This is hardly a comprehensive list of what’s best to read while staying home and staying safe–but some of these books turned out to be applicable to our current situation! Now that we’ve been enduring locked-down life for four months, I’m thinking that the next book to read now has one or more of these features:
- It has themes that relate to the present situation but not too closely. I don’t feel like reading about viral pandemic dystopia and/or political horror at this time–beyond keeping up with the news–but reading about people in the past or fiction getting through difficult situations can be inspiring and remind us of other problems we don’t have!
- It transports the reader to another place or time. This helps make up for being unable to travel!
- It’s long yet compelling. You want to keep picking it up, and it keeps you busy for a while, helping time pass faster.
- You already own a copy, or you can get it easily.
Don’t miss my guide to family discussion of a 1951 science-fiction story that’s available free online, or my explanation of why Food Fix is such an important book for 2020! Meanwhile, here are some other books I’ve read aloud to my 6-year-old Lydia and some I’ve read to myself in the past two months. . . .
By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Although this book follows On the Banks of Plum Creek [discussed here] in the Little House series, it’s a significantly more grown-up story. The Ingalls family has been living at Plum Creek for several years, and Laura is almost 13 when an aunt they haven’t seen in years drops by on her way from Wisconsin to the Dakota Territory, offering Pa an opportunity to work on the railroad and claim a Dakota homestead. Soon the family is off on a new adventure, beginning with their first-ever ride on a train!
The restless adolescent Laura loves seeing new places, trying new things, and being surrounded by vast empty prairie [shudder–not my scene!] . . . but she also feels the weight of her family’s expectations that she will become a teacher, earn money to send her older sister Mary to college, keep her sunbonnet up and her face pale, and “act like a lady.” Laura does not want to do any of these things! Her feelings of conflict, responsibility, fascination with the wild west, and annoyance with but also respect for Mary are vividly evoked.
The book opens with the family recovering from scarlet fever, which has left Mary blind. Lydia and I talked about how a bad sickness, even if it doesn’t kill you, can change your life forever; that’s why we don’t want to catch coronavirus! The Ingalls family’s winter on Silver Lake, staying behind while all the railroad workers went back east for the winter, puts them in a situation far more isolated than ours: The house is well-stocked with supplies, but they literally cannot get to a store for anything, and there are no neighbors whose activities can be watched from the window or whose clarinet practice forms a background soundtrack to their lives.
My partner Daniel and I also found that this book relates to issues that have been on our minds as the United States confronts our history of structural racism: Freed slaves were famously promised 40 acres and a mule in 1865, but that promise was broken almost immediately. Well, what I realized reading By the Shores of Silver Lake is that, just two decades later, Pa Ingalls was able to get 160 acres by paying a small filing fee and living on the land and “improving” it (by destroying the prairie ecosystem to make a farm)–and when I looked it up, I learned that the Homestead Act actually was passed in 1862. So, we couldn’t manage to take land away from traitors who had perpetrated an armed uprising against the United States and give it to people who had suffered in slavery all their lives and were now homeless and penniless, but at the very same time we could take land away from native people who had lived responsibly on it for generations and give four times as much land per family to white people who felt like moving farther west because they were tired of having neighbors?!
Wow, America, why have we so often done such a terrible job of being the land of opportunity, equality, and awesomeness that we’re supposed to be?!? It’s enough to make me want to visit someplace else, at least on paper. . . .
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Milo is an ordinary urban kid so accustomed to his everyday life that he can’t see much reason to care about anything. Then he notices that a toy tollbooth, with assembly instructions, has been delivered to his bedroom; he owns a small electric car, so why not play road trip? Nothing better to do . . . Milo drives into the Lands Beyond and has adventures, learning about words, numbers, colors, and most of all perspective. He teams up with a Watchdog and a Humbug to fight off demons and rescue the princesses of Rhyme and Reason.
This is a fantastical, pun-filled, silly book that ultimately conveys two core ideas: No one type of thinking or communication is sufficient on its own, and even the most humdrum life is filled with interesting things to see, do, and think. If you’re feeling like you just don’t know what to do with yourself and nothing seems to matter, maybe this story will help you get back to feeling like you hardly have time for a journey because there’s so much to do right here!
Ramona Forever by Beverly Cleary
Third-grader Ramona Quimby is tired of going to her neighbor Howie’s house after school while her parents work–she feels unwelcome, especially after Howie’s uncle comes home from working in Saudi Arabia and everyone thinks he’s so great, but he’s really annoying! Meanwhile, her father is finishing college and looking for a job, the family cat dies, her aunt is getting married, and her mother is going to have a baby! It’s a season of big changes, funny adventures, and further development of Ramona’s ability to be a hero rather than a pest.
No pandemic-related insights here, but we all can learn a lot from Ramona. I thoroughly enjoyed yet another reading of this book first published when I was 11–I still own my original hardcover copy–which I read to my son several times when he was younger and was now sharing with Lydia for the first time.
Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster
Of all the books reviewed here, this is the only one I wouldn’t recommend. It starts off with a relatable premise: A man is in a room and isn’t sure when he’ll be able to leave. Add the interesting wrinkle that he doesn’t know how he got there, who he is, what he was just doing, or any of that useful stuff–he has to figure it out based on the written material and photographs in the room, the people who visit him, and the fragments of memory that come back to him.
That sounds pretty cool, but it was just frustrating, because there wasn’t enough figuring-out to suit me; a lot of things were left extremely enigmatic. And that horse shown on the cover wasn’t in the book at all! Ugh, let’s just move on to a good book.
The Veiled One by Ruth Rendell
Inspector Wexford buys his wife’s birthday present and drives out of the underground car-park at the new shopping complex–and a few hours later is informed that a dead body was found in the car-park just afterward, so he must have driven right past it. Meanwhile, his famous actress daughter, Sheila, is getting divorced–according to the newspaper headline, anyway. Sheila’s drama almost gets Wexford killed, and while he’s in the hospital Inspector Burden takes charge of the murder investigation, screwing things up with his assumptions. Meanwhile, the woman who found the body is really creepy and must be up to something, but is it the murder or something else she’s done?
This is a classic Inspector Wexford mystery (published 1988) and it really comes together neatly both with the clues and with the recurring-character subplots. It stands on its own well enough that I think you could read this one first without needing background from earlier books in the series. (But I’ve read a lot of them! But I didn’t read them anything like in order and didn’t get to the first one until recently, and it worked out fine. It’s fun to get to know Wexford at various ages.)
It’s interesting at this moment in time to read a book in which two detectives are suspicious of a man in his twenties because he lives with his mother. These days it’s so common, they’d totally miss that clue!
Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
This novel begins with Jo in 2015 having many of the things that are so common these days: a cell phone, a lesbian wife, and breast cancer. Then we go back to 1950 to begin the story of Jo and her sister Bethie taking their different paths through decades in which what was so common for women these days kept changing, and each of them in her own way explored some of the fringes of what was possible in a woman’s life. This is one of those long, compelling novels that takes you to places as well as times and, along with a cornucopia of female experiences, shows how a Black man’s life matters. [And what are YOU going to do about it?]
It also gave me a lot to think about in parallel with hearing about the experiences of working mothers during the pandemic. Motherhood is not the only factor taking Jo and Bethie out of conventional career trajectories, but it plays a role, along with their own experience of having a working mother.
My one complaint about this book is that its travel through time needed a more alert editor. The chapter headings are inconsistent about keeping you posted on what year it is, and sometimes people’s ages don’t quite match the year. There are some anachronisms, just enough to annoy me a bit. Mostly I felt like I could “see” the place and time clearly, and I really enjoyed this journey through two sisters’ very different lives.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
This long, compelling journey through the lives of four generations, from 1910 to 1989, takes place mostly on the other side of the world and has no white characters, no Black characters, and plenty of racism. It was an interesting counterpoint to both Black Lives Matter and the persistence of some people’s idea that because COVID-19 got started in China it’s somehow okay to harass Chinese or even Asian-American people.
Hoonie has some disabilities, but he can earn a living and take a wife, Yangjin. They run a boardinghouse in a fishing village in Korea. After Hoonie’s death, their daughter Sunja’s unmarried pregnancy leads to her marrying Isak, a Korean Christian minister who was just passing through their village when he developed tuberculosis and had to stay in their boarding house for months–Sunja and Yangjin saved his life, and now he will save their family honor and take care of Sunja and the baby in Japan, where he will minister to the Korean immigrant community. The wars of the 1940s and 1950s make it impossible for Sunja and her sons to return to Korea even after Isak’s death, despite ethnic and religious persecution, poverty, and qualms about accepting help from Sunja’s elder son’s father, whose career is lucrative but not entirely honorable. Later, the family begins to build its own fortune on candy sales and pachinko parlors, achieving a decent standard of living without ever escaping the feelings of struggle that go along with being an unwelcome minority. Sunja’s son Noa finally breaks away from the family and passes for Japanese in both his career and his marriage, and he’s successful–so was that wrong? There are many, many interesting decision points and moral dilemmas in this story of an ethnic group whose experiences I knew nothing about.
Here’s to learning more about the full range of Earthling experience by reading good books in our own homes! Read other writers’ book reviews at Quick Lit and Show Us Your Books! Get great tips on many topics at Hearth & Soul!