Best of the Best '20

Everyone’s publishing lists of 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 Kiss Myself Goodbye or Neil Price’s 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.”


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 Lincoln, then boy, is this the book for you. 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 The Warmth of Other Suns 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.”

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.”


Trethewey’s 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.”

Apple Books

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, Agnes Callard. “Unless you’re dealing with a hard-line Stoic, most philosophers tend to consider anger a morally justifiable response to being wronged—though 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.”

The Spectator

The Spectator uses a variety of book reviewers, all of whom are invited to cite their best books. The highlights:

A Place for Everything, Judith Flanders. Philip Hensher writes: “The non-fiction I most enjoyed… a history of alphabetical order: an excellent subject, carried out with exemplary care and authority.”

Downfall: 1939-1945, Volker Ullrich. Jonathan Sumption writes: “There will never be a definitive life of Hitler. The subject is too vast, the man too contradictory and the sources unmanageable. But Volker Ullrich’s biography comes as close as we can reasonably expect. The second and final volume, which appeared in translation this year, maintains the high standards of writing and scholarship of the first.”

Marie Antoinette: The Making of a French Queen, John Hardman. Sumption writes: “The origin of modern totalitarianism is the French Revolution, another subject on which hundreds of books appear every year. But it is worth making time for Hardman’s Marie Antoinette. This is a well- written and sympathetic life of a woman out of her depth in the world of politics, and a good companion piece to the same author’s life of her husband Louis XVI.”

The Mystery of Charles Dickens, A.N. Wilson. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst writes: “Bold, quirky.”

The Lives of Lucian Freud Vol 2, William Feaver. Douglas-Fairhurst writes: “Crammed with enough jaw-dropping, buttocks-clenching revelations to keep a whole Soho pub entertained for days.”

Tom Stoppard, Hermione Lee. Douglas-Fairhurst writes: “Sympathetic but sharp-eyed… manages the neat trick of showing how Stoppard became the writer he is without ever trying to explain him away.

Breaking Bread With the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, Alan Jacobs. Naomi Alderman writes: “Should be on everyone’s reading list in these times of what a friend of mine calls ‘disagreement-phobia’ on all sides in politics and life. Jacobs thoughtfully discusses the benefits of reading long-dead authors — even though Edith Wharton was an anti-Semite and David Hume a racist. In this way, we practice encountering minds different, and sometimes objectionable, to our own, and find the good, useful, and beautiful admixed with the difficult and repulsive. Right and left, young and old, we need this skill more than ever now.”

Kiss Myself Goodbye: The Many Lives of Aunt Munca, Ferdinand Mount. Writes Frances Wilson: “Aunts make good copy, and Ferdinand Mount has never written a bad sentence, so his account of investigating the murky past of his Aunt Munca (she named herself after the vandalizing mouse in Beatrix Potter) is bound to be a winner…. A horribly funny tragedy about bourgeois aspiration in the first half of the 20th century. All of life is here: double bigamy, David Dimbleby, Wallis Simpson, the Grand Prix and county cricket. At the heart of it all is Munca, the magnificently amoral millionairess who pretends that her son is her brother, that her adopted daughter is her birth child, that her sister is her friend and that her father (a Sheffield steel merchant) was an American banker called Baring. Her multiple deceptions, and Mount’s dazzling exposure of them, should introduce a new word to the language: from now on the art of pulling the wool over our eyes will be known as ‘doing a Munca’.”

Financial Times

The Financial Times’ year-end roundups are spectacular. It’s worth subscribing to the FT for a couple of weeks this time of year (costs only a couple of dollars) just to access its year-end coverage. They don’t merely list the best books of 2020: they do best books in about twenty categories including business, economics, history, politics, literary non-fiction, visual arts, and classical music. Here are the highlights.

Beethoven, A Life, Jan Caeyers, translated by Brent Annable. “Marking the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth, Jan Caeyers’ Beethoven, A Life is a biography for the modern age. Published in English for the first time, it downplays the Romantic image of the outcast titan to focus instead on social networks, artistic influences, friends and supporters.” Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters, edited by Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten. “Open any letter here and it compels — such is the force, honesty and lucidity of van Gogh’s literary expressiveness, echoing his qualities as a painter. Generously illustrated with the artist’s drawings, this is a perfect condensed version of the six-volume complete correspondence; among its miracles is optimism almost to the end.”

The Great Demographic Reversal: Ageing Societies, Waning Inequality, and an Inflation Revival, by Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan. “This is a highly significant book, because it goes against the prevailing consensus. The authors, a distinguished academic and an independent researcher, argue that the low inflation, low interest rates and rising inequality of recent decades were overwhelmingly due to demographic shifts fuelled by globalisation — especially the entry of China into the world economy and the weight of the middle aged in high-income countries. Now deglobalisation and ageing will reverse all that, generating higher inflation, higher interest rates, rising wages and falling inequality.”

All Against All: The Long Winter of 1933 and the Origins of the Second World War, Paul Jankowski. “Jankowski tells the familiar story of the collapse of internationalism in the interwar era from an unusual angle, highlighting two events — the Geneva disarmament talks and London world economic conference of 1933 — that receive less attention in standard histories. It is a rewarding approach, enhanced by Jankowski’s engaging narrative style.”

Machiavelli: His Life and Times, Alexander Lee. “Lee’s exhaustive, balanced and immensely readable work, sets a wholly new standard for English-language biographies of Machiavelli. Condemned for centuries as cynical, amoral and even satanic, the Florentine thinker emerges from Lee’s account as one of the Italian Renaissance’s greatest figures.”

Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread, Michiko Kakutani. “The renowned, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic selects her list of must-read books in this elegantly presented collection. Fiction, non-fiction and poetry all get a look-in with beautiful illustrations accompanying Kakutani’s insightful prose. Perfect for lockdown readers looking for some shelf improvement.”

Reimagining Capitalism: How Business Can Save the World, Rebecca Henderson. Unlike many books on the future of capitalism, this one allows that business should be an indispensable part of any solution to emergencies such as climate change. Henderson shows co-operation between companies, government and communities has historically yielded the best outcomes.”

Expert: Understanding the Path to Mastery, Roger Kneebone. “The path to expertise — from apprentice, via journeyman, to master — is a long one, former surgeon Kneebone points out. This fascinating corrective to the dangerous emergence of instant experts draws on examples of the hard graft of real experts, from tailors to stonemasons.”

No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer. “Hastings, founder of Netflix, and Meyer, an academic specialising in analysis of different cultures, dissect the streaming media company’s famous radical way of working. Their book, a finalist for the FT book award, does not gloss over the difficulties of applying the cultural prescription that Netflix made famous.”

Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West, Catherine Belton. “An exhaustively researched and entertaining account of Putin’s rise to power and his 20 years in office. Belton, a former FT correspondent in Moscow, is particularly good on the group of powerful Russians surrounding the Russian president, many linked to the former KGB. Her discussion of the mixture of corruption and anti-western ideology that defines Putin’s inner circle is compelling.” The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, John Bolton. “Badly written and lacking in humility, shame or self-awareness, Bolton’s is nonetheless the best insider account of the Trump White House yet to emerge. It is full of jaw-dropping revelations, such as the president’s private words of encouragement to Xi Jinping about the internment camps in Xinjiang.”

The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Peniel E Joseph. “In the year of Black Lives Matter, this comparative biography of two of the great figures in the struggle for racial equality in the US stands out. The book argues that while King and Malcolm X are often regarded as representing fundamentally opposed viewpoints, their approaches had begun to merge by the end of their lives — with King becoming more radical and Malcolm more pragmatic.”

The Noble Rot Book: Wine from Another Galaxy, Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew. “An entirely new sort of wine book, devoid of stuffiness and presented in what I can only describe as ‘haute fanzine’ style. Incredibly informative, slays quite a few sacred cows and, in the very best way, will drive you to drink.”

The Pie Room — 80 achievable and show-stopping pies and sides for pie lovers everywhere,Calum Franklin. “Franklin is effectively London’s high-priest of pie. In this new ‘bible’ the chef generously lays out many of his recipes, tricks, techniques and occasional voodoo spells in a way that makes them accessible and frankly essential to chefs, enthusiasts and home cooks.”

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: Travels Among the Collectors of Iceland, A. Kendra Greene. “Iceland has just 357,000 people but 265 museums. Although the country’s ice caps and thermal baths get all the attention, many visitors will have found themselves whiling away a wet afternoon in front of an esoteric collection, be it devoted to herring, punk rock or phallology. Greene’s quirky narrative style won’t be to all tastes, but her museum tour captures the magical charm of this wild, idiosyncratic country.”

Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells, by Harold McGee. “A tour-de-force by McGee, the world’s leading writer about the science of cookery. He explores the chemistry and psychology of every smell we might conceivably encounter, from fine foods, flowers and fragrances to decay and death. He even makes an imaginary journey into space to sample extraterrestrial odours. Nose Dive is a superbly written odyssey around an underrated sense.”