Pandemic Reading: Writers Share Their Picks

Photo by Meagan Lucas

With the pandemic now (arguably) in it’s 8th month, I’ve been noticing lots of talk about books on social media. It looks like reading is enjoying a boom and that’s a good thing! In the past few months, though, I find that my reading choices are pickier than usual. Memoirs and Poetry are probably my favorite genres but I have loved a good dystopian novel (read Blindness by Jose Saramago or Station Eleven by Emily St. Mandel). However, I seem to have lost my taste for the dystopian in books and in tv. When I try to read or watch, I get a lump in my stomach and have to stop. It got me wondering if anyone else is feeling this way and if the pandemic has affected others similarly. I’m always interested in what others are reading so I thought I’d ask some of my writer friends what books they’ve read this year that they’d recommend for pandemic reading and why. I’m curious if the pandemic has influenced what they (and you) prefer right now – immersion in the dystopian or maybe something more soothing. Here’s what they said.

Candace Hartsuyker

Clare Beams’ novel The Illness Lesson was the feminist read I wanted during this tumultuous time. Through sumptuous, gorgeous prose, Beams depicts the rage women feel when denied agency over their bodies.

Candace Hartsuyker has an M.F.A in Creative Writing from McNeese State University and reads for PANK. She has been published in Okay Donkey, Heavy Feather Review, The Hunger and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter at C_Hartsuyker.

Link to recent work:

“When Your Mother is a Mermaid” in Okay Donkey

Meagan Lucas

I’ve always been a small press girl, but even more this year as I’m trying to support small businesses and keep my money local. I also think that small presses are putting out the bravest work, and I think 2020 is the year to read bravely and stretch oneself. The first book I’d recommend for pandemic reading is Still Come Home by Katey Schultz. Schultz is a Western North Carolinian like me, but this book takes place in Afghanistan. It centers around three characters, an Afghani couple and a US Soldier, but it isn’t a war novel. It is a nuanced and beautifully written story of guilt and forgiveness. Covid has made it very easy for me to wallow, and I think it’s particularly helpful this year to think globally, and empathetically, and move outside of my comfort zone. I’d also recommend In Just the Right Light by William Soldan. I know a lot of people are having trouble finding the focus necessary to finish a novel, so I think a short story collection might be the thing. This is a vivid and gritty group of stories based in rust belt Ohio, and Soldan has such a gorgeous command of language that even though the topics are dark, the prose is stunning. I also think that the very working class, Appalachian feel of these stories is grounding – there is something in reading about the struggles of our neighbors that I think brings us together, and unity is something we could really use right now.

Meagan Lucas is the author of the award winning novel, Songbirds and Stray Dogs (Main Street Rag, 2019). Her short work has appeared in: The Santa Fe Writer’s Project, The New Southern Fugitives, Still: The Journal, and MonkeyBicycle, among others. She teaches English Composition and Creative Writing at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. She lives in Western North Carolina.

Link to recent work:

“It Could Always Be Like This” in Emerge Literary Journal

Paul Crenshaw

One book I’ve read recently is Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. It’s one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read, which is why I would recommend it for pandemic/quarantine reading. Although the main city in the book is threatened with an unknown and unknowable danger, which may hit a little close to home right now, the richly detailed world was a fun escape. Mieville’s descriptions of New Crobuzon and its various denizens, its dark and dirty streets, its underworld and soaring towers, offers an alternate reality (though I should mention the mostly corrupt and somewhat bumbling government also hits a little too close to home.)

I’d also recommend anything by Ted Chiang, but especially Tower of Babylon. In it, the biblical Tower of Babylon is being built to reach the vault of heaven. The tower takes months to climb, and the workers climbing it rise higher than the sun and into the stars until they finally reach the vault. I won’t spoil what happens after they mine into the vault, but Chiang finds a beautiful metaphor about the world and creation and the questions we have that are, ultimately, unknowable.

Paul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press, and This We’ll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, Tin House, North American Review and Brevity, among others.

Link to recent work:

“Field Trip” in Hobart

“The Gilded Age” in Desert Companion

Dorianne Laux

Tyree Daye was my student at NC State so I’m understandably a big fan. But he is SO good I feel righteous in suggesting you read him right now. You have never read anything like it. His voice is unforgettable, his images sear themselves into your heart and mind, his story is the story of the American south. His first book, River Hymns, was a revelation. His newest book, Cardinal, is a revolution. Loosely based on “The Green Book”, a travel guide for Blacks looking to avoid collision with racism and violence during their diaspora from the south to the north and west, grapples with the idea of freedom. It’s about small towns, family ties, the ghosts of his Geechee ancestors, oceans, tobacco fields, front yard gardens, backyard barbeques, uncles, aunts, cousins, flowers and birds. The Cardinal, official state bird of seven states, and of his home state, North Carolina, becomes a metaphor for the freedom he seeks. I’ll leave you with the final lines from his final poem “Field Notes on Beginning”:

I said my few-note goodbyes my dead will not come

I will not see a cardinal in the city

So I drew one on my chest

A coop inside a coop inside of me

In case you ever want or need to feel you haven’t done enough with your life, read Jane Fonda’s autobiography, My Life So Far. Not a recent book, it was published in 2006, but I just read it this summer. It’s a history, not just of a woman, but of a country: from America to France to Vietnam, from California to New York, from Montana to Georgia, of the 60’s, of feminism, of politics, of the movie industry, of friendship, marriage, motherhood, activism and more. The woman just doesn’t stop. The writer Grace Paley was once asked this question after a reading: “Miss Paley, you write poetry, short stories, essays, co-authored a book with your husband about activism, you’re a teacher, mother, wife, feminist, political activist, went on a peace mission to Hanoi to release prisoners of war, attended abortion speak-outs, was one of the White House Eleven who spoke out about the dangers of nuclear weapons, a member of the Writers and Editors Against the War Tax protest, and attend your local Synagogue. How do you find time to do it all?” And she answered, without a shred of irony, “Well, I have all day.” Fonda has the same sense of confident humility, the same fiery sense of responsibility to leave the place you have visited better than you found it. You don’t have to be a fan of her movies (though I am) or her politics to be a fan of her life story. Well-written, thoughtful, surprisingly intimate and immediate, her book shows us a way to look back in order to move forward and to do so with courage, humor, honesty and honor.

Dorianne Laux’s sixth collection, Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems was named a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Her fifth collection,The Book of Men, was awarded The Paterson Prize. Her fourth book of poems, Facts About the Moon, won The Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Laux is also the author of Awake; What We Carry, a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award; Smoke; as well as a fine small press edition, The Book of Women. She is the co-author of the celebrated text The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry.

Link to recent work:

“Ideas of Heaven” in Lithub

Exodus Brownlow

During the pandemic, I haven’t been doing much novel reading, but what I have been gravitating towards are books that heal me, or comfort me.

Healing and comfort are two very different things.

With healing, there isn’t necessarily the guarantee of instantaneous good feelings. Often, it’s very harsh, painful, before the relief of the heal is brought on. Healing books require the mindfulness of knowing that something isn’t quite right, that something should be better, and having the courage enough to find out what that something is.

With comfort, that good feeling is instantaneous because the comfort is familiar–the words, the characters, and the words.

Heavy by Kiese Laymon is that healing.

Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer is that comfort.

Heavy was an absorbing experience, one that held me in place for the entirety of half of a day to finish it completely. There are so very few, good words to describe Kiese Laymon’s work. Masterful works, but still…it’s not enough, and I’ve never felt comfortable trying to find those words as he does it so well, and much better than I do. It is a work of nonfiction that is imperative to the understanding of black adolescence in the south, of our upbringing, often rooted in traumatic lessons but with the best of intentions, have molded us. It’s the realization that now, here, presently, is the opportunity to embrace the awareness that is—that we are the blueprint to the hopeful, healing, and happy future that we wished for ourselves as children.

Midnight Sun is just solid, nostalgic fun. And I think with a lot of reading, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it needs to be everything, that to be everything means more than the experience itself. The work must be profound. It must be timeless. The themes? Sharp, tasteful, and able to stand the test of time. But in this, where is the fun? Why is it so bad to just focus in on the fun? I remember being 16, 17 years old reading Twilight for the first time. I remember the impact that it held–mothers reading with their teenaged daughters, both swooning over the love interests, the passion, the fantastical beauty of the world. It had significance in its ability to bring about a sort of togetherness, and I think any work that deals with the obsession of immortality and love is capable of doing this, is alluring in this way because who doesn’t want to live (happily) forever young? Who doesn’t want someone to love them in a way that steps into the precipice of obsession? It’s enthralling.

And so, like many late 20-year-olds living in a pandemic, I jumped at the opportunity to read an adolescent-favorite from the perspective of the main male protagonist, to read a work that chipped away what was no longer sufficeable to the betterment of black childhood upbrings.

In doing so, I pushed past fear, overlooked questionable messages, and allowed myself to simply enjoy what was. In the end, it left me feeling that yes, yes…everything would eventually be okay.

Exodus Oktavia Brownlow is a Blackhawk, Mississippi native. She is a graduate of Mississippi Valley State University with a B.A in English, and Mississippi University for Women with an MFA in Creative Writing. Exodus has been published or has upcoming work with Electric Literature, Booth, Barren Magazine, Jellyfish Review, Parentheses Journal and more. She has a healthy adoration for the color green.

Link to recent work:

“When It Gets Cold in the South, The Youngest Baby Dies” in Fractured Lit

Robert Okaji

The Heart, Pivoting

In this time of dreadful uncertainties and psychological, physical and fiscal pressures, of illness, injustice, social separation and unrest, of lost promises, lost opportunities and yes, lost loved ones, I turn to books for escape and solace. Novels, chiefly urban fantasy and crime fiction, help me escape the all-too-real and dull daily existence of my life in the pandemic, while poetry soothes, offers understanding and insight that I find nowhere else. And even with my extreme good fortune and privilege, I have needed soothing.

So which one book would I recommend without hesitation to someone needing infusions of peace and insight and understanding? Jane Hirshfield’s 1997 collection, The Lives of the Heart, springs instantly to mind. I love this book. It was the first of her collections that I purchased, and I dip into it frequently, as needs and moods dictate. The writing takes me deep into myself, forces me to consider multiple options, to think beyond my personal, limited experience.

Her poems often take large issues (love, grief, hope, acceptance) and compress them into clear moments of perfect imprecision. I say imprecision because Hirshfield paints scenes and asks questions without instructing readers. She deftly guides and prods us along, but never tells us how to feel, instead allowing us to find our personal paths through her gentle, subtle diction. As in:

Love amid Owl Cries

It is not

the altar that matters,

not that

nor the shape

that is found there.

The ghostly ideas

come and go, one after another.

But the place endures.

The fact that there is a door.

She surrounds us with what doesn’t matter, leading us to, but never explicitly stating, what does. Why do I find this engaging, comforting? Uncertainty is perhaps the greatest certainty in this pandemic. We don’t know what items will be missing from grocery store shelves. Will our masks work? Are my friends safe? What bills should we pay? How and why is my government so heartless? Hirshfield doesn’t answer these questions, but she offers hope, elusive though it may be: “But the place endures. / The fact that there is a door.”

Hirshfield observes, records, distills and expresses, and though her eye may occasionally seem clinical at first glance, behind every line lies a heart, a wisdom, a purpose. She conjures intangible hope, breathless moments of peace in the face of the unknowable, which is the balm I need at this strangest of times. Perhaps the best example of this, the single poem that I return to time and again, and one of the most powerful, soul-jarring pieces I’ve ever read, consists of just eleven lines, ostensibly about a horse standing in the rain. Simple, no? But its scope encompasses so much more, at such depth that my eyes water whenever I read it, and I emerge from the page renewed, willing to take on whatever the next day brings.

Not Moving Even One Step

The rain falling too lightly to shape

an audible house, an audible tree,

blind, soaking, the old horse waits in his pasture.

He knows the field for exactly what it is:

his limitless mare, his beloved.

Even the mallards sleep in her red body maned

in thistles, hooved in the new green shallows of spring.

Slow rain streams from fetlocks, hips, the lowered head,

while she stands in the place beside him that no one sees.

The muzzles almost touch.

How silently the heart pivots on its hinge.

Robert Okaji is a displaced Texan seeking work in Indiana. He holds a BA in history, no longer owns a bookstore, and once won a goat-catching contest. The author of five chapbooks, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in North Dakota Quarterly, Panoply, Boston Review, Slippery Elm, Crannóg, So It Goes, Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, and elsewhere.

Link to recent work:

“Scarecrow Votes” in Vox Populi

9 thoughts on “Pandemic Reading: Writers Share Their Picks

  1. I am still reading the same book I started in June…but these all sound worthy, if I ever can focus enough to read again.

    I’m glad Robert reblogged this because WordPress unfollowed a lot of blogs for me for some unknown reason, and yours was one of them. (K)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful that you’ve done this post and query. I was unable to read much for most of the year, other than daily articles and short pieces found online. I even stopped reading most blogs which always brought me such pleasure. 😦 Plus I almost stopped watching films and completely stopped with all the series. Just not in the mood. Cause reality. Trying to go back by reading “Saturday” by Ian McEwan and making a list of films to see, such as The Road and A Monster Calls (even though probably I should read the books instead). Ohh, I’ve seen a glorious Italian film, totally unexpected. In English it’s called Happy as Lazzaro. Do give it a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t read many books, either. Short online reading seems to be the easiest. I am still watching series, though, and I’ve seen some good ones. I recommend Away and The Woods (Polish production), both on Netflix. I haven’t been watch too many movies but I’ll look for that one.

      Liked by 1 person

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