2019 book list

14 minute read


2019 is the first time I am tracking the books I read throughout the whole year. Overall I’ve read 29 books (30 if you count Primo Levi’s If this is a man and The truce as 2), which I think is a decent number. Hopefully in 2020 I will read even more! I have actually started tracking in the end of 2018 so there are some books from the year before the yesteryear.

My major fare of consumption is definitely fiction. They tend to be dark – if they are not thrillers, they are historical fictions like Shusaku Endo’s and Eka Kurniawan’s works listed below. I also enjoy good sci-fi – I’m glad to discover Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves – I will definitely read more of his works. Not suprisingly there are some dark sci-fis in the mix: Peter Watts, Stanislaw Lem, Arthur Clarke. Finally, the non-fictions. Some are for general knowledge: memoirs, popular science books; while some are for more serious study: sociological essays, and most recently the books on Christian marriage.

If you need book recommendation, I recommend those I rated 4 and 5⭑.

2019 – 29 books read

The Five Love Languages | Gary Chapman ⭑⭑⭑⭑
Insightful. Definitely is something to return time and time again.

This Momentary Marriage | John Piper ⭑⭑⭑⭑
Short but gives a strong emphasis on Christian marriage as to be like Christ and his church.

Childhood’s end | Arthur C. Clarke ⭑⭑⭑⭑
Although written quite sometime ago, it reads like a recent modern sci-fi. It is a “first contact” story but it takes a strange turn. This is the first Arthur C. Clarke book I read, and certainly it leaves me wanting to read more of his works.

Harvard Square : a novel | André Aciman ⭑⭑⭑
Compared to his more popular works, this feels lacklustre. Is it the subject matter – it’s not about romance but friendship – or is it the writing itself is less lyrical than, say, Enigma Variations.

Weapons of math destruction : how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy | Cathy O’Neil ⭑⭑⭑
Timely warning. As algorithms encroach many aspects of our life, we have to carefully think about unintended consequences and such.

First bite : how we learn to eat | Bee Wilson ⭑⭑⭑
I like to keep up with nutrition science. The book talks a little bit about that, and more about food-related dysfunctions and how they are not lost causes.

Kiku’s prayer | Shusaku Endo ⭑⭑⭑⭑
Set after the period of seclusion of Japan, where Christianity was still banned, it has echoes of Silence. Unlike the latter which is from the perspective of the padres, here the perspective is more of the secretly Christian peasants’, which arguably makes it more heart-wrenching.

If this is a man; The truce | Primo Levi ⭑⭑⭑⭑
A must-read if only to remind us what wretchedness can humanity descend to, and what heights of persistence can it climb.

Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity | Larissa MacFarquhar ⭑⭑⭑
Strange book to read but the subject is important and must be contemplated by any person. What is altruism, and how far should it be done?

Cantik itu luka / Beauty is a wound | Eka Kurniawan ⭑⭑⭑⭑
Dark, tragic, and mystical. Reads like a Natsuo Kirino book. As I read it in its native language, I find myself often wondering how would certain parts be translated. Considering that the book does not portray Japanese soldiers during the occupation kindly, I also wonder what the Japanese translation would read like.

Seventeen | Hideo Yokoyama ⭑⭑⭑⭑
Simple plot – a journalist covering a tragic plane crash. But the exploration of the depths of human emotions is extensive. We also get a glimpse of inner workings of a Japanese regional newspaper and its politicking, which decidedly influence people’s lives, almost as if on a whim.

The emperor of all maladies | Siddhartha Mukherjee ⭑⭑⭑⭑
Overall a superb read. I do find some parts a bit overdramatised. Also some quibble about the presumed scientific literacy of the readers – sometimes it goes a bit too basic for biochemistry (do you need to explain central dogma in great details?) but goes highly technical when it comes to medicine. Maybe this just reflects the different trainings of the author and myself?

The Goddess Chronicles | Natsuo Kirino ⭑⭑⭑
A retelling of the mythology of Izanami. Dark and chilling, but not what you want if you are looking for something like Out and Grotesque.

Complications | Atul Gawande ⭑⭑⭑⭑
Suprisingly readable. Surgeons are humans, too – this is obvious but Gawande offers this perspective very candidly.

Blindsight | Peter Watts ⭑⭑⭑
Quite confusing, which I suspect is what the author intended. The reader is plunged into the middle of action without much context and we only gradually comprehend stuff. The subject matter – the nature of consciousness, philosophical zombies – are very interesting to me and cleverly displayed. That said, I think only certain kind of people will enjoy this book.

White Teeth | Zadie Smith ⭑⭑⭑⭑
I actually dropped this for a few months before picking it up again. It is heavy in its topic. It is mostly centred around immigrants living in England in the 1980-1990s. The prose is humorous, scathingly satirical, and remarkably fluid. The social commentaries underneath are sharp and broad, ranging from to typical immigrant displacement to transgenic mice.

This is what inequality looks like | Teo You Yenn ⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑
This collection of essays highlight a side of Singapore often overlooked. I confess that for someone who has spent half of his (sheltered) life here, I have no idea about rental flats and other aspects that the lives of those with low income. This is indeed one of the central problems that the author highlights, that often these people are invisible, even though they are among us. Another point that struck me is when she details how the data was collected. As a natural scientist I am used to neat numbers, but to a sociologist, there are conversations, ‘anecdotes’, and other things that cannot be summarily packed into numbers. We have to be wary of just looking at numbers and not looking at the people behind those figures.

Bad blood : secrets and lies in a Silicon Valley startup | John Carreyrou ⭑⭑⭑⭑
Riveting. Reads like a novel though one already knows the ending. The chilling thing is that one knows this is not fiction.

Uncle Tungsten : memories of a chemical boyhood | Oliver Sacks ⭑⭑⭑⭑
Half autobiography, half chemistry textbook. As a chemist myself, I wished I learned chemistry with such wondrous beginning. I have memories of purchasing various salts and metals as a boy myself, although I didn’t do much experimenting as Sacks did with his little lab.

Seveneves | Neal Stephenson ⭑⭑⭑⭑
Beginning is a bit slow but I enjoyed this book very much, especially Part 3. I can’t say too much without giving spoilers but suffice to say, in the beginning of the book the moon broke into pieces. Don’t you think it’s a perfect bait premise? If you enjoy Kim Stanley Robinson, you will like this book.

On not speaking Chinese | Ien Ang ⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑
[book notes]
Only by reading first few chapters, I can already recommend every Chinese Indonesian, or anyone who identifies as part of a diaspora, to read it. Ien Ang’s own life is in many ways parallel to mine and she put many things that I identify with into words. As a sociologist, her words are eloquent and her narrative fits into the larger sociologist context. Yet, she viewed her own life narrative not with distance, contrary to that, with personal vulnerableness. That is Part 1. Part 2 is about Australia, so that is just a curiosity for me. In Part 3 she concludes.

The true history of tea | Victor H. Mair & Erling Hoh ⭑⭑⭑⭑
Very educative. I was first attracted to this book by Victor Mair’s linguistic discourse on the Chinese characters tu (bitter vegetable) and cha (tea) which have a difference of a single stroke. Thus virtually the word for tea in every language derives from the Chinese. You can read more about this in the book (Appendix C).

Never Let Me Go | Kazuo Ishiguro ⭑⭑⭑⭑
This is one of those where things are not what they seem and everything is only clear in the last 50 pages. If you find it a lull in the beginning like I did, just keep reading. The slow revelation is not dramatic like A Clockwork Orange but will still leave one with retrospective reflection after things are fully revealed.

The two cultures | CP Snow ⭑⭑⭑
[book notes]

Solaris | Stanislaw Lem ⭑⭑⭑
Two words: sentient ocean. Need I say more?
I guess I need. Indeed, the premise is very interesting. Lem decided to keep the ocean as impenetrably mysterious entity, though, which gives the book more of a thriller rather than sci-fi vibe. Good read but I am left wanting.

The traveler, the tower, and the worm: the reader as metaphor | Alberto Manguel
A slender volume with self-explanatory title: Manguel expounds upon each of the three metaphors regarding the reader. It is an interesting to read about the act of reading itself. Manguel draws upon from a wealth of references from the Western literature canon, many works of which I haven’t read, so it’s not fair for me to give a rating.

Augustine had noted: “our spirit has two feet—one of the intellect and one of the affect, or of cognition and love—and we must move both so that we may walk in the right way.”
-- Saint Augustine, Sermon 36, 413, “Corpus Christanorum.”
There is, lurking at the core of every reader’s engagement with the text, a double bind: the wish that what is told on the page be true, and the belief that it is not. In this tension between both, readers set up their tenuous encampment. Bruno Bettelheim long ago noted that children do not believe in the Big Bad Wolf or in Little Red-Riding Hood as such: they believe in their narrative existence, which, as we all know, can have a greater hold on us than many characters of blood and bone. For most readers, however, engagement with a text does not go beyond passionate daydreaming or wishful thinking.
...in that moment known to every true reader, in which a verse, a line of prose, an idea or a story, suddenly touches us, unexpectedly and profoundly, revealing something dark, half-intuited, unavowed, something that belongs exclusively to that reader to whom it has been secretly destined. That verse, sentence, or story will always interest us more than the material thing itself, because we are creatures of feeble perceptions, like moles in the sun, betrayed by our senses, and even though literary language is an uncertain, unreliable instrument, it is, however, capable, in in a few miraculous moments, of helping us see the world.
Being a bookworm need not always carry a negative connotation. We are reading creatures, we ingest words, we are made of words, we know that words are our means of being in the world, and it is through words that we identify our reality and by means of words that we are ourselves identified.

Silence | Shusaku Endo ⭑⭑⭑⭑
Very heavy topic, especially since it is a historical fiction, so the depictions are real. Endo captures best the tugging and struggles in the missionary’s heart. Can Christianity really take roots in Japan? Are all the deaths during the persecution meaningful?

We have no idea | Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson ⭑⭑⭑⭑
A good popular science book about things in the universe that are still unknown by modern physics. As pointed out in many online reviews, it is true that the jokes can be a bit too much. What I want to point out is how the illustrations and the text meld so well together, corny jokes aside. Jorge Cham’s background as both physicist and cartoonist must have played a big role in that. The physics is explained at accessible level, though still it is not a very light reading.

Foreign Studies | Shusaku Endo ⭑⭑⭑
This book was actually a farewell gift when I departed for Singapore 15 years ago (I guess the title is apt for the occasion). Only recently I rediscovered it in my parents’ house (my level of English 15 years ago was not enough) and decided to read it. I found some sentences indeed mirror my own experience studying in foreign land. This book is not an easy reading since there hangs a certain gloomy heaviness to it. The titular “foreign studies” are not a joyful thing, but a source of discomfort, sadness, illness, and the like. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that he is also the author of Silence, which was in my to-read list. The topic, Jesuit missionaries and Christians enduring persecution in Japan circa 17th century, is even heavier.


Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid | Douglas R. Hofstadter ⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑
[book notes] (in progress)
Fascinating journey to comprehend Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and meanderings to consciousness and artificial intelligence. Here is my first impression of sorts.

Python tricks: the book | Dan Bader ⭑⭑⭑
I picked some tricks. But I think this book is better suited for more serious Python users, not a casual user like me.

2312 | Kim Stanley Robinson ⭑⭑⭑
I think he can’t outdo the epic Mars trilogy. But still a good read. Continuing from the Mars trilogy the theme of interplanetary travel and human diaspora in the Solar system (the protagonist’s hometown is in Mercury). What to say, humans will be humans, whether they venture to new lands or new planets – I think this is the running thread in Robinson’s novels.

Alice in Quantumland: An Allegory of Quantum Physics | Robert Gilmore ⭑⭑⭑⭑
A lesson in quantum mechanics packaged in Alice’s fantastical journey (or its Quantumland parallel). It is curiousest that the fantastical qualities in Wonderland parallel well to Quantumland weirdness.

Westminster Shorter Catechism | GI Williamson

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