(Full title: The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women)

Why did I read this? Between 1923 and 1937, Dorothy Sayers wrote the crazy-popular series of detective novels that made her famous. This past summer, I reread all eleven of them. I adore them. Yes, the erudition of Lord Peter Wimsey can be a bit much. Yes, decoding the clues sometimes requires a cryptographer’s skill. And yes, some of the books are stained with anti-Semitic and racist stereotypes. But they are still clever, charming, witty, and unpredictable. Their central characters have both the flaws and warmth of dear old friends. They are also very much of their time—a glimpse into the rapidity of social change in interwar Britain.

Taken together, the eleven Wimsey novels also constitute an extended romance. Detective novelist Harriet Vane is introduced in the fifth novel; she and Lord Peter circle one another in the rest of the series, finally navigating their way to marriage in the final novel. The obstacle to marriage is not the age or class or wealth gap between them. Nor is it misunderstanding, or previous commitments, or any of the usual wrenches thrown into boy-meets-girl stories. Instead, Harriet cannot marry Peter until they have figured out how to accommodate both of their careers in the marriage, valuing Harriet’s work as much as Peter’s. In the penultimate and perhaps most-loved of the series, Gaudy Night, Harriet’s struggle between head and heart is at the center of the story, as she returns to her Oxford alma mater for a reunion, re-engaging with a community of women devoted to scholarship, while forging a partnership with Peter that has room for her to be her entire self.

Harriet Vane is an Oxford-educated detective novelist, so it is easy to assume that she was Sayer’s fictional avatar. But did Sayers see it that way? I knew little about Dorothy Sayers beyond the barest bones of biography and that, at some point in her writing career, she set aside Lord Peter Wimsey in favor of writing books and essays on Christianity. I picked up Mo Moulton’s book, published just in 2019, to fill in the gaps.

What is it about? The Mutual Admiration Society is both group biography and social history. At its core is a group of women, including Sayers, who met at Oxford just before World War I. At that time, women did not yet have the right to vote. They were excluded from many careers. If they became a teacher, they were often forbidden from marrying. Birth control was frowned upon. Women had been allowed to study at Oxford for about forty years, but they were not yet eligible for degrees.

As students, Sayers and her cohort took their studies seriously, determined to qualify for an Oxford degree even if none could be granted. Together, they established an informal club they cheekily dubbed “The Mutual Admiration Society.” Over tea and cocoa, they would convene to critique and support one another’s work—their scholarly essays, their translations, their poetry, their plays. Moulton’s book focuses in particular on four members of the MAS who remained friends and collaborators throughout their lives, each of whom attained professional success and public prominence: Dorothy Sayers, who became a theologian and playwright as well as a detective novelist; Muriel St. Clare Byrne, a medieval historian and playwright; Charis Frankenburg, a birth control advocate, midwife, and parenting expert; and Dorothea Rowe, a teacher of Shakespeare who also founded an influential local theater club.

These women shared more than friendship and public-facing careers. They shared a certain worldview as well—in particular, a belief in the democratization of culture, in “breaking down the walls that kept the ancient traditions of learning and scholarship separate from ordinary people.” “Through their diverse careers,” writes Moulton, “they worked to make the best ideas, the most creative work, and a joyful encounter with learning accessible to a wide range of people. That, they believed, was one of the greatest achievements to which a democratic society could aspire.”

Thus, Byrne wrote Tudor history for ordinary readers. Rowe pushed her provincial theater company into experimental territory. Frankenburg wrote books that translated her ideas on parenting into practical advice. And Sayers exemplified that belief throughout her career. With her detective novels, she aimed for both sophistication and accessibility, “so that the intellectual and the common man can find common ground for enjoyment in the mystery novel.” Amongst her many works on Christianity and ethics, she wrote influential radio plays that aired on the BBC.

One more thing these four women had in common: the perspective of being “simultaneously insiders and outsiders.” They were part of an intellectual elite, but in pursuing their professional ambitions, their gender made them outsiders, and their personal lives and identities placed them even further outside the social norms of their class. Frankenburg was half Jewish and married a Jewish man who fully supported her all-consuming career of public service. Sayers married late, and before that had lovers, one of whom left her a single mother. Rowe never married. Byrne was lesbian, with both a long-term partner and a long-term lover.

In Moulton’s view, this outsider perspective shaped their careers and fueled their interest in using popular channels (novels, plays, radio programs, and so on) to communicate serious ideas. “I suspect,” says Moulton, “they would have been somewhat boring men. DLS and Muriel would surely have been full-time academics… D. Rowe might have been a headmaster of a small boys’ school; Charis, a pater familias and competent administrator… No doubt, they would have done good, even excellent, work. But instead, their marginality within the gender politics of their era served a role like sand in an oyster. They struggled and were pushed out of the main lines of promotion and success, and instead of reproducing the world of their fathers or their mothers, they made something new.”

The lives of these women were indeed “something new,” if only by virtue of their distinctiveness. I do not think that Moulton proved out the subtitle of the book, that they remade the world for women generally, but their careers, which spanned most of the twentieth century, both witnessed and reflected enormous social, legal, and political changes for women’s lives. Thus, while tracing their individual paths and the ebbs and flows of their friendships, Moulton also traces the societal transformations that alternately constrained and catalyzed their work.

Would I recommend it? Yes, to anyone who is interested in Dorothy Sayers, or who enjoys the intersection of social history with biography, or who has a particular interest in interwar Britain. Moulton’s prose is smooth and readable, and, if I’m not convinced that the MAS “remade the world for women,” Moulton more than succeeds in presenting these women as fascinating figures living through turbulent times, putting their lives in context: through the losses of WWI, the flapper era, the Depression, the Blitz, and post-War privations, as well as through massive changes for women.

Read on if you are interested in the life of Dorothy Sayers. The rest of this post summarizes her story as presented by Moulton.

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Why did I read this? This book was a finalist for the National Book Award last year and has continued to get lots of buzz.

What is it about? The Secret Life of Church Ladies is a debut collection of nine short stories, described on the author’s website as about “Black women, sex, and the Black Church.” That’s accurate in a literal sense, I suppose; in most of these stories, Black women struggle to navigate the frequent gap between Church norms and human desire. But it’s a narrow characterization of stories that plumb the complexity of human needs—for sex, for love, for connection, for validation, for confirmation that we are each deserving.

Would I recommend it? You know, I’m not usually a fan of short stories. For me, reading a short-story is a little like going for a five-minute swim in chilly water. By the time I’m warmed up enough to enjoy the swim, it’s time to get out. Reading Philyaw’s stories was frustrating in exactly that way—but worse, because I so badly wanted several of them to continue into full-blown novels. Somehow, in just a few pages, I’d become fully invested in the characters and their conflicts. And that’s about the highest praise I can give short stories.

Of course, I didn’t love all nine stories equally. That would be impossible, because Philyaw plays with form in this collection. Some stories are told in the first person, some more omnisciently, one is polyphonic. One story is in the form of a letter, another in the form of instructions, and one seemed less a story than a satirical broadside. The last of these was my least favorite. It was clever, but it seemed impersonal compared to the rest of the collection, skating along a shallower surface.

Many of the reviews tag Philyaw as one to watch. If these stories are any indication, whatever she writes next will make it onto my shelves.

Why did I read this? My book group chose it.

What is it about? The year is 1665. The place is a small Puritan village in rural England. The central character (and narrator) is a young widow, Anna, who earns her keep as housemaid to the town’s minister. The novel is partly the story of her survival—survival of her husband’s death in a mining accident, of the plague, of witch hunts. As importantly, it is the story of Anna’s transformation from someone vulnerable and unquestioning to a woman with strength, competence, and, above all, her own mind.

Would I recommend it? Let me say upfront: This book wouldn’t have been my choice. Reading about the plague during our own century’s pandemic? Not my idea of fun. And this novel is often tough-going. Brooks does not sugarcoat death by plague, nor does she shy from fully conveying brutal cruelties.

Let me also say that Brooks walks a fine line between historical accuracy and pure fantasy. As with all her novels, Year of Wonder feels meticulously researched. Her inspiration was a small village in England that, in truth, self-quarantined when the plague reached it. As a result, many more villagers died, but none spread the plague to other villages. With this as the starting point, Brooks layers in the details of how people lived—their homes, their clothing, their food, their habits, their stratifications, their beliefs. But while the details all feel historically rooted, and while any single episode in Anna’s tale may be believable, the sum total of her experience has the distinct scent of anachronistic fantasy.

What does that mean? It means that my experience of reading it was immersive and gripping, even if I frequently snorted with disdain. It means that I admired Brooks’ imagination and the fluidity of her writing, even when I questioned her choices. And it means that a novel full of horrific images and terrible sadness is lingering with me as warm, as hopeful, even as uplifting. By the end, Anna chooses hope over fatalism, action over inaction, empirical knowledge over blind faith, and a professional calling, one that helps other women, over the expected role of wife and housekeeper.

As I said, an anachronistic fantasy.

Or is it? I am not the only reader who saw it that way, and here is how Brooks’ responded (click here for the full interview):

“Anna’s character and the changes it undergoes were suggested to me by the lives of women I had met during my years as a reporter in the Middle East and Africa—women who had lived lives that were highly circumscribed and restricted, until thrown into sudden turmoil by a crisis such as war or famine. These women would suddenly find themselves having to step out of their old roles and assume vastly challenging responsibilities. I saw women who had traveled enormous personal distances—traditional village women in Eritrea who became platoon leaders in the country’s independence war; Kurdish women who led their families to safety over mined mountain passes after the failure of their uprising against Saddam Hussein. If those women could change and grow so remarkably, I reasoned that Anna could, too. And remember that the Restoration was a very fluid time. All the ancient certainties—the monarchy, the Church—had been challenged within these people’s lifetime. They had lived through regicide, revolution, civil war. Change was their norm. In the 1660s, women were appearing on the stage for the first time, were assuming influential roles in the Restoration court. Also, life in the villages was much less rigid and restrictive than we often imagine. I read a lot of sermons while researching the novel, and it struck me that the amount of hectoring from the pulpit on the proper behavior of women probably reflected a widely held view that a lot of ‘improper’ behavior was going on.”

Brooks is right. Crisis can reveal the human capacity for change. For resilience. For heroism. Our world is in the midst of many crises—including the pandemic and the grip of extremist myths. Perhaps this is why Year of Wonders, published twenty years ago, describing how a village responded to plague more than 300 years ago, struck me as not just hopeful, but as relevant.

(Full title: Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist)

Why did I read this? This was the second of two books I reviewed for the Marfield Prize. (The first was Victorians on Broadway—click here for that post.)

What is it about? This book focuses the brief period between 1930 and 1933 that Frida Kahlo lived mainly in the United States—first in San Francisco, then Detroit, then New York City. This was also the period, according to Stahr, that Frida developed her mature style of painting. The book reads as a hybrid of biography and analysis of Kahlo’s art.

Would I recommend it? That’s a hard question.

On one hand, Kahlo is a complicated figure who lived a colorful life during colorful times. She is almost the stuff of fiction. And that comes through in Stahr’s book. The Kahlo on these pages is fully engaged in the world around her, with strong opinions, strong passions, and a strong personality. Despite her unimaginable physical challenges, she is talkative, witty, social, adventurous, and ambitious. She loves movies, from Charlie Chaplin to horror flicks, and she goes to nightclubs. She can be enormously fun; she can erupt in cold fury. She is deeply and widely educated (in three languages), with both her art and her personal choices informed by politics, history, philosophy, religion, and nationalist pride. This Kahlo had lovers, both before and during her marriage to Diego Rivera (possibly including Georgia O’Keeffe), and she played with androgyny, often substituting men’s clothes for the traditional Mexican attire that was her trademark (and that also had the advantage of disguising her disabilities). Above all, the Frida Kahlo on Stahr’s pages is fearless, particularly in her art. Her own life was bloody, and she put that life on the canvas without apology.

On the other hand, somehow, Stahr managed to write a boring book about one of the least boring figures in art history. The fault was partly her structure, which bounces around with misplaced interruptive digressions; partly her style, which sometimes lapses into dry recitations of what may have influenced Kahlo at various times; and partly her lengthy esoteric analyses of specific paintings. These analyses are not just overlong, exploring every possible symbolic connection; they also muddy the boundaries between Frida’s conscious intent (as documented in her own writing and interviews) and later interpretation. It did not help that Stahl often devotes pages to specific paintings without including reference images in the book. Perhaps the publisher was unable or unwilling to secure the rights (or pay for more color-plate printing), but it meant constantly putting the book down to find the image on the web.

So would this be the book I’d recommend to someone interested in Kahlo? Probably not. Instead, I’d recommend a more complete biography. But did I enjoy reading it, despite it being a bit of a slog? Yes, I did. It gave me new things to consider the next time I’m standing in front of a Kahlo painting, and it reminded me that behind all the familiar iconic images of Kahlo, there lived and breathed an astonishing artist.

(Full title: Victorians on Broadway: Literature, Adaptation, and the Modern American Musical.)

Why did I read this? The Marfield Prize is a literary prize awarded annually by the Washington Arts Club to “to recognize excellence in arts writing for a broad audience.” Through a friend, I learned that, in addition to a panel of distinguished judges, the Prize also relies on volunteer readers to review the books nominated. A couple emails later, I was on my way to the Club to pick up two books to review, ridiculously tickled to be part of judging a book prize, even if just peripherally.

What is it about? When you think about it, quite a few Broadway musicals have been adapted from 19th century British literature. Most famously, of course, there’s Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist; Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, inspired by a popular penny-dreadful; and The King and I, which tells the story of Anna Leonowens, a real figure who taught in the Bangkok court and who published her memoirs. Several other musicals, less well-known, also have 19th century English source materials. Weltman’s project in this book is to compare these musicals to their original source materials, looking for how 20th century adaptations to the stage might reflect the values of their own times.

Would I recommend it? This book will interest only two categories of readers: scholars who specialize in theater history, Victorian literature, or “adaptation theory”; and people who are really really REALLY interested in reading about Broadway musicals. It’s not a book for a casual reader to grab for fun. It’s way too academic for that. It’s analysis over storytelling, with considerable effort made to situate the analysis in academic theory and antecedents. The prose is frequently interrupted by references to other works, which are embedded in the text rather than relegated to footnotes, and the text is peppered with quite a bit of tortured academic-ese. (“Communal bodily signification,” anyone?)

If that doesn’t sound dry enough, Weltman’s efforts to find links between stage adaptations and contemporaneous history are sometimes laughably slender. For example, she suggests that Sweeney Todd had particular relevance in 1979 because plastic disposable razors hit the market just a few years prior, and that the show gained additional relevance decades later thanks to the pink slime controversy. (Don’t remember pink slime? Clearly you have not had the meat industry as a client. Lucky you.)

That said, as someone who is really interested in musicals, I enjoyed reading this book. (Well, most of it. I skipped the chapters on musicals I know nothing about, like Goblin Market, a chamber opera based on a 19th century poem, which apparently had a decent run on Broadway in 1985.) Following is some of what will stick with me from the two chapters I found most interesting. If musical theater holds no interest for you, now is the time to stop reading.

The King and I

Like almost all Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, The King and I has a lot to say. Most obviously, it’s propaganda for the idea that science and education can transform regimes from authoritarianism to liberal democracy, respectful of individual human rights. To contemporary eyes, The King and I can also feel feminist. Not only is it a story about a woman based on a memoir that was written by a woman, the musical’s Anna stands up for what she believes, she demands respect, she demands to be treated as a professional, and she is appalled by the subservience of the King’s wives and slaves.

But while Anna may seem “feisty and modern,” Weltman argues that the stage version of Anna Leonowens actually hews more closely to the Victorian ideal of women than to contemporary ideals. Anna is an independent working woman, yes, but she is only making her own way in the world because she is a widow. Had her beloved husband not died, her life would have followed his. On stage, Anna’s fundamental role is teacher and nurturer, she values home (insisting upon a brick house of her own), and she supports a powerful man behind the scenes, seeking no credit or visibility outside her spheres of school and family. In fact, to have influence, she must learn not to directly challenge men at all, not even in private.

In contrast, the real Anna Leonowens was ambitious and far from humble. “In her own books,” says Weltman, “Anna Leonowens speaks seven languages, negotiates dangerous situations, translates important correspondence for the king, records and interprets Thai history and culture for a wider reading public, and ultimately leaves for new adventures, touting her accomplishments and publishing her correspondence from the king to prove it.”

Also of note, the real Anna Leonowens wasn’t particularly “English,” nor was she as primly honest as stage Anna. The real Leonowens was born and raised in India; her father was a former cabinetmaker who was a non-commissioned officer with the East India Company when she was born; and her grandmother was probably Anglo-Indian, meaning that Leonowens was considered “mixed race”—something she later tried to hide, claiming (falsely) that she’d been born in Wales.

All this means that the stage version of Anna Leonowens is a far cry from the real version. And seeing all the ways that the character of Anna stays within the boundaries of pre-feminist roles for women, how she anticipates June Cleaver more than Gloria Steinem, I can’t wait to rewatch the film version of The King and I—if only to go on a scavenger hunt for more retrograde ideas about women.

Oliver!

In her chapter on Oliver!, Weltman is primarily interested in Fagin. In the original Dickens, Fagin is “the villainous old Jew,” the embodiment of anti-Semitic stereotypes, greedy and manipulative, unrepentant through the day he is hanged. In the David Lean film version of Oliver Twist, a few of the sharpest anti-Semitic edges were shaved off, but the character remained enough of a negative trope to prompt protests, forcing Lean to cut 12 minutes before the film was released in the United States. Lionel Bart’s musical version, however, transforms Fagin entirely. In the musical Oliver!, Fagin is a kind and generous father figure whose Jewishness is implicit rather than explicit, cued mainly though costuming and klezmer-style music. This has given quite a bit of freedom to directors and performers. Some performers of the role have embraced Fagin’s Jewishness, adding a Yiddish cadence to their voice. Others have done the opposite, performing the role as neutrally Anglo-Saxon as possible.

Weltman spends less time on how Lionel Bart changed the character of Nancy, but she does point out that the musical’s Nancy is a barmaid, while Dickens’ Nancy is a prostitute. In the 1970s, Weltman says, a prostitute could not be part of a family-friendly production, nor could a prostitute be a mother-figure to an orphaned little boy, nor would the murder of a prostitute be seen as a terrible tragedy. I’m not sure she’s completely correct about whether a prostitute could be sympathetic (the “prostitute with a heart of gold” was a stock figure in Hollywood from much earlier days), but I accept her point that making Nancy into a barmaid was probably a surer path to filling seats.

Weltman spends quite a bit of time on Lionel Bart’s own story, probably because it is irresistibly colorful as well as tragic. I hadn’t really known much about Bart before reading Weltman, so this may be what sticks with me most of all.

Bart’s childhood was almost Dickensian. The son of a Jewish refugees from Galicia, he grew up in Stepney, still one of London’s poorer east end neighborhoods. Bart was the youngest of the seven of his parents’ eleven children to live to adulthood. He belonged a street gang, he was evacuated from London during the Blitz, and as a young adult, he briefly joined the Communist Party.

From an early age, Bart started writing music. He’d had no music education and could not read music, so he composed by singing his melodies into a tape recorder. By the time he was in his late twenties, he had written several pop music hits and had contributed songs and lyrics to a handful of stage reviews and musicals.

Oliver! premiered in 1960, and Bart wrote all of it—the book, the lyrics, the music. It was a smash. In the years following Oliver, Bart was flying high (literally as well as figuratively). Quoting at some length, because it is quite the story, here is how Weltman describes what happened next:

“After Oliver! Bart created several award-winning shows, such as Blitz! (also with an exclamation point) in 1962 about children being evacuated from London to escape the bombing during World War II, based on Bart’s own experience. Soon followed Maggie May (1964) about a Liverpool prostitute and her dockworker lover, another critical and financial success. He wrote numerous hit pop songs, some topping the charts for as long as six weeks, for Cliff Richards, Tommy Steele, Anthony Newley, and Matt Monro, including the 1963 James Bond movie theme song ‘To Russia with Love.’ He was good friends with Judy Garland, who recorded his music. In fact, the press linked them romantically, even though he was gay. He hung out with Noel Coward, Princess Margaret, and Liberace. He entertained so extravagantly that he apparently kept two bowls for guests in his lavish Chelsea home to take what they liked, filled not with candy, but one with cash, the other with cocaine. Even more notorious was his toilet, perhaps throne-shaped and flushing to the tune of Handel’s ‘Water Music.’ Some estimate that he was as rich as the Beatles, earning sixteen British pounds a minute just from Oliver!

“Then in 1965 came a colossal flop about Robin Hood called Twang!! As one theater historian puts it, here Bart went ‘an exclamation point too far.’ Unfortunately, he put his entire fortune into producing his own show; and when it was clearly failing, he sold his rights to Oliver! and spent all the rest of his money trying to rescue Twang!! to no avail. The last straw came in 1969; his La Strada opened and closed on Broadway in one night. He declared bankruptcy in 1972, losing his swanky London house, his Malibu getaway, and his castle in Tangier. He developed diabetes. He tried to go on the wagon and, in the early 1990s, finally came out of the closet. In 1994 producer Cameron Macintosh sought Bart out, invited him to help with a revival of Oliver!, and signed a percentage over to him. Bart’s health remained precarious, and he died in 1999 from liver cancer.”

At the end of Oliver!, Nancy’s fate is tragic, Bill gets what he deserves, Fagin has a chance to reinvent himself, and Oliver lands happily with his long-lost family. It’s a particularly dramatic ending, and it makes some sense that it was authored by a particularly dramatic life.

Why did I read this? This memoir was one of the New York Times’ top ten books of 2020.

What it is about? In 2013, Anna Wiener was twenty-five years old and working as an underpaid assistant at a small literary agency in Manhattan. Tired of scrounging for side gigs to pay the bills, seeing no end to a job of getting coffee for others, she jumped with both feet into a series of jobs in tech start-ups. It was the height of tech optimism and transformation, and Wiener went eagerly along for the ride. At first, it was exhilarating. Then it was exhausting. Gradually, Wiener began to see the underbelly of tech—its misogyny, its arrogance, its blinders. This book is that story.

Would I recommend it? I would indeed. For me, the book works as a relatable coming-of-age memoir, as Wiener struggles to figure out what kind of life she wants and where she fits. It works as an astute account of tech culture, its appeal as well as its horrors. It works as a vivid illustration on how sexism and misogyny show up in that culture. It works as an elucidation of the tech world’s flat-footed approach to both hate speech and data privacy. And it works as just a great piece of writing.

I particularly loved how Wiener describes the attitudes and behaviors of “tech bros”—the armies of confident 20-something men dominating tech start-ups. It rings painfully, often hilariously, true. Not that I have worked in Silicon Valley. But during my two decades inside a big PR firm, I had more than a few encounters with this world, both as clients and as colleagues—parades of fresh-faced earnest young men waxing rhapsodic about metrics and big data and optimization, in tail-wagging pursuit of digital “engagement.” (For a while, my company’s slogan was “Engagement, always.” I had a hard time saying it with a straight face.)

These human puppy-dogs are often well-meaning. Fun. Smart. Great colleagues. Even allies. Yet they also, often, in their solipsistic logic and fervent embrace of meritocracy (as they define it), create worlds hostile to women. Wiener’s book is filled with examples of how women are both intentionally and unintentionally disadvantaged and how complaints are routinely ignored, denied, deflected, or excused. When a new hire made some discomfiting sexual remarks about Wiener’s appearance, her boss apologized but advised her to ignore it, because “that’s just who he is.” When Wiener’s colleagues were pushed to take sexism and diversity more seriously, they wondered if too much attention to diversity would mean “the company was lowering the bar.” They would ask, with all sincerity, “Why would a workplace filled with happy young males necessarily be a bad culture?” More overtly hostile, they complained about how unfair it was that “men built a wildly successful company where they loved to work, and now they have to destroy it to make feminists feel welcome.”

The consequences of bias against women, both intentional and unintentional, are very real. They include the paucity of women in leadership roles at tech companies, the enormity of pay gaps, and the measures women must take to protect themselves on-line. Wiener, for example, adopted a male username for her job in customer service, quickly learning not only how much more effective she was with a male name (customers assumed competence rather than incompetence), but how necessary it was to avoid attracting abuse, vile language, and even death threats.

In addition to stripping bare the misogyny of the tech world, Wiener is ruthless in unpacking Silicon Valley’s failures around privacy, misinformation, trolls, and extremism. But she equally captures how attractive the culture of tech can be. How exciting the world of start-ups can be. The intense camaraderie. The no-rules informality. The off-sites on ski slopes. The snacks. The prospect of coming up with a product that changes the way people do things. The possibility of getting rich. The sense of belonging to something amazing. Belief in an unlimited future.

In the end, what Wiener confronts during her time in tech is not just its ugly side, but the more personal realization that this world, even the great parts, just isn’t for her. Gradually, she must face the fact that what her colleagues experience as exciting, she experiences as meaningless. They genuinely love to code. She does not. They genuinely love building new mousetraps, even when those mousetraps will be replaced with other mousetraps in less time than it takes to say mouse. They genuinely love the work itself. She does not. She wants the work to mean something bigger. To lead somewhere.

In that way, Uncanny Valley has relevance far beyond the world of tech start-ups. I spent twenty-two years with my last employer, and I think I was searching for greater meaning every single day of those twenty-two years. Why I stayed so long is a good question. Perhaps I’ll be able to answer it someday.

Why did I read this? Not only did it keep popping up in my library feed as one of the most popular books available, two different friends mentioned that it was one of the best books they read this year.

What is it about? Where the Crawdads Sing is part romance, part mystery, part nature chronicle. It’s the story of Kya, born in a remote ramshackle shack, deep in the North Carolina swamp. One by one, her family leaves: first her mother, then her older siblings, all to escape her abusive father. Finally her father leaves too. Kya raises and educates herself, alone in the swamp, gradually, and with the help of her closest friend, who also, gradually, becomes a lover. Fast forward fifteen years, and Kya is a lauded naturalist and artist, on trial for murder.

Would I recommend it? How shall I put this? Oh, I know. NOOOOOOOO!!!!! With all respect to my friends who loved this book, it was SO not for me. I found the premise laughably implausible, the mystery like something out of a bad episode of Heat of the Night (poor Carroll O’Connor—not his best turn), and the romance straight out of Harlequin.

What interests me is how much I enjoy this kind of nonsense when it’s packaged for the screen with fabulous costumes but lose my lunch when it’s packaged in prose. Emily in Paris? Bridgerton? Sure. I may have plenty of snarky things to say, but I happily binge-watched both. Bring me the popcorn. But put such nonsense on the page? Hell no.

We all have our boundaries.

Why did I read this? Erik Larson is a great storyteller. He is one of those writers who gets captivated by a small corner of history, something that others might treat as a footnote, then buries himself in research, emerging with tales that are as gripping as fiction. This book is his second on WWII; the first was In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. That was the story of America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany in 1933-1934. Highly recommended.

What is it about? The subtitle of The Splendid and the Vile more or less captures it: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. In this book, Larson focuses on the period between May 10, 1940, when Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, and December 8, 1941, when the U.S. declared war on Germany and Japan. In between was the Blitz, when Germany tried to bomb the United Kingdom into submission.

When we lived in London, I walked past reminders of the Blitz every day. Near our house, we could identify blocks that had been destroyed by architecture that was obviously in-fill, by churches with the seams of reconstruction visible, and by playing fields that still had remnants of earlier foundations. How Londoners survived, how they managed to, as is so famously said, keep calm and carry on, is unfathomable. Night after night, air raid sirens blared. Night after night, you might make it to a shelter. Or you might not. Or the shelter itself might be destroyed.

In his forward, Larson describes spending time in London, similarly unable to imagine what it was like to survive the Blitz. His goal for this book was to paint a personal and intimate picture of what it was like for one family in particular: Churchill’s family. Thus, he weaves together how Churchill spent this year—where he was and what he did—with the experiences of his wife and children, as well as of some of the aides who were closest to him during that year. As counterpoint, he regularly flips his lens towards Berlin, offering glimpses into the experiences of the Nazi leaders ordering the Blitz and the flyers executing it.

Would I recommend it? The Splendid and the Vile is worth reading not because Larson has uncovered much that is new (in many ways, he is treading well-worn ground), but because he is such a good storyteller. Even knowing quite a lot about Churchill, the Blitz, and the events leading up to America’s entry in the war, Larson’s angle feels fresh, and the details he knits together still have the power to amaze. For starters, it’s impossible to read this book without gaining a renewed appreciation of Churchill—his courage, his brilliance, and his inimitable quirks (pink underwear and all). It’s also impossible to read this book without gulping hard at how easily WWII could have ended differently. What if Britain hadn’t steadfastly refused to negotiate or surrender? What if Hitler hadn’t made the catastrophic error of invading Russia? What if America had entered the war later—or, horrible thought, not at all?

At the same time, if Larson’s goal was using the Churchill family to reveal what it was like to live through these years, I’m not sure Churchill’s family was the best prism. They lived in fairly rarified circles, and while it’s interesting to learn what an ass Randolph Churchill was to his 20-year-old wife, Pamela, and how Pamela met Averell Harriman, the book doesn’t do justice to how interesting Clementine Churchill (his wife), Sarah Churchill (his third child), and Mary Churchill (his youngest) were. Clementine, like Churchill, was a force of nature, something which doesn’t come through quite strongly enough in Larson’s telling. Sarah became an actress, starting in the chorus line when she was 21 (her parents disapproved), later having a pretty successful career on the stage and in Hollywood. During the war, she worked in photo intelligence for the Women’s Air Force. Mary, the baby of the family, enlisted as a private with anti-aircraft batteries (“mixed” ones—meaning, they allowed women to serve), serving in London, Belgium, and Germany, and later became a prominent writer—starting with a biography of her mother. (Note to self: Sonia Purnell, who wrote A Woman of No Importance, which I loved, also wrote a biography of Clementine Churchill. Yet another book to read someday.)

But if, in the end, The Splendid and the Vile isn’t Larson’s best, I guess I don’t care that much. It’s an absorbing diversion for sleepless nights and a welcome reminder that, no matter how horrifying each day’s political and pandemic headlines, full-out war is something else entirely.

Why did I read this? This novel caught my eye on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, and later showed up on a couple “best of 2020” lists. Set in India, I thought it might make a good double-feature with A Burning.

What is it about? At core, this is a mystery. In the sprawling slum of shanties where 9-year-old Jai lives with his mother and father and older sister (a star student and ambitious track star), children start to disappear. Jai loves watching true crime police dramas on the family’s small television, which teeters on a high shelf in their one-room home. Determined to be the kind of detective he admires, he recruits two friends to join him in a search for the missing children.

Would I recommend it? Told entirely from the perspective of children, Djinn Patrol it is charming, wry, surprising, and heartbreaking. The author, Deepa Anappara, is a journalist who has spent time reporting on the people who live in the slums of India, where dozens of children disappear every day. One of her goals in writing the book was to show how much more these children are than statistics. How clever. How funny. How full of heart and hope and dreams. How resilient in the midst of poverty and corruption that would be unimaginable if it weren’t so real.

Djinn Patrol also pops and sizzles with sensory scene-setting. Whether it’s Jai’s crowded home, his crumbling school, the teeming train stations, the immense and stinking rubbish heaps, or the shining and gated high-rises that ring his basti, Anappara’s descriptions are brimming with textures and smells and colors. And food. Lots of food. Perhaps this is because food is a constant preoccupation when it’s scarce. Perhaps it is also because the streets of India are filled with the scent of coriander and hot oil. Either way, Djinn Patrol brings you there.

These were enough to make me very glad to read this book, and more than enough to lodge this story firmly in my heart. If I am not bubbling with enthusiasm, it is for two reasons. The first is that it was probably not fair to read it right after Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, which is so exceptional. Djinn Patrol offers a different glimpse of a similarly unjust world, but it is less complex book, with fewer fully developed characters; had I read it before Majumdar, no doubt it would have struck me more powerfully. The second is that it has a touch of 60 Minutes about it—meaning the occasional tinge of an investigative reporting exposition. This is not surprising, given Anappara’s background and intent, but it interrupted some key moments with a kind of factual detachment.

No matter. Anappara opens the curtain on a corner of the world too often ignored, and she does it with great storytelling, compensating for her itty-bit of didacticism with suspense, emotion, simmering outrage, and children whose survival and resilience is a wonder.

Why did I read this? Every year, I get a obsessed with book awards and book lists. And every year, I am surprised by how little overlap there is between lists. The Washington Post’s list of the 100 best books often includes only a handful of the 100 books the New York Times considers “notable.” The finalists for the Booker Prize and the National Book Award rarely overlap, and both lists are usually entirely different from other literary prize finalists. So when a book is on multiple lists, I notice it.

Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, is one such book. It was longlisted for the National Book Award and shortlisted for the Carnegie Award. It was one of Time’s top ten in fiction and one of Amazon’s top twenty. It was on both the Post and Times’ lists of the 100 best books of the year, as well as on the Library Journal’s best of 2020 list.

It’s also in rarified company. On the 2020 lists I’ve scoured so far, only seven other novels (out of roughly 300) show up that frequently: Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar; The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett; Luster, by Raven Leilani; The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel; Deacon King Kong, by James McBride; Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell; and Shuggie Bain, by Stuart Douglas.

What is it about? This is a book about what happens when individual dreams crash into the power of the state. It is about what happens when the state cannot be trusted, when ends begin to justify means, when good intensions get swamped by the impossibility of making lives better, and when rules take a back seat to individual wants and needs. And while all this sounds abstract, the book is anything but abstract; it unspools these themes through the very human, very personal experiences of its characters.

At its center are three people whose lives intertwine. The first is Jivan, a young woman from the slums of Kolkata who is determined to pull herself into the middle classes. She has graduated from secondary school; she has a job in a shopping mall; and she finally has a smartphone, a portal to the wider world where the currency seems to be free expression. But she makes a terrible mistake. She posts a comment on Facebook that leads to her arrest for terrorism. Second is Lovely. Lovely is a “hijra,” the label given to people who don’t fit binary sexual norms, people who are simultaneously reviled and revered. Lovely dreams of becoming a movie star. Although she struggles to beg enough for food and shelter, she takes acting lessons and she is being tutored in English by Jivan. Third is PT Sir, a physical education teacher where Jivan went to school. Tired and jaded, PT Sir is drawn to an anti-Muslim political party, steadily rising in its ranks, seduced by the sudden promise of being someone who commands respect, as well as someone who can afford a better life.

Both Lovely and PT Sir could help Jivan. Both could be character witnesses. Both could help change the narrative about her that is being fomented by a rapacious and sensationalist press, whipped on by ambitious politicians who have turned her into a political symbol. But whether or not Lovely and PT Sir should help Jivan, whether that’s the right thing to do, ends up being a disturbingly difficult choice.

Would I recommend it? If you read my 2020 reading recap, you know that the answer is an emphatic yes. A Burning is a gripping and kaleidoscopic snapshot of how people on the margins navigate life in modern India. Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir shimmer with life. Their worlds are brimming with sensory experiences—tastes and smells and sights, both marvelous and horrifying. It is also a suspenseful book, hard to put down, building tension with ever page. And it is a morally complex book, easy to feel outraged by the characters’ choices, harder to ask them to behave differently.

I am very ill-informed about India. My impressions are mainly from glancing at news headlines and reading a smattering of history books. So I wondered, as I read, to what degree A Burning was a fable, a morality tale of some sort, pushing and exaggerating to make a point. Then I listened to a podcast called “Brown Girls Read,” hosted by two women who, like the author, were born and raised in India, moving to the US as young adults. And as the hosts interviewed Majumdar, what struck me hardest was their conversation about how frighteningly plausible every single thing in this book felt to them.

That was a week ago. I write this the day after a mob carrying Confederate flags stormed the US Capitol, pumped up by lies and hatred, urged forward by a President and his fist-brandishing lackeys, seeking to overturn a democratic election, with the police shockingly ill-prepared. And suddenly A Burning has terrifying relevance for this democracy, just as much as the one eight thousand miles to its east.

A stunning book, but a fearsome one too.