A summary of the books (physical and audio) that held my attention in the previous year.
For several years, I’ve tracked what media I’ve consumed, from books to movies, podcasts to comics books. This was inspired by blogger Jason Kottke and his similar annual inventories, and using my digital Day One journal to maintain the record that leads to the 2021 list below.
If you’re interested in last year’s version, visit here.
In 2018, I made a vow to read more and largely succeeded. This increase continued thru 2020, when...well, we all know what happened. Last year was a retreat in quality vs. time-wasters, as I struggled to cope with this little thing called The Pandemic™️.
Like the rest of you, I did my best.
Books & Audiobooks
In 2021, my number of completed books / audiobooks continued to decline. I blame this on a severe lack of motivation that consumed much of my year, as I worked overtime to keep my family — and myself — sane.
The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet
This contextualization of episodes from one of my favorite podcasts is worth your time. John Green’s particular brand of melancholy mixed with hope is a rough mirror of my own mixture, and it hit as my brain was trying to adapt to year two of the pandemic.
Blades of Freedom: A Tale of Haiti
A great chapter of “Hazardous Tales”, and on-par with the last one “Major Impossible.” What I really enjoyed was learning for once about subjects I’m marginally-familiar with, such as the Haitian uprising and what fueled their fire outside of just slavery. Hale’s artwork is also getting better and better, as he focuses less on caricatures to communicate plot and more on well-composed layouts and great line work.
Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas
Reading this book reminds me that I’m not personally very brave, that I’m so risk-adverse in most every matters. This has been exacerbated by having a family, knowing that I sometimes need to stay heads down & work in order to ensure they’re provided for. Alexi Pappas is a fresh voice who is real about the struggles of her profession & honest about her counteractive attitude.
Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book
This was an adorable book, wistful in ways that reminded me of childhood fare such as Shel Silverstein. The physical presentation of the book is delightful: sparse, clean drawings bound into a compact, solid hardback that felt good in my hands.
The Obstacle is the Way
Stoicism has kept me sane these past few years, and this Ryan Holiday’s treatise is a simple, straightforward exploration of Stoic concepts. The more you repeat them, the better they stick, the greater your life’s rewards will be!
Project Hail Mary
The latest Andy Wier novel was such a joy to read. The friendship between the Earthling Ryland Grace and the Eridian “Rocky” is one I still think about months later. If you enjoyed the “Yeah, science!” feel of The Martian (and want to rinse out the bad taste of Artemis), I highly recommend this title. I read the physical book, but I’ve heard that the audiobook is worth checking out for its depiction of Eridian language.
Ready Player Two
The sequel to “Ready Player One”, a book I both loved and loathed. This is mostly the same mix, but I’m sticking with it because of its rich detail about future technology & effects on mankind. I recommend listening to Wil Wheaton’s audiobook narration, but little else. There was one good life lesson = never auto-update your software without reading the release notes first!
My final book of 2021, Seth Rogen’s memoir was a great diversion. While I won’t remember it much years from now, I found his justifications and reasoning behind drug use to be an interesting perspective. I also loved his story about urinating in Tom Cruise’s driveway!
I counteracted my dearth of finished books by knocking out several comics, including the full runs of Splatoon manga, Sweet Tooth, and all three Invincible omnibuses (a whopping 144 issues!).
Invincible Compendium Vols. 1 - 3
I was primed to hate this series, as my previous attempt to like a Robert Kirkman title (The Walking Dead) fizzed out way before the end. However, the joy, mirth, and energy of this title won me over so much that I read all 12 years of it within the span of two weeks. I wasn’t aware of Ryan Ottley’s existence before this, but he’s now one of my favorite comic artists!
Power Pack: The Powers That Be
As a young teenager with few friends, Power Pack was a big deal to me, giving me other kids (albeit imaginary) to spend time with. I was eager to snap up this title sight unseen, but I found it disappointing — the tone was way too irreverent, and I grew bored with the pedestrian plot.
I’ve become a big fan of this video game on the Nintendo Switch, and it’s been fun to share the experience with my daughter. She’s not a big reader, so I purchased volume 1 of the manga to help encourage her to read more, and it worked — she loves the simple silliness of the plot, and we’ve already read a third of the series from our local library.
I initiated reading this run in anticipation of watching the like-named Netflix series, which I never got around to watching because I didn’t want to spoil what I’d just read. Jeff Lemire’s opus was rich in dialogue & intimacy, and I grew to love the rough energy of his illustrations.
I was inspired to read this after watching WandaVision, and this title did not disappoint. The tone set by Tom King was as dark & moody as some of Vision’s West Coast Avengers story-arcs, and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s artwork was exquisite. Each issue was full of tension from cover-to-cover, and I wish I’d been aware of it at the time, so I could have seen it unfurl 1 month at a time.
Because of my depression, I’ve had difficulty sleeping thru the night, and I would find myself awake for long stretches. It was during those times that movies & television became my comfort food, and their making me sit still would help with falling back asleep. This activity included lots of rewatches such as the Star Wars prequels & Mad Max series, along with a bunch of Marvel Cinematic Universe catchups!
I see why people didn’t like this animation adaptation: it’s too much of a rush, lacking the slow-burn of the original series, which I wish I had read as it came out.
I’m not sure I would have watched this, if anyone but Paul Rudd was the hero.
Ant Man and the Wasp
Once again, Paul Rudd is my leader.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
I rewatched this to get refreshed on the background for Vision and the Scarlet Witch, as part of understanding Wandavision’s Easter eggs. This movie was as disjointed as I remember, and ultimately just wasn’t much fun. Give me a Captain America installment any day!
Bill & Ted Face the Music
I’ve become a big fan of the decades-later sequel (think The Force Awakens), as it gives space for nostalgia to marinate & bake into the mind. That being said, most of these sequels ultimately suck — but not this one. The premise & cast were a great mental palette cleanser for a shitty 2021.
Historically, Disney’s approach to Avengers merchandising has pissed me off, because it always emphasizes the male leads, while huge contributors like Black Widow were shut out. Then of all people, she was killed off in Endgame. So I was jazzed to see she was finally getting the solo movie she deserved — then once again disappointed with the terrible story they saddled her with. Why does the MCU hate Black Widow so much?
Blade Runner 2049
This was such a fun movie, doing a great job of mixing quality acting with set design & cinematography. It got me very stoked for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation!
I groaned during the 1st half of this movie, especially with its stereotypical action movie montage. But starting with Dr. Strange’s assault within the Sanctum Sanctorum & his escape, the dire nature of his foe really came across well. I liked how its ending came without a pretty bow.
Don’t Look Up
Despite the star & directorial credentials, I wasn’t particularly motivated to watch this film, but I’m glad I did. While not laugh-out-loud funny, it had a particular glee that at times made me smile or shake my head at how on-point it could be. The movie was made by its stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence.
Probably the biggest film I was looking forward to (as I’m a big Villeneuve homer). While it was fun, it was also a bit too sterile for my liking. Maybe part 2 will tie it all together for me.
I’d heard less-than-flattering things about this movie, but my love of all things space — especially the Apollo program — compelled me to check it out. I think I prefer the picture in my mind of Neil Armstrong versus this movie’s conception of him.
John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum
Oh Keanu, I can’t quit you, even though your character was dripping with so much plot armor that every fight scene was devoid of tension & drama.
To watch Dune from home, I subscribed to HBO Max for just that month and spent the time catching up on missed films like this one. Joaquin Phoenix earned his Oscar, but otherwise the film was junk food.
Laputa (Castle in the Sky)
This was my first new Miyazaki film in ages, and suggested by a “getting started” guide for HBO Max. I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the film very much, as its dreamy world-building was highly-evocative of Kiki’s Delivery Service. The last third was jarring, as its violence juxtaposed strangely against the peaceful earlier potions. I’d still watch it again, but the ending frustrated me because I’d hoped to watch this with the kids someday.
This was a fun family movie night selection. I had strong Kiki’s Delivery Service vibes the entire time, which was a good thing.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
I know that Mel Gibson is cancelled, but I choose to separate the artist from the art. I hadn’t seen this since my teenage years, and all aspects of the movie — the action, cinematography & costume design — hold up especially well decades later.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
Once I was done with The Road Warrior, I had to complete my rewatch of the original trilogy. It wasn’t nearly as campy as I remember, but the comparative higher budget / production values made the movie feel less apocalyptic than the previous entries. Still worth watching, tho!
Ready Player One
To re-familiarize myself with the plot & characters ahead of reading Ready Player Two, I watched Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation. It was fun, emphasizing the best parts of the book while leaving behind its tedious fandom obsessions.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
A fun romp through a part of the Marvel universe I’d never tread before. The family dynamic between Shang-Chi, his sister Xialing, and bestie Katy was fun to observe.
Also a fun romp, within a comic universe I also had little knowledge of.
Spider-Man: Far From Home
I’d been waiting a long time for this to show up on the streaming platforms I pay for, but the weird dynamic between Marvel and Sony made it take forever to become available. So by the time I finally saw it, big parts of it were already spoiled. I liked Jake Gyllenhaal as the bad guy, and the climax was super-thrilling, but I was frustrated that yet another Marvel property was centering its plot around Tony Stark. I’m hoping that by the time I eventually see No Way Home, they’ve ditched the parts that misfire (the whole high school dynamic, continued dependence on Tony Stark) in favor of those which strike better notes (like Peter’s inexperience when facing menacing villains).
Star Wars: Episodes I, II, and III
When I quit social media in 2020, one place I turned to fill the void was Reddit. If you curate your experience just right, you can filter past the porn & dank memes and discover some great content. One thing I’ve enjoyed are the different sub-Reddits for Star Wars movies, including r/PrequelMemes. It pokes gentle fun at the first Star Wars films, but it’s never mean about it, and ultimately made me appreciate things I took for granted in those three movies (for example, the corny dialogue). If you are sour about The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and / or Revenge of the Sith, I recommend you take a swim through Reddit and give them another try.
Perhaps 2021’s most-controversial film, thanks to the insistence of its director Christopher Nolan that it only be experienced in theaters during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, I can see why it underperformed. The sound mix was so muddled that I couldn’t understand what was happening. And as a fan of time travel movies, I don’t subscribe to the Grandfather Paradox, so I was already against this film from the beginning. Robert Pattison’s performance was tons of fun, enough so that I’m starting to look forward to his upcoming turn as Batman.
The Many Saints of Newark
(filed under “Things That Didn’t Need to Exist”)
The Matrix Resurrections
Unlike Bill and Ted Face the Music, this sequel failed to meet my nostalgic expectations, despite its strong opening. Why was Agent Smith there? What was the point of a young Morpheus? If the late 90’s were the peak of human civilization that kept docile the human slave batteries, why did the Architect / Analyst allow it to proceed several more decades? And can Neo do something besides deflect stuff? Anytime a movie leaves me hanging with multiple annoying questions, it can’t be good.
Too Funny to Fail: The Life & Death of The Dana Carvey Show
This was recommended by The Hardline’s hosts, and I can see why they did. For me, it was fun to watch, but I’ll likely not remember it months from now. I have zero memory of the show, and I can’t believe I missed so much of its young talent!
This was a fun ride, but not nearly as fun as the previous chapter. Perhaps the novelty wore off between installments — Gal Gadot remains a mesmerizing choice for the role, but her supporting cast seemed so exhausted to be in the same movie. If you’re not looking for the nuance of better sequels like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or The Empire Strikes Back but instead just want to have a good time, this is your movie. My only qualm was how they portrayed the Steve / Diana romance, as he was occupying another person’s body, so it came across as quite rapey.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix
This was as bad as they said, but as a completist I felt compelled to give it a whirl. The casting within the X-Men themselves was good, and they gave it their all, but not even the most primal, powerful force of the universe — not the Phoenix Force, but competent creatives — could save this flick’s dreadful writing.
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote (one-shot)
Besides Studio Ghibli films, this special was the primary reason I wanted HBO Max. And for the most part, it was wonderful fan service. I agree with The West Wing Weekly podcast that the cast member interstitials were painful. But when the telecast returned to the on-stage action, every performance was a delight and the set direction was beautiful.
This was the best thing I watched in 2021. In turn both sobering & horrifying, this tale of the 1986 disaster and the human cost was difficult to watch. I’ve loved Jared Harris since Mad Men, and his performance steals the show. Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson also shine!
Falcon and the Winter Soldier (season 1)
An amazing opening scene, with a recurring villain and great sense of drama. Then watching the human moments of superheroes (trying to get a small business loan and having to deal with Instagram celebrity) was interesting, and the more they dig into the post-blip ramifications, the more interesting this phase of the MCU becomes. However, it petered out quickly, and I hated how they nerfed Bucky’s strength / powers.
For All Mankind (season 2)
Besides Chernobyl, this was also the best television I watched in 2021. The way it juggles sci-fi technologies, personalities, and politics makes for a fun ride. I won’t spoil it, but the multi-episode climax on the moon, along with the post-credits scene, were ambitious & make me salivate at the possibilities ahead in season 3.
Hawkeye (season 1)
I was a big Avengers homer as a kid, including the West Coast Avengers — and their leader Hawkeye. His re-imaging in the comics — led by Matt Fraction and David Aja — was translated well in this mini-series that helped redeem Jeremy Renner in my eyes. The chemistry between him, Hailee Steinfeld, and Florence Pugh was enjoyable. And anytime you have Tony Dalton chewing scenery is great (if you haven’t checked him out as Lalo Salamanca in Better Call Saul, stop what you’re doing and watch seasons 4 & 5 now)
Invincible (season 1)
I watched the television series before reading the books. While the television series did a good job of capturing the camp & absurdity of some parts of the comic series, I was frustrated to learn it continued to poorly flesh out its female heroes.
Loki (season 1)
Jenn and I watched this together, and it was a ton of fun. Watching Loki die inside after seeing the TVA’s might exceeds that of the Infinity Stones which he coveted was (chef’s kiss). And the chemistry between Owen Wilson and Tom Hiddleston was more fun than I’d expected!
Ted Lasso (seasons 1 & 2)
Where to begin with this show... I’ll say this: it got me through some incredibly dark times, as my faith in fellow human beings has been sorely-tested by its collective response to the pandemic. From the dad jokes to the mature adult interactions, this show was a balm for my soul.
The Queen’s Gambit (mini-series)
Once I started watching this, I couldn’t wait to finish it. A fun, satisfying escape from the hum-drum of the everyday. The production values were stunning (how it was filmed, makeup, costumes) and the cast beyond charismatic.
Tokyo 2020 Olympics
I’m still not sure why they bothered having these. It’s great for the athletes, but puts so many other people in danger during a raging pandemic (especially when the non-US population at the time was under-vaccinated).
WandaVision (season 1)
It’s so refreshing to see something new from Marvel Studios. The production values here are strong, and when they stuck with the mystery — and edged into horror — it remained fun. The series has a ton of pressure: service the fans by providing an epic story, but not become so overwhelmed with setting up the next chapters that they lose touch of the current story. For the most part, they succeeded. As soon as I let go of fan theories (Reed Richards! Fantastic Four! Mephisto!), this series immediately became so much more satisfying.
Watchmen (season 1)
I’d heard good things about this show, especially from people who aren’t big comic book fanboys like myself. I was finally able to binge it last week, and it was so much fun! Although Jeremy Iron’s portrayal of Ozymandias was over-the-top, watching the show weave together old & new mythology was very satisfying. Shout-out to evil Bob Benson!
I incorporated the following new selections into my regular rotation:
Nixon at War (mini-series):
Successor to both LBJ’s Great Society and LBJ’s War, this excellent series by PRX shed great light on the soup of national & international events that pressured Nixon to act in ways most-familiar.
One Year (season 1)
Another nostalgia trip by Slate, this season one focused on 1977, a year I didn’t know too much about (beyond the premiere of the original Star Wars).
I grew up in Southlake during its halcyon days, back when it had just one traffic light (so you could turn into its Dairy Queen). Things have changed since my time, in many regressive ways that make me no longer proud to be a Carroll Senior High School alumus.
Very Specific Interviews with Sarah Miller
Sarah’s the writer of a great newsletter, and she extended her wit into the audio format with this irreverent series. Her reviews of movies that she admittedly hadn’t seen (and never will) are a hoot.
Note: I don’t list what I ultimately abandoned. I’ll give anything a chance, but if I’m not moved after a few chapters, I’ll move on rather quickly. If you’re interested in seeing what I skipped, LMK and I’ll also share it out.