Best Books of 2017: Part 1

Best Books of 2017: Part 1

It’s time for the mid-year highlights of the best reads of 2017! I’ve been having an especially voracious appetite for reading this year. Since I no longer have to commute to work, the amount of reading time in my life has multiplied. You can view the complete list of the books I’ve read in 2017 and 2016 here:

These are my best picks from this year’s list:

1. Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

This was the first book I finished in 2017. It is both hilarious and insightful. Trevor Noah, a comedian from South Africa, is a brilliant storyteller. Noah was born during apartheid, and grew up in the complex post-apartheid South Africa. His life stories are out of this world. If you can, I would recommend listening to the audiobook version. He narrates it himself, which is awesome, since he speaks many languages and does accents very well. You’ll get the full characterization of the people he mentions in the book.

 

 

Blog posts inspired by the book:

Trevor Noah’s Insights on the Power of Language

Home in Language: Why Speaking in Your Mother Tongue is So Refreshing

2. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

This concise and poignant volume is a critical view of modern society and its isolation. Junger elucidates the power and importance of living in communities, most of which is lost in our typically individualistic lives.

 

 

 

 

Blog post inspired by the book:

Tribe: Home in Community

 

3. Homegoing: A Novel by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing is a beautiful novel that traces the lineage of two half-sisters, spanning about 300 years of Ghanaian and American history. Through the story of this split family, we are carried along through history, seeing the impact and legacy of colonization and slavery to individuals, families, and societies. Incredible work of fiction.

 

 

 

Blog post inspired by the book:

Home-Longing: Thoughts on Home and What It Means. A Prequel.

4. Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss

This is the mother book of all business and self-help books. Lots of inspiring quotes and life hacks from top performers of all fields.

 

 

 

 

5. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

If you’re into science-fiction, this is a fantastic collection of short stories. One of these stories became the basis of the acclaimed movie Arrival, starring Amy Adams. It’s great writing, combined with provoking exploration on how humanity would behave in alternate realities.

 

 

 

6. The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis

A book by a great storyteller, on a great friendship story between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two Israeli psychologists whose work on the mind’s judgment-making processes have influenced probably everything in modern psychology. Kahneman is the author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, one of my all time favorite books, where he describes the key conclusions of his and Tversky’s work. The Undoing Project is the behind-the-scenes story on how the research and collaboration took place between these two great minds.

 

 

7. Purple Hibiscus: A Novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I read several of Adichie’s books this year and though I enjoyed all of them, I especially appreciated Purple Hibiscus. She portrays the inner life of the novel’s protagonist–a teenage daughter of a deeply religious and abusive man–and her complex relationship with her family very powerfully.

 

 

 

8. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

For a book about death, this book is a surprisingly delightful read. Doughty works in the death industry and takes us through her reflections–both humorous and serious ones–as she learns about her work in a crematory. It has just enough irreverence to be funny, but it also poses deeper questions about how modern society handles death and the dead.

 

 

 

To see the best-of lists from previous years, check out these links below:

2016: Best Books of 2016 Part 1, Best Books of 2016 Part 2.

2015: Best Books of 2015 Part 1, Best Books of 2015 Part 2.

What are your best reads in 2017 so far?

Craving for Deep Work

Craving for Deep Work

There’s a satisfaction that comes from crossing off many items from a to-do list that each only requires 15 minutes or less. But there’s also a type of satisfaction that will never come from just crossing off 15-minute items.

 

The latter type of satisfaction is the one that you get after doing deep work, a work that takes long incubation and construction time, that squeezes your brain until it is fried, that produces something big, whose process seems like childbirth.

 

Often, the adult life is filled with scattered type activities. Chores, bills, errands. They are short-term activities that never end. It takes a different kind of endurance to do these activities.

 

But even in artistic endeavors, with the pressure to be visible and noticed throughout social media these days, tend to be quick work at the expense of depth.

 

Yet, it’s still so satisfying when you read a lengthy investigative journalistic piece, or listen to a story that you know have been crafted for a very long time, with much thought and intention, research and revisions. These are examples of deep work, a type of work that chisels a piece of your soul and you’ll never be the same again as a result of producing it.

 

Quantity Produces Quality

I tend to believe in a proportionality rule. Things that develop over time don’t disappear over time. Things that get done quickly tend to get forgotten quickly too. And it’s not just the total amount of time required to complete the work, it’s also the amount of time put in for any given work session. There are thoughts you will never get to unless you spend two, three, four contiguous hours thinking about the work.

 

Which is a problem in today’s distracted world. There are a plethora of things that demand our micro-attention constantly, and it takes immense discipline to switch off and focus about one thing for a long time. The trade is this: what is the opportunity cost of being distracted? It’s that valuable work that would otherwise be produced if we were not distracted.

 

I remember the first time I transitioned into an 8-hour work day schedule. At first, it was so boring to sit in one place for 8 hours, waiting for that 5 o’clock to come. To pass the time, I checked Facebook, browsed the world wide web, switching between work and distractions to help pass the time, or so I thought.

 

But then I tried another experiment, which was to block off all distractions for that 8-hour time period and just work. Incredibly, by doing this, I was able to get into another level of focus that made work even more interesting. I got into the zone. More questions emerged. The brain was working, plugged into another gear, and time ceased to be felt. The 8-hour passed by so much quicker, and none of it was boring.

 

Getting Over the Dip

To get to a state of flow in deep work takes some initiation effort. There’s a dip that we all have to get over–where most people abandon their efforts–to get to the other side. It’s not easy, and sometimes laziness prevails. But past this threshold, there’s something valuable, a combination of our own creativity and individuality, a contribution that only we can make.

 

The labor of producing something good will be painful in some degree. But it’s always worth it.

 

 

A book that I want to read on the subject of deep work is Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Tribe: Home in Community

Tribe: Home in Community

Part 2 of a series of posts on Home-Longing. Read Part 1, Home in Language: Why Speaking in Your Mother Tongue is So Refreshing.

 

Ever since I joined the ranks of homeowners, I finally see and feel this pattern of life called the American suburbia. Before this, I was that urban person who was only minutes away to major grocery stores, bookstores—both chain and independent—and delicious, diverse, ethnic restaurants. Not anymore. Part of me is still trying to understand why some call this the American Dream…

 

One thing that is markedly distinct about the change to suburban life, with all the space that comes with it, is its isolation. Perhaps people enjoy their nice houses so much that they don’t come out? Over the past months, I kept saying, “Where is everybody?” All these houses, and I didn’t see anybody in their front or backyards, or on the streets. Maybe because it was winter. I saw their parked cars though, so there was evidence of life.

 

People. Not that I’m the most social being on earth, but I do like to see people. People working, people doing activities, walking, even at times yelling at each other. Seeing people at the same place signals a common interest. Even though you may not be interacting with all of them, the fact that you’re there together is a sign of camaraderie. “Oh, you love books too!”

 

But when there are not many places to gather, how in the world are you supposed to find or form a tribe?

 

Tribe and Belonging

Sebastian Junger’s concise and poignant book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, was especially resonant when I read it earlier this year. It delves into the role of community in a person’s mental health and well being, except that that description is so watered down and doesn’t do the book justice. Junger calls on the properties of ancient tribal social structures that, though seen as primitive by modern people, in fact supply a sense of home and belonging to their members commonly lacking in modern society.

 

In its introduction, he writes:

The word “tribe” is far harder to define, but a start might be the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with… This book is about why that sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It’s about why—for many people—war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.

 

It begs the question, is there a group of people whose survival is so important to me that I would share my last food with?

How Money Pulls Us Apart

Wealth and affluence, I daresay the mark of modern society, come with many great blessings. With them, many basic human sufferings are avoided and we are enabled to enjoy and entertain ourselves with much delight. Vacation, eating out, hobbies, etc.

 

But there are shadows that lurk behind these blessings that may catch people unaware. The fact that our money can satisfy so much of our needs, bolstering our independence, by definition lessens our need of other people. We like this. We like to be able to move and do things on our own and not depend on someone else’s good graces.

 

Take exercise equipment. In my last apartment I lived in (and boy, what a great apartment it was), I used to walk to my local gym to work out. I saw other people exercising and running, which inspired you and boosted your own motivation. I interacted with the staff and also increased the chances of running into coworkers who lived in the area too.

 

When my husband and I decided to buy a treadmill instead of paying for gym membership, the convenience of running at home was great to have, but it came at the expense of the people exposure at a communal space. The only “interaction” I would have while running was maybe a podcast, the recorded voice of another human being.

 

Obviously, there are pros and cons of each option—I’m not saying one is absolutely better than the other. But it is a trade-off. The pros and cons differ.

 

Junger stretches this privatization of resources and links it further to mental health. Perhaps one of the big cons of independence and self-sufficiency is loneliness and depression.

First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.

 

The evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming. Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not. Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society—despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology—is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.

 

Money doesn’t buy everything, obviously. Especially in an individualistic culture, the lack of people interaction can have a serious effect on someone’s mental health.

Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthier society—but a trade it is.

The Leveling Effect of Suffering

In contrast, one of the blessings of “financial dependence” is the community aspect of shared resources. Sure, it comes with many frustrations—you have to deal with other people—but loneliness is likely not part of it. Junger argues that often people cherish the memories of disasters, whether natural or manmade (war), because they seem to level and ennoble human nature. They bring the best in everyone, because each has a role to play in the survival of the community. Everyone feels needed and important.

 

Yet…

The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good. Protected by police and fire departments and relieved of most of the challenges of survival, an urban man might go through his entire life without having to come to the aid of someone in danger—or even give up his dinner. Likewise, a woman in a society that has codified its moral behavior into a set of laws and penalties might never have to make a choice that puts her very life at risk. What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss. It is a loss because having to face that question has, for tens of millennia, been one of the ways that we have defined ourselves as people. And it is a blessing because life has gotten far less difficult and traumatic than it was for most people even a century ago.

 

To belong to a tribe, a community with shared experiences, is to find a home. How do you find your tribe?

 

For more, read Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. It goes deeper into the tribal psychology of war, PTSD, and what a society should do with regards to war veterans.

This article is Part 2 of a series of posts on Home-Longing. Read Part 1, Home in Language: Why Speaking in Your Mother Tongue is So Refreshing.

Home-Longing: Thoughts on Home and What It Means. A Prequel.

Home-Longing: Thoughts on Home and What It Means. A Prequel.

“Home is where my best shoes are,” said Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, tongue-in-cheek, once in an interview.

 

Where is home? Not so simple a question to answer anymore, for many. It throws another shade of complication for those who have left the country of their birth, for one reason or another, and stayed out for a while.

 

I’ve been thinking about home a lot lately, not only in terms of locality, but also in terms of identity. For home is tied to identity, to personal anchors, to our origin and who we are. It’s precipitated by several things. One, I’m nearing that point in my life where half of it is spent in a country that’s not my origin. All this time, I’ve always called Indonesia home, and America is the place I live in.

 

I left home when I was 17. But now, I’m almost here for equally the same amount of years, and certainly I’ve spent all of my adult life here. And so it’s come to a point where I’m not exactly Indonesian–in contemporary terms–anymore, since the Indonesia I experience and I imagine is more than a decade old. Yet I’m definitely not American, culturally, although a lot of my neural DNA is probably American by now.

 

Two, I am now bearing a child who will be culturally different, of a different citizenship, of a radically different time, from me. I suppose this is true for practically every parent–there’s always a cultural gap between different generations. In my case I mean culturally different literally, geographically.

 

It’s a kind of double identity crisis. Now I have to think about who I am and who this child is going to be. How will this new identity evolve? So far I’ve gotten away with calling Indonesia home even though I’ve married and even owned a house. Yet the saying starts to feel out of place now that I’m becoming a parent, tasked with the responsibility of creating a home, being a home, for another human being.

 

The truth: I don’t have an answer to Where is home? I say, “I guess, Colorado,” to get people off my back.

 

Home-longing, is this non-descript feeling, a craving for belonging and kinship. It’s a bit of a nebulous question, and in the search of hopefully-less-nebulous answers, I’ve been drawn to authors who write eloquently about being outsiders, about experiences of being displaced and removed from your people, and about reconciling the experiences that you belong, yet not, to two worlds.

 

This is sort of a prequel to what I suspect will be a series of articles about identity, home, and belonging. Along the vein of last year’s articles, A Child of East and West. There is no answer yet–one of those “I write to find out the answer” type-thing. But my search and discovery have led me to hang out with these books so far.

 

 

Have you ever felt a longing for home and belonging? Have you lived in a different country from your birthplace? What are your experiences finding out what home means to you? 

Trevor Noah’s Insights on the Power of Language

Trevor Noah’s Insights on the Power of Language

Trevor Noah’s book, Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood has a glowing 4.8-star average review on Amazon. He’s a comedian who is currently heading the satirical news show The Daily Show.

 

 

Trevor was born during apartheid, which, in his words, “was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under total control.” He grew up in the complex post-apartheid South Africa. Being a mixed child–from a white father and black mother–he was literally born a crime, because the law prohibited interracial marriage or “carnal intercourse” between blacks and whites. For most of his childhood, he navigated life as an outsider, since the way he looked and how he was brought up did not align with the typical constructs of the South African sub-societies. A chameleon was what he called–and still does–himself.

 

Using Language to Change Perceptions

 

Yet one poignant insight that he gleaned from his outsider-ness was the power of language in “hacking” racism. Apartheid did not only separate black and white people; it separated every identifiable skin color and subculture to weaken its opposition. Crediting his mother, who really is the heroine of his book, he says, “Living with my mom, I saw how she used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world.”

 

If you’ve seen any of Trevor’s stand up, you’ll see that he’s incredibly skilled in accents and imitations. He speaks something like six or seven languages.

 

I learned to use language like my mother did. I would simulcast—give you the program in your own tongue. I’d get suspicious looks from people just walking down the street. “Where are you from?” they’d ask. I’d reply in whatever language they’d addressed me in, using the same accent that they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion, and then the suspicious look would disappear. “Oh, okay. I thought you were a stranger. We’re good then.”

 

In another instance, a group of guys intended to mob him because they thought he was white. But as they plotted in their language, Trevor, who understood what they said, replied in kind and suggested that they all mob someone else together.

 

They were ready to do me violent harm, until they felt we were part of the same tribe, and then we were cool. That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.

 

Language, Connections, and Trust

 

Language is key in defining a tribe.

 

Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says “We’re the same.” A language barrier says “We’re different.” The architects of apartheid understood this. Part of the effort to divide black people was to make sure we were separated not just physically but by language as well. In the Bantu schools, children were only taught in their home language. Zulu kids learned in Zulu. Tswana kids learned in Tswana. Because of this, we’d fall into the trap the government had set for us and fight among ourselves, believing that we were different.

 

Yet, he continues, language’s power to divide can easily be reversed.

 

The great thing about language is that you can just as easily use it to do the opposite: convince people that they are the same. Racism teaches us that we are different because of the color of our skin. But because racism is stupid, it’s easily tricked. If you’re racist and you meet someone who doesn’t look like you, the fact that he can’t speak like you reinforces your racist preconceptions: He’s different, less intelligent. A brilliant scientist can come over the border from Mexico to live in America, but if he speaks in broken English, people say, “Eh, I don’t trust this guy.” “But he’s a scientist.” “In Mexican science, maybe. I don’t trust him.” However, if the person who doesn’t look like you speaks like you, your brain short-circuits because your racism program has none of those instructions in the code. “Wait, wait,” your mind says, “the racism code says if he doesn’t look like me he isn’t like me, but the language code says if he speaks like me he…is like me? Something is off here. I can’t figure this out.”

 

Reflecting on my own experience with languages, I realized that I was spared weird looks and condescending stares when I moved to the US because I was reasonably trained in English. I don’t recall an incident where an English speaker had to slooowlyy spell out each word they’re saying with his head tipped down, with that wide-eyed, condescending look that I see a lot in situations related to immigration or airport security. At least, this act won’t last long because I could meet them where they’re at in comprehension and speed of pronunciation. But certainly, I see it a lot when I travel with other non-native English speakers who may not be as quick in understanding the rapid speaking pace of a native speaker. It annoys me tremendously.

 

Incidents like this reveal the deep interconnection between language and trust. People naturally don’t trust those who are different than them. But a common language, even though skin-deep differences exist, can override that prejudice and engender trust.

 

Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.”

 

Check out Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood for a treasure of hilarious and insightful stories. I recommend getting the audiobook, which you can get at a hefty discount using the trick outlined in this post.

 

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