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01 Jan 2013
The best books I read in 2012

This wasn’t such a great year in books for me (nothing compared to 2011, which was full of winners), but out of the 130 books I read in 2012, there were a few great ones, at least:


Fiction I loved reading in 2012:

  • The Tidewater Tales by John Barth - Long meandering story full of nested stories, about storytellers and sailing and Scheherezade (and a dash of the CIA, but that was my least favorite aspect). When I tried to make grilled chutney bananas as inspired by the characters’ favorite food they weren’t all that good, but the book is worth reading anyway.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows - Startlingly good tale of a journalist/author who befriends a community of rural island folk by becoming their pen-pal shortly after World War II. The bits that truly caught me were the descriptions of how ordinary folks connect with books. This is a book that reminds us how to read.
  • The Mirage by Matt Ruff - The 9/11-inspired novel we’ve been waiting for.
  • Native Son by Richard Wright - Hard to read, in a brilliant way. “I’ll kill you and go to hell and pay for it.”
  • Embassytown by China Mieville - Like his The City and the City, the main value in this book lies in the fact that it has given us a metaphor for describing other things going forward. It’s on this list more for that usefulness than for its literary merit, which was good but not spectacular.
  • Some of the best from Tor.com: 2011 Edition edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden & Liz Gorinsky - Nearly every story in here was a hit. I am utterly impressed - my like percentages for anthologies are usually much lower.
  • Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving - All of his novels tend to be long and complex and full of intriguing characters and… contrived in a really wonderful way, though I can’t quite think of the word for that at the moment.
  • The Girl Who Couldn’t Come by Joey Comeau - Short stories by the brilliant author of A Softer World.
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler - Time-travel, American history, slavery, feminism, family.
  • An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears - I don’t typically like mystery novels, but this was excellent. Four unreliable narrators, gender and political issues, science and medicine and experimentation - lots of great stuff going on here.
  • The Persistence of Vision by John Varley - Excellent s/f short stories.


Fiction I loved re-reading in 2012:

  • Wild Seed by Octavia Butler - A fantasy novel of genetic engineering.
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes - Still breaks my heart.
  • The Best of Michael Swanwick by Michael Swanwick - Most of these stories were rereads for me, but there were a few I hadn’t seen before. The man is simply a fucking genius, is all.
  • A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge - The best thing about Vinge is the way he goes so deeply into the implications of every idea he has.


Books I loved reading in 2012 that related to decision-making and problem-solving and communication:

  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman - This was fucking brilliant and you should all read it right now. Cognitive errors that we all make, understood and named so we can try to be aware of and avoid them more easily, explained in a fun and readable voice! I’d read about a lot of the studies he cites here before, but it was still good to have them all nicely collected and described in a fun, readable voice in this volume.
  • Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande - How to go from good enough to better yet. Ask. Don’t complain. Count something. Write. Change. Not as good as his other book, Complications, but a close second.
  • The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive by Brian Christian - The author set out to win the Most Human Human prize as a confederate in the annual Turing Test, and writes about his process in figuring out what human communication involves. Fun, but also helpful in terms of thinking about how to talk and connect with other people generally in life.


I loved a lot of the John McPhee essays I read in 2012:

  • Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee - The best of the lot, for the sake of its first two essays. He follows a truck driver with a thoughtful bent. He discusses how captains of gigantic tankers are trained on scaled down models where even the wind and tides are scaled down by careful choice of location. Fascinating stuff.
  • Pieces of the Frame by John McPhee - Jimmy Carter may be the governor of Georgia, but he’s not the governor of Sam’s canoe.
  • Silk Parachute by John McPhee - I remain astonished that I was bored by the McPhee book I was required to read as a teenager, but love his work so very much now as an adult.


Other non-fiction I loved reading in 2012:

  • Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy - After having read about how often primate mothers kill their babies, I’m now even more grateful for my mother not strangling me as a child.
  • Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life by Annette Lareau - Insightful, interesting, and emotionally difficult.
  • What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany: An Oral History by Eric A. Johnson & Karl-Heinz Reuband - That’s always been the question. Did they know? How much did they know, and when did they find out? How early on? Point being, of course, how culpable are they? This set of interviews attempts to explore that question. One of the best Holocaust books I’ve ever read, and as the granddaughter of survivors, I’ve read rather a lot of them.
  • The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses by Chandler Burr - Stupid title. This is actually a story about learning, discovery, and the dirty underbelly of scientific community politics. Also the science of scent.
  • Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold - The first 90ish pages got me through middle school Morse code basics &c and high school electronics, and then things started to get really interesting.
  • Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser by Clarisse Thorn - I feel dirty but fascinated!
  • The Best American Nonrequired Reading: 2011 edited by Dave Eggers - It was sometimes hard to tell which pieces were fiction and which were not, which was part of the fun.
  • Expressive Figure Drawing by Bill Buchman - Gorgeous prints of his sketches, along with useful exercises and advice.

15 Jan 2012
The best books I read in 2011

2011 was an amazing year in books for me. I hit a new record with my annual book list (I read 171 books last year!), and a much higher percentage of them than usual were awesome. In fact, I read so many great books last year that I split them up into categories for you here.

Books I loved reading in 2011 that related to decision-making and problem-solving: * Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond</i>- Well, we’re fucked. Brilliant, brilliant book. Worth reading, but intensely depressing in a clear, logical sort of way. Diamond claims to be cautiously optimistic, and I’d like to believe him, but I’ve read too much Derrick Jensen to be totally convinced.</li> * The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations by Dietrich Dorner</i>- Analyzes tons of studies on how people try - and fail! - to handle complex situations. The main lessons I drew from this were - (a) You have to think about not only the problems you do have, but also the problems you DON’T have, because otherwise your solutions may well create new problems in the future; (b) feedback has a time lag, and unless you stick to tiny adjustments with delays to record feedback in between, you can easily end up ricocheting between extremes; (c) it’s hard to figure out the right amount of information to gather; (d) both overfocusing and ignoring complex details are extremely dangerous; and (e) learning the issues with dealing with complex problems doesn’t actually help you get better at handling them - only actual experience does that.</li> * Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande - Absolutely fantastic look at mistakes, the need for training and learning, social and ethical issues that interfere with training, cognitive errors, the difficulty in balancing our need for best health outcomes with our need for training students, and lots of surgical war stories along the way. I also highly recommend reading his essay Personal Best, where he discusses his decision to seek coaching to improve his surgical skills.</li> * Honeybee Democracy by Professor Thomas D. Seeley</i>- This was the most incredible book I’ve read in a long time. He describes the studies he performed in trying to determine how honeybee swarms decide on where their next home should be, and get everyone there together. Lots of insight into bees, but also into decision-making process design. Even if you’re not obsessed with bees as I am, this is a book well worth reading - it’s an eloquent depiction of how science is done, plus Seeley is very into the idea that we should learn more on how to manage group decision-making from the example set out by the bees.</li> * Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein - Totally fascinating book about how to be a better choice architect, largely by adjusting incentives and defaults and making it just a bit easier for people to do what they in theory want to do anyway. Libertarian paternalism.</li>


Books I loved reading in 2011 that related to race and class: * A Dry White Season by Andre Brink</i>- A white schoolteacher in South Africa learns a bit about race, politics, discrimination, abuse of power, and privilege. Intense and difficult to read, especially in our current political climate.</li> * Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America’s Illegal Aliens by Ted Conover</i>- Gringo journalist decides to cross the border with Mexicans who migrate North for work each summer. Spends time on the journeys, spends time at the harvesting work, spends time driving [with, and also..] them across the country, spends time in their homes.</li> * Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones</i>- A story told by a black girl living on a tropical island in the middle of a civil war, where the one white man left volunteers as a teacher, except the only book he has to teach from is Great Expectations. I worried it would be all full of white supremacy bullshit, but ultimately I actually thought it was generally aware, sensitive, and interesting. Heart-breaking in moments. Really an excellent little book, overall.</li> * Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano</i>- Fascinating, useful book about class issues with people born to working class families who push themselves into the middle class. This book sparked a lot of ideas in me and moments of recognition when thinking about my family dynamics and history and issues I’ve had with others. Highly recommended.</li> * The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot - The story of the person and family behind the HeLa cell line! I’d also suggest reading this interview with Skloot where she explains her thoughts on structure in writing and how she chose to structure this book in particular.</li> * Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh - Sociologist does fieldwork by hanging out with a gang in the projects. The Freakonomics people love this guy. I can see why.</li>


Books I loved reading in 2011 that related to art and design: * The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards - I went through all the exercises when I started my latest drawing kick, and I found them extremely helpful.</li> * Artist’s Complete Problem Solver by Trudy Friend</i>- This is basically one of the best drawing and painting books I’ve found yet. It’s particularly good in terms of very specific techniques and concepts to keep in mind when trying to figure out what to focus on in observing and drawing. Also, micro brushstroke exercises.</li> * The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber</i>- Drugs, hallucinations, art history, forgery, wonderful descriptions of technical processes of both forgery and painting generally. Absolutely lovely. Rather dark and fucked up in places, but in a beautiful way.</li> * Making Comics by Scott McCloud</i>- Someday I’ll illustrate a webcomic. Someday.</li> * My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk</i>- A murder mystery and an exploration on artistic pride, cultural influences, morality, religion, and the meaning of style. Very nice.</li> * The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams</i>- Reminded me of playing Set and of watching the parents figure out the layout for the old Fiske Terrace newsletter when I was a kid. Dead simple, basic stuff, but good important concepts to keep in mind.</li> * Poemcrazy: freeing your life with words by Susan Wooldridge - If you love words, read this.</li>


Books I loved reading in 2011 that related to Judaism: * Boychiks in the Hood: Travels in the Hasidic Underground by Robert Eisenberg</i>- Deeply familiar and foreign at the same time. My people, and not my people. Which was perhaps the point. In point of reference, I was raised Conservative and have always identified as a Jewish agnostic.</li> * All Other Nights by Dara Horn</i>- Jews in the Civil War! Lying liars who lie! I adore Dara Horn.</li> * The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six by Jonathan Keats</i>- This was really charming! It tells the stories of some of the lamed vavniks (in Jewish lore, these are the 36 just men and women who hold up the world, without realizing it or being acknowledged by others). Here are some of the lamed vavniks of a past era (there must be 36 of them alive in the world at any given time), and they are whores and thieves and golems and all sorts of unlikely personages. It was a good premise, nicely executed, and I particularly loved the rare pleasure of reading Jewish fairy tales that aren’t all about getting the king to promise not to kill all the Jews (only ha ha just kidding).</li> * The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado</i>- Memoir of a Jewish Egyptian woman whose family fled Cairo when she was just a child. Absolutely wonderful, with a personal discussion of cultural stresses and family relationships that did feel real to me. Possibly only interesting if you’re a diaspora Jew whose family had to flee countries in grave danger, though. Hard to tell, since for me, this was my family’s life.</li> * City of Oranges by Adam LeBor</i>- Fascinating history of Jews and Arabs in the old city of Yaffa. I’ve been there, and it was interesting to read this with my memories of walking through the area.</li> * Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge edited by Paul Zakrzewski - I didn’t expect much of this, but in fact there were a lot of really spectacularly good stories in it! Overlook the kitsch of the title and concept, and you’ll find the good stuff. My oh my.</li>


Other fiction I loved reading in 2011: * Santa Olivia and Saints Astray by Jacqueline Carey</i>- Super cute YA with good queer character development and political exploration.</li> * Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue</i>- I really enjoyed this novel! It has a lot of human flaws and weakness, and shows not only the way fucked up systems fuck people up, but also the incredibly awfulness that people are capable of. The protagonist is not a good person. You can’t quite figure out if you like her, even though you see the factors that went into messing her up and it’s hard to blame her for the first few. But later on, she’s making choices that you want to hate her for, again and again. But still in a sympathetic way. Really, just about all the characters are powerless in so many ways, and they take out the pain of their powerlessness on each other. The writing style just faded into the background and let me sink into the story, which I love.</li> * Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh - Just about the best fiction I’ve read in ages. Indian, complex, epic, poignant, fascinating. Lots of characters, but all are fleshed out and developed and weave in and out of each other’s lives. The focus on language and dialect is brilliant - it’s confusing at times, like the first time you read A Clockwork Orange, but you get the sense that so many of the characters are lost and confused that you’re supposed to be right there with them, and their languages are so defined by their backgrounds/lives/castes that it all comes together in a jumble as their society crackles around them. It’s killing me that the second book of this trilogy isn’t out in paperback yet, and the third isn’t out yet at all. I already want to reread the first.</li> * A big bunch of Alastair Reynolds books, which are all thoroughly stuffed with interesting ideas and characters but are ultimately a bit tough to tell apart. He manages to write the same book over and over again without getting boring, which is a neat parlor trick in itself.</li>


Other non-fiction I loved reading in 2011: * The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman</i>- An exploration of how cultural differences between Hmong and Americans interfere with access to health care, among other things.</li> * Lust for Justice: The Radical Life & Law of J. Tony Serra by Paulette Frankl</i>- Inspiring biography of a radical hippie brilliant criminal defense lawyer, I really want to read a collection of his summations!</li> * The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson</i>- A history text written in an almost novel-ish prose style, about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer operating in Chicago at the time.</li> * China Witness: Voices From a Silent Generation by Xinran - I’ve been on a Chinese history reading kick. It’s just so huge, and there’s so much out there that I don’t have a clue about. Likened to Studs Terkel’s interview collections, this book is actually a fascinating set of conversations that offer insight into history and culture that I can’t seem to reach anywhere else.</li>

18 May 2010
Three tints of Champagne

It can be so hard to choose the best version of each photo.

But it's like Yamamoto's concert in The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt.

Pages 176-7:

For the next seven and a half hours Yamamoto played Op. 10 No. 1 in D minor, & sometimes he seemed to play it exactly the same five times running but next to the sound of a bell or an electric drill or once even a bagpipe and sometimes he played it one way next to one thing and another way next to another. Some of these sounds were produced at the time and others were recordings, and after six and a half hours he stopped stopping to start the other sounds: a tape began to run & he kept playing. The tape was of traffic and footsteps & people talking and he played Op. 10 No. 1 nine times while it ran, and naturally you could see that you couldn't really hear how he was playing it or even how he was dealing with the two phrases. At 5:45 the tape came to an end and the piece came to an end and there was silence for 20 seconds or so, and then he played the piece so that you heard it after and over the silence. This went on for six minutes and then he stopped and there was a moment of silence and then he raised his hands to the keys.

You expected to hear Op. 10 No. 1 in D minor for the 60th time, but instead were shocked to hear in quick succession Op. 10 No. 2 in D major, Op. 10 No. 3 in B minor and Op. 10 No. 4 in B major, and you only heard them once each. It was as if after the illusion that you could have a thing 500 ways without giving up one he said No, there is only one chance at life once gone it is gone for good you must seize the moment before it goes, tears were streaming down my face as I heard these three pieces each with just one chance of being heard if there was a mistake then the piece was played just once with a mistake if there was some other way to play the piece you heard what you heard and it was time to go home.