Thursday, January 13, 2022

2021 Year in Review: Books and Podcasts

2021 was far and away not the best reading year for me. For the first part of the year, I thought I had a better attention span and ability to focus on reading than I did in 2020, but then starting in September I suddenly became completely unable to read for fun, even if the books I was working through were fairly well-written and engaging. 

As reported in my monthly reading reflections posts for the months until I stopped reading for fun, I read 26 books in 2021. In today's post, I'll highlight some of my favorites for the year, though I don't think any of them will be a surprise!

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As for 2022, I'm doing a little bit better with reading for fun. I blazed my way rather quickly through Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series. (By the way, the television series based on these books is really, really good; K and I binged it during the earliest months of the pandemic and we highly recommend it.) I'm roughly a third of the way through the second book now and I think I may be able to power right through the entire series in fairly short order, probably to the exclusion of reading anything else. The only downside with reading The Expanse books is that they contain very fast-paced stories, so they're not always the best pre-bedtime reading. Sometimes, they're too exciting, so I stay up a bit late to continue reading! 

I may hold off on doing more "monthly" reading reflections posts until I've finished the series, or maybe I'll only do those posts in the meantime if I have any other reading to report. Based on what I've heard from fans of the series, The Expanse should be consistently well-written throughout, so it's not the sort of thing where it makes sense to give my thoughts on each individual book as I finish reading it. It'd make more sense to evaluate the series as a whole. 

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favorite books of 2021. They're somewhat listed in order of how much I liked them, with the ones I liked most towards the top of my list. 

  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke - There's probably no surprise that this was my single favorite book of 2021, as I sang its praises effusively back when I first read it. It's just such a beautiful, lyrically written novel, with such a unique fantasy concept behind it. I was also really glad I didn't accidentally come across any spoilers before I finished reading this book, since it allowed me to slowly discover what was going on right alongside the narrator. 
  • Crying in H-Mart by Michelle Zauner - I read a lot of great nonfiction books in 2021, but this powerful memoir about Zauner's late mother was my favorite of the bunch. I generally like the deeply personal stories found in all good memoirs, so any strong writing from that genre will typically have an advantage with me over other types of nonfiction. People often review almost all bestselling memoirs as being honest and raw in their way, but I think Zauner's memoir really stands out as being particularly unflinching and self-aware. 
  • Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker - This was a really well-written and well-reported nonfiction book, with a lot of empathy to the family at the center of the story as they did their best for each other through tough circumstances. 

I also thought it'd be nice to highlight some of my favorite podcasts from 2021. 

  • Maintenance Phase - This podcast focuses on analyzing various aspects of American diet culture and, to a lesser extent, wellness culture. It's a really fascinating look back at some of the things that were definitely part of my awareness when I was growing up through the 1990s and earlier 2000s. (Think things like the short-lived presence of olestra snack foods, the ubiquity of Snackwell's cookies, and the fact that the Biggest Loser television show exists...)  
  • I Will Teach You to be Rich - Ramit Sethi's the author of my favorite introductory personal finance book, also titled I Will Teach You to be Rich. His new podcast should appeal to anyone who enjoys the kind of personal finance discussion - emphasis on the personal - I sometimes mention here. His podcast focuses on interviews of couples who have some kind of fundamental disagreement about how to manage their money, which implicates larger questions of their values and lifestyle choices. He tries to help them work through their disagreements. The first few episodes have titles that sound like huge, intractable disagreements, but most of those couples actually were not in as contentious a spot as it sounded like. For instance, the $450,000 student debt in episode four was on track to eventually be forgiven through one of the non-PSLF income-based repayment programs - like with the orthodontist mentioned in the long-ago viral news story discussed here - so it was actually being managed reasonably, there was a plan in place. The more recent episodes have included couples that sounded like they might not be able to resolve things, however. It does make me a bit nervous that these interviews sound like they're trying to be financial therapy, which is maybe best left to licensed professionals? But it is a very interesting series to listen to. 
  • Blind Landing - This is a fairly brief but well-reported podcast series about a serious problem that occurred during the women's gymnastics all-around finals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. The vault was set to incorrect specifications, which ruined the competition for some of the athletes and could easily have caused serious injuries. The series also touches on broader issues of athlete safety in gymnastics, including the lack of one-touch warmups in event finals. 

What were your favorite books or podcasts of 2021? I'm always interested in hearing recommendations for books and podcasts basically anytime, particularly if there are any other good personal finance podcasts out there that focus more on the "personal" side of things. 

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