Being stuck at home means there can be a lot of time to kill. I’ve been doing a good bit of reading (not surprising), so I decided to make a short list of my top five recommendations for the current moment. By that, I mean books that have, on the whole, a calm tone that begs careful reading and time for reflection. There’s a variety of books on this list, so I’ll give a short note of why I chose each one along with a favorite quote.
5. A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
This book came out earlier this year, and it is a bit of a diversion from the others on this list that have more of a focus on being away from society. However, the poetry of Allende’s writing is always stunning, and in this story in particular, I love the way the whole story seems fated to happen the way it does. The calm but eloquent writing is the main reason I’m putting this book on the list because, although a lot happens in the story, it feels as though things will turn out all right in the end. The historical events that the characters live through are times of upheaval and terror, but you know that that isn’t the end of the story even when bad things happen.
I also love the title, which comes from a Pablo Neruda poem. (Neruda also makes an appearance in the story.) Neruda’s writing has its parallels with Allende; when he writes about his country, there is a mournful quality to the words, but there is also a love for his homeland. Allende’s novel covers the rise fo the Franco regime in Spain, the life of immigrants in Chile, and the rise and fall of both Allende and Pinochet. It is poignant and emotional despite a simple, clear writing style. Reading this book reminded me of the Kafka quote: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” It is heart0wrenching at times, but it is also a breath of fresh air. I cannot recommend this book enough.
“Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”
4. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
These days all anyone talks about is social distancing, but there’s also the extreme version of social distancing in which you move your family to a remote part of Alaska out of a desire to live completely off-the-grid. The story opens in 1974, near the end of the Vietnam War. The father of the main character, Leni, has returned from the war but is no longer the father that Leni remembers. Now he is often angry and paranoid, and he makes the decision to move his family away from society.
This was one of my favorite books that I read in 2018. It is a survival story and a love story and a feminist coming-of-age story. Beauty and danger wrap around the story of Leni and her family to create a fantastic story about the resilience of the human spirit. I couldn’t put this book down; it is absolutely amazing.
“Home was a state of mind, the peace that came from being who you were and living an honest life.”
3. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
It sometimes feels like we’ve had 100 years of solitude since all this started, which is why this book came to mind when I started working on this post. It is also fitting that this is the saga of a family, and I have been quarantined with my family for the last few months. The central struggle of this book, which takes place over the course of so many years, is solitude. The Buendía family are solitary individuals who struggle to make meaning of their lives in the town of Macondo, which is itself a microcosm of the country of Colombia.
This is one of the quintessential books known as magical realism (my favorite genre) and really started the use of this genre as a way to comment on the absurdities of life because it blends reality and fantasy to create its themes. It would definitely be possible to read this book and find it a sad commentary on how we have little control over our lives, but I think that overlooks the humor of the story and the persistence of the human spirit that endures throughout the novel. One Hundred Years of Solitude was written in 1966, so it addresses the struggles of the 20th century that are both global (war, technology, and general change from “the way things used to be”) and more local (US intervention in Latin America, the growth of Banana Republics, and the inability to live life as one’s ancestors did). And although the novel does advance an argument that people have little control over their lives, what stands out to me is the way that people keep living their lives no matter what.
There are so many good quotes to choose from in this book, but ultimately I have to go with a simple one.
“There is always something left to love.”
2. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Talk about quarantine. A Gentleman in Moscow is the story of Count Alexander Rostov, who is confined in his hotel by the Soviet government. For more than thirty years, he cannot leave the hotel on pain of death. Rostov, as a member of the nobility, is an enemy of the Soviet state, but he is allowed to live (albeit on house arrest) because he once wrote something in favor of Communism. To my surprise, when I picked this up, this novel about a man who cannot go anywhere is actually not boring. In fact, it’s one of the best books I read last year!
When he is first confined to the hotel, Rostov is not sure what to do with himself but decides he may as well take advantage of the time to better himself – in much the same way that I thought going into quarantine would be a good time to get things done that I otherwise wouldn’t. This initial plan does not pan out, but Rostov discovers instead better friendships than he might have ever made outside, and he makes a life for himself that is, despite everything, happy. As might have become clear from the Allende and Marquez selections on this list, I like books that have a long time-span. I ended up with three such books on this list because while we are all stuck at home and unable to live life the way we want, I think it’s important to remember that life happens anyway and the human spirit is indomitable.
“If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.”
1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Back in early March, I was starting to get concerned that I might not be leaving my apartment for a while, so, like most people, I decided to stock up. I went to my favorite indie bookstore in Tucson and purchased several paperbacks that I (correctly) thought would be necessary. I chose Station Eleven as a bit of a joke because the main plot of the novel revolves around the aftereffects of a pandemic and the WHO had declared COVID-19 a pandemic literally the day before I bought this novel.
The pandemic in Station Eleven, however, is even worse than the coronavirus because, within a few weeks, most of the population of the world has been wiped out. The story jumps back and forth to the before and after of the virus, showing both a familiar world and an apocalyptic one. Twenty years after the pandemic, it follows a traveling circus (of-sorts), which performs classical music and Shakespeare because, as the novel repeats over and over, “Survival is insufficient.” It is not enough just to be alive; humanity requires art to really live. This is a beautiful story. I will say that it is a little stressful to read the descriptions of the world as we know it ending, but in the end, this is a hopeful novel that I think is made all the more relevant by the world we are living in today.
“We traveled so far and your friendship meant everything. It was very difficult, but there were moments of beauty. Everything ends. I am not afraid.”