Categories
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:

Categories
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
Categories
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.

Categories
Books History Politics Presidents

My favorite presidential biographies (so far)

Ever since reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent Abraham Lincoln biography Team of Rivals years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the lives and times of U.S. presidents. So much so that I made a goal to read a substantive biography of every U.S. president.

This goal isn’t motivated by politics. If anything the legislative minutiae, policy discussions, and battlefield play-by-plays are usually the dullest parts of these books. I’m simply fascinated by the peculiar power of the presidency and the stories of the men who have wielded it—even if (and when) they don’t live up to our twenty-first century expectations.

Any biography I read will teach me something, regardless of the likeability of the subject or overall quality of the book. But the best of them combine compelling prose, insightful commentary, and strong storytelling that fairly recount the person’s life while contextualizing and sometimes criticizing their decisions or behavior.

With 19 down out of 45 currently, I’m nearing halfway through this literary mission, so I thought it would be a good time to check in with what I’ve read so far.

I’ve mostly stayed away from more recent presidents, preferring books that have at least a little historical distance from their subjects. (Outside of George Bush Sr., the most recent president I’ve tackled is Harry Truman.) I also endeavor to only read meaty, single-volume biographies that make this expedition feel substantive and worthwhile (if slightly masochistic).

All that said, here are a few titles that have stood out thus far, in no particular order. 

Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President by Ari Hoogenboom

For a long time the only things I knew about Hayes were that his heavily disputed 1876 election ended the Reconstruction era in the former Confederacy, and that he was one of those forgotten presidents between Lincoln and Roosevelt with cool facial hair. But I soon learned that Hayes was a lawyer who became an abolitionist and defended escaped slaves, a brigadier general in the Civil War who was shot in the arm in the Battle of South Mountain yet still led his men to victory, and a post-presidency education reform advocate who helped found Ohio State University. Not bad for a forgotten one-term president.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

This is the first (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) book in a trilogy about Teddy Roosevelt, who might be the most impressive president we’ve ever had. It chronicles the crowded years of his pre-presidency life, which began as a sickly yet bright child who by 25 became a best-selling author and bull-headed New York legislator, then continued as a young widower who served as a Dakota sheriff, New York City police commissioner, Navy secretary, Army colonel, and New York governor, all before becoming president at 42. Energetic, fun-loving, and extremely intelligent, Roosevelt is a biographer’s dream and one of my history crushes.

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul Nagel

From birth, John Quincy Adams lived within a shadow. His father, John, the legendary Founding Father and fiery orator, pushed John Quincy hard in his studies and inspired him to greatness. But the greatness JQA achieved—e.g. speaking multiple languages, serving as George Washington’s minister to the Netherlands at age 26—always seemed to forestall his desire to live a quiet, scholarly life away from politics and his father’s prodding. Historian Paul Nagel captures all of this in addition to Adams’ unimpressive term as president and surprising final act as an ardent abolitionist congressman. (Another bit of trivia: He was probably the only person to have known both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln personally.)

The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The standard photo-op of a new president standing cordially with all of his living predecessors is common, but that wasn’t always so. Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman created the so-called “former presidents club” in the 1950s, and since then the relationships formed behind the scenes between members have often been surprising (like with rivals-turned-best-friends George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton) and sometimes subversive (like when Richard Nixon deliberately sabotaged Lyndon Johnson’s peace talks in Vietnam to aid his own 1968 campaign). The book is a fascinating account of how the private and public lives in “the world’s most exclusive fraternity” have interweaved throughout modern political history.

Other favorites:

Categories
Books Life

Four Thousand Weeks in the Midnight Library

Matt Haig’s novel The Midnight Library asks: What if you could explore every what-if of your life, specifically those that turned into regrets? How many of your other lives would actually turn out better than your real one?

It’s an intriguing philosophical question that quickly turns personal for the book’s protagonist, Nora Seed, who comes to learn that each book in the titular library—rendered as a kind of metaphysical manifestation of purgatory—represents one of the infinite versions of her life.

Adventures in space-time

The idea of exploring what-ifs through magical realism or sci-fi isn’t new. It’s the narrative foundation of some of my favorite films (It’s A Wonderful Life, Back to the Future trilogy) and other intriguing cinematic counterfactuals (The Man in the High Castle, The Last Temptation of Christ, About Time).

But rather than focusing on (as Doc Brown would call it) one specific temporal junction point in the entire space-time continuum—what if George Bailey had never lived, what if Biff stole the Almanac, what if the Nazis won—The Midnight Library extends its ambit to the many sliding-doors moments in a single life.

Nora is given countless opportunities to choose and experience parallel lives where none of her regrets came to pass. “I stayed with that ex-boyfriend” and “I didn’t give up swimming” and “I pursued my dream of becoming a glaciologist” all get a spin. But none of these supposedly ideal realities live up to her expectations.

While she’s able to shorten her list of regrets—an immensely valuable gift in itself—her pursuit of happiness doesn’t solve the deeper existential crisis that plagues all of us at some point: per Mary Oliver, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?

4,000 Weeks

That question infuses another of my recent reads: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman, an approachably philosophical exploration of the wily, incorrigible thing called time and our dysfunctional relationship with it.

I have an extensive list of quotes from the book that make for good ponderin’, but there are three specific ones that would fit right into The Midnight Library. (Synchroncity knows no bounds, temporal or otherwise.)

First, a reality check:

The world has an effectively infinite number of experiences to offer, so getting a handful of them under your belt brings you no closer to a sense of having feasted on life’s possibilities.

Therefore, Burkeman writes, you have to make choices:

Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem. Instead, you get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you actually do have time for—and the freer you are to choose, in each moment, what counts the most.

And once you do that:

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.

That “astonishingness” of being alive in the flow of time doesn’t arrive on command. You have to reorient your mind and your attention to create the conditions that allow for it to reveal itself.

In The Midnight Library, that process looks like an anguished young woman replacing her perceived unworthiness with gratitude for mere existence. (Just like George Bailey.)

In Four Thousand Weeks, that looks like embracing temporal limitations rather than resenting them.

And in my life, that looks like treating the things I love—my wife and son and family and friends and typewriter collection and bike rides and movie nights and library books—as the temporary gifts they are, for however long I live.

Categories
Books Review Science

The Ghost Map

When I learned Steven Johnson (my favorite author) has a new book out, it prompted me to finally read one of his previous books that’s been on my list for a while.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World was a timely read, for obvious reasons. Though cholera is a different beast than COVID (“Imagine if every time you experienced a slight upset stomach you knew that there was an entirely reasonable chance you’d be dead in forty-eight hours”), its effect in this story and throughout history shows us both how far science has come since the Victorian Age and how vulnerable we remain to infectious diseases.

What I love most about this book—even beyond the historical factoids and masterful storytelling you can expect from any Johnson joint—is that it’s basically a murder mystery, with cholera as the microbial serial killer and an unlikely detective duo of a doctor and a priest hunting it during a deadly epidemic in the crowded, putrid London of the 1850s.

Call it an epidemiological thriller. Probably not much competition in that sub-genre, but Johnson made the most of it.

Quotes

I like Johnson’s description of London at the time:

an industrial-era city with an Elizabethan-era waste-removal system as perceived by a Pleistocene-era brain.

On the topography of progress:

The river of intellectual progress is not defined purely by the steady flow of good ideas begetting better ones; it follows the topography that has been carved out for it by external factors.

On great intellectual breakthroughs:

It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.

On miasma theory and the “sociology of error”:

It’s not just that the authorities of the day were wrong about miasma; it’s the tenacious, unquestioning way they went about being wrong. …

How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories? These questions, too, deserve their own discipline—the sociology of error.