Cuevano ~ Jorge Aranda

Recommendations from 2018

It's the end of the year again, which as far as this blog is concerned, means it's time to dive into my memories of 2018 to bring you some gems you might like. Here we go!


This was another good year for fiction. I particularly liked Miller's Circe, a modern take on Greek mythology from the point of view of the world's first divine witch. The premise may sound a bit conceited, but the gods feel real, powerful, and vain; while humans, short-lived, sometimes genial, wash through Circe's shores. The book is a page-turner, but a wiser and kinder one than I anticipated.

Patrick DeWitt had a new book out this year, French Exit, and it was excellent: eccentric characters, crisp dialogue, fun settings. When I was done I wanted more of it, but—as the book warns from the very start—all good things must end.

Malas Hierbas, by Pedro Cabiya, is a very entertaining story of a Caribbean zombie passing off as a pharmaceutical executive, trying to find a way to become alive again. I understand that the English translation (Wicked Weeds) is quite good, but I haven't read it.

Meanwhile, in Barba's República Luminosa (not translated yet, as far as I can tell), a city's bands of roving homeless children begin to take control, to organize, to terrorize, and to coopt the more privileged youth to their side. It's a surreal and subtly horrifying ride.

Speaking of horrifying, Lewis's The 2020 Commission Report is based on the premise that Kim's North Korea attacks Trump's United States in the year 2020, and that the book—the report—is the best effort of the US Congress to understand how it all spiraled out of control. Lewis is an arms control expert, and what makes this book nightmarish is that pretty much everything that goes awfully wrong in it has actually gone wrong; we've just been lucky that it hasn't had the same outcome yet. Despite the horror, this tale of annihilation was far more fun than it had a right to be.

I also enjoyed Alderman's The Power, a tale in which women discover an inner source of extraordinary physical power, immediately and radically shifting the gender power imbalance, and smashing the patriarchy—and a lot more with it. It's a bit on the nose, but I think it needed to be: I learned a lot from it about our real gender dynamics, and I suspect you might, too.

Finally, North's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was lots of fun. It's a kind of Groundhog Day story, in which the protagonist relives his life after each death, retaining the memories of what's happened in his earlier lives. It's probably one or two hundred pages too thick, but still quite engaging.


Harper's The Fate of Rome deals with the shocks that nature dealt the Roman Empire, in the form of climate change and pandemics, weakening it, and ultimately helping bring about its downfall. History has evolved a lot, being now much more informed by the creative use of forensic archaeology, climate science, DNA sampling, and epidemiology, and the results are eye-opening.

Clear's Atomic Habits, a self-help book, actually helped me. It provides good, practical advice on how to foster the kind of habits we want and break those we don't. I had to squint past the folksy anecdotes at the start of each chapter, but it was worth it: the discussions on how habits shape identity, and on how to tweak that system in our favour, were enlightening.

Two other books with good practical advice: first, Nosrat's Salt, Falt, Acid, Heat made me a far better cook, not by giving me easy recipes to follow, but by helping me understand the underlying principles and tools available in the kitchen. Read it all and you'll find it has somehow built up your intuition in ways you'll find useful and gratifying three times a day. It is also beautifully illustrated.

And second, Metz and Owen's 99 Bottles of OOP provides a clear example on how to approach programming problems with a test-driven development perspective, how to tackle naming challenges, and when and why to create abstractions. Down to earth mentoring, easy to follow, immediately applicable. I've been programming for many years, but I still found Metz and Owen's book improved my skills almost overnight.

Children's Literature

My daughter and I have enjoyed reading through the stories in Nagaraja's Buddha at Bedtime many times. They are approachable, relevant, and wise. Not really religious, as the title might lead you to believe; just calm and mindful. Nagaraja has two other books for kids on the same vein, and they are just as good.

We also discovered Woodcock's Coding Games in Scratch, an easy to follow guide, and we've been having lots of fun programming games together: the platform makes it easy to have a full game coded in an hour or two, and it's pretty amazing to see it unfold.


I've recommended Duncan's Revolutions podcast before, but I feel like I need to do it again: he's now going over the Mexican Revolution, which I believed I understood well already, and I find that I get a lot more context and insight from Duncan's narrative.

I thought the first season of Wooden Overcoats, about competing funerary homes in a small English village, was hugely entertaining: great voice acting, fun situations, good writing. And the Beef and Dairy Network Podcast, a satirical improvisational show supposedly about the cattle industry, gets pretty weird and features great comedy actors.

Finally, while not a podcast, I've been meditating daily using Headspace this whole year, and loving the results. I should be able to meditate unassisted, but I could never do it regularly before, and I'm grateful for the range of assistance that Headspace gives me, and the ways it helped me establish the meditation habit.


Three boardgame recommendations: first and foremost, Secret Hitler, a Mafia-like social deduction fable in which liberals try to keep fascists out of power, while fascist plot to keep Hitler's identity secret, and to get him into the Chancellery. It's very easy for liberals to shoot themselves in the foot, weakening the republic and its norms as they try to root the fascists out. The game art is quite pleasing, its mechanics are better than most similar party games, and its theme is on point for our times.

Food Chain Magnate, the most recent game from Splotter, is, like most of their previous games, sharp, balanced, and rewarding. It can be played online here for free, and maybe it should—the accounting is all automated online, so you can better focus on your food chain franchise.

Flamme Rouge was a joy to play. You take the role of a team of two cyclists, and you win if one of them is the first in the game to cross the finish line. Every other team will have as much energy available as yours, so it all comes down to efficiency and placing your cyclists tactically in the group. The rules are simple and can be explained in ten minutes, but they fit the theme of the game beautifully: drafting, elevation, exhaustion—all of these concepts become accessible and intuitive.

Movies and TV

The best movie I watched this year came late: Cuarón's Roma, available on Netflix, was just undescribably good. It's gorgeously shot and directed, but, far more importantly, I could not stop thinking as I was watching it the great extent to which it was True: true to me, as a child born in Mexico in the seventies, true as in honest and heartfelt, true architecturally and contextually, true as art should be. Roma does not show my life's events, but it shows my life like no other movie I can think of. It's a masterpiece; I know I'll go back to it many times.

The Coen Brother's The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an antology of six short Western stories, also available on Netflix, was funny, dark, cruel, and touching; one hard candy after another. I think it's one of the best Coen movies yet.

Another good dark movie was Iannucci's The Death of Stalin. Stalin dies, and those around him jostle for power, while everyone else just tries to do whatever it takes to stay alive in this demented regime. The humour here is lucid and macabre, but I know it's not to everyone's liking,

Finally, I was told I should see Sorry to Bother You without reading anything about it, so as not to spoil it. It was good advice, and I pass it on to you: just go see it, if you can find it.

So. It was another good year for us, and as is often the case, it feels strange to type this in the knowledge of the disparity between our small lives and the bizarre wellspring of despair of the daily news cycle. And this brings to mind one more recommendation to wrap up this post: to disconnect more.

After struggling with the unfolding calamities in newsfeeds everywhere, I decided to get them all out of my phone: no Twitter, no Facebook, no news apps—and nothing at all at night. I still check in on my computer, now and then, reading the news once or twice a day like the gods intended. I still care. But now most of the frantic daily stuff looks small, pointless, and overheated, a recipe for frustration and rage. I'm glad to be out of the loop. Instead of reaching for my phone, I keep a book nearby, and a list of long reads on my computer. I feel a lot saner and more focused as a result. Maybe you'd like to try it?

I hope 2019 goes wonderfully for you. Happy New Year!

(Previously: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009)