Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread, by Michiko Kakutani, William Collins, RRP£16.99/Clarkson Potter, RRP$25, 304 pages

The renowned, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic selects her list of must-read books in this elegantly presented collection. Fiction, non-fiction and poetry all get a look-in with beautiful illustrations accompanying Kakutani’s insightful prose. Perfect for lockdown readers looking for some shelf improvement.

Tom Stoppard: A Life, by Hermione Lee, Faber, RRP£30, 992 pages

Lee’s encyclopedic and sympathetic authorised life captures the genius and charisma of one of our greatest contemporary playwrights. She traces Stoppard’s childhood journey from Czechoslovakia (where he was born Tomáš Straüssler in 1937) to Britain via Singapore and India, before getting stuck into his early — and ongoing — success, carefully interweaving and enlightening the work along the way. The result, as FT reviewer Kate Maltby wrote, “is an essential contribution to theatre history”.

Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 272 pages

Following her hit 2014 memoir, H is for Hawk, which recounted how she learned to train a goshawk while grieving the death of her father, Macdonald here mourns for a nature stricken by climate change and human activity. Yet the essays in this collection can’t help but find immense joy, too, in the unexpected interactions we have with the natural world that surrounds us.

Just Us: An American Conversation, by Claudia Rankine, Graywolf, RRP$30/Allen Lane, RRP£25, 360 pages

The final part of Rankine’s An American Lyric trilogy is an arresting combination of prose, poetry and images that sit in dialogue with each other across the pages. Here, the poet, essayist and playwright offers an urgent, highly intelligent and analytical examination of whiteness — not in the form of a manual, but as an exemplary call to start conversations, no matter how uncomfortable they may be.

Best Books of the Year 2020

All this week, FT writers and critics share their favourites. Some highlights are:

Monday: Business by Andrew Hill
Tuesday: Economics by Martin Wolf
Wednesday: Politics by Gideon Rachman
Thursday: History by Tony Barber
Friday: Critics choice
Saturday: Crime by Barry Forshaw

Let’s Do It: The Authorised Biography of Victoria Wood, by Jasper Rees, Trapeze, RRP£20, 592 pages

This meticulous authorised biography of the beloved entertainer is based on hundreds of interviews by Rees, and audio tapes made by Wood herself. It cements Wood’s position in the pantheon of great British comedy talents and, along the way, Rees makes a cogent case for her brilliance as a deft writer who could skewer a character with the perfect word or two leaving audiences in stitches not just because it was funny — but also because it was true.

Intimations: Six Essays, by Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£5.99/Penguin Books, RRP$10.95, 96 pages

Written during lockdown, after Smith relocated from New York back to London, these six essays offer admirably clear-eyed meditations on coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, privilege, suffering and her neighbours. Smith writes with her usual lucidity, putting voice to the vague patchwork of unease and confusion many have felt during the pandemic.

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