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making up for last year – 2021 in books

I never did a write up on the books I read last year, as I usually do. 2021 was the year of emerging from quarantine, which for me included my move to New York. Which has been a fish-in-water sort of thing, but even that required an adjustment period. It takes a second to get used to how differently time moves here. Only now some old habits and traditions that I’d suspended are slowly re-emerging. This is one of them.

I'll leave comments sparsely, based on what I remember. It’s been a pretty long time since I’ve read these books. It’s fun to reflect on books a while after reading them. Some of them remain stark in my memory, others not so much x

1. The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Excellent book. Funny, but not light. Not so absurd as it seems when one talks about it. Would recommend highly, but some of you will not have the patience for it.

2. Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji

Read this because I was helping Sandra conduct some workshops on implicit bias. I can't remember anything about this book. I did give it two stars on Goodreads, for whatever that's worth. Most likely because it felt like a primer.

3. Watchmen by Alan Moore

One of my favorite books of all time. Went back and rewatched the HBO show after reading and that was also a delightful, extra-rich experience.

4. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino

This book had been on my radar for a couple of years. I was waiting for the paperback to come out, and ordered it immediately, then, having heard great things about it and being excited to read it, saved it for a time that I could really digest and savor it. All that to say – I was really disappointed!

I really wanted to like this book, even as I was reading it; the author often says things that are intensely relatable and feel reassuring in terms of understanding where her perspective is aligned. It ended up, however, being quite infuriating to read! I have so much to say, a lot of responses to each essay in its own right – reading this book prompted some lengthy, heated journal entries and a ton of marginalia – but will leave you with a summary of what bothered me throughout the book.

She sets up theses and evades conclusions (her personal essays are worlds better than her critical ones). Most of what I underlined are ideas and quotes from the people she’s referencing. She names capitalism and capitalist culture a lot in her broader analyses, and will go so far as to identify them in her life and her choices, but never goes so far to address them, which I found extremely frustrating. She criticizes the existence of “professional opinion-havers” and at the same time never makes an effort to even suggest or ponder solutions or alternatives for the various issues she presents her opinion about! She’s feminist and anti-capitalist insofar as it feels safe to be; nothing in this book is challenging or uncomfortable. On one hand, I’m shocked so many of my friends loved this book. On the other, I can see why the book is so widely acclaimed – it asks so little of its reader.

5. Writers and Lovers by Lily King

A good book. Not much to say about it; a nice, relatively light, dramatic read. Good writing.

6. Likes by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Cannot for the life of me remember anything about this book.

7. I'm Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya

I think it's interesting the ways in which gender continues to be codified in conversations about/explorations of queerness....

8. Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change by Stacey Abrams

Read this because it was a gift from Sandra and it felt disrespectful not to. Ok so I half-read it. I just don't really connect with self-help/advisory/didactic writing. But it was nice to learn a little more about Stacey Abrams, I guess.

9. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk W. Johnson

Once again, narrative nonfiction pulls the fuck through. I love a story that revolves around a initially-innocuous but ultimately-devastating an obsession. Lots of threads of nuance and great balance between big picture matters and matters at hand.

10. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Somehow had not read this till now. Loved it.

11. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Eh. A compelling story but the writing felt sexist in a Murakami way, minus the romance of the language. There's an SA scene especially that felt egregiously written and just... I don't think anyone with a vagina would've written it that way. I was aware of how 'male' the writing felt throughout the book so by the time I got there it was hard to get past how much the way that scene was written bothered me.

12. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

As always, I love Ishiguro. This was no exception. A sweet book!

13. The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph

I adored this book. One of those where I felt very close to the characters very quickly and loved them all.

14. Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

Read this per Laya's request and she did not do me wrong. Some good, solid medieval fantasy. A great set of characters and good plot.

15. The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle by Steven Pressfield

I also don't remember anything about this book.

16. What Mad Universe by Fredric Brown

Found it at a used bookstore and picked it up because the binding and title were attractive and also just got curious about this random sci-fi story from the 1940s. It was fun to read!

17. Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

The second book in the Farseer trilogy. Clearly I was hooked.

18. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

These stories are simply not as good as I remember them being. Feeling like there must be some kind of Mandela Effect situation because despite putting a decent amount of time into searching for any other version of this book/these stories and only finding evidence of this book, I starkly remember a different book. That version was more colorfully illustrated and had a story that had something to do with a kid at camp and bloody fingers that has no resemblance to the bloody finger ghost story in this book.

19. Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction by Charles Baxter

As much as I don't like didactic texts on writing, I do like reading about writing and I loved Baxter's reflections here. I haven't read anything else by him but after this I'm inclined to. Prompted some good marginalia.

20. Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano

Really liked this book. The book is about [class] 'straddlers' which in our family are our parents. My dad read it and liked it too.

21. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

I read this for a date, lol. It had been on my list so I was happy to do it and it's short – I loved it. A very different experience from watching the movie, but even in retrospect (Claire and I watched it in her parents' spare bedroom back in 2018) it made me more appreciative of the film.

22. Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Could not get into it.

23. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson

I liked it, but it was a little too dense for me.

24. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

Love this book. Read it twice in a row. It's also very romantic.

25. Black Alice by Thom Demijohn

Another random selection from a used bookstore. It was fun, I loved it – would make for a great movie; Coen brothers vibes in both tone and story.

26. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

At this point people make jokes about this book and the people who read it. Honestly, having read it on par with what it is, not looking for answers or therapy, and looking more for an understanding of the way things work than vocabulary, it's immensely valuable. Even from a totally zoomed out perspective, for example, of seeing how the common struggle of contention/resolution between feeling responsible for/ashamed of our 'weaknesses' and the realities around why each of us are the way we are, and that being a big part of a therapeutic process in the sense of relieving existential and psychological burdens. And the fact of that being common and recurring as being helpful in learning some lessons by proxy.

Ok on the most personal level, I felt like reading it gave me more clarity around my mom and who/how she is and how I could maybe maneuver differently and reset my expectations to match what was likely closer to her reality, even if she herself wasn't aware. Not at all trying to therapize her – rather, seeing what felt like personal problems or even generational curses as just facts of being the daughter of someone who went through XYZ. Externalizing some of what I'd internalized for years and in the process being able to operate with/from a place of greater kindness. I think it also finally gave her the space to confront those dynamics within herself, rather than continue to manifest and try to confront those as issues between us. I mean, on a more practical level there were no magical overnight changes (there never are, unless luck is involved), but I'm reorienting and finding new forms of security in that relationship, which is nice, to say the least.

Whew, ok. Anyway it's still probably not for everyone. I can't speak to it in any academic or medical capacity. And I don't think it should be so extrapolated into broader contexts and concepts to the degree that it has. But, I back this as a book that's worth reading.

27. To Room Nineteen by Doris Lessing

A good story.

28. One Day in December by Josie Silvie

Shruthi gave me this book to read when I told her I was looking for something light. We love love stories also. Nothing special to say about it but it was fun to read!

29. The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Kline

A really sweet book that took me back to a lot of the YA books I read when I was younger. Would recommend reading if you need a pick-me-up.

30. Smoke by John Berger

Berger always complements and comforts my own inner 'voice'. This was no exception. Reminds me of Peter Greenaway's 'Windows'.

31. Murder in Belgravia by Lynn Brittney

You know, it’s easy to dismiss most murder mysteries as unserious, but there is always politics around murder – the power dynamic between the victim and the murdered, the power dynamics that exist that allow the murderer to remain hidden, the power dynamics that often determine the outcome of the situation. This is why Agatha Christie’s stories are so effective. Each of her books asks strong, insightful questions about balances of power, right and wrong, the validity of so many of the ideas and values we take for granted.

This book lives in the same neighborhood as Christie’s work, but falls flat on all sides. The quality of writing is lesser, the development of the story and the characters is eh, and the way that it handles ‘female perspective’ is too neoliberal for my taste.

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