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The Great Pandemic Reading List...So Far

We just crossed over the one year mark for life in lockdown in San Francisco. I thought it a good time to look back at the books I've read during this strange time, with great gratitude to their authors for providing me with sanity, humor, hope, escape, inspiration, and solace. 

From top to bottom, because I can't actually remember the order I read these in:

Before and After the Book Deal, by Courtney Maum. This giant happy book of practical advice should be assigned reading for anyone in an MFA or considering an MFA or deciding they don't need/want an MFA but who would really, really, really like to have a book out someday. It has loads of humor and useful information that was completely news to me about the process of book publication and beyond. True fact: books about publishing usually leave me feeling like I might as well give up before even starting. This book was a beautiful antidote to that. I was inspired to read it after listening to an interview with the author on my favorite writing podcast WMFA (which I also recommend to all aspiring writers). 

Zyzzyva, issue no. 119. My favorite experience of reading a literary journal is immediately being inspired to sit down and write. This issue did just that. I read it while sitting in a camping chair in my favorite pandemic-friendly ball field (read; there are no balls, just field) in Golden Gate Park. 

Sarajevo Marlboro, by Miljenko Jergovic. This collection of tiny stories set in the time surrounding the Bosnian war is a delight of tiny details. Each story holds a moment connected to the war but even more shows how much life is continuing on, if different. Not at all unlike this pandemic moment we are living in now. It's a book to savor.

The Thank You Project: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time, by Nancy Davis Kho. The delightful author of this book (who I met through a writers conference waaaay back in 2012) wrote fifty letters of gratitude to fifty people (or pastimes or places!) that had shaped her in some way in honor of turning fifty. This book will inspire you to write at least one postcard. Just the process of reading through the categories made me think about who, what, and where that has had a positive impact on me. This reflection during a scary time of pandemic living really helped me see this moment in greater scope. It inspired me to write a letter of gratitude to my father who is living with Alzheimers. And at no time did I feel judged by the fact I wouldn't get much farther than that in my letter writing this year. 

Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi. We read this for my beloved book club. Book club went mostly virtual with just a couple socially-distanced meetups in the Botanical Garden at Golden Gate Park. I love my book club fiercely. We all know each other through work at a company that all but two of us have left. We have a no-guilt rule so that if you don't or can't read that every-other-monthly pick you are not shamed. We rotate who picks the book and who provides the tasty treats. I think we've been together for seven, eight, nine years? Book clubs are a gift. This was a fun read, taking many of us back to life as a teenager. All Adults Here, by Emma Straub was also a book club read. Also a fun one. Fun reads to escape into may not sound like much, but when you are trying to find a moment of joy in a pandemic, they are a good start. 

The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin. Holy crap this book is so good!!!! The New York boroughs come to life quite literally: they are characters fighting against an evil that threatens to destroy the city. If you need a taste of Jemisin's writing, may I suggest listening to a story of hers read by the dreamy voice of Reading Rainbow's Lavar Burton

Anxious People, by Frederik Backman. I hit a point in the pandemic where I just wanted to step inside books of authors I have loved before. This one and the rest of my pile are what happened. If you can't gather in a cafe with a good friend, a book by an author who you can always count on for a good time is a decent substitute. The unlikely bank robber protagonist will steal your heart in Backman's latest. Here's a little nugget I earmarked: "She was thinking about everything Ro had told her that night, the incomprehensible cruelties that terrible people are capable of inflicting on each other, and the utter insanity of war. Then she thought of how Ro, after all that, had somehow managed to grow up to be the sort of person who made other people laugh. Because her parents had taught her during their flight through the mountains that humor is the soul's last line of defense, and as long as we're laughing we're alive, so bad puns and fart jokes were their way of expressing defiance against despair. Ro told Julia all this that first night, and after that Julia got to spend all of the world's everydays with her." That beautiful, sweet poignancy is all Backman all the time. 

Just Like You, by Nick Hornby. Here's a gem that resonated mid-pandemic: "She was happy, in a bubble, and the only reason to pop it was on the grounds that bubbles were not real life. But bubbles made life tolerable, and the trick was to blow as many as possible. There were new-baby bubbles, and honeymoon bubbles, and success-at-work bubbles, and new-friend bubbles, and great-holiday bubbles, and even tiny T.V.-series bubbles, dinner bubbles, party bubbles. They all burst without intervention, and then it was a matter of getting through to the next one. Life hadn't been fizzy for a while. It had been hard."

The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel. This took me to surprising places during a time without travel. A remote hotel on the tip of Vancouver Island, deep inside a dark bar scene, the Neptune Cumberland, a great ship between ports of call. Each setting is rendered so viscerally, a welcome escape for a couch-bound brain. 

Gallows Rock, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Icelandic crime noir. Not everyone's cup of tea, but there's a lot to be said for a murder mystery. For one, you know that by the time you reach the end of the book you will have your answer. If only more of life were that simple, right?

We Run The Tides, by Vendela Vida. Teenage friendships in all their painful complexities and the power of lies. This is a short, delicious read set in San Francisco's Sea Cliff neighborhood before the tech boom changed San Francisco forever. 

Not pictured because I lent them to others:

Like Water and Other Stories, by Olga Zilberbourg. This incredible collection of very short stories captures several fleeting moments of the art that can happen while being a parent, and shares some of that transcendence with the reader. Noticing the beauty in front of you is very hard to do when you are just in the grind of it all and I'm always grateful a piece of art that brings it to my attention. 

Writers & Lovers, by Lily King. About once a year I like a really indulgent book about a struggling writer who emerges victorious. This was a supremely fun one. 

Miss Iceland, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir. Iceland again, this time literary fiction set in the 1960s, in the time before Iceland really became a place others sought out as a vacation spot, before it became admirable in how it handles women's equality. This one is also about a writer struggling to emerge: it was a good year to read more than one of those kinds of books. 

I'm so grateful for these reads. They genuinely added joy and relief during these last twelve months of crisis-turned-normal. I recommend this tally of your pandemic reading. It's a unique slice of your history of these challenging and unusual twelve months. We have a ways yet to emerge from this pandemic and I am going to need more books to get me through. What books have kept you company lately? 


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