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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.

An ink and watercolor sketch of Wat Khuan Khama
Wat Khuan Khama (near some of the best khao soi in town, Khao Soi Khun Yai)
An ink and watercolor sketch of Wat Fa Ham
Wat Fa Ham (near the other best khao soi in town, Khao Soi Lam Duan)
An ink and watercolor sketch of a songthaew, which is a kind of red truck that functions as sort of a cross between a bus and a taxi in Thailand.
I got around mostly by songthaew. You hail these little red trucks and tell them where you want to go, and if you’re lucky they say sure and name a price. It’s usually ~20 baht anywhere in the old city, and more if you want to go further afield. This is a pretty great deal as compared to how much you’d otherwise pay for a tuk-tuk.
An ink sketch of a tuk-tuk, which is sort of like a Thai taxi
If you can’t catch a songthaew, you take a tuk-tuk. On the plus side, it’s just you and therefore goes exactly where you want with no side-trips to drop off other passengers. On the down side, it’s an order of magnitude more expensive.
An ink and watercolor sketch of a mug of tea and a temple
Bird’s Nest cafe was practically around the corner from where I was staying, so of course I spent lots of time there. Great tea, and a view of yet another lovely wat
An ink and watercolor sketch of Wat Pha Bong
Wat Pha Bong
An ink and watercolor sketch of Wat Pha Bong
Another take on Wat Pha Bong
An ink and watercolor sketch of a child playing the drums
There were a few kids playing music and accepting donations near the big Saturday night market.
An ink and watercolor sketch of Wat Fa Ham
I wish I could remember where this wat was.
An ink sketch of a temple
Or this one.
An ink and watercolor sketch of a woman cooking under a large vent
I kept going back to this lady, since she was willing to serve me food that was actually moderately spicy.
An ink and watercolor sketch of fish
Fish!

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!)

An ink and watercolor sketch of Abdul Gafoor Mosque in Singapore
Abdul Gafoor Mosque was just a few blocks away from my hotel!
An ink and watercolor sketch of a walking path I stumbled across in Singapore
Just a charming walking path I stumbled across.
An ink and watercolor sketch of a very nice stranger's motorcycle in Singapore
A very nice strangers stood quietly watching me sketch this motorcycle for a long while, then apologetically interrupted me and told me that he had to leave. I was super confused at first - I hadn’t realized it was his bike I’d been sketching the whole time!
An ink and watercolor sketch of clothing hanging by HDB (public housing) in Everton Park, Singapore
A friend of mine insisted that I had to visit HDB (public housing) while I was there, so I got to sketch laundry drying in Everton Park.
An ink and watercolor sketch of a small red shrine in Maxwell Food Centre in Singapore
These small shrines were ~everywhere.
An ink and watercolor sketch of some pao (steamed buns) I ate in Singapore
I was obsessed with the coffee lotus buns at this one place over by Cassia Crescent.
Another ink and watercolor sketch of some more pao (steamed buns) I ate in Singapore
So obsessed. I should make bao more often now that I’m home!
An ink and watercolor sketch of dirty dishes
Since my Singapore trip was so food-focused, I feel I ought to end with these dirty dishes and birds that kept trying to eat them clean!

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

02 Jan 2015
The best books I read in 2014

This was a rough year for me and books - I had a lot of family deaths and a very short commute and started an awesome new job, all of which got in the way, as you might imagine. I only ended up reading 79 books total, which a barely over half my usual count for a year :shamefaced:. Luckily, I came across a few gems to share with you!

Fiction I loved reading in 2014

  • Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho - Absolutely spectacular Malaysian fantasy short stories. This is the big must read of the year, people. Get to it.
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie - Written from the POV of a starship’s AI in a human body from a culture with no concept of gender. Really fantastic and original scifi. Read while drinking amazing tea. (Ancillary Sword, its sequel, was fun but not really as great as its predecessor.)
  • A Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Horn - Memory and family and complicated stories and choosing stories and survival and acceptance and hope and redemption and pain passed down through generations. My entire family needs to read this one.
  • Fledgling by Octavia Butler - Vampires done with issues of race and gender in society.
  • The Pattern Scars by Caitlin Sweet - Tremendously twisted fantasy novel - seers, magic, mind control, trigger warning for sexual abuse, lots of horrors and betrayals. No heroes.
  • The Witch in the Almond Tree by C.S.E. Cooney - Gotta admit, she writes great sexy witch stories. Though this short story of hers was somehow even hotter (deeply NSFW, though).
  • The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan - Fantasy novel, queer characters, discrimination, brutality.
  • Mission Child by Maureen F. McHugh - Cultural and gender identity, another book with themes of getting lost and isolated from one’s culture and becoming someone else, or maybe not.
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies, and The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch - Really fun fantasy novel trilogy!
  • Graceling by Kristin Cashore - A light fantasy novel, where some people have graces (superpowers, basically). Our protagonist is a teenage girl with a superpower that makes her great at killing, which of course means she unwillingly IS the brute squad for her uncle, the king. But then the story really gets started.
  • The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo - Great little novel about marriage prospects and Malay Chinese afterlife beliefs.
  • Last Days by Joyce Carol Oates - Great short stories. “If I had it in me to love anyone I would love you… but you know the Holy Ghost saw fit to depart from me leaving just this husk and whited sepulchre, and I can’t lift a finger in rebellion. ‘The Spirit bloweth where it will.’ Do you know what that means? That means everything.
  • The Birthday of the World and other stories by Ursula K. Le Guin - Lots and lots on gender and interesting weird relationship structures.

Non-fiction I loved reading in 2014

  • How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, M.D. - Mentions a doctor who kept a log of all mistakes he made. Ever since reading this, I kinda want to keep a journal of all bugs I fix/encounter. My main take-aways: Always generate a short list of alternatives, even when you think you know the answer. When talking to doctors: Ask what body parts are near where you’re having your symptoms; what body part might be causing the symptom? What else could it be? What’s the worst thing it could be? Is there anything that doesn’t fit? Is it possible I have more than one problem? (list on p263)
  • Key Concepts in Life and Death: Inside Moves and Under the Stones Techniques by Richard Hunter - Really great Go book!
  • The Unix Programming Environment by Brian W. Kernighan and Rob Pike - I went through this one slowly, with lots of interruptions, over the course of about a year - I actually counted it for last year’s best-of list because I started it in 2013, but I’m counting it again because I finished it in 2014 and it’s still spectacular. I can absolutely see it as a book I can go back and reread and expect to get more out of each time.
  • The Writing Life by Annie Dillard - I read this book because these quotes from it spoke deeply to me, and it lived up to them completely.
  • A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit - Beautiful, resonant, a perfect read while traveling through Mexico with my friend Bonnie this past spring.
  • And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts - I kept having to close this book to remember how to breathe and stop crying. Intense and amazing and heartbreaking and probably not what I should’ve been reading in this year full of deaths, but so worth it.
  • Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa - Yes! He has an exuberant, fascinating view on life.
  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin - Race in America. Painful, important.
  • Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick - I had absolutely no sense of what life is like there before reading a few glimpses this year, and this was the most riveting of them all.
  • The Good Women of China by Xinran - Xinran is basically the Studs Terkel of China.
  • Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang - Migrant young women from rural China working in factories. Particularly striking to read from my current context of the tech industry here.

Books I loved re-reading in 2014

  • for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange - One of my favorite books of poetry of all time. Still makes me cry.
  • Earth by David Brin - I still love this novel as much as I did when I first read it probably 15ish years ago - if anything, it’s only become more strikingly relevant.
  • Alien Sex edited by Ellen Datlow - Short stories about the obvious. Not erotica, honest - it’s just a bunch of really good, weird scifi.
  • Vox by Nicholson Baker - This one really is hot, though. It’s sort of a novel about a single phone sex conversation, except it’s also thoughtful and neurotic and nerdy and brilliant and bizarre.
  • Under the Skin by Michel Faber - Had to reread because apparently there’s now a movie? This book has itched at the back of my head for years and years. If you aren’t familiar with the plot, I strongly suggest reading it without reading any reviews of spoilers first. It’s extremely disturbing and told perfectly.
  • Blindsight by Peter Watts - Way, way better than its recently released sequel. Vampires without being boring. Cognitive science and how our brains work. Breathtakingly good, really.