2021 Book List

If you are reading this, I want to reiterate my thanks for your support this past year. While I consider myself an independent consultant, none of us do this alone. I truly enjoy the work I do, and I consider it an amazing privilege to have the ability to choose the people with whom I work. Gratitude is crucial to my personal and professional well being. You make me feel grateful.

For the second year in a row, I made a goal to read one book every month. No business books or marketing texts allowed. Items that made the cut include hearty fiction, finely crafted collections of short stories and essays, and a couple biographies. A little synopsis of each is included below in case you need some ideas for your own 2022 reading list. If you have any book recommendations for me, please let me know.

Charles Yu. Interior Chinatown
The first book on my 2021 reading list was easily my favorite and one that I will definitely read again. The story follows the development of a man who lives in Chinatown, a place that endures an odd existence as a lively neighborhood located in America that is not quite accepted as American. At first the main character seeks to attain a certain role, a comfortable place in the world partially defined by race, economic status and societal norms. Over time he discovers his attempts to reach a uniquely defined personal pinnacle confine him. While it brings “success,” the role he seeks to play also carries emotional adversity and leaves him spiritually destitute. Within Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu reveals that the pursuit of a dream is folly when ambition’s payoff lacks true meaning. Happiness is invisible, and fulfillment is void of any status symbol.

Clint Hill. Five Presidents
The secret service remains a faceless, stoic unit that is forbidden a momentary lapse in focus. Outside of a well-written memoir, there is little recognition or aplomb. Their reward is survival and escape from omnipresent and unanticipated threats. Five Presidents follows the career of Clint Hill, a secret service agent who served during five administrations from Eisenhower through Ford. The clarity of Hill’s writing is likely the result of his unrelenting focus on his role. His time served protecting five famously popular characters marked occasions in which each president routinely let his guard down. These moments unveil patches of humanity in each man that took form in a light-hearted joke, a quick-trigger temper, a conniving spirit or a sense of being utterly overwhelmed by the job. Beyond a more intimate look at each of the five presidents protected by Hill, this book highlights the terribly difficult task faced by the secret service, especially in key moments when hunger for admiration and political prestige would win over recognition of a potential threat.

Colson Whitehead. Nickel Boys
In this piece of historical fiction, Whitehead tells the story of a young boy living in 1960s Florida. After accepting a ride to school one morning, the boy soon finds himself wrongly sentenced as an accomplice to a car thief. As punishment the boy is detained at the Nickel Academy, an infamous reformatory. Despite a prison atmosphere among the other Academy boys, unforgivable abuse by the guards and an incessant weight of tension and fear on him at all times, the boy contends with two modes of survival: love your enemy or become as callous and hateful as those who oppress you. In reality, Nickel Boys tells the store of the real-life Dozier School, a supposed reform school where boys were routinely beaten and would occasionally disappear.

Marilynne Robinson. Gilead
When an elderly pastor receives a terminal medical diagnosis, he takes a moment of pause to write a detailed letter to his young son. This book reads like a long diary entry. Its tone and pace put me in a very calm state. While all that may sound a little sleepy, Gilead is a buttery slice of cake from your favorite bakery – rich with addictive flavor, slightly intoxicating and appropriate any time of the day. There is a Prodigal Son likeness to this book in which certain characters wrestle with themes of forgiveness and the bitterness of contrition. In addition to its religious tenor, Gilead beautifully portrays life in a 1950s Midwestern small town, a setting where everyone knows everyone for better or worse.

Sridhar Pappu. Year of the Pitcher
In times of confusion and social turbulence, art, music and sports can serve as a perfect distraction. There may have been no better time in recent American history for baseball and its greatest players to steal a few headlines amidst events of war, assassinations and festering racial tension. Year of the Pitcher tells the story of two baseball players, Bob Gibson and Denny McLain, who mastered the pitching profession while dominating opponents with contrasting styles. Gibson, who was reserved but fiercely committed to his teammates, relied on intimidation and would consistently knock batters down with high fastballs. McLain would employ precision and pitching accuracy to challenge hitters. He also smoked, gambled, drank a case of Pepsi every day, and he was known to travel separately from his teammates to and from away games. While Year of the Pitcher is a must-read for any baseball fan, it also provides a revealing window into a period of extreme turmoil in American history.

Betty Smith. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Not every classic American novel can hold up, but I found A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to be both entertaining and relevant. Discussing themes of overcoming hardship and poverty, female perseverance, and the American Dream, this book follows the story of a young girl growing up in the early 1900s. Highlighting the plight of the extremely impoverished, the protagonist utilizes a mixture of dedication, education and time to lift herself from hopeless circumstances. A bit of research conducted after I finished the book revealed that it was published during World War II. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was distributed for free to military personnel, and the author claimed to have received thousands of pieces of fan mail from American soldiers.

Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five
Another classic with whom I had yet to pass the time, Slaughterhouse-Five is part science fiction, part anti-war novel and altogether strange and unorthodox. It’s a story about a war veteran whose life the reader views in a sequence that does not follow chronological order. The pieces of the story are shattered and scattered just like the main character’s psyche. There are likely many ways of interpreting this book. I choose to read it as a series of psychotic episodes peppered with PTSD. Every page of Slaughterhouse-Five is heartbreaking and entertaining. So it goes.

Dan Rather. What Unites Us
The famous newsman of my youth wrote a series of essays on an array of topics that impact American society, law making and general governance. Each essay explores a theme such as Immigration, Public Education, The Press and Patriotism. Having served as a venerated news reporter at a time when stations and news outlets were required by law to show both sides of issue, Rather’s writing is neither preachy nor partisan. I found it to be logical and level-headed. In times where many Americans question whether or not we are “on the right track,” this collection of carefully selected words provides a needed reminder to us about what our path as Americans is.

Nathan Harris. The Sweetness of Water
Published just this year, The Sweetness of Water is a fictitious story set in the days just following the end of the Civil War. A middle-aged couple living in a small Southern village awaits news of their soldiering son’s return. Meanwhile, in an attempt to regain some normalcy and start anew, the father of the family decides to grow crops on his land. He enlists the help of two newly emancipated brothers, who were recently held as slaves on a nearby plantation. The embers from the war are not yet fully extinguished, and conflict flares up almost instantly and throughout the story. This book is tremendous. The Sweetness of Water demonstrates that change for good requires constant attention to combat friction, unending periods of adjustment and stubbornness from stalwarts who refuse to recognize enlightened reform.

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. A Libertarian Walks into a Bear
This is a real-life chronicle of a social experiment carried out by residents of Grafton, New Hampshire. Some long-term residents and newly transplanted characters with a deep hatred for statism take political control of the town. They immediately set out to eradicate all spending and support for nearly every public program. Rejecting all civic responsibility and any sense of community, those running this “Free Town Project” find that lack of funding for standards like snow plowing, waste management and fire department equipment has dire consequences. Are there bears in the story? Yes. However, I felt the author really tried to crowbar bear anecdotes into the book and draw tenuous correlations between libertarian beliefs and vulnerability to animal attacks. Ultimately, the story is extremely humorous, and Hongoltz-Hetling does well to make his case: a dearth of support for structure in society is a recipe for a failed society, and in the case of Grafton, a failed experiment.

Te-Ping Chen. The Land of Big Numbers
A collection of short stories, The Land of Big Numbers explores life from an everyday person living in China. From this point of view, the book offers an insider’s perspective and gives the reader a sense of familiarity with Chinese culture. Each story examines the motivations, idiosyncrasies and struggles of regular people in China with regular jobs: a chef, a florist, a financial analyst, etc. Themes including political activism, the class system, complications with family dynamics rise to the surface in each chapter. Collectively, each character offers a glance of what it is like to live in an authoritarian country. Through her exploration of Chinese culture from an ordinary citizen’s frame of reference, Chen makes a big place feel smaller.

Michael Pollan. This is Your Brain on Plants
Taking a page from Hunter Thompson, Michael Pollan turns cartwheels in the land of gonzo journalism. This book details Pollan’s efforts to experiment with three drugs pervasive in American society: opium, caffeine and mescaline. In his words, he examines a downer, an upper and an outer. I’m still working my way through this trip of storytelling, but to this point, I am impressed with Pollan’s surprising clarity when detailing the impact of certain drugs on his physical and mental state. It is all very weird, but extremely entertaining.