Mark Twain: Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.
It’s recap season. No matter where you turn, you’re going to be inundated with a top ten list—cars, baby names, songs, movies, TV shows, etc., etc. Since I can’t beat the trend, I’ll join in with a top-10 list of books.
Of the many books I read this year, the ten below stayed with me long after I had turned the last page. Many of these books aren’t this year’s releases. But I finally found them, or did they find me? Either way, I’m grateful for my acquaintance with these gems.
Here they are, in no particular order:
1. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (2018) - Fiction
American Dirt is the story of the immigration journey of a mother and son fleeing cartel violence in Mexico. I’d heard and read about the controversy surrounding the book right after its release and put off reading until it was all settled.
As an immigrant myself, I thought I understood what it means to leave everything you’ve ever known in search of a different, and hopefully, better, future. But boy, was I wrong.
Presumably, most of us with comfortable lives haven’t a clue what the humanitarian and refugee crisis is all about. Sure, we see news stories or articles, but, at least for most of us, it is the thing that happens out there: to nameless, faceless people. American Dirt changes that perception. Indelibly.
The book is eye-opening and thought-provoking. More than anything else, the book helps us exercise a muscle we don’t work on very often—empathy. For that alone, it is worth reading.
And oh, by the way, if it matters, it’s a fast-paced, unputdownable, page-turner too.
2. Circe: A Novel by Madeline Miller (2018) - Fiction
Fantasy novels are not a genre I typically read. To be honest, I’m ashamed of how little I know about Greek mythology. So, I made a conscious decision this year to broaden my horizons. If nothing else, it would give me something to discuss with my teen.
Emboldened by the rave reviews, I picked up Circe by Madeline Miller.
Circe is a Greek mythology retelling from a minor character’s perspective. Miller’s prose is beautiful and lyrical, but that doesn’t stop the book from being fast-paced. I was hooked from start to finish. The book is a wonderful exploration of what being human means to a Greek God.
3. The code breaker: Jennifer Doudna, gene editing, and the future of the human race by Walter Isaacson (2021) – Non-Fiction
I like biographies. Especially those written by Walter Isaacson. I’ve almost read them all (except for Kissinger.)
In July 2016, Time Magazine published a cover story on what gene-editing (CRISPR-technology) experiments mean for humanity. The article was so compelling. I felt like I was reading futuristic science-fiction. But no, the science was already here.
So, when Isaacson’s book, The Code breaker, was released, I couldn’t wait to read it. I’m glad I did. Though based on science, the book is, in reality, the personal story of Jennifer Doudna, Nobel laureate, one of the pioneers in the science of gene-editing.
The book is as much a story of human ambition, desire, and competition as it is about science. It has all the elements of a modern-day reality drama but is equally inspiring, eye-opening, and uplifting —what more can you ask of a book?
4. Tiny habits by B.J. Fogg (2019) - Non-Fiction
If you are looking for clear, step-by-step instructions on how to inculcate a good habit, you can’t go wrong with B.J. Fogg’s Tiny Habits. Released on the heels of the uber-popular Atomic Habits (James Clear), I wasn’t expecting anything earth-shattering out of this book.
In Tiny Habits, B.J.Fogg, a behavioral neuroscientist at Stanford, has created an efficient and proven framework for forming habits.
This is not a book to be speed-read. On the contrary, it’s one you could get the most value out of if you stop periodically to take notes and ponder.
5. The secret to superhuman strength by Alison Bechdel (2021) – Non-Fiction
I haven’t read comics in a long time. When I checked out Alison Bechdel’s The secret to superhuman strength at my local library, my first surprise was its format.
The book is a graphical memoir. It’s amazing how a book can be off-the-charts funny and yet dark and poignant at the same time. Also, as someone who cannot draw two straight lines, I found the illustrations beautiful and on-point.
The book is about pretty much all the things that matter to me currently: physical fitness, meditation and mindfulness, spirituality, and in general, our search for purpose.
Bechdel is a creative genius. This book is proof.
6. My year abroad by Chang-rae Lee - Fiction
This was my first Chang-rae Lee novel. And it didn’t disappoint. The author’s credentials are intimidating: Pulitzer finalist, Stanford English professor, PEN/Hemingway award winner—to name a few.
My year abroad is a novel about one college student’s year abroad, but it is so artfully written and alternates between the present and past that it takes some effort to remember where you are in the story.
Also woven into the story are those real profound revelations about humans and human nature. One of the lines from the story rang so true for me. Tiller, the story’s hero, says yes to an adventure he’s invited to because, in his words, “he’s part of the 99.9% (of the people in the world) who simply orbit.”
Don’t most of us do just that? We orbit. Someone lays the rules, and we simply follow. Without question.
If you are looking for gems like this, even if it’s just to sound profound at a dinner party, you can’t go wrong with material from a Chang-rae Lee book.
7. The price you pay for college by Ron Lieber (2021) – Non-Fiction
As someone who hasn’t navigated the college admissions process in the US, I found Ron Lieber’s book, The price you pay for college, informative and eye-opening.
Higher education seems to get more and more expensive each year, and this book reveals the behind-the-scenes story on why that is the case. Together with Jeffrey Selingo’s Who gets in and why, this book can provide clueless parents like me with an introduction to the college admissions and financing process.
8. The psychology of money by Morgan Housel (2020) – Non-Fiction
The psychology of money is a very well-written and practical book about money and investing. I will say this is one of the best personal finance books I’ve read (and I’ve read many).
The book is chock-full of good tips and hammers home the most basic finance lessons—do not underestimate the power of compounding and live well within your means!
9. My stroke of insight by Jill Bolte Taylor (2008) – Non-Fiction
The author of My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor Ph.D., is a Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist. This book is based on the author’s personal story.
Taylor suffered a debilitating stroke which led to her losing brain functions controlled by the left hemisphere—including language, the ability to speak, and analytical capabilities. What are the odds of that happening to a research brain scientist?!
Not a spoiler alert: but the story ends well, given how Taylor actually authored a book on the subject!
I found the book fascinating, not just in terms of how to almost fully recover from an incapacitating event like a stroke, but to help us understand the workings of our brain.
This book makes us question if we really are who we think we are?
Overall, a fascinating read.
10. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017) –Fiction
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee, was a National book award finalist, and deservedly so. The book is the saga of a Korean family over four generations. It’s a cultural masterpiece—a story about colonization and prejudice but at the same time a testament to the power of the human spirit.
It is always fascinating to learn history through the eyes of characters such as in Pachinko than simply through history textbooks.
Other honorable mentions
Here are a few other books I enjoyed that might have made my list on another day.
- The God Equation by Micho Kaku (2021). To be perfectly honest, I wish I understood this book. Let’s just say the concept was a tad above my cerebral processing power.
- A promised land by Barrack Obama (2020). Technically, I started this book at the end of last year, so it didn’t make this year’s list. Also, it was hard to resist comparing this to Becoming by Michelle Obama, but I’ll say I enjoyed both books.
- Barking up the wrong tree by Eric Baker (2017). A fun read with surprising insights into human nature.
- Chatter by Ethan Kross (2021). A much-needed book on how to stop thinking a million thoughts a minute.
- Originals by Adam Grant (2016). A cutting-edge social-science compendium that made me rethink what I assumed was correct.
That’s it for 2021. Here’s to more reading and learning in the New Year!
The more you read, the more you’ll know. The more you know, the more you realize how little you know.