Reading List - 2017

[Originally posted on Facebook]

Per tradition, here are all the books I read last year.

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas – Rebecca Solnit & Rebecca Snedeker

★★★★½. While Infinite City revealed fresh secrets of a city I already knew, Unfathomable City served as an unorthodox travel guide. Reading it on the plane to New Orleans, I was struck by the deep sense of love for the city that I could feel in each of the essays and maps, and the bustling energy evoked by the book was contagious.

Ghostwritten – David Mitchell

★★★★. My first David Mitchell novel, and hopefully not my last. I loved some of the interlocking segments (particularly “Holy Mountain” and “Cape Clear Island”), didn’t care for a few of them (especially “London”), and had mixed feelings about the spectacular ending. [thanks Linchuan]

A People's History of the United States – Howard Zinn

★★★★½. It’s become almost a meme in certain circles, but this is nonetheless a remarkable book. It’s not just a different perspective on history, but a different way of looking at history altogether: as the actions of ordinary people fighting for better lives rather than the whims of a few “great men”. Tolstoy would be proud. [thanks Asali]

Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk – Josh Katz

★★★. A neat visualization of a massive study. I just wish that there was some analysis to accompany it. [thanks mom & dad]

The ABCs of Socialism – ed. Bhaskar Sunkara

★★★★. Jacobin’s first book-length publication is a slim volume that rebuts common misconceptions about socialism in a clear, no-nonsense prose that’s anything but preachy. Its design is fantastic as well, from Wriggleworth’s cartoon illustrations to the simple question-and-answer bookends for each chapter.

Absolutely on Music – Seiji Ozawa & Haruki Murakami (tr. Jay Rubin)

★★★★ Murakami, an avid classical music fan with no musical background, is the perfect foil to Ozawa, the knowledgeable yet affable conductor. Reading their casual chats about Beethoven and Mahler is great fun.

BART: A Dramatic History – Michael C. Healy

★★★★. An engaging account of BART’s history and operations, full of amusing anecdotes and overly excited chapter titles like “1977 and 1978 See Several Improvements and Added Services”. Healy was BART’s chief spokesperson for 32 years, and, while his insider status introduces a lot of bias, it also allows him to pepper the book with behind-the-scenes details.

The Shape of Things – Neil LaBute

★★★. An interesting conceit, it was difficult to care about such incredibly superficial characters. [thanks Asali and JP]

The City Shaped: Urban Patterns & Meanings Through History – Spiro Kostof

★★★★½. Kostof argues that traditional histories of urban design make the fatal flaw of assuming a linear progression of styles, and presents an alternative history based on morphology. In five chapters (“Organic” Patterns; The Grid; City as Diagram; The Grand Manner; The Urban Skyline), Kostof describes the development of five approaches to city-building, their patterns and variations, and the meanings ascribed to them throughout history. Through it all, he writes with such an engaging voice that you feel like you’re getting a tour of the world’s cities rather than reading a history book. I can’t look at a city the same way after reading it.

Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India – Gita Mehta

★★★½. A chaotic and exciting book about a chaotic and exciting country. In her essays, Mehta gives a whirlwind tour of India throughout the 20th century, covering politics, economics, spirituality, and culture, but the book really shines when she recounts her stories of growing up with independence-activist parents in the 1940s. [thanks Asali]

How to Be a Jewish Mother – Dan Greenberg

Cute but dated vintage humor book.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information – Edward Tufte

★★★★. The book is visually gorgeous, and Tufte’s basic laws of information design (in particular the “data-ink ratio”) provide a solid framework for reasoning about information graphics. But I didn’t learn as much as I could have – the book was short and devoted too much time to some pet techniques that didn’t seem particularly useful nowadays.

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets – Svetlana Alexievich (tr.Bela Shayevich)

★★★★★. If you’re going to read any book about contemporary Russia, make it this one. Alexievich writes what she calls “novels in voices”: stories told entirely through edited transcripts of hundreds of oral interviews. She’s written about the Afghan war and Chernobyl, but Secondhand Time is arguably her most ambitious piece: a sprawling account of the first two decades of post-Soviet Russia and the disillusionment Russians felt after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She interviews everyone from gulag prisoners to NKVD interrogators, from jet-setting business-people to Central Asian migrant workers. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, it’ll make you feel a profound sense of empathy for a country in transition.

The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community – Peter Katz

★★★½. There are some nice essays by the New Urbanism pioneers (Calthorpe, DPZ, et al), but what really makes this book is the case studies of New Urbanism communities of all shapes throughout the U.S., from new towns like Seaside to revitalization projects like downtown Providence, all complete with beautiful city plans and architectural examples. A great source of inspiration.

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

★★★★. Imagine that a novella, a play, and a nonfiction biography had a bastard child. The action takes place in a cemetery, and, though it’s ostensibly about Abraham Lincoln, he only appears for a few pages. It’s difficult to describe what Lincoln in the Bardo is exactly, but whatever it is, it’s gripping, poignant, and endlessly inventive.

Hope in the Dark – Rebecca Solnit

★★★★. In this collection of essays, Solnit argues that hope is just as important as fear in driving activism. Though most of the book dates back to 2004, it’s as important a lesson now as ever.

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

★★★★★. The most beautiful and heartbreaking novel I read this year. Roy’s descriptions of life in rural Kerala are so vivid that you can practically smell the red banana trees. The story is intricately plotted, jumping backward and forward in time as the tale of the Kochamma family unfolds, and it keeps you hoping against hope even as a mounting sense of dread keeps building into an horrific climax. It’s that rare sort of novel that not only sticks with you, but makes you feel like somehow it’s been a part of you all along. [thanks Asali]

The Works: Anatomy of a City – Kate Ascher

★★★½. An enjoyable overview of the transportation, energy, communications, and waste infrastructure of New York City filled with marvelous diagrams. No profound insights here, but it’s a pleasure to leaf through and chock-full of surprising facts. [thanks Lily]

Kasimir Malevich and Suprematism – Gilles Néret

★★★½. An engaging and meticulously researched overview of an under-appreciated modern artist. Malevich is a somewhat enigmatic figure, but Néret does an admirable job of explaining his philosophy. [thanks mom]

Where'd You Go, Bernadette – Maria Semple

★★★★. A damn good satire of the tech industry, suburban life, the art world, and everything in between. Semple hooks you in with her goofy humor and it’s not until you’re halfway in that you suddenly realize how much you’ve cared about all these flawed yet lovable characters all along. I couldn’t put it down, even through some questionable plot developments near the end. [thanks Asali]

The Yellow Shadow – V M Steele

★½. The casual racism at the core of the story doesn’t age well at all, and the whole plot is frankly ridiculous.

Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas – Rebecca Solnit & Joshua Jelly-Shapiro

★★★★. A lot of good pieces (I particularly liked the ones on the evolution of hip-hop), but overall it was more repetitive and less cohesive than its predecessors. The start was particularly shaky, with the first 5-6 maps all tackling similar ideas.

Best Russian Short Stories – Thomas Seltzer, ed.

★★★★. A comprehensive and surprisingly well-curated collection of Russian short stories from the 1920s, featuring both the heavy-hitters like Tolstoy and Gorky and relative unknowns like Saltykov-Shchedrin and Sologub, all in lively, readable translations. Highlights: “The Queen of Spades” (Pushkin), “The Overcoat” (Gogol), “The Bet” (Chekhov), “Lazarus” (Andreyev). [thanks Asali]

Baudolino – Umberto Eco (tr. William Weaver)

★★★★. A lighthearted medieval adventure tale told in the style of medieval adventure tales, and an exploration of languages (much of the novel is written in a garbled pseudo-Latin), the complicated role of religion in medieval politics, and how objects obtain meaning (much of the adventure involves religious relics, real and fictional). It’s not hard to see why I enjoyed reading it so much. [thanks, Bakery Bar in NOLA]

Pastoralia – George Saunders

★★★★. Six black comedy stories from the master. It seems that Saunders was still finding his voice in these stories: he doesn’t demonstrate quite the linguistic sureness that he has in Tenth of December and a couple of these stories didn’t speak to me at all. But it’s still Saunders, and “Pastoralia” and “Sea Oak” rank among his best. [thanks Danielle]

Capital in the Twenty-First Century – Thomas Piketty (tr. Arthur Goldhammer)

★★★★½. Finally, an approach to economics that interests me. Piketty throws out the conventional methodology of working up from abstracted models and instead employs a data-driven technique informed largely by historical records. In 12 chart-heavy chapters, he traces the development of the income-capital ratio and the distribution of income and capital throughout the world (primarily France and the U.S.), and argues that the economy trends naturally towards greater wealth concentration. These chapters diagnosing the state of capital are engaging and have given me a great deal to think about, but his final chapters suggesting potential solutions felt rhetorically weak, seeming almost like an afterthought. Piketty struck me as a far better economist than politician.

The Watcher and Other Stories – Italo Calvino (tr. Weaver & Colquhoun)

★★★. “The Argentine Ant” is a great little horror tale, but I didn’t care much for the other two stories. As far as early Calvino stories go, I much preferred the ones collected in Difficult Loves.


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