7 Most-Favorable Reviews in December 2020

  • January 5, 2021

We came, we read, we gushed. Here’s a recap of the titles that left us especially warm and swoony last month.

7 Most-Favorable Reviews in December 2020

The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard by John Birdsall (W.W. Norton & Company). Reviewed by Nevin Martell. “Though much has been written about this larger-the-life epicurean figure, The Man Who Ate Too Much is the first biography to tackle Beard’s life through the lens of his sexuality. Considering Beard spent a lifetime trying to keep his queerness closeted, author John Birdsall ably opens up his subject’s narrative in astonishing ways. He relies on a bounty of primary-source materials: letters, datebooks, drafts of books and articles, and unpublished interview transcripts, as well as the vast trough of Beard’s published and recorded works.”

High Tension: FDR’s Battle to Power America by John A. Riggs (Diversion Books). Reviewed by David O. Stewart. “The book features winning vignettes. For example, ceremonies launching a new electric cooperative often included a mock funeral interring a kerosene lamp. A Pennsylvania utility lobbied a congressman with 800 telegrams, almost all of which were signed by constituents whose last names began with the first few letters of the alphabet. Investigation revealed that the names came from the phone book (ask your parents) and the constituents had no connection to the telegrams.”

Perestroika in Paris: A Novel by Jane Smiley (Knopf). Reviewed by Sarahlyn Bruck. “Although Perestroika in Paris takes place in modern-day France, it has the feel and tone of a simpler time. As such, Jane Smiley’s latest novel might just be the perfect antidote for 2020. Readers looking for an escape from reality may find solace in this sweet fable for adults about an inquisitive Thoroughbred and all the creatures she encounters in her Parisian adventures.”

The Cold Millions: A Novel by Jess Walter (Harper). Reviewed by Mark Gamin. “The time is 1909, and free-speech riots are happening. The Wobblies want the right to organize mine workers; the mines’ owners want to silence them. Brothers Gig and Rye Dolan are young hobos with sympathies guided by the mostly idealistic, mostly nonviolent Wobbly ethos. The omnipresent temptation to violate those two precepts makes up much of the tug and drama of the story. When the police and their allies, the Pinkerton detectives, are quick to resort to brutality and bloodshed, when double-crossers and informers are easily bought, and when the cause seems hopeless, well, then, some of the Wobblies will resort to explosives and mayhem.” 

The Adoption by Zidrou and Arno Monin; translated by Jeremy Melloul (Magnetic Press). Reviewed by Alice Stephens. “I must admit I harbored doubts about the graphic novel The Adoption, written by Zidrou and illustrated by Arno Monin, about a grouchy old white man, Gabriel, and his brown adopted granddaughter, Qinaya, an Aymara from Peru. It checked all the boxes for a sickly sweet tale about destiny, love, and the adopted child. Of course at first he’d be prickly and resistant to her charms. Of course she’d gradually melt the icy crust from his heart and win him over. Of course they would develop a deep bond. Of course she would teach him that love sees no color and knows no boundaries. Of course his son would get arrested for kidnapping Qinaya and go to jail. Wait, what?”

Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics by Dolly Parton with Robert K. Oermann (Chronicle Books). Reviewed by Michael Causey. “The book is also fascinating and revealing when it peels back the layers of the complex relationship she had with singer and band leader Porter Wagoner. In something of a Nashville-flavored ‘A Star Is Born’ — before the Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper incarnation — Parton eventually eclipsed Wagoner, her older, male music partner, but not without a lot of tension, tears, and even a lawsuit along the way. She wrote ‘I Will Always Love You,’ and performed it first privately for him, as a way to tell him their partnership must dissolve.”

You Exist Too Much: A Novel by Zaina Arafat (Catapult). Reviewed by Antoaneta Tileva. “This is not a book about isms, however; it is squarely centered on its unnamed protagonist, whose voice is enthralling. Oscillating between prescient self-awareness and oblivion, she transports readers into her rich emotional realm. Her identity is beautifully captured when she travels to Palestine with her mother, who ‘knows the rules instinctively, in that part of the world, and I only learn them by accident.’”

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