Books I liked

These are notes on some of the books I’ve enjoyed. I figure this is a good way to help me internalize them. Please let me know if you read any, I would love to hear your thoughts.


The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker

Read this if you want to make your gatherings with other people more meaningful.

My notes on The Art of Gathering

This is one of the best non-fiction books i’ve read in years. It is entertaining but also actionable, and has a different perspective than most of the books I read. Its lessons apply to many things beyond creating impactful gatherings. Some of my major takeaways were:

  • Always have a perspective for why your gathering exists. What is its purpose? What are you trying to accomplish by getting this group of people together? Even if it’s as simple as “for old friends to catch up,” having a thesis helps make every decision easier.
  • Be a benevolent dictator at your gatherings. People want to be led, and if you don’t take leadership and guide the group in service of your gathering’s purpose, someone else will guide the group in service of a different purpose. So for example, if you are having a gathering for the purpose of having old friends catch up, that may mean people aren’t allowed to bring significant others — you should enforce this, in a gentle, but firm way.
  • Have memorable rules for your gatherings. This reminded me of Ben Horowitz’s advice about building companies. Having memorable rules helps unite people, makes the gathering memorable and puts them out of their usual mindset. Some examples of rules include “no one can serve their own food,” “everyone gives a toast before dinner,” “phones go in the middle of the table” “everyone wears white” etc. By making rules explicit, people actually feel more comfortable and there is more equality than when rules are implicit.
  • Setting is very important and you should consider doing things to surprise your guests with the setting to jog them out of their usual routine. For example, if you’re having a dinner party that would usually take place around a table, consider having guests eat on the floor.
  • Make the gathering an enclosed space: for example, seat people around a circular table, instead of on either end of a rectangular one.

Burn Rate by Andy Dunn

Read this if you are interested in business and want to hear an honest, emotional, empowering story about mental health.

My notes on Burn Rate

This was one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. I would have read the story of the founding of Bonobos on its own, it is an interesting and innovative company and since I have worked in the space I liked learning about the origins of the DTC movement.

But Dunn’s candor and thoughtfulness about his experiences with bipolar disorder made the book incredibly touching and engaging, way beyond a normal business book. Hearing about his first manic episode in college was so relatable; he was a high-achieving kid at Northwestern who was partying a lot and dating someone seriously for the first time and it was hard to tell what was normal college behavior and what was madness until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.

The rest of the book is similarly honest and compelling. He beautifully illustrates the highs and the lows of entrepreneurship weaving together with bipolar disorder.

Something that struck me is that even though he was desperately afraid to acknowledge his diagnosis, even to himself, everyone he eventually opened up to (including the board of directors of Bonobos!) were supportive and understanding. And things he feared for so long, like telling his Board or his girlfriend about his condition, were over in mere moments — the fear was so much worse than the actual event. This has certainly been true in my life and is something I try to remember.

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

Read this if you want a fast, simple, powerful framework for improving your life and are open to something mystical.

My notes on The Four Agreements

The theory of this book is that humans are socialized as children to have many “agreements” or ingrained beliefs about the world and that many of these agreements cause us suffering. It proposes four agreements to follow to reduce this suffering which are:

  • Be impeccable with your word: Do not gossip or lie. The things you say impact you and the people around you and you want to only say the sort of thing that you want to bring into your life.
  • Don’t make assumptions: Relationships can be much better if instead of making assumptions about what the other person is thinking or what they want, you ask them. Humans aren’t very good at seeing reality, this practice can get you closer to reality.
  • Don’t take anything personally: Focus on what you can control and realize that other peoples’ actions are wrapped up in their own struggles. He takes this to the extreme (“even if someone calls you stupid, don’t take it personally. It has nothing to do with you.”) I don’t know how to feel about this, but I don’t see much downside in making an effort to remove your ego from interactions with others.
  • Always give your best: If you give less than your best you will feel guilt and regret which causes suffering. If you give more than your best you will burn out. I certainly find that when I am at work, if I am stressed it can usually be remedied by shutting out distraction and working hard for a while.

I liked the simplicity of this book and how unequivocal it is in its prescriptions. It feels religious in nature but with the promise of salvation in this life and not a future one. Much of it felt closely linked to the Buddhist principles that are taught by contemporary meditation teachers. I’ll be curious to see how long these ideas stick with me.

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

Read this if you’re in the mood for an incredibly well-researched story about a business empire, the dysfunctional family that runs it, and the horrific opioid epidemic it helped cause.

My notes on Empire of Pain

  • It was transformational for the pharmaceutical industry to start marketing products like consumer goods. For example Valium was marketed for a wide array of ailments, to housewives etc. The Sackler brothers helped pioneer this marketing.
  • There was an idea that doctors’ judgment couldn’t be swayed my marketing or sales tactics. This is clearly wrong and many doctors overprescribed opioids as a result of aggressive sales and marketing
  • The Sacklers owned interests in competitive firms, industry publications, gave money to tons of universities; they had many conflicts of interest. Reminds me of the founder of incredibly powerful hollywood agency CAA Michael Ovitz’s motto: “no conflict, no interest.” This can be a great business strategy but is morally dubious especially in a field like medicine.
  • Money tore the Sackler family apart; the brothers barely talked towards the end of Arthur’s life
  • Pharma companies have strategies to move the public from one drug to a slightly different drug to extend the time they’re selling things on patent
  • Oxycontin was marketed and widely believed to be non-addictive. This is terrifying
  • The data on which doctors are prescribing which drugs is very valuable and is used in a way similar to how CPG firms use retail data. Pharma companies call on doctors in high-prescribing regions, give special attention to doctors who were prescribing a lot. Purdue could also see which doctors were clearly writing fraudulent prescriptions, and mostly encouraged this

So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport

Read this if you are early in your career or are looking to find more meaning in your career. One of the best frameworks I’ve found for thinking about how to build a career and life that you will enjoy.

My notes on So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Newport wrote this when he was finishing a computer science PhD at MIT and preparing to enter the academic job market. He was facing a lot of career uncertainty and wanted to understand the factors that lead to fulfilling careers. Since writing this book, he’s gone on to write several more popular books in addition to being a professor, and he appears to have a lot of autonomy and success, which gives his framework some credibility in my mind.

Autonomy is an extremely important factor in meaningful, fulfilling work. But, it’s a mistake to try to for too much autonomy before you’ve built up something valuable to offer the world (for example by trying to become a full time travel blogger from scratch at age 22). Autonomy must be “purchased” with career capital.

Career capital is built through

  • Deliberate practice: working intentionally and without distraction, mastering fundamentals and getting feedback quickly. He writes that most people and especially knowledge workers don’t do this, so it is an opportunity.
  • Having the mindset of a craftsperson: how can you deliver more and more value to the world?

Instead of focusing on finding something that you’re passionate about, focus on building career capital. This will earn you autonomy and control over your career. He gives the example of a software engineer who became indispensable to her employer, and built the leverage to negotiate a 4 day workweek.

I am not sure what the best ways to “deliberately practice” knowledge work are but some things that come to mind for data science are:

  • Publishing analyses and getting feedback on them. I have found this to be a great way to get a sense of what people care about, what they connect with and where holes in my thinking are.
  • Creating data science libraries: learning to interact with the underlying technology (e.g. Python & Pandas) seems like it brings a deeper understanding than passively using it. This is hard work.
  • Getting feedback from colleagues on presentations, code, and after meetings. This is also hard to do both because it’s uncomfortable for the ego and because it can be hard for people to give critical feedback.

Wherever You Go There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Read this if you want an easy-to-read introduction to mindfulness meditation or you’d like to deepen and reinforce your existing practice. It occupies a nice middle ground between scientific and spiritual.

The chapters are 1-3 pages and I’ve been reading one or two of them each morning or during lunch. It’s been a good companion to the guided meditations in the Waking Up app.

My notes on Wherever You Go There You Are

The mind listens to the body and the way that you sit during formal meditation practice can affect the quality of your mind. He recommends sitting in a way that “exemplifies dignity” and thinking of yourself as a mountain when you’re sitting.

He recommends 45 minutes of formal meditation a day to patients at his clinic. Any amount is good, but he finds that if you ask a lot of people, you are more likely to get a lot.

There can be dark or scary parts to oneself and part of meditation is having the courage to see these parts and be curious about them, sometimes over and over.

Van Gogh: The Life, by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Read this if you want to appreciate art more, you like learning about a person’s psyche, and you’re in the mood for a long read (it’s 1,000 pages or so).

My notes on Van Gogh: The Life

  • Van Gogh had a tragic life and never found peace or happiness. He depended on his brother Theo for financial and emotional support and painted mostly in anonymity for years.
  • Success didn’t bring him happiness. In fact, when he was first reviewed in a Paris art journal and gained some notoriety, he almost immediately felt shame and like an imposter. He likened pride to a liquor, which intoxicates you and leaves you sick.
  • Not being self-sustaining ate at him, the dependency of asking Theo for money really pained him and contributed to the mental illness that killed him.
  • His financial dependence on his brother haunted their relationship, which is terrible because it was the most important relationship in both the brothers’ lives. Mixing business with family is dangerous.
  • I am interested in what made him an exceptional painter, one of the best artists of all time. Two things emerged to me that help explain that:
    • First, he produced a huge quantity of work. He worked very fast, and painted consistently for year and years. This seems like a prerequisite to greatness.
    • Second, because he was a social outcast, he saw the world differently than other people and had space to think for himself. He wanted to be included by other artists but lacked the necessary social grace. Ironically this allowed him to develop a unique style, something critics called “finding truth”. This reminds me of the idea of “thinking from first principles” which is championed by many tech founders. It is very difficult to do, especially when one faces of distractions and social pressures. Van Gogh’s isolation allowed him to discover truth for himself.
  • There are non-linear benefits from creating things consistently. Vincent’s big break came in an unpredictable way, and it would have been easy to think of him as an overnight success, but he had been toiling in obscurity for years and years. Consistent work sets you up for outcomes like this but you can’t measure it, you can’t really plan for it and so this sort of long-term, non-linear investment gets consistently undervalued.

Wanting, by Luke Burgis

Read this if you are interested in social frameworks and understanding why people act the way they do. I appreciated the reminder to be careful of how your desires get shaped and how you should take an active role in setting your life up to have influences that reflect your values.

My Notes on Wanting

I have been hearing a lot about mimetic theory and felt like giving this a try. The basic idea is that people’s desires are determined by other people’s desires: we mimic other people.

It comes back to the idea of truly being oneself, and whether that is possible or what it means. I thought about this a lot while reading Wind-Up Bird and Black Book too.

You need to be careful who you associate with because you’ll take on the values and desires of people in your life.

There are different types of mimetic role models and it matters whether they are celebrities operating in another strata or peers operating in the same strata. If they are peers, this will breed rivalry.

Burgis suggests naming the mimetic forces in your life because awareness helps you make clearer decisions about them. Some that come to mind for my life are:

  • People in New York want to live in certain neighborhoods and in certain types of apartments
  • Over the past couple of years, my peers have transitioned from wanting to have fun dating to wanting to settle down and get married
  • People want to work for high-status companies
  • Within a company, people want to work on high-visibility projects
  • People want to go on trips to unique places

I could go on and on.

What It Takes by Steve Shwarzmann

Read this if you want entertaining stories about deals Shwarzmann has done and a glimpse into the formation of modern private equity.

My notes on What it Takes

There are a few lessons in the book that I think are profound and applicable to lots of things outside of finance.

The first is that “Time Kills all Deals.” If a deal is going to get done, you should push it through quickly because problems always come up, or people get cold feet or they just move on and forget about it. I have found this to be true of anything involving convincing people or yourself to do something – the longer you wait the less likely you are to actually make anything big happen. Urgency is rewarded.

The second is that if you are going to do something, it takes the same amount of effort to do something big as to do something small so you might as well spend your time doing something big. I think obviously there are exceptions to this but I expect it is useful to generally bias your thinking in that direction and to try to do bigger things than you think you are capable of.

The third is that he really emphasized listening closely to people, trying to understand or imagine what it is they want, and then giving that to them. He became an extremely accomplished dealmaker doing this and I think it is good advice for any situation where you are trying to coordinate with other people.


The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami

Read this if you are in the mood for a melancholy novel that creates a new world with different rules than the one we know but that feels entirely natural. The writing style is conversational and matter-of-fact and it is a fast read. It will make you want to go to Japan.

My notes on The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s protagonist is Toru Okado, a 30 year-old man who is painfully aware that he is not getting to the essence of life. He is despondent and his relationship with his wife has grown stale.

Okado is unsatisfied with his job at a law firm and so he quits without knowing what he will do next. It seems that the job did not make him happy, but leaving does not make him happy either; he faces the difficult and common question, “what is it I truly need to be doing?”

Okado’s relationship with his wife started when they shared a strong connection but the drudgery of day-to-day coexistence has buried that connection. They are unable to truly “know” one another, and this idea of essence comes up again and again. Okado questions how he can ever know the essence of another person, especially when he does not really know the essence of himself.

Okado spends time in the bottom of a well to think about everything that happens in his life and becomes addicted to it. He needs solitude.

Sex is a complication in the novel and comes up in most of the relationships but is a secondary byproduct of relationships, it is certainly not the essence of the relationships or life itself.

There are several characters who have a supernatural ability to understand things and predict the future, it seems that some characters have the ability to tap into the essence of the world and understand it and use it.

People’s spirits can inhabit different bodies, the bodies of people are more vessels than core ingredients in what make up a person.

Okado is able to love his wife even after her infidelities. He does not ruminate on them and recognizes that they are not the core problem between them; instead the core problem is their inability to be truly open with one another.

The Night Manager by John le Carré

Read this if you want a tense international thriller, a grittier and more literary James Bond. Or, if you’re daydreaming of a European vacation.

My Notes on The Night Manager

I thought the way Jonathan and Roper interacted as almost father and son was really interesting. And the fact that even though Roper was doing terrible things, selling guns to terrorist organizations, I found myself almost rooting for him – le Carré does a great job of pulling you into the glamour and charisma that fuels his power. As always with le Carré, wonderful escapism, British colloquialisms, and smoke-filled rooms.

The Guest by Emma Cline

Read this if you liked My Year of Rest and Relaxation and want a cynical slice of New York wealth and privilege.

My notes on The Guest

I found some of the writing a bit cliché (pretending all rich people are boring is not particularly interesting to me). But it was a fun book while being a bit repulsive and kept me going, and I thought the protagonist was an interesting character and one who I’ve met shades of before. She’s falling and can’t catch herself, consistently self-sabotaging and too broken to consider the impact she has on other people.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Read this if you want a novel that is melancholy and reflective, set in the fading great manors of mid-century England and has a peculiar, self-deluding narrator.

My notes on The Remains of the Day

The protagonist in Remains is so detached and simple, and his descriptions of things let you see them in a new light — for example, he talks at length about how it seems like his employer expects him to be able to engage in banter as one of his duties, so he has been practicing his wit. I read Never Let Me Go a couple of years before I read this and Ishiguro’s way of observing things that often go unnoticed is really compelling.

This book made me feel the dangers of having your identity too tied up in your work, such that you fail to think for yourself in matters of morality (like Stevens does with his former employer, who was a Nazi sympathizer) or in matters of personal happiness (like he does in his relationship with his father and Miss Kenton).

Hope by Andrew Ridker

Read this if you want a family novel that weaves cynicism with optimism really nicely.

My notes on Hope

The book follows four members of a family in Brookline, with a separate section for each character. This structure leads to four distinct feelings in the book. I felt most connected to the daughter’s section, and found her affair with her high school teacher to be especially well-written: you can see how a high schooler would find him exciting and attractive, but he was really a weak person and she realizes that in the end. The son’s trip to the Middle East is also very fun and absorbing and retains a light heartedness that I really enjoyed. I flew through this book, really fast and fun to read.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Read this if you want the feeling of mid-twentieth century Harlem with a fun story about a man who self-deludes into a lot of trouble.

My notes on Harlem Shuffle

Mostly I loved the setting of the book and the feeling of the city moving around Arthur, the main character. I found the story to be fun to read but not very meaningful. It seemed like Arthur kept giving in to his ego and following the desire to take shortcuts to get a bit further ahead, and this works but brings him a lot of trouble.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

Read this if: You are in the mood for a coming of age love story and find Lahore a compelling setting. The writing is really beautiful.

My notes on How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

The boy’s relationship with the pretty girl (these are how the characters are referred to throughout the novel, we do not know their names) is really beautiful and poetic. Two people growing up mostly in parallel, but with occasionally crossing paths which feel inevitable, both to the reader and to the characters. It is comforting and bittersweet. Hamid’s writing is lovely. The descriptions of the brutality of life for the boy’s family as a poor villager prior to moving to Lahore were also very striking and made me thankful for modernity, with all of its flaws.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Read this if: You like voyeuristically reading about elite secret societies with dark secrets. It’s a super fun book.

My notes on The Secret History

I just had so much fun reading this. I learned the term “Dark Academia,” of which this is a shining example, and there’s something I find so delightful about it. Stories set in elite colleges, among glitzy social strivers, and something is not as it seems…what’s not to like? The psychological elements felt a lot like The Magus below, and it reminded me of the movie Saltburn (though not quite as ridiculous).

The casualness with which the main characters treat murder is really weird, and throws you while you read it, but I think that helps put you in a new mindset. I don’t think evaluating this as a story of morality is very interesting.

The Magus by John Fowles

Read this if: You like little mind games and the feeling of being somewhere where things are not as they seem. Or, if you are going to a Greek island and need a vacation book.

My notes on The Magus

This was the most fun I’ve had reading a book in a long time. I read it while at a wedding on a Greek island and it’s set on a Greek island and it felt like the perfect vacation read.

Nicholas is a wayward Oxford graduate who goes to Greece to teach at a school and becomes swept up in the machinations of a strange millionaire who stages incredibly elaborate scenarios, seemingly both to teach Nicholas lessons and for his own amusement. I was so excited to see what the next setup would be in “the masque;” reading it felt like wandering around the rooms at Sleep No More.

The meaning that the book seemed to drive at was that committing to someone and being entirely truthful with them is how you can actually escape the maze of deception and be free. This was against Nicholas’ nature who is self-absorbed and a womanizer but he seems to glimpse the truth that he cannot keep living only for himself and expect to find any meaning.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Read this if you want an intense depiction of the descent into severe depression, but covered in ‘50s New York. Catcher in the Rye from a female perspective, with more pain and the knowledge that the author sadly was taken by her illness.

My notes on The Bell Jar

I read this on a bachelor party which was a funny juxtaposition. It was brilliantly written and was darkly funny. It was also quite relatable, I could feel Plath’s struggle as she craved prestige and external markers of success while also finding them repulsive. Her feeling that she wanted to live many different lives rang true to me and I think can be a cause of deep unhappiness; it seems like there can be joy in committing to a single path.

The Last Brother by Natacha Appanah

Read this if you want a quick but powerful and sad book in an interesting setting.

My notes on The Last Brother

I liked the setting in Mauritius a lot, the psychology of being on a remote island and connected to the events of the rest of the world in a tenuous way was powerful. It made the main character’s loneliness feel much more acute, like he as a human being is floating along isolated and keeps losing his connections to other people. Very nice translation from the original French.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Read this if you want a long and rambling but epic adventure and spiritual reflection, against the backdrop of 1980s Bombay.

My notes on Shantaram:

I read Gregory David Roberts’ biography on the back of the book and was immediately hooked. The book is too long and the writing is not incredible, but it is such an exciting setting and the story rings true because he lived a lot of it. It’s a thousand pages or so but goes pretty quickly.

I loved his fixation on Abdel Khader Khan and his depiction of this crime boss as an almost omnipotent and all-knowing spiritual being. Karla is also an extremely alluring character and his fateful attraction to her is very relatable.

It was interesting that having lived a life of violence, he condemns violence as senseless. 

All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren

Read this if you want a heartbreaking and real depiction of power and ambition and what happens to people when they don’t believe in anything.

My notes on All the King’s Men:

This was so beautifully written. There were lots of passages I took pictures of because they blew me away.

Governor Stark always had leverage on people, and always believed there was dirt to be found on anybody and that seems like it is true. It is not really clear why Burden keeps working for the governor except that he believes in the progress that he makes, and that the ends justify the means. But this cynicism eats at Burden and he is miserable.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

Read this if you want a funny, sad reflection on the meaning of sex and love with some communist politics thrown in.

My notes on The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I didn’t know at all what to expect but I thought this was wonderfully written and quite novel. The way Kundera writes so explicitly about the contradictions his characters feel is hilarious and also hits you in the face. For example, Tomas leaves everything in Switzerland to go back to Prague when Tereza runs away from him. He is desperate to see her again, bereft that she has left him. And then when returns and his finally with her, “all he felt was the pressure in his stomach and the despair of having returned.”

He cannot reconcile the part of himself that wants to love her and be loved by her and the part of himself that needs to be free to sleep with whomever he pleases, to do whatever he pleases.

Sabina is quite the character, and you can see why Tomas likes her so much.

Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger

Read this if you liked The Catcher in the Rye and are in the mood for thinking about what it means to be religious and how we should cope with what can feel like a ridiculous, phony world. This book apparently inspired the movie The Royal Tenenbaums.

My notes on Franny and Zooey

This isn’t as fun to read as Catcher but grapples with some more complex questions and still has Salinger’s distinctive style (lots of italics to emphasize characters’ utter exasperation). Franny and Zooey are brother and sister, part of a big family full of child prodigies who grew up starring on a children’s quiz show.

The book is broken up into two parts, the first focused on Franny’s disastrous weekend visiting her awful boyfriend at school, where she has a breakdown. She’s exasperated by lots of the things Holden Caulfield is exasperated by, but with more of an intellectual mindset.

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman

Read this if you want a philosophical and all-encompassing love story / anthropological observation.

My notes on The Idiot

This book made me feel like I knew the author deeply. Her observations about the absurd things that people do feel so distinctive and entwined with her personality.

Ivan does some very unkind things to Selin and she recognizes that, but she loves him anyway or even in part because of this. But he also loves her and wants to be kind to her, but he is not very emotionally mature and struggles between treating Selin like she deserves, having a girlfriend, and doing whatever he wants all the time and feeling superior to everyone. So Selin is mostly unhappy throughout the book, but maintains hope which motivates her.

Her discovery of writing as her calling brings a dose of optimism, that even if this all-consuming love affair is bad for Selin, she is discovering her own way of being in the world and has something that no one can take from her.

The scenes in rural Hungary are very funny; lots of characters doing and saying things that make sense on some level and seem entirely alien on another.

A really wonderful book.

Leaving Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

Read this if you want a book with brilliant language, set as a coming of age story of an American poet in Madrid.

My notes on Leaving Atocha Station

Lerner is just so smart, and the way he plays with words is mesmerizing. I guess it is probably because I don’t read much poetry that I’m so impressed by it. He’s honest about the things inside him that are ugly in a rare way. Lots of books are self-deprecating but about things that are sort of glamorous or at least not repulsive. But Lerner writes about feelings and impulses that are really quite ugly and incredibly self-absorbed, and it is impactful to read because it reaches you in a place that is deeper because you keep those feelings yourself in a deeper and more hidden place.

It made me want to go to Madrid and to sit and have an espresso and smoke a spliff on the roof of an attic apartment.

Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Read this if you want a long tour through Latin American poetry, in smoky and romantic backdrops.

My notes on Savage Detectives

This was a long one but had some beautiful writing and after reading it I felt that I understood a bit more about Mexico City and a bit more about Latin American poetry and literature. Bolaño writes about people of different nationalities in a way I think is interesting that I don’t experience much in America: “the Chileans are this way, the Mexcians are this way.” And the Mexicans in the story specifically reference Mexico going to hell in the ‘80s and it strikes me that when a country is truly in decline, everyone feels it and it affects the national psyche in a very explicit way, a way that is much more explicit than when a country is doing well or just stagnating. In the US right now it feels like some people talk about our country descending into fascism or falling apart but people don’t truly believe it at a societal scale yet.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Read this if you feel like an eery setting and great descriptions of the invisible web of group dynamics that exists between friends.

My notes on Never Let Me go

This book captures the resentment, desire for approval, and small betrayals that can swirl between long-term friends. But it also describes the love that coexists with those more difficult feelings really beautifully. The setting and circumstances of the book are creepy but also somewhat whimsical.

The novel’s premise is dystopian and probably should’ve prompted some more critical thought from me. But I didn’t think too much about the morals or the politics behind Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth’s positions in life when I read this, in a way that I think people do when reading Handmaid’s Tale or a similarly dystopian book. I mostly enjoyed the descriptions of the complicated feelings and interactions that develop between friends, especially when they’re in a group.

The narrator, Kathy, is really charming after a while and has a comforting way of not panicking about scary things. Tommy’s burst of rage but pure innocence and surprising intelligence made him really endearing. And I think everyone knew a Ruth growing up, someone magnetic whose approval was like currency.

This is a melancholy novel but not overly sad. Surprisingly, there was one scene that was exceedingly creepy that literally made the hair on my arms stand up.

Submarine, by Joe Dunthorne

Read this if you want a very funny, modern, and British version of Catcher in the Rye.

My notes on Submarine

I found this on my street and recognized the cover because it was made into a movie and Alex Turner did the soundtrack. I’ve listened to the soundtrack many times so it felt natural to read the book. I was surprised at how funny it was; I laughed out loud reading it several times.

It was very sweet that Oliver, that main character, is both sociopathic and very caring. He is worried about his parents relationship and does his best to help them in his antisocial way. The diary as a mechanism for the story worked well.

My favorite scene was Oliver pasting the post-it notes on trees in the forest telling Graham, who is mother is having a flirtation with, that he both respects him and hates him.

South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami

Read this if you want a fast Murakami novel that focuses on what love means and how one’s relationship to it can change.

My notes on South of the Border, West of the Sun

I didn’t enjoy this as much as other Murakami novels until the end. The protagonist is hard to like; he hurts the women he is with and seems not to care to try to change much. But the ending is very satisfying and profound; it felt like Murakami feeling himself growing up and realizing that love does not necessarily mean sweeping personal feelings but means actively prioritizing another person’s well-being.

The Incongruous Spy, by John le Carré

Read this if you want the escapism of reading realistic stories about spies walking through the fog in post-war London.

My notes on The Incongruous Spy

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by le Carré. His spy stories are dark and foggy but aren’t void of morality like some other noir novels. The Incongruous Spy is a collection of two short novels, both featuring George Smiley as the main protagonist. Smiley is a fascinating character: brilliantly intelligent but completely unremarkable in appearance and demeanor. His wife has left him for a Cuban race car driver and he hates the politics that have started to dominate the British Secret Service.

The stories take us through his past running spies in Germany and to a murder investigation at a fancy prep school in England. Le Carré builds the details of the mysteries brilliantly and you always feel like the answers are just beyond your grasp. There are plenty of wonderfully dark scenes in smoky parlors that made me want to go to London and piercing descriptions of the shadowy sides of people. I read it on the train from DC to New York and it was the perfect train book.

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

Read this if you’re in the mood for short stories and like ambiguity.

My notes on Men Without Women:

These are bite-sized stories that have everything I love about Murakami’s writing: strange but beautiful settings, bittersweet introspection, and mystery. There are lots of themes that show up in his novels: love triangles, men leaving home abruptly after a rupture in their relationship and traveling across Japan, phone calls in the middle of the night.

My favorite story was Kino, about a man who leaves his home and job and starts a small bar after his wife sleeps with his friend. The setting is beautiful, a cozy bar in Tokyo where old jazz records play, a cat naps in the window, and a mysterious visitor drinks scotch while it rains outside. I imagine this draws heavily on Murakami’s experience running a jazz bar in his twenties before becoming a full time author.

The main character is having trouble accessing his emotions following his relationship with his wife and this blocks the natural “flow” in his life and in the world. This idea comes up in Murakami stories a lot. His characters tend to work through it by seeking out solitude. In this story, the main character retreats from humanity, but must allow himself to connect with others instead of fully retreating in order to let his emotions flow and get unblocked. He has to have the courage to feel his emotions and let himself be vulnerable instead of permanently inhabiting the purgatory of protecting himself from being hurt again.

The Ghostwriter by Philip Roth

Read this if you are interested in writing and a coming of age story that feels very American.

My notes on The Ghostwriter

Roth’s connection to Judaism and his family’s obligations to their community and faith are different from anything I have experienced and make his ambitions and ascent into literary stardom a lot more complicated.

Roth writes about the idea of surrogate fathers for several characters and it is interesting how Zuckerman and Amy both view Lonoff as a surrogate father, while Zuckerman falls in love with Amy and Amy has fallen in love with Lonoff.

Lonoff tells Zuckerman that the simplistic and monastic existence he has in the Berkshires leads to fantasy and that to develop as a writer he should go out in the world and live a real life.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

This one’s long so I’m taking notes as I go.

I found this book surprisingly easy to read. It’s long but full of insight into how characters think that feels relatable in a way that is really compelling. Most of the characters’ thoughts are selfish or ugly, in a way that I would find hard to write because it would mean being intensely forthcoming and honest with oneself. A striking example to me is when Anna comes home from a trip to her young son, who she’s been thinking about and missing during her time away. Upon her return, she finds him lacking; he doesn’t live up to the image she had in her imagination and she is disappointed.

Vronsky’s love for Anna is, so far, not selfish; he seems entirely bound to her and to care about her completely. But this love is clearly destructive and is bringing both of them pain.

Russian names are difficult.

When Anna confesses her affair to her husband, he feels relief. The certainty that she was unfaithful is better than the miserable uncertainty wondering about it. This is so often true, that the fear of something bad is worse than the reality.