What We Read, Watched, and Listened to in 2021
As we do each year, we asked our staff to recommend the books, shows, podcasts, and other content they enjoyed this year and, as usual, it’s an interesting and eclectic list.
Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, Research Associate
One of my favorite books this year was The Voucher Promise by Eva Rosen. The book is a beautifully written ethnography of the Housing Choice Voucher rental assistance program in a Baltimore neighborhood. Rosen lived in Park Heights, interviewing long-time residents, landlords, voucher holders, and other community members. She weaves their stories together with an astounding amount of scholarly literature, providing valuable insights on housing policy, neighborhood change, and poverty. Highly recommend!
On the lighter side, I really enjoyed the show Only Murders in the Building, which follows podcasting sleuths Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez as they try to solve a murder. I loved the references to podcast culture, the twists and turns in the plot, the funny cast, and the text exchanges with my brother and sister every week when a new episode dropped.
Corinna Anderson, Publications Coordinator
In trying to fill large gaps in my knowledge of pop culture and recent ('80s-'90s-'00s) history, I've found the podcast You're Wrong About to be a delightful help this past year. From historicizing US moral panics ("bystander apathy", satanic cults, sexting) to current contentions around "cancel culture," their back catalogue is a treasury of rigorous journalistic research into weird and misunderstood topics.
For a less digestible but brilliant reading of the 20th-century decline of organized labor and the rise of Reagan, Prisoners of the American Dream by Mike Davis sheds more light on the last 5 years in US politics than seems possible for a book published in 1986.
Kerry Donahue, Associate Director of Communications
Around this time last year, my husband bought me a set of watercolor paints. I had no idea how enjoyable and therapeutic painting would be, and it has consumed nearly all of my free time since then. However, when I found time to read, I enjoyed The Paper Daughters of Chinatown, historical fiction about Donaldina Cameron, a pioneering advocate for social justice whose work at a mission home in nineteenth century San Francisco rescued thousands of Chinese women and girls from prostitution and slavery. I also enjoyed The Vanishing Half, a novel about twin Black sisters in the Deep South who grow up living separate lives, one of them passing as white. Finally, fellow fans of The Great British Baking Show can take heart; the season may be over but if you’ve not seen The Great Canadian Baking Show, it’s everything the UK version is with an extra dose of Canadian loveliness, and all five seasons are available online.
Raheem Hanifa, Research Analyst
In times of social turbulence, I often find myself revisiting the lives of America’s trailblazers. Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Laws that Changed America, provides a vivid account of the complex relationship between Dr. King and Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to deliver civil rights legislation in the 60s. The book examines a critical moment in American history and describes the events leading up to the death of Dr. King and the passage of the Fair Housing and Civil Rights Act of 1968, signed a week later. While much work remains, 50 plus years after the signing, the book provides an engaging account of the inspiring efforts led by Dr. King and LBJ toward racial equity.
One of my favorite podcasts this year was Suave, which follows the life of David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez, a man born into a rough life in the South Bronx who began serving a life sentence when he was a teenager in Philadelphia. The podcast explores the tactics prosecutors used to convict him in the ‘80s, and how Pennsylvania became the state that sentenced the most juveniles to life in prison without parole. Journalist Maria Hinojosa’s decades-long coverage of Suave’s sentence provides an emotional account of his fight for his freedom and his struggles to adjust to life on the outside after decades of imprisonment.
Chris Herbert, Managing Director
My reading choices during the pandemic have tended toward stories that provide hope that, despite the magnitude of the challenges we face, there’s still a way to survive and perhaps come out better for the struggle. One book of fiction I enjoyed a great deal was Deacon King Kong by James McBride, set in a Brooklyn public housing project community in 1969. It follows the travails of Sportscoat, an alcoholic deacon of Five Ends Baptist Church, who somehow evades the payback due him for shooting a local drug dealer, with some degree of salvation for both characters in the end. I also enjoyed The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, a work of historical fiction that follows a mother and her children struggling to survive through the 1930s dustbowl and migration to California. While it chronicles the tremendous human and environmental tragedy of the dustbowl, it is ultimately a story of survival and redemption.
In non-fiction, The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko recounts the amazing grit and skill exhibited by three rowers of a small wooden dory who traversed the length of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in just 36 hours. Along the way, the book also tells the history of the damming of this great river and the rise of the environmental movement. In a somewhat different vein, I also found Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind a fascinating investigation of the promise psychedelic drugs hold as a treatment for depression, addiction, and fear of death (the book also features the work of my Kennedy School classmate Rick Doblin, whose career has been dedicated to legalizing the medicinal use of these drugs).
Finally, as the year comes to a close, I was also fascinated by The Beatles: Get Back, the Peter Jackson documentary about the making of Let it Be. As a lifelong Beatles fan, it’s incredible to spy on the band’s inner workings and watch iconic songs come to life over the course of a few weeks in January 1969. But the series is also a provocative case study of the power of group collaboration, the value of diverse perspectives, and how failures at inclusion miss opportunities for realizing potential. The creative interactions between Paul and John are inspirational to witness. The arrival of Billy Preston in the studio was also a clear spark for the group, with his contributions on the organ taking the band and their music to a higher level. But it’s clear that McCartney and Lennon were locked into a perception of George that didn’t recognize his own songwriting talents and so missed the opportunity to tap into all he had to offer. (It’s telling that upon the band’s breakup George had enough material to record a two-disc record.) The series is a captivating reminder that empowering everyone in a group to share their talents leads to much better outcomes—even if not quite as remarkable as Let it Be!
Bailey Hu, Research Assistant
After reaching new heights of Netflix binge-watching in the first half of this year, I finally took a break (with the exception of Love is Blind, Brazil edition). My favorite books of the year did just as good of a job, if not better, transporting me to different places and times. Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney and Arcadia by Lauren Groff are both thoughtful explorations of what it means to live a meaningful – even beautiful – life, with one set in modern-day Ireland and the other in an imaginary New York commune. I also enjoyed Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other for its huge cast of multidimensional, strong-willed women of color, and Pam Zhang’s Western epic, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, told from a Chinese-American perspective.
Over the last year or so, I’ve gotten into the habit of listening to audiobooks during chores and long walks. My favorite works of escapism so far have been Kevin Wilson’s chosen-family-friendly Nothing to See Here (narrated by Marin Ireland) and Leigh Bardugo’s Ivy League horror story, Ninth House (narrated by Lauren Fortgang and Michael David Axtell).
David Luberoff, Deputy Director
Three books that I would not normally have read stuck with me this year, mainly because they focus on questions and issues that have come to the fore as the pandemic has continued. The City We Became, a science fiction novel selected by our Center’s book group last January, is a rollicking, thought-provoking exploration of what holds a city (in this case, New York) together and what can tear it apart. Something Wild, a novel by Hannah Halperin, who grew up in my neighborhood and whose father is part of a book group of men from that neighborhood, is (among other things) a painfully honest look at the horrific domestic violence that occurs behind closed doors in too many homes. And The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, a non-fiction book by Frank Ostaseski that I read after my wife had read it for a workshop, uses his work at the Zen Hospice Projectto offer some seemingly simple but surprisingly powerful suggestions on “how to wake up fully to our lives.”
Carlos Martín, Project Director, Remodeling Futures Program
I consumed information from all over the place in 2021. Maybe like others, I needed to be consoled, humored, awakened, and angered—sometimes within the same day, sometimes at the same time. A combo of media channeled my scatteredness: Emily Atkins’ Heated newsletter; NPR/KQED’s Sold Out podcast; All We Can Save (an anthology of women writers on climate); Amy Westervelt’s Rigged, Drilled, and Hot Take podcasts (the last with Mary Annaise Heglar); my Brookings colleague Andre Perry’s Know Your Price book on race and home valuation; and David Roberts’ Volts. I saw the end of my go-to podcast Latinos Who Lunch, and reread Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower—though I love-hate cli-fi because I’ve never been one to enjoy made-up dystopias while we are experiencing them in real life. But this book reminds me that all roads lead to home despite any environmental, societal, and personal abyss. Along those lines, and to be completely truthful, I did dive into some celebrity fodder: Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics and The Meaning of Mariah Carey. Always good to remind oneself about core values to clear your mind.
Riordan Frost, Research Analyst
It’s the podcasts for me. This year saw the debut of the UCLA Housing Voice podcast, which discusses housing research in a way that is accessible to a non-academic audience. This is an exciting new entry in the growing popular conversation about housing, plus it featured our former postdoctoral fellow Kristin Perkins and her research on residential mobility and child wellbeing. Second, the 99% Invisible five-part series on homelessness, According to Need, was powerful, informative, and disheartening, focusing on what it takes to get help and how people find their way through the homelessness support system – or don’t. Lastly, I’ve been listening to The Indicator from Planet Money, which gives an interesting and brief check-in on economic issues, including an occasional focus on housing (such as the fascinating episode on Zillow leaving the iBuyer market). And I’ve sustained a healthy amount of escapism with Stardew Valley and the re-release of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which in my book are two of the best video games ever made.
Samara Scheckler, Postdoctoral Fellow
Two books this year shook me with their scope and reach, as both authors wrestled complex subject matter into a digestible narrative. In The Agitators, Dorothy Wickenden spanned both the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements through the intertwined biographies of three friends and collaborators: Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward, and Martha Coffin Wright. Their perspectives, gleaned from writings and public appearances, made familiar history new. And the rudimentary mechanics of movement building without current technology expanded my understanding of modern organizing. Heather McGhee told perhaps an even more ambitious story in The Sum of Us: What racism costs everyone and how we can prosper together. Chapter by chapter, she used sociological and economic research to catalogue the litany of problems and inefficiencies introduced by a “zero sum” paradigm that is rooted in racism and structurally baked into decision-making. McGhee considered the social, economic, health, and environmental benefits of public policies rooted in collaboration, inclusion, and solidarity.
A couple of podcasts also stuck with me this year. Looking for something salacious, I picked up Toxic: The Britney Spears Story and dove into a world of conservatorship law and questions about autonomy. The hosts used playful banter to weave together a story that was part case law and part Us Weekly, but certainly relevant to our aging nation. Finally, in Keeping Dad Alive, Margaret Poethig produced a timeless and entirely of-the-moment podcast of experiences supporting her father through his last year of life. We hear sweet, funny, and thoughtful exchanges as the family struggled through pandemic isolation and many layers of uncertainty. The podcast offered a tribute to a fascinating man and his philosophy on a well-lived life, as well as a glimpse into long-term services and supports and end-of-life care systems.
Alexander von Hoffman, Senior Research Fellow
I spent a fair amount of time this year going back to books I meant to read earlier. One was The Armada, by Garrett Mattingly, a history of the fearsome Spanish Armada effort to invade England in 1588. The book, originally published in 1959, was a favorite of my parents, each of whom owned a copy. Finally, I can see why. It’s a great story, with Queen Elizabeth, King Philip of Spain, the Pope, Sir Francis Drake, and other memorable characters vividly portrayed. In remembrance of my late father-in-law Kurt Lang, who grew up in Berlin until age 13, I read William Shirer’s Berlin Diary and Erik Larsen’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. That was a great if grim pairing, since the two books cover the same period. I’m also slogging through Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. Set in the 1920s, it combines the jazzy modernist prose of Dos Passos with the nightmarish no-exit sensibility of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. Maybe not the best choice of reading in these troubled times though.
My wife and I also managed to sort through the million choices of TV fare to come up with some memorable series. We liked the Australian melodrama, A Place to Call Home¸ about a nurse scarred by her experiences during WWII in a small town in Australia. Also Line of Separation, a gripping and heartbreaking historical epic about a village in Germany divided in half into East and West from war’s end in 1945 to the Prague Spring of 1968. Another postwar gem, My Brilliant Friend, is about two girls growing up in a dirt-poor town outside of Naples. This one is so good, I am going to read the series of novels upon which it is based.
Sophia Wedeen, Research Assistant
This was a surprisingly productive year of reading for me! I read The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s 1974 biography of New York master builder Robert Moses. Moses’s controversial legacy and massive influence on the physical and economic development of the New York City region came up in every single one of my college urban planning classes. I was somewhat transfixed by The Power Broker since it explains how Moses was able to cement for himself a position of nearly unilateral influence, despite never being elected to public office.
My favorite book this year was Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age by Annalee Newitz. Newitz uses rich archaeological evidence to trace the life cycles of four ancient cities that people ultimately abandoned. For me, this book was a powerful reminder that the vulnerabilities and mistakes that threaten cities today have existed for a very long time. A city can be devastated by anything from exogenous environmental threats, to poorly planned hydroengineering, to the social discord that can happen whenever lots of people live together. There are many important lessons in this book for modern urban planners, not just about what forces people to leave cities, but what makes them want to stay.
As a longtime Dune fan, I was particularly excited to watch Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 film adaptation of the classic sci fi novel. I’ve since been re-reading Frank Herbert’s Dune books and have enjoyed revisiting the political and ecological intrigue of the desert planet Arrakis.