Editor’s Note: Every year around the US Thanksgiving holiday, we take a moment to pause and look back on the best books we encountered (not a “best books of 2020″ list, but a list of the best books the Chefs read during 2020 — the books might be classics, a few years old, or brand new). As in all things, this year feels a bit different. We’re all (hopefully) socially-distanced, and largely trapped at home and more in need of diversion and inspiration than ever. So we’ve expanded our list to include any sort of cultural creation or experience our Chefs wanted to share.
2020 has been both an excellent and an extremely difficult year for reading. Yes, our activities are largely curtailed, and for many there’s time to fill that normally would have been occupied doing other things that are currently unsafe. At the same time, reading is a solitary pursuit, and for many, the pandemic has meant not only isolation from community, but also constant immersion in the presence of those with whom one shares a home. Those stolen quiet moments for reading, sitting on a train, a plane, or just a quiet morning at home when everyone else is out, have largely disappeared.
And yet the escape offered by a good book, movie, song, or really any creative endeavor is savored more than ever. I’ll once again quote Neil Gaiman on the importance of escapism:
If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.
As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.
Hopefully we can provide some escape for you over the long winter. Here’s Part 1 of our list, Part 2 is available here.
2020 has been a bad year for almost everyone in so many ways, but it has been a good year for books and for reading. I’ve always been a voracious reader (at elementary school my teacher called my parents to say I was lying about how many books I had read one term, and they had to confirm that — if anything — I had undercounted!). I’m also a somewhat uncritical reader, as in, I will read almost anything that’s put in front of me. This was especially true this year after our local bookstore and public library closed during lockdown, meaning that I had to be better organized than usual in order to avoid my worst nightmare — having nothing to read! Luckily, I had some great recommendations, two of which I have chosen as my own personal books of the year – H Is For Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, and The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn. On one level, there are quite a lot of similarities between the two. Both are British authors, and both have written memoirs about dealing with grief, and the solace they’ve found in nature, and both write absolutely beautifully. However, the two books are also very different — and much more uplifting than they might sound.
I read The Salt Path first, and raced through this sometimes funny, sometimes tragic book about a middle-aged couple who, through a series of bad decisions and bad luck, found themselves homeless and penniless. To make matters worse, Moth, the husband, has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. In desperation, they decide to walk the 630 miles of the gorgeous but challenging Southwest Coastal path in England, wild camping along the way. It’s a part of the country that I love, and I’ve walked several stretches of the path myself over the years, so it was a real treat to read Winn’s evocative descriptions of the views and villages they passed along the way. It was also humbling and at times painful to hear how they were treated by the people they encountered — from the generous to the judgmental. And it made me question my own feelings about and reaction to homelessness, especially at this increasingly vulnerable time for so many people. Spoiler alert: despite plenty of setbacks and challenges along the way, they make it, albeit not all at once and, amazingly, at the time of writing Moth is defying the odds and still alive.
H Is For Hawk is a more literary and academic read than The Salt Path, but every bit as worthwhile. The writing is so exquisite that it required my full attention (which meant I could only manage two or three chapters at a time!). The landscape of Macdonald’s book, which is set mostly in the cultivated Cambridgeshire countryside, is very different from the wildness of the Southwest Coastal path. But her love of it shines through, just as Winn’s does. Macdonald is grieving for her father, who has died very suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving her drifting in and out of depression. An experienced falconer, she decides to cope with her loss by acquiring and training a goshawk that she names Mabel — apparently the fiercest of all hawks — interspersing her own experience with that of various historical accounts about training hawks, most notably The Goshawk, by T H White, which she quotes and riffs on extensively. Seeing Macdonald slowly fight her way through her grief, with Mabel’s help, is an inspiring read — all the more so if you have personally lost someone you love.
For this year allow me to nominate one book and one album.
The book is East Goes West by Younghill Kang. I stumbled on this book in The New York Review of Books, which published an appreciative essay upon its recent republication by Penguin. Kang was born in what is now North Korea under the Japanese occupation between the two world wars. He escaped to the West and eventually ended up in the Asian diaspora in New York City, teaching at NYU. He was befriended and encouraged by novelist Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel). Besides teaching, he also worked as a translator (English, Japanese, Korean, Chinese). He published East Goes West in English in 1937. While the novel is informed by Kang’s biography (the protagonist is also a Korean living in exile), it is far more ambitious than that, moving between genres and voices—a truly modernist work. So much of the book was entirely new to me that I pondered how it ever came to be written and why I was hearing about it for the first time. The writing is often lush and literary, populated by countless allusions to other works; one would have to be far better read than I to catch them all. A comparison to the works of Nabokov is unavoidable: two exiles, writing in a foreign language, literary to an extreme, both rhapsodically lyrical and savagely satirical. Closer to home, the novel may remind you as a literary counterpart of the Borat movies. This book is not for everyone, but for those with a taste for literary history and world literature, this would be a satisfying addition to the bookshelf.
As for an album, I thought I would never have an opportunity to say this: you really, really must listen to Will Powers’ Dancing for Mental Health. No, it’s not the best album ever (I defer to the Nobel Prize committee on that one), but it is a personal favorite. The album satirizes the self-help movement (Will Powers/will power—get it?), with one method for self-improvement after another getting the treatment: dancing in couples therapy, the mental picture method, and talking to your hero. I particularly enjoyed hearing about JFK conferring with Babe Ruth during the Cuban missile crisis. The details in the songs are hilarious and often snotty, as in mocking someone who boasts that he runs the largest plumbing-supply chain in the Tri-State Area and another successful entrepreneur who no longer takes the subway: “I take taxis!” (These are both pieces of the New York City patois, where Donald Trump is recognizably of “the bridge and tunnel crowd,” meaning not from Manhattan.) The album was put together by fashion photographer Lynn Goldsmith and released in 1983, the height of the Disco Era. The caricature of Disco is one of the funniest aspects of the production, for which Goldsmith had the help of many major artists (e.g., Steve Winwood, Sting). As with all good satire, you may feel a bit unclean after listening to this, but that’s why we have running water. There is nothing so amusing as watching the earnestness of people who want to be good.
Recommendations in three parts: the practical, the fantastical, and the sublime.
Like many in our community, I’ve been working from home since March, but we had a big shift in September when my wife took on a new job as an in-person first grade teacher at a local school. This meant that the home management responsibilities went from a collaborative effort to a largely solo act. While this has required a huge mental reorganization of the structure of my day, it has also come with the joys of rediscovering how much I enjoy cooking, now that I prepare nearly all of the family’s meals. My guide through this process has been J. Kenji López-Alt, and in particular his book The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science and his website Serious Eats. López-Alt is the son of one of my graduate school professors, and the influence of scientific principles and protocols on his approach is evident. Every recipe and technique is backed with clearly explained physics and chemistry concepts. If you’re a chef that wants to know why you’re doing a particular thing, or is interested in the basic concepts of cooking, this is a great addition to your bookshelf. The Food Lab, along with a good digital meat thermometer, has changed the way I approach cooking and the website is a great source for quick look-up recipes.
As noted above, the value of escapism has only increased as we remain trapped in situ throughout the pandemic. For me this has meant a ton of science fiction, and certainly the most entertaining books I’ve read this year are Gideon the Ninth and its sequel Harrow the Ninth, both by Tamsyn Muir. While I was immediately sold on the concept of necromancers exploring a haunted gothic palace in space, it was the combination of often raucous humor and deft, elegant writing that makes these books so much fun. There’s a stylistic influence of the cyberpunk era, where so often the author would throw the reader into the middle of a fully-realized world and then reveal and explain that world as the plot rapidly moves along. The first book is a straight-out romp of swords and skeletons, and the second throws in a wild curve that makes you question everything you read in the previous volume — so much so that after the big reveal at book’s end, I immediately went back and re-read both books, something I can’t recall ever doing. That re-read let me dig deeper into the author’s technique, things like the precision of her stylized language and the subtle switches from second to third person narrative that became so obvious in retrospect. These first two books of the Locked Tomb Trilogy are smart and funny and the perfect way to travel far away during lockdown.
And finally, I remain certain that Prince and David Bowie were the cosmic forces holding our universe together, and it was their deaths in 2016 that sent us down the very dark path on which we now exist. So it’s been a joy over recent months to rediscover Prince’s magnum opus, Sign O’ The Times, now re-released as eight (eight!!) disc set with a wonderful remix of the original album. Sign O’ The Times shows Prince’s amazing stylistic breadth as a musician, and the new mix brings out the depth and warmth of his (and his band’s) playing. The album marked a reinvention for Prince and the height of expression of his artistic genius. The astonishing range of Prince’s brilliance is on display, from the somber title track (written during a different pandemic), to the perfect pop of “Starfish and Coffee”, to the only-possible-by-Prince exploration of gender roles and relationships in “If I Was Your Girlfriend”. Here you get volume after volume of b-sides, alternative mixes, and two devastating live shows (one audio, one on video). Long after his untimely passing, Prince’s vaults continues to give, and this has been the soundtrack keeping me moving through difficult times.
I’m betting I won’t be the only Chef to say something about what it’s like to read in a pandemic. It’s a year when I had both more time to read (not traveling!) and less time to read (not traveling!) but also when I’ve appreciated the importance of reading more than ever. The satisfying communion of comprehension and curiosity offered by a well-evidenced argument and a well-turned phrase is the best way to start and end my day. And for me, it has to be a physical book. So much more time on screen means my general antipathy for serious reading digitally has intensified (I still read light fiction on an e-reader, and I scan a journal article online for a footnote). I want to hold the book, turn the page, and scribble in the margins. Pandemic reading has thus also intensified my appreciation for good book design — size, paper quality, typography, and more.
And, as usual, there are more books to write about than I could possibly write about. But if I have to pick just one, it’s Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, a book I’ve thought a lot about, and bought for more family and friends than any other this year. First, author Martha S. Jones, a JD and a PhD who has been both a practicing attorney and is now an academic historian, is an exemplary scholar. Second, in short order but drawing on years of research, she has written two books which really meet the moment. In fact Birthright Citizens:A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, published in 2018, was my best book for that year!
Vanguard tells the history of two hundred years of Black women’s political work — activism, organizing, and writing — in the United States. It shows how centrally Black women worked on key issues of political justice, from 1820 to 2020, from the abolition of slavery to voting rights. Many people might be familiar with Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech to the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, “Nobody’s Free Until Everybody’s Free,” when she challenged white feminists to see their political interests as having broader connections and deeper historical context. Jones helps us see Black women’s critiques of racism and sexism over centuries as essential to their politic practice and values. Maybe especially in this year of Kamala Harris’s election, when it can seem like Black women are just coming to the political fore, recognizing their longstanding, essential and effective political contributions is important history.
I sent Vanguard to my mom; she may have been in Washington to hear Hamer’s speech, so I knew she’d appreciate the book. She did love the history, but her first comment was about the writing. Indeed, Jones is a fluid writer, able to get readers invested in the people whose histories she tells across wide-ranging historical moments.
I first encountered Anne Louise Avery’s work on Twitter. She writes delightfully soothing stories about anthropomorphic animals living in a lovely, peaceful, domestic England. There is Old Fox, Pine Marten, Wolf. Here’s an example. Her tales on Twitter, which combine lovely snatches of prose with digital images of art, kept me going through much of the pandemic’s initial wave. I ordered Reynard the Fox from Amazon but found myself to be so exasperated with the US publication date of late November that I just said to hell with it in October and ordered a author-signed copy from Blackwell’s in Oxford. (Which came with two lovely bookmarks included in it.)
Well, I am glad I did. This is the book that actually captured my attention in a way that I hadn’t experienced since before the pandemic broke out in March.
Anne Louise Avery has done a new translation of the Caxton tale for the Bodleian Library but has amplified the relatively brief traditional tales with her own prose. You start out chortling over the way in which Reynard tricks Sir Bruin and Sir Tyburn. Then you find you share the animals’ outrage over the ways in which Reynard flouts expectations, causes trouble to others, and then craftily lies to extricate himself. His arch enemy is Isengrim the Wolf and a more wicked villainous wolf is hard to imagine. However, just when you think he has exhausted the patience of his colleagues at the court of King Nobel, Dame Rukenawe stands up in front of the court and articulates the truth of co-existing with others — that one should should not overlook the character flaws of one’s friends any more than one should overlook the good characteristics that are part of our most loathed enemy. There is even the remarkable final battle between the good guy and the bad guy that works out quite satisfactorily.
As an example of her style, Avery writes of a relaxed summer afternoon shared by the members of the royal court at one point, “They stopped for a long rustic dinner at Lokeron of cheese pancakes and cold ham and onions and thick slices of ontbijtkoek, spiced honey cake, then walked in groups of two or three, laughing and philosophizing and putting the world to rights.” The comfortable prose stands up well to being read aloud. (Not that I’d recommend this one for those who are under the age of 12.)
Avery’s text doesn’t excuse the fox when he prevaricates and misleads, but asks “Do you believe the fox? Do you believe his whole account? Why he is born to rob and steal and lie. Deceit cleaves to his very bones.” The whole book becomes a consideration of managing expectations of ethical behaviors in a cruel and unfair world. Yet, it’s not moralistic or didactic in tone.
The end papers of this particular volume are gorgeous replications of old maps of Flanders. The production values are fantastic. By all means, give this book to someone you love as a gift, but be sure to buy one for yourself. The immersive reading experience is lovely.
Book of the year for me was The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin. It’s been a long time since a book grabbed hold of me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me bodily into its universe. The opening prologue is a stunning piece of writing, and the whole story just kicks off from there. The premise is broadly this; what if cities can be born, can be sentient? What then might happen? Whilst being completely different in tone and style and approach, it reminded me vividly of the day as a teenager, I picked up a book called Neuromancer, sat down and in beginning to read, realized that I’d see the world through different eyes after a tale well told. It’s surreal. It’s horror. It’s Sci-fi. It’s fantasy. It’s a tour de force. And apparently there are another two books to come. Can’t wait.
TV of the year for me was Lovecraft Country, a cerebral horror show that places us straight into the dark racist heart of America; 1950s Jim Crow America. It’s very bloody. It’s properly scary (both the eldritch terrors from beyond, and the more earthly ones whose evil comes from more banal roots) and it’s also educational. I highly recommend it.