11 books I’ve read so far in 2021, plus recommendations for podcasts and YouTube channels

Books

On Goodreads I set myself a reading challenge of finishing 20 books by the end of 2021. Today is the second day of June and I have already finished 11 of them, so slightly ahead of schedule! Here’s what I have read so far.

1. Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone This book digs into the aftermath of the devastating tsunami that swept northern Japan in 2011, zooming in on one elementary school that lost 84 students. Why was this school so disproportionately impacted by the disaster? Who was responsible for the children? How are their parents coping with grief and fighting for justice? It asks a lot of difficult, probing questions, and some of the stories are just heartbreaking. 5/5

2. Luster This one was not really my cup of tea. It’s about a young Black woman who gets entangled in an exploitative, kind of three-way relationship with a white couple. I have a hard time connecting with protagonists that are extremely lost and vulnerable, since it brings up a lot of anxiety and discomfort for me, so this was not for me. 3/5

3. Behind Her Eyes I recently watched the Netflix series based on this novel. Basically, a frumpy woman befriends a beautiful, elegant, mysterious woman with a lot of secrets. They’re best friends, but the frumpy woman is also cheating with her friend’s husband on the side. And then the plot gets really wild. It’s a fun thriller and a quick read. 4/5

4. The Heir Affair This was the sequel to The Royal We, a loosely disguised fanfic reimagining what Prince William’s life would have been like if he’d married an American. In the first book they get married, and this one they try to have kids. The drama is dialed up to 150% and at some points you just want to get off the train because it’s SO MUCH. It’s an OK beach read. 3/5

5. You Love Me The original series behind the Netflix series You, this is the latest installment of which poor woman is Joe stalking this time? Joe has moved to Washington. He meets Mary Kay, a librarian. He is, of course, obsessed with her. There is another glass cage involved. This shtick is kind of getting old, but the writing is still solid and enjoyable. 4/5

6. Every Day Is a Gift: A Memoir Senator Tammy Duckworth was the speaker at my grad school commencement, and my mom was super impressed with her, so when this memoir came out in April I bought this right away. And let me just say, wow. She has clearly been through a lot of therapy, because her entire life has been nuts. From being shuffled between one Southeast Asian country to another due to her dad’s inability to hold down a job, to moving to Hawaii and selling roses on the beach to feed her entire family, to joining the Army as a pilot, to losing both of her legs, to getting a PhD, to serving as a United States Senator, to giving birth to two kids in her 40s and 50s as an amputee. Interestingly, the book is heavy on her childhood, teenage years and life right after losing her legs, but then is very light on everything else. I assume she has even bigger plans in the works, and the rest of that story will end up in another memoir to follow in a decade or so. 5/5

7. Footsteps of Federer: A Fan’s Pilgrimage Across 7 Swiss Cantons in 10 Acts This was a really short book, more of a novella. The author spent a few days in 2019 traveling across Switzerland, retracing Roger Federer’s life and visiting all the different places he lived and played tennis. I have no interest in Federer nor tennis, but I still found this really interesting, as it captures the essence of Swiss-ness really well. Polite, reserved, calm, sheltered, trusting, rule-abiding, insular, committed to individual responsibility… just some of the adjectives I would use. 4/5

8. The Vanishing Half The story of twin sisters from Louisiana whose paths diverged sharply at a young age — one who eventually went home to their Black community to escape from an abusive marriage, and one who lived an entire life of pretending to be white. This was an absolutely engrossing tale and I inhaled it on the train. 5/5

9. Americanah The story of a bright-eyed young couple from Nigeria as they struggle to build new lives as immigrants in the U.S. and U.K. respectively, drifting apart over the years before finally coming back together in Nigeria and trying to figure out if they still have a future together. So much pain in this story, but also so much love and hope. 5/5

10. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know This is the second-to-last book from Malcolm Gladwell. It starts with the tragic death of Sandra Bland, which becomes the foundation that the book is built on, even as it dives into other subjects such as the Stanford rape case. Definitely much heavier than other books I’ve read from him. 5/5

11. The Sentinel Every time I think I’m about ready to give up on the Jack Reacher series, Lee Child publishes another book and pulls me back in. This one is about a cyberattack and a ransom in a small town, which is actually incredibly relevant given the recent Colonial pipeline news. Not terribly exciting, this one, but an OK read. 3/5


Podcasts

My podcast feed always seems to be super depressing, so I am actively trying to seek out more positive or at least neutral content. Here are my favorites as of this moment:

Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend. I am a huge fan of Conan, and every time I listen to a new episode from him, it puts a big smile on my face. I love that they always upload first thing on Mondays, so that even from Europe I can wake up to a new episode. My favorite episodes are his interviews with Stephen Colbert and Timothy Olyphant.

Code Switch. Really informative discourse on race in America.

ICYMI. Slate’s new podcast on internet culture. Now that Reply All is on hiatus, this is sort of taking the place of Reply All, but the conversation is more loose and casual, and there’s more of a focus on Twitter feuds and TikTok trends rather than storytelling and investigations.

It’s Been A Minute. NPR’s podcast hosted by Sam Sanders, interviewing experts on basically any subject the host is interested in. It feels like listening to friends chatting, except the friends are really smart.

Pop Culture Happy Hour. Reviews of the latest films, TV and music, also from NPR.

The Cut. Covers all kinds of random subjects.

You’re Wrong About. Goes back and revisits notorious events from the last few decades to assess how they were perhaps wrongfully portrayed in the media at the time. The hosts are super funny.

And a podcast that has already wrapped up but I highly recommend: Chameleon: Hollywood Con Queen. This is literally the best audio storytelling I’ve ever listened to. It covers the multi-year saga of an international scam that has lured hundreds of Hollywood hopefuls to Indonesia to work on a fake project, and it is so. Freaking. Engrossing. I wish I could erase this from my memory just so I could listen to it again for the first time.


YouTube

Here are my favorite channels to watch lately. (As I’m writing these, I’m noticing a bias towards Japan….)

Half-Asleep Chris. Super creative videos sharing interesting tidbits about coins, history, travel, cats, you name it. It’s very homegrown and very earnest.

N Rizki. Simple, artsy, calming vlogs from an Indonesian living in Japan.

Never Too Small. Tours of tiny apartments around the world that are designed in cool ways.

Tiffanie Davis. An American expat’s life in Paris as the real “Emily in Paris”.

Prowalk Tours. Long, uninterrupted recordings of walks around Italy’s most scenic towns. Feels like being on a virtual vacation, especially during the past year.

Paul Taylor. Bilingual British comedian living in France.

Alexandra Gater. Adorable and creative home makeovers.

Paolo from Tokyo. Has these awesome ‘day in the life’ videos showcasing what it’s like to work as a chef/butcher/comic book artist/firefighter/politician etc in Japan.

Nami’s Life. Vlogs from a single Japanese woman living in Tokyo who loves to cook and enjoy time alone at home. She doesn’t ever talk in the videos — which is apparently pretty common for Asian vloggers!

Tapiocapress. A young Chinese woman vlogging her life in Beijing. She does talk in her videos and is super open, candid and thoughtful about her challenges and hopes.

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