Recommendations from 2015

Well! 2015, the hottest year yet in recorded history is wrapping up, and it’s time for one more installment of my “things you might like because I did” series.

The most impressive, necessary, beautifully written, and haunting book I read this year was Alexievich’s “Voices from Chernobyl”. Really, it doesn’t actually feel like homework, but I came out of it thinking that every technologist and every advocate of nuclear power has the moral duty to read it, and if I can convince you of doing so through a flippant analogy, I’ll do it: this book is like “World War Z” for a catastrophe that actually occurred, and that will occur again. As Alexievich says: “These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.”

Zambra’s “Formas de Volver a Casa” is a simple account of growing up under a dictatorship, but under this simplicity there is a struggle to come to terms with the authoritarianism lurking in everyday society. I found it relevant for our political moment, as I did two of the plays in Camus’s “Caligula and 3 other plays”: the titular play, and “The Just Assassins”.

I really enjoyed Perec’s experimental “The Art of Asking your Boss for a Raise”, which is the most fun you will ever experience executing a flowchart. Also, I believe I’ve recommended everything that Patrick DeWitt has ever written, and he has a new novel out, “Undermajordomo Minor”, that is also a delicious read.

Richardson’s “Vectors” has some excellent aphorisms; McDougall’s “Born to Run” did more to change my life than most of the books I read this year (more about that in a later post), and Harvey’s “Dear Thief” is contained, melancholic, and heartfelt.

Faber’s “The Book of Strange New Things” has a great premise (space explorers send a Christian missionary to evangelize an alien race) and develops it brilliantly and with empathy—don’t let the apparent religious tones deter you. On a darker direction, Vandermeer’s “Annihilation” revisits Lovecraft and makes it better: a very weird but enjoyable nightmare. However, if I were you I would avoid the two latter installments of his trilogy.

As for movies, “What We Do in the Shadows” is comedy very well done, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is apocalyptic action very well done, and “The Big Short” is a semi-documentary (?) very well done. Of course, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is simply very well done; I am glad Wes Anderson exists and does these precious films. On TV, the one series I watched that you may have missed is “Halt and Catch Fire”—give it at least a couple of episodes though.

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. The one that I binge-listened the most was Mike Duncan’s “The History of Rome”—like hearing a very knowledgeable, very patient, rather funny and dorky friend go on and on about one of the best real stories we’ve got. “The Truth”, in turn, is a collection of radio dramas, and it’s all about the production: great voice acting, great effects, lots of genre and narrative variety. Finally, “Criminal” has well researched and surprising short stories revolving around crime as its focal point.

Four good boardgames with very different mechanics: first, “Tajemnicze Domostwo”, also named “Mysterium” in the American edition, is just excellent. A cooperative mix of Dixit and Clue, and a great exploration of the difficulty of communication—more than just a boardgame, I would say, but great as a boardgame too. Get the original version, as they unforgivably screwed up the art in the American one. “Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space” is simple and tense; like the sci-fi horror “Alien” made into a game. “Skull” is a short and sweet bluffing game, and though the edition I linked to has beautiful art, you can play it with coasters on a pinch. Finally, “Spyfall” is wonderful as a party game: one person is the spy and tries to remain undercover; everyone else is out to get them. Like “Werewolf” but shorter, sillier, and without player elimination.

Computer games: three I liked were “80 Days”, an upscale interactive fiction production; “Don’t Starve”, a survivalist game that doesn’t take itself too seriously except in its production values; and “Subterfuge”, which you could see as a better “Diplomacy”, or as the slowest real-time strategy game out there: launch an attack on an enemy and it will arrive in perhaps 24 hours, which gives you and the defendant plenty of time to recruit allies and escalate, or maybe iron differences out and turn the attack into a gift instead. A warning that despite there being a very prominent Code of Conduct on that game forbidding jerks, jerks can rather easily be found.

If you are in Victoria, you should check out the kite festival when it comes again; it is meditatively beautiful. Year-round, the coffee roasted by the Coffee Lab (at the Second Crack coffee shop in Rock Bay) and by Bows & Arrows (available at Habit and others) is delicious. Heist, the best coffee shop in Victoria, suffered the curse of all misunderstood geniuses, and closed down, but Graham, its artful barista is now at Hey Happy, so it is not a total loss. And finally, for your sweet tooth, Empire Donuts are outstanding, as are the white chocolate brioches prepared Saturday and Sunday mornings at Fry’s Bakery, but the very best sweetness I’ve found is the selection of ice cream concoctions of Cold Comfort.

As usual, I would love to hear about what you found and liked this year, and I hope the recommendations above are useful for you. Happy New Year!

(Previously: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009)

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