Books I Read in 2021
So… 2021: not quite as terrible as 2020. But still not great! Hope everyone is staying safe and has a great 2022. Here’s some stuff I read this year.
1. Nomadland by Jessica Bruder
Pretty good reporting. Also enjoyed the movie.
2. My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
I tried reading Middlemarch once and couldn’t get through it but love Rebecca Mead’s stuff, so it was still fun to read about what the novel means to her.
3. We’ll Always Have Casablanca by Noah Isenberg
Interesting to learn about all the people who worked on this movie after fleeing Europe ahead of and during World War II.
4. Lifedeath by Chris Claremont and Barry Windsor-Smith
Lovely artwork by Barry Windsor-Smith in these X-Men stories.
5. Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre
Smiley returns in a decent thriller. RIP John Le Carre.
6. A Race Like No Other by Liz Robbins
Brisk history of the NYC Marathon. I think my marathon-ing days may be over, but reading this made me potentially reconsider.
7. Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss
Terrific novel. Nicole Krauss is super-consistent.
8. Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North and Erica Henderson
Adorable graphic novel about a superhero with the incredible powers of a squirrel!
9. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
I don’t think I fully understood the themes of this (kind of?) satirical novel, but it was a page-turner.
10. Emotion Pictures by Wim Wenders
Love some of Wim Wenders’s movies (Paris, Texas is a real favorite), but this collection of essays didn’t do much for me.
11. Wonder Woman by George Perez
Most interesting thing about this collection is the tension between Perez’s efforts to tell a real feminist superhero story and the expectations of a monthly comic book in the 1980s.
12. Doomsday Clock by Geoff Johns and Barry Frank
Pointless sequel to Watchmen.
13. The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho
Not really my kind of thing.
14. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Some super-intense moments.
15. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Haven’t watched much of Trevor Noah’s show, so didn’t have a lot of expectations but this was excellent. Very funny, but also eye-opening. I’m embarrassed to admit I learned more about what life was like in apartheid-era South Africa from this book than from anything else in my life so far.
16. Hawkeye by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and others
“Pizza Is My Business,” told from the perspective of a dog, is a joy. Kate Bishop is a great character.
17. Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit
Lots of good essays.
18. Violent Cases by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
Touching and painful graphic novel, with evocative black and white artwork.
19. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
Great historical novel about women soldiers in Ethiopia who fought against invading fascist Italy at the start of World War II. This is an epic.
20. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Another superb Patchett novel. Maybe not as overwhelming as State of Wonder, but that’s the highest possible bar.
21. Congratulations, By the Way by George Saunders
Commencement speech by Saunders from several years back. I’m not usually interested in these types of congratulatory speeches, but I liked this a lot.
22. Future Noir: the Making of Blade Runner by Paul Sammon
Blade Runner is great, but this is much more info than I needed. The best anecdote: in the climactic scene, the dove didn’t fly out of Rutger Hauer’s hands when they first tried filming it; because it was soaking wet and couldn’t fly like that, it just hopped out of his lap and strolled away.
23. Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Geradsg
So sad. So good.
24. Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor 1980–1983 by Tim Lawrence
My favorite cultural moment in NYC history, when punk, post-punk, disco, and hip-hop were all intermingling. Tons of awesome playlists also included.
25. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Thesis: the invention of agriculture has been terrible for our happiness as a human race. This was a fascinating read but I need to look up some counterarguments.
26. New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time by Craig Taylor
New York City from the perspective of “ordinary” people from all walks of like (i.e., no celebs).
27. The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000–2020 by Rachel Kushner
Great passage: “To be hard is to let things roll off you, to live in the present, to not dwell or worry. And even though I stayed out late, was committed to the end, some part of me had left early. To become a writer is to have left early no matter what time you got home.”
28. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean
29. Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson, Nico Leon, others
30. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Excellent memoir. It was nice to see this turn into such a sensation and also turn up on Obama’s best-of-the-year list. Great year for Zauner, as “Be Sweet” by Japanese Breakfast was one of the bops of the year.
31. Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe by Steven Strogatz
Tried to re-grasp the main concepts of calculus. Skipped all the equations and formulas.
32. The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard
Short historical novel about Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria. Don’t remember much about it.
33. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
Tough, vulnerable, and essential essays. Painful to read as instances of anti-Asian hate crimes were increasing.
34. The Vision by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta
Didn’t know about Tom King before this year, but between this and Mister Miracle, he is a genius comic book writer.
35. Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander
Couldn’t get through this collection of letters from a British woman to her beloved, a solider on the front in World War II.
36. Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Lame fictional oral history.
37. How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius by Nick Greene
38. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Synopsis: Hamnet = Hamlet. I’m being glib; this was very good.
39. Mad As Hell: the Making of Network by Dave Itzkoff
I have mixed feelings about Network as a movie (why is everyone shouting all the time?) but it now seems incredible that mainstream Hollywood made movies like this.
40. Ronin by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley
Doesn’t quite pull it all off, but kudos for the ambition.
41. Rememberings by Sinead O’Connor
I love Sinead. Her prose is mostly serviceable, but her voice shines through on every page. And her great sense of humor. Also, best book cover of the year.
42. Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion
Didion is a legend. The essay on the college application process feels like it could have been written today.
43. Somebody’s Darling by Larry McMurtry
Read this after McMurtry’s passing this year. It’s a fun and scabrous Hollywood story, but nothing will compare to Lonesome Dove (and I’m being unfair by even suggesting the comparison).
44. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Innovative and moving novel.
45. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Very good short stories.
46. Wayward by Dana Spiotta
Another wonderful novel by Spiotta. There are a couple of minor things (I won’t spoil) that would make me put this a notch or two below Stone Arabia and Eat the Document, but still really good.
47. Death: the High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman, Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham
Death as a goth girl.
48. This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mothar and Max Gladstone
I couldn’t make heads or tails of this fantasy story of a romance that develops between opposing spies/soldiers in a war across time, but great premise!
49. The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey
Couldn’t get into this.
50. The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
I don’t typically read much sci-fi. I’m glad I read this because it was pretty good, but couldn’t commit to the concluding two volumes. I wikipedia’d to find out what happened.
51. Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
Almost never read YA, but read this one for my book club. There were parts I liked and parts I didn’t and I’m curious to know what’s inherent to the genre vs. what’s just this author’s choices.
52. Skinship by Yoon Choi
Totally brilliant collection of short stories. Best fiction I read this year.
53. Bayesian Statistics the Fun Way by Will Kurt
Used this to give myself a stats review, though this book was strangely organized (e.g., normal distribution doesn’t show up until about two thirds through the book).
54. Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm by Isabella Tree
Didn’t finish this nonfiction account of a decommissioned farm returning to its natural state.
55. A Separation by Katie Kitamura
Short, spare, intense novel. Love the precision of the language and looking forward to reading Kitamura’s most recent book.
56. Steve Kerr: A Life by Scott Howard-Cooper
Big fan of Kerr and his sardonic sense of humor.
57. Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney
Another excellent novel by Rooney. Normal People is still my fave and this one ends on a maybe overly pat note, but that’s a minor issue. I had a great time reading this.
58. Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres by Kelefa Sanneh
Fun pop music history, though goes much deeper than I could process at times. Favorite tunes of the year: the Olivia Rodrigo album, “Hard Drive” by Cassandra Jenkins, “Wusyaname” by Tyler the Creator, “Like I Used To” by Sharon van Etten and Angel Olsen, “Good Days” by SZA, the ten-minute “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift, “Eugene” by Arlo Parks, and many others. Here’s a playlist.
59. Dig Me Out by Jovana Babovic
Short account of the recording of the amazing Sleater-Kinney album. It’s okay, but just listen to the record. “One More Hour” slays every single time.
60. Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert
Ninety percent of this made me think we’re doomed; ten percent made me think maybe we’ll figure it out.
61. Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP by Mirin Fader
Most inspiring thing I read all year.
62. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Hugely entertaining novel. Made me nostalgic for my place in Washington Heights just two weeks after moving out.