Every year when I write up my Year End List, I try to hold out a little bit longer so I can attempt to read more things. But at some point, you just need to make some decisions. So on this arbitrary cutoff of Dec 18, 2023, here were my favorite things this year.
My two favorite books were The Bee Sting by Paul Murray and Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton. Both are “thrillers” — page-turners with explosive endings, and the writing is a real joy — I couldn’t help but be in awe of how strong the storytelling and craft is in these two novels.
What I loved about The Bee Sting is how compellingly Murray is able to capture the voices of each member of its central family, especially the two siblings (one ~12 years old, and the other finishing high school / entering university at Trinity). He takes characters that on the surface (or at least to others in their community) lead “normal / boring lives.” But he slowly unveils the true complexity of their inner turmoil through their relationships with secondary characters, many who come to haunt them in various ways. I loved how seemingly minor details reappear and become consequential later on as the paths of all four family members rapidly converge in the last ~100 pages.
Birnam Wood was really unexpected for me given how I knew The Luminaries (Catton’s previous Booker-prize winning novel, which I have not read) was historical fiction, a genre I typically don’t gravitate towards. Instead, Birnam Wood is set in the present when a guerrilla farming cooperative collides with a tech entrepreneur in its path towards sustainable growth. It took about ~75 pages for me to get over how unlikeable and self-righteous some of these characters were, but I’m really glad I stuck through it because it just kept getting better and better and has the most delightfully chaotic ending.
Here were some other books I really liked:
- The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions (Jonathan Rosen) — This is an incredibly raw story of the author’s relationship with Michael Laudor, who was guilty of murdering his pregnant wife when battling schizophrenia. But it’s also about the thorny history of legal policies around mental illness, and public perception of mental illness as it has changed from the 70s to present day.
- The Philosopher of Palo Alto: Mark Weiser, Xerox PARC, and the Original Internet of Things (John Tinnell) — This is a must-read for anyone interested in HCI. It covers the life of Mark Weiser and Xerox PARC after the original personal computing boom (i.e., the design of the Alto in the 70s/80s) and focuses on Weiser’s vision of ubiquitous computing in the 90s, and how that concept has been reinterpreted (and arguably degraded) since then.
- Empire of the Sum: The Rise and Reign of the Pocket Calculator (Keith Houston) — A wonderful book that talks about the history of calculating machines, from ancient times to pocket calculators. I recommend getting the printed version as it has excellent color images. It captures the history and context around the creation of each machine and also how people reconsidered the value of cognition in the age of computational machines more broadly.
- The Upstairs Delicatessen (Dwight Garner) — This “memoir” from long-time NYTimes book critic Dwight Garner has the most impression collection of literary quotes about food that I have ever encountered. And I especially loved some of his anectdotes about when his writing intersected with food criticism (like his story about attending a Nathan Myrvold meal celebrating Ferran Adrià but then, at the end of the night, getting a burger at Dicks).
- Thoughtless Acts?: Observations on Intuitive Design (Jane Fulton Suri) — I was lucky to come across this book in a university library as it’s been out of print for many years. It’s a tiny anthology of photos showing how people creatively repurpose their environments to serve every day needs (e.g., an umbrella tucked away on a makeshift motorcycle stand; washing machines at a laundromat where closed lids indicate out of order machines). Afterward, she describes how these observations of creative design solutions can help us identify unmet needs (she was a leading anthropologist at IDEO for many years).
- The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science (Kate Zernike) — Prior to this book, I knew just a little bit about the measuring tape story at MIT, where Nancy Hopkins measured the physical dimensions of different labs at night to collect evidence of discrimination against women faculty (among many other factors impeding their professional success). This book is a deep dive into what it was like to be a female scientist / academic at the same time that Radcliffe still existed, covering her entire life but also spotlighting many other female scientists that fought similarly to be taken seriously in the sciences / engineering, a battle that still continues today…
- Eve: How the Female Body Drove 200 Million Years of Human Evolution (Cat Bohannon) — The scope of this book is commendably enormous, combining research from medicine, evolutionary psychology, biology, education…(the list goes on). So many interesting tidbits and random trivia facts (but put together in a compelling, comprehensive way) — If you liked An Immense World, this is similarly fantastic.
- The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store (James McBride) — Even though I don’t normally enjoy historical fiction, this was an exception. Taking place largely in the 1920s and 30s in Pennsylvania, this novel describes how seemingly disparate parts of a community come together to help a young boy in trouble. This made me want to read McBride’s other celebrated novels.
- National Dish: Around the World in Search of Food, History, and the Meaning of Home (Anya von Bremzen) — Each chapter of this book is focused on a “national dish” (e.g., ramen, borsch, tapas), and how the cultural heritage of these dishes are much fuzzier than they seem. Great food writing.
- Roaming (Jillian Tamaki & Mariko Tamaki) — I was really missing NYC a lot this year, and this graphic novel beautifully captures different neighborhoods and places (Grand Central Terminal, the Met, Astor Place, as well as the Uniqlo in Soho!)
I started biking to work this year (a ~40 min bike ride each way) which is the perfect amount of time to listen to podcasts and New Yorker audio articles. These were some podcasts I really liked this year (I guess some are New Yorker articles but I listened to the audio version)
- Did two honesty researchers fabricate their data? [Planet Money]
- They Studied Dishonesty. Was Their Work a Lie? [New Yorker]
- On David Foster Wallace [LRB Podcast]
- Jhumpa Lahiri on Roman Stories [Poured Over]
- Holly Herndon’s Infinite Art [New Yorker]
- Why the Godfather of AI Fears What He’s Built [New Yorker]
- Will AI Kill the Future of the Creative Arts? [Open to Debate]
- The Squid Hunter [New Yorker]
- How Jensen Huang’s Nvidia Is Powering the A.I. Revolution [New Yorker]
- Che-Wei Wang CW&T [Near Future Laboratory Podcast]
- The 10 Best Books of 2023 [The New York Times Book Review]
- Playing Tears of the Kingdom
- Going to Nintendo Live
- Getting my Analogue Pocket and getting to play old game boy games like Rhythm Tengoku (which I purchased from ebay)
- Atsuko Okatsuka at The Moore
- Hiromi at Town Hall
- Meal at The Ledbury
- Prince of Wales Conservatory at Kew Gardens
- Listening to Zadie Smith voice all her characters in the audio book for The Fraud
- The new Mitski album
- This tweet from Victoria Coren Mitchell about NYTimes’s “new” Connections game
- Ken Jennings sighting at my local bookstore in Seattle (on a Saturday night, nonetheless)
- Buying wooden crates for my LPs
- This SNL skit about imperial measurements
- The Turn Every Page documentary about Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb