If you’ve been spending time blog-hopping or on Twitter over the last few weeks, you will have seen countless riffs on this topic. Everyone’s pondering what’s best to read in these times. All we can get our hands on about plagues (Boccaccio, Camus, Defoe)? Allegories of similarly challenging worldwide disasters (WWII, 9/11)? Childhood favorites? Comfort reads? Funny books? Light, undemanding stuff? Rereads?
My general answer would be: as always, read whatever you want or can – anything that captures your attention is worthwhile. We’re under so much stress that our reading should be entirely unpressured. But to be a little more specific, I’ve gathered reading recommendations on a variety of topics, drawing on lists that others have made and linking to my own blog reviews where applicable.
(Some of these ideas are less serious than others.)
If you are brave enough to learn about zoonotic diseases:
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen: This is top-notch scientific journalism: pacey, well-structured, and gripping. The best chapters are on Ebola and SARS; the SARS chapter, in particular, reads like a film screenplay, if this were a far superior version of Contagion. It’s a sobering subject, with some quite alarming anecdotes and statistics, but this is not scare-mongering for the sake of it; Quammen is frank about the fact that we’re still all more likely to get heart disease or be in a fatal car crash.
If you can’t look away from pandemic stories, historical or imagined:
I already had Philip Roth’s Nemesis (set in 1940s New Jersey amid a polio epidemic) out from the library because it was on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist in 2011. I was also inspired to take Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (set in the 1660s and featuring an English village that quarantined itself during the Plague) off the shelf. I’m nearing the end of these two and should have my reviews up next week.
You will see no one book referenced more than Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s a wholly believable dystopian novel in which 99% of the population has been wiped out by a pandemic. The remnant bands together not just to survive but to create and preserve art. “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.” (My full BookBrowse review from December 2014.)
See also this Publishers Weekly list of “13 Essential Pandemic Novels.”
If you’re feeling cooped up…
Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott: “Edith is a widowed landlady who rents apartments in her Brooklyn brownstone to an unlikely collection of humans, all deeply in need of shelter.” (I haven’t read it, but I do have a copy; now would seem like the time to read it!)
…yet want to appreciate the home you’re stuck in:
Years ago I read and loved At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson and Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin. I can’t tell you anything more than that because it was before the days when I reviewed everything I read, but these are both reliable authors.
I love the sound of A Journey Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre: “Finding himself locked in his room for six weeks, a young officer journeys around his room in his imagination, using the various objects it contains as inspiration for a delightful parody of contemporary travel writing and an exercise in Sternean picaresque.”
I’m also drawn to Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House by Julie Myerson, who combed archives for traces of all the former residents of her 1870s terraced house in Clapham.
If you’re struggling with being on your own:
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: This remarkable book on outsider artists interweaves biography, art criticism and memoir. Laing is a tour guide into the peculiar, lonely crowdedness you find in a world city.
How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland: Maitland argues that although being alone is easy to achieve, there is an art to doing it properly, and solitude and loneliness are by no means the same thing. Profiling everyone from the Desert Fathers of early Christianity to the Romantic poets, she enumerates all the benefits that solitude confers.
Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton: A one-year account of her writing life in New Hampshire, this is Sarton’s best. The book dwells on the seasonal patterns of the natural world (shovelling snow, gardening, caring for animals) but also the rhythms of the soul – rising in hope but also falling into occasional, inevitable despair.
See also this Penguin UK list of books to read in self-isolation.
If you’ve been passing the time by baking…
The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller: As chief baker at the Sugar Maple Inn in Guthrie, Vermon, Olivia Rawlings settles into a daily routine of baking muffins, bread and cakes. This is a warm, cozy debut novel full of well-drawn secondary characters and romantic possibilities. There’s nothing clichéd about it, though. Livvy is a sassy narrator, and I loved how Miller documents the rhythms of the small-town country year, including tapping the maple trees in the early spring and a pie baking contest at the summer county fair.
Sourdough by Robin Sloan: Lois Clary, a Bay Area robot programmer, becomes obsessed with baking. “I needed a more interesting life. I could start by learning something. I could start with the starter.” She attempts to link her job and her hobby by teaching a robot arm to knead the bread she makes for a farmer’s market. Madcap adventures ensue. It’s a funny and original novel and it makes you think, too – particularly about the extent to which we should allow technology to take over our food production.
…but can’t find yeast or eggs in the shop:
Yeast: A Problem by Charles Kingsley (1851). Nope, I haven’t read it, but our friend has a copy in his Everyman’s Library collection and the title makes us laugh every time we see it.
The Egg & I by Betty Macdonald: MacDonald and her husband started a rural Washington State chicken farm in the 1940s. Her account of her failure to become the perfect farm wife is hilarious. The voice reminded me of Doreen Tovey’s: mild exasperation at the drama caused by household animals, neighbors, and inanimate objects. “I really tried to like chickens. But I couldn’t get close to the hen either physically or spiritually, and by the end of the second spring I hated everything about the chicken but the egg.” Perfect pre-Easter reading.
And here are a few lists I put together for Hungerford Bookshop:
If you need a laugh:
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
The Darling Buds of May (and sequels) by H.E. Bates
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Anything by Nick Hornby
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Anything by David Lodge
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
The Rosie Project (and sequels) by Graeme Simsion
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Anything by Bill Bryson
21st-Century Yokel by Tom Cox
Anything by Gerald Durrell
Anything by Nora Ephron (essays)
This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
Dear Lupin by Roger Mortimer
Anything by David Sedaris
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
If you want to disappear into a long book:
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Nix by Nathan Hill
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
If you’re looking for some hope:
Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott
Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit
Hope Dies Last: Making a Difference in an Indifferent World by Studs Terkel
I’ve been doing a combination of the above strategies, reading about historical plagues in fiction and nonfiction but also doing some rereading and consuming lighter genre stuff like mysteries. I continue to dip into new releases, and I enjoy the ongoing challenge of my reading projects. Right now, I’m working through a few current Women’s Prize longlistees, as well as some past Wellcome Book Prize nominees and Women’s Prize winners, and I’m about to start a third #1920Club title. Plus I’m already thinking about my 20 Books of Summer (I’m considering an all-foodie theme).
- Book Riot pinpoints seven categories of books to read during a pandemic.
- Clare surveys the post-pandemic literary landscape.
- Elle logs her pandemic reading and viewing.
- Laura discusses pandemic reading strategies and distraction reading.
- Literary Hub looks at parallel situations, including post-9/11 reads, to make predictions, and asks what your “go-to quarantine read” says about you. (I’ve read Kindred most recently, but I wouldn’t say that describes me.)
- Simon thinks about what we can and should read.
- Susan highlights some comfort reads.
What are your current reading strategies?
I was utterly entranced by my first two Haruki Murakami novels, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore; both are so richly layered, dreamlike and bizarre. For Japanese Literature Challenge 13, run by Meredith of Dolce Belezza, I decided to pick up another of his books. First I tried Norwegian Wood, but, ironically, it was so normal (from the little I read, a standard, nostalgic coming-of-age novel set on a college campus) that I felt disoriented and set it down after 20 pages – I’ll keep it on the shelf for some other time. Instead I read A Wild Sheep Chase, a fairly short one for Murakami at just under 300 pages.
I loved the zany premise: the unnamed narrator, who works for a small advertising firm, gets a threatening visit one day. A PR bulletin his company created happens to feature a photo his friend The Rat sent him of a traditional Hokkaido landscape with sheep, among which is visible one particular sheep – “the third sheep from the right in the front row” – with a distinctive brown star-shaped birthmark. “The Boss” and his emissary give the narrator an ultimatum: he has two months to find this sheep, or he’ll be driven out of business.
So, along with his girlfriend, who has psychic powers and unbelievably seductive ears, he sets off by train in search of typical mountains-and-fields scenery. She chooses, seemingly at random, a hotel that turns out to be the former headquarters of the Hokkaido Ovine Association; its owner’s father, who lives like a hermit upstairs, is the Sheep Professor. Not just an expert on sheep, he believes he was at one time possessed by the star-marked sheep.
As the narrator makes his way to The Rat’s mountain hideaway, an hour and a half from the nearest town, he’s moving further from rational explanations and deeper into solitude and communion with ghosts. There’s some trademark Murakami strangeness, but the book is too short to give free rein to the magic realist plot, and I felt like there were too many loose ends after his return from The Rat’s, especially around his girlfriend’s disappearance.
Also, after just three and a bit of his novels (I DNFed Killing Commendatore in 2018), I’m already noticing a lazy reliance on the same setup: a directionless thirtysomething man whose marriage has recently fallen apart starts a new and pretty peculiar life. There are also a couple of specific failings that I’m noticing for the second or third time now: a slow, pointless start (the first 40 pages here could easily be shaved off) and slight misogyny: “Women with their clothes off have a frightening similarity. Always throws me for a loop.”
I appreciate the imagination that went into this, and enjoyed some specific witty metaphors (“the effect was unpalatable. Like serving sherbet and broccoli on the same silver platter” and “The elevator shook like a large dog with lung disease”) and observant lines (“Age certainly hasn’t conferred any smarts on me. Character maybe, but mediocrity is a constant”), but overall the novel was a letdown. Can anyone recommend me another surefire Murakami?
Note: This was Murakami’s first novel to be translated into English, in 1989. I had no idea that it’s actually the third book out of four in a series called “The Rat.”
In March through May I often try to read a few gardening-themed books and/or ones with “spring” in the title. Here are some of the ones that I have on the go as occasional reading:
Flowers and gardens
The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl: Her mother’s final illness led Hampl to reflect on her upbringing in St. Paul, Minnesota as the daughter of an Irish Catholic library clerk and a Czech florist. I love how she writes about small-town life and helping out in her father’s flower shop:
“These apparently ordinary people in our ordinary town, living faultlessly ordinary lives … why do I persist in thinking—knowing—they weren’t ordinary at all? … Nostalgia is really a kind of loyalty”
“it was my father’s domain, but it was also marvelously other, this place heavy with the drowsy scent of velvet-petaled roses and Provençal freesias in the middle of winter, the damp-earth spring fragrance of just-watered azaleas and cyclamen”
Led by the Nose: A Garden of Smells by Jenny Joseph: Joseph’s name might not sound familiar, but she was the author of the famous poem “Warning: When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple” and died early last year. This is a pleasant set of short pieces about what you might see and sense in your garden month by month. “Gardeners do indeed look before and after, at the same time living, as no one else, in the now of the nose,” she maintains. I’m particularly fascinated by the sense of smell and how a writer can describe odors, so I was delighted to find this in a charity shop in Edinburgh last year and have been reading it a few pages at a time as a bedside book. I especially like the wood engravings by Yvonne Skargon that head each chapter.
Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perényi: A somewhat dense collection of few-page essays, arranged in alphabetical order, on particular plants, tools and techniques. I tried reading it straight through last year and only made it as far as “Beans.” My new strategy is to keep it on my bedside shelves and dip into whichever pieces catch my attention. I don’t have particularly green fingers, so it’s not a surprise that my eye recently alighted on the essay “Failure,” which opens, “Sooner or later every gardener must face the fact that certain things are going to die on him. It is a temptation to be anthropomorphic about plants, to suspect that they do it to annoy.”
With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed by Lynne Truss (DNF at page 131 out of 210): A faltering gardening magazine is about to be closed down, but Osborne only finds out when he’s already down in Devon doing the research for his regular “Me and My Shed” column with a TV actress. Hijinks were promised as the rest of the put-out staff descend on Honiton, but by nearly the two-thirds point it all still felt like preamble, laying out the characters and their backstories, connections and motivations. My favorite minor character was Makepeace, a pugnacious book reviewer: “he used his great capacities as a professional know-all as a perfectly acceptable substitute for either insight or style.”
The Seasons, a Faber & Faber / BBC Radio 4 poetry anthology: From Chaucer and other Old English poets to Seamus Heaney (“Death of a Naturalist”) and Philip Larkin (“The Trees”), the spring section offers a good mixture of recent and traditional, familiar and new. A favorite passage was “May come up with fiddle-bows, / May come up with blossom, / May come up the same again, / The same again but different” (from “Nuts in May” by Louis MacNeice). Once we’re back from America I’ll pick up with the summer selections.
In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill: Early one spring, Ruth Bryce’s husband, Ben, dies in a forestry accident. They had only been married a year and here she is, aged twenty-one and a widow. Ben’s little brother, 14-year-old Jo, is a faithful visitor, but after the funeral many simply leave Ruth alone. I’m 100 pages in and still waiting for there to be a plot as such; so far it’s a lovely, quiet meditation on grief and solitude amid the rhythms of country life. Ben’s death is described as a “stone cast into still water,” and here at nearly the halfway point we’re seeing how some of the ripples spread out beyond his immediate family. I’m enjoying the writing more than in the three other Hill books I’ve read.
Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott: (The title doesn’t actually have anything to do with the season; it’s a quotation from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 98: “From you have I been absent in the spring.”) From 1944, this is the third of six novels Agatha Christie published under the alias Mary Westmacott. Joan Scudamore, traveling back to London from Baghdad after a visit to her adult daughter, encounters bad weather and misses her train, which leaves her stranded in the desert for days that feel more like weeks. We’re led back through scenes from Joan’s earlier life and realize that she’s utterly clueless about what those closest to her want and think. Rather like Olive Kitteridge, Joan is difficult in ways she doesn’t fully acknowledge. Like a desert mirage, the truth of who she’s been and what she’s done is hazy, and her realization feels a little drawn out and obvious. Once she gets back to London, will she act on what she’s discovered about herself and reform her life, or just slip back into her old habits? This is a short and immersive book, and a cautionary tale to boot. It examines the interplay between duty and happiness, and the temptation of living vicariously through one’s children.
Have you been reading anything particularly appropriate for spring this year?
Many travel books are about the quest for new, exotic places and the widest possible range of experiences; many nature books focus on the surprising quality and variety of life to be found by staying close to home. In that loose framework, Neil Ansell’s The Last Wilderness belongs on the nature shelf rather than the travel section: here he’s all about developing his knowledge of a particular place, the Northwest Highlands of Scotland, where he stays five times over the course of one year to give a panoramic view of the area in different non-touristy seasons.
Ansell’s visits have the flavor of a pilgrimage: his wonder at the region’s sights and sounds, and particularly at the creatures he encounters, is akin to what one would experience in the presence of the holy; he also writes about wildlife as if it is a relic of a fast-vanishing world. “It is that exploratory desire to possess the wilds for ourselves that has resulted in their disappearance,” he notes. A true wilderness is unvisited, and true solitude is hard to experience “if the world is only a click away.”
Depicted against this backdrop of environmental damage are the author’s personal losses: a heart problem and progressive hearing loss mean that the world is narrowing in for him. He mourns each sign of diminishment, such as the meadow pipits whose call he can no longer hear. Depth of experience is replacing breadth for him, though flashbacks to his intrepid world travels – an African safari, hitchhiking in Australia, time in Sweden and Costa Rica – show that he has tried both approaches. There’s a good balance here between adventuring and the comfort of an increasingly familiar place.
Like “a tale told round a campfire,” Ansell’s is a meandering and slightly melancholy story that draws you in. If The Last Wilderness suffers, it’s mostly in comparison with his Deep Country (2011), one of the most memorable nature/travel books I’ve ever read, a modern-day Walden about his five years living in a cottage in the Welsh hills. Solitude and survival are more powerful themes there, though they echo here too. Once again, he writes of magical encounters with wildlife and gives philosophical reflections on the nature of the self. I can highly recommend Neil Ansell’s books to anyone who enjoys nature and travel writing.
The Last Wilderness: A Journey into Silence will be published by Tinder Press on February 8th. My thanks to Becky Hunter for the review copy.
Last week I finished two books, one fiction and one nonfiction, that had loneliness as a central theme – although their treatment of the subject was vastly different.
First was Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym, which was recommended to me by various bloggers and certainly lived up to their praise. Originally published in 1977, this was Pym’s seventh novel out of nine; she died in 1980. It’s about four London office workers, all sixty-somethings who are partnerless and don’t have, or at least don’t live with, any immediate family members. We never learn what they do in this office; in fact, Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia don’t seem to be filling much of a need, especially given the fact that the two old girls aren’t replaced when they retire midway through the novel.
For as long as they’ve been working together, the four haven’t given in to the usual human impulse to know and be known. At first there doesn’t seem to be much to know about them; with only one or two shorthand facts apiece it’s a minor challenge to tell them apart. Widower Edwin’s hobby is attending Anglican services; Norman lives off fried food and visits his brother-in-law in hospital; Letty lives in a boarding house and has a friend in the countryside; Marcia has had a mastectomy and hoards tinned food and empty milk bottles.
But for all of them a line applied to Letty holds true: “It was a comfortable enough life, if a little sterile, perhaps even deprived.” Especially after her retirement, Letty knows “she must never give the slightest hint of loneliness or boredom, the sense of time hanging heavy.”
From what I’d heard about Pym, I might have expected a lighthearted satire about country manners and Anglican vicars. Perhaps that’s a fair assessment of some of her earlier books? But this is much darker, and the humor always has a bitter edge:
- When Marcia finds a plastic bag labeled “To avoid danger of suffocation keep this wrapper away from babies and children,” the narrator adds, “They could have said from middle-aged and elderly persons too, who might well have an irresistible urge to suffocate themselves.”
- Offered the option of moving into a care home, Letty thinks “better to lie down in the wood under the beech leaves and bracken and wait quietly for death.”
Overall it’s quite a melancholy little book, a warning against letting your life become too small and private. Yet the last line, remarkably, is a sudden injection of optimism: “it made one realize that life still held infinite possibilities for change.” I’d recommend this to readers who have enjoyed Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor.
As an unwittingly positive counterpart, I was at the same time reading How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland. This is part of a School of Life series that turns the “how-to” concept on its head: instead of areas where we think we need instruction, the books are about areas where we feel like experts, topics so simple or automatic they don’t seem to need explanation (e.g. How to Be Bored, or How to Age).
But Maitland argues that although being alone is easy to achieve, there is an art to doing it properly, and solitude and loneliness are by no means the same thing. She knows whereof she speaks: though she grew up in a large Catholic family, after her divorce she moved to a remote area of Scotland and lives alone in a house a quarter mile from the nearest road.
Despite our modern obsession with self-confidence and fulfilling relationships, Maitland believes “the present paradigm is not really working.” More of us than ever are depressed and afraid to spend time alone lest it might make us appear selfish, pathetic or in some way unlovable.
Profiling everyone from the Desert Fathers of early Christianity to the Romantic poets, she counters by enumerating all the benefits that solitude confers: self-knowledge and a rest from constant relating (that goes for extroverts as well as introverts), a connection to nature and to the divine, and the freedom to create. She convinced me, and includes a great bibliography of further reading about solitude.
*I only found out the other week that Eleanor Rigby “picks up the rice” in a church. For my entire life I’d thought she “picks up her ice” (granted, that doesn’t make much sense, but the Beatles could be trippy lads). You learn something new every day!