There may not be a whit of scientific evidence that reading a good book boosts your immune system, but we are choosing to believe that it does anyway.
During a year dominated by COVID-19 and a roller-coaster presidential election, reading provided one of the few reliable, pandemic-proof pleasures. The coronavirus shut down theaters, restaurants, sports stadiums, gyms and even libraries — but it couldn’t shut down reading. Anyone with a library card and a mobile device could obtain books for free and without leaving home.
The 10 titles below represent a fraction of the books with Maryland ties or themes that were of special interest to local book lovers in 2020. There are dozens of other titles that are equally worthy but aren’t mentioned here for reasons of space; we urge you to seek them out.
Wrap them up with ribbon and over the holidays, give them to someone you love — including yourself. You won’t even have to wear a mask to enjoy them.
“Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like ‘Journey’ in the Title” by Leslie Gray Streeter
Against all odds the title of this book is spot-on accurate. “Black Widow” recounts how Streeter, a then-columnist for the Palm Beach Post, unexpectedly lost her husband and was left to raise the baby the couple was in the process of legally adopting. (Streeter and her husband, Scott Zervitz, grew up in Baltimore, and she has since returned to her hometown.) Streeter’s voice is so funny and heartbroken and engaging that though the book deals with such topics as death, race, mixed marriage, aging and whether recently bereaved widows are entitled to make jokes, it’s as addictive as any page-turner.
Little, Brown and Company. 272 pages, $27, littlebrown.com
“Cyber Privacy: Who Has Your Data and Why You Should Care,” by April Falcon Doss
You’re being tracked. The tech tools you can’t live without — email, social media and mobile phones — are “the basis for the most comprehensive corporate network the world has ever seen,” according to privacy and cybersecurity expert April Falcon Doss. She believes ordinary people should have the tools to understand what data is being collected about them and how to control it. Doss is a longtime Baltimore-area resident who spent a decade at the National Security Agency and whose analysis has won praise from a former director and two former deputy directors of the Agency.
BenBella Books. 300 pages, $26.95, benbellabooks.com
“Galileo and the Science Deniers” by Mario Livio
During debates about climate change, face masks and vaccines, the astrophysicist and author Mario Livio couldn’t help noticing that the conflict between science and religious belief hasn’t changed much since the 17th century. In “Galileo and the Science Deniers,” Livio, who lives in Baltimore County, recounts the great physicist’s persecution by the Catholic Church for insisting that Earth revolves around the sun. Noting that the push to teach creationism in American classrooms continues today, Livio wonders: In the past 500 years, have we learned anything?
Simon & Schuster. 304 pages, $28 simonandschuster.com
“I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad” by Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg
“I got a monster” was former Baltimore Police Det. Sgt. Wayne Jenkins’ code for signaling he’d found a drug dealer who was ripe for being robbed. The authors are veteran journalists and Baltimore City Paper alumni who combed through court transcripts, wiretapped conversations, surveillance footage and hundreds of interviews to piece together the tale of the vast criminal enterprise operating within the Baltimore Police Department. The account of the now-disbanded Gun Trace Task Force, “I Got a Monster” is a riveting read.
St. Martin’s Press. 320 pages, $27.99, us.macmillan.com
“The Island of Sea Women” by Lisa See
If the pandemic has left you feeling unconnected, pick up this novel, which was selected as the One Maryland, One Book selection for 2020, and take part in a shared reading experience. Set on the Korean island of Jeju, the story explores female friendship and the fascinating tradition of all-female diving collectives. The bond between two girls from very different backgrounds unfolds over decades, beginning with Japanese colonialism, continuing through World War II and the Korean War and ending in the era of cellphones.
Scribner. 384 pages, $27, simonandschuster.com
“The Liberation of Marguerite Harrison, America’s First Female Foreign Intelligence Agent,” by Elizabeth Atwood
Who knew that a former Baltimore socialite and reporter for The Baltimore Sun was the first female foreign intelligence agent in the U.S.? During a long career spying for the U.S., Harrison infiltrated Communist networks, foiled a German coup and survived two imprisonments in Russia. Atwood, a former reporter and editor for The Sun, discovered new documents in the U.S. National Archives and examined Russian prison records to create a portrait of a complicated woman whose espionage career was more extensive than she admitted.
Naval Institute Press. 320 pages, $32.95, usni.org
“The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories,” by Danielle Evans
The author, an assistant professor in the writing seminars at the Johns Hopkins University, likes to say that being a writer is like being the world’s worst therapist and having yourself as a patient; no one is more astounded than Evans at what comes out of her word processor. Her first short story collection, published in 2010 when the author was just 26, made America’s literary world sit up and take notice. Her second effort, which layers issues of race and class and divisions within the Black community on top of life challenges such as love, lust and grief, is every bit as funny and smart as Evans’ debut, while cementing her mastery of the short story form.
Riverhead Books. 283 pages, $27, penguinrandomhouse.com
“Old West Baltimore,” by Philip Jackson Merrill
This excerpt in Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series chronicles Old West Baltimore, said to be the nation’s largest registered African American historic district, which was anchored by Pennsylvania Avenue. This volume contains twice as many black-and-white photographs from the first half of the 20th century as it does text blocks. Gazing into the faces of those distinguished men and women and at the exteriors of restaurants, charitable organizations and cemeteries will give readers a vivid sense of “The Avenue” during its heyday.
Arcadia Publishing. 128 pages, $21.99, arcadiapublishing.com
“The Rest of the World” by Adam Schwartz
The eight short stories in this collection were inspired by the students the author has been teaching for two decades at Career Academy and other Baltimore City schools. Schwartz writes about resilient kids growing up in neighborhoods ravaged by systemic inequities, kids who struggle to find a path forward in a city that owes them much more. The book is set in Baltimore’s housing projects, street corners, dive bars and boats and won the Washington Writers Publishing House 2020 prize for fiction.
Washington Writers Publishing House. 194 pages, $18.95, washingtonwriters.org
“True Story: A Novel” by Kate Reed Petty
If you haven’t guessed, the title is ironic, for the “truth” of what happened during an alleged assault on a high school girl during a drunken party in the 1990s in maddeningly difficult to pin down. The author, who lives in Baltimore, tells the story of young Alice Lovett before, during and after that fateful party through emails, letters, college admission essays and screenplays. The novel is about the way people create stories to explain the things that happen to them and how slippery our grip on our own experiences can be. “True Story” was one of the most buzzed-about novels of 2020.
Viking Books. 336 pages, $26, penguinrandomhouse.com.