Books I read in 2021

  1. How to Survive a Robot Uprising by Daniel H. Wilson. Mr. Wilson is a member of my local Cherokee group and I was delighted to read one of his books for the first time (The Andromeda Evolution) and discover that he is a fabulous writer! For a period of time, Wilson was a top robotics expert in the world. I thought I would check out this one, since by the title I assumed it was comedy, and because it’s what he knows. It is comedy! It’s written as a reference book for when robots inevitably try to take over the world – because they will – and all the tricks humans will need to know to easily defeat them. It’s explained by someone who knows their weaknesses intimately, and once you know what kind of robot you’re dealing with, all it takes to render them ineffectual is to throw them a curve ball. Robots are not creative thinkers.
  2. You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar. This book is very funny, just often it’s along the lines of have-to-laugh-to-keep-from-crying. I know Amber Ruffin from watching her on Seth Meyers. Lacey is her sister. Amber guesses that it’s because Lacey is petite and adorable, that people feel comfortable being racist right to her face, like strangers abruptly putting their whole hand into her hair. Lacey has been telling all her ridiculous stories to Amber, who for years had been writing them down. This book is that collection – plus new stories they got when Lacey started telling people she was writing a book.
  3. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. This one I chose because of its length. I like to listen to audio books when I’m in a race, because it makes the distance fly by. This clever comedy is full of witty one-liners and zingers and characters that are fun to laugh at. And of course you knew that, because it’s a classic play from 1895. The version has excellent voice actors, which makes it that much more enjoyable as a “read.”
  4. Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson. After the non-fiction above, it was time to move on to Robopocalypse, since it was lauded by critics. It’s also been on my bookshelves since Tara’s class was encouraged to read it in high school prior to a visit by the author. I think Tara didn’t go to the event, but did read the book. I didn’t know Wilson was Cherokee at that time, or I would have made sure Tara could make it to the program. Anyway. This scifi thriller is about robots taking over the world, led by a sentient robot who is fascinated with humanity and in its quest for perfecting life, keeps destroying humans while simultaneously studying them. It’s believable enough to be chilling, but with enough action and humor to keep it from being a horror story. Archon is the lead AI who manages to control every other bit of electronics on the planet, and when our machines turn against us, humans are nearly defeated. But only nearly. Robots, like I said above, are not creative thinkers.
  5. Enemy of All Mankind by Steven Johnson. I heard that this book existed because I listened to a podcast hosted by the author who rightly promoted his book. It is a massively researched biography of the pirate Henry Every, declared an “enemy of all mankind” for his dreadful deeds. Every used pseudonyms throughout his criminal career, but Johnson does seem to have pulled together history that truly is attributable to Every, and knits a believable chronology. This may be the first (in)famous pirate, who maintained his notoriety for years after his life, which was at the end of the 17th century. Johnson plots a course that begins with legitimate employment and via events out of his control, Every revolts against the system and eventually he and his crew embrace blatant criminality and violence. His actions are placed in context, which was not surprisingly quite political. Information about the time and the life is generously shared by the author. I was interested in how uncompromising the contracts were among pirate crews. Johnson points out that these were the first and to this day some of the only totally non-discriminating terms of employment. Famously, Every captured a fast ship that he re-named The Fancy, and with that fast ship, he and his crew got out of some sticky situations. He was universally hated and there was a global attempt to hunt him down. In the end, Every was never caught and presumably was free to spend his vast treasure. He managed to disappear and to this day no one knows what happened to him.
  6. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. Another book I chose for its length, to match the time I expected to be in my race. The first time I read it, of course, was as a child. This book, with others like Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois, were stories that sparked my imagination and for which I am truly grateful. In this rollicking tale, Fogg, the wealthy protagonist, makes a bold claim that, due to technological accomplishments in world transportation, it is possible for a man to travel around the globe in only 80 days. His friends at the club call BS, and to prove it, he begins immediately. There are racist bits, due to being written when that was ok, but it’s still a good story.
  7. The Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers, The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien. Probably my fourth or fifth time reading this book, but it’s been about 8 years so I was due. I’ve searched for an actual unabridged reading of the full collection on, and until this year could only find radio plays. Which….fine…but I wanted the book. When I finally found it, I bought it and read it immediately. I own the extended editions of the movie on DVD with the exhaustive appendices, and watch them approximately once a year. But there is nothing like the fabulous book with all its detail. I am grateful to Peter Jackson for reflecting the timeline more clearly (since there are three overlapping journeys), and helping to flesh out the love stories that I never grasped in all the times I read the book before seeing the movie. In this case the movies helped me follow the book better. The love story between Arwen and Aragorn went right over my head when I read the book, and likewise the more obvious love story of Eowyn who falls for Aragorn while he tries to gently dissuade her. Even Faramir falling for Eowyn at the end I had not picked up on before the movies. I thought the book was about war and I’m not good at noticing subtlety in words or pictures. It was fun to be reminded of how truly remarkable Hobbits are. I think the best human beings would be those who emulate Hobbits: take satisfaction in simple pleasures, hard work, storytelling and good food and drink, but not hesitate to be brave and to battle and to give your life to the cause if the cause is right, such as supporting your friend who has to make a dangerous journey. And then, as soon as possible, get right back to the simple life without wealth or power or even a concept of why those would be desired by some.
  8. The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois. (click for .pdf) This was a childhood favourite. I’ve read it twice this year. Once because it’s nice and short and I like listening to an engaging story while speed walking in races. The other time was when I had my niece and nephew in the car with me on a long drive. The main character is a grumpy schoolteacher who wants adventure. He leaves schoolteaching after a long career and sets off in a magnificent hot air balloon, prepared to live for years up there, if he can. Right away he has an accident and crash-lands at a fantastical island of incomprehensible wealth. The inhabitants kidnap him because they don’t want the secret of their island getting out. This only lasts three days because the island they’re living on is Krakatoa, and it blows! They escape with seconds to spare on yet another incredible hot air balloon contraption. Purely by accident, the teacher winds up right back where he started, actually breaking a record for fastest globe circumnavigation and becomes famous, which is the opposite of what he wanted out of retirement. In the end, we leave our teacher as he is drawing up designs for his next balloon escape.
  9. Tightrope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I read this because there were rumors that Kristof was considering a run for Oregon Governor in 2022. I wanted to get a better sense of the man. This morning I read in the NYT (10-28-21) that Kristof has confirmed he will be running. The book is organized around Kristof’s schoolmates who rode the bus with him as he grew up in rural Oregon. He follows the students through the course of their lives, and identifies some painful real-life examples of the crippling statistics among poor Americans. Drugs, crime, fractured homes, violence and abuse, and loyalty but not enough love is revealed in this book. Living in Oregon and being from a poor, white family as all of these are, I can easily identify with the scenarios Kristof talks about. Generations of despair and neglect and financial struggle are shown to have erupted very quickly with the loss of jobs in the community, and to stubbornly cling to the children born into it. Families, Communities, networks are destroyed in less than a lifetime, and show no hope of reforming. The authors point fingers at leadership in America and it’s clear that much more could be done, and that’s it’s totally within our reach, but there is little motivation to do it. They acknowledge that bad choices have been made, but show how the problems are not merely a problem of personal accountability. It’s a hard tale, but quite real, and not exaggerated. The authors’ clear-eyed look at it all is refreshing.
  10. From Scratch by Tembi Locke. I read this because I want to read more Black authors and also because I was planning a trip to Italy. It’s a beautiful (and true) love story that would have been hard for me to read any other year but this year, since I am now in love and have lost a lot of my bitterness about love. The author doesn’t realize at first that there are complications with the family and homeland of the man she decides to love. She is a Black American and he is from a traditional Sicilian family. Locke refuses keep silent or secret, and pushes her way obstinately into the lives of her man’s family, despite their distrust and discomfort. She charms them – I get the sense that it’s mostly due to how much she loves their son – into allowing a marriage, but the relationship stays strained. She pushes her husband to connect to his parents – both challenging in different ways. She pushes their child into the tiny Sicilian village, meeting resistance even from her own daughter. Her husband is ill with cancer through much of the story, and despite all this, the family still can’t open up to her. After his death, she grieves more than anyone, and realizes that the only people who can share her grief completely are her daughter and her Sicilian family. She pushes some more and FINALLY they love her back. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful how she respects and loves them all through every page until they finally break under the weight of it. I learned a lot about Sicily and about love and about the payoff when a person knows what they want and they stick to it.
  11. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. I read it again because I love this book and I love Neil Gaiman. I was again delighted at how much of the traditional creation and supernatural being stories of the islands in this book are similar to the stories from Cherokees that I have heard. I see Jistu in Spider, and the book even challenges the idea that a rabbit is the trickster, when it really was spider all along.
  12. Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World (click for .pdf, scroll way down) by Jack Weatherford. It’s harder to read than Gengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. It’s all still fascinating and plausible, just not as much storytelling and more like documenting. The opening chapter is one of the most captivating, as we are introduced to probably the world’s oldest mine and the South American Natives exploited to mine it. He moves through different innovations, from mining to food to technology and in every case he reveals how the Natives of the Americas contributed to global knowledge, wealth, and commerce in huge and important ways that we have never been taught, and furthermore the Natives are always used poorly, never credited, and abused until there is no hope of them ever benefitting from the resources they have provided. It’s well-written and an excellent education. Like other Weatherford writing, there is so much here it’s impossible for me to hold it all in my head and I could benefit from repeat readings.
  13. Turn Left at Lenin’s Statue by Fabrizio Soggetto. I heard about this book by a blogger while reading another blogger’s website. Soggetto has a fascination with Central Asia and visits repeatedly to quench his thirst. Most of the book is set in Kyrgzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakstan, and China. It covers a span of years. It was frustrating to me to begin new chapters without transitions, no idea who the people are that he mentions, or what year it is – I think it moved backward and forward through time. Sometimes with further reading, the author would eventually introduce the person he kept mentioning, or how he got to this new place, or why…but just as often there was no explanation and I just had to let it go. Or maybe it had all been explained somewhere else but I got confused and then forgot. This style was intentional and consistent, and I am sure it wouldn’t bother everyone. Soggetto has a very creative way of describing things and often it helps reveal a place that is hard for me even to imagine. One favourite sentence was, “A Holocaust of mussels offered to the gods of cotton.” Each word in a sentence packed with intent and loaded with meaning, and if you don’t get all his references, then you are left not understanding his point (which happened to me frequently, having less of a knowledge of history and cultural references than the author). In the end though, I am a kindred spirit to his questions and exploration, his hunger for understanding the nuances to each thing he learns, and its implication on ourselves, once we have been educated. I am grateful for his stories, the characters he describes, the honesty he reveals. Naturally I want to go to those places now, myself.
  14. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. Oh dear, Mr. Heinlein. One always runs the risk of hiccupping over offensive language when reading old books written by authors not familiar with political correctness. In this case, it’s so outrageous and so frequent that it was hard for me to stay focused on the story. The author is painfully sexist and misogynist (He refers to women as “girls” and even describes a scene in which a woman is supposedly enjoying some catcalling), and racist. He body shames fat people, makes fun of those with mental retardation and with disabilities (though the hero has only one arm). The main character, Mannie’s, first language is Russian, and narrates the story in English, so the other thing that drove me crazy about the audio version is that the person reading does a poor Russian accent that constantly caught my attention. Anyway…the book was lauded when it came out and I can see why. It’s a clever story about a revolt from residents of the Moon when they are subject to a government from Earth without representation, while the Moon’s resources are taken to Earth and not replenished. Very interesting the way Mannie allied with the sentient main computer, but then unrealistic that the computer was content to play the original game (the revolt) that Mannie came up with…for years…never reverting back to its curious and playful ways ever again. Written in 1966, this was a well thought out commentary on politics and government. Time was spent discussing labor, taxes, and war. Some explorations of family structure are progressive, even today. It’s like Heinlein wanted to write a social commentary, and he used his knowledge of SciFi as the package to sell it in.