Books To Read In A Pandemic

If heaven isn’t like this, I’m not going.

Last year I wrote about my resolution to make time for reading for pleasure, little imagining that very soon I would have a great deal of time for it.

The one good thing about being at home a lot (besides not having to drive anywhere) is that there seems to be more time for reading. What’s more, who doesn’t need a bit of escapism right now? In that spirit, I thought I’d write another post about what I’ve been reading.

Books I Finished

  1. Samantha Power, The Education of an Idealist. A kind of Bildungsroman of an ambitious young immigrant. I loved it.
  2. Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women. Very interesting and well-researched in terms of data and public policy.
  3. Gretchen McCulloch, Because Internet. I love all nerdy books about the growth and evolution of language. Highly recommended.
  4. Robert Carver, The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania. I am kind of obsessed with Albania and really want to visit one day when there isn’t a global pandemic. This book was a fascinating look by an outsider into post-communist society there. I’m not sure I entirely liked Mr. Carver himself, but it was still an interesting book.
  5. Bill Bryson, The Body. Good popular science reading for people like me who like reading about science but don’t know a lot about it.
  6. Lindy West, The Witches are Coming. Sharply hilarious and very, very smart.
  7. Nalini Singh, Madness of Sunshine. I picked it up because it was a whodunnit and was set in New Zealand, so in theory I was its prime target market. It didn’t really grab me, but I finished it.
  8. Liane Moriarty, Truly Madly Guilty. I love everything by Liane Moriarty. She understands human beings so well. I need her to write more novels extremely quickly because I’ve now read everything she’s written and it was all great. Unlike most mainstream authors, she also knows how to write accurately about classical music. And I’m picky about that sort of thing.
  9. Lauren Graham, Talking As Fast As I Can. Funny, quirky, and sweet.
  10. Kate Morton, The Clockmaker’s Daughter. Couldn’t put it down.
  11. Elizabeth George, A Banquet of Consequences. I love Inspector Lynley mysteries. Loved it.
  12. Elizabeth George, The Punishment She Deserves. Ditto.
  13. Lily King, Euphoria. A novel about a Margaret Mead-esque heroine and her love triangle of anthropologists. I sat up all night reading it.
  14. Philip Kennicott, Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning. An interesting take on the consolations of Bach.
  15. Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa. Brilliant and disturbing. It draws inevitable comparisons with Nabokov’s Lolita, but in a way that forces us to consider the point of view of the vulnerable teenage girl.
  16. Nell Stevens, The Victorian and the Romantic. I think I almost liked it.
  17. Timothy Egan, A Pilgrimage to Eternity. This documents Egan’s journey along the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome. It interweaves travelogue with personal reflection, random conversations with people he meets along the way, history, and above all a meditation on what the Catholic church has meant to him — in both positive and negative ways. It’s a compelling read.
  18. Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light. I loved the first two books in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, so I was eagerly awaiting this one. I was a bit disappointed, though. It was a bit of a slog getting through all the machinations and cloak-and-dagger stuff.
  19. Horatio Clare, Something of His Art: Walking to Lübeck With J. S. Bach. Retraces the steps of Bach’s famous many-kilometre walk from Arnstadt to Lübeck. Thought-provoking and touching.
  20. Tiffany Haddish, The Last Black Unicorn. I almost stopped reading several times because of things I couldn’t stomach (Haddish making fun of a disabled person, for example) but I’m glad I kept reading because ultimately it was a powerful story of a woman who practically had to raise herself when the adults in her life neglected and harmed her, but went on to become famous. I love books that go into detail about exactly how people build careers, and I loved (most of) this one.
  21. Mary Wesley, Part of the Furniture. I read this because I’d read something else by Mary Wesley that I liked. This one wasn’t that great. I finished it, but it was kind of stilted, contrived, and not as funny as it thought it was.
  22. Lily King, Writers and Lovers. After loving Euphoria, I wanted to read everything Lily King had written. This new book is even better. It’s a story about a lonely young woman apparently at rock bottom who never quits her ambition to publish a novel. You should read it.
  23. Madeline Miller, Circe. This novelized reimagining of Greek myth is seriously one of the best books I’ve read all year. I saw it advertised and didn’t think it looked like my kind of thing, but then a podcast I listen to recommended it so I checked it out of the library and WOW. It must be terribly hard to write that sort of thing, but it’s just beautifully done.
  24. Glennon Doyle, Untamed. Another book that I really wanted to like but didn’t.
  25. Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It made me feel rather ill. I think it was intended to, however.
  26. Marie Forleo, Everything is Figureoutable. Didn’t love it. Glib and simplistic. It wasn’t that different from the usual pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps hectoring so I don’t know why it’s thought to be so different and special.
  27. Marie Kondo and Scott Sonenshein, Joy at Work. I loved Kondo’s first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, so I thought I’d love this too. Unfortunately, she outsourced most of the writing to some really boring dude, so it was almost completely devoid of the glorious eccentricity of her first couple of books.
  28. Arianna Huffington, The Sleep Revolution. This book can’t decide whether it wants to be a history book, a self-help manual, or a memoir. So that you don’t have to read it, let me summarize: “You should sleep more. The end.” The best thing I can say about it was that it completely cured my insomnia.
  29. Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, Burnout. Now this is my kind of self-help book. It was everything I wanted Forleo’s book to be and more. Highly recommend for any hyperactive-yet-exhausted career woman.
  30. Kimmery Martin, The Antidote for Everything. Sometimes you want a very undemanding book to read. This could be it.
  31. Robin Di Angelo, White Fragility. I learned a great deal from this, and so would any other white person hoping to be a force for justice and anti-racism.
  32. Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race. I read it right after Di Angelo, and thought it was even better. This one is a must-read, folks.
  33. Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity In a World Made For Whiteness. This is a short book, but powerful and amazing.
  34. David Brooks, The Road to Character. I only finished it because sometimes I “hate-read” books that I hate. And I hated this one because it was preachy and awful. So that you don’t have to read it, I shall again summarize: “You are very narcissistic and entitled. You should get yourself some CHARACTER. Martin Luther King had CHARACTER. Why don’t you have CHARACTER? Pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you lazy, self-involved millennial! And get off my lawn.”
  35. Lucy Worsley, The Art of the English Murder. Delicious! Perfect for fans of Victoriana, whodunnits, and fascinatingly gorey murdery things.
  36. Jennifer Ashton, The Self-Care Solution. At first I wasn’t sure why someone as together as Jennifer Ashton needed to devote herself to self-care, since she already seemed intimidatingly fit and virtuous before her year-long journey into self-care began. But I decided to do some of the things she recommends. Some were easy, such as drink more water, walk more, avoid red meat, and stretch more, all things I habitually do anyway. But then there were a few things I really didn’t want to do: planks and push-ups (noooo! Don’t make me!), meditation (noooooooo!), and spending less time on screens. However, I dutifully did them and they made my life different and better. Especially the planking. I used to hate planking and now I love it.
  37. Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere. If you love novels about family dynamics, subtexts, and subtleties, you’ll love this. Some parts of the ending seemed a bit contrived to me, but it was still a great read.
  38. Rachel Held Evans, Inspired. Sometimes I just want to read something really different from my normal stuff, like a book about reading the Bible. It kept me reading and I learned a lot from it.
  39. Jasmine Guillory, The Proposal. Another book for a day when I just needed some girly comfort reading.
  40. Daniel H. Pink, Drive. A book about what does and doesn’t motivate people. Much more interesting than I thought it would be.
  41. Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You. Just as gripping a read as Little Fires Everywhere, but darker.
  42. Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing. Great storytelling and an amazing story.
  43. Lisa Jewell, The Family Upstairs. A creepy psycho-thriller-esque type thing. It didn’t quite work somehow, but I still enjoyed it.
  44. Juliet Marillier, Shadowfell. I’m not usually a huge fan of fantasy/folklore type things, but Juliet Marillier’s writing is just so gorgeous that I loved it.
  45. Gill Hornby, Miss Austen. A gorgeous historical novel that imagines Cassandra Austen in later life, post-Jane. It was entrancingly lovely. I don’t always really go for modern takes on Austen (with the exception of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible), but this was cool because it was new material but absolutely believable and sympathetic.

Books I Started But Didn’t Finish

I don’t like to admit this, but I often start books and don’t finish them. In my last post about books, I wrote about trying really hard not to do this. I guess I need to try harder? There’s something about my ADHD brain that makes me either love a book or find it intolerably boring, and if I’m bored I’m usually not going to persist. This is obviously a reprehensible failing of mine, but at the same time, I don’t want to spend my one wild and precious life chewing through a book I’m not loving, so…

  1. Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake. I actually did like this one, but didn’t finish it because it had to go back to the library and a gazillion people had it on hold. I hope to finish it if I can get hold of it again.
  2. Carmine Gallo, Talk Like TED. It’s my secret ambition to give a TED Talk one day, so I had high hopes of this book, but I got bored halfway through.
  3. Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra. I’m not sure how it’s possible to make a book about Cleopatra boring, but the author has managed.
  4. Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers. Why are all Malcolm Gladwell books the same?
  5. Tina Hay, Napkin Finance. I was hoping it would convince me to get my act together, but it didn’t.
  6. Jack Hartnell, Medieval Bodies. I tried to read it while I was sick in bed but kept falling asleep and then it had to go back to the library.
  7. Virginia Kantra, Meg & Jo. A modern-day retelling of Little Women. I made it about 20 pages in.
  8. Ruth Reichl, Garlic and Sapphires. I thought I would like it, but I didn’t and I can’t remember why.
  9. Gary Shteyngart, Lake Success. I’ve loved other Gary Shteyngart books, but this one didn’t do it for me.
  10. Sarah Rose, D-Day Girls. I’m a bit of a WW2 buff and usually like things like this, but I couldn’t get into it.
  11. Tomi Adeyemi, Children of Virtue and Vengeance. This one was actually really good, but it had to go back to the library before I finished it.
  12. Rebecca Todd Peters, Trust Women. OK, I will. Can I do it without finishing the book?
  13. Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August. It felt like the sort of book I ought to read, but I kept finding almost any excuse in the world to put it down and pick up something else.
  14. John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga. The TV version is better.
  15. Amy Stewart, Girl Waits With Gun. I actually can’t remember one thing about it.
  16. Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny, Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When the Stakes Are High. I’ve tried to read it three times and failed every time.
  17. Sara Paretsky, Fallout. I normally love her books so I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get into this one.
  18. Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. If we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, I’d probably have liked it.
  19. Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now. I keep hearing about how amazing this book is, so I tried to read it but had to stop because it was dreadful.
  20. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Alas, I will never find out what they are, because I couldn’t even make it through #1. I have also forgotten what #1 even was, except that it was a snoozefest.
  21. Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns. I didn’t mean to abandon this one, I just put it down somewhere and forgot about it. Might try to find it and have another go.
  22. Bob Spitz, Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. Julia Child’s life is so interesting that you wouldn’t think any book about it could be boring. This one is.
  23. David McCullough, The Pioneers. It’s interesting and well-written, but I couldn’t concentrate on it enough to persist.

Currently On The Coffee Table

  1. Orlando Figes, The Europeans. Terrifyingly erudite but also fascinating.
  2. Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic. I’m 40 pages in and it’s great.
  3. Paul Krugman, Arguing With Zombies. It’s really interesting to read his work from over the past twenty years to make sense of recent history. Plus, I’m learning a lot about economics.
  4. Iain McGilchrist, The Divided Brain and the Search For Meaning. I love books about brains, so I have high hopes.
  5. Leigh Stein, Self Care. Haven’t started it yet. I don’t know what I need another self-help book, but we all have hobbies about which we know we ought to know better.
  6. Amy Morin, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. I haven’t started this one either, but it came highly recommended by a friend whose opinions on books are usually trustworthy, so we’ll see.

What are the best books you’ve read during the pandemic?


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