Reading List - 2022

This was an unusually hectic year, so this set of reviews will be briefer than usual. Flash reviews, if you will.

★★★★½

Independent People – Halldór Laxness [tr. Brad Leithauser]

Perhaps the whole of the human experience is contained within this epic about a small-time farmer's rise and fall, brimming with wit and tragedy.

Embassytown – China Mieville

The perfect novel about language and language contact, though it's so much more than just that – one of the most inventive pieces of sci-fi I've ever read.

★★★★

Imbibe! [revised edition] – David Wondrich

Wondrich's meticulous research and engaging writing take what could be a dull subject – 19th-century cocktail recipes – and make it immensely satifying to read about.
Note: I've started a project to recreate each drink in the book, as close to the original recipe as possible, though I haven't gotten very far yet.

Debt: The First 5000 Years – David Graeber

I'm not sure if I am fully convinced of Graeber's theory of debt preceding money and the constant realignment between the two, but this is a fascinating read regardless, with the earliest sections, on social currencies and "everyday communism", being the most thought-provoking.

The Shaman's Coat – Anna Reid

I'm a sucker for all things North Asia, so how could I resist Reid's account of her travels in early 2000s Siberia in search of extant shamanic customs? The history aspect of it is definitely no match for Forsyth's magisterial A History of the Peoples of Siberia, but the personal travelogue is an engaging read.

How to Do Nothing – Jenny Odell

The anti-self-help self-help book, How to Do Nothing is a manifesto for regaining attention in an age of addictive technology, and manages to be both beautifully written and full of actionable ideas.

The Chukchi Bible – Rytgėv (Yuri Rytkheu) [tr. Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse]

Part mythology, part poetic ethnography, part adventure story, part family lore, The Chukchi Bible is a mysterious and beautifully written ode to a fading culture.

The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin

I don't know why it's taken me this long to read this classic of science fiction, with an extraordinary portrayal of an anarchist "ambiguous utopia". I just wish the whole thing didn't unravel with an unsatisfying deus ex machina ending.

★★★½

Why Fish Don't Exist – Lulu Miller

Without spoiling too much, I will say that this is a brilliantly written account of one man's quixotic scientific journey and the lengths that he would go to to achieve his vision, interspersed with a touching personal memoir.

Sippin' Safari [10th anniversary edition] – Jeff "Beachbum" Berry

What Wondrich does for classic American cocktails, Berry does for tiki. Sippin' Safari is a fun romp through the world of tropical drinks, but I found the structure of it to be a little unfocused, lacking a clear through-line.

Telluria – Vladimir Sorokin [tr. Max Lawton]

A kaleidoscopic collection of 50 linked micro-stories, all set in a bizarre future of feudal states, human-animal hybrids and super-drugs. I have to give Sorokin credit for his profoundly imaginative world-building, but each chapter being told from a completely new perspective robs it of any sense of real narrative progression.

A Sociolinguistic History of Scotland – Robert McColl Millar

An expertly written work of sociolinguistics that crams centuries of history of usage of Scotland's two autochtonous languages – Scots and Gaelic – into a slender tome, ultimately striking a critical yet hopeful tone about the prospect of preserving Scotland's linguistic heritage.

Language and Symbolic Systems – Yuen Ren Chao

Why read a 60s linguistics textbook? In part because Chao, a pioneer of Chinese linguistics, writes in beautifully fluid and conversational way, and in part because this book reflects his own interests more than anything else, and so features incredibly forward-thinking chapters on sociolinguistics, information theory, and even language technology.

★★★

Elements of Clojure – Zachary Tellman

Unfortunately the more Clojure-heavy parts of the book were lost on me (it's been a while), but I particularly enjoyed the Names chapter, a deep and philosophically interesting exploration of naming in software.

The Truth and Other Stories – Stanislaw Lem [tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones]

This collection of previously-untranslated stories by Lem was hit-and-miss. Highlights: "Invasion from Aldebaran", "The Friend", "The Hammer", "One Hundred and Thirty-Seven Seconds" (the latter particular timely in the age of GPT-3...) .

The Winter Queen – Boris Akunin [tr. Andrew Bromfield]

A page-turner of a historical mystery-thriller that somehow just doesn't feel satisfying at the end.

The Routledge Handbook of Language Revitalization – ed. Leanne Hinton, Leena Huss and Gerald Roche

What it says on the tin. Part 1 is mostly theoretical essays about topics in language revitalization. Part 2, which I personally found more interestings, consists of myriad case studies from around the world.

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