82 Books in 2021

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I read 82 books in 2021, most of which were finished in the first couple months of the year. I read most of them as ebooks on my phone, yes, 82 books on that little screen. I figured since I spend most of my day staring at the device anyway, I might as well at least read some books instead of just endlessly scrolling the internet.

Below are some mini-reviews for a couple of my favorites. I usually post these to my instagram stories, and they’re always available in my highlights, divided into 1-3 star ratings and 4-5 star ratings. I always love talking about a good read, so feel free to ask me about any of the books you see above! You can also see my favorite reads from previous years here: 2020, 2019, 2018, 20152014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.

Best Books of 2021

Why Fish Don't Exist Book Cover 1. Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller. 5/5 book review If you’ve ever listened to the podcast Invisibilia, the use of a specific scientific frame to examine a broader human condition, the structure of the storytelling, and Lulu Miller’s clear, quirky, personal voice will all be immediately recognizable in this book. Clever. Profound. A wonderful journey, impeccably told. What begins as a history account of a fish taxonomist’s life leads us through the meaning of life, suicidal depression, murder, eugenics and forced sterilizations, and yes, ultimately, why fish don’t exist. If none of that makes sense right now, the best way to sort it out is to read the book yourself.

“Perhaps the greatest gift ever bestowed on us by evolution is the ability to believe we are more powerful than we are. It’s a hard lot being a human, these psychologists explain. You walk around with the knowledge that the world is fundamentally uncaring, that no matter how hard you work there is no promise of success, that you are competing against billions, that you are vulnerable to the elements, and that everything you ever love will eventually be destroyed. A little lie can take the edge off, can help you keep charging forward into the gauntlet of life, where you sometimes, accidentally, prevail.”

“Slowly, it came into focus. This small web of people keeping one another afloat. All these miniscule interactions—a friendly wave, a pencil sketch, some plastic beads strung up a nylon cord—they might not look like much from the outside, but for the people caught inside that web? They might be everything, the very tethers that keep one bound to this planet. That was what was so maddening about the eugenicists. They failed to even consider the possibility of a web like this. They failed to consider the tangible ways in which people like Anna and Mary might be enriching the society around them, reflecting more light back into it, strengthening it. Mary is not sure she would have survived the Colony without Anna. Well, that. That was something. Was it not? The difference between life and death. Did that not count for something?”

The Undocumented Americans book cover2. The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavincencio. 5/5 book review Stunning, Infuriating, Refusing your easy narratives, Cornejo Villavincencio is here to reclaim agency and voice for undocumented people. She became ‘famous’ when her anonymous article about being undocumented and a student at Harvard went viral. But she wasn’t on board with the idea of her immigration status as her ‘dirty little secret’ and she was angered by the propositions for her to write a memoir– no doubt wanting to peer in on the pitiable girl who ‘made it’. Then Trump got elected. She got writing. She interviews people to examine various issues in undocumented communities. But she’s emphatically not a journalist. She gets fully involved in people’s lives and tries to help. Tries not to exploit anyone for their stories. Breaks from nonfiction to write harrowingly imagined stories about the last moments of undocumented people’s lives in 9/11. The book is deeply personal. She has no illusions about herself as the narrator. We are asked to lose our illusions. To not look away.

“‘Shit,’ I told my partner. ‘They’re trying to Anne Frank me.’ By this point, I had been pursuing a PhD at Yale because I needed the health insurance and had read lots of books about migrants and I hated a good number of the texts. I couldn’t see my family in them, because I saw my parents as more than laborers, as more than sufferers or dreamers. I thought I could write something better, something that rang true. And I thought that I was the best person to do it. I was just crazy enough. Because if you’re going to write a book about undocumented immigrants in America, the story, the full story, you have to be a little bit crazy. And you certainly can’t be enamored by America, not still. That disqualifies you.”

“As an undocumented person, I felt like a hologram. Nothing felt secure. I never felt safe. I didn’t allow myself to feel joy because I was scared to attach myself to anything I’d have to let go of. Being deportable means you have to be ready to go at any moment, ready to go with nothing but the clothes on your body. I’ve learned to develop no relationship to anything, not to photos, not to people, not to jewelry or clothing or ticket stubs or stuffed animals from childhood. Sometimes to prove my ability to let go, I’ll write something long and delete it, or go on my phone and delete all the photos I have of happy memories. I’ve never loved a material object. When my parents took me home after my Harvard graduation, we took the Chinatown bus, and we each took one suitcase. If it didn’t fit, we threw it out. We threw out everything that wasn’t clothes.”

“I follow my own advice while trying to hold off on the suicidal ideation while trying to be as socially fucking mobile as socially fucking possible and then these kids fucking find me, and what do I do, but invite them into my heart and tell them, babes, go to school, climb the ranks, kill the salutatorian, make it look like an accident, and in your valedictory address, remind your school that cops are pigs, and ICE are Nazis, and you are John at the foot of the cross, Jesus’s most loved apostle, maybe his lover, and you’re in the holy word, escape to my home for some chamomile tea and RuPaul, there will always be room for you, I love you and forever will.”

World of Wonders book cover3. World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatahil. 5/5 book review I was delighted by this book. A memoir masquerading as a nature book, each chapter an organism presented for us to turn over in our minds and also serving as a beautiful analogy for some part of the writer’s life. Vignettes abound of life as a brown (Filipina Indian American) woman encountering racism, building identity, seeking belonging, and finding solace within nature. Full of wonder indeed.

“This is the story of how I learned to ignore anything from India. The peacock feathers my grandfather had carefully collected for me the day before I left India grew dusty in the back of my closet instead of sitting in a vase on my white dresser. This is the story of how, for years, I pretended I hated the color blue. But what the peacock can do is remind you of a home you will run away from and run back to all your life: My favorite color is peacock blue. My favorite color is peacock blue. My favorite color is peacock blue.”

“Listen: Boom. Can you hear that? The cassowary is still trying to tell us something. Boom. Did you see that? A single firefly is, too. Such a tiny light, for such a considerable task. Its luminescence could very well be the spark that reminds us to make a most necessary turn—a shift and a swing and a switch—toward cherishing this magnificent and wondrous planet. Boom. Boom. You might think of a heartbeat—your own. A child’s. Someone else’s. Or some thing’s heart. And in that slowdown, you might think it’s a kind of love. And you’d be right.”

Counterpoint book cover4. Counterpoint by Philip Kennicott. 5/5 book review Philosophical reflections on life and mourning, paired with extensive musings on cultural greatness and classical music, but particularly piano playing and Bach. Kennicott’s mother was difficult, often abusive. But he speaks of her gently, with empathy, and after passing, Kennicott, an amateur pianist, takes on the project of learning Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Best read with a constant Bach soundtrack and with at least some firsthand classical music knowledge. Beautifully written and deeply relatable.

“My mother’s death left me terrified about my own mortality, first in small ways, wondering how I will die, whether it will be alone, or in the company of loved ones, in poverty, or surrounded by comfort, in despair, or rich in memories and meaning. But it also aggravated a larger sense of dread, the ever-present but often mute fear we carry with us that our lives have been wasted, that life will simply run out and in the last hours or minutes or moments of awareness we will perhaps feel cheated, or horrified, to have moved so relentlessly and blindly toward nothingness. It was a feeling of panic, followed by a resolution to do something, accomplish something, at the very least to understand something like Bach’s Chaconne at a level that had until then eluded me.”

“The first approach to a piece of music will be necessarily superficial, but to continue in a superficial relationship is to ingrain the music into the mind in a crude, unfinished form. When competent musicians sit down to practice, they have in their head a to-do list: the rough spots, the complicated passages, the transitional places that need special attention. But I was playing merely to indulge myself.”

“Every grief is bearable but for the fear that there is a worse grief to come.”

Wintering book cover5. Wintering by Katherine May. 5/5 book review Timely. May describes wintering as a fallow period of life, withdrawing from the world, often not by choice. But she defends the value of wintering and sets off exploring various forms of wintering. Her personal, unexpected winters derail the project from what she expected it to be– that is, more literal examples of wintering in extreme northern settings– and instead we’re left with gentle, thoughtful reflections about a mix of metaphorical and literal wintering. Perfect for our current collective reality.

“Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again. Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure. Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds. Some winterings creep upon us more slowly, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new. However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful. Yet it’s also inevitable.”

“There’s a collector’s mentality online; our social worth is given a single blunt number. We have to make sure that we’re not fooled by it. We have to make the same assessments that we always did about the quality of those connections, their individual meanings to us and the nurture that they can realistically offer us. Just as with the physical world, many of these friends will melt away at the first sign of trouble. The only difference is that the numbers are bigger online, and our missed connections feel more visible.”

“When I started feeling the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favoured child: with kindness and love. I assumed my needs were reasonable and that my feelings were signals of something important. I kept myself well fed and made sure I was getting enough sleep. I took myself for walks in the fresh air and spent time doing things that soothed me. I asked myself: What is this winter all about? I asked myself: What change is coming?”

Do you see anything here that you loved or hated? Have you read any great books this year? I’d would love to hear your recommendations!