Cuevano ~ Jorge Aranda

Recommendations from 2023

Another year panning for gold, another year finding wondrous nuggets in our cultural stream. Here are some of my favourites:

Non-fiction

This year, my surroundings opened up to interpretation like never before, and I have Tristan Gooley’s books to thank for it. I read "How to Read Nature" and "The Natural Navigator" in puzzlement by the mystery of why would extremely practical and life-enriching pointers such as these not be better known. The shape of the trees around you indicates the path of the sun! A glance at the crescent moon, or at a flag flapping in the wind, is often enough to get your bearings! It’s astounding, the stuff we are oblivious to, and that Gooley points out effectively and lovingly.

In the late nineties, I would listen to Pulp nonstop. I imagined the band leader, Jarvis Cocker to be a kindred spirit, going by lyrics and sensitivities alone, in the naive way a fan does with their stars. Then for a long time I stopped listening to them. When I revisited them, I was apprehensive: I’ve found other early musical loves cringeworthy in hindsight. But Pulp still holds up pretty well, and Cocker may be a kindred spirit after all, judging by the excellent "Good Pop Bad Pop": a sort of memoir of his and the band’s early days that is funny, endearing, and seductive.

Wally Koval’s "Accidentally Wes Anderson" is a coffee table book with a compilation of places and things that match the director’s aesthetic. They are a joy to browse—and note that you can do that on the website rather than on the page. Not every photo lands—these shots sometimes aim at a parody rather than the original, the way ChatGPT can parrot the caricature of a poem with none of its soul—but when they do they’re exquisite.

I wrote recently of my love for Chris Oliveros’ "Are you willing to die for the cause?", and I must include it in my year-end list as well. An oral history in comic-book form about the Québec revolutionaries of the 1960s with implications for activism today.

Finally, Steve Easterbrook’s "Computing the Climate" is a great overview of the early and current work to model our climate. I’m biased, of course—Steve was my doctoral advisor—, but I can proudly and safely recommend it to everyone looking to understand how climate science is done, regardless of their previous knowledge on the matter. There are fascinating bits here everywhere, from the earliest models, calculated by hand a century ago, to the bleeding edge work at the top climate centres in the world, and they are explained with care and with respect for your intelligence.

Fiction

Speaking of climate change: I wonder if Paul Murray’s "The Bee Sting" might not be the best novel published on the topic. Or rather, and perhaps because, it’s not about climate change, but about our attitude when the writing is on the wall, when something bad is about to happen and everyone can see it, but they still can’t help play their part in the unfolding tragedy. The sense of impending doom is personal and familial rather than societal, and that makes it more real. The novel doesn’t beat any drums, and it is about many, many other things as well: secrets, isolation, status, money, love, sexuality, the mystical in the modern, the tides that carry us, and the hurt we are responsible for; patterns that reverberate and harmonize through 600+ gripping pages. Wonderful, darkly comic, but also painful.

For something lighter, how about a murder mystery? Last year I pointed to a book by Stuart Turton ("The Seven Deaths…"), this year, I’m happy to recommend another one, "The Devil and the Dark Water". A sort of Holmes and Watson pair work to tackle an impossible puzzle of a murder at sea. Impossible unless they accept the supernatural as an explanation—should they? A very fun read.

I loved Clare Pollard’s translation of Ovid’s "Heroides". It’s an ancient text, but it feels fresh even now! The poem is structured in the form of letters from women in myth—letters in which the writers (Phaedra, Medea, Penelope, and others) describe their plights and their dilemmas. Pollard says it is “a daring act of literary transvestism” for Ovid to have taken this on, and I agree. She also points out it is the first book of dramatic monologues, and the first example we have of epistolary fiction. And it is so good, so raw, so human!

There is a podcast, Backlisted, which I discovered this year but can only take in very small doses, as it’s full of great book recommendations that would take me forever to chase. For instance, these three are books they mentioned, that I adored, and that I’d like to pass on to you: first, Raymond Briggs’ "Fungus the Bogeyman", a delightfully dour children’s picture book depicting the life of a working class monster. Second, Jessica Au’s "Cold Enough for Snow", a slim, calm, meditative novel about a mother-daughter holiday in Japan, and third, Pete Dexter’s "Deadwood", a fantastically good western—no connection to the also great HBO show, or at least no connection that HBO would want to acknowledge.

TV and Movies

This was the year that "Succession" wrapped up, and what an absolute knockout of a last season that was. If you haven’t seen it, I’m afraid my superlatives might turn you off—and yet I can’t remember being stunned like this by a TV show before. Deliciously clever writing, wonderful acting, just perfect in every way.

But if a dark tragicomedy of greed and power is not your thing, how about "The Leftovers"? A seemingly random 2% of the population vanishes in an instant; the series picks up in the aftermath as those left over struggle to maintain their social order and their mental health in the face of the absurd and unexplainable. At times nightmarishly Lynchean—the first season has echoes of "Twin Peaks"—, the series succeeds thanks to its heart and unpredictability.

Two simpler but very enjoyable shows: "Extraordinary" is set in a world like ours, but where everyone gets superhero powers when they reach adulthood, except for our protagonist, a plainly ordinary woman. It’s very silly fun. And the case-of-the-week show "Poker Face" features a drifter with one key asset: the uncanny ability to tell when someone is lying. As in Columbo, you know who did it from the start, but you still want to see how the case gets solved.

Were you as nonplussed as I was by the adaptation of The Sandman to the screen? If so, then let me suggest Jim Jarmusch’s "Only Lovers Left Alive" as the fix to your ailments—such a good movie! A despondent vampire wonders why he should keep waking up every night among the “zombie” mortals; his wife comes over to lift his spirits. It’s everything there is to love from the classic issue "The sound of her wings", set to gorgeous photography, music, and performances, and none of that dumb CGI.

Finally, what a ride "Triangle of Sadness" was! The smartest movie I’ve seen in a while—it’s also fiercely anti-ideological, original, surprising, and funny. I shouldn’t try and summarize it for you; it’s one of those films that benefits from going in not knowing what to expect. I can’t wait to see what Östlund does next.

Games

It was also a good year for games for me. The very best find, I think, was Cole Wehrle’s Pax Pamir, a board game in which players take the role of local Afghan leaders trying to navigate the “Great Game” of geopolitics played by the empires above them. It is technically innovative and tight—I heard it described as a knife fight in a phone booth—, extremely tactical, with multiple plausible strategies, and crafted so that all players have a reasonable shot at victory until the end. At the same time, it is illustrative on the role of local powers in empire-building, and on an aspect of world history I was not familiar with. The components are beautiful, but you can also play the game online at Rally the Troops.

Years ago, I recommended Flamme Rouge as a game that I felt got bicycle races intuitively right. I feel the same now about Granerud and Pedersen’s Heat: Pedal to the Metal, for car racing: the rules are simple and elegant, and they push you to get to the finish line with all you’ve got, your machine about to blow up—unless maybe you pushed it a bit too much. Lighter fare than Pax Pamir, and far easier to teach too I believe.

A late, wonderful discovery, was the most recent Spiel des Jahres winner, Dorfromantik, designed by Michael Palm and Lukas Zach. I became so fond of this game, perhaps because it reminds me so much of Carcassonne, the game that got me into modern Euro designs. Dorfromantik, in fact, looks like an evolved, mature, corrected Carcassonne—similar to the evolution from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to Tears of the Kingdom. It is a cooperative “campaign” game (early successes unlock more tiles and complexity), and it works perfectly fine as a solo game. Challenging at higher levels, and addictive.

On the Switch, I also enjoyed playing Chants of Sennaar with my son. A unique game of linguistic puzzles—the task is to piece together utterly foreign languages—, with an inspired aesthetic and a fine story.

Others

I had no idea that Nick Cave, the musician, had such an expansive, loving soul. In his website, The Red Hand Files, he takes on questions from random strangers, and gives back compassionate, wise, heartfelt answers. I read them carefully whenever a new one pops up.

One podcast recommendation (other than the aforementioned Backlisted): the epic takedowns of airport bestsellers that is If Books Could Kill, with Michael Hobbs and Peter Shamshiri. Smart, funny, and good at pointing out just what is off about the usual suspects hogging the mike all the time.

I have been trying to wean myself off of Google this year. I feel like I’ve had enough of it, and the less I give them the better we’ll be. I’m still checking alternatives to their mail and calendar applications, but I found it easy to get off their maps and browsers. Search is crucial, and for that the key for me was learning about Kagi. I switched to it and I haven’t looked back. The search results are great, and there are no ads. The price seems fair for not being the product myself.

To cure your clogged-mailbox-and-dozens-of-browser-tabs syndrome, I’m happy to suggest Omnivore, the best Read Later service I’ve found. Free, open source, cross-platform, beautifully designed. Send your newsletters there, send your open tabs there as well, then take them on when you have the dedicated time to clear them.

Finally, if you are in Victoria, drop by the Dumpling Drop downtown for some fantastic food. Vegan options available; top it up with a Kid Sister popsicle from their freezer, then coffee from the reliably good Hey Happy or the just as good but far less well known Saint Cecilia nearby. And if you do go, let me know and I’ll join you! It will give me a brilliant excuse to have some more myself.


I believe that’s it. I hope you found something above that tickled your curiosity. If you did, I’d love to learn about it, as well as about any of your own finds. Happy New Year!

(Previously: 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, ...)