Books Read in the Second Half of 2021

As a reference, my grading scale is:

Two Stars: Not recommended, except for those very interested in the subject.

Three Stars: Recommended, may cover too niche a topic to get a stronger recommendation for a broad audience, is only high-level coverage of its theme, or just moderately interesting fiction.

Four Stars: Recommended, well-written, and covers material I think most people would find useful or interesting.

Five Stars: Strongly recommended to everyone.

Additionally, I pick one book every six months as the “best book I’ve read” during that time period.

Themes from these six months:

  • History of Movies and The Sopranos
  • Science Fiction
  • Elon Musk
  • Food
  • Authors with Multiple Books Featured:
    • Michael Pollan
    • Shea Serrano

Two Stars

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future – by Ashlee Vance

Musk is a controversial figure, and Ashlee Vance’s journalism career got a boost by being the first serious biography of the man in 2015 while Musk’s businesses were still works-in-progress.

The problem with this book is that it doesn’t age well. While Musk did climb to the status of world’s on-paper richest person, the business predictions have not played out as well (too many words here are dedicated to hyping Hyperloop and SolarCity which both failed). Vance dedicates a reasonable amount of space to those who criticize Elon’s lack of human empathy. However, every concession is more than doubly countered with an “ends justify the means” philosophy and glorification of Elon’s accomplishments and fortitude (which are fair to recognize).

Power Play is the much better, fairer Elon biography.

Three Stars

This Is Your Mind on Plants – by Michael Pollan

Pollan, a journalist now famous for his writing on foods and drugs, combines the two topics into this odd short collection of chapters on three plant-born drugs:

  • Opium: A 20 year old magazine article Pollan wrote that was cut in half by lawyers at the time, now printed in its entirety about the plant behind the opioid epidemic.
  • Caffeine: A history of the relationship between humans and the bean, written during a three month experiment in abstaining by the author.
  • Mescaline: The first drug banned in America when the Mexican Inquisition met Native Americans using this hallucinogen from cacti, Pollan tries to go on his own version of a vision quest.

I say odd due to the formatting and writing style varying by chapter, which feels half-jarring and half-intriguing.

It’s a little lighter and less informative and thought-provoking than I thought it might be. But that’s also probably because I’m unfairly comparing it to Pollan’s other longer, deeper books. This is shorter and snappier by design.

Dune – by Frank Herbert

I felt compelled to try reading this acclaimed classic prior to seeing the new movie. It deserves its credit for being a thoughtful sociopolitical sci-fi epic prior to the existence of Star Wars and Game of Thrones, but I found Herbert’s writing to be boring. Similarly to how I felt about Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, the books are memorable for the ideas more than the implementation.

Greenlights – by Matthew McConaughey (Audiobook)

I barely knew what this guy was talking about (assorted stories from his life before he became a movie star). But his voice and cadence is so smooth, he’s a natural audiobook narrator, especially for his own memoir.

Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of the Sopranos – by Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa

These two guys are just about the luckiest on Earth. First, they get cast in the Sopranos. Next, they unintentionally start a video podcast about the show right before covid lockdowns hit. Third, a prequel movie about the show comes out a year and a half after they start the podcast, right about when they’ve finished rewatching every episode of the show.

Through their podcast, Talking Sopranos, have interviewed every major member of the cast who isn’t the late, great Gandolfini. This book is a concise compilation of the best tidbits from the podcast interviews plus additional interview content about the making of the show and its final season. For fans of the Sopranos who also don’t have hundreds of hours to spend listening through the entire podcast series, this is a great alternative.

Hip Hop and Other Things – by Shea Serrano

I am white and what one could fairly describe as a mainstream middlebrow consumer of hip hop music. Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter 3” is the most significant album to me that came out in my lifetime, but I have never listened through The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill despite knowing it’s profoundly significant to the genre.

So it is with great relief that, in reading Serrano’s newest book, I ran into arguments I can agree with (Nicki Minaj’s verse on Monster being the greatest of the 2010s), and those I would quibble with (Eminem’s Lose Yourself doesn’t make a list of the top 30 hype songs?). But inciting discussion is Shea’s goal, so mission accomplished.

Basketball and Other Things – by Shea Serrano

I know a little bit more about Basketball than I do about Hip Hop, and I’m still riding the high from the Michael Jordan documentary, so this book ranks one spot higher than the other Shea book. Is that a wholly fair way to rank and review books? Maybe not, but it’s the kind of argument I think Serrano would support.

Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX – by Eric Berger

Liftoff, unlike other Musk biographies, is the least Musk-ian. This is to the book’s benefit, instead investing its time in all the often unheard folks who dedicate as much of their blood, sweat, and tears as Elon to build the most innovative company in aerospace. Not overly long either, it essentially bursts through biographies of many of the company’s key employees, mixed with understandable summaries of the important innovations and engineering challenges they solve along the way. For me, as someone much more familiar with Tesla, this was a very good way to get caught up on the SpaceX story.

The Annotated Godfather (50th Anniversary Edition): The Complete Screenplay, Commentary on Every Scene, Interviews, and Little-Known Facts – by Jenny Jones

It’s about to be fifty years since what I consider the greatest film I’ve ever seen was released. To celebrate, writer and film buff Jenny Jones has been able to get access to a wealth of new interviews and unknown morsels about the making of The Godfather. This is what I call a “coffee table book”. Not meant to be read on a Kindle, the hardcover is wider, containing high quality photos of the production interspersed between trivia and cast profiles. The throughline is the script, as powerful an original work of fiction as there’s been in the past century. If the Godfather story weren’t already so well-known, I’d probably rate this even higher.

Stranger in a Strange Land – by Robert Heinlein

Something I’ve learned about myself the past few years is that “science fiction” is most interesting to me when it’s fun, not when it’s attempting to be profound. 

I knew nothing about Stranger when I bought it other than its famous title, a phrase taken from the Bible whose subtle relevance unfolds gradually as the plot progresses. So I was completely unaware that it’s main characters are a boy raised on Mars and brought back to Earth who is taught about humanity by a character who I can best describe as a multi-cultural retired doctor-lawyer now running a brothel in his retirement.

The man-Martian works well as a “fish out of water” device to veil the author’s perspective on human paradoxes: concepts like schadenfreude, the violence of peace-promoting religions, and legal systems so complex as to be useless loophole-ridden constructs.

Some dialogues run long in an Ayn-Randian kind of way, but this is balanced by a Douglas Adams sense of humor about this “human existence” thing. For the latter reason, I recommend it, as neither Heinlein nor his book take anything too seriously.

Four Stars

Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century – by Tim Higgins

How Tesla has risen out of small experimental and academic circles a few decades ago to become one of the world’s most highly valued companies today would be near-impossible to separate from the Elon Musk story. Here, Higgins has written the definitive telling of both.

He is reasonable in both his praise of Elon’s entrepreneurial talent (complete conviction and willingness to put his own skin, time, and money into his businesses) and condemnation of his personality (his attacking of journalists, his missteps that led to being fired from PayPal, lying on Twitter about company fundraising and to customers about prices when they made reservations, involving himself in the Thailand cave rescue for publicity).

It’s Musk’s ability to expertly play the game theory of business/consumer psychology that’s commendable and also provides great narrative thrust for any biographer telling his and Tesla’s stories.

Having now read the three major biographies of Elon Musk and his companies, Higgins’s is both the newest and the best.

The Soprano Sessions – by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall

I had previously read MZS’s episodic breakdown of Mad Men. And so, with the release of the new prequel movie, I caught up on their Sopranos collection. These two are such great writers that they exemplify the best of professional criticism: they are clearly lovers of the medium and content (being a hater is not interesting) without being fanboys. They’re comfortable calling out episodes that don’t resonate with them and can explain why both artistically and emotionally.

The extra juice is a nearly 100-page interview with showrunner David Chase. With these two New Jersey journalists he’s a little more honest and frank than I’ve heard him be with other outlets. For someone interested in the making of great art, reading Chase’s part-workman choices of details and part artist-gut-instinct approach is a bit enigmatic but fun to try and decipher all the same.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel – by Quentin Tarantino

I really loved this movie. Much like Margot Robbie’s scene in it, I walked to a theater in downtown Chicago by myself to sit through it, so high was my anticipation.

Tarantino has stated that his post-Hollywood life will be spent writing (books and plays mostly). Making his first book a novelization of his movie is a logical starting point.

Like The Queen’s Gambit, my decision to read this was driven by the desire to spend more time in the world with the characters as they were depicted onscreen.

What I did not predict, and was pleasantly surprised by, is that Taratino’s novelization would not be the same story as the movie’s script. Primarily he focuses on fleshing out the character’s backstories, which works to varying degrees for different characters (a positive for the Lancer cast and Manson family, but demystifying Cliff Booth’s background might detract from the character’s intrigue). The character development is rounded out with asides about the history of Hollywood, fictionalizing stories Tarantino has heard from the likes of Burt Reynolds and Kurt Russell.

For someone who hasn’t seen the movie, it’s probably three stars as a novel. For anyone who saw the movie, loved the characters, and/or is a Hollywood history buff, this is a five.

Educated: A Memoir – by Tara Westover

Westover has certainly had an abnormal enough life to justify a memoir. Raised in an extremist cult wing of the Mormon religion led by her bipolar father, her story is one of a promising young woman realizing that something is not right with her home life. It’s psychologically restrictive and physically abusive. These points maybe feel a little hammered in by the middle third of the book, but the uniqueness of her cult in the first third and her rising above in the last third make the whole picture worth following. Her life is special, given that most people with mentally disturbed parents and childhoods in cults rarely escape.

Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit – by Ashley Mears

I first learned of Ashley’s work via Tyler Cowen’s podcast, and her unique story of a fashion model-turned-academic-sociologist was compelling enough for me to pick up the book.

Mears was out of the nightlife game for nearly a decade before taking her early-20s experience as dissertation material seriously. And so, as Michael Corleone once said, when she was out, she was brought back in.

She does this by reconnecting with club managers, promoters, and VIP clientele she once knew let her back into the scene “on background” (willing to be quoted but under anonymous identities). Thus the book takes an interesting angle of positioning all these nightlife conversations as participants in an academic study. Which they are, but the writing is well-balanced between keeping the reader engaged by the glamor while informed of the dirty underbelly of this industry.

And it is a dark industry. Combining the exploitation of young, poor women with little to monetize other than their bodies and poor (often first or second degree immigrant) men who become the promoters, Mears documents a subculture not unlike most industries still today: an economic system designed for the promotion, pleasure, and ego fulfillment of older white men.

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal – by Eric Schlosser

Schlosser wrote my absolute favorite book I’ve read since college (Command and Control). However, it’s Fast Food Nation which he’s probably most known for.

Published in 2001, it starts off similarly as his future works would: in a military base. The point being that, should a true apocalypse truly wipe out most of humanity, what would remain would be nuclear bunkers and fast food wrappers.

This and a handful of other analogies in the first half of the book feel a little like he’s reaching for bad news (comparing fast food work to call centers primarily to emphasize employment options for the poor are bleak) on a topic (fast food) that is deep fried in it.

So this book is a little slower to get juicy until the second half, when Schlosser’s talent of writing journalistic fact with the flare of fiction tackles the failures of the FDA and USDA regulatory bodies, and his insights into modern slaughterhouses make this a spiritual successor to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

There’s a good reason this story was famous in the early 2000s when it was released, similar to the way the work of the Washington Post and Walter Cronkite resonated: important true stories told well resonate through culture.

Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused – by Melissa Maerz

I’m not a stoner, but I’ve known a few. And they’ve all seen this movie. Although for the next generation of teenagers, I don’t know if they’ll think of it as a 90s-nostalgia-for-the-70s flick or as the movie which made Matthew McConaughey famous.

As part of my quarantine effort to watch through classic cinema, I finally checked Dazed and Confused off my list. The viewing was quickly followed by reading this new oral history of the making of the movie.

I loved the “documentary as a book” style Maerz chose, having mixed together multiple interviews with all the principal players (including director Richard Linklater and McConaughey himself). Also well done is Maerz does a fair job balancing the romanticism of the movie-making process with a bunch of twentysomethings with the critiques of certain people’s actions (the treatment of colleagues and how varying levels of fame coming out of the film influence how people remember the past). Recommended for anyone interested in nostalgia, marijuana, filmmaking, and/or Matthew McConaughey.

The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power – by Max Chafkin

As it says at one point in the book, there was a time when Peter Thiel was known as a “tech” person and not a “political” one. For many, that change happened when Thiel, cofounder of PayPal and first investor in Facebook, came out in support of Trump at the Republican National Convention in 2016.

Chafkin documents the Thiel story in a way that makes the move seem less surprising than it was. This is an incredible story of a person’s ability to hold contradictory ideas and using them as a tool to maneuver himself from typical middle class kid into one of the world’s most influential power men.

Lights Out: Pride, Delusion, and the Fall of General Electric – by Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann

When I was a kid, the General Electric name held hefty weight. Even in an economy being disrupted by the computer industry, GE stood for ubiquitous industrialism, with its curvy lettered logo on everyone’s home appliances and the boxes of light bulbs at the store.

This is the chronicling of a corporate collapse comparable to the fall of Rome. While not quite bankrupt, the plummet in the company’s value from its peak two decades ago to today is greater than Enron, Worldcom, and Lehman Brothers combined.

The story spans multiple decades and CEOs, starting the Jack Welch era (once lauded for its emphasis on shareholder growth, now derided for causing the collapse by rotting the culture similar to Enron). Then the bag is handed to Jeff Immelt, whose attempts in the 21st century to recover from Welch’s mistakes are also ill-advised: failed investments as a late-comer to the software industry, overpaying for acquisitions for the sake of maintaining growth, and investments into the fracking industry, all of which cost more money than they made.

I can’t really spoil the ending of the story because googling GE’s stock price will do that. This is the saddest business book since the post-Great Financial Crisis era over a decade ago.

The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood – by Sam Wasson

Attempting to make Roman Polanski relatable in today’s world and not having the reader reject the story outright is a tricky task. Wasson was up for it with The Big Goodbye, where the pedophiliac director is but one of our four leading men who brought one of the greatest movies ever into existence.

Chinatown was a pivot point for Hollywood. Released the same year as The Godfather and with similar dark tones, they straddled the line between a previous, simpler era of independent cinema and the emergence of the still-unending big blockbuster era.

What really makes this story sizzle is Wasson’s writing style. This is not a textbook biography, more of a reenactment. The dialogue and recreated thoughts of Polanski, actor Jack Nicholson, writer Robert Townes, and producer Robert Evans are not necessarily quoted verbatim, but designed to convey the mood of the moment. It’s this meta aspect to The Big Goodbye, what reads like a fictional novel is actually a retelling, that makes this memorable. 

Five Stars

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals – by Michael Pollan

This is the book that, when published, made me aware of Michael Pollan. As an infamous meat-eater, I tend to avoid books about vegetables which is what I thought this was about given no research or any real knowledge beyond the cover.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is decidedly not that kind of book. Rather, Pollan has accomplished what the best works of pop-science do, which is to translate a swath of related academic work (covering biology, economics, history, etc.) into a compelling narrative leaving you both better educated than you were before but leaving you to answer the biggest questions for yourself. 

The dilemma at the heart of the story is not so much about what we eat, but how we choose and why we make the choices that we do. For me personally, the strongest chapters are the early (multi-disciplinary explanation for the dominance of corn in American diets) and late ones (the great philosophical questions about whether we should be vegetarians and how we should navigate the realities of needing large food supplies to support growing populations).

Pollan achieved a rare balance of breadth and depth without boredom which warrants a strong recommendation.

Station Eleven: A Novel – by Emily St. John Mandel

There are perhaps two types of people in the world at this moment: Those who want to consume pandemic-related content and those who do not. I do, but I did not know that’s what I was getting into when I ordered this book following a friend’s recommendation.

Trying to describe the plot spoiler-free undersells the emotional impact contained in the story. It also sounds quirkier than it reads in practice. A traveling Shakespeare theater accompanied by a band travels from town to town entertaining the survivors of a global pandemic.

Emily Mandel uses Shakespeare combined with chronologically incongruous structure to impress a deep lesson: human creativity is simultaneously immortal and a reminder of time’s passing.

To tell anymore of the plot would be to risk spoiling the experience of letting Mandel guide you through spacetime by your heartstrings. This is the most ingenious fiction I’ve read in a long, long time.

Best Book Read in the First Half of 2021

House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed – by Sara Gay Forden

No wonder a movie was made of this story, and after having read this book, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.

I know very little about fashion and even less about luxury. To the extent that I know anything, it’s through the brand names which permeate pop culture. Gucci is chief among them.

What I didn’t know was how fantastical the story was behind the brand. Journalist Sara Gay Forden and others make the Gucci analogy to the 80s-era TV dramas Dynasty and Dallas, where rich miserable families use both physical and psychological violence against their own blood to feed their greed and egos. Except here, it’s all true.

The best nonfiction stories like this work because the author has so much great raw material to work with. Only self-absorbed rich people and psychopaths can create this much real world drama with high stakes. Without spoiling details, this is a biography of an industry (from the nuances of leather-making to the billion dollar stakes of boardrooms) and of a family (whose personal desires conflict with old world ideas of loyalty). In summary, Forden has told a great story of the 20th century.