The best and worst books of 2020 (so far)

One of the lasting effects of quarantine has been that I started to read for fun again.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve completely fallen off the wagon. Then, COVID happened and when the illness started to devastate Asia I spent almost two months on the road in Cambodia. There, I fell back into the habit of reading. When we got back to China (six days before it would close off its borders to foreigners), we were in strict quarantine in our apartment for 14 days. I kept reading to stay sane and then the momentum just kept on. I’m now on 26 books out of my goal of 20 and I wanted to write a post of my favorites from this year and the ones that felt like a waste of time.

Top 3

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou – I couldn’t put this book down. The story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos highlights how far pure ambition and force of strength can take a founder in Silicon Valley, and just how many people are willing to listen to an approachable blonde woman, despite years of failing to prove that the technology behind Theranos was achievable. Carreyou’s book highlights the lives of people destroyed by Theranos, the relationships broken, the careers which were derailed, while leaving the question of Holmes’ role as a criminal mastermind or a pawn by powerful men to the discretion of the reader.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh – This book is ethereal, dreamy, and unfolds like a greek tragedy. It weaves a disjointed, post-apocalyptic tale of three sisters living isolated from a society poisoned by radioactive waste. The book reads like treading murky water with eyes only partially opened, and it constantly leaves one unable to distinguish between the lies and the truth.

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl – Reichl writes so richly about the halcyon days of Gourmet and really the transition of home cooking from aspiring to giants of French cuisine such as Escoffier, Jean-Georges, to the Anthony Bourdain-style of rebel turned chef. It tracks the peak days and the plunging decline of print magazines, with the backdrop of 9/11 and its impact on New York and Conde Nast.

Worst 3

Women Talking by Mirian Toews – This book has such a fascinating premise – a group of women in a remote Mennonite community who had been assaulted and drugged by the men in the community under the pretense of being ‘demons’ punishing the women for religious misconduct. The novel focuses on a conversation between the group of eight women and an arbitrator on the subject of staying or leaving. Unfortunately, the plot is overwhelmingly stagnant, the characters are flat, and of course a story about eight women needs to be told through the perspective of a man

Young Heroes of the Soviet Union: A Memoir and a Reckoning by Alex Halberstadt – this book felt self-indulgent. The author needed to fill the pages with something, so he went over the painstaking genealogy of his family, failing to truly be honest about his family history – throughout the book it felt that he was holding back knowledge from the reader and using the book as a vehicle to painfully tell us every single great uncle that he had in Lithuania, just to fill the middle 40% of the book.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan – A book about technology, women, and baking by a man who knows nothing about technology, women, or baking.

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