When it comes to reading, read whatever you’re able to get through without finding yourself distracted or filled with an overwhelming sense of dread. If that means listening to audiobooks because you just can’t focus on reading a page, so be it! Need to order some new books online because you just aren’t in the mood for something you bought a year ago and haven’t gotten to? Do it! When we started quarantine, without even thinking about it, I immediately made it my goal to read three books that have been sitting unread in my bedroom for years. My own emotional addiction to the myth of certainty had me briefly convinced that this was, in fact, unencumbered free time to finally get to those books I haven’t gotten to. Full disclosure? I got through one of those books, and by “got through” I meant read the first few chapters before putting it down because I did not register a single word I had just read. It’s hard on a good day to force yourself through something just because it’s been two years and you should just read it already, but when the world is a constant raging dumpster fire, forget about it.
On Friday afternoon, Governor Jay Inslee announced an extension of his stay-at-home order through May 31 for residents of Washington State, USA. I totally agree with this decision. I’d rather continue self-isolating now than have to start all over again by opening everything up too soon and letting the virus overwhelm us again.
I do hope that all of you are staying healthy and finding solace in activities that soothe and comfort you.
If you’re like me, you probably skip right over the copyright page when you open up a book to settle down and read. But here’s what we’re missing when we do that: “there’s a lot you can learn from all that tiny text. For instance, do you love that book cover? You can find out who designed it. Want to know what font the book is using?”
Are you finding yourself wishing for comic novels to read during self-isolation? Muse along with New Yorker’s Katy Waldman:
Comic fiction sometimes seems less like a genre than like the treatment of a question: What is our disposition toward a fickle universe? Do we claim agency through humor? Or strive for a jolly and wide-eyed surrender? From an aesthetic perspective, one vision—pessimistic or optimistic, active or passive—isn’t better, or funnier, than another. But there’s a larger truth here. Before the shelter-in-place orders, I was not seeking out the books that made me laugh as a kid. Now I am. This fact somehow seems to get at the essence of comedy—an art that becomes more real, more fully itself, within a shared, tragic frame. With that in mind, here are some honorable mentions for the funniest books to read in quarantine . . .
Psychoanalytic psychotherapist and writer Maxine Mei-Fung Chung writes here about “Searching for accurate portrayals of a complex disease in an age of exploitative media.”
Here she examines “the portrayal of mental illness and personality disorders in literature, TV shows and movies—and the conflicting forces of entertainment versus a better understanding of the human condition.”
Her focus here is on dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly called multiple personality disorder: “Perhaps if we are to better understand the condition we need to cease portraying those living with the disorder as psychopaths or wall-crawling lunatics.”
Kelly Jensen reports: “A new study by SuperSummary, a company which provides study guides for fiction and nonfiction, explored gender bias in their latest study ‘Strong Man; Beautiful Woman.’”
Jensen takes a pretty deep dive into the procedure and results of this research and offers some informative infographics to illustrate her examination. Here’s her conclusion:
despite women “dominating” publishing, their stories sell far less than those by male peers, are told far less frequently by men, and don’t permit them the same opportunities to be rich and powerful.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
Get ready for tales of knights, battles, court intrigue and more. It’s Medieval Reads Day!
Source: Medieval Reads Day
According to Book Riot, it’s Medieval Reads Day, and they’ve got you covered with the following articles:
- 10 of the Best Medieval Romance Stories
- 10 Books with Our Favorite Fictional Knights
- 8 Courtly Medieval Female Writers
- 10 Great Medieval (and Medieval-ish) Mystery Books
- Get Spellbound by These Magical Medieval Fantasy Books
- 8 Great Medieval History Reads from East to West
- 8 Fascinating Characters from Arthurian Legend
- 9 Medieval Poets You Will Actually Enjoy Reading
- 6 of the Best Medieval Young Adult Books
- 3 of the Best Comics for Fans of Arthurian Legend
I hope that you are all staying healthy and finding solace in activities that comfort you.
From the U.K. comes news that “Book sales have leapt across the country as readers find they have extra time on their hands, with bookshops reporting a significant increase in sales of longer novels and classic fiction.” Sales are also up for longer books such as Hilary Mantel’s recently released The Mirror and the Light as well as older long books, including The Goldfinch and The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
When we were initially introduced to the idea of staying home, I thought this sounded like a good opportunity to tackle some of the longer works on my TBR shelf, like Middlemarch by George Eliot (794 pages, exclusive of endnotes), Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (817 pages, exclusive of notes), Ulysses by James Joyce (732 pages), and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (568 pages). But that plan didn’t turn out very well.
After about a week and a half of being unable to read anything other than news stories, I was finally able to read books once again. But I’ve been sticking with my backlog of mysteries and thrillers, as I still don’t have the ability to focus on something more demanding for a long time. So all of those Big Books will still be on my shelves waiting for me long after the current health emergency has passed.
However, I can also see the appeal of something long by less demanding than Ulysses. I’ve heard several people mention rereading the Harry Potter series or The Lord of the Rings, both of which sound like excellent choices for these unsettled times. But I won’t be going there until I’ve made a lot more progress on my backlog of Book of the Month goodies.
Over the past several years there’s been a lot of discussion about the number of books with the word girl in the title:
Girl is the perfect word for inspiring curiosity and fear in psychological thrillers: since the Bible, or the Greek myths, the protection of girls has been paramount to holding a society together. Girls, after all, become women, and women birth and raise the next generation, keeping civilization going. So the question here is not why did girl instantly become so popular, but how it reflects on our cultural preoccupation with keeping women—made even more impotent and infantilized by being labeled girls—under patriarchal control.
Here Lisa Levy discusses eight such books, with particular emphasis on how these books and their characters reflect the effects of patriarchy and misogyny.
Here Jessica Moor addresses the same general topic but with a more focused emphasis: how the normalization of the violent man coexists with another standard trope, the beautiful dead girl.
no matter how fascinating the machinations of a random killer seem, they cannot be more chilling than the reality that, for women, the most dangerous place in the world is not a bar or a dark alleyway or a deserted forest. It’s their own home.
Esquire has some suggestions of “literature for an escape from the ails of restlessness and anxiety.” The list comprises mostly fiction, but there’s a wide enough range that everyone can probably find at least one or two appealing books.
“C Pam Zhang’s debut, “How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” is one of several new or forthcoming books by Asian-American writers set in a period that historically hasn’t recognized them.”
Why does PBS outsource almost all of its costume dramas to the Brits, in some cases simply importing and screening BBC productions as Masterpiece series? Why not look to the American canon for worthy novels in which men sport top hats, women get laced into corsets and carriages make their gravel-crunching way to glittering receptions or illicit assignations?
Dennis Drabelle has some suggestions for how PBS can provide U.S. audiences some dramas from their own literary heritage.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
“Across the industry, publishers are releasing titles by authors who were previously marginalized or entirely lost to history.”
The critical and commercial success of these titles is a result of a combination of factors: initiative on the part of writers’ families or estates; changing leadership within the publishing industry; and a willingness among modern readers to engage with unknown texts.
The whole point of a mystery is to create a plot so suspenseful that the reader can’t put it down—which is exactly what I needed, to get back into reading. A terrible crime has been committed (usually a murder) and a detective or amateur sleuth then applies logic to figure out who did it, what happened and why until the perpetrator is brought to justice.
Laura Hilgers turned to mysteries for comfort after her divorce.
I, fortunately, do not have the same reason for liking mysteries. See 5 Examples of Why I Like Mysteries.
Los Angeles has been the locus of crime fiction for nearly 100 years. Here’s a discussion of some of the novels, characters, and authors LA has produced as well as speculation about what kinds of novels the current health crisis will give rise to.
If you want to use your time at home to broaden your literary horizons, let Annika Barranti Klein be your guide. She offers links to free online stories, plus the names of a novel or two, in the following categories:
- science fiction
- low fantasy
- second world/high fantasy
- portal fantasy
- magical realism
And yes, she includes definitions in case you don’t know, as I didn’t, what some of these terms mean (e.g., eldritch, low fantasy, second world/high fantasy, portal fantasy).
Ann Patchett on what she learned by reading the books of middle-grade novelist Kate DiCamillo. Patchett began with The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, which, she says, changed her life.
According to Hillary Kelly:
there’s a certain kind of isolation that makes for a vivid reading experience — when the protagonist is quite literally all alone, whether by circumstance or choice, either struggling to be seen or hoping to disappear even further. The novel, after all, is the perfect medium for that message, the only art form in which an interior monologue doesn’t regularly come off as hokey. If you’re into that kind of thing, and want to grapple a little harder with the bizarre swaddling effect that COVID-19 has had on our ability to simply stand close to another human, here are nine books that offer insights into the wild terrain of the isolated mind.
“. . . we are stuck at home, and perhaps now is the time to rediscover the lengthy novel,” writes Molly Odintz.
If you follow this blog, you know I love Big Books. Here’s Odintz’s list of 14 crime novels, all of which meet the Big Book definition of 500 or more pages.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
- Life in an Independent Bookstore Near Seattle
- Some of the Less Obvious Effects of the Coronavirus Pandemic
- Book-Related News for Self-Isolation and Social Distancing
- More Arts-Related Pandemic News
All of my recent posts have been lists of COVID-19—related links. I just kept collecting these links, almost obsessively. Now that we’re approaching the end of our third week of self-isolation and social distancing here in Washington State, I’m finally beginning to understand why.
When we first started this virus-induced cocooning, I was excited. As an introvert who likes nothing better than to kick back with a good book, I’ve been practicing for this my whole life. Bring it on, I thought. I’m going to get a whole lot of books read.
However, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional onslaught that accompanies this medical emergency.
And so I began curating those lists of links. For about 10 days I spent most of my time reading article after article about what was happening here at home and around the world. Every time I thought that I should start reading a book, I felt completely overwhelmed. I have so many books on my TBR shelves that I got flustered wondering which one to pick up. The more I thought about which book to select, the antsier I got.
I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t focus on any one thing, so I just kept going from one article to another about the advance of COVID-19. Reading individual news stories and articles didn’t require the extended attention necessary for reading a book.
So I thought that, if I wasn’t going to read books, I should write. How silly that thought turned out to be, since writing anything more than the occasional Facebook post requires even more focused attention than reading a novel. For about a week and a half I did nothing but make those lists and wonder what was happening to me.
My life has been a series of research projects.
Ever since I was a child, my way of dealing with anything new and different—and therefore confusing—has been to read up on it. If I learn all about whatever it is, I can deal with it. In the past, knowing about something meant that I had some personal control over it, or at least how it affected me.
But of course there’s no controlling this virus. No matter how much I learn about it, it is still in control. And nobody knows how all this is going to turn out. We’re experiencing anxiety at a whole new level. In fact, anxiety doesn’t seem like the right word to use here. This situation requires a much stronger term.
I came across an article byScott Berinato in the Harvard Business Review called “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” I found especially enlightening his concept of anticipatory grief, that is, grief in anticipation of how different our lives are going to be in the future than they were in the past because of this pandemic. There is definitely a grief component to what I’m feeling.
“There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us,” Berinato writes. But while I agree that just naming something helps us deal with it, I don’t think that grief quite tells the whole story by itself.
So for now I’m calling it generalized dread.
I did finally manage to break out of my reading slump, although whether the naming process or simply the passage of time is responsible I’m not sure. Probably both contributed. The book that rescued me is Long Bright River by Liz Moore. I hope to write a review of it soon, although I fear the ability to concentrate enough to do much writing is still a little way off.
I hope you are all staying healthy and dealing with this new reality. I’d love to hear how you’re coping.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
Luckily, books still exist, and can be their own vehicle for connection. And what better reading material for right now than books where the characters are, in some way, alone? None of these are dystopian (at least not in the traditional sense), but are instead characterized by protagonists with complex interior lives who are either isolated (in some way that’s not about a contagion) or fiercely independent, or both.
During this febrile period, I’ve found myself longing for a different kind of timeframe, in which it would be possible both to feel and to think, to process the intense impact of the news and perhaps even to imagine other ways of being. The stopped time of a painting, say, or the dilations of the novel, in which it is possible to see patterns and consequences that are otherwise invisible. Art has begun to feel not like a respite or an escape, but a formidable tool for gaining perspective on what are increasingly troubled times.
In the Paris Review, J. Hoberman looks at cinematic representations of plagues, including The Plague by Albert Camus and Contagion by Steven Soderbergh.
From Homer’s Iliad and Boccaccio’s Decameron to Stephen King’s The Stand and Ling Ma’s Severance, stories about pandemics have – over the history of Western literature such as it is – offered much in the way of catharsis, ways of processing strong emotion, and political commentary on how human beings respond to public health crises.
I live in the greater metropolitan Seattle area, which was the first site of infection of COVID-19 in the United States. This was therefore one of the first areas to cancel in-person classes and move to online education and to encourage remote working for non-essential employees.
With all these additional people online during the day, I’ve noticed a significant increase in the length of time web pages take to load. Of course things were worse back in the first days of modems and dial-up internet, but still . . . . The New York Times reports on this issue with a more national focus.
Molly Odintz, senior editor for CrimeReads, explains why she’s taking refuge in reading Scandinavian thrillers:
Not because thrillers are low-brow. They take immense thought to create. But they don’t—and this is key—take commensurate mental energy to consume. They are the kindest art form, because they do the work for the consumer, allowing us a break from fretting about our very real woes so that we can worry, safely, for the fates of fictional characters instead.
If fantasy is more your choice for light reading, Nicole Hill has you covered with this list.
More suggestions, these from Ken Liu, winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards.
Jonny Diamond reports on how to support local bookstores, which are suffering from lack of sales while people aren’t going out shopping. (See my article Life in an Independent Bookstore Near Seattle.)
“Publishers, bookstores and authors are struggling to confront and limit the financial fallout from the unfolding coronavirus crisis.”
two novelists, Caroline Leavitt and Jenna Blum, are promoting their colleagues with an ambitious initiative called A Mighty Blaze. Anyone can participate in the conversations on A Mighty Blaze on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram about new releases, but for authors wanting their books to be signal boosted on these platforms, there are a few requirements: the book has to be traditionally published for adult readers, and the author’s book tour has to have been canceled.
“As a result of the new coronavirus crisis, sales at downloadable audiobookstore Libro.fm and online Bookshop.org have soared. Both digital stores collaborate with independent booksellers and return a share of the sales back to them.”
“Read and discuss War and Peace with Yiyun Li and A Public Space. Starting March 18, join us for a free virtual book club—a moment each day when we can gather together as a community. #TolstoyTogether.”
11 authors, from Laila Lalami to Jonathan Lethem, on the books they might finally read in quarantine
This list is from Teen Vogue, but the books are decidedly grown-up (for example, Steinbeck’s East of Eden).
In order to encourage reading and classroom read-aloud experiences, and to support schools and public libraries forced to close by the escalating COVID-19 outbreak, Penguin Random House is permitting teachers, librarians and booksellers to create and share story time and read-aloud videos and live events, according to the following guidelines:
Since such presentations normally violate copyright law, Ron Charles of the Washington Post calls this “a generous offer.” If you plan to take advantage of the offer, be sure to read all the guidelines, including the one about later removing the presentation from the social platform’s archives.
Prolonged travel restrictions and venue closings leave some people craving artistic and cultural stimulation. Many organizations are satisfying those desires.
This article is from 2016, but the links still work.
“The Met’s executives say the coronavirus outbreak makes painful layoffs likely for every cultural institution.”
Met to launch “Nightly Met Opera Streams,” a free series of encore Live in HD presentations streamed on the company website during the coronavirus closure
As film crews have quickly shut down in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a domino effect has befallen Hollywood’s working class. A range of people from actors to lighting directors, drivers and grips to administrators, painters, hair stylists and caterers, now suddenly find themselves out of work.
From film critic Richard Brody:
I’m picking up on a search for substance, for movies that have the settled and solid quality of classics (despite the narrow assumptions on which such classicism is based)—movies serious enough for the mood, compelling enough to provide ready distraction, and confident enough to look beyond the troubles that they evoke. Here are some of the movies that I’ve been grateful to watch in the past few stressful days.
“Here are some suggestions from New Yorker writers and artists to ease the stress of isolation.”
Recommendations for TV, movies, podcasts, books, and streaming content to keep yourself occupied.
A look at how quarantine helped prevent disease in these 19th century novels, when there were no other options for handling epidemics.
Because sometimes all you can do is laugh. Example:
Pride and Prejudice
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be hoarding toilet paper.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
If there’s some extra reading time in your life right now, this article has you covered:
Long live Big Books!
Seriously, please take care of yourselves and each other during this trying time.
I live in Washington State, one of the hottest spots in the U.S. for this pandemic, and everything here is shut down. As much as this introvert loves the excuse to stay home and read, I wish the circumstances were not so dire.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
Mary Ann Lund, associate professor in Renaissance English literature at the University of Leicester in the UK, discusses Robert Burton (1577-1640) and his The Anatomy of Melancholy, “the most pervasive and elusive of Renaissance diseases.”
“One of the great achievements of The Anatomy of Melancholy is to draw together the collective wisdom of nearly two millennia on a condition that was alluring and dangerous in equal measure.” Lund writes “melancholy came to be seen as a European epidemic” during the 16th and 17th centuries.
2018 was “a rough year” for college professor and academician Carole Bell. She made several significant life changes during 2019 to help herself overcome isolation, depression, and anxiety, and one of those changes involved “reading intentionally and reading as self-medicating and self-soothing.”
In the end, I read 403 books in 2019, not counting the few I abandoned or partial reads of the academic books I read select chapters from for research. I also wrote 50 book reviews, sent one to a popular blog and had it accepted it for publication. The bottom line: I had been in a funk, and I read my way out. Reading is no substitute for therapy. And I did some other things along the way like find a critique partner and a writing coach, train for a half marathon, and run my best time. But as it had on other occasions before, the biggest internal change began with books.
Coronavirus feels like something out of a sci-fi novel. Here’s how writers have imagined similar scenarios
“The coronavirus outbreak feels like something out of a science fiction — or horror — novel. Indeed, novelists have been imagining scenarios like this for centuries,” write Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Lavie Tidhar in The Washington Post. Read their discussion of several pandemic novels that may offer readers “a fascinating what-if thought experiment.”
In literature and pop culture, women often come in threes, deriving power from solidarity even as they work to forge their own paths.
I don’t emphasize often enough the importance of close reading for fully understanding and appreciating works of fiction. Here Yash Raaj explains how he uses outside resources to understand fully a novel’s setting—both time and place—and how the setting “interacts with characters.” This approach to reading literature allowed him to see “how literature branched into history, sociology, etc., connecting these disciplines in one text.”
Moreover, this habit has brought out a new side to me as a reader. I have learned how to arm myself with information, which is highly necessary in an era of social media activism. Careful reading certainly adds an edge and displays a streak of awareness accumulated through literature.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown