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What to Read in a Pandemic

Well. 

Well, well, well.

Things have come to a pretty pass, have they not? And all the things I meant to write about have flown right out of my head as I try not to touch my eye, except there is SOMETHING IN MY EYE, and it's driving me crazy, and I grew up right outside of the Containment Area in New Rochelle, and wait—where was I?

Friends, it's reading season, and I'm saying this as someone for whom it is always reading season. You will be stuck in your house most likely at some point in the next month, and while what I mostly wish for you (and all of us) is good health, health of your loved ones, and a functioning government, I also hope you have something really good to read. So, in a show of almost unparalleled hubris, I will endeavor to recommend some books, in the most relevant areas I can come up with:

FOR THOSE WHO ARE UP FOR SOME TERRIFYING VIRUS READING

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The Stand. It is the virus book by which all other virus literature will be judged, the first half especially has his signature weird hyperreality, I loved it when I read it as a kid, I love it now, yet it is a little…close, you know?

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Station Eleven, oh how I loved this! It's profoundly humane and interesting and engaging. Also, yes, terrifying. But if you're up for virus talk, you go!

FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO READ SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY, BUT SERIOUS

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The Last Chronicle of Barset (also that link is to free e-book!). OK, full disclosure, this is part of a series, and it's not the first one, but just wipe that information out of your head because it's SO GOOD. Sad and moving and funny and strange (to me anyway), this book broke through the outer crust of my heart a few years ago, and it is very, very far from where we are now.

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Yes, Moby-Dick, and yes, that was the craziest cover I saw (not counting the ones that had a…non-white whale, which…what?). Want to go somewhere far, far away? You go—go far, to another world, this one is just too messed up. Check back in when you're ready.

FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO READ SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY, BUT SILLY, OR AT LEAST, LIGHT

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To those of you who have not yet read this book, oh how I envy you! Shining Through is almost unbelievably wonderful. Sex! Spies! Nazis—and we're against them! So, so good, also so funny. Wow, I may have just convinced myself to reread it yet again, it's so freaking good WWII good in all the ways something can be good—heart, spirit, mind.

Oh how I hesitate on this last one. Things that have gone through my head: Rich Men, Single Women. Scruples. The Patrick O'Brian novels. The Robert B. Parker Spenser novels.

But what I really think you should read is…anything you want. The book you love but are embarrassed to buy, the romance from the drugstore if that's your fancy, the Agatha Christie you already know the end to, the Little House on the Prairie series if that's what works. No one is watching—no one was ever watching, and if they are or were the hell with them. Follow your reading heart and find something you love. It's one of the few healing things I can imagine right now. 

Other than this, which is on my desk:

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Stay health, everybody.

Bookstores You Must Go to, Part 1 of 1,000,000 (I Hope)

Long-time readers (and of course, friends and family, who probably constitute the bulk of long-time readers) will remember that this blog began by chronicling the reading exploits of two excellent children, Chestnut and Diana.*

While they are still, of course, my children, they are no longer technically children: Chestnut is 18, Diana is 20. Their reading (and other) adventures have gone far beyond the abilities of this blog to approach. 

However. They still have much to offer. Case in point: did you know that there was a bookstore in Sonora, California, called Legends?

And did you know that this bookstore ALSO has an ice cream parlor as part of it? And that you can get Unicorn Milkshakes there?

And did you know that in the basement of this bookstore there is AN ENTRANCE TO A SECRET CAVE?!?!?!?

Behold:

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This crucial information comes courtesy of Chestnut, who has been there and tasted the milkshakes and explored the premises and bought the books, and pronounced the whole thing excellent.

The worst part? I was JUST IN SONORA and did not know of this bookstore, nor did I find out about it. Now I am on the other side of the whole dumb country. Don't let this happen to you.

Also: this seems like a feature worth repeating, right? There are lots of excellent bookstores out there. E-mail me about yours and we will go see all of them!

 

*Not their real names. But you knew that, didn't you?

Recalibration, or: Why Sometimes It’s Worth It to Read a Book That Wears You Down

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You know how you're supposed to keep your phone and/or computer alive by letting them/it run completely out of power? And then the device is supposed to come to a fuller understanding of its capacity (sort of); it recalibrates and once again knows the meaning of "empty" and "full" and "dying as you are trying to text your family."

Well, I have been slogging and slogging my way through the end of a book that I did not love at all, thinking (as I read): Why do I make myself read to the end? Even if it's for my book group, shouldn't I somehow give myself a pass? I have only so many hours on this earth… (etc etc).

And then I did finish it. And guess what? I was recalibrated! The next book I picked up (The Overstory, which I will blab on about in a while, I am sure) I met with unbridled joy! Never mind that I sometimes find Richard Powers compulsively cerebral. It was fun to read again! I plunged through pages, fast and happy. I was renewed!

Anyway, that's how I came to believe in recalibration for reading. And my extremely terrible illustration at the top (it's an empty gas tank of course!) is my newest attempt to avoid running afoul of various copyright issues and to be truer to what's in my head. Sorry that it looks like the Nightmare Before Christmas, we all have our troubles.

Novels by Poets

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It appears that I had a lot of mean backed up in me, for which I apologize. But…this has been gnawing at me a long time, so here it is: I have a problem with novels by poets.

There are about one million caveats I should make here, which I will skip. I will, however, try to make clear what I mean. I'm talking about Ben Lerner and Valeria Luiselli and Michael Ondaatje, thoughtful, intelligent novels. So it's probably obvious that the problem lies with me—all of these are clearly brilliant and talented etc etc.

I have thought about WHY this particular version of book bothers me so much. One of the warning signs is when the flap copy mentions "lapidary prose." Beware! And then I think: what's the problem with lapidary prose? I like excellent words as much as the next reader on the couch (I think I do?) but I feel I have finally located the source of my trouble, the pine needle in my sock: It bugs me to read a novel in which the writer cares more about the words than the story.

I feel this is probably a weakness in me. After all, it's not one or the other, right? And yet…the feeling comes to me strongly when I read them. It makes me (unreasonably, I know) angry that the story, which is just as much of a magical unreasoning mystery as the perfect words are, doesn't get its proper respect (and love).

There, I've said it. All ye who go the other way, be warned.

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There are some books I like that are not good. For instance, Rich Men, Single Women. This is not, by almost any measure, a good book. And yet, I am there for its sordid charms.

The thing that is harder for me to grapple with is the (equally large?) number of books that I don't like that are good. Case in point:

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I might as well get out of the way my first (and probably lamest) complaint: The cover. Come on now! Only put a tornado on the cover if you have a tornado in the book. Tornados are terrifying and fascinating, and I am a sucker for them, so don't just tease me.

Beyond that, this book more or less endlessly pissed me off with its intelligent, thoughtful, deeply considered prose. I'd read and fume, read and grumble: Oh come on, no one is this committed to conversation. Or, Not everything has to be endlessly considered! Except then something would shift to address my concern, and I would be left with the same irritable sense until it dawned on me: I do believe this book is not my cup of tea.

I love this idea. But—is it even a thing? Really? I fear saying that is much like, "Well, it was very well done" type of remarks: saying basically that you didn't like it but don't want to own up to it. And anyway (full, damning disclosure): I don't even like tea.

I suspect that in my heart I don't really think this is a good book at all, I'm just loathe to disagree with the world when I can see perfectly well that the world will definitely think this is a very good book.

But—do I really believe that my not liking something means it's not good? That can't be true, can it? Ugh, I am sure there was a class at some point when I should have been paying attention and I would have learned the true answers to all these questions. At any rate: I didn't like this book, I can say that for sure, and even admit that this decision felt almost personal and grudge-filled. I found the book chilly and stiff, prone to examining its motives to a tiring degree, though there were moments of tension and interest. Is the fault in me or in the book? Apparently, I have no idea.