Bookclub Series: Best Books of 2020

With most of the world in lockdown this year, 2020 gave us an abundant opportunity to pursue our hobbies, chief among them reading. Yes admittedly, most of us did spend a lot of our free time binging on Netflix, but it was also the year for bibliophiles. This edit of the Bookclub Series curated by my husband R.R.M., gathers together a bucket list of the best books of 2020.

Best Books of 2020

Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity by Scott Galloway

Prof. G – as the author is popularly known – is a quirky, eccentric professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business.  For his ardent followers who read his newsletters, watch his YouTube videos and hear his podcasts, this book will be redundant; but for newcomers to Scott Galloway, this is a great introduction to his thought process and his critique of unbridled capitalism. Not to mention, his insights as to who the winners and losers of the post-Corona world will be.  Although he covers mostly the world of technology, his perspectives are relevant elsewhere as well.

The Sandpit by Nicholas Shakespeare

It is incredibly difficult to write a thriller or a spy novel in a genre that is not mass-market page-turner.  But this book is an exceptional standout!  Set largely in Oxford (where this book is heavily promoted by one of our favourite bookstores in the world – Blackwell’s) the protagonist is John Dyer whose observations at his son’s school, the Phoenix, is a social critique of the nouveau riche.  At Phoenix, Dyer meets Rustum Marvar, an Iranian nuclear scientist who goes missing after creating an equation for nuclear fusion, that can solve the world’s energy problems! A fascinating mystery follows.

Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Fall of WeWork by Reeves Wiedeman

Written as an exposé, this is the first good book since Bad Blood, which shows the dark underbelly of a start-up gone bust from peak valuation to survival mode.  The title is a misnomer, though.  The book is meant in large part as a critique of the WeWork founder Adam Neumann, but he was not actually a loser.  He cashed out a billion dollars and left the detritus of the company and blown up stock options to the employees and others.  A cautionary tale of how once-hyped start-ups lack the business model or vision to sustain, once the funding tap is shut by the venture capitalists who in turn have inflated the underlying valuation-bubbles. 

The End of October by Lawrence Wright

Although not particularly well written, this book received a lot of press, coverage and reviews in the media in 2020 because it was considered an eerily prescient novel about the spread of a fictitious Kongoli virus, which originates in Malaysia and spreads from Mecca to the rest of the world.  It is a dystopian novel, scarier than the movie Contagion.  Wright is mostly a journalist and a non-fiction writer, and that shows in his prose which to be honest, is not great.  But like his previous work The Looming Towers, I’m certain this too will be adapted for a movie or a TV-show series.

Blood and Oil:  Mohammed Bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power by Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck

MBS, as the Saudi Crown Prince is known, is a world-leader in his mid-30s.  Unbeknownst to most, his influence in a few short years goes beyond just Saudi Arabia and the oil economy, to start-ups in Silicon Valley, the Soft Bank Vision Fund in Japan, the assassination of a journalist in Turkey, the holding hostage of royalty in Riyadh, and even the purchase of the world’s most expensive painting, Leonardo DaVinci’s Salvatore Mundi.  In a year where much international attention has been paid to the US elections, we cannot ignore MBS, who could possibly rule Saudi for decades to come and wield his power in different ways in different parts of the world.

The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China by Jonathan Kaufman

The best book on history I’ve read in a couple years!  Most of us Bombayites would have unknowingly passed Sassoon Docks in Colaba or the David Sassoon library in Kala Ghoda.  What remains unknown to us, is how the Sassoons were a Jewish family who moved to Bombay from Baghdad, with the patriarch David Sassoon becoming a leader of the Baghdadi Jewish community in Bombay.  He built his fortune in the opium trade before moving his family to Shanghai, where most of this brilliantly researched book is based, delving into the rivalry that developed between the Sassoon and Kadoorie families.

Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi by Vinay Sitapati

Sitapati is a young, exciting historian at the start of his career in academia as a professor at Ashoka University.  While we are living under Narendra Modi’s leadership, this fascinating read delves deeper into the formation of BJP; and the partnership, or rather the jugalbandi, between Advani and Vajpayee which led to Narendra Modi and his India today.  This book superbly captures the history and rise of the political party.

Capital and Ideology by Thomas Piketty

My fascination with Piketty goes back to Capital in the Twentieth Century. Published in English six years ago, it set a very high bar for the discourse on inequality – even more relevant now, than when Piketty wrote it in 2013.  With Capital and Ideology, Piketty has outdone his previous magnum opus with an even bigger tome (in page count at least), on the brilliant history of capitalism.  Of particular interest to me was his chapter on a case study of India as a Colonial Society.  A brilliant mix of economics, history and imperialism.  Truly a masterwork of scholarship!

The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel

More a book on psychology – specifically the psychology of happiness and contentment – than a book on finance, as people were expecting from a young fund-manager.  A must read on how people perceive money and happiness relevant whether one follows financial markets or not.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

One of the finest novels to be published this year by a young Canadian novelist.  In a departure from her previous dystopian novel Station Eleven, this one is a very clever narrative that all comes together in the end.  Some of the novel is inspired by the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scam.  The protagonist of the novel is Vincent, a bartender in a hotel (the Glass Hotel!) in British Columbia who marries a financier in New York.  Her husband’s Ponzi scheme implodes and she goes to work on a ship as a cook to hide in obscurity. 

Girl in White Cotton (Burnt Sugar) by Avni Doshi

Doshi’s debut novel establishes her as yet another intelligent, young Indian voice to watch out for.  Set largely in Pune, this novel about the troubled relationship between mother and daughter – Tara and Antara –is a superb read which earned it a spot on the short-list for this year’s Booker Prize.

The Silence by Don DeLillo

Written by one of America’s most prolific contemporary novelists, The Silence is a short book which brilliantly – in just about a hundred pages – shows our egregious and absurd dependency on technology.  DeLillo does a fine job of creating characters in good textures in an otherwise slim novel.  Not his finest work compared to say White Noise, but one of his better recent novels.

About The Bookclub Series:

Books have always commanded pride of place (and storage!) in our home, with R.R.M.’s passion for reading manifesting in some of our greatest treasures. This series is an extension of his bibliophilic sensibilities, with curated bucket lists to inspire you the next time you’re looking for a good book to get stuck into.

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