25 books to get you through quarantine and beyond
While I’ve probably spent more time studying other people’s bookshelves on the news recently than actually reading, looking away from a screen is rewarding. Which is why I’m surprised to see anyone out on their daily constitutional with their head down, gawping at a smart phone. Anyhow. That’s Not My Business… Finding solace and stimulation through reading is always a good idea, even more so during lockdown. So, this week the That’s Not My Age team and friends have rounded up some of their favourite reads – here are 25 books to get you through quarantine and beyond:
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie (Travel literature)
These psychogeographical essays on wildlife and archeology, mostly in the remote Scottish aisles are ultimate escapism. A sublimely lyrical prose writer as well as a poet, it’s a crime she’s never been Makar (Scottish poet laureate).
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Historical Fiction)
The whimsical, gentle, humorous exploits of a Russian aristocrat quarantined in the faded splendour of a Moscow hotel during the Revolution. You’ll fall head over heels in love with him.
Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel (Fiction)
An overweight medium is hag-ridden by spirits. Humour at its blackest – and proof, if we needed it – that Mantel is a uniquely inspired writer who doesn’t just ‘do history.’
Falling Awake by Alice Oswald (Poetry)
The best poetry collection I’ve read in the past 12 months. Oswald’s meditations on humanity have the impact of a slap from an exquisite feather. Her poem Swan is especially stunning.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter (Fiction)
What is there new to say about grieving? By turning poet Ted Hughes’ Crow into grief personified, Porter’s breathtaking honesty and often shocking bolts of humour brings some oddly reassuring insights to the wake.
Brother by David Chariandy (Fiction)
This award-winner is about brothers Michael and Francis, sons of a multiple-job-working, Trinidadian-immigrant mother. The story is a coming-of-age romance set in 1991 against a multi-cultural, urban backdrop infused by hip hop, social and racial inequality. Chariandy’s writing is nuanced and sensitive, so the characters’ relationships take the starring role, while the reality of their circumstances hums in the background, until that fateful, coming-of-age-moment.
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (Fiction)
Michaels made her name as a poet, so the prose in this story is visual, sensual and utterly visceral as it sucks you into the story of Jakob Beer, a young Polish boy rescued from the mud by a Greek scientist at the end of WW2. This story is about love, memory and how both colour life’s journey. It features two of my favourite quotes, “All grief, anyone’s grief…is the weight of a sleeping child,” and,“Love makes you see a place differently, just as you hold differently an object that belongs to someone you love.”
One on One: 101 True Encounters by Craig Brown (Non Fiction)
Brilliantly recounting weird, wonderful and whimsical (true) stories of well-known personalities and their one-on-one encounters, this is a great book if you are having trouble concentrating on anything longer than a few pages (the average length of each account). It reads like a series of short, amusing stories except they are chain-linked: Frank Lloyd Wright meets Marilyn Monroe, then Marilyn Monroe meets Nikita Khrushchev and so on… . Want to know why Noël Coward thought the Beatles were ‘bad-mannered little shits’? Read this.
The Moth introduced by Neil Gaiman (Non Fiction)
The Moth started as a live story-telling event in the US twenty years ago. It has since evolved into a popular podcast, and many of the remarkable stories on TED talks first came to light on The Moth stage. This book is a compilation of 50 of their ‘best of the best’ true stories with titles like: Don’t Fall in Love with your Monkey and Bicycle Safety on Essex. It is a buffet of high-profile story-tellers like Dr Lombardi who was summoned to save Mother Teresa’s life and rock rhyming with Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC. It will have you feeling like you are sitting around a campfire.
It’s hard to believe that this complex-but-simple story of a lonely deaf-mute, who befriends a series of misfits through his gentle kindness, is the debut novel of a 23-year old woman. It reminds me a lot of the bitter-sweet style of To Kill a Mockingbird – not because it, too, is set in the American deep south (at the tail end of the Depression), but because it stands up to re-reading decades later as a reminder that human nature hasn’t changed that much.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Fiction)
OK, maybe this is not the best time to be reading about a hospital visit but this is an exceptional story for exceptional times. Simmering with unrequited emotion as the estranged mother and daughter try and re-connect after years apart, recalling memories and trying to unravel tensions unexplained. Especially apt when we’re thinking more of our elders right now.
Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times edited by Neil Astley (Poetry)
I’ve chosen poems for all manner of occasions from this anthology that is both uplifting and thought-provoking, and half the fun is in sifting though to find THE one that suits your moment best. I turn to the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver in every crisis.
Set in 1930 Berlin between the wars, it evokes an era of genteel gradual decline. The author/narrator meets extraordinary people who flit through his life – Isherwood lived in Berlin from 1929-33 and kept diaries to draw from. Can’t believe I’ve never read this before, guess I’d always imagined him a pompous author. I suppose he was, but this is a gem!
Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G.Wodehouse (Fiction)
If there’s anything calculated to bring out a burst of joy it’s a jolly PG Wodehouse Jeeves book (and memories of that fabulous TV series with Bertie Wooster and Jeeves brilliantly portrayed by Stephen Fry). Totally camp and full of clichés, but you have to give Wodehouse credit for creating a character that endures.
Paradise by Edna O’Brien (Fiction)
An evocative tale analysing a weird, complex relationship between the female narrator, on holiday with a rich world-weary older man. This quick but electric read gave me an ever-lasting love for this great Irish author who is still writing at the age of 89.
What happens now? by Sophia Money-Coutts (Fiction)
Hilarious, laugh-out-loud page-turner featuring single girl Lil – who gets into a fix – plus a cast of well-crafted characters. Likened to Jilly Cooper, Sophia’s stories are like your favourite chocolate bar – sweet, soothing and easy to gobble up.
This is well-written fiction that could so easily be a tale so very close to home. Neighbourly friendships turn from adoration and fascination via a twist of jealousy to create a middle-class tale of our times…
Lisboeta by Nuno Mendes (Food & Travel )
A weighty substantial tome, which celebrates the food and culture of Lisbon in a brilliant travelogue format. Portraits, lifestyle and travel photography sit happily alongside Nuno’s recipes and diary observations from ‘Portugal’s City of Light’.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (Fiction)
It’s easy to fall for this funny and curious tale of love, set between the backdrop of the Ligurian coastline and Hollywood. Brilliantly written and absorbing.
The Confession by Jessie Burton (Fiction)
A contrasting style to The Miniaturist, this novel by Jessie Burton is gripping from the very beginning. Lead character Rose searches for the answers to an unknown part of her life in this moving feast of fiction.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Fiction)
To be honest, this could’ve been any one of Atkinson’s books. This tale of a well-to-do family during wartime England (WW2) is told in a brilliant, engaging way. Different versions of the same story – both happy and sad, take your pick – follow on from each other as the clever narrative twists and turns.
The disappearance of a former architect in her 50s is told through a series of emails, faxes and fictional documents by her 15-year-old daughter, Bee. Both witty and touching, Where’ D You Go…was made into a film by Richard Linklater, starring Cate Blanchett as Bernadette Fox.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Fiction)
The author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Visit From The Goon Squad, turned to historical fiction for her most recent novel. Set in 20th century Brooklyn, the elegantly written story follows the Kerrigan family from the Depression through the Second World War. Daughter Anna’s mental and physical struggle to become the first female deep sea diver at the naval yard is one of the highlights.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Fiction)
The day-to-day life of an American woman ( teacher, wife and mother) in the midst of marital breakdown, comes in highly readable fragments. Poignant and smart, this could be the perfect book if you’re finding it hard to concentrate during lockdown. Though, try not to dwell on the subject matter too much….
French Exit by Patrick Dewitt (Fiction)
This absurd comedy about a 65-year-old New York socialite and her grown-up son who move to Paris when catastrophe strikes, is one for those dreaming of a future trip to the French capital.
Find these titles at your local bookshop, or buy them online with Bookshop – who support a local independent bookshop of your choice with every purchase you make.
Why not read your books aloud? Alexia Economou explores the joy of reading aloud, at all ages HERE