Books

Books Read in Nov-Dec 2021

This will be my last book post on this website. To follow my reads in the future, you can find me on Goodreads.

I read 26 books in November and December (23 of those were audiobooks), which brings my 2021 total to 160.

This year was extremely abnormal compared to every other year of my reading life, in that audiobooks dominated my reading list — I listened to 133 books and read 27.

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2020 Book Stats:

Nonfiction vs. fiction: I read one work of fiction this year.

Female vs. male: 76% of the books I read in 2021 were written by female (or female-identifying) authors. This is an increase from 2020 (69% female) and 2019 (71% female).

Minority vs. non-minority: 36% of the books I read this year were written by minority authors (writers of color, LGBTQ, and underrepresented religious groups). This percentage is slightly higher than last year (33%).

Audiobooks vs. ebooks/physical books: 83% of the books I read this year were audiobooks. In 2020, audiobooks were 55% of my reading total (and 36% in 2019).

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Out of 160 books, here’s the breakdown of how I rated them:

  • Highly Recommended: 7 books
  • Recommended: 111 books
  • Okay: 37 books
  • Not Recommended: 5 books (there would have been more, but I’m quick to abandon books I don’t like)

This means I’d recommend 74% of the books I read this year to others.

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These are my top five books of 2021:

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The November / December list

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Recommended

1) Going There, Katie Couric

Description: For decades, through interviews with Supreme Court justices, prime ministers, presidents, and countless ordinary individuals, Couric has brought us the life stories of other people. Here she examines her own life — career highs and lows, experiences with sexism, her first husband’s death from colon cancer, and the demise of her friendship with former “Today” co-host Matt Lauer.

This is long (736 pages; I listened to it on audio) but worth it. I learned so much more about Katie, and I loved how open she was. There’s a review in the Times here and this article is also very good: Katie Couric Is Not for Everyone.

2) Will, Will Smith

Description: One of the most dynamic and globally recognized entertainment forces of our time opens up about his life, tracing his learning curve to a place where outer success, inner happiness, and human connection are aligned. Along the way, Will tells the story of an amazing ride through the worlds of music and film.

It can be tough for a book to stay entertaining throughout, but I was entertained throughout. Before reading the book, I watched Will’s five-part YouTube series, The Best Shape of My Life. I recommend that as well. You can also watch the trailer for his book here, and there’s a good profile in GQ here.

3) Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds, Huma Abedin

Description: Abedin, a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton who was once married to the former congressman Anthony Weiner, reflects on her career on the Hill and the uncomfortable scrutiny trained on her personal life after Weiner’s transgressions came to light.

Abedin had an interesting childhood and interned for Hillary’s staff at the White House as an undergrad. She was hired permanently once she graduated and had a lot of responsibility (as a member of Hillary’s advance team) starting in her early 20s. There’s much more — funny stories, her experiences on the campaign trail, and of course her marriage to Anthony Weiner.

She was interviewed (her first-ever television interview) on CBS Sunday Morning here, there’s a NY Times review here, and the Post writes that Abedin opens up about her marriage, the 2016 election, and her #MeToo moment.

4) These Precious Days: Essays, Ann Patchett

Description: A collection of more than 20 essays, packed with insight and emotion.

This new collection is named for an essay Patchett published about her friendship with Tom Hanks’s assistant, who died of cancer. While some of these essays can be found elsewhere, she says in the introduction that she made updates to all of them, rewriting some of the essays entirely. (Unsurprisingly, I really liked her essay about not having children, called There Are No Children Here.)

Another strong essay from the book I’d already read: My Three Fathers.

5) The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, Dave Grohl

Description: Dave Grohl’s memoir (drummer for Nirvana and the Foo Fighters).

I knew some things about Dave but not a lot — it was interesting to learn about his childhood in northern Virginia and how he got where he is today.

6) Gentrifier: A Memoir, Anne Elizabeth Moore

Description: Taking on the thorny ethics of owning and selling property as a white woman in a majority Black city and a majority Bangladeshi neighborhood with both intelligence and humor, this memoir brings a new perspective to a Detroit that finds itself perpetually on the brink of revitalization.

Moore, a writer/poet, won a free house in Detroit. It ended up taking multiple years and countless hassles before she legally possessed the title, along with $30k of her own money in repairs and legal fees. As she wrote: “It can be a nightmare to be publicly awarded a free house.” Read an excerpt here.

7) Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood, Dawn Turner

Description: This memoir is a celebration of sisterhood, a testimony to the unique struggles of Black women, and a tour-de-force about the complex interplay of race, class, and opportunity, and how those forces shape our lives and our capacity for resilience and redemption.

A good story about how three girls growing up in the same circumstances can have vastly different life outcomes.

8) Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement, Tarana Burke

Description: From the founder and activist behind the largest movement of the 20th and 21st centuries, Burke shares the story of how she first came to say “me too” and launch one of the largest cultural events in American history.

I didn’t know anything about Burke other than her involvement in the Me Too movement. Her background is impressive: sexually assaulted several times as a child, she took part in a leadership program as a teenager, continued leadership roles in college, and was heavily involved in community programs after graduation. She created the Me Too movement when she saw that nobody else was stepping up to help women and girls in need.

9) You Can’t Be Serious: A Memoir, Kal Penn

Description: Penn recounts why he rejected the advice of his family and instead of becoming “something practical,” embarked on a journey that has included acting, writing, teaching ivy league university courses, and working for President Obama.

Here are five things about his book.

10) In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain, Tom Vitale

Description: Anthony Bourdain’s long-time director and producer takes readers behind the scenes to reveal the insanity of filming television in some of the most volatile places in the world and what it was like to work with a legend.

Working with “a legend” didn’t mean life was always great. While Vitale said he was Bourdain’s biggest fan, he also describes situations where Bourdain was a huge asshole. He worked with Bourdain for over 16 years and has a variety of interesting stories to tell. Read an excerpt here.

11) The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family, Dan Savage

Description: In a time when much of the country sees red whenever the subject of gay marriage comes up, Savage — outspoken author of the sex/relationship advice column “Savage Love” — makes it personal.

This book was published in 2006 and Savage had already been with his partner Terry for 10 years; according to Wikipedia they’re still together. Pretty impressive! There’s a long, recently-published profile on Savage in Slate here.

12) Tastes Like War: A Memoir, Grace M. Cho

Description: Cho is the daughter of a white merchant marine and the Korean bar hostess he met abroad. When Grace was fifteen, her mother experienced the onset of schizophrenia, a condition that continued and evolved for the rest of her life. Part food memoir and sociological investigation, this is a search through history for the roots of her mother’s schizophrenia.

13) Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes: Essays, Phoebe Robinson

Description: Author, comedian, actress, and producer Phoebe Robinson is back with a new essay collection about human connection, race, hair, travel, dating, Black excellence, and more.

I tried reading her first two books and didn’t like them enough to keep going, but this one contained some good essays.

14) Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home, Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen

Description: A future-looking book from two leading culture reporters about the radical and transformational potential of working from home, offering a path toward a new kind of work/life balance that can improve our lives and strengthen our communities.

You can find an adapted essay (Remote Work Is Failing Young Employees) in the NY Times here.

15) The Dressmakers of Auschwitz: The True Story of the Women Who Sewed to Survive, Lucy Adlington

Description: A powerful chronicle of the women who used their sewing skills to survive the Holocaust, stitching beautiful clothes at a fashion workshop created within one of the most notorious WWII death camps.

When you think of death camps, you don’t think about women staying alive by sewing fashionable clothes, but that’s exactly what happened to a select group of women.

Okay

16) Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark, Cassandra Peterson

Description: The woman behind the icon known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, the undisputed Queen of Halloween, reveals her full story, filled with intimate bombshells.

Peterson is 70 and voices the audiobook herself; she sounds much younger than her age. I enjoyed hearing about her extensive celebrity encounters (including Brad Pitt randomly knocking on her front gate and making a successful offer to buy her house).

In the book, she reveals that after her 25-year marriage ended, she became involved with a woman and they’ve been together now for 19 years.

17) Forever Young: A Memoir, Hayley Mills

Description: Iconic actress Hayley Mills shares memories from her childhood, growing up in a famous acting family, becoming a Disney child star, and trying to grow up in a world that wanted her to stay forever young.

I enjoyed parts of this but Mills talks about a lot of formerly famous people that I’ve never heard of. There’s a good article in the Post here.

18) Seeing Ghosts: A Memoir, Kat Chow

Description: Kat Chow became unusually fixated with death as a child. When her mother died unexpectedly from cancer, Kat, her two older sisters, and their father are plunged into a debilitating grief. Kat weaves together what is part ghost story and part excavation of her family’s history of loss.

The description of this book warned me, but it really is ALL about Kat’s mother and her family’s grief, sprinkled with annoying things her father does. I was hoping for a wider variety of topics.

19) Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much, Faith Salie

Description: From comedian and journalist Faith Salie, of NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! and CBS News Sunday Morning, a collection of essays chronicling the author’s adventures during her lifelong quest for approval.

Salie was featured in this recent Times article about why she loves her messy apartment.

20) Taste: My Life Through Food, Stanley Tucci

Description: From award-winning actor and food obsessive Stanley Tucci comes an intimate and charming memoir of life in and out of the kitchen.

Pet peeve: Authors who read recipes out loud in their audiobooks. The most interesting chapter was at the end when he talked about getting tongue cancer and his long road back to health (and being able to eat normally again).

21) Comedy Sex God, Pete Holmes

Description: Part autobiography, part philosophical inquiry, and part spiritual quest, Holmes is a stand-up comedian, successful podcast host, and creator/star of the hit HBO show Crashing.

I liked the first part of Holmes’ book, when he talks about growing up as a Christian, becoming an atheist in his 20s, and then settling into a version of spirituality that works best for him. He then takes a deep dive into his new version of spirituality and interactions with his guru, which I found much less interesting.

22) Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America, Mayukh Sen

Description: This group biography honors seven extraordinary women, all immigrants, who left an indelible mark on the way Americans eat today. Sen—a queer, brown child of immigrants—reconstructs the lives of these women in vivid detail, daring to ask why some were famous in their own time, but not in ours, and why others shine brightly even today.

A good example of how women have been kicking ass in the culinary world for a long time.

23) Sorry Not Sorry, Alyssa Milano

Description: Milano’s sharply observed and deeply intimate ode to the life she has lived and the issues that matter most.

I wish this was more memoir than activism, but activism is important to her and it’s what she chose to wrote about.

24) My Body: Essays, Emily Ratajkowski

Description: Ratajkowski is a model and actress, political progressive, entrepreneur, and social media phenomenon. At a young age, she sparked praise and furor with the provocative display of her body as an unapologetic statement of feminist empowerment. This is Ratajkowski’s personal exploration of feminism, sexuality, and power, of men’s treatment of women and women’s rationalizations for accepting that treatment.

I hoped I would like this but I couldn’t get into it. There’s a profile of her in the NY Times here.

25) Pretty Bitches: On Being Called Crazy, Angry, Bossy, Frumpy, Feisty, and All the Other Words That Are Used to Undermine Women, Lizzie Skurnick (editor)

Description: A group of powerhouse women writers examine the power of the words that are used to diminish women. “Effortless,” “Sassy,” “Ambitious,” “Aggressive”: What subtle digs and sneaky implications are conveyed when women are described with these words? Words are made into weapons, warnings, praise, and blame, bearing an outsized influence on women’s lives — to say nothing of our moods.

As is to be expected, I enjoyed some of these essays more than others, but it was worth listening to.

26) No Cure for Being Human: And Other Truths I Need to Hear, Kate Bowler

Description: Bowler believed that life was a series of unlimited choices until she discovered, at age 35, that her body was wracked with cancer. Here she searches for a way forward as she mines the wisdom (and absurdity) of today’s “best life now” advice industry, which insists on exhausting positivity and tries to convince us that we can out-eat, out-learn, and out-perform our humanness.

I listened to Bowler’s first memoir a few months back and didn’t love it. I don’t understand why this was a separate book. She talks about a lot of the same things and repeats some information (she’s so “productive” that once when she had a cold and accidentally took a pill that would make her drowsy early in the day, her husband found her in the bathroom trying to make herself throw it up). I didn’t need to hear that story once, much less twice.

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