Books Review

Favorite Books of 2021

In 2021 I read 31 books. That’s 13 more than my record-low in 2020, so that’s nice.

Regardless, my prime directive as a librarian and reader remains to follow my own reading values. Don’t worry about the quantity. Read serendipitously and at whim. Don’t forget fiction. And heed the Pollanian reading maxim.

With that in mind, here are the books from 2021 that stuck with me.

10. The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All by Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter, creator of one of my favorite albums of all time, dropped his second novel this year and it was quite good. I read the audiobook, which was narrated by Ritter (and probably shouldn’t have been [professional musicians ≠ professional narrators]). But I still enjoyed the narrative voice of the main character, reminiscing about his time in the lumberjack era of early 20th century Idaho.

Choice quote:

Memory comes in to fill the spaces of whatever isn’t there. … Memory has a way of growing things, of improving them. The hardships get harder, the good times get better, and the whole damn arc of a life takes on a mystic glow that only memory can give it.

9. Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature by Angus Fletcher

I can certainly understand the criticisms of this book, which examines literature through a utilitarian/scientific lens that can come across as reductive. But since books are technology (which Fletcher defines as “any human-made thing that helps to solve a problem”), then it’s perfectly legitimate and even necessary to explore them as such. Examples include the catharsis of Greek tragedies helping to purge fear (while mimicking the benefits of modern EMDR therapy) and riddles activating information-seeking neurons that trigger dopamine hits. The author’s appearance on Brené Brown’s podcast is a good introduction to what you can expect.

Choice quote:

Literature was a narrative-emotional technology that helped our ancestors cope with the psychological challenges posed by human biology. It was an invention for overcoming the doubt and the pain of just being us.

8. The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

This was a late-year read after Malcolm Gladwell raved about it in his newsletter. Figured it was worth a try as I rarely read mysteries or thrillers. Indeed it was fun to go on the ride of a novelist who comes upon another writer’s plot, harnesses it into mega-fame, then deals with the fallout. As with movies, I didn’t try to figure out the ending as I went, so when the twist arrived it felt earned and as if it were there the whole time.

Choice quote:

Once you were in possession of an actual idea, you owed it a debt for having chosen you, and not some other writer, and you paid that debt by getting down to work, not just as a journeyman fabricator of sentences but as an unshrinking artist ready to make painful, time-consuming, even self-flagellating mistakes.

7. The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

This collection of essays originated as a popular podcast by the author, which “reviews facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale.” Topics include “humanity’s temporal range”, Canada geese, Indianapolis, and many other things you didn’t realize could make for viable essays. Green’s earnest, wending style and keen observational approach makes for very pleasant reading.

Choice quote:

All I can say is that sometimes when the world is between day and night, I’m stopped cold by its splendor, and I feel my absurd smallness. You’d think that would be sad, but it isn’t. It only makes me grateful.

6. Bewilderment by Richard Powers

After I gave up on Powers’ massive The Overstory, I was glad for a shorter story to glom onto. This one, set in my hometown of Madison, follows a recently widowed astrobiologist professor struggling to raise his perspicacious but troubled nine-year-old amidst increasing political, professional, and climatological turmoil. How do you look for life in the stars when it’s under threat on earth?

Choice quote:

Life is something we need to stop correcting. My boy was a pocket universe I could never hope to fathom. Every one of us is an experiment, and we don’t even know what the experiment is testing.

5. In the Heights: Finding Home by Lin-Manuel Miranda

For me 2021 was already the Year of Lin-Manuel Miranda due to his music in In the Heights, Vivo, and Encanto, and direction of tick, tick… BOOM! And yet I still managed to sneak in this book documenting the journey of Miranda’s first musical to the stage and screen (now in my top 10 of 2021), complete with Miranda’s characteristically vivacious libretto annotations.

Choice quote:

The rush of the final Usnavi section stays with me always, and my prevailing memory of performing it is the faces in the front row of the Rodgers Theatre: our $20 section, often filled with young people seeing their first musical on Broadway. I lock eyes with them, night after night, and as their eyes fill with tears, so do mine. I’m delivering these words, but I’m also trying to tell them: I’m home, and Usnavi’s home, and in this time you’ve chosen to spend with us, so are you. Welcome home.

4. Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon by Malcolm Gladwell

Available only as an audiobook, this “audio biography” centers around hours of conversations between Simon and Gladwell about the genius musician’s life and career. It’s less a book and more a limited podcast series, which now seems like the only right way to do a music biography. Made me appreciate Simon’s work anew. (Review)

Choice quote:

Taste is the combination of memory and judgment.

3. Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West by Cameron Blevins

Learned a lot from this history, which is primarily for 19th century American history nerds but is still refreshingly accessible and peppered with illustrative graphs throughout. (Review)

Choice quote:

Despite the popular ‘Wild West’ narrative of self-reliant cowboys and pioneers, the real history of the region is one of big government: public land and national parks, farming subsidies and grazing permits, military bases and defense contracts. Arguably no other part of the United States has been so profoundly shaped by ‘the state’.

2. Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman

An approachably philosophical exploration of the wily, incorrigible thing called time and humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with it. It’s like a self-help book that deconstructs the need for self-help books. (Review)

Choice quote:

If you can hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being, and on what a small amount of that being you get—you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time.

1. The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller

I’d never have heard of this one, let alone picked it up and read it, if it weren’t for a tip from my mother-in-law. This fictional cradle-to-grave memoir follows the misadventures of a caustic early-20th-century Swedish man who, disfigured in a mining accident, retreats to an Arctic archipelago for a self-imposed exile, only to almost accidentally collect a motley crew of friends (human and canine) and reconnect with family in surprising ways. Miller’s exceptionally crafted narrative voice and eye for harsh natural beauty made this a rewarding read.

Choice quote:

For now, take stock of yourself. This is the chance you waxed about so long ago. Listen for the voice that speaks when all others go silent. Be alone—be entirely alone. I am not saying you will find anything of worth there—certainly no cosmic truth—but maybe you will begin to feel as pared down, efficient and clean as a freshly whittled stick.

Non-2021 books I read this year and loved:

Film Review

Favorite Films of 2021

In 2021 I only saw three movies in theaters, which is two more than I saw in 2020. A personal historic low, it probably goes without saying. But ultimately I’m just grateful to be able to watch great movies, whether at the theater, on a streaming service, or with a library Blu-ray.

To that end, here are the 2021 movies that stuck with me.

10. Shiva Baby

This indie comedy had me cringing but also grinning at its fairly astounding tonal tightrope act, which follows a sardonic young Jewish woman navigating family, friends, and lovers during a shiva. Such a singular, confident debut from 26-year-old (!) filmmaker Emma Seligman.

9. C’mon C’mon

I was split on Mike Mills’s last two features: 2017’s 20th Century Women was as middling as 2010’s Beginners was marvelous. This feels like a return to form, with Joaquin Phoenix as a radio journalist caring for his estranged sister’s nine-year-old son during her absence. It’s a closely observed, touching, and tumultuous portrait of surrogate parenting, and echoes this line from the Richard Powers novel Bewilderment: “Nine is the age of great turning. Maybe humanity was a nine-year-old, not yet grown up, not a little kid anymore. Seemingly in control, but always on the verge of rage.”

8. Pig

Yet another self-assured directorial debut, this one from Michael Sarnoski about a reclusive former chef (Nicholas Cage) who embarks on an illuminating quest to recover his abducted truffle-hunting pig. It’s become pat to laud Cage for the roles in which he really Gets Serious (in contrast to the Go Crazy ones), but it’s nevertheless refreshing when he does tap into his innate performative greatness. And he does here to a quietly magnificent level.

7. In the Heights

With all due respect to Spielberg’s West Side Story, this was the superior NYC-set movie musical of 2021. Better songs, far better talent and chemistry among the leads, and a better overall story that nods to tradition while dancing to its own beats. The mark of a good musical: whenever I listened to the soundtrack (which was often), the songs would earworm me for days. Also recommend In the Heights: Finding Home, the book by Lin-Manuel Miranda and his collaborators about bringing the stage and film versions to life.

6. Passing

This directorial debut from actress Rebecca Hall kinda knocked me out. Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson star as two African American women and reacquainted friends in 1920s New York City, one of whom is “passing” as white. Facade cracks of many kinds abound, and the film uses the fullest of its rather short runtime and black-and-white cinematography to pack a dizzying amount of portent through them.

5. The Green Knight

I went into this wholly ignorant of the source material but was eventually won over by the haunting filmmaking (by David Lowery, whose A Ghost Story was one of my favorites of 2017) and mesmerizing performances—specifically Dev Patel, whom I hadn’t seen since Slumdog Millionaire (meh). Ultimately it was the film’s perfect ending (maybe the best of the year?) that transformed a pretty good experience into something I knew I’d have to revisit.

4. Dune

Similar to The Green Knight, I went into this as a complete Dune newbie and emerged a fan, both of the world the film created and how Denis Villenueve went about it. Compared to Villenueve’s previous film Blade Runner 2049, which was pretty but alienating, Dune is gorgeous (in a deadly way) and mesmerizing—so much so I had to watch it twice in pretty quick succession. Not sure I’ll actually dive into the novels though.

3. Procession

This Netflix documentary features a group of men who were molested by Catholic priests as boys using drama therapy as a way to overcome their long-festering trauma, by making (non-graphic) short films dramatizing their experiences. Despite (or maybe because of) the heavy subject matter, it’s a really beautiful portrait of a brotherhood formed by shared anguish as these men help each other get through their emotional journeys together.

2. The Rescue

An extraordinary documentary from National Geographic (available on Disney+) about the 2018 Thailand cave rescue, which I remember happening at the time but hitherto knew very little about. Combining arresting firsthand footage with talking heads by the amateur British/Australian cave divers recruited for the job, the filmmakers expertly show how the massive operation’s inspiring cross-cultural cooperation and logistical creativity led to a near-impossible outcome. (I mean, just read the details of the actual rescue for a taste of how preposterous it was.) It felt a little like Arrival meets My Octopus Teacher—two other top-10 films for 2016 and 2020 respectively. Other dramatized versions of the story are coming, but be sure to watch this.

1. The Beatles: Get Back

This nearly 8-hour documentary from Peter Jackson telling the story of the Beatles’ January 1969 recording sessions spoke to me on many levels. As a former drummer in a rock band, I recognized the tedium, tension, and creative thrills that hours upon hours in the studio can engender. As someone interested in the creative process, I relished watching even certified geniuses inch their way from nothing to serenading London from a rooftop in less than a month. And as a huge Beatles fan, I treasured being able to spend so much quality time with the lads from Liverpool as they worked through a difficult period together. This film feels like a miracle, and I’m glad to have witnessed it. (Watched on Disney+, which is the wrong fit for this project. Even if it introduces a younger audience to The Beatles, the long runtime will put off just as many potential fans.)

Honorable mentions:

  • Licorice Pizza
  • Listening to Kenny G
  • A Quiet Place Part II
  • Bo Burnham: Inside
  • The Harder They Fall
  • Spider-Man: No Way Home
  • The Lost Daughter
  • CODA

Haven’t seen yet:

  • Red Rocket
  • A Hero
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Summer of Soul
  • The Disciple

Non-2021 movies I watched and liked:

  • Klaus
  • Witness for the Prosecution
  • Crimson Tide
  • Showbiz Kids
  • Thief
  • Run
  • Palm Springs
  • Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President

2021 in Review

See previous year in review posts.

My view from the end of all things 2021:

With the day off from work, I spent the morning traipsing around our snowy yard with Little Man. He introduced me to his snowman (above), we threw snowballs at trees, and rolled down the small hill in our backyard. Lots more snow is on the way, apparently, so we’ll be out there shoveling again soon to welcome the new year.

I don’t have an overarching thesis of my 2021. In most ways it was just like last year: COVID, living with a rambunctious and hilarious toddler, and doing the little things of living every day. Sometimes that’s all you can and should do: shovel snow when you have to, and roll down a hill when you can.

A few highlights:


Revolver Soul

My Better The Beatles series rolls on with the ultimate selection of the best from Rubber Soul and Revolver. I ended up with a clean eight from each, combined here into Revolver Soul:

  1. Good Day Sunshine
  2. Taxman
  3. Drive My Car
  4. Eleanor Rigby
  5. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
  6. Yellow Submarine
  7. Michelle
  8. You Won’t See Me
  9. Here, There And Everywhere
  10. I’m Only Sleeping
  11. Nowhere Man
  12. Girl
  13. I’m Looking Through You
  14. In My Life
  15. For No One
  16. And Your Bird Can Sing ​​

That’s right, the song one listicle ranked as the very worst Beatles song (not going to link to it because it’s ipso facto garbage due to that ranking) is now at the head of the line, despite “Taxman” being one of the best first tracks ever.

The departed from Rubber Soul: “The Word”, “Think For Yourself”, “If I Needed Someone”, “What Goes On”, “Wait”, and “Run For Your Life”. Not sad about these.

The departed from Revolver: “Love You To”, “She Said She Said”, “I Want To Tell You”, “Doctor Robert”, “Got To Get You Into My Life”, and “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Sorry to get rid of both Harrison joints, but I’m just not into the sitar.

You’re welcome.


Favorite Films of 2002

Looking at the full list of 2002 releases brought up lots of random memories:

  • going to Changing Lanes and Signs in the theater with my dad
  • seeing the original teaser trailer for Spider-Man on TV in fall 2001 that featured the World Trade Center towers
  • watching The Hours in a high school English class twice as an exercise in close-reading a film
  • rewatching The Hot Chick enough times with my sisters to have the “boys are cheats and liars” chant memorized

Ah, to be young again. This year also saw me transition from middle school to high school. My friend Tim and I were deep into making stop-motion and live-action short films using the LEGO Studios Steven Spielberg MovieMaker Set camera and software. Titles included Doctor Dreadful, The Penington Estate, and Dino Dan—all esteemed Oscar-worthy pictures.

One day I’ll excavate the DVDs full of these heavily pixelated treasures. Until then, on to the list…

1. Minority Report

This was one film, in addition to the LOTR trilogy, that really hooked me into the power and possibilities of film.

2. Catch Me If You Can

Only five years after Titanic made Leonardo DiCaprio a global sensation, this and Gangs of New York (released the same week) confirmed him as a sensational actor as well.

3. Signs

Man, the jump-scares of the aliens on the roof and in the Brazilian street got me real good in the theater. Though The Sixth Sense is great and Unbreakable is his best, this is peak Shyamalan.

4. In America

I’m glad I saw this later on, in college, when I was able to appreciate just how marvelous it is.

5. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Even the least of the LOTR trilogy has excellent moments, namely “Forth Eorlingas!” and “by rights we shouldn’t even be here”.

6. My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Thanks to the late Michael Constantine, aka Gus, for several iconic catchphrases from this movie that I still deploy occasionally, including “put some Windex on it” and “so there you go”.

7. The Ring

This movie is sort of Patient Zero for my dualistic relationship with horror films: I don’t like willingly subjecting myself to horrific content that will disturb my mind and sleep, but I also greatly appreciate supremely crafted suspense films.

8. The Count of Monte Cristo

I’ll admit to not having rewatched this in a while, but my enduring impression is that it is, as Roger Ebert wrote, “the kind of adventure picture the studios churned out in the Golden Age—so traditional it almost feels new.” I also had a crush on Dagmara Domińczyk as Mercédès.

9. Jackass: The Movie

This and subsequent Jackass movies are in my Mount Rushmore of making me cry-laugh.

10. The Bourne Identity

Sure, it inspired too many mediocre shaky-cam knockoffs, but there ain’t nothin’ like Matt Damon and Clive Owen facing off in the countryside.

Honorable mentions:

  • Gangs of New York
  • Punch-Drunk Love
  • Road to Perdition
  • Panic Room
  • We Were Soldiers
  • Spider-Man
Books Music

The long and winding genius of the Pauls (McCartney and Simon)

While trolling for something to read on Hoopla, I came upon Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon. It’s only available as an audiobook (or “audio biography”), and wisely so since so much of it depends on hearing Simon play his songs amidst his conversations with Gladwell. In that way it’s more like a limited podcast series than a book.

Whatever you call it, Gladwell’s intention was to interrogate the phenomenon of creative genius, and pinpoint how and why it applied to Simon, whose long and wide-ranging musical career set him in contrast to other contemporary artists who may have had higher peaks (The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) but didn’t produce at the same level of quality over decades as Simon has.

As Gladwell writes:​

We tend to be much more caught in the peaks of an artist’s career. But why? The true definition of creative genius—to my mind, at least—is someone who is capable of creating something sublime and then, when that moment passes, capable of reconfiguring their imagination and returning to the table with something wholly different and equally sublime.​

Whether Simon meets this criteria is debatable, though Gladwell makes a good case for it.

The other Paul

Regardless, the book found me at a propitious time since I just finished watching and listening to the other famous ’60s singer-songwriter Paul in the documentary The Beatles: Get Back. The film captures McCartney in his first sublime period, which coincided with the transition between The Beatles and his solo work.

His career as a whole is eerily similar to Simon’s: incredible creative and commercial success within a popular group throughout the 1960s, followed by an acrimonious breakup in 1970 and then decades of steady solo output of variable quality.

(Conan O’Brien even had a bit involving Lorne Michaels called “Which Paul is he talking about?” since Lorne is friends with both.)

Per Gladwell’s formulation, both men created something sublime within a relatively condensed cultural moment, then reconfigured their output after that moment passed. Whether those later albums were “wholly different and equally sublime” depends on where you look.

If it’s a choice between The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, I choose the Fab Four all the way. (My cheeky Better The Beatles series notwithstanding.)

But solo-wise, I think Simon’s exceptional ‘70s work combined with the highlights of Graceland (1986), The Rhythm of the Saints (1992), and So Beautiful or So What (2011) give him the edge over McCartney, whose early solo work was definitely the best of all the ex-Beatles (though not perfect), but didn’t approach the sublime until Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005) and Memory Almost Full (2007).

Seeing Paul McCartney at Wrigley Field just over 10 years ago remains an all-time life highlight. (By seeing I mean standing outside Wrigley listening and singing along and barely catching a glimpse of him on the Jumbotron. But still.) I regret not being able to see Paul Simon live, as I imagine it would have been just as good but delightfully different. Which, perhaps, is what Gladwell would consider it too.


Typewriters are better than Bitcoin

Last week I visited a Salvation Army I’d never tried before for some quick typewriter hunting. Between two late-period electric Smith Coronas I spotted a silver fiberglass case that screamed Olympia. And sure enough, I popped it open and beheld this 1959 SM3 (photo taken post-cleanup):

The combo of gray body and brown keys was not my favorite. And despite the carriage being unlocked and the general appearance of working order, I just couldn’t get the typebars to strike. I try to make sure typewriters I buy at least type decently before I commit, especially since this was going to be a refurbish-and-resell.

But it was $20, and since I couldn’t do an autopsy right there on the shelves between the kitchen appliances and stereos, I decided it was worth the risk knowing I’d make a profit regardless.

I brought it to the checkout. Then, because either the cashier misread the tag or there was a sale I didn’t know about, she rang it up as $10.

Merry Christmas to me, I thought. I could barely hide my smile as I left.

Mr. 2 Years Old was eager to help me clean and fix it, and was especially keen on using the compressed air can to blow out an impressive amount of gunk.

The typing issue, I eventually discovered, was due to the margin release bar blocking the typebars from striking even when it wasn’t activated. I’m guessing it’s due to the mechanism slowly loosening over the years? Regardless, giving it a little bump set the typebars free and made it sellable.

And I did sell it yesterday via Facebook Marketplace for $100, making me a 900% return. Typewriters—better than Bitcoin!

Books Education

Literacy as a religious act

From the remarkable book How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill:

“Like the Jews before them, the Irish enshrined literacy as their central religious act. In a land where literacy had previously been unknown, in a world where the old literate civilizations were sinking fast beneath successive waves of barbarism, the white Gospel page, shining in all the little oratories of Ireland, acted as a pledge: the lonely darkness had been turned into light, and the lonely virtue of courage, sustained through all the centuries, had been transformed into hope.”


Let It Abbey Road

I’m two-thirds of the way through The Beatles: Get Back, the 8-hour documentary on Disney+. It inspired me to add another installment of my Better The Beatles series, wherein I trim the fat from their discography to create super albums of only their best stuff. (Previously: Sgt. Pepper’s Magical Mystery Tour, The (Single) White Album, and Ram McCartney.)

Since both Abbey Road and Let It Be contain songs created during the same period, here’s my track listing for a hypothetical Let It AbBey Road:

  1. Get Back
  2. Come Together
  3. Two Of Us
  4. Something
  5. Dig A Pony
  6. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
  7. Oh! Darling
  8. I’ve Got A Feeling
  9. Octopus’s Garden
  10. Let It Be
  11. Here Comes The Sun
  12. Because
  13. For You Blue
  14. You Never Give Me Your Money
  15. Polythene Pam
  16. She Came In Through The Bathroom Window
  17. Golden Slumbers
  18. Carry That Weight
  19. The End

The omissions from Abbey Road weren’t terribly tough: “Sun King”, “Mean Mr. Mustard”, and “Her Majesty” are slights, and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is too long. 

Similarly, it was pretty easy to remove “One After 909”, “I Me Mine”, “Dig It”, and “Maggie Mae” from Let It Be because they aren’t good. “Across The Universe” and “The Long And Winding Road” are good, I guess, but also tonal outliers from the rest.

You’re welcome.

Etc. Story

Tales from a two year old

The following is a short story my almost-3 year old told me while we sat in bed resting between wrestling bouts. I dictated it into my phone as he told it to preserve for posterity:

The gasoline pulled up to the ghost in the starry nighttime sky. The ghost pulled up to a very big bumbly ghost skeleton. The wizard came to the ghost and said something different to the skeleton. It pulled up to a very big nose who said, “hello!” The door pulled up to a very big light and the light said something very funny. The light did a very silly thing with his friend. And all his friends laughed at his silly dance. The window pulled up to a very very very very big book and said something different, said “hello!” The sweatshirt pulled up to a very big shelf, and do you know what the shelf said? It said, “how are you doing today, book?” The papa pillow pulled up to the TV and said, “call head!” By Michael Moore. The end.

A few notes:

  • For the second half he was basically looking around the room for objects to include, a la Brick in Anchorman
  • He has never heard of the documentarian Michael Moore, so it’s clearly some other Michael Moore
  • Clearly things “pulling up to” other things is from a book or show or something he’s seen recently but I don’t know what

After reading the story back to him the next day, he dropped another on me:

The hook came up to the long long snail. It traveled to the great big monster and said “Poo!” The big bumblebee went to the little bumblebee, and you know what it said? “I want some birdseed! I want some birdseed!” The vent traveled to a very big tissue. The cabinet came to the very big clock and said “I wish there was some very big seed for me.” Then the light came to the very big frame and said “I want a sweater to put on!” Wapa wapa and a zaymoo, the end.

Enough said.