Book Review: David and Goliath

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Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell

Ah, Malcolm Gladwell. It’s been a while. So far, I’ve read three of Gladwell’s books: The Tipping Point, Outliers, and Blink. I quite enjoyed The Tipping Point, which was the first of the three that I read. At the time, I hadn’t had much experience reading non-fiction for pleasure (and still don’t, to be perfectly honest. I think I’ll always prefer novels over non-fiction), and I was entranced by Gladwell’s detailed examples and his prose, which is easy to read and engaging without being too simplistic.

However, as I pursued more of Gladwell’s work, I found that while I enjoyed the writing itself, I couldn’t get on board with many of the concepts in the books. The examples used seemed biased and rather narrow from which to draw overarching conclusions about human behavior. The theses of the books seemed fairly obvious (for example, one of the ideas presented in David and Goliath is that experiencing a great difficulty in childhood, such as dyslexia or the death of  parent, makes us more likely to be successful. Not exactly groundbreaking.), and overly simplistic.

That’s how I expected to feel about David and Goliath, and that’s exactly what happened. As always, I enjoyed Gladwell’s writing and learning about a variety of different stories: the research work of oncologist Emil J. Freireich, who was deemed controversial by his peers, the origin of the three-strikes law in California, and even the titular story of David and Goliath itself, which I can actually say that I wasn’t too familiar with outside of its cliched use in everyday conversation. I don’t have much else to say about this book. I feel that my feelings toward this book are probably well-summarized in my reviews of Outliers and Blink.

For me, there was, however, one important takeaway from this book. I find that since I’ve graduated and begun working full-time, I sometimes feel complacent, and too caught up in my own rhythm and routine to consider change. In David and Goliath, Gladwell argues that those who dare to disagree with society’s rules – those who dare to lie, to cheat, and to argue with their colleagues over work they feel passionate about – often end up making new discoveries, creating timeless art, and even saving lives. It’s not a new lesson for me, but one that I needed to be reminded of. If you’re feeling in need of some inspiration, this may be the book for you.

YES OR NO?: I feel lukewarm about this book. In all honesty, if you’re familiar with Gladwell’s previous work, that would probably determine whether or not you enjoy David and Goliath. I ended up reading most of this in a two-hour session, which I think was information overload. I’d recommend taking this on a trip so the individual anecdotes have time to make some impact.

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What I read in 2016, and what I hope to read in 2017

Another year, another year-end post! Or year-start post, I guess, with my late timing…but in the midst of various celebrations (including wading into the ice-cold Pacific on New Year’s Day), I couldn’t find time to sit down and hammer out this post until tonight. All in all, 2016 was an eventful year. I worked, moved out of my parents’ house (although they thankfully still keep my fridge well-stocked), traveled, and, of course, found time to read.

In my wrap-up post for 2015, I mentioned that I’d like to read more works by female authors. Well, I’m happy to see that I did just that! 15 out of my 35 books were written by women. Still not quite halfway, but an improvement over last year. I also read five more books than last year, so all in all I’m quite pleased with the reading I accomplished this year. Below are listed all the books I read:

  1. AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  2. Modern RomanceAziz Ansari
  3. The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood
  4. Wild SeedOctavia Butler
  5. Ready Player OneErnest Cline
  6. All Families Are PsychoticDouglas Coupland
  7. Hey NostradamusDouglas Coupland
  8. The Red TentAnita Diamant
  9. Geek LoveKatherine Dunn
  10. Tender Is the NightF. Scott Fitzgerald
  11. CoralineNeil Gaiman
  12. Carol, Patricia Highsmith
  13. The Remains of the DayKazuo Ishiguro
  14. Black Flower, Young-Ha Kim
  15. Christine, Stephen King
  16. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
  17. China Rich GirlfriendKevin Kwan
  18. Crazy Rich AsiansKevin Kwan
  19. The NamesakeJhumpa Lahiri
  20. The Journalist and the MurdererJanet Malcolm
  21. Dance Dance DanceHaruki Murakami
  22. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the WorldHaruki Murakami
  23. Kafka on the ShoreHaruki Murakami
  24. South of the Border, West of the Sun, Haruki Murakami
  25. A Tale for the Time BeingRuth Ozeki
  26. DamnedChuck Palahniuk
  27. Mouse Guard: Fall 1152David Petersen
  28. PushSapphire
  29. Child 44Tom Rob Smith
  30. On BeautyZadie Smith
  31. The Grapes of WrathJohn Steinbeck
  32. My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
  33. The GoldfinchDonna Tartt
  34. The Accidental TouristAnne Tyler
  35. Tipping the VelvetSarah Waters

Out of the books above, it’s hard to designate a single favorite. I would have to make it a tie between The Remains of the Day, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Kafka on the Shore. Stereotypical choices, I know, but these books lived up to their lofty reputations. On a related note, I’m sad that I now only have two more Murakami novels to read – although there’s supposedly a new one coming this year, so I’ll definitely have something to look forward to.

This year, I found myself visiting the library once again, although I still relied on my Kindle, especially when traveling. I found discovering new books and authors much easier at the library than on Amazon or whatnot: I simply could reach forward and grab a book when I found its title or spine intriguing. When browsing online, I find I’m too preoccupied with whether I’ve heard of the author, what the reviews of the book are like, and so on. More discerning and less organic. While my list from this year is peppered with new authors, there are still many authors whose works I’d already read before. My goal next year is to read more works by authors I haven’t yet experienced – to have at least 50% of my reading be by new authors, and of course, to read more books than I did the previous year. January is always an ambitious time for goal-setting, though, so let’s see if I stick with it.

Happy New Year, and hope your 2017 is filled with lots of reading!

Journaling with Evernote and why I switched from writing on paper

My dad has a childhood friend who we visit when we return to Korea. My dad is a fairly picky and critical person, and this friend is one of the few people I’ve never heard him criticize before. He lives outside Seoul in a smaller city, and the last time I visited, he showed me a thick volume of The Chronicles of Narnia in English, which he’d painstakingly marked with post-its in an attempt to better his English. I was impressed. Fantasy is difficult to understand even for native speakers.

What also impressed me was his journal. Maybe I should call it a log, since the journal is limited to about a sentence a day, with which he summarizes whatever noteworthy thing happened that day. The last time I visited, he pulled out a journal from several years before to see what we’d eaten for dinner the last time we were all together (it was duck).

I’ve always believed in the importance of keeping an account of my days. I’ve kept a paper journal for close to ten years now, and I have a drawer overflowing with various notebooks. When I look back at the entries from high school, carefully crafted in purple ink, detailing trivial conversations and happenings, it brings back some memories, although admittedly faded ones.

I’ve continued to write a journal to this day, but lately, I noticed that my logs were becoming infrequent. And when I did write entries, I tended to put in a minimal amount of effort, only putting down the bare skeleton of what I’d done that day, rather than recording my thoughts or feelings. Sometimes weeks would go by between entries, especially if I was busy with school and work.

And the reason is that I hate writing by hand, as blasphemous as that may be to say. I find it tedious, it hurts my hand, and I hold my pen in a position that smears ink onto the underside of my pinky. And because I hate writing by hand, this led to me dreading the act of writing and eventually writing shorter entries, to just get it over with.

So eventually I switched to writing my journal entries in Evernote. If you haven’t heard of Evernote, it might be difficult to understand what it is, because Evernote’s own descriptions of their product can be a bit vague. Basically, you can use Evernote to organize your thoughts in writing, photos, links, and whatever other content you find. I use it for the bare minimum: creating one notebook for each year, and writing one note for each day.

I was initially hesitant on moving to a digital format for my journal. As much as I dislike writing by hand, I still feel like handwriting has a more personal feeling than typing does. However, here are the benefits I’ve discovered to using Evernote:

  • I type much faster than I write, and this simply leads me to writing more. While my hand often struggles to keep up with my thoughts, I find that typing leads me to recording more of my thoughts.
  • Evernote is cross-platform! I mainly use the web app because my laptop is very old and I doubt I could install anything onto it at this point. The web app is clean and fine for what I need to do. I also have the Android app on my phone, where I can quickly glance at information if I need to.
  • You can upload pretty much anything onto Evernote. I can add photos, links, and whatever else to illustrate my day, with a minimal amount of effort.
  • And although I haven’t used this function, you can also create to-do lists in Evernote. I mainly rely on any.do for my task management needs, but it seems handy to have everything in one place!

It felt like somewhat of a betrayal when I dropped my piles of handwritten journals to switch to Evernote, but it’s been a great experience so far that I would recommend to anyone. How do you like to journal?

Getting back into writing

Since I was a little girl, I loved to write. I crafted little fictions about my stuffed animals, my classmates, and sometimes fantastical worlds that I dreamed up. And as any aspiring writer should, I loved to read.

Now, I’m lucky enough to have a job where I get paid to write. Sure, it’s not the novels I dreamed of writing as a child. I work in technical writing and marketing for a software company, so instead I write how-to articles, corporate blog posts, and website content. I spend most of my time thinking about the nature of words, how to clearly and concisely explain concepts to strangers, and I read a lot of articles on Medium about startups, Silicon Valley, and content strategy.

The trouble is that I’ve neglected this blog for over a month. I told myself that I was busy, but I wasn’t busy. I was lazy. This blog is mostly a book review blog, and I’d slogged through One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the past three weeks, not because it is a bad book by any means, but because I was being lazy. And today I actually sat down, intending to write about the book, but I found I didn’t have much to say about it, or no insights that I thought worthy enough to share.

So I’ve been in a slump, you could say. One of my own choosing. But the other day, I ran into this quote by one of my favourite authors, Haruki Murakami:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

I could say that it’s difficult to find time to write, which it is. But the truth is that I simply need to make it part of my routine, until it becomes engrained within me. Obviously I can’t follow the same routine as Murakami, but setting time aside each day to write and recognizing that writing is a time-consuming, laborious act is obviously key.

A few years ago, one of my friends told me, “You can always make time.” In other words, being busy should never be an excuse. And, to be honest, if I really scrutinize my schedule, I’ll see that I’m not very busy at all. I can always cut down on the time I spend on Facebook, or Reddit, or whatever other time waster I like to indulge in.

Even if I have to wake up an hour earlier each day (which would put me at a god-awful 5 AM), I promise to put aside time to write each day, to contribute thoughts that will eventually result in a weekly blog post. Because writing is important, and as much as I love technical writing (and I do actually love it), sometimes I need to write my own words about my own thoughts.

The hardest part of writing

I have a deal with myself that I’ll write a new post for this blog on a weekly basis. In general, I find that I have the time for it. I’ll set aside a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, which is usually the time I lounge around in my SpongeBob PJs to paint my nails while watching YouTube videos. I sit in front of my five-year-old, rapidly overheating MacBook Pro, usually to write a summary of my thoughts about whatever book I just finished reading.

Some weeks, though, I haven’t finished reading a book, which is the case with this week. I’m currently reading East of Eden, and barely a quarter of the way through. I’ve never read Steinbeck before, and although sometimes I force myself to rush through books so I can have fodder for a blog post, I’ve been taking it slow with Eden.

So today when I sat in front of my computer, I started writing a few blog posts that I’d planned for a while, on topics I have plenty of thoughts about: my experiences tutoring English to high school students, working as a technical writer at a software company, and the stigma I’ve faced as an English major. I began writing a few hundred words for each post, and then my thoughts dribbled away.

What was the problem? I’ve been writing little fictions my whole life, and I currently write as my profession (among other things). The point is that I couldn’t make things “sound good”. I lacked flow.

I’ve encountered writer’s block in many different settings: when writing an end of term paper on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, when crafting content for a company website, and even when writing simple instructions on how to create a graph. The weird thing is that often, I know what needs to be said and what points I want to make. I’d have a whole outline arranged neatly beside me, as countless English teachers had taught me. But arranging the words and sentences in a proper format that flows and makes sense is often the hardest part.

I tutored a high school student in writing essays for about six months. My student was undoubtedly a bright kid, probably a lot smarter than me when I was his age. I assigned him to read several short stories and poems for our sessions. Although he struggled with the poems a bit, especially ones with more archaic language, I found that he was usually able to extract meaning from the works assigned, but putting his thoughts down on paper was the hard part. Or, actually, making his thoughts “sound good”, as he put it himself. By the end of our six months, his writing improved greatly, with a more focused structure and improved flow, but it was still somewhat difficult.

As a tutor, I could teach grammar, definitions, brainstorming strategies, and essay structure. But flow, “making things sound good”, was almost unteachable. The closest I got was teaching how to write effective transitions in between paragraphs. But the point remains that flow is unteachable. It comes down to the old cliche: that to be a good writer, you have to read. A lot. But it goes beyond that.

Being able to write well comes from exposing yourself to all types of language, both written and spoken. I used to read novels almost exclusively, but after forcing myself to read short stories, articles, and blog posts, sometimes about topics where I’d had no prior interest, I expanded not only my vocabulary but my appreciation for language.

This extends to not just written language. I’ve gathered inspiration from overheard snippets on public transit, characters on TV shows, and music. The most memorable lines I’ve read this year are not from the classics I’ve read, but from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.

You might think it has to do with the way the words are spoken or performed, but simply reading the lyrics online led me to think about certain things in a different way. As any good words should, they inspired me with not only their content but the way they were put together – their flow. Which I guess is not a surprise for rap music.

Soft Peaks and food blogging in Vancouver

At the beginning of February, I received an invitation from Soft Peaks, an ice cream shop in Vancouver’s Gastown, cordially offering complimentary ice cream for me and a friend. If you’re from Vancouver and you’re at all active on social media, you must be aware of Soft Peaks. My Instagram and Facebook feeds have been clogged with photos of Soft Peaks’s organic milk creations, topped with luxurious toppings, and it’s been impossible to avoid when skimming food blogs (of which there are literally hundreds in Vancouver), which is how I torture myself when I have a hankering for a midnight snack.

So why did I receive this invitation? Was Soft Peaks being generous to random Vancouverites, spreading goodwill in the form of cups of refreshing treats? Actually, no. I used to write one of the hundreds of food blogs that I just mentioned, although I haven’t been active for more than a year.

I used to love food blogging. It gave me a creative outlet when my day job mostly consisted of writing fairly formulaic web articles. It also was a nice way for me to look back on meals I’d had, and, in the case of my travel posts, relive my travels a little.

But for some reason, I stopped enjoying it. There were a few reasons for this.

For one thing, I found I was in a rut. I focused on writing interesting preambles and conclusions, but my actual descriptions of the food I consumed seemed stale. I resorted to using the same analogies over and over again, and for the life of me, I couldn’t come up with so many ways to describe a negitoro roll.

There are many food blogs in Vancouver, many with excellent photos that show the food up close, making their readers’ mouths water with envy by exhibiting that perfect medium rare steak, that sweetly rounded scoop of salted caramel of Earnest Ice Cream, those perfectly seared pieces of aburi nigiri. I had a decent DSLR and I was capable of taking decent photos of my food, but I wanted my blog to be more about pictures. I wanted it to be about words.

Food blogging stopped being creative for me. I found I was going to restaurants simply based on what was trendy, and I wasn’t being adventurous in trying out new places based on my own volition. Vancouver, with its huge community of food bloggers, made me less confident that I could offer up something unique for potential readers.

With this blog, I hoped to be more creative, by writing about a topic I’ve always been enthusiastic about–books–while occasionally writing other posts as they occurred to me. Recently I’ve realized that reviewing books can have the same caveats as reviewing restaurants, and that I need to be more creative and motivated about producing content, which is my goal for future posts.

Oh, and going back to the ice cream at Soft Peaks–it’s delicious. I had the rocky mountain with caramel syrup, and my snacking companion had the Mudslide. It reminded me of soft serve I had in Myungdong on my latest trip back to Seoul. Perfect for a hot summer day, or even a chilly February afternoon. Sometimes there’s a reason that places become trendy, other than the pure aesthetics (ie. Instagrammability) of their food.