Some of the books I've been thinking about lately seem unsettlingly well-matched to our strange times. Consider Yun Ko-Eun's The Disaster Tourist (Counterpoint, translated by Lizzie Buehler). Yona Kim is a program manager for a Korean travel company that specializes in "surveying disaster zones and molding them into travel destinations…. Learning about misfortune was what Yona did." Even as I read this novel last summer, I was past wondering who might book such a trip (see Chernobyl tours). Ironically, thousands of people had just been rescued from Covid-laced cruise ships worldwide.
"Hell of a year, isn't it--Mr. Frost, Ted [Roethke], & now Louis [MacNiece], whom I loved. Keep well, be good, the devil roams." This sentence, also appropriate for 2020, opens a letter in 1963 to Robert Lowell that is included in The Selected Letters of John Berryman, edited by Philip Coleman & Calista McRae (Belknap Press). Sylvia Plath and William Carlos Williams also died in '63. Hell of a year indeed.
I love this gift book issue because it gives me a chance to design a list for readers of all ages that includes fiction, nonfiction, classics and books that invite engagement through puzzles, journaling and crafting. Even more, I love using this space to tell you about a few more titles that would be great for gift-giving. The theme? Vampires!
One thing I didn't realize how much I'd miss in this year of staying home and staying alone as much as possible is art. I used to visit museums frequently, but circumstances have made that difficult. Sure, there's a lot of art on the Internet, but the screen creates a distance that tends to diminish scope and color and overall effect. So, I have grown to appreciate the visually arresting power of art books, and tend to pore over them, engrossed by color and image, as well as the context provided by expert editorial contributors. These don't have to be massive, expensive monographs to be enjoyable, either.
The female mathematicians of NASA, many of them Black, made vital contributions to the U.S. space program. Margot Lee Shetterly gave their stories a huge boost in her blockbuster book, Hidden Figures (Morrow, $17.99), which inspired a hit film. But women have been making standout contributions in STEM fields for decades, and their stories take both fictional and nonfictional forms.
During this turbulent year, I've been tempted to revive a reading habit I dropped long ago: flipping to the end of a book before I start it, to make sure everything will turn out all right. (My mother used to scold me about this practice, but I've caught her doing it, too.) Fortunately, some of my favorite feel-good authors provide stories where I know the characters will get their happy ending, without me having to sneak-read the last page.
The best cookbooks are windows into other kitchens, other cultures, other countries--an invitation to step into someone else's food traditions and, in so doing, better understand the world around us and ourselves. That's why cookbooks will forever beat any Internet recipe collection in my world; I am as hungry for the stories and the photos cookbook authors prepare as I am for the dishes they promise I can make at home.
In Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship(Dutton, $17), journalist Kayleen Schaefer explores the role of female friendship in contemporary life. She draws on her own experience, as well as examples of how these kinds of friendships are portrayed in the media, to shape a slim but powerful tribute to the potential of female friendship to be a defining (if not the defining) relationship in one's life.