I’m interested to know what kinds of books you’re reading right now. When I asked Literary Mama staff for some recommendations, there seemed to be two camps: those who are feeding the flames of curiosity about the current situation and how to keep it in perspective and those who prefer to escape the foreboding atmosphere and lose themselves in another world. Whichever option you prefer, we have some thoroughly interesting picks for you this month.
Kate Haas, Creative Nonfiction Editor, suggests this title if you want to lean into pandemics: “Last week, in one of my neighborhood’s ubiquitous little free libraries, I picked up The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen. Now I’m wondering if I really want to finish it. Yet I can’t seem to put it down. Set during the 1918 flu pandemic and based on true events, Mullen’s novel is the story of Commonwealth, a small town in the Pacific Northwest which votes to quarantine itself as the flu rages through surrounding communities. The townspeople post armed guards on the road leading in and out of town, allowing no one to pass. When a confrontation with a desperate stranger occurs, residents are forced to question who they are, individually, and as a society. It’s a fascinating, finely drawn portrait of how situations like the one we are currently experiencing expose our best and worst selves.”
Senior Editor and Literary Reflections Editor Andrea Lani recently read William Styron’s masterpiece Sophie’s Choice. “If you’re the kind of person who faces life’s challenges by reading about people in worse circumstances, this is the book for you to read while social distancing. It’s also around 500 pages, so it’ll fill up a lot of self-quarantine time. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a light escape read to get you through these troubled times, best save this one for a more stable future. The book tells the story of Sophie, a Holocaust survivor, through the eyes of the narrator, Stingo, her downstairs neighbor and recent arrival to New York. He carries around his own guilty demons in the form of his slave-holding ancestors and a windfall of money that is allowing him to live in the city while writing a novel. Stingo becomes obsessed with Sophie and her unstable and sometimes violent boyfriend, Nathan, as she reveals her history to him in nonchronological, and not always honest, increments. It’s a spellbinding and heart-wrenching tale that delves deep into a devastating part of our history that we don’t often choose to linger on. I’m a little skeptical about the way Sophie’s trauma manifests as extreme sexual appetite, and the scene when Sophie finally makes her actual choice, after hundreds of pages of buildup, felt a little rushed. But otherwise it’s a masterful book about one of the lowest points in human history and one person’s instinct to survive at all costs.”
Viji Sridhar, Profiles and Reviews Editorial Assistant, offers this inspiring account of making the best of a tough situation: “When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is a reminder of the fragility of human lives. The posthumously published memoir paints a somber yet courageous picture of a man whose life turns upside down in a matter of weeks. Pondering over his existence from a young age, when at a crossroads, Kalanithi chooses medicine over literature because he thinks life as a neurosurgeon would give him an intimate look at death, and perhaps indirectly help him understand the purpose of life. He is in the final year of his grueling residency, at the cusp of taking up a coveted job offer and settling down in life, when he is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Having not smoked a day in his life, Kalanithi’s role is suddenly switched—the surgeon who had given the exact same news to hundreds of patients becomes the patient himself. The memoir is about finding meaning in whatever life has to offer—by bolstering his ties with his family, reaching out to his faith, fighting his way through the all-consuming disease, deciding to have a baby with his wife, and returning to his first love, writing, Kalanithi refuses to let his looming death whitewash over his life. Instead he examines his own mortality with a clinical yet poetic view, offering a ray of hope to everyone facing the imminent reality of life. Lucy, his wife, ends the book with an equally beautiful epilogue on life after her husband’s demise. Recent days have been testing and tumultuous for people all around the world. When Breath Becomes Air has been a gentle reminder to me to keep marching with grace, optimism and courage.”
Senior Editor and Literary Reflections Editor Libby Maxey shares this escapade to distract and enthrall your kids: “Having already gone through the Chronicles of Prydain and Tolkien’s oeuvre with my kids, I’ve been on the hunt for other fantasy books with something of the same mid-twentieth-century magic. Enter Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone. The first in her Dark is Rising series, it’s the story of the three Drew children and their holiday in Cornwall, which turns into a high-stakes treasure hunt when they find an old map in the attic of their rented house—and then find themselves caught up in a race to find Arthur’s grail before the forces of evil do. Compared to The Dark is Rising, the first of Cooper’s sequels, it’s much more realistic than fantastical, and its intensity is family-friendly in a lovably analog way. If you need a little mystery and adventure in your life right now, Cooper has you covered.”
Finally we have Social Media Editor Abigail Lalonde’s escapist reading pick: “With all that’s going on in the world, I needed a serious vacation via a book. The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James fit the bill for me (and maybe a bit too much because I rocketed through it). A fictional, true crime murder mystery with a ghostly twist, The Sun Down Motel is told via alternating narrators 35 years apart. 2017 narrator Carly Kirk seeks answers about her Aunt Viv’s disappearance from the Sun Down in 1982. She takes the same job her aunt held, the night desk clerk at the motel, in hopes of finding answers. There’s a definite Stephen King vibe and the book is full of fun pop culture references. St. James creates the perfect amount of tension and pacing with her timeline jumps, the kind that makes you want to stay up all night reading. The characters feel like friends with a majority of them being women and the theme of women working together is consistent throughout, which certainly added to my love for this fun (albeit dark) novel. The Sun Down Motel is a smart, sometimes funny, sometimes scary book that is the perfect escape in a time of staying home and social distancing.”
Are you leaning into coronavirus with your reading material or escaping it? Share with us in the comments or tweet us @LiteraryMama. You can also follow us on Instagram @Literary_Mama and Goodreads for more recommendations.