Books I read in 2021
I’m not a rituals person, but over the last 5 years I’ve made the period between Christmas and New Years one for reflection, recovery, and reading. End of year lists can be performative, and I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a partial motivator when I began this ritual, but I’ve come to see it as a reflective practice that I’m committing to sharing publicly.
One of my favourite things during the holiday period is to rest, eat and read about what other people are reading, loving, and reflecting on. Among my favourites: Rachel, Ava, and Emma’s. If you have a book list, I’d adore to read it. Cole Tweeted yesterday that ‘What are you reading right now’ is the sexiest question and I agree. I want to know what the people around me are reading, thinking, feeling. And in this year, where much was uncertain, books gave me comfort, as they often do.
This year I read far less than I aspired to (29 books), and far less intentionally than I have in the past. It was a strange year that brought a lot of unexpected changes, and I turned to non-fiction for answers, often, but I found that particularly with my choices in fiction this year, I was passive and on the whole, less satisfied with what I read this year. I read more non-fiction than fiction (52% non-fiction to 38% fiction), with my non-fiction tending towards psychology and branding.
My top picks
Usually when I reflect on my year, there are 3–4 books that stand out. This year it’s hard to pinpoint even one that stood head and shoulders above the rest. The list was, in a way, reflective of the mood of the year: all blurred together with some periods that left me too anxious to read, and others where all I could manage was re-reading an old favourite or some non-fiction. For the sake of tradition, the books that ranked the most highly for me this year: a cookbook that reads like a memoir (Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat), a memoir that reads like a takedown of hustle culture (Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner), a revisionist history of the last 75 years of white evangelicalism (Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez), a novel about food, sex, and god (Milk Fed by Melissa Broder), and a novel narrated by a dog (The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein).
The list, in the order I read them
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat — I ‘met’ Tamara Adler and Alice Waters through the magic of books and Masterclass, and so it felt fitting that over the summer break, I bought my first cookbook. As an author, Nosrat hosts the kind of conversation you’d just like to spend hours sitting in the kitchen consuming, part witty reminders about how to flavour dishes, part musing on what tastes good, and part kitchen confidential, with tales of the various (impressive) chefs she’s learned from (Alice Waters at Chez Panisse!). Bonus: adorable illustrations to help you navigate ingredients.
Milk Fed by Melissa Broder — I’m not usually a read-a-book-the-month-it-drops kinda gal, but in February, I was. It’s a story about hunger through a young woman with an eating disorder who finds redemption in an Orthodox Jewish frozen yogurt employee. It’s light but also profound, and I ate it up. TW: heavy ED content.
The Copy Book by D&AD — Reading about people’s creative process, for me, will never get old. This is a delightful collection of excellent print ads and reflections from some of the advertising industry’s best copywriters.
Don’t Buy it: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy by Anat Shenker Osorio — This was a re-read. I try not to read too many industry books at once (I find it hard to switch off at night when I jump straight from work to reading about work), but this is an exception.
“The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.”
“If we want people to follow us, it makes sense to describe the place we’d like them to go.”
“If you want to change the world, change the metaphor. —Anat Shenker Osorio (and Joseph Campbell)
“Letting the economy’s movements be described as natural or self-willed prevents us from holding people in power accountable.”
Little Fire Everywhere by Celeste Ng — Picked this up on Grace’s recommendation, it was a fun read. The setting of this book: picture-perfect, Shaker, rule-following community is the perfect contrast to the protagonist, an artist hell-bent on disrupting the status-quo — a no-no in a town who’s charm depends on tradition. It’s about secrets, art, identity and about the lie that following rules keeps you safe from disaster.
To Shake the Sleeping Self: A Journey from Oregon to Patagonia and a Quest for No Regret by Jedediah Jenkins — I’m 99% certain I heard Jedediah speak at my old uni once. It’s part travelogue, part memoir about being raised in a church and an era that valued ‘purity (the sexual variety)’ above all else. As a cyclist, I particularly enjoyed reading about the start of the journey. As someone who grew up in a relatively religious community, I related to Jenkins’ musings about life and love.
Make Your Move: The New Science of Dating and Why Women are In Charge by Jon Birger — I’ll never not find the changing world of how we make sense of partnered relationships fascinating. Written by an economist, this book is a follow up to Date-onomics: How Dating became a Lopsided Numbers Game. TLDR: there’s an oversupply of educated women in the market. Birger’s written a POV on what to do about it. Fascinating.
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam — I saw Nick mention this on Twitter and I picked it up after reading the description — a family who’ve gone on vacation and rented an Airbnb outside New York city when something goes horribly awry. The couple who’ve rented their airbnb to them arrive one night in a panic, asking if they can stay, too: a blackout has swept New York and there’s no internet, TV or cell service. Should they trust the, or not? Does it matter, if they’re facing a crisis? It’s suspenseful but also oddly focused on tiny details, like what kind of organic strawberries the protagonist, Amanda, picks up at the high end grocery store.
Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam — This is a close up book about childhood friendships and how they evolve when the participants outgrow them. One comes from a socialite family, is planning the perfect wedding, and living exactly how society expects her too. The other is single, independent, but not as commercially successful, deflecting parents and friend’s well-intentioned concerns about her future. Both envy each others’ life but simultaneously question the decisions each makes — silently, none of this said out loud. I spent the whole book waiting for something to happen but it just read like a frustrated, tense relationship — which was perhaps, the point.
The Algebra of Happiness: Finding the Equation for a Life Well-Lived by Scott Galloway — I’ve become an avid listener to Scott Galloway and Kara Swisher’s podcast, Pivot, this year, and after reading some of his honest reflections about his past on his blog, I gave this a crack. The theme, that love and relationships are the ends — and everything else is just the means — isn’t what I expected from Scott Galloway and it was refreshing.
“Take a ton of pictures, text your friends stupid things, check in with old friends as often as possible, express admiration to coworkers, and every day, tell as many people as you can that you love them.”
“Studies show that people overestimate the amount of happiness things will bring them and underestimate the long-term positive effect of experiences. Invest in experiences over things. Drive a Hyundai, and take your wife to St. Barts.”
“It’s key, if you’re doing really well, to realise that much of it isn’t your fault — you’ve been swept up in a boom. This humility will result in your living within your means and will prepare you financially and psychologically for the next card you’re dealt.”
“Nothing wonderful, I’m talking really fantastic, will happen without taking a risk and subjecting yourself to rejection. Serendipity is a function of courage. Train yourself to take some sort of risk (ask for a raise, introduce yourself around at a party) every day and get comfortable grasping beyond your reach.”
I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi — The title’s a bit in your face but I wanted to get a handle on renting versus buying. This book helped me think through some big financial decisions in a way that was relatable and action oriented.
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas — I heard Anand speak at a responsible investing conference and loved the honesty of his analysis. He speaks to the super-rich and examines the hypocrisy of those who claim they are helping the world (while protecting their own way of life). In an age where we’ve elevated (deservingly or not — and Giridharadas would argue ‘not’) business people to ‘leaders’ and touted the B-Corp movement as an answer to the climate crisis — it prompts important question about the role of regulation and government — and why we let billionaires get away with not paying taxes.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Read— This was a book from Nicole’s bookclub. It was such an entertaining read — the words that resonated from bookclub were the descriptions of this book as a ‘takedown of white, woke culture’ and ‘the inner life of a Karen.’
Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner — I’d seen this book mentioned on Ava’s blog and really loved the style, then spotted it on a NYT book list — best books of 2020, I think it was. Essentially, it’s a memoir by a young woman working in tech about the gap between the idealistic veneer the tech industry portrays vs the inequality it perpetuates. I loved Weiner’s device of never actually naming the tech companies she’s lambasting (“using the millenial-friendly platform for renting strangers’ bedrooms,” “a search-engine giant down in Mountain View”) My very favourite line:
“They dressed for work as if embarking on an alpine expedition: high-performance down jackets and foul-weather shells, backpacks with decorative carabiners. They looked ready to gather kindling and build a lean-to, not make sales calls and open pull-requests from climate controlled open-plan offices. They looked in costume to LARP their weekend selves.”
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb — An entertaining read. A look at therapy from the perspective of the therapist.
The Body Keeps the Score by Vessel van der Kolk — Recommended by my friend Michael, this book is about the complexity of trauma. Specifically, the physiological changes that trauma produces compromise the part of the brain that communicates the physical and embodied feeling of being alive.
Mary’s Last Dance by Mary Li — I read this in my bookclub. Mary and Li Cunxin were a ballet power couple in their 20s, but this book chronicles Mary’s abrupt exit from the stage in order to look after their daughter, who is deaf. It’s a remarkable life, but was relayed in a style that is definitely more autobiographical than memoir.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld — Recommended by my friend Jess, this is a salacious book that imagines a parallel universe in which Hillary didn’t marry Bill. It’s poignant and funny and a page turner. Perfect for lockdown 3.0 in Sydney.
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez — This book was devastating. I turned to this book after the 2020 elction out of profound dismay when I read that 8 in 10 white evangelicals consistently approved of Trump’s performance in office, wanting to understand how faith has become so intertwined with politics, even when those policies penalise the poor, the sick, the downtrodden.
As someone who grew up in purity culture and consuming evangelical lifestyle media as, quite literally, gospel, I had to read this book one chapter at a time for the sake of my blood pressure. Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University writes about how the centrality of popular culture, is key to understanding how white evangelicals have replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with an ideal of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism (see: John Wayne). “Christian publishing, radio, and television taught evangelicals how to raise children, how to have sex and whom to fear.” If Wild at Heart, VeggieTales, or purity rings featured in your upbringing — you might find this book illuminating.
In the words of Baptist Scholar Alan Bean, “The unspoken mantra of post-war evangelicalism was simple: Jesus can save your soul; but John Wayne will save your ass.”
Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans — Thinking through some big life decisions, I read this one at my friend Bucky’s recommendation. The concept of designing three “experiments” as a way to test different career pathways resonated the most for me.
Dusk Night Dawn: On Revival and Courage by Anne Lamott — I’ll read anything Anne Lamott publishes. Written during 2020, I enjoyed her reflections on Covid, her marriage, and being an older activist.
“So to answer my earlier question on where on earth we begin to recover our faith in life, in the midst of so much bad news and dread, when our children’s futures are so uncertain: We start in the here and now. That’s why they call it the present. We start where our butts and feet and minds are.”
The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder — I’ve always been interested in Warren Buffett and wanted to know more. Boy did this biography deliver. Of no importance to his investment strategy but fascinating to me on a personal level was learning about his open marriage with Susie Buffett.
“It’s far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price.”
“You can’t do well in investing unless you think independently. And the truth is, you are neither right nor wrong because people agree with you. You’re right because your facts and reasoning are right. In the end, that’s what counts.”
“When you get to my age, you’ll really measure your success in life by how many of the people you want to have love you actually do love you.”
The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin — This one was for book club. I’ve enjoyed sci-fi in the past and this was no exception. There’s something about sci-fi that lets us examine some very dark human behaviours at arm’s length.
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney — I was a Normal People fan, but I found I’ve grown tired of Sally Rooney’s characters. Maybe it’s a symptom of the year(s) that have been, but melodramatic, easily-injured women and long-suffering, passive men doing a toxic relationship dance are just not my jam. A sign of personal growth? Perhaps.
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed — My bible. I only have this in digital form because I keep giving away my physical copies. I picked up a used copy in a bookstore in Fremont this year when I was feeling a bit unmoored in the world. This book brings me home every time. It feels difficult to put into words what makes this book so beautiful. I think that it’s the fact that Strayed is radically empathic and radically honest — two things that don’t often go hand in hand. It’s irreverent, it’s brutally honest and it’s beautiful. For me, that combination is healing and life giving.
Advice columnists, Steve Almond writes, adhere to an unspoken code: focus on the letter writer, dispense the necessary bromides, make it all seem bearable. Strayed does none of this. She offers her own struggles up to the writer and acknowledges that inexplicable sorrows await all of us.
Creative Acts for Curious People by Sarah Stein Greenberg — I picked this up after a fellow Ladies Who Strategise member posted about it. It lives on my coffee table and has been a tool for getting unstuck when I’ve run out of journal prompts.
The Great Mental Models — Farnham Street — Picked this up after becoming a huge Farnham Street fan this year, and it delivered. “The quality of your thinking depends on the models that are in your head. When you learn to see the world as it is, and not as you want it to be, everything changes.”
Teach only Love: The Twelve Principles of Attitudinal Healing by Gerald G. Jampolsky, M.D. Picked this up after someone dropped this little bit of insight from the book to me: Giving is the same as receiving. If we can’t receive, it’s tough to give. And vice versa. Reminds me of my favourite quote from Perks of Being a Wallflower: We accept the love we think we deserve. This book could be too woo-ey for some, but it was helpful for what I needed to learn when I read it.
The only meaningful choice is between fear and love.
Giving and receiving are the same. When our attention is on giving and joining with others, fear is removed and we accept healing for ourselves.
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein — Gifted by my dear friend Kourtney, this was my Christmas day nap-read. An F1 driver applies his racing philosophy to life as he navigates the three loves of his life, his wife, daughter, and dog Enzo, who is the narrator (and believes that he will be reincarnated next as a human). It’s as much a parable about living in the present as it is a novel, and it’s delightful.
In racing, they say that your car goes where your eyes go. The driver who cannot tear his eyes away from the wall as he spins out of control will meet that wall; the driver who looks down the track as he feels his tires break free will regain control of his vehicle.
Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill — Picked up after reading Ava’s booklist. This one was a page turner, but left me feeling disconnected, as I suppose, is the point. The stories are about power, desire, disconnection and sex. Gaitkill’s talent is an aperature into inner life.
The Business of Aspiration: How Social, Cultural and Environmental Capital Changes Brands by Ana Andjelic — One for the brand strategy nerds, Andjelic’s book deftly demonstrates brand’s role in culture, and how shifting status symbols impact business and brand strategy. I’ve read her blog over the last year and have loved having a copy of this on hand to flip through when I need to prompt my brain on culture and strategy.
If you made it this far, I’m always giving / looking for book recommendations, so if you want to compare notes or want a recommendation (I love doing this, I really do!), please hit me up on whatever medium you’re reading this on). I hope you read things that grow your mind and open your heart.
For Previous Lists
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