Giving thanks for the 10 best books of November 2020

Simon & Schuster, Macmillan Publishers
“The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams” by David S. Brown, Scribner, 464 pp.; and “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” by Toshikazu Kawaguchi and translated by Geoffrey Trousselot, Hanover Square Press, 272 pp.
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November’s cornucopia of books overflows with rich offerings, including a novel about heroism in the Warsaw ghetto and Martin Amis’ autobiographical novel. Among the nonfiction titles, Robert D. Putnam (of “Bowling Alone” fame) provides a hopeful perspective on this moment in American culture, and a biography of Henry Adams illuminates a period of great change in the U.S.  

Why We Wrote This

“There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away,” Emily Dickinson’s poem begins. This is especially true this month, when our 10 picks include a Japanese crime novel, a book of cartoons by Steve Martin and Harry Bliss, and a true story of intrigue involving fossil hunters in Africa.

1. Prefecture D by Hideo Yokoyama 

Before becoming a mystery novelist, Hideo Yokoyama worked as an investigative reporter in Gunma prefecture on Japan’s Honshu island. His book, translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies, is actually four novellas, each an intriguing story describing the complex relationships and bureaucratic tensions within the police force. "Prefecture D" is an excellent introduction to the political and social undercurrents that govern Japanese society. Like all good mysteries, each novella holds the reader in suspense until the surprising end.

2. Irena’s War by James D. Shipman

Why We Wrote This

“There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away,” Emily Dickinson’s poem begins. This is especially true this month, when our 10 picks include a Japanese crime novel, a book of cartoons by Steve Martin and Harry Bliss, and a true story of intrigue involving fossil hunters in Africa.

This deeply impactful novel is based on the true story of Irena Sendler, a member of the Polish resistance who rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. James D. Shipman’s heart-pounding historical thriller is a tribute to those who risked their lives to help others. 

3. Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

At a Tokyo cafe, a ghost occupies a certain table – except when she visits the restroom, allowing tenacious customers to take her seat and venture into the past. The rules are many, but a few dare: an abandoned lover, a regretful sister, a forgotten wife, a mother and daughter. This international bestseller makes its delightful, timely U.S. debut, translated by Geoffrey Trousselot.

4. Inside Story by Martin Amis

Martin Amis delivers a big, thumping autobiographical novel bursting with reflections on love, sex, literature, global politics, parenting, writing, aging, and mortality. Tender tributes to his family, and to three seminal literary influences – Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens – form the core of this protean inside story. Read the review here.

5. The Best of Me by David Sedaris 

David Sedaris’ anthology features 46 of his best essays and stories curated from nine earlier books. It’s an excellent opportunity to view the arc of this American humorist’s development as a writer over 25 years. Stories about his family, his longtime partner, his predilection for the ghoulish, and his take on foreign languages and cultures show off his ability to combine hilarity with heart. Read the review here.

6. Our Last Season by Harvey Araton

Sports journalist Harvey Araton gives a touching and heartfelt history of his decadeslong friendship with a New York Knicks superfan in this memoir. Michelle Musler started out as a source for his stories, but she and the author eventually became as close as family, sharing one final season of basketball together before her death in 2018. Read the review here.

7. The Upswing by Robert D. Putnam

Simon & Schuster
“The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” by Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, Simon & Schuster, 480 pp.

A leading public intellectual reviews the last 125 years of American history and finds that the polarized and divisive Gilded Age was followed by a long period of increasing equality and cooperation. America is, once again, in the midst of a deeply individualistic and divisive era, but he concludes that we may be poised to move in a more generous and promising direction. Read the review here.

8. A Wealth of Pigeons by Harry Bliss and Steve Martin

Witty and wise, the cartoons gathered in this delightful collection result from the partnership of New Yorker cartoonist Harry Bliss and actor-writer Steve Martin. Animal lovers will rejoice at the numerous loquacious critters featured in the cartoons. Human foibles are also the target of the duo’s gentle but pointed humor.

9. Fossil Men by Kermit Pattison

HarperCollins Publishers
“Fossil Men: The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind” by Kermit Pattison, William Morrow, 544 pp.

In the tumultuous Afar region of Ethiopia, a team of fossil hunters discovers prehistoric clues that threaten the scientific establishment’s understanding of how humans evolved. What happens next – to the paleontologists, the region, and the bones that make up the mysterious ancestor dubbed Ardi – is a riveting story of academic, political, and personal intrigue.

10. The Last American Aristocrat by David S. Brown

David S. Brown observes that writer and intellectual Henry Adams, who lived from 1838 to 1918, bridged America’s transition from the Colonial to the modern era. His excellent biography of this flawed but fascinating thinker, descended from two U.S. presidents, illuminates an extraordinary life and the period of great change it spanned.

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