will I be able to reach these? Let’s see!

That’s 16 books listed! Four more than I read in 2018. By simple math, I have to read approximately 2 books a month to accomplish my goal. That’s one book every 15 days! I shudder at the thought of that pace.

Wish me luck! Also, if you’ve got some suggestions or recommendations, or think I should read some book before reading one of the ones on the list here, do tell!