Books to Read During Quarantine

An incomplete list of my favorites

I like to read a lot. This is a completely incomplete list of the books I’ve liked-to-loved that I would recommend you read during these quaran-times. You will notice some descriptions are better than others. I got a little tired and so I phoned a few in. My list, my rules.

My Favorite Book Of All Time

  1. Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine: This is not a recommendation for parents (though this is technically YA). This is a recommendation for anyone whose brain is so fried by fear that they need an escapist read of manageable length, centered around a smart-ass heroine who is nothing like the weird Anne Hathaway character you may have seen in movies.

Short Story Collections

Focus is hard in times of panic. That’s why I find short story collections so lovely (always, but especially now). You can focus for 10 to 20 pages, take a break, breathe. Then start again.

  1. Back Talk, by Danielle Lazarin: This collection centers around women who are pushing against the idea that there is one right way for them to be.
  2. Sweet & Low, by Nick White: For people who say they “don’t like short stories because they want to read more about the characters.” I don’t like that reasoning, but we are in a pandemic and it’s not the time to attack people for their opinions (except if you think “going to a restaurant with just one person” is social distancing. IT IS NOT.) Sweet & Low is in two parts, the latter half is a set of interconnected stories that orbit around one character, centering him in some narratives, and putting him in the periphery in others, giving you a rich picture of his life from every perspective.
  3. Friday Black, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Intense, surreal. Stories about racism, consumerism, violence, wrapped in plotlines like: a Black Friday event that’s a zombie battleground or a subtly violent amusement park out of an actual horror movie. I’m told if you enjoyed Black Mirror, then you’ll love this collection.
  4. How to Breathe Underwater, by Julie Orringer: All I can say is that this collection contains a story about children playing outside at Thanksgiving that I don’t think I’ll ever forget in my entire life or any future lives I may live.
  5. The Kelly Links (Pretty Monsters/Get In Trouble): Grown up ghost stories; scarier, smarter, weirder than you could ever invent.
  6. Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore: Took me a while to pick up Moore but I’m so glad I did. She can take the simplest moments and make you say, “Yes, that’s exactly what that feels like, how did you do that?”

For When You Need Some Laughter

Not promising these reads are *exclusively* funny but they have some great moments.

  1. We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, by Sam Irby: When you think there will never be anything funny ever again, turn to Sam Irby, whose essays will make you ugly-laugh out loud. Which is fine, because we’re all just sitting alone anyway, might as well make some noise to cover up all the other scary noises you think you hear in your apartment.
  2. Chemistry, by Weike Wang: The unnamed narrator is one my favorite protagonists of the last few years. She grapples with her own professional failures and her uncertainty around her future, while still managing to view her surroundings, emotions, and experiences through a scientific, analytical lens.
  3. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman: If you don’t like very dark humor, you won’t like Eleanor. If you do, then you will love her.
  4. My Sister, The Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite: And if you don’t like dark humor, and you don’t like Eleanor, then you definitely don’t want to read about a woman who has to constantly clean up after her sister, who is, quite literally, a serial killer.

Classics Worth a (Re)Read

Read them again, they hold up. Read them for the first time, enjoy.

  1. Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde: This book is so surprisingly funny. I don’t know what to tell you, you’ll just have to believe me.
  2. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott: I’m not going to describe this.
  3. Watership Down, by Richard Adams: I love the publisher that OK’d a book about a rabbit colony with its own language.
  4. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, by Betty Smith: Fun fact: I did my 10th grade book report on this book! I know that “coming-of-age” seems like a cop-out to describe a book but I haven’t used it ONE TIME here and this really is such a lovely coming-of-age story.
  5. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster: This HOLDS UP and is so delightful and smarter than I am and has a lot of puns and I love puns.

Surreal Escapism

AKA: Literally No Relation to Our Current World

  1. Boy Snow Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi: Brilliant retelling of Snow White, with added layers of how our identities evolve based on what we see in the mirror.
  2. The Madeleine Millers (Circe/Song of Achilles): Greek myths, but better. Achilles, you know. Cool. Circe… you might not. She’s a powerful witch exiled to her own island because the Titans and Olympic gods are afraid of her and so they ostracize her. Don’t you love her already?
  3. What Should be Wild, Julia Fine: Strong female lead (love it), hint of fairy tale (yes), open-ended questions (not always, but works for me here). The idea is that Maisie suffers from a generations-long curse — she can kill or resurrect people, plants, animals with her touch. Into the woods she goes to confront the women in her family tree and lift the burden.
  4. She Would Be King, Wayétu Moore: A surreal retelling of Liberia’s formation, through three gifted individuals with no connection other than the wind, and a knowledge that they have to fight for their home. Moore is a masterful storyteller, and she tells a lifetime of stories in one novel.

Real-ish Escapism

Good books that have nothing to do with our current world, though you’ll recognize our world

  1. Mostly Dead Things, by Kristen Arnett: More than you’ll ever want/need to know about taxidermy, and yet, maybe the most beautiful book about a taxidermist, ever?
  2. Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng: I am biased. This takes place in my hometown. But you should read it anyway (especially before the Hulu series).
  3. The Likeness, by Tana French: Really, you can read any Tana French, but I think this was my favorite. Her mysteries are so beyond the simple “whodunnit” — they’re well-structured, the dialogue is sharp, and understanding the psychology of the detectives is more interesting than finding the killer.
  4. Marilou Is Everywhere, by Sarah Elaine Smith: I don’t know why this book wasn’t on all the “lists” of “years.” It was so surprising, and heartbreaking, and makes you think about what you would do to stop feeling so lost.
  5. The Other’s Gold, by Elizabeth Ames: I love beautiful books about female friendship. This is a beautiful book about female friendship.
  6. Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout: Frances McDormand IS Olive, so take that for what you will.
  7. The Which Way Tree, by Elizabeth Crook: I think you will be very surprised by this book. Historical fiction, some surrealism but not much, told in epistolary style, of a boy and his sister trying to hunt down a murderous panther.

Beasts

If you have an entire weekend to sit down and read >300 pages, why not go for it? And while you’re at it, what about 400?

  1. Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi: My only advice here is get the print book if you can. Makes it easier to flip back and forth between the family tree, which you will definitely need to do. (The shortest of the bunch at about 320 pages). (Edited to add: I read Transcendent Kingdom recently and my review is: HOW DOES GYASI DO IT????)
  2. Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese: Also falls under “catharsis,” and is embedded in the world of medicine. If now isn’t the right time for this read, that’s okay! Books wait for you.
  3. The Old Drift, Namwali Serpell: This is a monster of a multi-generational saga, but if you can stick with it and trust that you will understand more as you read on, you will be rewarded.
  4. The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton: After I finished this book, I read an interview about how immaculately structured this novel is, with special attention to the phases of the moon, and all of this other planet stuff. Her attention to detail is reflected in every single word on every single page and you have to focus hard so you don’t miss anything but that way you can forget the world is on fire!
  5. The Great Offshore Grounds, Vanessa Veselka: This is epic — a beautiful portrait of a family (sisters and their single mother) who each embark on their own individual journey to find their place in the world. I also learned a lot about ships from this book.

Catharsis

If you have the mental space/energy to feel feelings and maybe cry, try these.

  1. Euphoria, by Lily King: I don’t remember every detail of the plot, but I remember how this book made me feel. I loved Lily King’s writing, the love triangle wasn’t cliche, and it helped me forget where I was.
  2. The Sally Rooneys (Normal People/Conversations With Friends): For the days when you think you’ve gone numb, Rooney will make you feel all the things. Also what is the actual plural of a Rooney?
  3. Girl, Woman, Other, Bernadine Evaristo: Fantastic novel interweaving storylines of more than a dozen different women or female-identifying individuals living in London.
  4. Brass, Xhenet Aliu: For those who love stories of mothers/daughters, a book about what we really want when we look home, and how we expect to love and be loved by others.
  5. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: You’ve likely read, or been recommended, Adichie’s Americanah which is very, very good. But you’ve already been recommended! So you don’t need that from me.
  6. Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips: Spent all night finishing this one, absorbed in the stories of people living in a remote Russian village and grappling with a disturbing kidnapping of two young sisters.
  7. The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri: I’m getting tired of writing descriptions have I not yet proven that I have a wealth of knowledge and experience to recommend books? Okay “read” “this” “book” “if” “you” “enjoy” “amazing” “books.”
  8. Everything Nora Ephron ever wrote.

Hairs of the Dog

If you’re up for dystopian lit, who am I to stop you?

  1. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel: Read at your own risk.
  2. Severance, Ling Ma: Read at your own risk.
  3. Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro: This book truly scrambled my brain.
  4. Red Clocks, Leni Zumas: This might be the least risky.

Audience Development at Medium / Previously: Time Inc., Real Simple, childhood

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