My April 2021 Reads

The Ghost Variations, Kevin Brockmeier Book cover - I think this book was originally supposed to be published in late 2020, but was delayed until early 2021–at any rate, I had put it on hold at my library and forgotten about it, then was pleasantly surprised to be told it was ready for pickup! As the subtitle says, this book consists of 100 stories that are in one or another way about ghosts. It’s not a long book; rather, the stories are all very short. They uniformly fit on two printed pages each, and are grouped into some general topic areas. There is some commonality with Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, in that these are by and large not meant to be “scary” or horror stories, but rather just sort of interesting takes on what it would be like if ghosts were real. The stories seem like a unique format to me, shorter than a typical short story (though some of the Pu Songling stories are similar length). In this format, it’s almost like Brockmeier is writing down the idea of a story rather than a full story. They do generally have distinguishable beginnings, middles, and ends, but the extreme brevity means that we get very little sense of character, resulting in a kind of abstract feeling. Many of the stories have a feeling of intellectual exploration, so I think people (like me) who enjoy Ted Chiang might also like these. On the downside, because of the sheer volume of stories, I don’t have distinctive memories of many of them even a couple weeks after reading–kind of similar to the Pu Songling stories, actually. A few memorable favorites are “Elephants,” “Dusk and Other Stories,” and “I Like Your Shoes.”

The Making of Asian America, Erika Lee - I first encountered Lee in the 2020 PBS documentary series Asian Americans, in which she plays an important role. My partner got her book last year. I had been meaning to read it, and the outbreak of anti-Asian violence in early 2021 was motivation enough to pick it up. Having read the book now, I would say that the PBS series is very closely based on it, and is a good summary for anyone not ready for a 400-page book. That said, the book is absolutely worth the read. Lee does a great job of portraying the internal diversity of Asian American communities (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, South Asian, and so on), as well as some of the commonalities of their experiences. Anyone looking at the early-2021 attacks on Asian Americans and saying “This isn’t who we are” is ignoring the extensive history that Lee documents here. Although I feel pretty informed about Asian American history in general, I learned plenty from this book too–particularly regarding the near-slavery of the Caribbean “coolie system,” as well as the Hmong-American community.

The Deficit Myth, Stephanie Kelton - A popular-consumption book on modern monetary theory (MMT) by one of its leading academic proponents. It’s a topic I’d like to write more on. Briefly, I find the overall perspective of MMT fairly convincing, but also that Kelton is sort of hand-wavey on some topics that might deserve more careful treatment. (For example, she argues that deficit spending doesn’t crowd-out private investment because the spending itself creates a supply of dollars for investment that wouldn’t otherwise be there. This only seems fully true if the additional expenditure is fully saved by recipients, rather than divided between consumption and investment.) I think this may be attributable to the fact that this is a non-specialist book, and I’d be interested in reading some more technical MMT material. I’d also say that Kelton presents the main important points within the first couple of chapters here–I ended up skimming much of the latter part of the book.

Vegetable Kingdom, Bryant Terry - Did not finish, to the extent that statement can apply to a cookbook. Terry is well known in the food world for promoting vegan cooking that draws on African American culinary traditions. Being in a bit of a pandemic-driven cooking rut, I decided to check out this, his latest book. A lot of the recipes look pretty good, but they mostly strike me as rather involved–as an example, many recipes call for ingredients that are themselves the products of other recipes (custom spice blends and the like). I have no doubt that they are very good, but I lean toward a simpler cooking style these days, and the recipes in this book seemed like more work than I felt up for.

The Price of Peace, Zachary Carter - Ironically, for a book focused on John Maynard Keynes, I was most interested in the chapters covering the history of Keynesianism after his death (in 1946). The book is pretty long, and I only skimmed the chapters covering Keynes' own life and work–perhaps in part because I already felt pretty familiar with the economics material, and in part because I didn’t feel super interested in his personal history in the Bloomsbury circle. But as I said, the latter chapters were quite interesting, especially given how little attention is usually paid to post-WWII history. Carter narrates the split in Keynes’s intellectual legacy between two factions roughly represented by John Kenneth Galbraith and Paul Samuelson, where the former carried on Keynes' own view that the government has the potential to radically reshape our society for the better, and the latter translated Keynes' economic prescriptions into a more mathematical format well-suited to mere prudent management of the existing economy. The Samuelson faction won out, and in Carter’s telling, this was largely due to fear of the USSR, and the Galbraith faction’s perceived proximity to Communism. One of the most interesting stories in the book is actually about textbooks of all things. The first popular textbook summarizing Keynes' perspectives, by Tarshis (1947), was eradicated from college curricula by a concerted McCarthyist attack, with the result the more politically acceptable Samuelson (1948) became the academic source on Keynesian economics. I thought it was interesting that Carter didn’t discuss MMT at all, which in some ways seems like the modern inheritor of some more radical Keynesian ideas. Perhaps its rise is still too recent to recount as history.

Avatar: Smoke and Shadow, Gene Luen Yang - Another installment in the Avatar comics series, taking place after the end of the series but before The Legend of Korra. This follows a plot to overthrow Zuko by Ozai loyalists in the Fire Nation. The three volumes were published in 2015-2016, and the Fire Nation-supremacist “Safe Nation Society” militia depicted in them certainly seems prescient to this reader in 2021.

Papaya Salad, Elisa Macellari - I bought this on Indie Bookstore Day from our central Connecticut gem, RJ Julia. I love picking something up from a good bookstore that I never would have come across on my own. This is a graphic novel by a Thai-Italian author, describing the story of her great uncle who served in Thai embassies in Europe during WWII. The drawings, and especially the vivid and stylized color scheme, are quite beautiful, but I didn’t find the story all that compelling. Mostly, I think it lacked the personal connection to the author that characterizes many great graphic novel memoirs (Good Talk, Dragon Hoops, The Best We Could Do). There is a frame story about Macellari’s uncle narrating the story to her on a childhood visit, but there seems to be little connection beyond “my uncle lived an interesting life.”

Good Talk, Mira Jacob - My partner got this one at RJ Julia on Indie Bookstore Day, and I ended up liking it better than my pick! It’s a graphic novel focusing on conversations about race in America between the author, who is Indian American, and her friends, parents, husband (who is White) and son (who is mixed race). I found it quite thoughtful and thought-provoking–especially as a White man married to a woman of color, many of the conversations that Jacob recounts having with her husband felt familiar to me. (It did make me feel grateful, at least, that my parents aren’t Trump supporters!) My one knock on it is that I didn’t feel like the graphic novel format did a lot for it–Jacob repeats identical “cut-outs” of the main characters a lot, which made me wonder why use a graphic format in the first place. On the other hand, as my partner pointed out, it might feel weird to have such a conversation-focused book in text-only format. I agree with that and don’t feel certain if another format would really work better–luckily the content is strong in any case.