Cuevano ~ Jorge Aranda

Recommendations from 2021

To the persistent souls that still visit this resurrection plant of a blog, hi again! I often tell myself I'll return to regular posts soon, and that will be true one day. In the meantime, as long as I'm around and remember where I left the keys, I will at least keep coming to share my list of yearly finds, hoping you will like some of them too. Here we go:


Let's start with Rivka Galchen, whom I was grateful to discover this year. I loved Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, in which we get a first-person account of the real life trial, for witchcraft, of Johannes Kepler's mother (!). Darkly comical, but humane, never cold; Galchen's writing gives me Ibargüengoitia vibes, partly in its commonsensical pragmatism in the face of historical aberrations. Like Ibargüengoitia, Galchen is also an autobiographical essayist, and her Little Labors collection, on motherhood and raising a baby, was fantastic. (For a sample of her writing, check out this article on nuclear fusion: she makes the subject's mysteries both accessible and beautiful.)

It was through Galchen that I got to Rachel Ingalls' Mrs Caliban, perhaps my favourite book of the year. I'm afraid to say too much about it, because I don't want to spoil it for you. But I'll say I found it very funny, very clever, very moving, and deliciously absurd.

Natalie Haynes' A Thousand Ships is a retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of the large cast of women involved—human and divine. A brilliant idea, well executed—the range of voices and experiences is eye-opening.

I laughed with the new translation, by Julia Lovell, of Journey to the West—especially on the first few chapters. I was unaware of the long Chinese tradition of the Monkey King character; his ridiculous hijinks are whimsical and dream-like. Also dream-like was Sussana Clarke's Piranesi; like Mrs Caliban, this is perhaps a book best approached without too much research—just plunge in.

Three fun books: Richard Osman's The Thursday Murder Club (septuagenarians playing detective in a retirement home), Laurent Binet's Civilizations (Incas and Aztecs dodge their guns-germs-and-steel trap and conquer Europe), and Jon J Muth's graphic novel adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's The Seventh Voyage (an astronaut attempts to fix a spaceship clunker with the help of a time loop).

There were a couple of books I would not typically pick up, but I am glad I did. The first was Maggie Shipstead's Astonish Me: an intergenerational drama starring ballet dancers. Extremely good; sharp and full of energy. The second—it was actually a book I did pick up, then almost dropped when I realized it was about a pandemic; I've got enough of pandemics for a good while thank you—was Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven. Despite striking a few false notes (a cartoon villain, some postapocalyptic tropes), on the whole it was great. It's at its best when making the case for the simple pleasures and opportunities in everyday experience.


A suggestion: if you will get and read only one of the books in this post, I think you should make it Joe Sacco's Paying the Land. It's a graphic journalism piece on the Dene, in the Northwest Territories. I thought it was illuminating, complex, honest, probing, humble, full of beautiful illustrations, of love for the land and of empathy for the people Sacco interviewed within.

Chelsea Vowel's Indigenous Writes was sardonically enlightening on some of the same issues—of indigenous identity, culture, interactions with the Canadian government, treaties, stereotypes, law, and the day-to-day perspective and outlook of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people.

George Saunders' A Swim in a Pond in the Rain was a real treat. It's a book about writing and reading—about exploring what in a story makes it work, and why, and how can we use the same principles if at all. There is genuine love for literature here; Saunders' advice is warm, practical, and full of compassion.

Speaking of practical advice, Julia Galef's The Scout Mindset has it too, though of a different kind. Early on, perhaps, you'll read her description of the "scout mindset" and proudly think "oh yes that's me," but in the rest of the book Galef will show you how difficult it actually is to remain open to changing our positions. More importantly, and in contrast to the plethora of more fatalistic accounts of our cognitive flaws out there, she will provide good tools to help us get closer to that scout ideal.

One more non-fiction recommendation: Nina MacLaughlin's Hammer Head. MacLaughlin was a journalist with a career crisis; she became a carpenter apprentice by chance. This memoir of her apprenticeship is deep—it's a story of a change of professional identity, of craftsmanship and teamwork, of gender, of the wonder of turning trees into spaces for living, of the pride in being able to effect these transformations, of humbling mistakes, and of the endless road to mastery. As a very occasional and very amateur carpenter, I found a lot to like.


Succession finished its third season and continues to be immensely enjoyable. Dune on theatres was a hypnotizing experience. Get Back is a bit of a miracle: I grew up listening to these Beatles songs and now it turns out there is fascinating footage of the moments they sprung up, almost casually, on the spot. We're in the midst of watching Money Heist; awesome so far.

I loved playing Disco Elysium—what a weird and idiosyncratic detective point-and-click game this is. My gaming group and I have only played a few sessions of Masks, but I'm also liking it so far. And on the Switch, my boy and I are currently going through our third playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and we are still not tired of it.

I now use Obsidian for note-taking, (following, kind of, the Zettelkasten method) and Dash for API documentation; I've been using both for months, pretty much daily, and I absolutely love them. Simple, well-made, useful. Also for work, the StaffEng podcast has lots of exactly the kind of advice and perspective I feel I needed at this point. All of these resources, by the way, I found via mentions by Lorin Hochstein, and if you work in software you would do well to check his Twitter feed and his excellent Resilience Engineering papers compilation.

And that's it for the year! Thank you for coming around. If you do decide to try out any of these recommendations, please drop me a line—you can find out how fairly easily if you don't know already. I would love to learn your thoughts.

I hope you have an off-the-charts spectacular 2022—or a calm and steady 2022, really, if that's what you are after; after the past couple of years who could blame you. Lots of love and contentment, in any case.

(Previously: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009)