24 Feb 2018
The best books I read in 2017
This is the latest I’ve ever put out my best-books-of-the-year post! Sorry for the delay, folks. But I think the books I’m recommending here are worth the wait.
Books I loved reading in 2017 that portrayed a very real NYC
- New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson - This is exactly what I needed - really captures the spirit of my hometown, kinda financy, dealing with climate change head on, but offering a view of a possible future where my beloved city survives despite dramatic flooding and the rise of the midtown intertidal zone.
- A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky - A gorgeous urban fantasy novel that takes place in a very real NYC. Highly recommend to all New Yorkers who love this filthy mess we live in.
- The City Born Great by N.K. Jemisin - Lovely novella about cities as entities in themselves.
- Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older - My favorite book of his so far! Very accurate NYC, poc protagonists, white villains, magic with history, healthy queer relationship, lots of great stuff going on in here.
- Giving Good Weight by John McPhee - Some great essays! I loved the NYC greenmarkets one best, of course.
Books I loved reading in 2017 that focused on grandparents
- My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrick Backman - Broke my heart into a zillion little pieces, and it was worth it.
- A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman - The protagonist is sort of like an older, grumpier Dave. (Dave saw himself in the character when he read it too, without any priming! Also I like his description of this one as grandfather fanfic and the other one as grandmother fanfic.) Just beautiful.
- The Property by Rutu Modan - A graphic novel about a Holocaust survivor who returns to Poland to retrieve her old real estate. Hit home for me, of course. (My survivor grandmother had very strong feelings about the house in Hungary that was stolen from her.)
Books I loved reading in 2017 that focused on siblings or sibling-like friends
- Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See - Incredible novel about two girls in 19th century China, in a small Hunan village, who grow up close like sisters. Visceral descriptions of foot-binding, isolation, failures of communication, and speaking past each other. The sort of novel that made me think hard about relationship troubles I’ve had in my own life and the difficulty of really seeing where people are coming from and meeting them where they are.
- Shanghai Girls by Lisa See - Two sisters in Shanghai in the 1930’s. Sort of flapper-feeling. Their father tells them they’re poor and he has to sell them as brides. They get out of it, then escape towards their husbands when the Japanese bomb Shanghai. Fascinating look at what immigration to California was like, and the relationship between the sisters is difficult and intense and feels very real.
- The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante - These books are so overhyped, I expected to not be into them, but the depictions of personal growth and complicated friendships across different means and perspectives really are great. I don’t remember which book in particular, but there was some excellent stuff about adolescent difficulties with friends you maybe felt threatened by or maybe better than or maybe both.
- I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson - Gorgeous, gorgeous novel about twins and the love and resentment between them, queerness and love and complicated romantic relationships, art and relationships with oneself and with one’s art.
Books I loved reading in 2017 that related to gender, race, and class
- The Power by Naomi Alderman - I needed this like water. The ending is a bit weak, but the descriptions of various women’s dawning realization that they’re now the more physically dangerous ones, yes yes yes.
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee - Fantastic novel about a family of Korean immigrants living in Japan. Totally different set of racial tensions than I’m used to.
- And I Darken by Kiersten White - YA. I loved having a protagonist who was unapologetically aware that she was ugly but unbothered by it, who was cruel sometimes but not purely evil or purely good, who got mired in politics over her head.
- Uprooted by Naomi Novik - At a glance it looks like a standard fantasy novel, dragon comes and steals a girl, but it’s largely about a girl growing into an adult woman and how she approaches magic and her world, how it can be great without being the same as what the more experienced men tell her it should be.
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi - Novel about two half-sisters born in Ghana, one sold into slavery, one married off to a slaver. Follows the impact down through the generations of their descendants. A very familiar sense to me, of what it means when family history is lost. I’d never even really considered the other side of that before, what it could be like if it had been retained.
- Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue - Story of a Cameroonian couple in NYC, trying to make ends meet and deal with the legal immigration system, their life entangled with the husband’s employer’s finance career right before and during the 2008 financial crisis.
- Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly - It’s almost boring to recommend this, after the movie was such a hit with everyone I know. Book really was great too, though.
Other books I loved reading in 2017 that touched strongly on themes of abuse
- The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin - The last book of her mindblowingly spectacular The Broken Earth trilogy. All the trigger warnings, all the feels, and the strongest of recommendations. To me, these books are about family and generational trauma and systemic trauma, how we hurt each other and how we survive each other. Oh, and they’re great fantasy novels with an interesting world. This book is the rare example of a trilogy that ends as strongly as it began.
- The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson - Gutwrenchingly good fantasy novel. Themes of colonialism and complicity.
- The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins - Really vivid horrifying stuff, in a fantasy novel that reads like literature and was anything but light. Abuse, family, power, and plotting for change.
- The Dagger and the Coin series by Daniel Abraham - A fantasy novel series where one of the protagonists is a young female banker! Turns out of my favorite genres is something I could frame as economic/financial speculative fiction. The series also gets into some horrifyingly realistic themes of dealing with a “nice guy” who thinks he deserves you but is also a monster. I loved all 5 books in this series, but as seems to be my pattern with Daniel Abraham, I think the second was my favorite.
- A Leaf in the Bitter Wind by Ting-Xing Ye - Vivid, painful memoir of the cultural revolution.
Other intense fiction I loved reading in 2017
- Unsong by Scott Alexander - I was pretty much the target audience for this, a rationalist novel about morality and halacha. But it has some really troubling problematic aspects, too - eg all of Mexico is made of drugs. I have a lot of complicated feelings about this, but it’s definitely worth the read.
- An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King - I picked this up by sheer luck at the bookstore, and it was great! Explores a China where as a repercussion of selecting for males, they have too many, so they end up with policies permitting women to have multiple husbands and strict laws against homosexuality. I love explorations of alternative family configurations!
- On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis - Immediately post-apocalyptic story of survival with an autistic woc hero and her complicated relationships.
- The Last One by Alexandra Oliva - A plague hits and wipes out most of the population while a survivalist reality show is being filmed. The contestants don’t all realize it’s not all part of the game.
- Six Months, Three Days, Five Others by Charlie Jane Anders - The title story is one of my favorite short stories of all time. You can also read it online here.
Other light fiction I loved reading in 2017
- Flora Mackintosh and the Hungarian Affair by Anna Reader - A sophisticated schoolgirl’s adventure. Sort of a classic romp, but now with Hungarians so of course it’s great.
- Oglaf compilations by Trudy Cooper and Doug Bayne - These were a reread of compilations of one of my favorite filthy webcomics (NSFW).
- git commit murder by Michael Warren Lucas - Super cute nerd mystery. Reminded me of Bimbos of the Death Sun (an old murder mystery set in a scifi convention).
Other non-fiction I loved reading in 2017
- Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee - Finally, a book about crafting structure from the master! Relevant articles: The Mind of John McPhee: A deeply private writer reveals his obsessive process; Assembling the written word: McPhee reveals how the pieces go together; How Rebecca Skloot Built The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
- Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash by Edward Humes - Interesting stories. Inspired me to start carrying around a handerkerchief instead of disposable tissues.
- The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street by John Steele Gordon - Not a woman but a railroad company. Fascinating history.
Total number of books read in 2017: 158
05 Jan 2017
The best books I read in 2016
I read a lot of amazing books this year, but looking back it seems that most of them were very dark and emotionally difficult. I recommend them nonetheless. (Actually, I read so many good books last year that this list doesn’t contain all of them! I had to trim it down to the best of the best to keep it manageably short.)
In 2016, I discovered Will McIntosh…
- Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh - McIntosh takes an absurd premise (“bridesicles” - pretty young women who die get cryogenically frozen and woken up for short “dates” where they try to seduce creepy old guys into paying for their bodies to be repaired so they can “marry” them) and manages to turn it into a really thoughtful, interesting, totally brilliant novel.
- Defenders by Will McIntosh - Again, a kind of ridiculous premise from which he manages to extract a really thoughtful, interesting, human novel. Complete with mind-reading aliens and genetic engineering. But mostly humanity. When scifi is done right it’s always a portrait of today, and he does it right.
- Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh - Fucked me up but good. I shouldn’t have read this right after the election - it’s a nightmare of a modern apocalypse tale. I kind of loved it, kind of regret having read it. Hit me right in the sweet spot of horror and disgust and terror. Just some bad timing.
…and N.K. Jemisin
- The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin - The best book I read all year. Shattering, heartbreaking, incredible. All the trigger warnings. Many of my friends who have kids have said they couldn’t bear to read this book. But if you can, I strongly recommend that you do. It will hurt. It will be worth it.
- The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin - Sequal to The Fifth Season. God these books rip me up inside. These are the must-reads of the year.
- The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin - She’s getting very good at building interesting cultures and belief systems! This was not as good as the above two, but still really great. It’s sequel was also good, but somewhat less so, and this one can stand alone.
Other fiction I loved reading in 2016 that focused on slavery
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead - Made me want to throw up in the right ways. Fantastical (what if it literally was a railroad underground?) without being silly.
- Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters - Alternate history where slavery is still legal in 4 states, and our protagonist is a black man who helps hunt down escaped slaves.
- Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdex - A novel about enslaved black women who go on a disturbingly-portrayed-as-quasi-romantic retreat every summer with the men who have enslaved them, and the deterrents to attempted escape.
Books I loved reading in 2016 that related to finance and/or economics
- Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears - A financial murder mystery, as delightfully thorough and intricate as Pears tends to be.
- Red Plenty by Francis Spufford - This was a great read, I just wish it was written by someone with more clue about reality. Taken as a novel, though, I enjoyed reading the tale of the attempt of creating a planned economy.
- The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis - This is probably old news to most of you, but I only just saw the movie and read the book fairly recently. The story of what went wrong with mortgage-backed securities, really engagingly told.
- When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-term Capital Management by Roger Lowenstein - I love reading post-mortems. You learn so much from them.
- Who Gets What - and Why by Alvin E. Roth - Really cool exploration of marketplace and auction theory!
Other fiction I loved reading in 2016
- The Instructions by Adam Levin - A juvenile delinquent Yeshivah kid who might be the moshiach. So nostalgic!
- Hush by Eishes Chayil (aka Judy Brown) - A novel of child abuse in the Chasidic community in Brooklyn. Hit horrifically close to home.
- The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa - An amnesiac mathematician; a housekeeper and her son who discover a love of learning math.
- The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson - Controlling, fucked up parents more in love with their art than their children, hilarious and sad, siblings trying to recover and be there for each other and get by.
- Seveneves by Neal Stephenson - My favorite Stephenson in ages! Though the first 2/3 felt like a totally different book than the last bit, and way better. If you stop reading at that point you’ll probably be happiest.
- The Lightning-Struck Heart by TJ Klune - omgomgomg hilarious gay romance with adhd and a unicorn and this is totally this year’s I-probably-shouldn’t-publicly-admit-to-having-read-this-but-it’s-just-that-good winner.
- Caucasia by Danzy Senna - Two sisters, one who looks more black, one who looks more white, and the differences in their lives.
- Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison - “She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it’s there, because it cant hurt, and because what difference does it make?”
Books that taught me how to do something (or do it better!) in 2016
- Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It by Gabriel Wyner - Fantastically helpful and exactly what I needed as I started learning Hungarian at last! Focus on the sounds, the music, the visuals, avoid translating word for word. His companion website has been really useful, too.
- 5-Minute Sketching: Architecture: Super-quick Techniques for Amazing Drawings by Liz Steel - Yay, useful tips!
- Sketching People: an urban sketcher’s manual to drawing figures and faces by Lynne Chapman - Useful, but even moreso, so pretty!
- Small Unit Leadership: A Commonsense Approach by Col. Dandridge M. Malone, U.S.A. (Ret.) - Useful when thinking about management, team leadership, and dealing with people generally.
- Real World OCaml: Functional Programming for the Masses by Yaron Minsky, Anil Madhavapeddy, & Jason Hickey - I learned so many things! Good thing, since now I program in OCaml professionally. ~.^
- The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play by Neil Fiore - The lesson here was largely about actively deciding either to do $thing, or deciding not to, but not letting yourself just passively feel forced into it (and thus end up avoiding it). This indirectly led to me experimenting with a minimal bullet journal (-ish) system, which I’ve found extremely helpful at work.
Non-fiction I loved reading in 2016 that related to race, gender, and/or class
- What Works: Gender Equality by Design by Iris Bohnet - Practical advice and overviews of some relevant research. If you want to increase gender diversity but are not sure how, this book has concrete suggestions on what to experiment with.
- Pedigree: how elite students get elite jobs by Lauren A. Rivera - This should be required reading freshman year of high school.
- Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond - Reading this while thinking about maybe trying to buy property with a second apartment to rent out was very weird and disturbing.
- Battle for Bed-Stuy: The Long War on Poverty in New York City by Michael Woodsworth - I wish I could’ve voted for Shirley Chisholm.
- The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates - There’s nothing I can say about this that you haven’t heard before.
- The Greatest: My Own Story by Muhammed Ali - I loved this and I loved him. He wouldn’t have given a flying fuck about me, and that’s just fine.
Other non-fiction I loved reading in 2016
- The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships by Neil Strauss - By the guy who wrote The Game! What a strange fascinating memoir. It was such a weird feeling, to find myself agreeing with so much that Neil Strauss wrote here.
- Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande - On our fucked up elder care system. Not my favorite of his books, but the one I needed to read last year. Apparently if you give old people pets they live longer!
Books I loved re-reading in 2016
- The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt - Apparently I’m re-reading this every year now? Yeah, okay. That seems about right.
- Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney - Still my favorite of his books.
Total number of censored favorites not appearing in this post: 5
Total number of books read in 2016: 152
30 Jun 2016
Sketches from Chiang Mai
As I was saying, I spent about 3 weeks alone in Chiang Mai, Thailand last December. I just posted my sketches from the previous week in Singapore, and now here are the Thailand sketches! Honestly they’re mostly a bunch of wats.
29 Jun 2016
Sketches from Singapore
I went traveling alone last December, spending about a week in Singapore followed by three weeks in Chiang Mai, Thailand. (And then Dave met up with me for a week and a half in Taiwan at the end, but I didn’t do much sketching there since I was with him.)
I tweeted my sketches as I went, but since it was such a fantastic trip I really wanted to gather my favorites together in one place here as well. (I’ll post my Thailand sketches separately, soon!)
20 Jan 2016
The best books I read in 2015
Fiction I loved reading in 2015 that related to gender, race, and class
- This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park - Heartbreaking, amazing, gorgeous. A woman in South Korea who marries wrong and what that means for her freedom and her life.
- The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber - A prostitute who tries to get out by becoming the live-in mistress and nanny for a rich guy. Class issues, where book smarts are not enough.
- The Beacon at Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw - Roman girl wants to be a doctor, so she disguises herself as a boy and apprentices herself to a Jew. Such Alanna wow &c!
- Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer - Packed full of spectacular stories!
- A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski - A planet of women near a co-ed planet. Politics, gender, nifty scifi.
- Carnival by Elizabeth Bear - A matriarchal world where “stud” males (as opposed to gay “gentle” males) have very few rights, a gay male couple as ambassadors from a world more like ours but with many issues of its own, and of course alien life forms. I swear this is not porn. Honest to gosh. The thing I really loved about this one was that there were complicated ethical issues with all represented worlds.
Non-fiction I loved reading in 2015 that related to gender, race, and class
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander - You basically have to read this to understand our criminal justice system. It’s fucked up and horrible and real. A perfect companion piece to Torture & Democracy, which you should also read.
- Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with (ghostwriter) Erin Torneo - A white woman and the black man she (unintentionally) falsely accused of rape, their separate stories, and the way they met and became friends when they finally did the fucking DNA testing and got him out of prison many years later.
- Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women by Susan Maushart - Really fascinating and disturbing. Some of it feels like obvious bullshit. Some of it cuts to the quick.
Other fiction I loved reading in 2015
- The Expanse Book 2: Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey - Fantastic! So much better than the first one and all subsequent ones! All about the risks and dangers of communicating and acting with imperfect knowledge.
- The Fate of Mice by Susan Palwick - Short stories, pretty great.
- All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe, translated by Alfred Birnbaum - Detective story, in Japan, largely discussing consumer debt.
- The Siren by Tiffany Reisz - “Erotic romance”. No, but this was great! It really spoke to the tension between who you love and what you need, when they don’t coincide.
- Aunty Lee’s Delights: A Singaporean Mystery and Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials: A Singaporean Mystery by Ovidia Yu - I had to read these on my way to Singapore, of course. Fun fluff!
- The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu - I mostly enjoyed this one because I kept thinking it was about different concepts during various phases along the way reading through it. (Like, for a while there I was convinced it was about the color grue.)
Books I loved reading in 2015 that related to art
- The Natural Way to Draw by Nicolaides - Particularly great for the stage I was at earlier in the year, I think. Lots of good exercises, and more philosophical. For instance, a big takeaway for me is that when doing gesture drawings you want to feel tension in your body echoing the pose.
- Watercolor for the Fun of it: getting started by John Lovett - Really helpful exercises and tips, especially re playing with texture.
- Tate Watercolour Manual: Lessons from the Great Masters by Tony Smibert - Big lessons: different kinds of brushstrokes, and I really should play with tonal value more.
- The Urban Sketcher: Techniques for Seeing and Drawing on Location by Marc Taro Holmes - I love this author and I love his art and I kinda want to be him when I grow up and this was the best!
- Local Color: Seeing Place Through Watercolor by Mimi Robinson - Advice on mixing color in various ways, and now I totally want to build my own color palettes for various seasons and walks &c!
- Urban Watercolor Sketching: A Guide to Drawing, Painting, and Storytelling in Color by Felix Scheinberger - Some good stuff about luminosity, being sparing with color, drawing attention to the important bits, and storytelling in here. Also I love the sketches throughout the book.
- Experimental Drawing by Robert Kaupelis - I got lots of great ideas for drawing exercises from this.
- Creative Sketching Workshop: Inspiration, Tips and Exercises for Sketching on the Move edited by Pete Scully
- Urban Sketching: the complete guide to techniques by Thomas Thorspecken
Books I loved reading in 2015 that related to programming and tech
- Storm Applied: Strategies for real-time event processing by Sean T. Allen, Matthew Jankowski and Peter Pathirana - So useful! (Storm is a tool I work with and reading this made my job easier, so that was nice.)
- Seven Concurrency Models in Seven Weeks: When Threads Unravel by Paul Butcher - I was pleasantly surprised by how many of these I was already familiar with, but overall it was a good overview with suggestions for interesting follow-up reading at the end of each section.
- Functional Programming in Scala by Paul Chiusano and Runar Bjarnason - Lots of stuff I already knew, but pretty clear explanations of some FP concepts, and I like finding good articulations of familiar concepts to help with sharing them.
- Being Geek: The Software Developer’s Career Handbook by Michael Lopp - My big takeaway here was learning about trickle lists, which turn out to be a pretty useful tool.
- Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think edited by Andy Oram & Greg Wilson
Other non-fiction I loved reading in 2015
- House Rules by Rachel Sontag - A memoir about a fucked up family. Very hard and compelling to read. I felt nauseous through most of it, and yet keep recommending it to people. There’s something particularly intense about reading about families which are obviously horrible but don’t involve any physical abuse.
- It’s complicated: the social lives of networked teens by Danah Boyd - Actually really interesting discussions of privacy as a social norm rather than technological mandate.
- The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi by William Scott Wilson - Christ, what an asshole. And yet in some ways I want to be him when I grow up.
- Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking by Christopher Hadnagy - Hilariously reminiscent of the time a hypnotist watched me try to bully my boyfriend into reminding me to create a tea blend I wanted to try a week later and then told me that I’m very good at neuro-linguistic programming.
Books I loved re-reading in 2015
- The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt - This remains one of my favorite books of all time.
- Unwind by Neal Shusterman - A world in which abortion is illegal but parents can legally have their children unwound between the ages of 13 and 18.
- Deathless by Catherynna M. Valente - Still gives me a lot of very complicated feels.
- Narbonic: The Perfect Collection Books One and Two by Shaenon K. Garrity - Look, it’s about a cute evil mad scientist and her adorable henchman named Dave. Of course I love it! This is basically the story of my marriage!
Total number of censored favorites not appearing in this post: 10
Total number of books read in 2015: 160