Books I Read in 2021
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
A short, uncomprehensive list of the books I read this year, in no particular order
#1. If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood by Gregg Olsen
This year, I found myself interested in true stories: memoirs, true crime, nonfiction, etc. If You Tell caught my interest because it sounded extreme. A deranged, narcissistic mother, Shelly, continually abuses her three daughters, Nikki, Sami, and Tori. She welcomes friends into her home only to torment and abuse them, too. Shelly is responsible for the death of two of her friends, and If You Tell recounts the horrifying things she made her daughters do and suffer through. While the book was good, it was told from the third person perspective so it felt less personal than a first-person account. Maybe I'm numb to gross tragedy, or maybe the book wasn't incredibly well written, I'm not sure. Either way, I didn't love it. Don't take my work for it though. If You Tell is a #1 Wall Street Journal, Amazon Charts, USA Today, and Washington Post bestseller, as well as a 2021 Audie Award Nominee for Best Nonfiction Audiobook.
#2. ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life by Stacy T. Sims PhD, Selene Yeager, et al.
I picked up this book at the recommendation of Hilary with the Trail Running Women podcast. As a lifelong athlete, I was trained by mostly men, who did not or could not understand the various ways in which men and women differ physiologically. ROAR is a compressive guide to all of those differences and taught me how to adapt my nutrition, hydration, and training to my body's unique needs. This books gets very detailed and addresses women's changing physiology throughout our lifetimes. It was an empowering read and shed a lot of light on my old training plans weren't working. The books tagline says it all, "Women are not small men. Stop eating and training like one."
#3. The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James
I rescued this book from a devastating death in a dumpster, along with a stack of other titles. I probably wouldn't have read this unless someone else decided to throw it out, so I'm glad it came across my path. The Sun Down Motel vacillates between the years 1982 and 2017. Viv Delaney went to work at the Sun Down Motel in 1982 and mysteriously disappeared. Years later, her niece Carly returns to upstate New York to work at the same motel and a series of spooky events take place. It was a definite page turner, a good beach read, and a more believable scary story than most mystery novels.
#4. A Promised Land by Barak Obama
A Promised Land is a deeply personal account of President Obama's childhood, education, early career, and the first term of his presidency. Obama offers a thoughtful exploration of presidential power, the impossibility of the job, and the various mistakes and victories that highlighted his career. The reader gets an inside glimpse into his thoughts as he assembles his cabinet, wrestles with a global financial crisis, takes measure of Vladimir Putin, secures the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and more. A Promised Land is a unique presidential memoir both because of the historical nature of Obama's presidency and because of his frank openness. It is beautifully written and doesn't feel as long as it is. That being said, it's pretty damn long.
#5. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges
Empire of Illusion came to me through the recommendation of a good friend, and it sort of rocked my world. It is a criticism on the effects of mass media and popular culture on American society, politics, and economics. Since its publication in 2009, Empire of Illusion has been marketed as a work which predicted the forces that ultimately gave rise to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. The book is made up of five chapters, each of which is titled after a specific illusion that Hedges identifies as prevalent in American society: “The Illusion of Literacy,” “The Illusion of Love,” “The Illusion of Wisdom,” “The Illusion of Happiness,” and “The Illusion of America." I wrote abundantly in the margins and found Empire of Illusion to be both enlightening and distressing.
Samantha Irby is one of my favorite writers because she can make the most mundane occurrence an interesting, funny story. Wow, No Thank You is a collection of essays about her life. Irby writes about her job as receptionist at a veterinary clinic, moving into a house that requires repairs and know-how with her wife in a Blue town in the middle of a Red state, hosting book clubs, and making with new friends. My favorite essay was about week spent in Los Angeles taking meetings with "TV executives slash amateur astrologers" while being a "cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person," "with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees," who still hides past due bills under her pillow. Her essays in this collection are ridiculous, hilarious, and highly relatable.
I knew about Alexi because she was an Olympian, but her story, like all of ours, is so much bigger. Bravey recounts Pappas's life, from her childhood and losing her mother to suicide, through the awkwardness of adolescence, competing in college, and her journey to the 2016 Olympics, which happened to be the same year she wrote, directed, and starred in her first feature film. But Pappas writes about her triumphs as well as her dark times, recounting in vivid detail her experience with depression. Bravey is an honest, raw story of triumph. You don't have to be a runner or an artist to appreciate Pappas or this book.
#8. Green Lights by Matthew McConaughey
I wanted to love Green Lights, because everyone loves Green Lights, but I honestly did not love Green Lights. It was, or is, a number-one New York Times Best Seller about McConaughey's life, the lessons he's learned, and the funny lessons that taught him to be his own person. McConaughey calls it a love letter to life; a guide to catching more greenlights and to realizing that the yellows and reds eventually turn green, too. I heard about the book on a podcast, saw the book in airports, and eventually gave into the hype. It was a breezy read but I came away not feeling like I learned very much or felt very different. Mostly, I felt like McConaughey had to write this book for his own good, and we're just all out here reading it.
#9. Naked by David Sedaris
David Sedaris is weird in the most welcoming way possible. His books always make me laugh but Naked was especially poignant. He writes about his family; how his father obsessed over golf and his mother mimicked his nervous ticks and charmed his teachers with drinks. He paints a picture of a loving but dysfunctional family who may or may not have noticed his obsessive compulsive habits. He writes about hitchhiking with a quadriplegic companion, traveling across the country, and the various odd jobs he took to make ends meet. Sedaris writes in a style unlike any other, making his stories leap off the page. All of his books are worth reading, but Naked was especially good.
#10. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
I've been meaning to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for years, but I kept putting it off in favor of breezier reads. This year, I read it front to back, feeling sadness and rage deepen with each chapter. Brown is eloquent, meticulous in her details, and very clear in her account of the systematic destruction of the American Indian during the second half of the 19th century. She uses council records, autobiographies, and firsthand descriptions to bring validity and honesty to the stories of the many tribes she writes about. Brown allows great chiefs and warriors of the Dakota, Ute, Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes to tell us in their own words of the battles, massacres, and broken treaties that finally left them demoralized and defeated. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was a unique, disturbing, and incredibly important piece of literature.
#11. Know My Name by Chanel Miller
I was in college when the story of Brock Turner, the Sandford swimmer who assaulted an anonymous woman, who the media called Emily Doe, initially broke. Turner was sentenced to just six months in county jail after he was found sexually assaulting her on Stanford's campus. Her victim impact statement was posted on BuzzFeed, where it instantly went viral. It was viewed by 11 million people within four days and was translated globally. Thousands of rape survivors credit Chanel with giving them the courage to come forward and tell their own stories. Know My Name is a heart wrenching yet hopeful account of the years that followed her assault, giving the reader an inside look into a culture biased to protect perpetrators and a criminal justice system designed to fail the most vulnerable. Chanel is an extraordinary writer and her story will transcend time.
#12. Everything Now by Rosecrans Baldwin
Everything Now is about Los Angeles; how it is a cultural epicenter of America, how it is a place romanticized and demoralized. Baldwin's account of L.A. is deeply researched, provocatively argued, and deeply empathetic. From the crisis of homelessness to natural disasters, the struggle of the starving artist, to self-help gurus and the hyper-wealthy, Baldwin weaves a story of Los Angeles that is at once inspiring and delusory. He paints L.A. as a city-state, a nation unto itself with borders that are less physical and more metaphorical. He acts as a fly on the wall, giving readers an inside look into the wildness, loneliness, and beauty that is L.A.
#13. The Book of the World: A Contemporary Scripture by Phyllis Cole-Dai
A friend gifted me this book a year ago, and I've read a few pages a day, trying to make it last. The Book of the World is out of print-it'll cost you ~$90 on Amazon, but it's well worth the money if you can afford it. It's a book of "modern" scripture without religious pretense. It's an amalgamation of quotes from history, popular culture, various religions, even fortune cookies. The writer of the book is unknown, Cole-Dai is the editor. It's nearly 3,000 verses long, woven seamlessly from quotations from around the globe. The book first appeared online, only to be suppressed and taken down.
Love is misunderstood to be an emotion; actually, it is a state of awareness, a way of being in the world, a way of seeing oneself and others. It is a choice--a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile. It is above all else, the gift of oneself." The Book of the World, page 91.