Quarantine Reads, Ranked

I’ve been in quarantine since March 12. Google tells me that’s over 136 days. During that time, I’ve transformed into… a bit of a couch potato. (Not that I wasn’t one before.) I exhausted Netflix and Hulu and even got to the other side of the dreaded Food Network sinkhole by early June. Thank God for e-book library checkout.

I’ve read over 20 full-length novels and memoirs, and that’s excluding the many more short stories, nonfiction/anti-racism books, and re-reads I’ve been plowing through. Typically, I read around 50 works in any given year. This year, I’m already up to 71. So voilà: a ranked list of books I’ve read during quarantine, inspired by New York Magazine‘s rankings of… well, just about anything.

READ THE FULL REVIEWS

DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME

22) AMERICAN SPY by Lauren Wilkinson
American Spy' is a Thriller Like You've Never Read Before | Time
Image from TIME

I really, really expected more of this: it was on President Obama’s recommended reads of 2019 list, it has an excellent premise (Black woman FBI agent during the Cold War making her way through the old boys’ club), and it’s not badly rated on Goodreads. But ultimately, this fell flat for me. Both the characters and the plot weren’t as intriguing or fleshed-out as I’d expected, and it didn’t really comment on any social issues beyond the first few chapters. Also, the main plot turned out to be a romance that was… not a romance? And if you know me, romance doesn’t go over well as a main plot point anyway. 1.5/5 stars

21) THE ART FORGER by B.A. Shapiro
Book Review: The Art Forger | Her Campus
Image from HER Campus

The only reason this is above American Spy is because I felt like it taught me something about art, and I love the Impressionists, including Degas. This book seems to have at least done preliminary research on its subject, but the characters weren’t that complex, there was way too much insta-love, and the way kids in juvie were portrayed as “hardened criminals” was uninformed at best, and harmful at worst. 1.5/5 stars

20) AN ABSOLUTELY REMARKABLE THING by Hank Green
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green | Book Review ...
Images from Travels in Fiction

Hank Green’s YouTube videos were the only thing that prepared me for my AP Biology exam back in the eleventh grade, so I had high hopes for this book. While Green attempted to paint April as a symbol of humanity and hope, and there were nuggets of incredible prose and nuance, I felt like the book centered on an egotistical Instagram influencer to the point that the entire book can be summarized by this actual quote: “I wanted my name on that goddamn Wikipedia page!” 2/5 stars

19) MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER by Oyinkan Braithwaite

I have mixed feelings about this book. It was a really interesting premise, Braithwaite is a gifted writer, and I appreciate reading a thriller/semi-mystery that’s not focused on a brooding white man. But in the end, I feel like the book never gets at what, exactly, drives Korede to help Ayoola cover up her murderous intentions. It never gets at why Ayoola is driven to murder these men in the first place. It only half-touches on the sisters’ difficult family life and the misogynistic culture that shapes them. 2/5 stars

INTERESTING, BUT OKAY

18) STILL LIFE by Louise Penny
Still Life by Louise Penny | Dream by Day
Image from Dream by Day

This may have something to do with the fact that I listened to this on audiobook, and I’m not an auditory learner at all, but this book seemed very slow and drawn-out to me. I’d describe Louise Penny as Enid Blyton (without the children) meets Agatha Christie (without the brilliance) meets Tana French (without the hunger). Although the mystery was impossible to figure out, the setting was beautiful and atmospheric, and Armand Gamache and his second-in-command, Jean-Guis Beauvoir, are charming Quebecois heroes reminiscent of Poirot, there was just something missing. While the mystery was impossible to figure out, I did not feel the same a-ha! sense of realization when the murderer was revealed. While with French’s, Blyton’s, or even Christie’s books, the revelation that a certain character is a murderer is shocking but sensical, Penny seemed to be twisting the character into the plot instead of the other way around. 2.5/5 stars

17) THE DAILY SHOW: AN ORAL HISTORY by Chris Smith
How Jon Stewart Took Over The Daily Show and Revolutionized Late ...
Image from Vanity Fair

I love The Daily Show with both Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah. Quite honestly, Noah’s poignant humor is one of the only things that’s helping me to process this absolute disaster of a year. While this book taught me a lot about late night in general, and about the way in which The Daily Show and Jon Stewart revolutionized the industry, the rest of the oral history was focused on office politics to the point that there were entire swaths of cast members badmouthing each other. Perhaps it was supposed to be humor that landed badly because of the format (written), but I was kind of shocked to learn how childish and boys’ club-esque the writer’s room was even at such a prescient, progressive show. 3/5 stars

16) THE NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss
The Name of the Wind: A Re-Read – Omnilegent: A Need to Read
Image from Omnilegent

Okay, okay, please don’t kill me. Everyone on Goodreads swears that this book is the best thing they’ve ever read. It has a 4.53 average rating (unheard of). Three authors I follow, whose writing falls into very different genres (fantasy, upmarket, and YA), swear by The Name of the Wind. And this was an entertaining story! But unfortunately Kvothe was just not a compelling protagonist for me, and I felt that his perfection and brilliance actually took away from the book rather than adding to it. 3/5 stars

15) THE LOST MAN by Jane Harper
The Lost Man by Jane Harper – About a Book
Image from About a Book

Jane Harper is a fantastic storyteller. I’ve never read books other than hers set in Australia, and she really manages to bring the dry heat of the outback to life. In each of her stories, it becomes a character in its own right. At the same time, Harper writes really disturbed and close-knit towns… but they kinda all start sounding alike after a while. Nathan’s exile sounds remarkably similar to Aaron Falk’s in The Dry. Nevertheless, the mysteries are always so good and difficult to guess, and she slowly pulls back layers of each character as the story goes on. 3/5 stars

THOUGHT-PROVOKING READS

14) WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air is the memoir of Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgery resident who died of cancer in 2015. While it led me to reflect a bit on life and death, Kalanithi, who also holds advanced degrees in English literature, quotes a lot of authors–Jane Austen, the Brontes–whose books I haven’t read, and for that reason I don’t think I was able to fully process or internalize this book’s message. I would definitely recommend this for anyone with a good grasp of classic literature and a tissue box. 3/5 stars

13) LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding
Lord of the Flies by Darkside Design Co. on Dribbble
Image from Dribble

I never read this in school, so I tried to do a bit of self-education here, but feel like I would have gotten a lot more out of it if I’d read this with a group. The themes of savage vs. civilized were very interesting to me, and I loved the British-ness of the writing style (it reminds me of the British children’s books I grew up on!). At the same time, it was kind of weird to read a book that implicitly defined civilized as “British” and savage as, basically, “people of color.” While I think the discussion of who we are at our core is valid and interesting, I could have done without the racism. 3/5 stars

12) GOOD TALK by Mira Jacob
Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations: Jacob, Mira: 9780399589041 ...
Excerpt from Good Talk by Mira Jacob

This was a really unique memoir! Jacob, an Indian-American woman with a half-white son, is probably the only popular writer addressing issues of race in her work that shares my identity. She explores this through a conversation with her son, Z, and conveys it through a mixed-media graphic novel. While it was fascinating for me as a young Indian-American woman to read about Jacob’s experiences, I definitely think that the experience of being a South Asian woman in this country has changed since she came of age around 9/11. 3/5 stars

DEFINITELY RECOMMEND

11) HOOD FEMINISM by Mikki Kendall
Hood Feminism: Mikki Kendall on how racism prevents feminism from ...
Image from Times of India

This is an incredible book. Kendall writes about her experiences as a low-income, Black woman in America with such grace and vulnerability. I 100% agree that feminism as a movement has left behind women who look like Kendall, and who face housing, security, and safety issues on a daily basis. Everything should be a feminist issue, including and especially racism, because 51% of the population are women. However, as someone who reads widely on this topic in my spare time, I found Kendall’s essays about many of the issues she faces to be very introductory. While this may be a good read for someone who does not know much about the ways in which feminism has left behind low-income women and women of color, I am not sure how much you’ll get out of this if you are already familiar with these problems. 4/5 stars

10) EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng
Review: Everything I Never Told You | Ushashi Basu
Image from Ushashi Basu

Celeste Ng’s writing is always beautiful. I love that she focuses on Asian-American experiences and stories, and particularly loved the intergenerational aspect of this book: it alternates between telling the stories of a white woman and Chinese-American man who married in the 1960s, and their children, who grow up perpetually “different,” in the 1980s. All of it crystallizes around the disappearance of their oldest daughter, Lydia, who is found dead a the bottom of a local lake. 4/5 stars

9) A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles
Book Club Questions for A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles ...
Image from Book Club Chat

This is the perfect quarantine book. It centers around Count Rostov, a Russian man sentenced to live in a hotel for the rest of his life. I read this in the early days of quarantine–maybe around April–and enjoyed the vibrant cast of characters, Rostov’s misadventures inside the hotel, and the way that his small quarters reminded me of my 97-square-foot dorm room back at school. 4/5 stars

8) STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel
Survival Is Insufficient: 'Station Eleven' Preserves Art After The ...
Image from NPR

Maybe don’t read this one during a global pandemic. Seriously. Mandel drops wisdom and universal truths on every other page… but also, I don’t need to read about a flu pandemic that destroys civilization just about now. 4/5 stars, but don’t read it til maybe 2022

BEST OF QUARANTINE

7) RULES OF CIVILITY by Amor Towles
Rules of Civility
Image from Nikaleigh Reads

This book is like sinking into a warm bath. It’s not very reflective of 1930s New York, and it lacks nuance around a lot of social and racial issues, but it’s a good, fun read nonetheless. I love books with good friends and good prose, and this has both in abundance. It’s got a weird storyline, and the ending was frustrating, to say the least, but it’s nice to be transported away from the bizzaro world we seem to be living in right now. 4/5 stars

6) WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? by Edward Albee
The Lyric Stage's Revival Of 'Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?' Is ...
Image from WBUR

I’m perpetually confused when this play is referenced, so I finally sat down to read it. It’s… not what I was expecting, to say the least. Every page got more and more strange, but what a brilliant ending! A classic for a reason. 4/5 stars

5) TRICK MIRROR by Jia Tolentino

Tolentino is one of my favorite writers at The New Yorker, and this book is no different. While not all of these essays held my attention, she is a prolific writer on issues surrounding feminism and womanhood. I particularly enjoyed reading her thoughts about commercial feminism, literary heroines, and marriage. 4/5 stars

4) NO EXIT by Jean-Paul Sartre
The 12 Days of Mr. Robot (Jean-Paul Sartre - No Exit) : MrRobot
Image from Reddit

Another great quarantine read, perfect for fans of The Good PlaceNo Exit follows three souls that have been sentenced to Hell for all eternity… where Hell is a single room where they must torture each other. It’s a delight to read, but does make me question how all of our households are going to get through the pandemic… 5/5 stars

3) MARCH & MARCH: BOOK TWO by John Lewis
March (Trilogy Slipcase Set): Lewis, John, Aydin, Andrew, Powell ...
Excerpt from March by John Lewis

John Lewis led an incredible life. His impact on the daily lives of so many Americans is unquantifiable. His life, told through a trilogy of graphic novels published in 2013, 2015, and 2016, is worth reading about, and is especially salient at this particular moment in history. I loved the framing used: a story told to a couple of young Black boys who visit Lewis’s office on January 20, 2009, the day Barack Obama was sworn into office. It interplays present with past wonderfully, and gives perspective on both. 5/5 stars

2) THE ONLY PLANE IN THE SKY: AN ORAL HISTORY OF 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff
The Only Plane in the Sky: Garrett Graff – Bookmarked by A
Image from Bookmarked by A

Heart-wrenching. Graff has done a fantastic job of putting together a record of many of the survivors and family members whose lives were touched or destroyed by 9/11. From the husbands and wives of the people who gave their lives on those flights, to the workers who escaped the Twin Towers, to the gate agent who checked the terrorists onto the plane, Graff shares the voices of so many. As someone who has no memory of September 11, 2001, the chapter on then-young Americans’ perception of 9/11 helped me understand the shock of that day. 5/5 stars

1) THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel
The Glass Hotel: A Novel By Emily St. John Mandel | Urban Outfitters
Image from Urban Outfitters, which… apparently sells books?

I keep thinking about this book. I honestly did not think it would end up being my best book of quarantine when I was reading it, but I love Mandel’s writing, the way her plot connects, and the impact of a Ponzi scheme on a very diverse group of people. This is speculative fiction, so it’s niche and certainly not for everyone, but I think this is one of those books where, if you like it, you will never stop thinking about it. 5/5 stars