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 2021″ list, but a list of the best books the Chefs read during 2021 — the books might be classics, a few years old, or brand new). Last year, we expanded our list to include any sort of cultural creation or experience our Chefs wanted to share. As our long stretch of pandemic isolation wears on, we hope some of our suggestions can provide you with inspiration, or at least distraction, and bring some joy to your days.
Here’s Part 2 of our list, Part 1 can be found here.
We all own things, or at least we all think we own things. We make claims of ownership about this or that, which may or may not be grounded in reality or law. Few of us think very deeply on how do we define ownership or on what grounds we justify our claims. Yet, our lives are significantly impacted by how these principles are applied in society and how these underlying notions of ownership are defined. Bringing these perspectives to life in a lively and interesting narrative way is Mine! How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control our Lives by Michael Heller and James Salzman.
Battles over ownership go long and deep in our society. They extend back to the rights of Indigenous peoples and the arrival of settlers in the Americas and they echo through time as remnants of English and Spanish common law understandings. In our modern lives, we see these battles play out in big and small ways all the time, be it in patent lawsuits over vaccines, in limitations on the rights of people to repair their devices, or in battles over mining or pipelines on Indigenous peoples’ land. Each of these conflicts rests on competing claims of ownership and what it means to own a thing. In Mine!, Heller and Salzman argue that our understanding of ownership is grounded in just six foundational maxims upon which we ground claims of proprietorship over things in the world. Taking these, the authors than proceed into many interesting deep dives on ownership questions that include fights over reclining in airline seats, deep sea fishing permits, basketball season ticket sales, family land inheritance, blood and organ sales, and, of course, digital content sales.
As an industry, scholarly communications entities are constantly battling over ownership and rights. Presently, groups of publishers are suing the Internet Archive over ownership and rights questions. Publishers have a long history of attempting to push the boundaries of ownership, as they have sued libraries, time and again over the years. Libraries have sought to expand their rights and the exemptions to copyright, as well as rights associated with the first sale principle. We see this in initiatives at a state level on the terms of sale to libraries for ebooks. Funders and authors-rights advocates have pushed for authors to exert control over copyright. Even the moves by funders as part of cOAlitionS can be seen as an attempt to exert control over the rights of the outputs from their grants through mandates about license terms.
As was discussed last week, during the SSP Scholarly Kitchen webinar on Copyright, I and several of the Chefs discussed whether we are training authors to care so little about the rights that they do own. Could it be that authors are simply adopting the default position offered by the publisher (full unconditional free licensing of the author’s work) or the default position of the funding organizations (full release of content under CC BY or similar terms) without presuming that they have any agency in these decisions? For too much of our lives, we often click through significant license terms, agreeing to terms not thinking we have any control over what we agree to.
Collectively, as Heller and Salzman describe so adeptly, we are receiving a smaller and smaller number of sticks in the rights bundles which we purchase, that we are losing a clear sense of what it means to truly own a thing. For many years now, we have been fed a steady stream of arguments that it is far better not to own things; you are better off leasing your car or even using ride-sharing services; you are better off owning a mutual fund; you are better off renting your home; you have greater access if you just stream content (or license digital content). However, this perspective foregoes the very real benefits that are associated with ownership. Certainly, ownership comes with costs, but so does a world where you are only licensing things. Developing a clear understanding of why these structures were developed and how they are applied in support of systems of control and economic profit is something everyone should pursue, particularly in our community of sharing intellectual property.
I actually found myself searching Wordery the other day for “hygge reads”. I’m sure you all remember the “hygge” craze a few years ago. It’s a Danish word, loosely akin to coziness. In my mind, it is the word for feeling snug under your blanket while a storm rages outside. It is increasingly where I want books to take me. So, this year, I enjoyed The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (thriller, inspired by a true story of 3 lighthouse keepers disappearing from a tower lighthouse). I have always slightly wanted to live in a lighthouse since loving The Adventures of Portland Bill claymations as a child. The Lamplighters is full of the sort of humdrum details you need to flesh out such day dreams – storing chilled food in the gaps between the double skin walls; waves lashing the windows as you wash dishes, 80 feet up; sleeping in banana bunks — plus it’s a page-turner of a whodunnit. My non-fiction hygge choice of the year is The Land of Maybe: A Faroe Islands Year by Tim Ecott. It is thrillingly, immersively evocative of eking out a life in hostile terrain and extreme weather conditions. Picture the island of Koltur, “a giant skateboard ramp” sweeping from its 500 meter peak at one end, down through a little flat bit that just manages to support a couple of farms. Or Dímun, still settled despite the only access being via a near-vertical cliff path, from where many have fallen to their deaths, including a visiting minister who turned to offer a hand to his wife. Just imagine that moment. Over and again, Ecott weaves edifying stories of resilience, of simple joys – rich both with history, and with the details of daily life today – vignettes painted brightly, with respect and sincerity (a refreshing change from the cynical, condescending tone so overused since Theroux and Bryson). He is also unflinching, yet sensitive and balanced, when exploring cultural norms and traditions such as the annual whale hunts. I left the Faroes a little more broad minded, and a lot snugger under my blanket. Perfect.
My book of the year is one I originally read back in 1995, when it was first published — Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. I loved it back then, so when I spotted it on the sale table at my local bookstore (quick shout out for the Brookline Booksmith) I couldn’t resist. And I wasn’t disappointed — if anything I loved it even more the second time around! We first meet the main protagonist, Ruby Lennox, when she is conceived (“I exist!” she announces, joyfully), and we then follow her life as she grows from a precocious and often hilarious fetus and child, into a quirky and equally funny adult. However, Ruby’s story is also tinged with sadness; at times, tragedy. Her sister Gillian dies in a car accident; the family pet shop and their apartment above it burn down in a fire; and the novel includes a massive plot twist — though one that, on rereading, there are several clues about.
The story of Ruby’s life is interspersed with her family history, stretching back several generations, taking in the lives of her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, as well as her sisters. In Behind the Scenes… as in her subsequent books, Kate Atkinson has a wonderful way of making unexpected connections between the people and places that inhabit her stories, so you keep wanting to reread her stories and connect the dots earlier yourself. And, having grown up in an England not so very different from Ruby’s (albeit a decade or so later), I also find that Atkinson writes incredibly evocatively about the experience of being English at that particular point in time. Her descriptions really resonate with me — of what it was like to attend school, of the food Ruby and her family eat, of their outings and car trips, and of at least some of the clothes Ruby and her sisters wear (though thankfully liberty bodices were not still a thing in the 1960s!).
Kate Atkinson is one of my favorite authors, and this remains my favorite of her books — just as good, if not better, second time around.
Hear me out.
You may think, especially if you’re in the US and you’ve been reading and watching the political maelstrom around race, slavery, and national history unfold with The 1619 Project as a central target, that you already know this book. The conversations and debates that the full project has ignited are important, and though this is material that scholars have been excavating for a long time, never have they been so alive to the public. You may already feel intensely about the project and what it and its creator and principle author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, tell us about American history and American nationalism; as she tweeted over the weekend, “I am a living Rorschach test.”
None of us can extricate ourselves from our contexts and experiences enough to act and think outside them, but we can work to suspend them in some situations and I’m asking you to make this one of them. Not because the entirety of The 1619 Project isn’t important (it is), or because I don’t see that larger whole as a useful way to understand the book (I do, and Hannah-Jones addresses this full context in the preface), but because I was excited by how completely the book stands on its own.
In an essay or review, the structure of the work is typically inherent in the writing itself, but a book has a full architecture and this one’s is very elegant. We are introduced to the format in Hannah-Jones’s preface, which is followed by a poem by Claudia Rankine, “The White Lion,” about the ship that arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia, in August of 1619 with “twenty and odd Negroes.” Each of the eighteen chapters that follows has a single word title, is announced with a historical photograph, includes a deeply researched essay, most by historians but also by historiographically-attuned journalists, and then two pieces of poetry or prose fiction. There is so much that historical work can’t capture, and that we must turn to art to reveal. If you enjoy a beautiful fore-edge you’ll see that each chapter opening, with the photograph, is on black paper, the essay in a basic ecru, and the poetry or prose fiction in very soft gray (the same as the end papers).
The structure and aesthetics are one and the same in a book focused of one the three central dynamics in American history. The center of the venn diagram — of the dispossession of Native lands and people, the enslavement of African and African-descended people, and the constitution of Anglo-American law and governance — is overwhelming; these are mutual histories and processes. Reading about them as mutual, but hovering over the second, letting us see the depth of connection between racialized slavery and the long history of racialized violence of different kinds — family separation, withholding citizenship, wealth extraction, policing for race — shows us a history that, as the book’s architects have argued, our future requires we contend with. It is not to the detriment of democracy that we do so, rather, it is to nourish and sustain it.
Chapter 5 is “Dispossession” by Tiya Miles, the Harvard historian who just won the National Book Award. The photograph of two Ho-chunk women, Carrie Elk and her cousin Annie Lowe (courtesy of the Wisconsin historical Society), is arresting. Miles’s essay on the immense complexity and particularity of how enslavement shaped Native people and communities also shows how racial hierarchies wrote themselves all over the ways that Native people were fitted into the new nation, including by enslaving Black people. Miles addresses forthrightly how Native and Black Americans “have often struggled to find solidarity, a painful legacy of the way they learned to regard each other in the nation’s formative years.” This is, for a twenty page essay, a remarkable synthesis of how that legacy, how that regard, was formed in those formative years. Chapter 9 by the historian Carol Anderson is “Self-Defense.” The photograph of a young Black man holding a colt revolver “with ring on pinky finger, dred locks” is from 1860. Anderson’s stunning essay similarly ranges over centuries, synthesizing scholarship including her own The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America to show us how guns, and gun rights, have ever aligned with the politics of race and racism. But lest you think from this historian’s assessment that the book is a too-weighty read — it is weighty. But the clarity of writing, the painful beauty of the poetry and prose, make this book not exactly a pleasure but surely a kind of necessary joy to encounter.
In sum, don’t think you know this book. Read it afresh. For me, it is a gift of this hard year.
If you are over 40 years old and have a female reproductive system, you should read this book. If you know someone who is over 40 and has a female reproductive system, you should buy them this book. In fact, I have considered buying a case and just handing them out to people I know or meet.
The Menopause Manifesto: Own Your Health with Facts and Feminism by Dr. Jen Gunter is not just a “what to expect” book. It’s also a “how did we get here” and “why is no one talking about this” indictment on medical practice. Women generally do not talk about menopause even though it is just as jarring to the system as puberty. Sure, we might complain about symptoms with our closest buddies or like-minded elders. But talk about it openly? Not really.
Gunter’s book explores the history of medical treatment and diagnosis for what for centuries was described as hysteria. Treatments ranged from the gruesome (leeches and toxic chemicals) to the not so bad sounding (opium, cannabis, and wine). Which treatment you were subject to is dependent upon which century you lived in.
After getting through the horrifying history of menopause being (a) largely ignored as a health issue and (b) treated entirely as some sort mental health issue; Gunter explores the stigma around menopause — a naturally occurring biological change that every single human without a Y chromosome will experience.
Moving from the theories of hysteria and insanity being the culprit behind changes in women of a certain age, menopause came to be described as the “death of the womb,” the end of childbearing ability. You can imagine that for generations of women that were told their worth to civilization is to bear children, this one stings a little.
Gunter takes a wrecking ball to the “end of your prime” narrative and inserts a heavy dose of feminism. For many of us, this is the kick in the pants needed to reclaiming control over our own health. The stigma around menopause is only rivaled by the stigma around menses in general. Gunter, a fierce advocate for women’s health on social media, encourages open discussions around issues facing women going through “the change,” which for those of you that don’t know, will last about 10 years with symptoms ratcheting up and waning over those times.
This book follows on Gunter’s previous bestselling book, The Vagina Bible. A must-read user manual chock full of information most women have never been told about their own body.
Gunter also implores all of us to be advocates for our own health. Many symptoms of menopause are symptoms of more serious illnesses. Depression, brain fog, and sleeplessness plague most women at some point of this “journey” but other more serious symptoms such as weight gain, muscle loss, loss of bone density, and abnormal bleeding could be menopause or could be much more serious health issues such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis. Women presenting with these symptoms need to push back if a doctor responds with, “well, you are at the age for menopause symptoms,” and suggests you take vitamins.
On the subject of vitamins, if you follow Gunter on social media, you know that she is a one-woman vigilante against unproven and even harmful homeopathic treatments. This is well covered in the book. She presents very clear and (surprisingly) even-toned analysis for tricks, tools, and supplements sold as a cure for menopause symptoms.
The book is perfectly titled with the word “manifesto” clearly called out. It’s not just a user manual, but also a call to action. This biological process is rough. It’s not predictable, is hugely disruptive, and masks other potentially serious issues. Like all good manifestos readers should come away feeling angry that no one talks to us about it and resolved that we will make it better for future generations.
Much of my year was spent at home and until this month, travel was limited to California. As always for me, reading has both been a retreat and a mode of exploration but my need for both has been all the more intense as we’ve been grounded in our homes.
2021 brought new novels from two of my favorite authors: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun and Richard Power’s Bewilderment. While much of the dystopian future in Ishiguro’s novel is implied rather than detailed, I found it haunting and unnerving. The Klara of the title is an Artificial Friend, designed to provide companionship to teenagers. It’s not until later in the book that we find out why children would need such a thing as the picture of a world radically transformed become clearer. Klara is purchased by Josie, a strong-willed but ill 14-year old and as the story unfolds, we learn that most kids don’t go to school but study at home using “oblongs”. Reading this novel back in the spring after a year of confinement made this all the more resonant. It’s a much more subtle examination of how we navigate the ethical and moral concerns of our changing world than, say, Dave Egger’s The Circle – but one that quietly makes us confront what it means to be human.
The themes of Bewilderment are also those of the imperiled future of our planet and how we see the world we inhabit. (There’s a great interview with Powers on Ezra Klein’s podcast about his evolution from a chronicler of the technological age to a fascination and intimacy with the natural world around us.) Bewilderment is at the same time beautiful and devastating, intellectually and emotionally engaging. Its central character, Theo, is an astrobiologist searching for life in the cosmos at the same time as raising his neurodivergent nine-year old son, Robin. And while much of the novel’s focus is on this tightly bound father-son pair, it raises fundamental questions about how we can live in such a time of wonders and horrors and not be moved to action. He paints a scathing portrait of a country losing its way yet unwilling to change: “Earth had two kinds of people: those who could do the math and follow the science, and those who were happier with their own truths. But in our hearts’ daily practice … we all lived as if tomorrow would be a clone of now.”
Both novels are elegant but challenging reads, raising bold questions about the state of our world and the impacts of our collective mistakes. Both are beautifully written with many tender moments and I found them emotionally compelling. But they also do what much great fiction does: force us to wrestle with our human nature and our relationship with the world around us.
Ending my reviews this year on a lighter note, travel for us has continued to be in the form of cooking. One book I’ve gone back to again and again this year is my splattered copy of The Basque Kitchen by San Francisco chef Gerald Hirigoyen who hails from the Basque region.
This has served double duty for me as he is also the proprietor of one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants, Piperade (just down the road from the PLOS office). It’s nostalgic too – I spent a month or so in St. Jean de Luz during the three summers I au paired for a Parisian family at their vacation home. There’s a strong California influence to his Basque cooking with a focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients and this book covers everything from more casual food (his potato and chorizo tortilla has become a brunch favorite) to meals fit for entertaining. That said, I am truly hoping that 2022 affords the opportunity for more travel and the opportunity to again be surprised and amazed by both new discoveries and familiar favorites.
It is amazing to me how much time is involved in preparing food these past two years. Having enjoyed a varied diet while traveling, I found that I needed to expand my cooking skills at home. Fortunately, there are many good websites offering recipes and guidance on preparation, so I’ve not ordered many new cookbooks. However, Dr Saliha Mahmood Ahmed’s current book Foodology: A Food-lover’s Guide to Digestive Health and Happiness caught my attention and has provided food for thought (pun intended). In addition to winning the BBC’s MasterChef competition in 2017, Ahmed is also a gastroenterologist working for the National Health Service (NHS) in London.
Intrigued by her intersecting passions, I was curious to understand her thoughts on how the foods we eat affect our physiology. There is a growing body of research on the gut microbiome and how it affects our immune system, our moods, and our brains. Dr. Ahmed observed that the 30 trillion human cells and 40 trillion bacteria in our gut are in almost a one-to-one ratio of human cells to microbes. This led her to suggest that “eating healthily and happily is perhaps as much about feeding our gut bugs as it is about feeding ourselves”.
Known in the UK for her “SalihaCooks” website and her Instagram account, she has authored two books. We get to know Saliha through her stories of growing up in a Pakistani family living in the UK. Influenced by the Kashmiri cooking style of her mother and grandmother, she understands the role of food beyond sustenance, and the many ways that it affects our daily lives.
Written for the general reader, Foodology, is filled with personal anecdotes that frame Saliha’s explanations about how the body interacts with food starting in the womb. She addresses tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami) and how they come together in a dish. We also gain insights on hunger and satiation, moods and depression and many other topics. Perhaps my favorite is the note that ‘gut feelings’ are real – they originate in our enteric nervous system with a bidirectional link to the brain. In addition, there are recipes that enable the reader to explore the benefits of specific types of foods.
I also recommend her Khazana: A Treasure Trove of Modern Mughal Dishes which was awarded “Best New Cookbook” by The Guardian in 2019. Richly illustrated with photos, Khazana is a cookbook that presents recipes along with the history of their origins in the Indo-Persian region. Traditional cuisine with a modern approach makes these unique dishes accessible to the current cook.