2018 reading list

By my count, I read 59 books in 2018 (19 new comics / zines / kids’ books, 37 new prose books, and 3 rereads from past years).

I started the year with a bunch of audiobooks via public library apps, mostly because I was battling motion sickness on long commutes and couldn’t read visually. Then I picked up a few books during an overseas trip about local politics, culture, and history, which deepened my travel experience so much that I don’t think I’d travel again without carving out time for books. I also tackled my first structured reading challenge in a long time (or ever?) and while I didn’t finish every item, I made good progress.

All of these things pushed me out of my comfort zone, which is mostly memoirs, comics, and comic book memoirs. That said, I still read plenty of the above. Here are a few of the books that stood out to me in 2018:

Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card by Sara Saedi: An engaging and heartfelt memoir about growing up in the US in an undocumented immigrant family. The author addresses her family’s cultural differences and the fear that comes with being stuck in legal limbo, but the book isn’t a primer on those subjects, it’s a personal story of her life, with plenty of anecdotes about crushes on boys and embarrassment over acne.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond: This is one of the most important and well-researched books I’ve ever read. It’s also gut-wrenching, particularly in the way it complicates the standard liberal and conservative narratives about poverty in the US. I’ve come away from the book secure in my prior conviction that stable housing is a prerequisite for lifting people out of poverty. However, I feel much more despair than I did before about whether providing housing is sufficient; so many of the stories show people in need of supportive housing and other more intensive interventions than I think the US will ever be willing to fund.

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw: I really, really love this saga of the interconnected lives of Malaysian Chinese living in Shanghai. It’s a melancholy novel about aspirational people in a wildly mixed, sometimes impersonal place. It’s approximately the kind of story that would have been told in New York about Midwesterners a century earlier, but since it’s written by someone who grew up in Malaysia, the characters’ names, tastes, and backgrounds all have a distinctive local flair.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang: This is a really sweet story about a prince who likes to wear dresses and the talented dressmaker he hires to clothe him discreetly. It’s beautifully written and illustrated, and the characters are real enough that I ache for them whenever there are setbacks. (I liked this so much that I read it twice! I also read The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Magical Story three times.)

Yes, You Are Trans Enough: My Transition from Self-Loathing to Self-Love by Mia Violet: This might be my new favorite book about gender. Mia Violet writes an incredibly engaging narrative, weaving together her own life story and basic information about transition to create an educational memoir. I love the overall message that trans people are the experts on their own experiences.


This is a recap of my personal experiences with Repetitive Stress Injuries, mostly for my own reference. I have no medical training and no business telling other people what kind of care they should seek.

The short version is that I wish I’d taken my pain seriously, written down my symptoms, and sought medical attention sooner. I’m now working with a physical therapist and experiencing some short term relief with credible hopes of a full recovery in a few months. I used the NHS website to figure out how to choose an appropriate provider. The solution is specialized physical therapy exercises (and strength training for longer term protection).

I’ve been glued to a computer since I was 11 years old and playing video games longer than that. I’ve always had sloppy posture, and sometimes a long run of browsing the internet while sprawled sideways in a chair would give me an ache in my mousing arm. I would sit up straight and switch hands if possible. The pain eased up on its own and I forgot about it until it happened again.

Even after I started working at a desk full time, I didn’t have persistent problems. Aside from remapping caps lock to control, I didn’t make any ergonomic adjustments. I figured that those things just didn’t apply to me. And then a year or two ago, the pain returned, and instead of fading away, it intensified over time. I kept telling myself that all I needed to do was rest and double down on my posture, since it had always worked before. I looked up instructions on how to precisely adjust my desk height, chair height, etc, and I stopped using apps on my phone that put pressure on specific areas.

While it did occur to me to seek out medical attention, I was scared for two reasons. My main concern was that finding a specialist meant finding a provider I could trust to recommend only evidence-based medicine and not weird mystical nonsense. I was also worried that treatment would end up being more aggressive than necessary — I have a relative who sought treatment for similar RSI pain and was convinced to immediately undergo surgery that reduced her range of motion.

The incident that finally spurred me into action was attempting to play Super Mario Party with a group of friends. The mini game that was randomly selected for our ninth round involved holding the Joy-Con horizontally (grasping one end with each hand) and flexing the wrists sideways as though the Joy-Con were being flipped up and down, or fanned. I’m at a loss for how to describe it and I’m not even sure I’m remembering the gesture correctly. What I do know is that my hands and wrists were filled with an intense ache that lasted for the next two hours and made it hard to even grasp things. The next week, I started my research in earnest.

As I noted earlier, I wanted to focus on evidence-based medicine. I know that scientific discovery is an ongoing process and that we don’t know everything yet, but I’m not going to throw away the things that we do know. It was important to me to at least try the most reliable thing first. I started by looking for research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but I realized that even if I could read and fully understand what a given article said (not necessarily true), I didn’t know how to ensure I was reading the best, most representative articles. I found a much more helpful layperson’s reference in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).

The NHS page on RSI described my situation exactly: repetitive activities with poor posture that results in aching, tingling, and weakness. I was already taking steps to modify my tasks and reduce my activity, and my pain wasn’t severe enough that I needed to relieve symptoms before trying to fix the root cause, so I skipped over their first few lines of treatment and landed on this: “You may also be referred to a physiotherapist for advice on posture and how to strengthen or relax your muscles.” (A subsequent line does suggest osteopathy, and the full page on osteopathy provides the exact kinds of caveats I’d want to hear when making my decision: it’s recommended for back pain and there’s limited evidence for certain other kinds of pain, but there is no evidence that it can address things unrelated to bones and muscles.)

I searched for physical therapists in San Francisco and got overwhelmed by reading reviews and trying to figure out which providers were in-network for me. I finally broke through my indecision when I realized that patients are expected to attend one or two sessions every week for multiple months. That night, I sent a message to my primary care physician to ask for a referral to a place that was three minutes’ walk from my front door.

My physical therapist examined me closely, talked over my symptoms in detail, and affirmed my reports of pain when we couldn’t isolate them with her tests. She talked over my recovery goals and she didn’t laugh when I said that I just wanted to live my life normally, which includes being able to play some occasional video games without debilitating pain. She listened to my concerns when she suggested a practice (cupping) that I found sketchy, took the time to talk about the evidence, and didn’t try to convince me to do it when I still didn’t want to. Our weekly sessions focus on my pain journal (what I was doing and which areas hurt, e.g., “After a lot of typing on my phone, the underside of both forearms are sore”) and she translates those reports into a custom exercise routine.

My physical therapist confirmed that I have some amount of hypermobility, including in my fingers, wrists, and shoulders / back, which makes me particularly vulnerable to this kind of overuse injury. We don’t know for sure why my injuries are worse this time when they always went away on their own before (I personally blame phones getting heavier and a PopSocket distorting my posture when I tried it for a few weeks), but we do know the most reliable way to address it: improving muscle strength to protect joints. I’m advised to avoid heavy things for now, especially anything that emphasizes grip strength, but my long term plan is to take up weight lifting again for the fourth or fifth time. Maybe now that I have a very serious incentive, it’ll actually stick this time.

Packing lists

I usually travel about 5 times a year, which is often enough to get annoyed by inefficiencies but not enough to be really good at fixing them. Earlier this year, I finally decided to upgrade my bag in hopes of making things go more smoothly. While doing my research, I came across the One Bag philosophy and became obsessed with the idea of a packing list.

While I still don’t want to restrict myself to a single bag or commit to a permanent packing list, I really liked the idea of writing out one’s inventory in detail. So for my last five trips (New York, Seattle, Sunnyvale, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh), I wrote out everything I intended to bring on index cards: one for clothing, one for electronics, and one for everything else.

I’ve noticed a number of surprising things from doing this exercise on paper:

  • I procrastinate less. For some reason, it’s hard to open my suitcase and start putting things into it, but it’s easy to pick up a pen and start writing, even though it’s the same decision-making process.
  • I’m less stressed out. Putting things into words, especially on paper, feels like getting to use a “second brain,” which frees up (most of) my regular brain to focus on the next task at hand.
  • I forget fewer things. When I make my packing list and then go off to do something else, my brain keeps thinking about it in the background, which gives me more time to realize that I had omitted something and fix the problem before I actually head to the airport or train station.
  • I can still fit everything. Since a paper list doesn’t make it obvious how much a suitcase holds or how big an object is, I thought that I might get carried away. That hasn’t been a problem, even on a trip as long as two weeks without doing laundry.
  • I learn from my mistakes. When I unpack my suitcase at the end of a trip, I take out my notecards and annotate it to remind myself about things I didn’t end up using. Since I look at my old notecards when writing my next list, this helps me adjust my habits over time.

Planning tools

New Year’s Day, one of my favorite holidays, is coming up soon! I don’t really do resolutions, but I find it a useful day off from routines to check in on how life is going.
Here are a few planning-related things I’ve liked in the past few years:

Get Bullish: Design Your 2019

I’ve been filling out this worksheet since 2014. I usually do this in October or November, closer to when it’s published, but New Year’s is good timing too. The paper worksheet format is great for not getting distracted by the internet on your phone or computer. My favorite thing about it is that it encourages you to think about what you want to stop doing.

Book Riot: Read Harder 2019

I attempted this reading challenge for the first time in 2018 (challenge list, my reviews). It gives you a list of non-traditional categories like “A one-sitting book” and “A book with a cover you hate” and you try to read at least one book in each category during the year. I didn’t complete the challenge and I definitely didn’t like every book I read for it, but I appreciated how it pushed me out of my comfort zone of comic books and memoirs. The sponsorship by Libby was also nice because it reminded me of how much I love getting Overdrive books from my public library.

Ink+Volt: 2019 Planner

I use the academic year version of this planner, so I’m halfway through my second year of using Ink + Volt. I rely on digital tools like Gmail and Google Calendar for all of my actual day-to-day planning because I need the ability to change days / times easily and attach contextual information. So even though I call this my planner, I use the weekly view entirely in retrospect, as a tool for noting what I did this week. I use highlighter markers to color-code my events so that I can tell at a glance that “I spent a lot of time with friends this week” or “I haven’t done any activist or volunteer work in a while.”