2021 Reading List
Books I read this (last) year
After posting my reading list for the past couple of years I wanted to once again share my annual reading list in 2021. Obviously I missed that deadline. 2021 is over and these are the books I read.
The two that made the biggest impression were probably Reign of Terror and A Burning. Overall this was a great year for my reading so that’s a tough choice. Hopefully there’s something for everyone so inclined to peruse.
Dark Matter - ed. Sheree Renee Thomas: The Ghetto and The Transformation stood out as the best works in this collection of science fiction stories by black authors. First published in the 90s, it definitely feels like it could use a second volume in the 20s.
Artemis - Andy Weir: The latest science fiction novel from the author of The Martian was solid and fine. It had the distinct feel of a young female character written by a man who seemingly doesn’t spend time around women or young people.
Gold Fame Citrus - Claire Vaye Watkins: Really cool climate apocalypse novel set in a now—desertified American West. The style was sometimes a bit too poetic for my taste (certain flourishes that get tired after a while) but it really lures you in to devastating effect once certain things become clear (trying not to spoil). Thanks to Zoë for this one.
The Rise and Fall of DODO - Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland: I’m a big fan of Stephenson but this was too cutesy by a half. There’s a super novel/innovative time travel mechanic and it’s a fun time but wasn’t what I was hoping for.
The Last Kings of Shanghai - Jonathan Kaufman: This telling of the two preeminent western families of Shanghai and Hong Kong and their respective business empires is an approachable entree into contemporary Chinese history, about which I was/am embarrassingly ignorant. I generally felt like I learned a lot about some complex (awful) people and the legacy of colonialism in China. Check it out if any of that speaks to you. Thanks Nat for the gift.
Piranesi - Susanna Clarke: This is really weird book but beautiful and haunting once you get into it. Thanks Henry for the rec.
Leave the World Behind - Rumaan Alam: Eerie and sinister novel about a family quarantining during an unknown (and unexplained) disaster. Freaked me the fuck out. It’s also exceptionally specific for anyone who grew up like I did (shout-out Brooklyn private schools and South Brooklyn living). If you have the stomach for some downright unnerving shit give it a spin.
The Dispossessed - Ursula K Le Guin: This one is pretty slow and a bit heavy handed (idk if you heard but both capitalism and communism have issues) but really picks up in the middle/back of the book. Thanks Liya for establishing the sibling book club.
The Fish That Ate the Whale - Rich Cohen: The story of the dirt poor jewish immigrant who build a banana empire and became probably the most powerful person in South America (this is where we get “banana republic”) is very much of a piece with last kings of Shanghai. Learned a ton about anti-communism in LatAm and was really blown away by how central United Fruit was to those efforts. Entertaining and really eye opening, if not particularly well written. Also if you’re looking for a news hook there’s striking parallel to certain large tech companies today just in the way that they flout local governments. Thanks Tim B putting me on it.
The Committed - Viet Thanh Nguyen: If you haven’t read The Sympathizer you should fix that mistake ASAP. The sequel has everything from the first book but more and weirder and grosser. Our protagonist, a double (triple? Quadruple?) Vietcong goes from California to Paris and I can only hope that there’s a third one set in Vietnam. Reading this, which really focuses on psychological colonialism or de-colonizing the mind/heart, in rapid succession some of the others on this list was a trip.
Horizontal Vertigo - Juan Villoro: I read this collection of essays about Mexico City in May on my way to DF on my first pandemic-era plane trip. The book is a bit uneven but two essays on street children and swine flu really made and impression and resonated as someone who absolutely loves that city. Fun to all read it together with my travel companions so thanks to Henry, Nat, Grant, and Mady.
Hashtag Good Guy with A Gun - Jeff Chon: As you can probably infer from the name, this one is pretty dark, especially once a light twist puts the story in a new context. Short book getting up close with conspiracy mongering, impotent male rage, and the genesis of a certain flavor of political/personal violence overtly inspired by the events of “pizzagate”
On Such a Full Sea - Chang Rae-Lee: haunting. Upsetting. Sticks with you as Rae-Lee basically paints a picture of the dangers of hope and resiliency in a crumbling world. Tl;dr a Chinese migrant worker in the remnants of Baltimore turned labor colony leaves home and gets lost in a ruined world that looks pretty much the same as our own. Pick this one up for sure.
The Unwomanly Face of War - Svetlana Alexievich: This oral history of female Russian soldiers in WWII provides a totally unique look inside the war. I had absolutely no prior exposure to this and had no idea that millions of women volunteered and were later impressed into service to stave off the German invasion. As if you needed any reminder, Russia c. 1944 was not a chill place. Thanks Henry for the rec.
Cult of We - Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell: devoured this retelling of WeWork’s collapse by two WSJ reporters who covered the story in great detail . Really electric read and much better written than Super Pumped. I don’t agree with all the conclusions - especially Brown and Farrell’s read on the macro environment - but boy oh boy does fraud entertain.
This Is How You Lose The Time War - Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone: More poetry than prose and not at all what I expected but absolutely gorgeous love story-cum-multiversal-war.
A Burning - Megha Majumdar: propulsive and horrifying and epic book about a gym teacher, a Muslim teenager, and trans actor in India. Not to be too reductive but if you liked White Tiger, you’ll like this. Totally engrossing picture of the contemporary melange of the internet, counter-revolutionary ring wing populism, and pluralism convulse together online and off. Desperation makes people do desperate, cynical things to get ahead in a stratified world. This should be a movie.
Reign of Terror - Spencer Ackerman: just fucking upsetting. This survey of the war on terror and its failures is all history that I lived through but for which I wasn’t a politically conscious being - at least not for most of it. Ackerman convincingly implicates much more of our social and political order in those failures (everything from moral to logistical) than I previously understood.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia - Mohsin Hamid: To continue a theme, this is basically Last Kings and The Fish with a twist: the fictional autobiography of home-grown business titan in (unspecific South or Southeast Asian country).
Dune Messiah - Frank Herbert: people say that each Dune book gets weirder and more incomprehensible than the last. They are right. Messiah is weird but still legible for anyone who liked Dune. It was also a good refresher on the world of Dune before watching the movie. You should all really watch the movie if somehow you haven’t.
The Fifth Season - N.K. Jemisin: This book is super popular right now as a fantasy novel with crossover appeal. IMO it’s absolutely all over the place and impossible to follow for the first 150 pages but gets pretty fun as a page turning light read beyond that. Thanks to Liya for organizing our second sibling book club book and I do look forward to the sequel for the third run.
Children of Dune - Frank Herbert: Remember when I said that each book gets weird and more incomprehensible than the last? Yeah well this is where they lost me. The high from the Dune movie got me to read the third in the series but it was a slog. I don’t think I’ll make it to the 4th (sorry Everett)… at least not until the next movie comes out.
The Force - Don Winslow: when it comes to Winslow, the girls the get it get it and the girls that don’t don’t. As always, Winslow brings a really engaging, well-researched crime thriller with an unloveable (but beloved) hard-nosed antihero. This time the attention is on corruption and abuse in the NYPD rather than the on the cartels but the it’s largely the same. Why fix what ain’t broken? Thanks Nat for the birthday present.
The Anomaly -Herve le Tellier: page-turning science fiction mystery about a plane lost in a storm that reappears 3 months later that is just begging to adapted for TV/film. Strong recommend.
Arriving Today - Chris Mims: another very topical monograph from a WSJ journo. Mims is one of my favorite WSJ writers and he goes deep on the supply chain and shipping logistics. It’s not the most riveting subject but Mims does a good job painting a picture and I feel at least a little bit more informed about WTF is going on with shipping these days.
Looking over the list I read a lot more than last year (good) which means the post is a lot longer (bad). Taken together, there’s some cohesive ideas that came through the total body of reading (very good).
To put on my 10th grade English hat, the most obvious theme is the human toll of empire and empire-building - past (The Fish That Ate The Whale), present (Reign of Terror), and future (On Such a Full Sea); at personal (The Committed) and galactic scale (Dune Messiah, This Is How You Lose The Time War). A lot of what I read this year was about picking up and putting back together the pieces from broken empires and collapsed dynasties. But it’s not all gloom and doom.
And mercifully I’m not in 10th grade anymore and I actually don’t have to find the themes. Not that Ms. Miller would ever be so trite! Besides, there are some really fun books here and hopefully in reading the gloomiest, I’ll be a little more imaginative and conscientious.
Have something you think I might like? Lmk! I continue to read a lot of science fiction and mystery/thrillers and to try to eschew “business” books. I’m always looking for edifying and approachable non-fiction. Very down to diversify my palette :)