In the Dog Days of Quarantine… What We’re Reading

By Carole Reedy

This past month I asked my avid-reader friends to share with The Eye the books that have accompanied them in their seemingly never-ending hours of free time during the Covid-19 quarantine.

When the replies arrived, they inevitably started with “Well, I haven’t been reading much these days,” or “I’m having trouble concentrating on anything but news of the virus.” From personal experience I know that one of the repercussions of grief is difficulty concentrating. Could this be grief?

Coincidentally, a friend sent me an article with some insights on this very topic from Oliver J. Robinson, a neurologist and psychologist based in London. Briefly, some of Dr. Robinson’s insights: We are living in a time of uncertainty; we don’t know what to expect. Nothing is certain, and we’re “trying to resolve an uncertainty that is unresolvable.” In addition, we are experiencing loss of control. These feelings are generating anxiety.

“But I’d be lying if I tried to say this is what anxiety is, and this is why people are having difficulty concentrating,” he adds.

I too had difficulty reading during the first days of isolation, but find now that I’m back in the swing. Once we shift our thinking and establish new home routines, perhaps the relaxing act of reading will bring us joy again.

According to The Reading Agency, a UK literary charity, reading has increased by a third, especially in the 18-25 age group. The trend is to comfort, with fiction highlighted, especially crime/mystery and the classics. James Daunt, chief executive of the British bookseller Waterstones, believes “many people may plump for poetry to provide a more detached contemplation during times of stress.” After 9/11, poetry sales increased, supporting Daunt’s theory for a need for “books that encourage or support contemplation.”

With that said, I hope this list of diverse books and the observations that accompany them are helpful as you search for reading satisfaction in an uncertain time.

PLAGUE LITERATURE

First, however, I offer you some plague literature. Often it’s helpful to look to the past. Note that these plagues lasted years, not months, with similarities to our current virus. The precautions were for them the same as our own: stay in, close businesses, avoid crowds. The phrase “waiting for a vaccine” wasn’t part of their vocabulary. The rich were able to leave the cities (the reason Henry the VIII was always moving from castle to castle), but the poor were condemned to stay and try to survive in the metropolitan areas to make their living. Some things never change.

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (published in 1722 about the Great Plague of London in 1665). Defoe was just five years old when that plague hit London in 1665, so his account is academic rather than first-hand, as opposed to that of Samuel Pepys in his Diary. Pepys actually lived through the plague years. Defoe’s work is a novel disguised as fact; the story relates the personal experiences of a survivor of the plague, and also addresses the societal repercussions on the poor.

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (written in the 1350s after the plague of 1348-53). The 100 stories of The Decameron have satisfied readers for hundreds of years. A far different point of storytelling than that of Defoe.

The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni (written in 1827; the action takes place in the early 1600s, ending with the plague year of 1630). This is one of the most frequently read novels in Italian literature. It is a love and adventure story at heart, but the last quarter is about the plague. It’s slow going sometimes, with a lot of detail, which is my kind of book!

Hilary Mantel’s Trilogy (some call it The Tudor Trilogy or the Wolf Hall Trilogy) consists of three novels based on the life of the influential Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII: Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the just-released The Mirror and the Light. These books provide terrific reading in times of isolation. Mantel picks you up and drops you in the world of merry old England in the 16th century. She has a unique and refreshing style in these novels, as in all her writing. The New Yorker magazine writer Jia Tolentino describes Mantel’s talent succinctly: “Mantel writes history like it’s always on the cusp of occurring.”

The Guardian recently quoted Hilary Mantel in a speech at the prestigious Hay Festival: “The Tudors were very good at quarantine in those days. They took it very seriously. I think he [Thomas Cromwell] would have locked us down for a bit longer.”

LITERARY FICTION

First, a short note from Larry in Denver with advice about a different way to read if you feel too distracted to concentrate on the written word.

“I try to walk every day, and rather than listen to news or music, I listen to audiobooks. I’ve been listening to a lot of Dickens and especially like the reader Simon Vance. He makes Dickens’ prose and characters come alive. No matter how many characters, he is able to distinguish all of them for the listener, so there’s never any doubt about who is carrying the narrative. So far, I’ve listened (or I should day re-listened) to Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and Oliver Twist. All have been great fun and entertaining. Vance also reads the novels of one of my all-time favorite authors Patrick O’Brien and his British naval history novels.”

Barbara from Mexico City listens to audio books when she goes to bed. The only negative she reports is finding her place in the book the next morning as she inevitably falls asleep, even during the most compelling of stories. Maybe audio books will become an insomnia remedy too.

History of the Rain: A Novel by Niall Williams (via Kirby in Chicago).
Kirby says he’s reading this beautifully written novel very slowly as he doesn’t want it to end. When I asked about the theme, he said “Reading, it’s about reading, Carole.” I immediately downloaded the book to my iPad. The novel takes place in Ireland, on the banks of the Shannon River at Faha, in County Clare, Ireland. Since I’ve read only a few pages, I offer The Guardian’s description:

“The novel is suffused with … other worldliness while being rooted in the everyday. It is also crammed with literature, from Ruth’s beloved Charles Dickens – whose caricatures find contemporary equivalents in the inhabitants of Faha – to Robert Louis Stevenson, whose bed-ridden genius she closely identifies with, along with Dickinson’s elliptical solitude. The river and the endless rain are so present they become characters in themselves: Ruth notes wryly that in Ireland it has rained for ‘800 years’.

Lovers of the 19th-century novel will devour this book. I’m amazed and enchanted by it, and I imagine Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope smiling from their graves. I guarantee you will fall in love with the protagonist, the bed-ridden, young and sassy lass Ruth.

Weather: A Novel by Jenny Offill (via Marilyn in St. Petersburg, Florida).
Marilyn describes this very popular (I am on a 13-week waitlist at the library) new work by Offill, author of the well-regarded short novel, Department of Speculation.

“It is short bursts of beautiful prose, almost more like a poem and yet has character development, plot, humor. I read it in one sitting,” Marilyn writes.

The Dutch House: A Novel by Anne Patchett (via Phyllis from Chicago). We fans of Anne Patchett know she is uneven at times, but this novel is Anne Patchett at her best.

Phyllis agrees: “I love Patchett for her humor, quickness, and real-person humanity. She always provides a moves-along read, perfect for the pandemic. So I liked this story about a hapless brother and sister whose lives are upended by a move into this unusual house.”

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (via Phyllis and also Camille from Boise).
Thanks to the astute decisions of publishers, these days we’re experiencing many excellent literary works based on the immigrant and the emigration experience. Phyllis says that of all she has read about “the immigrant experience,” this one stands out.

The Guardian expressed the magic of this book: “Her new novel resonates with an unexpected simplicity that is profound and unsettling. Richard, a self-contained widower and newly retired academic, discovers empathy through delving into the individual ordeals of a group of African asylum seekers in Berlin whom he gradually befriends and tries to help.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz: A Novel by Heather Morris (via Paulina from San Agustinillo, Oaxaca, with roots in Sligo, Ireland). Paulina enjoyed this book even though some factual historical inaccuracies have recently been found in it. But we must remember, it IS a novel.

Jon Sopel, news broadcaster, comments on the novel: “It really helped me put the privations of COVID lockdown into context. I suspect if I’d read it when it first came out. I would have been moved by the terribleness and evil of the setting, but the story is really about the indomitable nature of the human spirit, how even in the worst of human circumstances there is space for compassion and a sliver of hope.”

MEMOIR AND BIOGRAPHY

A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin (Holly in Grayslake, Illinois). This memoir of a Jewish family fleeing the Soviet Union in 1989 begins on a humorous note with the young son of the family relating the challenges of the Soviet system and the process of leaving the Ukraine, arriving in Vienna and ultimately the US. But midway through the book the tone becomes sober and dark when we learn the effect the flight and uncertainty has on the young man. It is a beautifully executed, well-paced story with many aspects over more than 20 years in a variety of locales in the world.

Talking Heads by British playwright Allen Bennett (via Kirby in Chicago).
This monologue/diary was originally a BBC production, but is now in print. David Sedaris says it is the book he gives as a gift as “it is pretty much the best thing ever.”

Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier by Victoria James (via Kathy in Seattle). The youngest, at age 21, American sommelier from a Michelin-starred restaurant, James relates how she struggled through a childhood of abuse and humiliation before reaching her stunning position.

Our friend Kathy Kaye, who recommended this memoir, has top credentials for judging it, as she too is a writer and winemaker. For years she traveled from her home north of Seattle to the vineyard she and her partner owned east of the Cascades, producing a variety of wine there.

When she wasn’t growing, cultivating, and testing wines, Kathy wrote, and still writes, novels. The Case of the Missing Cobras and Death at 21 Brix: A Warehouse Winery Mystery both fall in the crime/mystery genre, but they are much more. Apart from being compelling reads, requiring meticulous research, the novels deal with issues of ecological conservation, rare species, and man’s role in nature (Missing Cobras) and the many-faceted aspects of wine making (Death at 21 Brix). Kathy also has a star-studded career in medical writing.

Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen (via Barbara and Carole from Mexico City). In this memoir, Allen tries to convince us that he is not an intellectual, citing the fact that the only reading he did before the age of 18 involved comic books. However, he is unsuccessful in this endeavor. The tone of the book (you don’t need to listen to the audio version to hear Allen’s voice), vocabulary, structure, and ease of reading are proof that genius lurks in the written and visual works of the lovable neurotic. The first half of the book is his life story, followed by a thorough analysis of the problems that grew out of his relationship with Mia Farrow.

HISTORICAL FICTION

Winds of War by Herman Wouk (via Sue in Denver). “I had never read this classic and am finding it totally prescient for the period we are experiencing. So many comparisons between Hitler and Trump!”

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (via Betty in Mexico City and Nancy in Chicago).
The eight books (of an anticipated ten) and the subsequent TV series have been popular since 1991. They cover years of time travel from 1743 in Scotland to the modern-day US. Both Betty and Nancy are totally absorbed – or rather, obsessed – with the series.

MYSTERIES AND CRIME

The Tale Teller: A Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito Novel by Anne Hillerman (via Stuart from Sedona, Arizona). You may recognize the surname. Yes, Anne is Tony Hillerman’s daughter, and has continued his fine tradition of writing novels that take place on a Navajo Indian reservation and environs, always centered around a crime committed and sprinkled with tradition and superstition. There are three more books in the series, all New York Times best sellers.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (via fellow book-club member Janet).
Janet is an avid reader of nonfiction, but in these days of upheaval she enjoyed this “thriller that is hard to put down; no problem with lack of concentration with this book!”

The Lynley-Havers series by Elizabeth George
We fans are eagerly awaiting the next, the 21st(!) book in the series. Many mystery/crime readers have followed the series based in Great Britain from the first book in 1988, A Great Deliverance, in which we’re introduced to Inspector Thomas Lynley, Lord Asherton, of Scotland Yard, and to his contrary assistant Barbara Havers.

Interestingly, the author is an American who has been praised for her accuracy in the depiction of the British citizens and police. You need not read the books in order, although part of the attraction of the series is the development of each character and the relationships with one another as the years pass. The mystery story almost seems secondary. We’re happy to wait a couple of years between books that are well researched and lengthy.

The V.I. Warshawski series by Sara Paretsky (from Chicago, via our writer friend Joan Chandler). “I decided to dive into one of Sara Paretsky’s novels featuring her great character V.I. Warshawski. V.I. lives in a perpetual state of moral outrage (which suits my mood). She’s acutely aware that it’s not always a welcome trait. I like that honesty. Sara Paretsky lives in Chicago and includes all the local color in her stories.”

Paretsky’s newest novel hit the shelves in April. It’s called Dead Land, and her publisher has promised that both the author and protagonist are as “dogged and ferocious” as ever.

French and Italian Detectives. Other readers look to European writers for intrigue: Martin Walker has created a niche for mystery fans as well as for gourmet cooks, with more than 15 books in his series that takes place in the Perigord region of France. The protagonist is Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges, a rather unconventional village cop who doesn’t carry an official gun and claims to have lost the key to his handcuffs.

Farther south in Sicily, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, created by Andrea Camilleri, also enjoys good food. The books are packed with tempting treats from sumptuous Sicilian kitchens. Fifteen of the eighteen novels have been translated into English. I have become a lasting fan of this compassionate, humor-loving, cynical detective.

Travelers to these two countries will savor the novels before and during their visits. In addition to the entertaining detective stories, both Camilleri and Walker write non-fiction and/or historical novels.

SHORT STORIES

Frank O’Connor short stories (via Mexican resident–by way of Belfast, London, Zambia, and Italy–Caroline Falasco). Caroline found among the collection of her family’s books a 1953 anthology of these short stories by the master of the genre. Inside the inscription under her parents’ names read “Belfast 1954.” Caroline writes to me: “an emotional find.” I suspect many of us are experiencing similar emotions as we sort through drawers, closets, and bookshelves in this time of physical and emotional cleansing.

NON-FICTION

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe (via Susan from Paris). This exceedingly readable tome that takes place in the Emerald Isle maps out the “troubles” in the guise of a mystery kidnapping/murder. It was my number two of favorite books of 2019, right after Milkman: A Novel by Anna Burns, which explores similar themes. The combination of research and lucid prose is the reason Say Nothing remains on many bestseller lists.

The following two books by distinguished writers in the field are recommended by medical editor and author Kathy (mentioned above). They seem appropriate to list considering the mysteries we are living through these days: From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel Dennett and Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen.

There are so many other stories to read. With hope for a new and different future, I promise more recommendations in the months to come. Stay in and stay safe!

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