It’s end of year list time! I’m going to do my favorite things of 2021, half this week and half next time. Part Two will be weird ones. This week I do the obvious ones.
My favorite book of 2021? This one is easy. “The Plot” by Jean Hanff Korelitz. I happen to be a serious connoisseur of thrillers (I always say that if a book has the word “spy” in the title, I own it) so I’m pretty hard to please. But good Lord is this a fantastic book. In addition to being an absolutely perfectly told mystery story, it also happens to be an especially deft satire of the literary scene. Korelitz has a new book coming out next summer called “The Latecomer,” which I’m told is even better. My only complaint with “The Plot” is that it wasn’t the runaway hit of the summer, like, say, “Gone Girl” was a few years ago. “The Plot” is twice the book “Gone Girl” was. Does this mean that literary markers are not efficient, as the economists say? I guess so. But it breaks my heart. If someone writes a near-perfect book, it ought to sell a zillion copies.
My favorite podcast episode of 2021? I need to do this in two parts, because, of course, I am required by Pushkin management to give myself a shout-out here. So, first: the best Revisionist History episode of 2021? This is — as the cliche goes — like asking someone to pick their favorite child. (Although, in my experience, most parents do have a favorite child. Always. They just won’t admit it). I really liked the Little Mermaid trilogy, if only because we got to record with Jodie Foster and Glenn Close and Brit Marling (I mean, how great is that?). But from a pure storytelling perspective, I think I’m going to go with the final episode of the season, “The Dog Will See You Now,” about how we should have used dogs to do all of our COVID detection, because dogs can sniff out COVID even more accurately than PCR tests. And they’ll do it instantly, and lick you afterwards for good luck.
If I might engage in a bit of self-criticism, amidst this larger moment of self-congratulation, I have a tendency, sometimes, to tell overly complicated stories, with too many twists and turns and digressions. “The Dog Will See You Now” was not that. It was beautifully simple: a clear argument and lots of star-turns by cute puppies, barking in the background. Plus, my producers Jacob Smith and Eloise Lynton came with me when we went to Alabama to record the interviews with the dogs and their handlers, and we had the best time. My friend Charles Randolph, who writes screenplays (The Big Short, Bombshell), will generally only single out one episode per season for special praise. He chose The Dog... if it works for Charles, it works for me.
Ok. Best non-Pushkin podcast? Easy. Ariel Levy's magnificent The Just Enough Family, about the fascinating and hilarious and utterly weird world of the Steinbergs: the 1980s financier Saul Steinberg and his family. One of the things that bothers me about a lot of narrative podcasts is how sloppy they are: they feel like they were thrown together over a weekend. Any more of that kind of stuff and people are going to stop listening to podcasts altogether. But The Just Enough Family is built around the marvelous chemistry between Levy and Steinberg’s niece, Liz Lange. It’s captivating. Right after listening to the full season of The Just Enough Family, I read Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe’s book on the Sacklers and the Oxycodone disaster. The two stories are really useful companions. They are both coming of age stories about the brilliant sons of Jewish immigrants, who emerge from the outer boroughs of New York and take over. (Only, of course, Arthur Sackler and his family are terrifying, and the Steinbergs are chaotic and crazy and ultimately a little lovable).
Best sporting event? The Women’s 1500 meter final at the Tokyo Olympics. The 1500m is almost always the most exciting event at any track meet: because it's so short — just under four laps — it’s the most tactically demanding of events. You get one move, and if that move doesn’t work you’re usually toast. (If you want to see a classic nail-biter, watch the men’s 1500m at the 2016 Rio Olympics: if you aren’t curled up in a protective crouch by the end of that one, I can’t help you).
But the women’s 1500m in Tokyo might have been even better. The favorite was the defending Olympic champion, Faith Kipyegon of Kenya, who might be the greatest female miler ever. Kipyegon is compact and fluid, with one of the most beautiful strides in all of running. Nobody was going to beat her. The real race was for second, between Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands and Laura Muir of Scotland. Hassan is tall and ungainly: she runs like a large, flightless bird. Muir is pale and resolute. She’s Scottish! She runs with barely controlled fury: head down, ponytail flying up and down, eyes and mouth in a hard grimace. She lifts her knees ridiculously high, and when she winds it up at the end of a race, she’s terrifying. With 300 meters to go, Kipyegon floated to the front, serene and untouchable; Hassan tried to follow, arms and legs flapping, only to have her feathers blown off around the final bend by the runaway Laura Muir express train. Oh my. And when Muir crossed the finish line — and realized what she had done — she was as happy as anyone in the whole Olympic Games. Sometimes the most exciting runner in a race is the person who finishes second.
Since I’m geeking out about running, here’s a tangent for the small number of hardcore fans like me. Fourth place in that race went to my fellow Canadian Gabriela DeBues-Stafford, daughter of Jamie Stafford, who teaches statistics at the University of Toronto. In his day, Jamie was a superb runner himself. We used to run together in high school! And he had a second, younger daughter Lucia, who might be even better than Gabriela one day. The Staffords are the first family of Canadian track and field! And speaking of high-end Canadian athletic families, how many people realize that the mother of Canadian NBA star Andrew Wiggins is the legendary Marita Payne? In her day, Payne was a world-class 200 meter runner, with a best time of 22.62 seconds. Imagine being Andrew Wiggins — a former number one pick in the NBA draft — and not being sure that you are the best athlete in your own family.
Stay tuned for Pt. 2 of my list next time.