Everyone’s publishing lists their best books of the pandemic year. We’ve rounded up the roundups for your convenience, concentrating, as usual, on non-fiction.
There’s a lot here, fifty-some choices. If you’re short on time and just want one surefire recommendation to get you through lockdown without killing someone, skip to Ferdinand Mount’s
or Neil Price’s Kiss Myself Goodbye Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings
We’ll start with the
Wall Street Journal (that’s its illustration, by Jenny Bowers, at the top of the page) which week after week has the best non-fiction books coverage of any major print outlet, although the Financial Times, which we end with, is strong in its own way. Interestingly, Obama doesn’t make the WSJ list but there are two strong political books, Reynold’s biography of Lincoln and Mary Beth Norton’s 1774. Wall Street Journal
Abe , David S. Reynolds. “Antebellum America was a rough-and-tumble proposition, with the dangerous and uncouth life of the frontier reflected in a fractious political scene in which violent language often crossed over into fistfights and worse. In this revelatory work of cultural biography, Abraham Lincoln emerges as a leader who embodied the wildness and exuberance of the era.” A Dominant Character , Samanth Subramanian. “The Oxford-educated polymath Jack Haldane (1892-1964), a man of outsize personal charisma, published significant papers in nearly every branch of science, from genetics to cosmology. He was also a daring soldier, a popular writer and broadcaster, and a leading light in Britain’s Communist Party. A master biographer brings this original, impulsive and politically misguided figure into sharp focus in this rare account of intellect and temperament in action.” Hidden Valley Road , Robert Kolker. “Raising a flourishing family outside of Colorado Springs, Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to represent the 1950s American Dream itself. But as their children grew, six of the boys were beset by hallucinations and psychotic breaks with reality, some catastrophic. Mr. Kolker tells their real-life story—and shows what it meant for the scientific understanding of mental illness—with novelistic flair.”
Impostures , al-Harīrī, translated by Michael Cooperson. “In the most audacious translation feat in recent memory, Mr. Cooperson brings an 11th-century Arabic masterpiece known for its linguistic variety and dexterity into a joyous medley of English styles, idioms and dialects, honoring the genius of the original while also showing off the astounding possibilities of the English language.”
Owls of the Eastern Ice , Jonathan C. Slaght. “Like the work of John McPhee and Helen Macdonald, Mr. Slaght’s tale of pursuing a majestic raptor native to the Far East Russian woodlands marries science and adventure, a naturalist’s eye and a storyteller’s gift. If its glimpses of the region’s winged denizens delight, so do its portraits of the human outlaws and eccentrics who call the place home.” What It Means to Be Human , O. Carter Snead. “Under American law, a person is defined largely by his capacity to formulate and pursue future plans of his own invention. But where does that leave those unable to make choices—the mentally impaired, those in extreme pain, children in the womb? This important work of moral philosophy argues that all of us are, first and foremost, embodied beings, and that public policy must recognize the limits and gifts that this entails.” 1774, Mary Beth Norton. “This accomplished history doesn’t challenge the traditional account of the American Revolution, from the Boston Tea Party of 1773 to the outbreak of hostilities in 1775. What it does do, as no book before it, is re-create the past reality of a momentous year in all of its particularity—physical, social, political and emotional. Reader, you are there.”
Los Angeles Times
Memorial Drive , Natasha Trethewey. “This makes the top 10 for my entire reading life. When former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey was 19, her stepfather shot and killed her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, outside their Atlanta apartment. Trethewey repressed memories of the murder, and the years of bruises and verbal lashings that preceded it, for decades. But this slim, transcendent memoir — covering her childhood as a biracial girl in the Deep South, the tension inside her mother’s house and the gut punch of the killing — gracefully brings the poet closer to something that looks like acceptance. Truly a work of genius.” Slate
The Slate list includes
Memorial Drive, Hidden Valley Road, and the following:
Fathoms: The World in the Whale , Rebecca Giggs. “Giggs had me from her first chapter, which includes a bravura description of “whale fall,” the process by which the body of a dead whale slowly sinks to the bottom of the deep ocean, at each level attracting new and ever stranger scavengers and transforming into something unrecognizable—a true sea change. This exploration of the nature of whales and humanity’s relationship to them makes numerous important points. Despite a rebound in whale populations after environmental restrictions imposed on hunting in the 1970s, the animals still suffer from man-made hazards; so much chemical runoff collects in their blubber, for example, that two dead humpbacks Giggs learns of had to be classified as toxic waste…. But as much as Giggs seeks to caution us about our tendency to romanticize these magnificent creatures as a source of unspoiled wonder, wonder is exactly what pours out of every page of this gorgeously written and daringly imagined book.” A Promised Land , Barack Obama. “Obama’s gifts as a writer are well-known, and they’re amply displayed in this first volume of his political memoirs. It contains intimate, beautifully rendered moments like his emergency visit to his dying grandmother’s bedside on the eve of his election to the presidency in 2008. But at heart, this is the story of what it’s like to be the president of the United States on a day-to-day basis. In his typically thoughtful, no-drama style, Obama details all the twists and turns and nuts and bolts of pulling the economy out of the worst recession in decades, getting the Affordable Care Act passed, and responding to crises overseas. If you relished that supreme political procedural, Steven Spielberg’s , then boy, is this the book for you. Lincoln A Promised Land is notably free, for a politician’s memoir, of grandstanding, vaporous rhetoric, false modesty, and self-importance. Instead, it comes across as a sincere, scrupulously honest account of what it was like to play an epochal role in American history while doing one of the hardest jobs in the world.” Caste , Isabel Wilkerson. “A small cohort of historians and intellectuals has been referring to America’s racial caste system for years, feeling that term is more effective than racism, which many Americans prefer to regard as a personal failing rather than an institutional force. Wilkerson brings to bear the formidable interviewing and storytelling talents she displayed in 2010’s to popularize this reframing of race, a social construction with no biological validity. It’s a move that places American racism in the context of other heritable hierarchies around the globe, especially the Indian caste system, although Wilkerson is careful not to conflate the two. This important book wrenches our established way of thinking about race out of its rut and encourages us to see it anew, with a fresh understanding of the damage it has done and the potential for change.”
The Warmth of Other Suns
Globe & Mail
The Globe lists 100 of its favorite books which is a bit of a free-for-all. There are twenty-seven non-fiction books on the list. Obama made the list, too, as did
Rage by Bob Woodward, which I haven’t seen elsewhere. Here are five of the best, all by Canadians.
, The Skin We’re In Desmond Cole. “In a 2015 Toronto Life story, Cole took on the Toronto Police Service and its controversial policy of carding. In his debut book, the activist set out to document one year of racism and resistance in Canada. He chose 2017, Canada’s sesquicentennial.”
Missing From the Village, Justin Ling. “The investigative journalist traces what happened to the eight men who were murdered by serial killer Bruce McArthur. Ling chronicles the lives of the victims and the people they left behind, while also questioning the failures of the Toronto Police Service to adequately investigate the disappearances from Toronto’s gay village.” , War: How Conflict Shaped Us Margaret MacMillan. “At 336 pages, MacMillan – a former professor at Ryerson, provost at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College and Warden of St. Anthony’s College at Oxford – provides a brisk but comprehensive look at military conflict and its implications on broader society.” Ice Walker, James Raffan. “Raffan plunges readers into Hudson Bay and the world of Nanu, a female polar bear, spinning a stunning tale around this massive creature and the world she inhabits. The ice is as much a character in the story as the bears, and Raffan extols the wonders of this land, and what its loss will mean for Canadians and the world.”
The Imperilled Ocean , Laura Trethewey. “The Toronto-born, San Diego-based Trethewey describes herself as an ocean journalist, and her first book on the subject puts into perspective not only the ocean itself as a giant ecosystem, but also how humans draw inspiration from and enjoy the seas – and how we fear, use and abuse them.” The Chicago Tribune
I was really happy to see the Alex Ross book on this list. It’s brilliant, whether or not you listen to Wagner.
Mill Town , Kerri Arsenault. “Ever driven through an industrial nook — say, a Northwest Indiana, or anywhere the vibe is smokey and lonesome — and wondered how people live there? The town of Mexico, Maine, the small remote spot in Arsenault’s hybrid of memoir, history and investigation, is not ugly. It’s bordered by the green mountains and epic wilderness of central Maine. Arsenault grew up there, her father worked in its paper mill for decades, as did extended family and much of the town. Her father also retired with toxins in his lungs. Though you assume another hand-wringing over environmental deregulation, what unspools is much richer and more affecting. Using her father’s death as catalyst, she digs into state history, the town’s decline and the mill’s legacy. She brings the outrage of a furious native, tearing down years of “Vacationland” tourism, yet deeply homesick for the place she once knew. What gave her hometown its meaning once — industry, deregulation, community — is precisely what devoured it.”
Why Fish Don’t Exist , Lulu Miller. “It’s better to not explain the title, but fear not: Before it’s over, you’ll understand. Miller, a fixture of Radiolab and This American Life, tells a story as eclectic and diverging as the best storytelling from public radio, beginning with science but veering into thoughts on stubbornness, the psychology of self-doubt and the good old meaning of life. Her main subject is obscure, David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford University and an influential ichthyologist. He cataloged thousands of fish species and believed, before it was widely accepted, that Darwin’s theory of evolution (not the fixed hand of God) was the truth. He was also a proponent of eugenics and a probable murderer.”
Nothing is Wrong and Here Is Why , Alexandra Petri. “ Washington Post columnist Petri’s pieces veer from funny funny to sad funny to furious funny — better known as Tuesday in America. The subjects — #MeToo, guns, family separation policies, Melania Trump’s holiday decorating (“Nightmare Forest of Cursed Trees”) — are rendered as snappy satires of contemporary jargon and official evasion. The Mueller Report receives a book report: ‘One way in which this book did not succeed was its lack of female characters….’ How spot-on is Petri? Her piece about Trump’s federal budget was (mistakenly, I guess) included in a White House newsletter. Among its lines: ‘Affordable housing is a luxury and we are going to get rid of it.’” Wagnerism, Alex Ross. “Grandiose and sprawling as Wagner’s masterworks, here is cultural history that ties together politics, philosophy, sex, war and race, making pitstops for Virginia Woolf and Star Wars. ‘The highest and the lowest impulses of humanity’ found a home in the composer’s voice, writes Ross, classical critic for the New Yorker, and the result flooded the culture forever after, a kind of “chaotic, posthumous cult” flowing through architecture, literature and, of course, fascism. Ross is particularly good at picking apart contradiction — and the legacy of anti-Semitism — infamously embodied by Wagnerian ideas. But this is not a biography of a man. It’s a tracing of an aesthetic, one overwrought and foundational, and Ross chips away geologic layers to identify the rot. You’ll see your world differently.”
Memorial Drive and Wilkerson’s Caste makes this list, along with…
We Keep the Dead Close, by Becky Cooper. “Cooper presents a meticulously researched account of the murder of a female grad student that took place at Harvard in 1969 and remained unsolved until two years ago. In Cooper’s narrative, the sexism and elitism of academia are the culprits that still remain at large.” New York Times
We’ve already noted Margaret MacMillan’s book in the
Globe list but here it is again, the only book we’ll cite twice.
War: How Conflict Shaped Us , Margaret MacMillan. “This is a short book but a rich one with a profound theme. MacMillan argues that war — fighting and killing — is so intimately bound up with what it means to be human that viewing it as an aberration misses the point. War has led to many of civilization’s great disasters but also to many of civilization’s greatest achievements. It’s all around us, influencing everything we see and do; it’s in our bones. MacMillan writes with impressive ease. Practically every page of her book is interesting and, despite the grimness of its argument, even entertaining.”
, Shakespeare in a Divided America James Shapiro. “In his latest book, the author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare has outdone himself. He takes two huge cultural hyper-objects — Shakespeare and America — and dissects the effects of their collision. Each chapter centers on a year with a different thematic focus. The first chapter, “1833: Miscegenation,” revolves around John Quincy Adams and his obsessive hatred of Desdemona. The last chapter, “2017: Left | Right,” where Shapiro truly soars, analyzes the notorious Central Park production of “Julius Caesar.” By this point, it is clear that the real subject of the book is not Shakespeare plays, but us, the U.S.”
Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener. “Stylish memoir is an uncommonly literary chronicle of tech-world disillusionment. Soured on her job as an underpaid assistant at a literary agency in New York, Wiener, then in her mid-20s, heads west, heeding the siren call of Bay Area start-ups aglow with optimism, vitality, and cash. A series of unglamorous jobs — in various customer support positions — follow. But Wiener’s unobtrusive perch turns out to be a boon, providing an unparalleled vantage point from which to scrutinize her field. The result is a scrupulously observed and quietly damning exposé of the yawning gap between an industry’s public idealism and its internal iniquities.”
Not a bad list for a tech company. Wilkerson’s
Caste made it, as did Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road. Caste and Trethewey’s Memorial Drive both made the list of best audiobooks.
The Velvet Rope Economy, Nelson D. Schwartz. “A New York Times business reporter investigates the invisible velvet rope that separates the rich from the middle- and working-class in America and how business innovators have exploited this divide catering to the wealthy while creating obstacles for everyone else.” The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, Philippa Perry. Says the Guardian: “Perry has a plan ‘for parents who not only love their children but want to like them too.’ Except it isn’t really a plan, as such: more of an attitude, a way of being, a set of assumptions. Children are not problems to be fixed or projects at which to excel, but individuals to be understood and supported, in a mutually respectful relationship. Their feelings, however inconvenient, must be heard and validated (which is very different from being agreed with), because if they aren’t they will find other, even less desirable ways of expressing themselves, if not at the time then later in life. Perry understands how necessary it is to examine our reactions to these small individuals, and to determine whether what we are reacting to, when we become angry or distressed, is their behaviour, or something childlike in ourselves.” My Autobiography of Carson McCullers , Jenn Shapland. Said the National Book Award judges: “With a brightness of voice and a daring structure that bridges memoir with biography with a tone of mischief and sharp-edged intelligence, Jenn Shapland has written a genre-bending narrative. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers becomes a conversation between gender politics and passion and why too often women are discounted by their allegiance to both. By staking one’s identity not so much on sex as by sensibilities, Shapland writes, ‘This is a love story I can believe.’”
The New Yorker
Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings , by Neil Price. “Reading the archeologist Neil Price’s beguiling book feels a little like time travel…. Price achieves this feat with an accumulation of sensory detail, along with a grounded but game approach to conjuring the inner worlds of people whose cosmology, for starters, is utterly different from our own. (As he writes, we’ll never really know what it might have felt like “if you truly believed—in fact, knew—that the man living up the valley could turn into a wolf under certain circumstances.”) Not the least of Price’s achievement is to rescue Viking history from the grasp of white supremacists who claim a specious lineage with it. He does so not by asserting any sort of moral superiority for the Vikings—theirs was a brutal society that practiced human sacrifice and slavery, as Price makes abundantly clear—but by restoring their rich and strange particularity. As seafarers who travelled and traded widely, Vikings were, almost by definition, multiethnic. “There was never any such thing as a ‘pure Nordic’ bloodline, and the people of the time would have been baffled by the very notion,” Price writes. The book is full of such insights, but what has stuck with me are Price’s descriptions of a world enamored with beauty. Surfaces, including those of the body, were intricately decorated, tendrilled over with runic inscriptions and tiny pictures. (Vikings do not seem to have been the unkempt beasts of pop culture legend—the archeological record is heavy on, of all things, combs.) I’ll long remember Price’s evocation of the wafer-thin squares of gold, stamped with images of otherworldly beings, that adorned the great halls where visitors drank and fought and recited poetry. Firelight would have animated those static images. Price has done something similar here.”
On Anger “Unless you’re dealing with a hard-line Stoic, most philosophers tend to consider anger a morally justifiable response to being wronged—though , Agnes Callard. too much anger, for too long, they might say, could start to hurt you or your community. In the explosive essay that kicks off this anthology, the philosopher Agnes Callard writes that such caveats defang the very point of anger. If anger is a valid response to being wronged, she argues, and if none of the ways we hold people accountable for wronging us—apologies, restitution, etc.—actually erase the original act, doesn’t it follow that “once you have a reason to be angry, you have a reason to be angry forever”? Cue the clamor of a dozen-plus philosophers debating the cause, function, and value of our most jagged emotion.”