Reading List - 2019

[Originally posted on Facebook]

Another year, another reading list! Here’s what I read last year.


Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City – Matthew Desmond

Even if this were a work of fiction, it would get high marks for its gritty, gripping portrayal of impoverished families struggling to survive in inner-city Milwaukee. The fact that this is all documentary nonfiction makes it all the more remarkable. Desmond doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions, but he viscerally depicts the problem of extreme urban poverty. If every policymaker had to read this book, maybe things could get better. [File under Sociology / Urban.]


The Death and Life of Great American Cities – Jane Jacobs

Jacobs breaks down urban dynamics into axiomatic pieces and applies them masterfully in arguing for what makes a city work (short blocks, mixed uses, mixed building ages, and density) and what doesn’t (modernist planning, essentially). Her analysis has some flaws (for one thing, there’s no mention of gentrification) but has nonetheless aged remarkably well given its fast-moving topic. I can see why this book was such a big deal when it came out, and I can’t believe it took me so long to finally read it. [File under Sociology / Urban.]

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

One of those books you just can’t put down – I think I read the last two parts in one fell swoop. A lot of critics seem to have accused The Goldfinch of being melodramatic, and maybe it is, but what is life without some melodrama? (Admittedly, I came into it already a Donna Tartt fan – The Secret History is a favorite.) There’s some wonderful portrayals of grief and obsession, but most of all, I just appreciate a story about someone progressively digging themselves into an unthinkably deep hole, and still, against all odds, climbing most of the way out. [File under Fiction / Literary.]


The Dwarf – Pär Lagerkvist (tr. Alexandra Dick)

Warring states, brutal betrayals, and a cunning, misanthropic dwarf. Nope, it’s not Game of Thrones, but rather Lagerkvist’s bleak novella exploring the nature of evil. [File under Fiction / Literary.]

Samarkand – Amin Maalouf (tr. Russell Harris)

Witty and poetic, as a novel about Omar Khayyam ought to be. Maalouf ties two parallel historical threads (one in the 11th century and one in the early 20th century) together in a surprisingly natural way, skillfully juggles fact and fiction, and injects contemporary relevance through an examination of European influence in 20th century Persia. [File under Fiction / Historical.]

The Art of Piano Playing – Heinrich Neuhaus (tr. K. A. Leibovitch)

Neuhaus’s book, ostensibly about piano performance, is really equal parts playing tips, musings about aesthetics, and anecdotes from his time as a fixture of Moscow’s music scene. Don’t expect a straightforward account, but there are some real gems buried under the constant (but entertaining) digressions. [File under Music / Performance.]

House of Suns – Alistair Reynolds

Reynolds manages to write a story that is both thrilling and moving, despite an unimaginably far-future, high-technology setting. This is “hard” science fiction at its best. [File under Fiction / Speculative.]

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline – George Saunders

Even in his first short-story collection, Saunders shows his unique, darkly satirical voice, but these stories in particular do come off feeling somewhat repetitive, and setting them all in bizarre theme parks doesn’t help. Highlights: “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”, “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz”, and the remarkable Afterword in the new edition. [File under Fiction / Satire / Short stories.]

The Conquest of Bread – Piotr Kropotkin (tr. Piotr Kropotkin)

Kropotkin turns out to be much more straightforward and unpretentious than I’d expected. The Conquest of Bread convincingly lays out an alternative vision for society, while still maintaining nuance and not getting bogged down in ideology (I particularly appreciated the chapter on the necessity of luxuries, such as pianos, even in an anarchist society). [File under Philosophy / Political.]

The Classical Style – Charles Rosen

The Classical Style takes something I thought I understood (sonata form) and shows it to be both far more complicated and more intuitive than I’d thought. This book was slow going (it took me a few months on-and-off to get through it due to all the musical examples) but completely changed how I listen to classical music, particularly that of Haydn and Mozart. Worth it for anyone looking to learn more about the nuts and bolts of classical music. [File under Music / Analysis.]


The Murray Bookchin Reader – Murray Bookchin (ed. Janet Biehl)

Bookchin had good ideas on communalism, social hierarchy and ecology, but his rhetorical style is dense and not always comprehensible. There were a lot of thought-provoking bits, but they were too often buried by rather abstruse writing filled with not-well-defined terminology. [File under Philosophy / Political.]

The Cloven Viscount – Italo Calvino (tr. Archibald Colquhoun)

Not Calvino at his best, but short and sweet, reading almost like an offbeat fairy tale. [File under Fiction / Fantasy.]

Energy and Civilization – Vaclav Smil

The first half of the book (prehistoric agriculture until the fossil fuels era) is fantastic and informed a lot about how I think about human prehistory. Everything after that is a tedious slog as Smil seemingly tries to cram in every single invention and development of the Industrial Revolution into his book for the sake of comprehensiveness, without much payoff at the end. I would stop after Chapter 4. [File under History / Energy.]

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

A clever premise, hampered by a charming but ultimately dull protagonist and a generally one-dimensional cast (with some notable exceptions). The novel is jam-packed with references to Russian literature, but I didn’t get the sense that Towles actually succeeded in understanding the “Russian mindset”, so to speak. If you’re in the mood to read a contemporary multi-generational epic set largely in the Soviet Union, try Sana Krasikov’s fantastic debut novel The Patriots instead. [File under Fiction / Historical.]

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh – Michael Chabon

A modern coming-of-age story that’s by turns poignant and hilarious. It definitely has its moments, but the plot feels uneven, with the fantastical gangster subplot seeming particularly out of place. I prefer Chabon’s later works, but it’s interesting to see how he’s grown as a writer. [File under Fiction / Contemporary.]


Fear and Loathing in the North: Jews and Muslims in Medieval Scandinavia and the Baltic Region – ed. Cordelia Heß, Jonathan Adams

I picked this up on a whim (the Kindle edition was free) and boy, did I end up learning far more than I ever expected about Jews and Muslims in medieval Scandinavia and the Baltic region. There’s some interesting scholarly work here, and it stoked my interest in the Medieval period, leading me to pick up The Cloven Viscount (Calvino), The Dwarf (Lagerkvist), and Samarkand (Malouf). [File under History / Northern Europe.]

My Boyfriend is a Bear – Pamela Ribon and Cat Farris

A cute, quick read. [File under Graphic novels / Humor.]

Killing Commendatore – Haruki Murakami (tr. Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen)

I wanted to like this book, and the painting scenes are some of the best depictions of the artistic process I’ve read in fiction. In the end, though, it felt like a slog, and had none of the payoff that I was hoping for – nothing seemed to get resolved and not much was explained. Even more so than 1Q84, this felt like a knockoff Murakami novel, rather than the real deal. [File under Fiction / Literary.]

Childhood's End – Arthur C. Clarke

An interesting subversion of the alien-invasion trope, but the plot is all over the place, jumping from sci-fi to crime drama to utopian exposition to a bizarre ESP subplot that Clarke himself later regretted including. The Strugatsky brothers delivered on this premise better in their works, especially their 1987 novel The Ugly Swans. [File under Fiction / Speculative.]


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