2016 in books

4 January 2017

This year, I loosened my resolve to read only books by women, partly for practical reasons and partly to see if I could notice a difference when starting to read books by men. (Spoiler: most of the time, I can - if only thanks to terrible descriptions of women’s feelings or bodies.) I just about read fewer books than in previous years, but more pages, according to Goodreads.

I’ve put *s by my favourite picks, and lists of the books I read are under each section. Recommendations are always very welcome.

Tech-ish books

Two highlights from this year in the ‘tech critic’ book genre for me were The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor, and danah boyd’s book It’s Complicated, both of which I’d been meaning to read for a while. Both were a great reality check to the tech utopias I come across too often.

I also finally read Civilising Natures: Race, Resources and Modernity in Colonial South India, by Kavita Philips. The ideas were fantastic, but I have to confess I found it a little hard to get through in parts due to its heavily academic style.

I started thinking more about the intersection of comedy and technology this year, so I picked up Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance (which had the added bonus of having a nice element on race, too) - a nice mixture between a digital sociology book, a personal memoir and a comedy book.

For the first year since I was at university, I had books assigned to me that I had to read, as part of my time at Data & Society! It was unbelievably nice to be told what to read, and to have discussions with people about them afterwards. More book clubs, please.

  • Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, by Sherry Turkle*
  • The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
  • It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd*
  • Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
  • Civilising Natures: Race, Resources and Modernity in Colonial South India by Kavita Philip
  • The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor*
  • The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties by Fred Turner
  • Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists by Sharon Traweek
  • Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil

Fiction

This year for me was the year of Elena Ferrante and Jhumpa Lahiri. I devoured Ferrante’s Neapolitan books while on holiday in Italy, and though I struggle to describe the plot exactly, it made for breathtaking reading (and a truly wonderful holiday). I’ve rarely been as outraged by a literary event as I was when I found out her identity was doxxed by some poor excuse for a “journalist”, and I refuse to read anything about that event - everything I need to know about her, is in her beautiful writing.

In keeping with the Italian theme, Jhumpa Lahiri’s book In Other Words blew me away. Written in Italian (her third language, learned as an adult) and translated into English by a professional translator, it covers language, race and identity in a way that I’ve never come across before. Her first two languages, English and Bengali, are familiar to me - though Italian is not one of them, I’ve learned other languages as an adult and can deeply empathise with many of the feelings she writes about, from feeling out of place and wanting to fit in, to the interweaving of immigration and otherness. Her others that I read this year, The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies were also fantastic.

Early this year I picked up The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee. It had been one of those books I was putting off reading while focusing more on books by women, so I was glad to relax those rules a little this year to pick this up. It provided a new perspective on Bengali culture for me, and taught me a lot about political activism in Calcutta in the 60s and 70s. Tahmima Anam’s third book in her trilogy came out, too - The Bones of Grace and though it was far less about Bangladesh than the previous two, it was a good read.

Another highlight - in a kind of brutal way - was A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. Just after finishing it, I wrote it was “brutal, but in an engrossing way”, and months later, that stands. I still can remember paragraphs and that sickening feeling in my stomach when I realised where the story was going… it’s not a light read, to say the least.

I travelled to Brazil in September, so picked up The House in Smryna, Crow Blue, and K by Bernardo Kucinski, (translated by Sue Branford) just before. K was fantastic writing, and heartbreaking, on the search of a father for his ‘disappeared’ daughter during the military dictatorship in Brazil.

Two Zadie Smith books rounded up the year for me - On Beauty, and her newest, Swing Time. I loved them both (and I discovered this year that her book NW has been made into a BBC drama.)

  • Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri*
  • The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels #2) by Elena Ferrante *
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Novels #3) Elena Ferrante*
  • The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels #4) Ferrante, Elena*
  • The Days of Abandonment by Ferrante, Elena
  • The Lost Daughter, by Ferrante, Elena
  • Swing Time by Zadie Smith
  • On Beauty by Zadie Smith
  • Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa
  • The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry*
  • The House in Smyrna Tatiana Salem Levy
  • Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok*
  • How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
  • The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee*
  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara*
  • K by Bernardo Kucinski*
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro*
  • The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour*
  • The Bones of Grace by Tahmima Anam*
  • One Night, Markovitch by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Science fiction

My main SF focus this year was on language and linguistics, it seems. I devoured all of Suzette Elgin’s Native Tongue trilogy, and recommended her books more times than I can remember. The combination of feminist science fiction with a focus on language and linguistics was just fantastic. Ted Chiang’s short story collection contained “Story of Your Life” which was made into Arrival, also released this year. And I also picked up Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, and Babel-17 by Samuel Delaney. I preferred the latter to the former, which though I know is a cyberpunk classic, didn’t do much for me.

I loved Louisa Hall’s book Speak, which I’ve recommended a lot as a great example of how science fiction helps us think through potential ethical quandries that we will face in the future.

Outside of the language focus, N.K. Jemisin’s books The Fifth Season (and the following in the trilogy, the Obelisk Gate) were recommended to me by so many people, and I’m very, very grateful. They were spectacular, and left me wondering about them afterwards and thinking about them when I hadn’t finished them.

  • Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements by Adrienne Maree Brown
  • City of Illusions by Ursula K Le Guin
  • Infomocracy (The Centenal Cycle, #1) by Malka Ann Older
  • Speak by Louisa Hall*
  • The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1) by N.K. Jemisin*
  • Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang*
  • Native Tongue (Native Tongue, #1) by Suzette Haden Elgin*
  • The Judas Rose (Native Tongue #2) by Suzette Haden Elgin*
  • Earthsong (Native Tongue, #3) by Suzette Haden Elgin*
  • How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
  • Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Non-fiction

My friend Chris Michael recommended Out on the Wire to me, and I was lucky enough to find it in a bookstore just afterwards. The idea of covering radio storytelling in graphic novel format sounds strange, but it really works, especially when taken in parallel with the podcast series the author, Jessica Abel, produced. It’s thorough, and interesting, combining storytelling tips with more personal stories of the individuals behind those stories.

A special shout out to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I loved. A truly astonishing story, and one of those stories that we should all be much more aware of.

Earlier in the year, I crowdfunded The Good Immigrant and I’m so glad I did. It was simultaneously refreshing, comforting, and saddening. Having lived outside of the UK for a few years now, I know I look back upon things with slightly rose-tinted glasses. I also know I tried hard to ignore a lot of things while I lived here… and while it was wonderful to read stories about people I could really truly empathise with, the book also looks unflinchingly at serious societal issues in the UK around race and identity. I’m so glad they wrote it.

This year I started a fellowship in the topic of ‘tech translation’, so I decided to get back to my linguist roots with a couple of books on languages and linguistics, too.

  • Out on the Wire: Uncovering the Secrets of Radio’s New Masters of Story with Ira Glass by Jessica Abel*
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot*
  • The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla*
  • Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos
  • In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language by Arika Okrent
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates*

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