Monthly Archives: December 2020

2020: The Year in Books

Usually I wait until the end of the year to publish my “books of the year” post, but my Kindle is broken and Saoirse won’t let me listen to audiobooks in the car anymore, so I’d say I’m not likely to read more than one or two more books at most.  I’ll come back and edit if I finish something extraordinary.

(Thanks to Goodreads for the stats.)

  • Books read: 101
  • Pages read: 33,791
  • Most popular book: Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens –> “shelved” by 1.8 million people
  • Least popular book: Running Outside the Comfort Zone by Susan Lacke –> “shelved” by 528 people
  • Average rating: 3.6
  • Highest rated book (by Goodreaders): The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

5 Star Nonfiction:

  • Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar
    • “If you have read and enjoyed books like Gene and Emperor of Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, you’ll love this. I never had any particular interest in how the heart works, but I found this pop science account of the heart’s function and the history of humans figuring out how it works absolutely fascinating. “
  • Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
    • “I’ve been reading a lot of “epidemic” books lately, and this is my favorite thus far. Quammen is a stellar writer if you’re looking for a popular, non-academic but thoroughly researched take. I look forward to reading more by Quammen and also avoiding both bats and African spelunking for the res of my days.”
  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic-and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
    • “The title is a bit hyperbolic, but overall I really enjoyed this book. I doubt I would have loved it so much if I’d read it during normal times, but now, as Corona rampages around the globe, it was highly informative and relevant to today’s times.”
  • The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
    • “This is such a great book. Honestly, I just loved it. It’s half history and half science, and covers genetics from the days when ancient philosophers were speculating about how heredity works to Mendel, Darwin, Watson, all the way to the present. I particularly enjoyed hearing about Mendel’s pea plants, the development of artificial insulin, and the development of artificial clotting agent for hemophiliacs. The author refers to his own family’s troubled history of schizophrenia, and, unlike some other reviewers, I think it really adds to the story. I recommend this to everyone Honestly, it made me regret going into aerospace instead of genetics or microbiology.”
  • What’s Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life by Lise Eliot

5 Star Fiction

  • The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare
    • “Adunni is a young teen coming of age in modern-day Nigeria. Her story takes us through rural life and then to Lagos. She is a wonderful, highly likable character, and through her eyes, we see a slice of Nigeria today. Good plot, good characters, good story all in all.”
  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
    • “Everything I Never Told you is the story of a teenage girl’s death and forces and experiences that brought her to the lake where she drowned. It deals with themes of racism, isolation, parenting and living through one’s children and more.

      I loved this. I think a great novel is one that makes you reconsider what you know. Everything I Never Told You made me seriously examine my parenting. It also made me want to be a better person – a better parent, a better friend, more aware of people who might be lonely and need a kind word.”

  • All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
  • Circe by Madeline Miller
  • Milkman by Anna Burns
    • “It took me quite a while to get into this one – nearly a third of the book. Once I was finally hooked, though, I couldn’t put it down. The narrator is an 18-year-old living in Belfast in the late 1970s, that is, during the Troubles. If you’re interested in the Troubles, this is a must-read. The writing style takes a while to get used to, but it’s quite unique. And I enjoyed this unusual window into what life must have been like. Teenage girls just trying to live their lives aren’t usually the heroes of stories on this topic.”
  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
    • “Kya grows up an orphan in the swamps of the deep south. Her life is touched by some very good and bad people. Owens tracks the path of her life to a murder trial. The book is part mystery and part love story. Overall, an easy and enjoyable read.”

5 Star Kids Books

  • Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
  • Brian’s Winter by Gary Paulsen
  • The War That Saved My Life Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
  • Heidi by Johanna Spyri
  • By The Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

There are a few that didn’t rate five stars, but I still think are worth an honorable mention:

  • When We Were Worthy by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen – great fast-moving page turner
  • The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen – on modern molecular biology
  • She Has Her Mother’s Laugh by Carl Zimmer – on heredity
  • Brian’s Winter by Gary Paulsen – sequel to Hatchet
  • Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty – I’m pretty much obsessed with Moriarty
  • A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

If I had to pick my top five, in no particular order, I’d choose:

  • Spillover by David Quammen
  • The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • The Girl With the Louding Voice by Abu Dare
  • Milkman by Anna Burns
  • The War That Saved My LIfe by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

I do think I was a bit more generous with the 5-star ratings this year, but it was a great year for reading.  I really enjoyed reading more pop science this year, and because of not working and S getting older, I had a lot more time for reading than in previous years.  My habit is to not use my laptop or phone in my bedroom at night, and to only read from my Kindle when it’s time for bed or when I’m up nursing S.  (She is still up twice a night, so that’s about 45 minutes of reading right there.)  It adds up.  I’m looking forward to next year and some more great books!


I think you can evaluate how well you’re doing in your quarantine / anti-Covid efforts by how often you and your family members are getting sick.  If you get Covid and you’ve had no other sicknesses since February, you’re probably just unlucky.  If you don’t get Covid but you’ve had three or four infectious colds or other illnesses, then you’re just lucky.  I thought our family was doing pretty good as none of us had been sick since February, but our streak finally came to an end.  S had a textbook cases of roseola.  We did get her tested for Covid – negative.  I’ve been trying to figure out where she got it from.  Roseola is interesting in that most people get it while young and get some immunity.  If you contract it after that, you’re likely to have limited symptoms.  So, one of us likely got it and didn’t show symptoms and gave it to S.  I’m guessing it must have been one of the girls at school.  It has a 7 to 14 day incubation period, which makes it much harder to figure out.  I came down with mastitis (not contagious) for the third or fourth time more or less simultaneously.  It reminded me how much being sick sucks, especially when you, the parent, are sick while caring for a sick baby.  I ran a pretty high fever and was lying in bed under multiple down duvets shaking like a leaf with cold while S woke up every hour.  Fun times!  Thankfully, though, we all recovered before Christmas.

I have been a little disheartened lately about the future and whether the vaccine will do the trick.  Reinfection so far has been rare, but will that continue?  What if an annual vaccination is required?  I suppose that’s not the end of the world; surely we (humanity) can figure out how to make that happen.  I fear, however, that coronavirus is going to be part of our lives from now until we die.  A major distinction between Covid and, say, measles or smallpox, is that measles and smallpox have no animal reservoir, and therefore, it is possible to eradicate them.  It is not possible to eradicate a disease like coronavirus that has an animal reservoir.  Even if you eliminated it from the human population it would likely pass over again and spread, just as Ebola does periodically.  (And Ebola, obviously, is far less contagious than Covid.)


What an absolute fucking diasaster.  Masks have gotten so much attention, but how much more critical was the late test rollout?  46 days it took us longer than Thailand to produce useable tests thanks to CDC hubris an idiocy.  “Lindstrom warned superiors that dropping N3 might lead to missed cases of infection, false negatives. Villanueva told colleagues that the design was of “Nobel quality,” according to those familiar with the matter.”  The lead scientists were worried about getting an f-ing Nobel prize instead of being pragmatic.

We’ll never know what difference it might have made to get tests out in a timely manner.  By the time the US was able to test, Covid was so widespread, particularly in California, Washington, New York, and probably a couple other northeast states, that containment, a la Korea, was out of the question.  “Flattening the curve” was the only remaining option.  We’ll never know how many lives were lost, how much of our country’s reputation, how much negative economic impact was caused by this debacle.

I still believe this is epidemic-light.  There is another, worse epidemic coming.  I sincerely hope we can learn from these errors.  Will the CDC do better next time?  Let’s hope so.  Please don’t forget that the first positive COVID test in the US was *illegally* obtained in Washington against CDC guidelines.  (This is the same CDC, don’t forget, that was, while failing to produce tests, actively advising AGAINST mask-wearing.)

This is a book waiting to be written.  Honestly, there will be a cover-up, but if someone could get to the bottom of this, you could easily write a book JUST covering the testing debacle.


Honestly, I think if you work in a long-term care facility and refuse to get vaccinated, you should find another job.  The government should provide financial support and assistance to allow long-term care facilities to increase salaries to replace those to refuse to get vaccinated and support those who do and want to stay.

Nearly 72% of certified nursing assistants say they don’t want to be vaccinated, a recent survey found.

The federal long-term-care vaccination program, led by CVS Health Corp. and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., will begin its broad rollout in a dozen states this week, with hundreds of facilities slated for visits during the next few days. But surveys have signaled that many staffers are reluctant to get the shots, and some already have been declining them in the limited number of facilities where vaccinations have been administered.

At the nursing home at John Knox Village, in Pompano Beach, Fla., which became one of the first U.S. facilities to get the vaccine last Wednesday, about one-third of staffers participated, according to Mark Raynor, director of health-care services.

Unbelievable.  The thing is, you have to vaccinate the people working at nursing homes.  The in-and-out is just too rapid for the residents.  I read life expectancy when you enter a nursing home is only five months.  It’s just not practical to assume you can vaccinate all those people with a vaccine that requires to shots a month apart.  I mean, that should happen, too, but it’s imperative that all staffers and all visitors have the vaccine.

I have to admit I was a little squirrely about the vaccine when it first was being developed six to eight months ago, simply because I was concerned about the speed of development, but you can call me a convert.  Got an extra Pfizer or Moderna vaccine?  I’m ready!  Let me know when and where!  Not only that, I feel like that could have / should have been even more aggressive about rolling the vaccine out to the most vulnerable.  The risk / benefit equation is very different for a ninety-year-old nursing home resident than it is for a thirty-year-old nurse, so the former should have gotten approval for the vaccine sooner.

Lawyers have said that employers are generally legally allowed to mandate Covid-19 vaccines for workers, a stance reinforced last week in guidelines released by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But nursing-home owners have said they don’t plan to require the vaccine. Many facilities are already facing staffing squeezes after months of pandemic challenges.

Teacher gifts

Best gifts for teachers?  Seriously.  I am stumped!  Normally, I make gifts, but I am short on time.  Last year, I gave them all a multitool, and apparently, they some of them were confused by what it was.  How much should one spend?

death math

Can someone explain to me what the hell is taking the FDA so long to approve the vaccine?  There are about 2000 people dying every day.  40% of them live in nursing homes or the equivalent.  Every day that the vaccine is delayed, 800 people die.  Not only that, and equally important or perhaps more important, people in nursing homes have not been able to have normal visitation, in some cases any visitors, in months.  Life expectancy when you enter a nursing home is around six months.  This means many people have lived the last months of their lives in solitude.

If the FDA is truly scrutinizing the data more carefully, great.  If they truly took a four day weekend over Thanksgiving, I’d like to string them up by their thumbs.  Look at the data.  But every employee connected remotely to this better be working seven days a week, fourteen hours a day.  Seriously.

From Fauci:

“Dr. Fauci said the politicization of the pandemic in his own country had led regulators to move a little more cautiously than the British, to avoid losing public support. “In the United States, there is such a considerable amount of tension, of pushing back on the credibility of the safety and of the efficacy,” he said.”

Bullshit.  Follow the process.  Vaccine doubters are not going to be swayed by an extra week of data review, particularly since multiple other countries are beginning mass vaccination.

science books and notable books

I’ve really been enjoying reading a lot of science books lately.  I think since I’m not working, my brain is fresh, and at the end of the day, I enjoy diving into something moderately technical.  While I did some science reading while working, in general I was pretty sapped at the end of the day, and wanted to read something completely different.

If you’re looking for some great science books, my recent favorites are:

  • *Spillover / Quammen
  • The Body / Bryson
  • She Has Her Mother’s Laugh / Zimmer
  • *Heart: A History / Jauhar
  • *The Emperor of All Maladies / Mukhergee
  • *The Ghost Map / Johnson
  • The Hot Zone / Preston
  • *The Gene / Mukhergee
  • Sapiens / Harari
  • I Contain Multitudes / Yong

(Some of these are obviously more technical/science-y than others.  Books marked with * are my favorites.)

Anyone else have a science book to recommend?

The New York Times notable books just came out, and I have to say, I’m pretty disappointed with the selection of science books.  Here is the list:

  • BECOMING WILD: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace
  • THE BOOK OF EELS: Our Enduring Fascination With the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World
  • THE END OF EVERYTHING (Astrophysically Speaking) By Katie Mack
  • HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD: Inside the Mind of an American Family By Robert Kolker (on schizophrenia)
  • OWLS OF THE EASTERN ICE: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl By Jonathan C. Slaght
  • THE SIRENS OF MARS: Searching for Life on Another World By Sarah Stewart Johnson
  • UNTIL THE END OF TIME: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe By Brian Greene

So, out of 100 notable books, seven are on science – one on animals, one on eels, one on owls, two on how the world will end, one on the search for ET life, and one on schizophrenia.  While a couple look interesting, where are the books on viruses and bacteria and biology?  Am I the only one for whom COVID has made these topics particularly interesting this year?  Maybe other people just want to escape them.  I guess I feel if I could understand how diseases work a little better, perhaps it would give me a modicum of control.  That’s a fantasy, no doubt.