Every book I read in 2021
Rapid fire book reviews
When I was in 2nd grade, our class divided our paper into three sections and drew progressive self-portraits: one today, one of ourselves in 10 years, and another in 50 years from now.
In each section, I drew the same drawing: a full body self-portrait, smiling, book in hand. The only difference was that my hair was to my shoulders in the first drawing, down to my waist by age 16, and down to my ankles several decades later.
Today, I’m sharing a list of micro-reviews: one-sentence reviews of everything I read last year.
I rank the books I read using a star system. Here’s how my star system works - it’s based on Haley’s system, which resonated with me:
No asterisks: I didn’t like/am ambivalent about this book and I wouldn’t recommend it.
1 star (*): I liked this book and would recommend if asked.
2 stars (**): I loved this book and recommend it unsolicited.
3 stars (***): OMG this book! I recommend it constantly and would re-read.
I track all the books I read in an iPhone note, but I add all my 2-star and 3-star books to my Bookshop profile, here.
Daddy by Emma Cline (**)
Vivid short stories set across California, featuring scenes and characters I still think about. Like peeking through windows at contemporary lives.
The Mothers by Brit Bennet
Kind of heavy-handed thematically; I suggest The Vanishing Half instead.
The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie (*)
Friends Tommy and Tuppence solve a crime, jolly good fun - free audiobook reading recommended!
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (*)
The most beautifully wrought cast of characters whose lives who are likely not similar to yours, but whose inner lives are deeply relatable. Jhumpa Lahiri is just too good!!
Luster by Raven Lelani
If you liked My Year of Rest and Relaxation, you’ll like this one (I personally didn’t enjoy either, but I will say they are both fascinatingly original books.)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
I was hoping this would read like a nostalgic childhood classic, but I couldn’t even finish it - it felt dated and depressing.
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
The fiction equivalent of “should have been an article”: this should have been a short story. Too much telling, not enough showing.
Pastoralia by George Saunders (*)
I love George Saunders - his cultural commentary is so sardonic without being cynical or finger-pointing.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (*)
An old-fashioned riddle of a book. Not creepy, kind of campy, a classic cozy murder mystery.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (**)
A masterclass in pacing. This book shouldn’t feel suspenseful, but it does - plus a beautiful story, exquisite setting, and characters that break your heart.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (**)
Immersive, fascinating, suspenseful, wide in scope but beautifully simple in themes.
The Magicians Assistant by Ann Patchett
I went on an Ann Patchett kick this year (clearly) - and this is one you could probably skip.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kusher (**)
A dark and gritty glimpse into the Bay Area women’s prison system and the people who live in it. I think about this book constantly.
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz (**)
The. end. of. this. book!!!
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins
May I suggest Daisy Jones and the Six instead?
Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia (**)
The Homegoing of the Cuban-American experience. Which is to say: VERY GOOD!!
Beautiful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney (**)
My favorite Sally Rooney book to date - a capture of exactly how it feels to live right now, yet it somehow feels timeless. Future generations will read Rooney’s writing to understand this moment in time.
The Nickel Boys by Colton Whitehead (***)
A book that will smash your heart into a thousand pieces, then put it back together, then run over it with a car. But worth it.
Olive Kitterage by Elizabeth Strout
Not the cast of characters for me - but maybe for you?
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (***)
Just a delight from cover to cover. I loved this book the first time I read it, and this time around was a cozy winter re-read. Every sentence is an absolute masterpiece.
Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides (*)
If you live in the United States, particularly in the West, this is highly recommended reading for how the West was won - though “won” is altogether too triumphant and final a word for the chaotic, horrific, absurd, and complex series of events that created today’s United States.
The Silk Road by Peter Frankopan (**)
I’m a bit of a history know-nothing and I set out to fix that with this broad, sweeping review of World History, centering the trading history of the world. The concept of “cultural appropriation” will become much more confusing after reading this epic.
The Bomber Mafia by Malcom Gladwell (**)
Peter and I listened to this and learned a lot - this innovative audio format is a massive improvement to regular ol’ audiobooks.
The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders (**)
George Saunders captures what feels so deadening about the news cycle, politics, and your social media feed - and he’s funny, too.
Breathe by James Nestor (*)
Breathe through your nose, people! That’s the gist.
Yellow Bird by Sierra Crane Murdoch (**)
Murder on an Indian reservation in the midst of an oil boom could easily become an over-sensationalized story, but Murdoch is unwilling to simplify complicated stories or pander to her reader. Worth reading if you enjoy great journalism and like to see life in shades of grey.
Transitions by William Bridges (*)
Required reading for a life that is guaranteed to include change.
The Wild Edge of Sorrow by Francis Weller
A book on grief that I found to be a bit out there for what I needed.
The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey (*)
A book that is ostensibly about tennis but is really about effective coaching - of yourself or others.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (**)
Inspirational without being too fluffy - made me want to flush my ego down the toilet and be creative!
Humble Consulting + Helping by Edgar Schein (*)
I’m starting to do more consulting - Schein is old-fashioned and a bit dusty, but his concepts are memorable and have already helped me in my work.
Effortless by Greg McKeown (*)
I have re-read McKeown’s first book, Essentialism (***) several times, and I’ll definitely read it again. Start with Essentialism and then read Effortless (if you feel like it.)
You're Not Listening by Kate Murphy
This could truly be an article - and it is. Skip the book.
Becoming Wise by Krista Tippet
I love the podcast, but you can skip the book.
What Kind of Woman by Kate Baer
I admire Kate Baer, but this collection didn’t do it for me.
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio (**)
I’ve never read a book that talks about immigration quite like this one. I’ve thought about it a lot since.
Calypso by David Sedaris (*)
My favorite story in this collection is about Sedaris feeding a snapping turtle.
Educated by Tara Westover (**)
There’s a reason everyone was reading this a couple years ago. Gripping and shocking but not sensationalized.
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay (*)
An uplifting series of vignettes written by a poet. Sweet and joyful but not cloying.
Bravey by Alexi Pappas (**)
Not your typical “athlete memoir” - a remarkably candid and quirky reflection on mental health, family ties, and being yourself in a complicated world.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama (**)
I was just coming into political consciousness when Obama was elected in 2008, so I loved the context from this first installation of Obama’s memoir. His reflections are nuanced but not defensive, and occasionally funny.
Motherhood / Parenting
Raising a Rare Girl by Heather Lanier (**)
I would recommend this memoir as required reading for parents, but also for anyone seeking a better understanding of the disabled/neurologically diverse community of kids and their parents. I think about this book a lot.
Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott (**)
Lamott is willing to say what we’re all thinking but most of us don’t say about motherhood. I now know I’m not alone in thinking of Wren as my beloved baby but also occasionally my nemesis.
Expecting Better by Emily Oster (**)
A must read pre-pregnancy (or during pregnancy). Cuts through the myths and relieves anxiety. Covers fertility, pregnancy and birth.
Cribsheet by Emily Oster (**)
I read this during pregnancy and I’m glad I did since I had more time to read then. Covers the early months/years of baby care.
The Family Firm by Emily Oster (*)
I read this recently and enjoyed the perspective on decision making, but would consider it less of a “must read” depending on how much you like to read about systems (Shocking to nobody: I love systems!)
Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May
This one didn’t resonate with me personally (too much magical thinking for me) - but if you’re exploring having a home birth and want to read uplifting stories about women giving birth, you might enjoy it.
Nurture by Erica Chidi
I took Chidi’s pre-birth course and I’d recommend it - but the book wasn’t organized in a way that worked for me.
A Nursing Mothers Companion by Kathleen Huggins
I found this book to be poorly organized and I stopped reading it. In my experience, a good lactation consultant is much more useful than a book on breastfeeding (and all LCs’ bills are reimbursable via the ACA, in case you didn’t know!)