Happy New Year!
Everyone is happy to say good bye to 2020 - a year of upheaval and miserty the world over. If an event impacted even more countries and people than even the two world wars, then it was the COVID-19 pandemic. It's an immense relief that we have a vaccine now and I'm hopeful that 2021 begins to get us all back to normalcy. While I didn't hit my target of 100 books (someday!) I was thankful for the opportunity to read in 2020 and marveled at the combination of technology and public services that allow us (alteast here in the US) to hear about a book and search for the eBook at our local library and have it available on our Kindles in under a minute. Inspite of all the sadness of 2020, I want to be thankful for the amazing times we live in.
I made a somehwat more deliberate effort to read fiction this year and found some great books. Getting the best books of the year down to 10 was quite a challenge. Here they are: my favorite books from 2020.
The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff
One of my first books of 2020 and still, far and away my best book of 2020. I heard this as a CD audiobook rather than in physical format and recommend it as absolutely the best format for a book like this. It is an oral history of September 11, 2001. A near minute-by-minute accounting stitched together from hundreds and hundreds of people who experienced it first hand - law enforcement, first responders, government and military personnel, parents of school kids, family members of survivors, those who made it out of the buildings, NASA astronauts on the ISS, ATC personnel, and even, most chillingly, from some on the hijacked flights calling reports into the ATC. Everyone remembers exactly what they were doing that morning and this adds to that tapestry of memories. It is assembled masterfully and is an absolute must-hear!
Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
From an American tragedy to a Soviet one. After seeing the HBO miniseries, Chernobyl, I was eager to learn more about what happened in April 1986 in this remote town of Ukraine. This is a well-researched history of one of the world's worst nuclear accidents. The book takes us to all the key people of the story - the plant manager, his assitants, the local party leaders all the way up to the top leadership of the communist party. Almost 35 years ago, the Soviet Union was just starting to make changes under Mikhail Gorbachev but the iron curtain was still firmly pulled across the room. The book shows both the courage of the people on the ground to contain the damage as well as the machinations of the appartchiks in the Moscow to hush things up. A must-read both for the historic importance of the event as well as for the excellent narrative style.
The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre
This reads much like a John Le Carré book, except that it all really happened! It is the epic saga of Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB spy posted to the West who begins to have second thoughts about Communism and is persuaded by MI6 to come work for them instead. The story rapidly moves from Moscow to London to Scandinavia with a cast of memorable characters including Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. I could feel the excitement of the chase and the conflicting and confusing worlds of patriotism, loyalty and treachery. Is someone a traitor only if he betrays your side?
The Great Influenza by John M. Barry
After seeing, in some disbelief, our modern world of 2020 ravaged by COVID-19, I wondered how, a hundred years ago when both medicine and technology were far less advanced, the world might have possibly coped. This book takes us to that era. The pandemic of a hundred years ago, also known as the Spanish Flu, was a true terror. By the time it was done, it had killed tens of millions of people (with Wikipedia suggesting a toll as high as a 100 million deaths!). I learned that unlike COVID-19, the 1918 pandemic was deadly both to the very young and the very old. As if that wasn't enough it also ravaged younger adults. Remember there was a world war going on at the time and hundreds of thousands of young men were being shipped across oceans and continents to fight the Great War. Talk about super-spreader events! In many ways, the parallels to this pandemic were eerie - all the way down to the U.S. President of the time, Woodrow Wilson traveling to Paris for peace talks at the time and catching what was most likely a case of this virus. Another wonderful book.
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Pérez
One of the mantras of Silicon Valley is Data. A phrase one hears often is "Data is the new oil". And while that's true, the point Pérez makes in this book is that before we worship at the altar of data, we ought to look under the hood to see just how representative and inclusive data really is. With multiple examples she shows us how the world is designed by and for men, with the result that a many of the scientific results based on research might just not make much sense in the context of women. And the blindness is pervasive. Drug trials are frequently over representative of men. Cars are, on average, less safe for women because the test dummies that carmakers used were based on male bodies. Until 2011! Multi-storied parking lots and dimly lit streets might seem to have no gender bias until you realize that women feel much more stressed than men in such settings. A very thought-provoking book.
American Lion by Jon Meacham
Biographies are among my favorite genres. This one is about Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States. He's on the most frequently used US currency note: the $20 bill. Yet I knew little about the man. This book by Meacham is extremely well researched including those of newly discovered documents. Jackson strengthened the role of the Presidency in the American form of government by vigorously exercising his powers. So much so that he was derided for being a king, a dictator. As with all historical figures he has a darker side: - an implacable foe of the native Americans, it was under his leadership that their tribes were pushed further and further west, and his policy of "Indian Removal" led to the Trail of Tears. A complex larger-than-life figure who survived an assassination attempt at point-blank range, he is brought to life in this book.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
My appetite whetted by the Jackson book, I turned to learn about Alexander Hamilton. He's featured on the $10 bill and with Benjamin Franklin the only non-president to get this honor. The Broadway musical has, of course, made him a household name - atleast in name! Still in his 20s Hamilton partnered with James Madison and John Jay to author the Federalist Papers. James Madison, of course went on to become the 4th U.S. president and John Jay became the first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Talk about a brailliant and successful group of co-founders! Hamilton was a fascinating man and served as Wshington's right hand man. He set up the structure of the entire US financial system and went on to become the first US Treasury Secretary. If you don't know the details of what transpired between him and Vice President Burr, I highly encourage you to read this epic book.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
A fantastic sports book, this deals with the American rowing team and their quest for the gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. While always a team story the narrative hews most closely to the stories of one of the rowers, Joe Rantz, and the team's expert coach and boat builder George Pocock, a British expat. Rowing is the ultimate team sport where everyone literally has to pull together in such coordination that the effort seems like it is coming from one body, that of the boat. The narrative starts with the inter-collegiate rivalry within the United States, from the University of California, Berkelely to the University of Washington to the more snooty east coast ivy league schools and the ending is a pulsating dramatic finish that reminded me of the movie Seabiscuit.
The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
The epic, Ramayana, is one of the best known stories in India. The author calls this the Sitayana - a telling of the story from the point of view of Sita. In the original though Sita is one of the primary characters (after all, the entire war is fought over her abduction) we rarely if ever hear her perspective and she seems a passive participant in the great story. In Divakaruni's re-telling of the epic, Sita is the first person narrator and does a great job in several places of coming up with a female perspective. This is a great read for an alternative perspective on a story that almost everyone knows in India. If you like this, as I hope you will, another book by Divakaruni's is her version of the Mahabharata called The Palace of Illusions which is re-telling of that other great epic, the Mahabharata, from the first person perspective of Draupadi.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
This is the account of a Slovakian Jew, Lale Sokolov, who is forced to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau and how he finds love amid the unspeakable horrors of the camp. His job at the death camp is that of a tattooist - and yes he tattoos the infamous serial numbers on the arms of thousands of inmates. This is a real-life story and the protagonist is a survivor who moves to Israel and tells his story only many years after the end of the Holocaust. I expect this will be made into a motion picture at some point and I hope that effort is able to accurately capture the Lale's indomitable spirit as well as the book does.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
When I was a kid, I would feel sad after finishing a great book because it was over and there was no more story to enjoy. I felt very much like that at the end of this wonderful book. I'd heard so much about the book but hadn't gotten around to either reading it or seeing the movie. When I finally got to the book I found it was absolutely wonderful. The autobiographical story of the geisha Sayori in the period before the second world war is told so well. The characters of Hatsumomo, Mameha, the Chairman and Nobu are fleshed out so well that I felt like I knew them in real life. I was surprised to find that this was a work of historical fiction - so real are the characters of the story. A remarkable book!
Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh
I finished reading this book at the end of October and liked it so much I persuaded my wife to read it too. Imagine our shock and sadness when less than a month later, Tony Shieh was found dead in a fire accident! The book is both an autobiographical telling of his story from grade school but also a business book in disguise. As the sub-heading of the book says, it is about his take on a path to profits, passion and purpose. Hsieh walks us through how he sold his first company to Microsoft for $265M and then walked away from tens of millions of dollars in stock and salary to start Zappos and how it was a labor of love over many, many tough years. He comes across as a genuinely good guy, one who helped ohters out just because it was the right thing to do rather than from any profit motive. After his sudden death, most of the reminiscences highlighted this very quality he possessed. His death is a real loss. Read this book to understand how he lived his life.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Right after I finished reading this book, I wondered what the fuss was about. In addtion to being a bestseller this is being made into a TV adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh. But then as time passed, I kept thinking about the characters as if they were people I knew, starting with the very gentlemanly and aristocratic Count Alexander Rostov and his decades-long experience of house arrest in Moscow's famous Hotel Metropol as outside his window, Russia undergoes its revolution after the first world war. It has a great set of memorable characters - his neice, his compatriots at the Metropol, his beautiful lady friend, the soviet bureaucrats and even including a break to the West for... well read the book and find out!
The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
This is a classic that I finally got around to reading this year. Set in colonial Hong Kong of the 1920s it is a story of love, betrayal, and duty all set against the backdrop of a Cholera epidemic. It follows the story of an English woman who is married to a dedicated, if colorless, doctor and follows her story from adultery to reconciliation to duty through to the end. This was made into a 2006 movie starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton which won a Golden Globe award.
If you got this far and realized that this Top 10 list actually has 15 books, then good for you! I recommend them all!