Goodreads Reading Challenge 2016

I’m trying something different here; links to books in this article contain Amazon Affiliate codes. Basically if you buy any of the books via these links, I get a small kickback (and you pay nothing extra). If you find my reading suggestions and reviews useful, please consider purchasing something using a link. For a few books free and in the public domain, I’ve linked to their Project Gutenberg pages.

I never really used Goodreads before 2015. That year, I began using the site’s Reading Challenge feature to plow through 56 books. The general rules I set for myself were that the book had to be on Goodreads (and conversely, that anything listed on Goodreads was fair game), that I would try and focus on books I wouldn’t have otherwise read, and no repeats (with one exception). I had no preference for physical books or ebooks on my Kindle or iPad.

These books are actually from my 2015 Reading Challenge

In 2016 I decided to lower my goal to 35 books (ostensibly to concentrate on writing and Japanese language study, which I didn’t do as much as I intended), with the same basic rules as last year. The lower number would also encourage me to tackle larger books like Eiji Yoshikawa’s Taiko or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

First, here are the books I read in 2016, with the recommendations in bold:

Disappointments

I’m not enthusiastic about disparaging the books in 2016 I didn’t like. However I think an honest assessment of what I read is important to the process of looking back on the Reading Challenge.

I was excited about about several books which ultimately turned out to be disappointing. Goodman’s Future Crimes for example, sounded like an amazing look at the future of tech crime. However, it came off as far too alarmist, fixated on far out hypotheticals situations. Harari’s Sapiens made some good points about the evolution of human culture, but also seemed to make unwarranted jumps based on conjecture, without much supporting evidence.

Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, a fact I found out after suffering through The Fireman. I wasn’t surprised by this fact, though. Like King, I disliked both the language and plot of Hill’s book. I am, admittedly, a snob but I found Hill’s use of English (at best) unimaginative and pedestrian, and his narrative full of cliches. The novel focuses on a young woman in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a disease that causes people to literally burn and exploded. Of course, her increasingly abusive husband becomes a nightmare antagonist with less nuance than a comic book supervillain. Of course, she falls in love with the titular heroic “fireman,” who can leverage the disease as a power. Of course, Walking Dead style, her biggest conflicts are due not to the disease, but other people. Of course, everyone you think will die bites it in the end. The good parts of this book are already present in plenty of other genre titles, and don’t do much to make up for its shortcomings. Reading The Fireman made me wish I was one of the titular fireman’s burn victims.

However, the worst book I read in 2016, without question, is Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. I read some Murakami in college as an Asian Studies major, and generally liked his short stories and his non-fiction. Last year, I also read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which I thought was fantastic. I went into 1Q84 with high hopes, only to have them spectacularly dashed.

The book’s premise, and indeed it’s opening sections, are thrilling; Murakami flips between a female assassin and a young writer ghost-writing a fantasy novel for a high school student in 1984. Both characters find themselves entangled with a mysterious cult and dumped in an alternate reality they dub 1Q84.

However, it becomes apparent that the initial conceit is hardly enough to sustain Murakami’s one-thousand page tome. Chapters and chapters are spent waiting for narrative action. As the book meandered on for eternities, I simply felt overwhelming boredom. 1Q84's length is in stark contrast to the mercifully short Colorless Tsukuru.

Though unrelenting boredom was my overall takeaway, there were plenty of other issues with Murakami’s book. I’ve read a lot of Japanese literature, both as a college student and for fun. I’m used to Japanese eroticism in my reading material, and I’m no prude, but the sexuality in 1Q84 oscillated between simply strange to aggressively off putting (damningly, to no real purpose).

I also hoped to feel nostalgia for specific places in Japan (like my adopted hometown, Osaka, as with Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters), but Murakami’s fixation on U.S. culture made 1Q84 felt rootless. This book could have easily been set in any large city around the world.

Finally, the Murakami stubbornly refused to explain the world of IQ84. This isn’t genre fiction — though there are certainly elements of fantasy and science fiction — and Murakami doesn’t need a lore guide, but at over a thousand pages, it would be nice if the book answered some of the questions it raises. Instead, it felt like many of the details in 1Q84 were simply left in the book to be cryptic.

Before starting 1Q84 I was thinking about reading more Murakami in Japanese in 2017, but the book effectively put the kibosh on that plan.

The Middle Ground

Some of the books I read over 2016 were better, and some were actually great, but hard to recommend generally. An example of the latter is Sharp Ends. A collection of short stories set in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law fantasy universe, I was eagerly anticipating the book, and finished reading in a day.

Sharp Ends was fun, though it didn’t stick with me like my favorite First Law book, the absolutely fantastic The Heroes. Unfortunately, to enjoy Sharp Ends, you’d have to read the original First Law Trilogy, Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and maybe the latest novel, Red Country. It’s a lot to ask.

I read both Captain William Kidd and Arsène Lupin because they’re referenced in the video game Persona 5. The game (coming out in the U.S. in April, and already out in Japan, which is the version I’m playing) heavily references picaresque literature, both overtly within the game, and the overall narrative about thieves stealing people’s hearts. I enjoyed both books, but they’re complex reads. Kidd is an older book, and only focuses on Captain Kidd for a small portion of the book. Lupin was more exciting, but less engaging than his contemporary and rival, Sherlock Holmes, perhaps since it was translated from the original French.

Similarly, Super Mario Adventures is hard to recommend, though I was overjoyed to get it. A reprint of a collection of Japanese Mario manga published in the U.S. in Nintendo Power magazine, before this reprint, copies from the 1990s could go for ~$100. I was never able to collect all the issues of Nintendo Power to follow the serial sections of the comic, and wasn’t able to buy the collection, so I’m happy to have the book now.

Sex at Dawn and Spam Nation were non-fiction books I also enjoyed during the year, though the former went on a little long (and was drier than you’d think). Spam Nation was an exciting look at the Russian spam industry (and much better than Future Crimes, I thought).

Highlights

Of course, I also read some great stuff. I think these books merit being discussed individually (even if briefly).

The Wright Brothers
David McCullough is truly the American historian. His books on John Adams and early U.S. politics are treats. This book, on the Wright Brothers, and their journey to manned flight is no exception. McCullough brings the same care and insight to the brothers that he’s had for his political topics. Much like those political books, this history of the brothers helps illuminate what it means to be American.

Black Flags
Black Flags is a must read for anyone trying to understand the chaos in the Middle East. Warrick’s book is even-handed in its assessment of how ISIS rose from the ashes of al Qaeda, assigning blame for missed opportunities to both the Bush and Obama administrations. More than that, the book is a compelling novel-like read, describing the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi from hoodlum to the founder of a terrorist organization.

H is for Hawk 
I wasn’t sure what to expect what I picked up H is for Hawk, but in Helen Macdonald’s book I found an intimate exploration of grief. She explores the loss of her father through the relationship she develops with a bad-natured goshawk, Mabel. For me, while the relationship between Macdonald and Mabel is central to how Macdonald deals with her grief, there was enough detail to get me interested in the hobby of hawking as well.

Between the World and Me
Tai Nehisi Coates’s book ought to be required reading for every American. Indeed, if I could only recommend one book on this list for others to read, it would be this one. Framed as a letter to his son, Coates’s book, discusses both specific racist events in the author’s life, and the overwhelming powerlessness over their own lives and bodies black Americans feel generally. Both aspects are ugly truths about life in this country that many refuse to face.

For white Americans, Coates’s book should help illuminate how we don’t live in a post-racial society. The election of Barack Obama didn’t magically fix racism in this country. It exists, and not just in history or specific acts. What Coates’s title makes clear is that for people of color in the U.S. racism isn’t limited to concrete, definite points, but rather permeates throughout the lives of people of color.

People of color should also read this book because Coates accurately describes what we feel. I’m not black, but growing up as a person of color in the U.S., and then as a Muslim post-9/11, much Between the World and Me resonated for me.

How Music Got Free 
This book, about the rise of digital and pirated music on the Internet, is a much more interesting read than it has any right to be. Witt goes to the source, describing development of the MP3 codec, to leakers at CD manufacturing plants, and even name checks the MP3 release scene online (including the recently defunct what.cd). I grew up with Napster, which broaden my musical horizons. When describing the rise of Napster — and the ability to find music all over the world — I felt like Witt was writing my own history.

All You Need is Kill
I haven’t seen the Tom Cruise flick based on this book, Edge of Tomorrow, nor have I read much Japanese military SF. I thought Sakaurazaka’s book might be a good place to start in the genre, and it proved to be an engaging read. Keiji Kiriya finds himself in as a fresh recruit, in battle with monsters known as Mimics. He loses his battle, but wakes up to find himself again on the eve of his first mission. Kiriya decides that each repeated day can bring him one step closer to defeating the monsters, and maybe breaking the cycle.

Spelunky
If you play video games, Derek Yu’s Spelunky was breath of fresh air. A platformer like Mario, Spelunky also incorporated elements of rogue-like games; its levels are randomly generated and character death means game over. Yu discusses how he developed the game, the community that developed around it, and his own thoughts about video games. One of the sections that still sticks out for me is when Yu discusses Spelunky’s random level generator. I strongly suspect in ten to twenty years, many game developers will cite both game and book as a major influence in their careers.

Constantinople: The Last Great Siege 1453
Whenever I read a history book I want it to be a book like Constantinople. Crowley focuses on the 1453 Siege of Constantinople but provides enough context for non-scholars to understand the complex history of a city that became the crossroads for Christianity and Islam.

Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style
A favorite of plugged-in Japan Hands, Marx’s Néojaponisme is likely the most insightful English-language writing about the country. Like the site, Marx’s book focuses on Japanese history and fashion. Ametora describes how Ivy League fashion first took hold in Japan, and went from a style for delinquent youth to high fashion. While the U.S. neglected Ivy styles, Japanese aficionados analyzed, dissected, and preserved it. As both a fan of Japan and Ivy style I may be biased, but the story of how Japan imported and saved U.S. style is compelling even if you’re not.

The Index Card
I wasn’t sure if The Index Card should make the list — the book, based on an index card’s worth of financial advice from the authors — sounds good. I’ve begun following much of the advice in it, including saving as much as the authors recommend and putting some money into index funds. However, I have no way of knowing if that advice is the best actual advice. Clearly I think the book’s advice is sound, clear, and appealing, but I’m no financial expert.

Kanye West Owes Me $300
I heard about Karl Jepsen’s book when Jepsen as guest on the podcast Jordan Jesse Go. As a fan of the podcast, I was already predisposed to like both author and book. Jepsen describes his career as a white rapper, first making waves on L.A. radio rap battles, before being courted by record labels. Along the way he meets many major hip-hop figures (including Kanye, of course). On it’s own, Jepsen’s journey is fascinating, but his writing style, which is genuinely humorous without being annoying, really keeps the book moving.

Dataclysm
Already a classic in the tech industry and data science, Rudder uses his work at OKCupid to analyze people bringing their real world biases into online relationships. I think there’s valid criticism of how Rudder interprets the data he’s working with, I think the idea of using big data to understand the real world (and not just increase tech company internal metrics) is a worthy one.

Pastoralia
George Saunders is one of the finest writers of fiction in the U.S. today. He is witty, funny, and bitingly insightful about contemporary U.S. society; whether it's our isolation from each other or the dominance of corporations over our lives. And more than anything, he knows when to end a story for maximum impact. Also worth reading: Tenth of December, another collection of short stories, and Who Are All These Trump Supporters, Saunders’s non-fiction interview of Trump voters for the New Yorker.

A Game of Thrones
I only bolded the first book of George R.R. Martin’s world-famous fantasy series, but I’m (hesitantly) counting all the books as recommendations. I first read A Game of Thrones, along with its sequel, A Clash of Kings, while living in Japan. I had just moved to new apartment in Yokohama, knew almost no one and spent the first several weeks unemployed. Which to say I had ample free time to read Martin’s books. I’d also recently watched The Wire, so Martin’s layered fiction, in which characters could be killed off was especially appealing (I even thought HBO was the place for an adaptation of the books). When Ned Stark met his untimely end at the end of Martin’s first book, I was thrilled, delighted, and appalled. However, by the time I got to the third book, A Storm of Swords, fatigue had set in. “So this magic wolf-boy sleeps with wild people and gains magic powers?” Narrative fiction needs a beginning, middle, and end after all. It seemed to me that Martin was simply stretching out the middle beyond all reason.

Since then, I’d avoided the series.

However, I began watching HBO’s adaptation of the show, which despite having its own issues, is entertaining. Having liked the TV series, I thought I’d make another attempt at the books.

The summer of 2016 was the right time. I was suffering from numerous setbacks, and that was before getting the devastating news that I had lost a family member in a terrorist attack abroad. There were days I didn’t have the emotional energy to get out of bed. The drama, lore, and intrigue of Westeros was a welcome refuge from the ugliness of the real world. For that welcome distraction, I’ll be eternally grateful to Martin.

All that said however, a common criticism (besides the legitimate complaint about the latest book taking forever to be released) is that the action in the most recent two books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons don’t have much action, particularly action related to the plots introduced in the first books. I think that’s true, though as someone who enjoys world-building, I did enjoy the opportunity to experience locations and people Martin only hinted at in his earlier books.

I also enjoyed the A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms stories more than I thought I would. Focused on a young Targaryen prince, nicknamed Egg, and a wandering knight named Dunk, and set generations before A Game of Thrones, these stories a great additions to his world both in terms of lore and storytelling. Indeed, the short stories read a bit like Sherlock Holmes. And like the main series, Martin has promised more stories featuring the hedge knight.

Taiko
Coming off of A Game of Thrones I was looking for another big epic. I was also hoping to learn more about Japan’s Warring States period, when feudal lords fought each other until Nobunaga Oda was able to unify much of the country. I studied the period in college, but wanted to learn more about the second and third tier figures. I also began playing Nobunaga’s Ambition, a strategy game like Civilization focused that era.

The author of Taiko, Eiji Yoshikawa, also wrote the epic serial Musashi, about one of the best known samurai of this period. I’d read Musashi in college, and based on that, gave Taiko a chance.

While Nobunaga Oda helped conquer many of Japan’s warlords, he was betrayed by a general Akechi Mitsuhide. It fell to another Oda general, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, to finish unifying the country. Toyotomi rose to the role from the humblest beginnings, and Taiko, much like Musashi, serves as a fictional biography of the character.

Disrupted and Chaos Monkeys
I’m grouping Dan Lyons and Antonio Garcia Martinez’s books together because they both focus on the software startup scene. Having worked at a couple of startups through my career in the tech industry, both books were particularly interesting.

Dan Lyons found joined a startup after a notable careers as a journalist, and brings a “stranger in a strange land” lense to bear on the Boston company he joined, though sometimes he protests a little too much about being naive about startup and office culture.

While there are things in Lyons’s books I either disagreed with (or didn’t find as strange as he did) for people who don’t have startup experience, Disrupted is a compelling primer.

Chaos Monkeys, on the other hand is written from the perspective of a Bay Area startup insider. After leaving finance, Martinez founded a startup, then sold to Twitter, while managing to get himself to Facebook in the process.

In contrast to Lyons, Martinez can sound cynical and a little snide. I’ve known similar guys (and it’s been mostly guys) working in the industry here in the Bay Area (though mostly far less talented), and I don’t like working with them for the most part. However, I think Martinez’s humor, which largely avoids being annoyingly cynical, saves the book. It also serves to keeo the the narrative light even when he’s giving the reader whirlwind tours of Twitter and Facebook.

And those inside perspectives on tech industry giants are the highlights of Chaos Monkeys. Most people won’t see Twitter or Facebook’s offices in person. Martinez’s inside view of tech industry excess, office drama, and the weird culture that’s been built in the Bay Area is the next best thing.

Blandings Castle … and Elsewhere
I first began reading P.G. Wodehouse after a rough breakup. Wodehouse’s gentle humor and wordplay, often focused on the foibles of love, was just the panacea I needed.

Blandings Castle, home of Lord Emsworth, is at its best when it’s host to courting lovers. Comedy centered around the miscommunication on the journey to romance is Wodehouse’s bread and butter, and this collection contains stories of that sort, as well as stories about Emsworth and his prized, championship winning pig, Empress of Blandings.

I called Wodehouse’s humor gentle, but he’s bold and intelligent with language, putting words to work perfectly within his world of farce through puns and metaphor. Particularly noteworthy is the author’s use of Edwardian slang, which is simply cool, even more than a century since it was in vogue.

Bush
While recent events have raised my opinion of George W. Bush’s presidency considerably, it’s no understatement to say that I’m not a fan of the forty-third U.S. president. For those of us who tried to understand Bush when he was president, Jean Edward Smith’s examination of George W. Bush, the man and the president, is an authoritative assessment of the Bush years.

Smith examines Bush’s early life, and in doing so he makes it clear what drove Bush throughout his life, including the sometimes difficult relationship with his family, his wild lifestyle, and subsequent interest in religion. Having found God, W. was able to use his family’s connections, as well as his own business connections to enter politics.

When assessing Bush the politician, Bush is an even-handed. Smith pulls no punches, and rightly calls out the many failures of the Bush administration, from ignoring warnings about terrorist attacks on the U.S., to the disastrous Iraq War. However, Smith also finds the good in Bush, praising the president’s work on fighting AIDs in Africa, for example.

Smith makes a detailed and well-researched case for the failures of the Bush White House. What was more surprising for me, though, was the case Smith made for Bush being a decent human being. It’s clear George W. Bush was not smart nor talented enough to be commander in chief, and his presidency damaged the country. However, he also had a conscience, and often fought for things he believed, in stark contrast to the current president.

One Amazon review called Bush a “terribly sad book,” and I’m inclined to agree. It’s a must read though, if nothing else to understand how an imperfect person can damage institutions that form the bedrock of the U.S. government.

The Association of Small Bombs
One of the last books I read in 2016, I was struck by the humanity of Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs. The novel explores the web of relationships impacted by the detonation of a terrorist’s bomb in a small bazaar in India. Parents of two of the boys killed in the blast deal with their grief, as a family of a third boy who survived begin to move on, through technology, academics, and activism. Their lives are intertwined with the terrorists themselves. Mahajan never shies away from the horror, destruction, and ultimate pointlessness of terrorism, but is able to also paint a nuanced picture of all the characters caught in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.

The characters especially are vivid — even recalling the book several months later I feel emotional thinking about Mansoor, the boy who survived, and how he dealt with his pain and anguish. Perhaps it’s especially resonant because of my own family’s losses in 2016.

The one issue I had with The Association of Small Bombs is the ending. After a rich and vivid story, Mahajan’s narrative seemed to fizzle out. I was left unsatisfied, though thinking about the book again, perhaps Mahajan was making an analogy to the consequences of the book’s small bomb.

As a side note, as I wrote the summary for this book, I skimmed the Amazon reviews and noticed some reviewers mentioning that the book has a lot of Hindi words (as many English language novels by subcontinental authors do). I didn’t notice this much, as I speak Bengali. For those that don’t, Junot Diaz offers some advice.

“Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”

Observations

My major reasons for writing this summary post about my Goodreads Reading Challenge was to both document what I’d read and what I thought about it, and also to think about my reading over the long term. Were there there trends or habits I had? Did I gravitate to certain books? What happened when one interesting book lead to another? I had more of these insights in 2015, but several carried over into 2016 as well.

First, the Goodreads Reading Challenges have made me stick with books I would have otherwise dumped. This year, both The Fireman and 1Q84 fell into this category (though to be fair, I also finished 1Q84 hoping something would happen by the end).

As to value judgments on that observation, it’s a mixed bag. I think finishing books is good, but I disliked the books I disliked this year even more for having had to finish them. 1Q84 took plenty of time that good have been better spent on another book. Indeed, that effect is cumulative, in the sense that not only is there an opportunity cost for other books, but I’m less interest in reading in general when stuck with a stinker of a book. So it becomes easier to put off reading in pursuit of video games, or music, or writing.

The Reading Challenges also encourages me to read things I wouldn’t normally read. This year, Sex at Dawn, Thieves of State, The Song of Achilles, and The Last Policeman all fell into this category. I think keeping a schedule of books, and being able to quickly quantify what I’ve read has made me more open to suggestions, whether it’s from friends, Goodreads, or other places on the internet.

However, the other side of that coin is that even lowering the number of books, there’s a disincentive to reading a longer book as part of the challenge. I read Taiko, but didn’t get to Infinite Jest or Moby Dick this year, as examples. Moreover, in some sense, the Challenge disincentives taking suggestions. Take the fThe Fireman as an example; I’m far less willing to take suggestions, knowing that if I pick up a bad book, I’m very unlikely to put it down without finishing it. I’m not sure there’s a good fix for this; Goodreads could offer a pages read metric or goal, but people in the real world don’t think about books by number of pages (at least in this context). I certainly don’t know how many pages I read last year, and even if I did, everything from book size to fonts could change that metric from book to book.

Before doing these reading challenges, I’d also read the same books over and over. Indeed, there was a cycle after a particularly bad breakup in college, where I read The Lord of the Rings for months — as soon as I finished Return of the King, I’d start again with Fellowship. Another fantasy novel, the aforementioned The Heroes is another one I’d read once or twice a year since I first picked it up. Conversely, though, the no repeats rule actually lets me think about repeats — like when I read Takako Takahashi’s Lonely Woman again for the first time since college last year (and finding much more in it than I did as a student).

I’m not sure if it’s a good thing that I’ve started doing that re-reading, but I plan to relax the rule a little in 2017 so I can at least pick up The Heroes again.

I also think I should take notes, at least when I finish each book. Especially for books I read at the beginning of the year, it’s harder to recall what they made me feel, and to me those feelings are vital in these year-end summaries. You may notice that for my recommended books, the summaries are much longer for books later in the year.

Twenty-Seventeen

2016’s Reading Challenge has influenced my 2017 Challenge in a few ways.

First, I’ve lowered the number of books again, to 30. Again, I’m likely to go over again in 2017, but I have a purpose in doing so — I plan to read at least 10 Japanese-language books this year, bringing the total up to 40.

Goodreads mostly doesn’t have information on Japanese books, which is why I’ve avoided adding them to the challenge, but I definitely need reading practice, in any context possible. I picked up a Japanese copy of Harry Potter, for example, in anticipation (and because I think it’ll be easy to find help when I need it). I also suspect there’s going to be a lot of manga on that 10-book list, as well as collections of writings by Shigesato Itoi, who runs the Hobonichi Shimbun.

Second, I’m planning on continuing on with the Persona 5 inspired picaresque reading list I began in 2016. Books on the list include Carmen, The Curse of Capistrano, The Three Musketeers, “The Dunwich Horror”, “The Colour Out of Space”, and The Life of Lazarillo of Tormes: His Fortunes and Misfortunes as Told by Himself.

Third, I’m was planning on reading six books recommended by the New York Times to “understand” Trump voters: The Unwinding, Strangers in their Own Land, Hillbilly Elegy, Listen Liberal, The Populist Explosion, and White Trash. While I’m still planning on reading through this list, my passion for these books has dampened considerably after living in Donald Trump’s America for a few weeks.

Finally, I’m planning on reading more books on Japan. I’ve been stockpiling books as if I’m anticipating a nuclear winter (which I am, now). The reading lists includes Shigeru Mizuki’s manga Showa (a history of Japan during the Showa period, and the march to militarism and fascism — it perhaps hits too close to home now), The Politics of Dialogic Imagination: Power and Popular Culture in Early Modern Japan, The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore, and George Sansom’s three-volume History of Japan.

All that said, however, I’ve done none of these so far in 2017. Instead, I began reading The Name of the Wind, and when finished, its sequel A Wise Man Fears, based on a friend’s recommendation (my assessment so far — OK, but not great). In a bid to read more classics, I also began 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

While I have many rules and ideas for this year’s reading challenge, this year more than ever, they’re guidelines, not restrictions. Much like last year, I think I’ll rely on my reading to provide a refuge from a depressing world.