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The New Books We Loved

Nonfiction

Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End, by Kevin Alexander. In restaurant lingo, to “burn the ice” is to melt down whatever remains of the kitchen’s ice machine at the end of the night. In bars, the act occurs when someone breaks a glass into the well. “The first version suggests an end, a way to close; the second, a restart,” Alexander, a food journalist, writes in the introduction of his book. “Both meanings, I think, apply to the current culinary landscape.”

Burn the Ice examines the gold rush that transpired in the industry over the last decade. It chronicles the explosion of creativity among scrappy chefs in cities once considered gastronomic backwaters—and how that success ultimately drew in capitalistic pressures that made that creativity all but impossible. There’s an eerie prescience to Alexander’s words, written a full year before anyone could have foreseen just how punishing a toll the pandemic would take. But the themes he explores foreshadow the industry’s devastation. Skyrocketing rents, a labor pool that could no longer afford to live in the neighborhoods where they worked, a supersaturation of eateries backed by corporations that shamelessly copied the independent restaurants’ ingenuity “have acted as accelerants to the crisis inflicted by the pandemic,” Alexander writes in a new afterword released this year. I cherish and have sorely missed my local restaurants. I’ve returned to Burn the Ice a few times this year to celebrate them—and imagine what the “restart” Alexander promises might look like.—Kara Voght

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson. Caste entered the public consciousness at the perfect time: at the tail end of a heated summer marked by a pandemic, an economic recession, racial justice protests over police killings, and a presidential election. Following up on her Pulitzer Prize–winning 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration, Wilkerson unpacks the brutal nature of our American caste system, one built off the racial hierarchy enshrined in our nation’s origin story. “Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin,” Wilkerson writes. “Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place.”

America’s racial hierarchy, built on its white supremacist origins, frames its infrastructure. Its racist laws influenced Nazis. It allows many people to fall for the false belief that America existed in a post-racial society after it elected its first Black president, even as millions voted for the white supremacist billionaire who perpetuated a birther movement to become Obama’s successor. Wilkerson’s masterpiece helps us understand why Black people keep dying at the hands of police and why some within America—particularly Blacks and Latino people—are disproportionately afflicted by a colorblind virus. “Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred; it is not necessarily personal,” Wilkerson writes. “It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”—Edwin Rios

Dragon Hoops, by Gene Luen YangYou don’t have to love basketball to enjoy Luen Yang’s charming story about a powerhouse California high school team’s pursuit of a state championship. Yang, a gifted cartoonist best known for the delightful American Born Chinese and his work in superhero comics, moonlights as a teacher at the school, making Dragon Hoops a memoir in addition to a panoramic look at the history of basketball. Yang is as much a character in the story as any of the athletes he draws, and his narrative choices—some of which he shows himself agonizing over—add a compelling touch to a book that’s already quite thoughtful about the way it portrays history, race, and class.—Dan Spinelli

I Got A Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad, by Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg. In a year full of critical reflections on the role that police power plays in society, nothing informed my thinking quite as dramatically as this book, which uncovers in painstaking details the mind-blowing level of corruption in the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF). Led by Wayne Jenkins, the police squad stole money, planted evidence, fabricated reports, broke into houses without search warrants, sold drugs, and coerced witnesses, all while receiving protection from higher-ups in the Baltimore police force. Woods and Soderberg artfully reconstruct the twists and turns with the help of police body camera footage and court records, and the vivid scenes and real-life dialogue make this book flow like a film. A must-read for anyone who is interested in the extent to which power can corrupt.—Molly Schwartz

Solutions and Other Problems, by Allie Brosh. Since launching her comic blog in 2009, Brosh has never failed to deliver with dark, humorous vignettes from her life. Her first book, Hyperbole and a Half, had me hooked with its honest account of depression mixed with lighter material about her dog. Animals make more appearances in her latest collection of autobiographical essays, with tales like the mystery behind horse poop making its way in her home and how she came to adopt a cat named Squirrel. But she also details her experience with grief and learning to enjoy her own company, which feels particularly comforting to read in the COVID-19 era.—Andrea Guzman

The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes, by Zachary D. Carter. For most Americans who know of him at all, Keynes is a creature of Economics 101 textbooks, as dry as supply-and-demand curves. In reality, Carter’s great book shows, the British economist could have been a character in a rollicking novel: a “bureaucrat who married a dancer; a gay man whose greatest love was a woman; a loyal servant of the British Empire who railed against imperialism; [and] a pacifist who helped finance two wars.” Carter vividly teases out his character’s wild side—rooted in his 1910s youth at the center of London’s artistically prodigious, sexually daring Bloomsbury crowd—to draw us into the web of Keynes’ ideas, formed amid the wreckage of Europe’s two catastrophic wars. Keynes demolished the laissez-faire economic theories that held sway in his time (and that have enjoyed an ongoing revival in recent decades): that untrammeled markets automatically deliver prosperity and stability. “Prosperity is not hard-wired into human beings; it must be orchestrated and sustained by political leadership,” Carter writes, summarizing Keynes’ central insight. Carter aptly documents how Keynes’ ideas have been domesticated over the past 70 years by influential US economists and their associated politicians, reduced to a set of technocratic tools useful for propping up the investor class through capitalism’s recurring crises.

It’s bracing to read The Price of Peace on the cusp of 2021, with economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic festering even as climate chaos accelerates, requiring massive public investments in new energy, transportation, and agricultural systems. The forces of austerity Keynes spent his career battling remain in place, and aren’t only represented by the Republicans who will wield massive power in the Senate. Former Delaware senator Ted Kaufman, a longtime Joe Biden confidante and leader of his transition, recently threw water on the idea of a sustained COVID-19 stimulus, much less an ambitious climate plan. Because of Trump’s tax cuts, he said, “When we get in, the pantry is going to be bare.” As Carter’s book shows, that’s the precise kind of thinking that led to the Great Depression—and it was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s embrace of Keynes’ ideas that pulled us out of it.Tom Philpott 

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals, by Saidiya Hartman. In moments of doubt this year, I found myself returning to one of Hartman’s poetic definitions of waywardness: “It is a queer resource of black survival,” she writes, “It is a beautiful experiment in how-to-live.” A formidable historian, Hartman breaks convention in her speculative narrative about wayward Black women at the beginning of the 20th century who migrated and forged their own livelihoods in the northern cities of Philadelphia and New York. These women would largely remain unknown were it not for the records left behind of the rent they paid, of their arrests for dancing late into the night, engaging in queer relationships, and rejecting the tight confines prescribed to Black life in the early 1900s. Hartman reimagines their voices as a chorus, collectively imparting their wisdom of survival and how to embody freedom. Paired best in conversation with the works of other Black feminists, from Audre Lorde to pleasure activist adrienne maree brown, this radical historical retelling begs us to imagine how we can not only resist but thrive despite the specter of racial violence, loneliness, and an uncertain future.—Lillian Kalish

Fiction

Father Guards the Sheep, by Sari Rosenblatt. I am not generally a huge fan of short stories—give me a 500-page novel instead. But a few writers, Grace Paley, say, or Lorrie Moore, still manage to bring me into their bonsai worlds with speed and concision. Add to that list Sari Rosenblatt, whose characters in Father Guards the Sheep yearn to lead lives bigger than the ones they happen to be stuck with. And they do, by the most ordinary but courageous of means: rising to the occasion—or trying to. As in life (which happens to be the title of the final story), fathers, present and absent, trouble and calm the waters; women are endlessly busy and besieged; young people gamble on what to do next. The author sees it all with a gaze both compassionate and meticulously detailed. But here’s the thing: I may be sounding too earnest here and that misses the point, the sheer brilliance of her work. I dare any reader of Father Guards the Sheep not to laugh out loud through every story, while at the same time failing to be deeply moved by these entwined narratives. The author shows us the daily miracle of loving other people, even when we can’t stand them just now, or they don’t love us back as we want them to. Rosenblatt’s exquisite sense of rhythm and rhyme set off her comic timing to perfection. And let’s face it: In 2020, we needed a few reminders about the miracle of loving people, and the rare gift of a book that makes us LOL.—Marianne Szegedy-Maszak

The Lying Life of Adults, by Elena Ferrante. In a year with very few reasons to celebrate, the much-anticipated release of Ferrante’s latest book gave me something to look forward to. That alone would have made the read worthwhile, even if the narrative about a teenage girl’s disillusions and estrangement from her family, and her anxiety about her sense of self, weren’t as compelling. Still, the Italian author’s first novel in years might be disappointing to some fans of her celebrated Neapolitan quartet. The coming-of-age story can feel a little unsurprising at times, clearly borrowing from big themes present in her previous work—such as class, social mobility, and womanhood—and instilling protagonist Giovanna with other familiar characters’ traits. But the parallels are also satisfying, an invitation to the reader to once again join in and take ownership of a shared imaginary. We’re called upon to witness women in the process of reinventing themselves and the pain that comes with it. As with Ferrante’s other writing, it’s inevitable to get sucked into her lucid examination of the characters’ psyches and their unleashed wants and instincts. The depth of her prose lingers and provokes new forms of discomfort each time.—Isabela Dias

The Older Books We Needed

American Fire, by Monica Hesse, and The Library Book, by Susan Orlean. As crimes go, arson is a form of transgressive escapism. It doesn’t bring its perpetrator wealth, like theft or drug dealing or insider trading, or the removal of an enemy or rival, as murder might, or even fame, since so few arsonists are caught. Instead, it seems to satisfy something internal—a desire to assert control, to get a thrill, to break the rules. That’s why it was the perfect crime to read about in 2020, a year of vanishing control and thrills and far too many rules. Susan Orlean’s The Library Book uses the 1986 conflagration at the Los Angeles Public Library as a means to journey down the rabbit hole of library history; Monica Hesse’s livelier American Fire explores what serial arson did to and revealed about a deteriorating slice of small-town America. Both are psychological dramas that allow us to spend a little time inside someone else’s head for a change and indulge a fantasy about what we’d really like to do to the world 2020 has trapped us in: burn it down.—Aaron Wiener

Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann. The fact that I started Ducks, Newburyport in the middle of 2019 and did not finish it until well into 2020—allowing it to swim in my mind for months, unceasingly—has meant that even now it has left itself like a blueprint for thought, the fact that the book is one long sentence, the fact that each sentence begins with “the fact that,” the fact that sometimes I just think to myself “the fact that” and start looping out mid-pandemic staring at a wall because of reading “the fact that” so many times in a row, the fact that it is about a woman baking inside of her home and I just realized after I read it I actually began baking, the fact that Romans smashed seeds on cone mills to make the earliest known flours, rice flour, corn flour, white flour, the fact that after I read this book I felt I finally understood how much my Mom has done to help me live, the fact that I cried many times reading it, the fact I thought I’d never finish it or any other book ever, the fact it was a hard read horrible but I also miss it, the fact that I tried to imitate the style of Ducks, Newburyport in this entry, the fact that it reads like shit, the fact that you should read the book to see she actually really pulls it off now with more appreciation because you have full knowledge of how bad this gimmick goes in poor hands.Jacob Rosenberg

Just Kids, by Patti Smith. Yes, I know that this extraordinary memoir came out a decade ago and won the National Book Award, but sometimes it’s worth waiting for a perfect moment to read a nearly perfect book. This year, when the world became more and more circumscribed, not just by quarantine, but by our claustrophobia-inducing politics, Just Kids came to my rescue. I could travel through time and space back to the late ’60s and early ’70s, check into the Chelsea Hotel, and hang out with the coolest of the cool people in downtown New York. Singer, artist, poet, and muse Patti Smith; her sometime lover and forever best friend, the doomed, audacious, virtuoso photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; and their entourage of writers, artists, poets, musicians, and hangers on, were “just kids,” starving artists on the cusp of greatness and recognition. I don’t know how Smith manages to drop so many bold-faced names—Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg—without sounding as if she’s dropping bold-faced names, except she knew these people; more importantly, she connected with them. Slowly, subtly, the kids grow up and get famous. They fully claim and inhabit their artistic identities. And the love story between Mapplethorpe and Smith becomes a requiem to a time and place and a couple of bohemians who bumped into each other by chance.—M.S.M.

Milkman, by Anna Burns. Burns’ unnamed narrator is coming of age in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, yearning to escape from her stodgy town, to learn French, to hang out with her “not-boyfriend.” But instead she finds herself dodging the unwanted attention of an older married man known simply as “milkman.” Her self-deprecation and breathless observations had me in deep cahoots with this protagonist from the start, as she wards off rumors, harassment, and misunderstandings against a backdrop of misogynistic terrorist violence and government oppression. A novel about a woman stuck in such a suffocating situation does not sound like much fun, nor the ideal escape from a pandemic lockdown. And yet—maybe because of its exceptional voice, its immersive current, its humor and weirdness—I was utterly captivated. —Maddie Oatman

Severance, by Ling Ma. Mentioning Severance on a list like this almost feels unnecessary. But what kind of list would it be without it? I read lots of pandemic books while New York was in lockdown—it seemed like the thing to do: John Barry’s The Great Influenza, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (zombies count, right?), Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies. I’d recommend any of those, but Ma’s 2018 debut novel, which follows a young woman navigating a civilization-shattering contagion that sends victims into a sort of catatonic decay, lingered with me long after I’d finished. When the pandemic hits, the protagonist keeps showing up for work at her publishing job in a Manhattan skyscraper—no one tells her not to. Eventually she’s all alone; the office becomes her home. That banality is what makes it so haunting: When the End comes, how are you supposed to know it’s the End?—Tim Murphy

The Colossus of New York, by Colson Whitehead. Most Colson Whitehead books are, in some way, Colson Whitehead writing about New York. By my measure the most affecting thing he’s ever written about his hometown was his New York Times essay on the two-month anniversary of 9/11. It’s the one where he writes, “No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, ‘That used to be Munsey’s.’” I don’t know what Munsey’s is, but I can’t find the lie in it. That piece forms the anchor of Colossus, a series of sketches of a city endlessly reinventing itself, from Port Authority to Coney Island. It’s funny, sweet, familiar—a love letter to a place many of us are at once stuck in and shut off from, written in the aftermath of its last collective tragedy.—T.M.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. This book, I was told, is very sad. And I was devastated like every generation before. But I also laughed out loud many times, especially as Plath found ways to describe horror. When Esther’s boyfriend visits her in a hospital, near the end, he brings “nothing” except a “great, amiable boredom” and appears as an even smaller “khaki-jacketed shape” than she remembers. I wish I had known earlier how funny, even in sadness, this book reads. (Make your 2020 comparisons as needed.)—J.R.

The Essential Neruda, Selected Poems, by Pablo Neruda. In his Nobel lecture in 1971, Neruda said, “All paths lead to the same goal. To convey to others what we are.” He believed poetry should be stripped of its pretension, and that the enemy of a poet was the inability to be “understood by the most forgotten and exploited of his contemporaries.” He died almost two years later, leaving a canon of poetry that rejected elitism and rendered the complexity of life in rich, simple language. I spent much of 2020 like everyone else: exhausting myself trying to figure out in real time what everything meant. Neruda has been an antidote to the overwhelm of perspectives and content, the sadness of racial injustice, pandemic turmoil, and the epic shitshow of American politics. He knows how to pare things down to their core truths. “Eating alone is a disappointment, but not eating matters more,” he writes in “The Great Tablecloth,” “for now I ask no more than the justice of eating.” An inspiring and sometimes sad book, this bilingual edition draws from many of Neruda’s works to offer a selection that treats colonialism and Latin America, poverty and injustice, love and loneliness, and the common pains of life with equal honesty. Read it if you want to experience something earthly and beautiful.—Piper McDaniel

The Long Way, by Bernard Moitessier. My book reading hit the doldrums this year. COVID killed off my prime commute reading time and my access to the office book pile. Doomscrolling took the place of page turning. At least I wasn’t alone in finding it hard to get through a good read. I say all this to justify why it took me a pathetic 27 days to read this slim travelogue. The Long Way is a firsthand account of Moitessier’s solo nonstop voyage around the globe, which he began as a contestant in the 1968 Golden Globe Race, “a voyage for madmen.” He was on track to finish with the fastest time but then decided to keep sailing—taking a second trip through the Southern Ocean into the Pacific and eventually, Tahiti. Still, The Long Way isn’t exactly an adventure tale. Much of his account is preoccupied with sheet configurations and the difference between going seven and eight knots. The monkish Moitessier is maddeningly blasé about the dangers he faces; exhaustion and depression haunt him, yet he is afraid to chart a course for land. I don’t know anything about sailing, yet this meditative book about numbing routine, self-imposed isolation, and fleeing the demands and horrors of modernity was a perfect 2020 read.—Dave Gilson

The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. Greek mythology was the perfect escape for me this year: The gods are petty and plentiful, the monsters are hideous yet fallible, and heroic deeds are the next best thing to immortality. Miller, a classics scholar, brings these ancient tales to life with modern prose. She’s received a lot of attention for her latest novel, Circe, a feminist response to the Odyssey that portrays the enchantress not as a spiteful and jealous witch, but as a clever and sympathetic rebel. But her delightful first book, The Song of Achilles, is also worth a read. It retells the Iliad from the perspective of Achilles’ lover and best friend, Patroclus. The romantic tension, out-of-control egos, and questions about the meaning of heroism kept me turning pages late into the night. A fitting tribute to “the best of all the Greeks.” —M.S.

The Tradition, by Jericho Brown. For this Pulitzer Prize–winning collection of poems, Emory University professor Jericho Brown developed a new form he dubbed the “duplex” by combining the sonnet, the ghazal, and the blues. That’s not the book’s only impressive creation: In a memorable poem in the second part of the book called “Dear Whiteness,” Brown masterfully incorporates lines from Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night. Other poems tackle subjects like race, trauma, and police brutality, so the themes can get heavy; it took months for me to read through the entire collection. But that’s by design. Brown is creating a sense of urgency about his subjects, and readers will sit with these poems long after they’ve ingested them.—A.G.

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Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2021 demands.

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