Reading List - 2021

★★★★½

A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia's North Asian Colony 1581-1990 – James Forsyth
Ah, just the book I needed to feed my obsession with Siberia and The Far East. In fact, it's so comprehensive and well-researched that I was surprised to even find a book like this in English. Forsyth's writing can be dry at times but he admirably compiles and presents an overwhelming wealth of information about the indigenous people of North Asia, from the Khanty and Mansi along the Ob river all the way to the Chukchi and Itelmens of the northeast edge. He presents some cultural background, but for the most part this is a history of Russian exploitation, with roughly the first half of the book following the tsarist colonial project and the second half of the book follows the varying rises and falls (but mostly the latter) in the fortunes of the Siberian peoples through the Soviet era. It's a shame that the story ends in 1990 and the author never put out a new edition, because I haven't yet been able to find a good follow-up read on contemporary Siberian indigenous history. This is a fascinating and tragic account of a group of peoples that most Western books about Russia barely even mention. [File under History / North Asia.]

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed – James Scott
Few books have influenced my thinking as much as Seeing Like a State has. Scott's central thesis is that a diverse range of state activities over the past few centuries can be seen through the lens of legibility - a state, when faced with a complicated, local, difficult-to-understand situation will attempt to standardize and homogenize, sacrificing local knowledge and diversity for the sake of simplification. The introductory example here is 18th century Prussian "scientific forestry", where natural forests, which formed complete ecosystems but whose timber output was difficult to quantify and predict, were replaced by rows upon rows of identical trees, which were more legible in the sense of being easier to reason about as a system, but of course were much less resilient against weather and pests than the natural, "illegible" forest system that they replaced. From the natural realm, Scott continues to a variety of examples of state simplification of human systems, from Le Corbusier's high-modernist city planning to Soviet collectivization to Tanzanian "villagization" in the 1960s and 70s, finally closing with a meditation on his idea of "mētis", the kind of crucial, hyper-specific local knowledge that gets lost during these instances of standardization. Overall, this was an engaging and very illuminating read, marred for me only by a chapter contrasting Lenin and Luxembourg's visions of revolution that seemed particularly weak / out-of-place here. [File under Political Science or Anthropology.]

East of Eden – John Steinbeck
It's a classic for a reason. The writing is beautiful (Steinbeck referred to it as his "first novel" after he finished it, and it really does show an incredible maturity of style), but at the same time it feels like it's missing some of the humanism, the generalized love and compassion for humanity, that is so present in his earlier novels like The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, etc. The political interjections feel out-of-place and, often, out-of-touch, as does a shockingly racist passage near the very beginning. The Biblical allegory is about as heavy-handed as one could expect from the title. One major character is so cartoonishly evil that it's difficult to feel invested in her storyline. Structurally, it's all over the place, with some particularly meandering plot elements, and a narrative voice that switches between third-person and first-person when you least expect it. And yet, somehow it just works. I didn't know quite how I felt about East of Eden until the very end, which was one of my most emotional reading experiences in recent memory. [File under Fiction / Literary.]

★★★★

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life – George Saunders
The stories are, of course, a pleasure to read, especially Tolstoy's "Master and Man", Gogol's "The Nose", Turgenev's "The Singers" ... But what I didn't expect was just how illuminating Saunders's commentary is to each story, and how much I learned about what goes into crafting a good short story. I'm not a writer, but a lot of the exercises and approaches here apply just as well to critically reading and enjoying fiction, and I came out of this book with a deeper appreciation of Russian literature and the short story in general. [File under Fiction / Literary / Short stories but also Literary Criticism.]

Flutes of Fire: Essays on California Indian Languages – Leanne Hinton
(Something of a re-read – I've read part of it before for a class in undergrad, but never read it cover-to-cover before.) This book feels like something of a rarity – a broad-strokes look at indigenous languages of California that's accessible to the layperson while still being linguistically rigorous and not "dumbing down" the subject matter. And it's simply a delight to read, as you can feel Hinton's sense of wonder about the languages and language features that she's writing about. This is the book that originally kindled my interest in linguistics when I read part of it in an introductory college course, and reading it now brings that feeling back. The last two sections, "Language and Dominion" and "Keeping the Languages Alive", are ones that I don't think I've read before and they feel particularly important now, though it's sad to think how much has likely been lost since this book was first published in 1994. [File under Linguistics / Areal / North America.]

Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time – Johanna Nichols
There's a lot going on here, even for a reader like me with only an undergraduate grasp of linguistics. Nichols (1) assesses a set of especially "stable" language features for nearly 200 languages covering most of the world's language families and isolates, building probably the largest database of language typology of its time; (2) presents a novel way to trace the stability of each of these features over space and time; and (3) from there, develops a theory of language diversity that both suggests answers to long-standing puzzles (e.g. Q: Why are there so many more distinct language families in the Americas than in the "Old World"? A: The typological properties common in American languages are exactly the ones that cause the linguistic data necessary for the comparative method to "erode" away more quickly.) and raises new ones (e.g. Nichols's data suggests that the Americas were initially populated largely by people coming from the Australian/Papuan direction, which certainly isn't a mainstream theory). This is a truly monumental project, that easily could have ended up as multiple important books, and it is wild to see so much ambition and insight packed into a single, fairly slim, volume. [File under Linguistics / Typology.]

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory – David Graeber
At one point, Graeber describes the job of a cultural anthropologist to be (paraphrasing) digging deeply into cultural assumptions that are taken at face value, and Bullshit Jobs does just that. It examines a concept that doesn't even feel worthy of writing a book about ("many jobs feel boring and meaningless" is hardly news!), and uses it as a lens to examine the bureaucratization of the economy, the history of popular perception of capitalism, and some surprising holdovers from the age of feudalism that seem to reassert themselves in today's "bullshit" jobs. And unlike many such books that present series social issues without presenting much in the way of a remedy, Graeber ends with a decent argument in favor of universal basic income as at least a partial solution here. [File under Anthropology / Cultural.]

Dune – Frank Herbert
(Technically a re-read, but I haven't read it since I was in high school, so I'll count it.) Re-reading Dune (for the obvious reasons) was an interesting experience because, while I remembered the overall plot outline, one thing that slipped my memory was just how weird of a book Dune is, and I mean that in the best possible way. Even compared to its New Wave science fiction contemporaries, Dune is really its own thing, spending seemingly more time speculating about desert ecology, religion, and the spread of ideas than on, you know, the action itself, much of which ends up taking place "off-screen". The plot itself feels less engaging in the second half of the book, but Herbert can be forgiven for this because everything else is still so interesting. [File under Fiction / Speculative.]

★★★½

Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan
A beautifully-written novel with a lot of passages that I really liked, that unfortunately seemed to sputter out partway through, with too much time spent following a gangster subplot that just felt like one cliché after another. Egan spent over a decade putting Manhattan Beach together, and her meticulous attention to period detail is clear, but in the process the novel ends up not having the same kind of wild spark that A Visit From the Goon Squad had. [File under Fiction / Historical.]

We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie makes her point clearly and elegantly. It's a very short read, but perhaps is just the length it needs to be. [File under Essays.]

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy – Cathy O'Neil
A well-written and timely analysis of the dangers of the over-reliance on ML to do things like score résumés and process loan applications. I feel like there's not too much here that people in the ML field haven't been warning about for years, but it's important that this issue gets broader attention, and this book does a great job of clearly explaining the issue to a wide audience. [File under Technology / Social Aspects]

The Chess Garden: Or, The Twilight Letters of Gustav Uyterhoeven – Brooks Hansen
This might not be my favorite novel I read this year, but it is certainly one that will stick in my memory for a long time. I don't even really know how to describe it – a colorful biography of the (fictional) Dr. Uyterhoeven, interspersed with his stories of a journey through a land populated by anthropomorphic board game pieces, which in turn form allegories about ... the conflict between rationalism and "vitalism"? This is a profoundly ambitious novel that comes very close to something special. It does end up feeling tedious near the middle, and the ending was a little too overtly "spiritual" for my taste. But nonetheless, I have no regrets about opening up this book. [File under Fiction / Experimental.]

★★½

Bay Area Cocktails: A History of Culture, Community and Craft – Shanna Farrell
Farrell has certainly done her research, conducting dozens of interviews over several years to put together this book. And it's full of interesting tidbits about the various characters behind the Bay Area's cocktail renaissance. What feels missing is a discussion of just what makes the Bay Area special (if anything!) - most of the trends that the author traces in cocktail history have little to do with this particular region, and as a result the book feels aimless at times. [File under Food & Drink / Cocktails / History.]

Reality and Other Stories – John Lancaster
"Old-fashioned ghost stories about technology" is a premise that I very much wanted to like, but unfortunately Lancaster fails to deliver with most of these. Most of them feel a little too clever, as though they're written by someone who wants to write "genre fiction" but is feeling just a bit too smug about it. The best story in the collection, "Reality", is also the one that is the furthest away from that overall premise. [File under Fiction / Speculative / Short stories.]

★½

Gem of the Lost Coast: A Narrative History of Shelter Cove – Mario Machi
A passably-written collection of local history of the Shelter Cove area, written by an active participant in that history. [File under History / California / Local.]

Native California Hero's [sic] of the Miwok Confederation: Teleguac, Estanislas and Yolosko – Guy (Redcorn) Nixon
I was hoping to read some interesting and previously undocumented bits of Miwok history taken from oral interviews conducted by the author. Unfortunately, the end result is so poorly written as to be largely unreadable. The opening chapters, on the ecological aspects of Native Californians' first interactions with settlers, raises some interesting questions but are difficult to take at face value. [File under History / California / Native American.]

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