As the lockdown continues, I’ve found my attention span dwindling along with my drive to do anything remotely effective. Outside of working, eating, and occasionally crafting, my brain’s reservoirs of focus and motivation have run dry. It’s only gotten worse as the weeks drag on. Unusually for me, I have discovered that I am still able to and have a lot of enthusiasm for reading. Typically, when the world falls apart or my anxiety rears its ugly head, my love of literature is the first thing to dissipate so that my mind has more room for existential crises and stress-induced panic. It makes a pleasant change to be able to read right now, although the flipside is that I find it near-impossible to watch anything new or longer than two hours right now. You win some, you lose some.
I’ve also turned to spontaneous book buying as a means to cope with these trying times. If there’s a book I want to read and it’s priced lower than £2 on Kindle, I buy it without a second thought. The same goes for eBay purchases: Is there something I want to read that’s cheaper there than anywhere else online? Then just get it and let your TBR pile grow exponentially. Hey, it’s therapy right now, not greed, okay?
Everyone copes in their own unique ways, so maybe reading isn’t your thing right now, but if it is, I’ve compiled a list of the books that have proven especially healing or distracting during this peculiar and utterly aggravating moment in history. Enjoy, and be sure to leave your own recommendations in the comments section. It’s not as if I need even more reason to buy more books or anything…
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Steven did a post breaking down this year’s nominees for Best Novel at the Hugo Awards and discussed this book, which was where my interest was sufficiently piqued. I don’t tend to read a lot of space opera hard sci-fi, but I’m glad I gave this one a chance. Set in a space empire inspired by both Byzantine and pre-Columbian history, A Memory Called Empire is a fascinating and impeccably precise examination of the concept of empire and how it dominates every aspect of life. For a book of such heavy subject matter, I found this one surprisingly easy to become engrossed by. Martine is incredibly smart in her understanding of colonialism and how, even at its most insidious and destructive, it can remain alluring to outsiders such as our protagonist, an ambassador from an independent mining colony who grew up loving the literature and culture of the force she has been ordered to oppose. I haven’t read the other Hugo nominees yet — I do have most of them on my Kindle though, and I’m particularly eager to start Gideon the Ninth — but A Memory of Empire would certainly be a worthy winner. It’s one of my top reads of 2020 so far, which is clearly just as worthy a prize as a Hugo.
Bodily Harm // Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
I have loved Margaret Atwood’s work since I was a teenager who first read The Handmaid’s Tale but it’s taken me far too long to check out the lion’s share of her back-catalog. I’ve owned a lot of her books for years but never gotten round to reading them until I had the spare time that only a literal pandemic could provide, so I started off with a couple of the shorter ones. Surfacing is a Plath-esque existential drama about a woman who returns to her hometown after her father goes missing, while Bodily Harm follows a jaded journalist who goes to a tiny Caribbean island ostensibly to write a puff piece on its tourism but finds herself embroiled in a personal and political nightmare. The latter title reminded me a lot of Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted, not just because there were several thematic similarities but because both women write so well about the internal lives of women and their desire to be unknowable. Atwood is never a breezy read but every word lingers and that’s sometimes exactly what you need. I have Cat’s Eye on my TBR pile alongside several other Atwood titles. I just need to get through the forty or so other books in the way.
Tender is the flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
If I were to pick a 2020 release as my absolute favorite read of the year so far, it would go to Tender is the Flesh, no question. This fascinating but utterly devastating Argentinian novel imagines a world where cannibalism is not only legal but a multi-million dollar industry. Marcos is an apathetic worker in this business, one who quietly resents the way that everyone has quickly accepted eating humans as the norm. He tours slaughterhouses, providing advice on the best cuts of meat, and talks to giddy scientists who perform Frankenstein-esque experiments on unwilling participants. Tender is the Flesh does not skimp on the details, but where it shines is in its exploration of language. How do you normalize something as abhorrent as cannibalism? You change and soften the vocabulary around it, turning human flesh into ‘special meat’ and sobbing humans into ‘stock.’ I have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to literature and I grew up on Hannibal Lecter, so I thought I would be more prepared for this novel than I was. That notion went out the window in one chapter. This is, clearly, not an easy read, but I found so much to appreciate and consider in its deliberate repulsiveness, and as with the best dystopian titles, it’s horrifyingly plausible.
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin
It’s been a good past few years for South American literature, and between Tender is the Flesh and the work of Samanta Schweblin, I am eager to explore more works by Argentinian authors. Schweblin’s short story collection Mouthful of Birds was a literary highlight of 2019 for me thanks to its Dali-esque strangeness. Little Eyes is more grounded in reality, depicting a disparate group of people around the world connected through a hot new toy that’s somewhere between a Furby and a military surveillance device. Kentuckis are the next big thing. These adorable stuffed animals have cameras for eyes and can be controlled remotely. The catch? You either by the kentucki itself or the control and you have no idea who’s on the other side of this curious relationship. Little Eyes is more interested in the smaller and more personal possibilities of such a premise, from the emerging black market around the kentuckis to the ways that human connection evolves via these oddly primitive toys. Literature is full of ‘beware of technology’ stories but Little Eyes has a quieter approach that brings some much-needed humanity to the genre.
The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper
Do you need something sweet right now? Do you need the comfort of romance and the optimism of a brighter world where people are working for the good of humanity? Then boy do I have a book for you. Phil Stamper’s YA debut The Gravity of Us follows Cal, a 17-year-old budding journalist whose life changes dramatically when his father becomes the final choice for NASA’s first mission to Mars. The process is being documented by a gauche reality T.V. series to provide publicity for the mission, meaning that Cal will not only have to give up his own dreams but put on the facade of the perfect son for the cameras in a whole new city. On the bright side, at least NASA H.Q. has Leon, another ‘Astrokid’ who understands the perils of their position and also happens to be extremely cute. The Gravity of Us will cure what ails you: The romance is tenderly depicted, the voice feels authentic, Stamper taps into issues of anxiety and depression with empathy and quiet understanding, and it was refreshing to read a story where social media forms a crucial part of a young person’s life that wasn’t written in full ‘How do you do, fellow kids’ mode. Cal’s personal life unfolds to the backdrop of NASA’s newest mission, which provides an intriguing exploration of how the space race appropriated the post-war American dream ideas and aesthetics to sell its message, and how such a concept would and wouldn’t work in the 21st century.
(Full disclaimer: I am Twitter friends with Phil, I received this book from the publisher before its release, and Phil and I did some YA detective work together a couple of years back.)
Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey
I read a lot of crime novels, although I tend to skew cozier and Canadian these days. Jess Lourey’s novel is a decidedly darker experience, inspired by the real-life case of Jacob Wetterling. Cassie, our protagonist, seems like your typical pre-teen girl living in a small Minnesota town, until kids start disappearing and the true horror of her life is exposed. As the title suggests, Unspeakable Things unfolds in quietly devastating ways, revealing the pain and trauma that goes unspoken in Cassie’s life. Given how much of our current pop culture relies on a deeply rose-tinted view of the 1980s and that cutesy small-town life, there was something particularly sharp about this novel in how it slowly decimated that nostalgia by reminding us all of the era’s true terrors: Stranger Danger, homophobia, small-town paranoia, the ineptitude and active abuses of the police force, and so on.
Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin
Pop culture is, frankly, overloaded with retellings, reimaginings, and straight-up rip-offs of Jane Austen’s work. It seems like every half-arsed rom-com wants to pretend it’s Pride and Prejudice without doing any of the work to evoke what makes that novel so timeless and sharply-worded in its dissection of Regency society’s smothering constraints. The delightful debut novel of columnist Uzma Jalaluddin transports Lizzie and Darcy’s story to modern-day Toronto’s Muslim community. Ayesha is a newly qualified teacher, uninterested in marriage, working to pay off her debts, and help keep her flighty cousin Hafsa in line as she goes through her countless prospective husbands. When she meets Khalid, it’s hate at first sight. Sure, he’s handsome but he’s also far more conservative than she and judgmental as all hell. Of course, we all know how this one will end, but Jalaluddin manages to bring out such depths and subtleties in a beloved story. She uses Austen’s narrative to explore issues of faith, family expectations, Islamophobia, and the pressure to assimilate to white Christian society’s demands. As is befitting the best Pride and Prejudice adaptations, it’s also very funny and romantic and wholly delightful.
A Veritable f**kton of Phantom of the Opera retellings
There are fun sides to being an adult with disposable income who lives alone and answers to nobody, and one aspect of that is being able to indulge my inner 15-year-old fangirl to my heart’s content. I wrote before about my deep abiding love for my incel basement trash man and the glory that is The Phantom of the Opera, and the recent YouTube charity screening of the musical sparked my fandom glee once more, which led to me purchasing many retellings of the story on Kindle and eBay. Are a lot of these clearly just musical fan-fic with the serial numbers scrubbed off? Sure. Do I care? Not really. I won’t list every sad purchase I’ve made this year — trust me, it’s a lot, and I’m not even finished yet — but I will give a shout out to one title that proved particularly interesting. Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fine is a YA drama set in a slaughterhouse that is, of course, haunted by a ghost who’s not really a ghost. I appreciated the unique setting to this one and how it used a familiar story as its foundations without being too reliant on the source material.