2021 year of reading

Hey gang, here’s my mostly-in-order 2021 reading list.

I’m a sucker for recaps and looking back at this list, it’s a trip to see where these books came from, and how they’ve shaped what I’m reading now. Also a pretty wild way to view time—hard to believe some of these books were from this year. They feel like I read them years ago.

I would abso love to learn what you think belongs here and in my head. Let me know!

Show Your Work – Austin Kleon

So highly recommend this to any/every artist or human who thinks about how we share and communicate life and art. I keep it handy for times when I’m overthinking and need straightforward advice about what to share. I still take it all with a grain because: stay weird forever! Also though, weird folk, share your stuff 🙂

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls – David Sedaris

Listened to the audiobook read by Sedaris (my only audiobook this year for whatever reason). So good! Love when he takes the liberty to fictionalize hateful folks like those against gay marriage at the end. More of the same raddness from him which I can’t get enough of.

The Peaceful Stillness of the Silent Mind – Lama Yeshe

Learning to meditate, to ditch attachment, and to not be so into judging everything. Like how someone can be both friend and enemy (or neither). So happy I randomly came upon Lama Yeshe thx to my mediation folks. Kind of like a headier (or less-easy-to-grasp) Thich Nhat Hanh.

Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler

Like a survival guide embedded with mindfulness and community. Incredible. Why wasn’t this required reading in high school or college??? Such a life-changing work.

Thanks to my wife for the recommendation. And thanks to her and our bud Nisey for showing me the Octavia’s Parables Podcast with adrienne maree brown & Toshi Reagon. Every episode changes how I think and who I am and I’m not even halfway through. The hosts reflect on the book and offer tangible elements from Octavia Butler’s work we can incorporate into our lives and communities. Can’t hype this up enough!

Also noticing it’s fun to read stuff that came out in the ’90s. Usually, I feel like I’m reading books from forever ago or more current stuff. Reading books (and listening to music) from the ’90s is like digging into my past, or the era that shaped me a bit. I mean I was a person then. Far from grown, but alive.

What It Is – Lynda Barry

“We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay.”

This book is a lovely journey through ourselves via art and thought exercises. It’s a kind of book I had no idea existed, and so grateful it does!

Aftershocks – Nadia Owusu

Good god wow what a poetic and detailed description of trauma and depression told through weaving tales of growing up in every corner of the world. Reclaiming narratives taken away by systematic hate and BS. I attended an online Q&A and they spoke about the work being a way to process. They looked at all their raw material, journals, their past, and asked — can I make art of this? So highly recommend <3

The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemison

The last book of the incredible Broken Earth Trilogy.

How was I able to read these 3 amazing works without thinking of oppression as the forefront – because I was watching – because I get to – because I always have. I was able to read this trilogy as fantasy. And while it is, it’s not.

It’s brilliant and real. And only in reading interviews with N.K. Jemison and watching her amazing Hugo Awards speech am I coming to terms with what I actually just read. In the speech, she describes the trilogy as exposing, “What it takes to live and thrive in a world that seems determined to break you.” But she also adds the hope that the trilogy also embodies. “Life in a hard world is never just the struggle.”

The Listening Path – Julia Cameron

More of the Julia Cameron I love. The person who taught me the value of journaling and artists dates and defines success as “Joy.” I particularly love the attention she gives to walking in this book, as well as sharing an excellent breakdown of how the Artist’s Way practices can help us feel whole.

Real Life – Brandon Taylor

Using fiction to get across facts and deeply personal stuff. I know this isn’t new but damn he does an amazing job of it. Sticking with me as amazing months after as if I’ve found someone or something that was missing. After reading Real Life I realized I have a favorite book of the year, which I can’t say I’ve ever had before. Way highly recommend!!

How to Ruin Everything: Essays – George Watsky

Rad. Reading George’s work taught me a lot about writing essays. Purchased on an artist’s date thanks to a recommendation from staff at the amazing Antigone Books in Tucson. It questioned my ego to the core and allowed me to be ok with myself —very much a mirror and not always an easy one to look at.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold – C Pam Zhang

Brandon Taylor recommended this in the acknowledgments of Real Life. He and C Pam Zhang were classmates. All I needed to hear and so happy to have experienced this beautiful and real journey.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull – Richard Bach

Thanks to my friend Emily for sharing this! So much inspo to do you, highly recommend. I accidentally read the updated version that includes the last chapter which was apparently left out of the OG. The author added it after a few decades of the book being released and widely loved. I think they said it was literally typed on paper and in a box somewhere.

99 Nights in Logar – Jamil Jan Kochai

Another Brandon Taylor (Real Life) rec and again wow. Another classmate of Brandon and C Pam I think… Learned so much about Afghanistan. Felt like after watching a great film or doc. So so dope. Raw. Funny. Real.

The Unreality of Memory: And Other Essays – Elisa Gabbert

I’m obsessed with how dope Elisa Gabbert is. This book is full of deep topics I love to think about or never thought to think about—the types of conversations I wish I was having with friends over coffee… heavy, real, and funny.

How do we deal with news and crisis? And how does our memory play into what we exp or how we remember and relate to stuff — what we experience? What’s up with pandemics? (She happened to have written a piece about pandemics including quotes from Fauci a good year or so before we first learned about COVID).

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong

  • Possibly my fav fiction ever (is it fiction?)
  • Blurts lines of essay fiction non-fiction and poetry — he talks about this a bit more in the acknowledgments
  • So real so beautiful
  • Love the way it’s cut up and takes turns but keeps you right there
  • Epic mortality blanket
  • Makes life feel so f’n visceral and real

Intimations – Zadie Smith

  • A perfect quick afternoon read with all the author’s profits benefiting charities
  • A deep look at individual experiences during the pandemic, specifically in terms of writers and POC
  • A brilliant tie in of racism as a virus and herd immunity and COVID

The Empress of Salt and Fortune – Nghi Vo

Rad lil read I picked up on a staff recommendations shelf at an indy bookstore in BK. So dang creative with a dope and very feminist turn at the end. Super powerful!

Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott

Wow. Had me hyped with wet eyeballs at the end. Probably the funniest book I’ve ever read. Probably one of the most helpful too. I don’t know if it would be the same for folks who aren’t writing or working on a craft but I think it could definitely still work. The ideas of inspiration and rejection she brings up exist in artist studios and “regular” life alike. So so highly recommend and def buying this for all my artist buds.

Also a funny vibe because as hype as it is — now it’s time to get to work. All this love and humor and motivation to stare at a blank page or screen. It’s another version of finishing some big project and realizing that, ok now you can start.

Parable of the Talents – Octavia Butler

Dannnnnngggg. The continuation of Parable of the Sower (listed above). So ridiculously raw and scarily/weirdly poignant (genius). I read this mostly in the evenings and I knew every night before bed something epic would happen. Octavia doesn’t waste time in her chapters. Every single one is pivotal. So love so recommend (but read Sower first!).

And one more shoutout to the incredible podcast you can use to follow along if you want. I’m still getting through the Sower episodes and can’t wait until I get to hear adrienne maree brown and Toshi Reagon’s thoughts on this one.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy – Jenny Odell

My first book in the Austin Kleon online book club. Had really high hopes for this based on the title and it being a fav of both Austin and Obama(!). Truthfully it’s the only one this year that I stopped about 2/3’s of the way in.

It’s a very academic feeling read. I love pretty much everything the author brings up, but I got bogged down by the number of names and studies dropped. I enjoyed her talking about her relationship with neighborhood crows the best.

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson

The second book in Austin Kleon’s book club. Sounds like he heard folks in the chatroom not fully loving the above book and went real nice and simple with this one. I liked this book a lot. It’s a series of short tales mostly concerning a grandma and young girl living on the beach somewhere in Europe. It’s kind of Seinfeld-y since sometimes nothing really happens. A great simple escape, but not in the sci-fi sense.

How to slowly kill yourself and others in America – Kiese Laymon

One of the most honest books I’ve ever read. Highly highly recommend. Kiese is so smart I ended up feeling lucky to be there—like the book was him sharing vast knowledge and I was allowed to be a fly on the wall. Love. Now to catch up on his fiction and memoir.

The Life and Zen Haiku Poetry of Santoka Taneda: Japan’s Beloved Modern Haiku Poet – Sumita Oyama

I was working in San Jose earlier this year and my hotel happened to be across the street from Kinokuniya, an amazing Japanese bookstore full of a million things I needed to try and fit in my luggage. I legit almost couldn’t fit everything after a second night of shopping here!

This book caught my eye. I knew nothing about haiku before reading it and thought it would be a fun to have on the shelf and pull out to read a poem from time to time. What I ended up discovering was an incredible narrative/journey of Santoka’s life of travel, begging, writing, and his love/struggle relationship with sake. He’s kind of like a nicer, Zen, Bukowski.

I’m A Wild Seed Sharon Lee De La Cruz

Such a cool short read about one really brave, funny, and honest person’s journey through coming out, discovering racist histories, learning how to exist beyond white capitalist norms, family dynamics, higher education—so much! Amazing they fit it all in this fun lil graphic novel. So happy I found this in our library’s recommended LGBT resources.

A Diamond is a Diamond – Sherard Robbins

Sherard spoke at my wife’s old work and she was psyched to share this book with me (even though it took me way too long to finally read!) It’s a short read laying out 5 key components to doing social justice work. I loved it in its self-published format, it really felt like I was connecting with Sherard in a way—that the information was what’s important, not a glossy cover and hip font choices.

Filthy Animals – Brandon Taylor

I loved Real Life so couldn’t wait to read this. It’s a rad woven tale of stories, some of which connect and some do not. It has an even grimier vibe than Real Life, which makes me wonder if it’s because more of it was written first. His writing takes on subjects in a visceral way that I don’t really see in authors other than him, Kiese Laymon, and Ocean Vuong. This book also made me feel like my time in college was boring as hell!

Pachinko – Min Jin Lee

I was struck by the undue shame the characters carry in this book. The sacrifices they make for each other and themselves, often against their dreams. The knowledge of how certain folks who have never known a country besides Japan were (are?) looked at as less since their family roots reach back to Korea, a place they or their ancestors were forced to leave thanks to Japan’s government at the time. Pachinko is a deep story of a family’s unbelievable perseverance to survive.

Guard The Mysteries – Cedar Sigo

A life changer. One of those experiences that feels like a pivot towards what’s next, but at the same time a moment in time and reading I didn’t ever really want to end. Guard The Mysteries transcribes a few talks on specific poets and styles given by Cedar Sigo over recent years, and I’m beyond grateful for the many paths his life of poetry and research is taking me as books and authors he highlighted show up in my holds at the library or in the mail. My wife’s Aunt Lee bought me this book at The Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle. She took it out of my hands and added to the list of books she hauled up to the counter for us. I snuck this one in my back pocket so she didn’t see it and bought it for her while she was walking out the door.

Grievers – adrienne marine brown

So good daaaang! And please watch the conversation with adrienne and Kiese Laymon if you’re at all intrigued—I guarantee you you’ll want to read this after watching it. Shoutout to my Detroit friends, you’ll love the references, and shoutout to my friends and friends of friends and enemies… please read this! adrienne hits dead on what so many of us are going through and thinking about and feeling—or would be given the circumstances the main character Dune faces. I love how adrienne writes in a way that feels so literal, matter-of-fact, believable, and real.

The Morning Star – Karl Ove KnausgĂĄrd

An epic work, and one I read thanks to the review by Bradon Taylor (Real Life, Filthy Animals). It’s in some ways similar to Filthy Animals as it follows multiple characters and some chapters link to one another while others exist in their own space. The style this was written is just rad, and after nerding out on podcasts a bit I learned Karl Ove has reached a level of rarely editing, where he looks at his work as similar to a brilliant jazz artist improvising on a record. One take. Pretty f’n incredible when you look at this massive work. Super recommend if you have the time or would benefit from realizing you do.

Memorial – Bryan Washington

Read this after listening to the A24 podcast with Bryan Washington and Ocean Vuong. It’s a super fast, fun, and just very real-feeling read. It hits on so many levels like work/life, food, gentrification, relationships, being queer in a hetero-dominant world, and even death—but it somehow all just feels like life, which it is. So good super highly recommend!

Heavy – Kiese Laymon

Putting this up there with Real Life and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Such a dope read. Really an honest inside look at what it was like and is like to grow up and be Kiese. Fucking brilliant book if you read one thing on this list read this.

Peep my 2020 reading list here

Peep my 2019 reading list here