2021 didn't feel like a real year, rather a few months tacked onto 2020. The books I read marked the time that did indeed pass, 34 in total (18 fiction and 16 nonfiction), down from last year's 40, which is fine. Going into the new year, I'm actually aiming to read fewer books, but long, dense classics. The Brothers Karamazov, here I come?
I still prefer to read over listening to audiobooks, but I did end up completing 5 audiobooks during long walks or exercising at home, compared to last year's 11.
In 2021, I also did not finish 5 books of fiction and 3 nonfiction, and I explain why. In total, there are 42 mini book reviews below.
(AB) = audiobook
When you purchase through links on this site we may earn a commission at no extra cost to you. This helps us provide free content for you to enjoy.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
My reading year started off strong. As a fan of gothic romance, this novel really hit the spot. It used every trope while making the genre feel fresh and contemporary with the Mexican countryside setting and nod to science fiction. Noemí is the feisty protagonist I've been waiting for, although if I were her, I would've been out of that house like yesterday. The big reveal was silly enough to make me laugh, but overall, a spooky and entertaining read that kept me turning the pages late at night.
The Necklace and Other Stories by Guy de Maupassant
A protégé of Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893) is considered one of the greatest French short story writers. Years ago, I read Maupassant's classic short story "The Necklace" in both French and English to improve my French language skills (which has remained at a low intermediate level since I rarely practice), and the story stayed with me all this time. This collection contains thirty of his best short stories out of the hundreds he'd written. The supernatural stories from his later years, which are mad and surreal, are said to be due to his deteriorating mental health before he died in an insane asylum from syphilis at the age of forty-two.
Weather by Jenny Offill
I've been curious about Jenny Offill's work. The fragmented, experimental style intrigued me at first, but after I got used to it, I didn't find the story memorable. I heard Dept. of Speculation is better, so I might give that one a crack at some point.
Luster by Raven Leilani
The first half of Luster is just brilliant. I love the narrator Edie's original and humorous observations, unapologetic sexual desires, and acts of quiet rebellion as a young black woman working in a mostly-white publishing company. But in the second half, when Edie moves into a house in New Jersey with her lover's family, the plot stagnates and the character disintegrates into someone more passive. However, it's still a novel worth reading for the voice and prose. Ultimately, this is a story about a young person finding joy in creating art amidst the brutality of life.
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
In my opinion, Elena Ferrante's latest novel cements her status as the greatest living novelist. It took me a while to get into it, as it also happened with My Brilliant Friend, but once Giovanni meets her vulgar aunt Vittoria and is introduced to a rich cast of supporting characters, I remembered why I loved the Neapolitan Quartet so much: the ugliness of adolescence, obsessive and tormenting love, co-dependent friendships, the violence of Naples. The best novel I've read this year.
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
The structure of this experimental novel is eerily similar to Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, which I read and reviewed last year. Both novels came out in the same year, so talk about synchronicity. Both contain the themes of power dynamics, truth vs. fiction, and who a story belongs to. In the second and third sections, the narrative gets turned on its head. Personally, I would've preferred the book to stay as a conventional YA-ish story set at a competitive performing arts school because I enjoyed that first section the most.
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
At first, I was getting Donna Tartt A Secret History vibes, which is always a good thing. Some fine prose, but the plot turned out to be pretty thin. And the narrator Will is a total creep! I found him more terrifying than the religious terrorists in the story. I believe it was intentional on the part of the author to gradually depict his true nature, and it must've been interesting to write this character, but it was definitely not the love story that was promised in the book jacket. I only finished it because it's a short book.
The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld
Written by a young Dutch writer, this novel won the 2020 International Booker Prize. It's not for the faint of heart since it features scenes of animal torture and near-incest. So why do I admire this book? It's a raw and unflinching portrayal of grief from the perspective of a ten-year-old.
The Houseguest and Other Stories by Amparo Dávila
Another foreign language translated book worth checking out. This collection is by a Mexican author who is considered a master of the short story. She passed away in 2020. I found her prose such a pleasure to read, and the stories are creepy and uncanny. Readers compare her work to Poe, Kafka, and Shirley Jackson, but I think they're similar to Maupassant's crazier short stories.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
I was about to watch Charlie Kaufman's film based on this novel, but I decided to read the book first since it seemed like such an intriguing story. The voice, prose, plot, and dry humour are all enjoyable, but the twist ending made everything a major bummer. I actually knew about the ending before I read the book after being exposed to a spoiler on a Youtube comment, but it still didn't prepare me for how unsatisfying it made the story feel. I still have not seen the Kaufman film.
White Ivy by Susie Yang
Ivy's family, Chinese immigrants in America, operates on survival mode. At a young age, she learns how to get what she wants by lying and stealing. In adulthood, Ivy gets another chance with high school crush Gideon Speyer, and from there, she strives to climb the social ladder at any cost. Although most of the characters are unlikable, I still cared what happened to them because the author did a great job clarifying their motivations. A literary thriller about what it means to achieve the American Dream, the story is like a modern-day Great Gatsy with a female protagonist. I was engrossed in the book for three days and was about to recommend it to everyone, but after I finished it, the story didn't really stick with me and I quickly forgot about it. Sometimes it's a mystery why certain books don't impact me emotionally, but I do find that they're often "book club books," the ones with Big Themes that overtake everything else and the characters become pawns to serve the plot.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (AB)
In 1968, The Vignes twins make a pact to escape from their small Southern town. Years later, the sisters go their separate ways when one decides to pass as white. Intriguing premise and interesting insights on colorism, but the story jumped too much from character to character, and I wanted to read more about the twins rather than their daughters. My biggest disappointment was with Stella. As the twin who chose to live life as a white woman, she should've been the most interesting but ended up being super dull. Given the hype for this novel, it turned out to be an average read for me. Like with White Ivy, as soon as I finished the book, I forgot about it.
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa
This short story collection won the 2020 Giller Prize. Many of the stories are about Lao immigrants in North America. Some are sad and brutal, and others are funny and innocent. And then there's a story about a horny grandma wanting to get railed by a thirty-something man.😅 Thammavongsa is a very versatile writer. While a couple of the stories are too short, I enjoyed every story.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
New Yorker staff writer Elif Batuman's debut novel is about a freshman at Harvard in 1995 learning to navigate friendships, first love, and how to use email. Selin is a delightful idiot, a really wonderful, funny idiot. There are some real cacklers in this book too. One of the funniest literary novels I've read in recent years.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Like everyone else, I loved Never Let Me Go. You can think of Ishiguro's latest novel as a companion piece, also set in a parallel dystopian world and questions what it means to be human. Klara is an AF (artificial friend) to 14-year-old Josie. While other stories about A.I. usually paint them in a sinister light, Klara's wholesome innocence is refreshing. The book didn't haunt me as much as Never Let Me Go, but it did take me a few days to process the ending.
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
Of course, I read the new Sally Rooney ASAP. The writing style is different while the subject matter is more of the same: beautiful, brilliant young people with bad communication skills are terrible at relationships. The characters are older, and I like that we get to grow along with the author. I think of this novel as a continuation of her previous novels, and I recommend reading her books in chronological order to get the full experience. Here, we get a taste of how Rooney really feels about fame via the epistolary rants of Alice, one of the main characters who also happen to be an exceptionally famous literary author. I found myself not caring about Alice and Eileen's pseudo-intellectual musings in their email correspondence (why did they never text or call each other?), although I think they are just fronts for how they were really feeling in terms of their personal lives. They are more cynical about the world when their love lives are going badly and vice versa. Really enjoyed this one like the others; read it in two days.
Catch the Rabbit by Lana Bastašić
Catch the Rabbit is said to be a cross between Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend meets Alice in Wonderland, set in post-war Bosnia. Translated from Serbo-Croatian into English by the author, the story is about two childhood friends who reunite twelve years later to go on a road trip. Sara is the “good girl,” who has made a comfortable new life for herself in Dublin. Lejla is the childhood best friend who remained in Bosnia, the enigmatic “cool girl” who demands Sara drop everything, fly back, and drive her to Vienna to find Lejla’s missing brother Armin.
After reading 100 pages, I almost abandoned it. A lot of the details seemed unnecessary and I wondered what was the point of it all. I kept comparing this to Ferrante’s work and it would come up short. I didn’t understand why Sara was so obsessed with Lejla when she didn’t even seem to like her very much. Lejla can be abrasive, rude, even violent, her only redeeming quality being Sara’s friend from childhood.
Now that I’ve finished Catch the Rabbit, I think the Ferrante comparisons do it a disservice. As I neared the end of the book, I realized I had been reading the book entirely wrong. (LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD)
Sara is a totally unreliable narrator, and this book is not really about female friendship. It’s about the memories and traumas of war—and mental illness. The Bosnian war, which happened during the girls’ pre-teen years, was glossed over in the story, yet it is referenced everywhere if we only pay attention. There is no magic realism to save these girls; the fantasy is all in Sara’s head, in her distorted memories. From the way she idealizes Lejla, to her interpretations of past events, to her naive hope of seeing Armin again. It’s clear what really happened to Armin at the end, but none of this is spelled out. There’s a lot of reading between the lines. Once I did, the story hit me hard.
The last line of the book stops mid-sentence, which I realized is supposed to connect back to the first line of the book which starts mid-sentence. There are a few references to circles in this story, signifying memories playing on loop. And all the seemingly insignificant details throughout the story start magnifying once we view it from the lens of trauma. I think a second reading of book will be more interesting.
Second Place by Rachel Cusk
Rachel Cusk writes whatever she wants without concern for audience reception, and that's why I love her work. She's not for everyone, and she doesn't try to be. Those who get her will read everything she writes. Her latest novel is set during the pandemic, but don't worry, it's not the focus of the story. A woman invites a famous artist to stay on her family's secluded property on the marsh, thinking he is the key to her liberation. The book is unapologetically literary and something to be experienced.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
I wanted to read this book because the plot sounded intriguing: in 1969, four siblings seek out a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell the date of anyone's death. The prophecy for each child informs the rest of their lives. After a chapter or two, I just couldn't get into the writing or the characters, so I just read the novel's summary. It was okay.
Delhi by Khushwant Singh
My friend in India loves this book. I read the opening page, thought it was amazing, and assumed I would love the rest of it too. But by a third of the book, I decided to call it quits. There are too many crude descriptions of the horny old protagonist's sexcapades, whether with his hijda prostitute Baghmati or visiting white women of various ages. And the stuff about Delhi's history was mostly boring to me since all the brutal wars and conflicts sounded more or less the same. Maybe I have to know more about Delhi, as my Indian friend does, to really appreciate it and visit the places mentioned throughout the book.
The Divines by Ellie Eaton
I love a good boarding school book, but 1/4 in, I got bored. Decent writing, interesting premise, but there is no tension in the story. The narrator is bland and I couldn't get a good sense of who she is. Maybe that's the point because she doesn't know either? I skipped to the end, which was even more disappointing.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Given all the praise for this novel, I really expected to like it. It's marketed as a humourous book so I went into it thinking it would be a satire about Asian stereotypes and how ridiculous they are. After 50 pages in, I had to stop reading. The book is not funny at all. In his efforts to dispel Asian stereotypes—"Generic Asian Man," "Pretty Oriental Flower," "Old Asian Man," etc.— the author reinforced them. Will, the protagonist, actually sounds like a pretty generic Asian guy as there is nothing interesting about him. Racial trauma is not a personality trait. The passages about how poor the dad is reeks of trauma porn. I can understand why the author felt compelled to write this story, but this book was not written for me but for white people. It lectures them on how racism against Asians is bad. Like, duh? This topic is pretty dated and done better in older novels such as Banana Boys.
The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
Published in 1794, this is the original Gothic romance that inspired countless novels in the genre, notably Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. Unfortunately, this very long book mostly contains descriptions of landscapes, places the author has never visited. I suppose travelling was harder to do back in the day and armchair travel provided an escape. After one too many scenes of a weak-willed protagonist bursting into tears, I had to close the book. I thought there would be more creepy castles and supernatural thrills. The romance wasn't all that either. I ended up reading the chapter summaries. There seems to be more action toward the end, but I knew I'd get bored getting there.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machiado
An inventive memoir that examines an abusive relationship via narrative tropes with some outstanding writing. I think the author chose the experimental format as a gentler way to examine the difficult experiences and make sense of them for herself. I got a better understanding of why someone might choose to stay in such a relationship. The psychological torture and physical abuse can build up so gradually that they can sneak up on the victim. By the time they realize what's happening to them, they've already been traumatized.
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
In recent years, I've been resentful of how social media companies put profit before the mental health of users, hooking us with our natural desire to connect to each other, and using manipulative algorithms to capture as much of our attention as possible to sell to advertisers. I was already on the path of quiet resistance before I read this book, and it bolstered my resolve to use as little social media as possible. The author agrees that there is no escape—there's a chapter on why withdrawing from society is futile—but there are things we can do so the algorithms aren't controlling us. I've gotten slightly better at doing "nothing" (ironically, I originally read this book to feel productive), and I have this book to help me cope if I ever feel information overload.
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (AB)
This is the most practical Malcolm Gladwell book I've read so far, as it gives concrete reasons why some people are more successful than others. While many factors are beyond our control, such as the date we are born, the family we are born into, the country we grow up in, etc., there are still ways to improve our odds. This is the book that talks about getting in those 10,000 hours to master a skill. Part two on cultural legacy is fascinating as well, exploring how culture shapes us for or against success.
Coventry by Rachel Cusk
Surprise, surprise, another Rachel Cusk book. I just love getting inside her brain. This is her collection of nonfiction pieces that encompasses memoir, cultural criticism, and reflections on art and literature. Many essays I'd like to reread soon.
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk
Rachel Cusk's take on the travel memoir. Along with her husband and two young daughters, she moves to a small town in Itay in search of more meaning. But Eat, Pray, Love this is not, and anyone looking for a book about an idyllic romp or a spiritual quest through Italy will surely be disappointed. This is pure Cusk, meaning it's brutally honest (she got sued by a couple who recognized themselves in the book), keenly observed, and coolly intellectual. In short, it's a high-brow travel memoir, although I get the sense that she would really enjoy travel blogging. Each chapter is on a different topic, complete with her own photos. By the end of the trip, she reminds us what it feels like when the novelty of a vacation wears off and the harsh realities of life set in again. The family moves back to the UK once they realize they can not escape from the mundanity of everyday life no matter where they live.
Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine by Deepak Chopra, M.D.
Deepak Chopra is a well-known author in the New Age movement, but I hadn't been familiar with his teachings before reading this book. I must admit sometimes this was a bit of a slog to get through because some of the medical and science jargon went over my head. But there are some interesting stories on clients healing from serious illnesses despite the low odds of recovery. How did they do it? Quantum. But what is it and how to access it? I don't think the author truly knows. He does recommend meditating and Ayurveda. The book is mostly a medical doctor's take on miraculous healings, how the body works, and the available scientific research that can plausibly explain why these healings happen.
The Call of Sedona by Ilchi Lee
Sedona is one of my favourite places. Since I couldn't travel during the lockdown, I read Ilchi Lee's memoir on how he found a home in Sedona after moving from South Korea. A spiritual leader with the mission to help people find inner peace, he shares how we can connect with the vortexes on the red rocks through meditation. One of the incredible tales in this book is how he came to open the Sedona Mago Retreat (spoiler: he communicates with the spirit of the previous owner.) When I visited Sedona in 2018, I'd heard about Ichi Lee but didn't know he had a retreat there. I definitely want to check it out when I return.
I.M.: A Memoir by Isaac Mizrahi (AB)
While I wasn't that familiar with Mizrahi's fashion line before reading this memoir, I'm always interested in the lives of fashion designers and their creative processes. He was particularly famous in the '80s and '90s and lived a big life. The book is rife with stories about celebrities, everyone from Anna Wintour to Madonna. I listened to the audiobook and it was like listening to a funny friend telling me his life story. While he spends a bit too long on his childhood and glossed over the last decade of his life, this is a good intimate look at what working in the American fashion industry is really like.
The Code of the Extraordinary Mind by Vishen Lakhiani
The author is the founder of Mindvalley, a learning platform I have not used. Nevertheless, I was drawn to this book. While there is a bit of celebrity name dropping that might annoy some readers, it helped me set goals in a non-conventional way, among other things. I own a copy of the book now so I can reference the teachings whenever needed.
The Buddha and the Badass by Vishen Lakhiani (AB)
I didn't find this book as helpful as The Code of the Extraordinary Mind, and it repeats some of the advice from that book, but it still has some good life hacks here and there. This book is geared more towards entrepreneurs and the best ways to manage a team and work with others. I have little interest in starting a company, so most of the advice doesn't apply to me, but it might to those who do.
The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For it...Every Time by Maria Konnikova (AB)
After hearing the author talk about con artist Anna Delvey in a 60 Minutes interview, I decided to read her book. While this book is not on Delvey, it dissects how con artists operate in general. We've probably all been conned at some point in life, whether we realize it or not. It does not matter how intelligent someone is. A good con artist will find weaknesses to exploit. Ironically, they make good marks themselves because they often think they are smarter than everyone else.
Hype: How Scammers, Grifters, and Con Artists are Taking Over the Internet—And Why We're Following by Gabrielle Bluestone
Continuing with the con artist theme, I read this book by a Vice journalist about how scammers are using social media to con us. While the book focuses a lot on Billy MacFarland and the Fyre Festival, there's also some good stuff on influencers/scammers Caroline Calloway and Danielle Bernstein. The book lays out why they are actual con artists and not the lovable losers who are simply incompetent and trying their best to deliver. The best chapter was on the psychological reasons why people are addicted to social media and vulnerable to being scammed by influencers.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama (AB)
It took me months to finish this 29-hour presidential memoir on audiobook. The chapters leading up to Obama's presidency were the most exciting, but once he had the job, I had secondhand stress hearing about what he had to put up with, often lose-lose situations. But his voice is soothing so I have put this audiobook on to lull me to sleep sometimes.
My Body by Emily Ratajkowski
I remember reading Ratajkowski's essay "Baby Woman" in Lenny Letter back in 2017 and wondering why she was so offended by the family members who only wanted to protect her, adults warning her that her body and sexuality will be exploited. She seemed to find—or desperately want to find—empowerment in a sexy persona that is mainly titillating to men. In her first collection of essays, she suggests in the introduction that what she preached in "Baby Woman" was naive and then proceeds with tale after tale of how her body and sexuality were exploited by those in the entertainment industry, as well as accounts of sexual assault and rape. She is still working in the industry because she wants to live a certain lifestyle in New York, so the book provides no answers or alternatives for those still in the system—money wins. The essays are about her personal experiences, which is fine. I certainly enjoyed them because she holds nothing back and spares no one. Never has being a hot woman sounded so unappealing. She is an open, vulnerable, visceral writer, just as good if not better than many seasoned essayists I've read in the past few years. I suspect her writing will get more interesting when she's older and gain more life experience.
Everybody Else is Perfect Except Me by Gabrielle Korn
I always enjoy reading books by fashion editors or journalists. Tales from the Back Row by Amy Odell is a particular favourite. This one is by the former editor-in-chief of Nylon, who at 28 was the youngest person to reach that position in the company's history. These essays recount how she got her start in journalism, growing up confused about her sexuality, being a lesbian in the beauty industry, and the hypocrisy of writing woke articles about inclusivity while battling anorexia. A bit of an uneven collection—I think she rushed it to meet deadline—but it was a fast and easy read.
Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon
I like the core message of this short book: you don't have to be a genius to be creative, and share your work with people even if you're a beginner. Personally, I didn't find it helpful since I'm already doing what he suggests, which is sharing my work online on my own website. I also think the recommendation to share every step of our artistic process with strangers online to be a pretty bad idea. Sometimes the process is sacred. I wish this book had more depth and nuance beyond this surface-level advice and the one-size-fits-all approach to the artist's process, but the simple message has motivated many over-thinkers to just do it.
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicolas Carr
After three chapters, I stopped reading because I realized the book would contain mostly filler. You can get the gist of the message from the author's original 2008 viral article that landed him the book deal. The basic message is Internet = bad for focus. Yeah, of course. But not everyone is spending every second online. Maybe there are only a few of us left, but it is possible not to be on Twitter 24/7. It is possible to have the attention span to read books, form ideas, think deeply, and have hobbies outside of social media. Going outside is an option. All you have to do is get off the Internet.
Universal Human by Gary Zukav
The short chapters in this book of spiritual wisdom are great for people who don't have a lot of time to read, but I found the writing style impersonal, so I couldn't get engaged. Plus most of the teachings are not new to me.
The 12th Planet by Zecharia Sitchin
Are we descendants of aliens? It's likely. I thought this topic would interest me more, but if we're trying to find proof of their existence from historical artifacts and ancient texts, I would get bored getting there. Maybe I'll just watch Ancient Aliens at some point.
I borrow books from the library most of the time and only buy books if I know I'll reread them. From the books I read this year, these are the ones I loved enough to purchase:
- Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
- The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
- How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa
- The Houseguest and Other Stories by Amparo Dávila
- The Idiot by Elif Batuman
- Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
- Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
- Second Place by Rachel Cusk
- How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell
- Coventry by Rachel Cusk
- The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk
- The Call of Sedona by Ilchi Lee
- The Code of the Extraordinary Mind by Vishen Lakhiani
- My Body by Emily Ratajkowski
Read my other annual reading roundups.