I remember walking dogs with a neighbour in February, and talking about whether or not we thought this coronavirus would be A Thing that affected our lives. But when COVID struck northern Italy, it really caught my attention. One of my kids and I began talking about it, the preparations we were each making, what it might look like. We both realized that we were kind of fascinated by the incoming tsunami and its implications, that while it was horrifying, it was also really interesting to us.
This kind of story has always held fascination for me. Just as I love traveling and visiting markets and seeing how people live in different places, so I am quite intrigued by how people make their way through very difficult times. I watched the movie I Am Legend with great disappointment — I didn’t realize somehow that it would turn out to be a red-eyed zombie movie. Instead I wanted to know what happened when the animals escaped the zoo, and grass began growing in New York City. (The idea of nature reclaiming developed spaces is a really compelling one. Red eyes not so much.) I loved the memoir Testament of Youth whose author (Vera Brittain) paints a detailed portrait of her shift from idealistic patriot at the start of World War 1 to devastated pacifist by the end.
And so, unlike those who either found they couldn’t read at the start of the lockdown or who read escapist stuff, one of the types of books I’ve been drawn to in this time has been pandemic reading–reading about pandemics.
In case you also are interested in this kind of reading, I thought I’d share some reviews of these books with you.
The first book to come to mind was one I read a few years back. I recommend Station Elevenby Emily St. John Mandel so very highly. Most of this book is set in a post-pandemic world, and it look at what culture and artefacts survive, and how. A line from Star Trek is held onto — survival is insufficient. This book is haunting and lovely. I picked it up from the bookshelf in March to read the initial chapters about the sudden onset of pandemic, and I shuddered. And yet I still recommend it highly to you.
The Last Man by Mary Shelley was the first pandemic book I read during this time. Just as her novel Frankenstein has a new Adam, so this novel has his inverse — the final man standing on earth. In the first third of the novel, set in the late 21st century when people travel by balloon, Shelley builds up a sometimes tedious world akin to a poorly realized Regency romance with some politics added in. But gradually come rumours of plague from the south of Europe. Surely it will be contained. It can’t reach England. Gentle Reader, it reaches England. It reaches everywhere. It is the process in which this happens and the way the main characters respond that make this book finally come to life, even as most of the world’s population is dying. This book was written after the death of Shelley’s beloved husband and several of her children. It’s a book about grief, but it is also one about nobility in the face of disaster. Characters are modeled after Shelley’s circle of friends, living and dead, a way of memorializing them. It is considered to be the first dystopian novel and was shunned for more than a century. This book felt more like a literary exercise to read than anything else, but some of the images and characters have stayed with me since, so I might recommend reading the first third quickly and then going along for the wild and tragic ride. I read this book as a free e-book through Gutenberg.
Saleema Nawaz has toiled since 2013 on a novel about–get this–a global coronavirus in 2020, greatly affecting New York City. That has to be awkward if not frightening. The Montreal author’s book, Songs for the End of the World, was scheduled to come out at the end of the summer but the e-book of the novel got bumped up to the spring. When the libraries were closed, I bought the e-book to read. And it’s excellent. I believe I was doing a contact tracing course as I read this book, and that gave me eyes to read the book, which contains a cast of characters whose stories are intricately interconnected in a web not unlike the ways in which we have all come to know our own connectedness to everyone in the world, both for good and for ill, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow. The interlocking nature of the stories did make me have to go back and forth to reread previous chapters, but that was a pleasure. This is a warm book more than a scary book, a book about the choices we make and how they can come back to haunt us. I highly recommend this one.
I read The Odyssey for the first time last year. I shouldn’t have been surprised (but I was) that the story was timeless, interesting, compelling and funny. I think somehow I had concluded that a story written more than 28 centuries ago would be dusty and dull, but the reality is that it wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been such a good story, so well told. (My enjoyment also benefited from an amazing new translation, the first English translation by a woman, Dr. Emily Wilson.) When I started to see a theme to my reading, I knew that one of the books I wanted to read was The Decameron. This book was written by Bocaccio in the years immediately following the Black Death decimated much of the world–with tax records in Florence, Italy (the town where Boccaccio lived and set this collection) showing that 80% of the city died within four months! You’d think that such a book might be gloomy, but it is by far the lightest of all the pandemic books I’ve read so far. The book begins with the plague in Florence, and a group fo seven young women and three young men deciding that their best course of action is to retreat (with servants and delightful food!) to a villa in the countryside for two weeks. There they decide that each day (with the exception of Fridays and Saturdays, for Sabbath reasons) they will appoint a king or queen of the day who will choose a theme for storytelling, and that each member of the company must tell a story on that theme each day. 10 days x 10 storytellers = 100 short stories. The book is considered a model for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and is filled with humourous stories, moralistic stories, and a lot of sex (especially between people married to others, and between priests and nuns). I was intrigued by the schedule of the villa dwellers, who woke with the dawn, then hung out in the gardens together before eating breakfast and retiring to sleep before passing the late afternoon in storytelling, and then the evening eating and in diversions. Afternoon has rarely seemed like the time for storytelling, but it appeared to work for these ten. I found the stories diverting at first but they did begin to blend together after a while. I was envious, too, of the young people who decided it was safe to return to the city and their usual lives after their two-week sojourn and before things became tedious.
That’s the end of the first part of my pandemic reading. I have a few other pandemic books I plan to read — Year of Wonders, Moon of the Crusted Snow (the One Book One Community bookfor Waterloo Region this year) and The Stand. First I have a stack of non-pandemic books piling up to join me on holidays. I’d welcome other pandemic suggestions, though, too, as well as your response to any of these books.