Arts/Music/Film

12 key books to entertain yourself with during lockdown

From Nora Ephron to Thomas Mann, here are 12 books to entertain, challenge and inspire if you’re confined at home due to Covid-19

By Alex Clark

Nora Ephron, pictured in 2009.
Nora Ephron, pictured in 2009. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

If you are the type of person who is tormented by the thought of all the books out there still waiting to be read, you are likely, for the worst of reasons, to have some time on your hands. Nobody would choose these circumstances in which to tackle their to-be-read pile, but books have a distinct role to play in times of trouble. The best of them absorb our attention, enlarge our sympathies and understanding and provide not merely simple distraction but a more complex way of engaging with the world and our place in it. These books – individually brilliant and absorbing – also try, in very different ways, to examine how we function as human beings.

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

This is the novel of recent years that I have most frequently pressed on people; it is magnificent. Set in the late 15th century in a tiny Somerset village during Lent, it’s a cunning mystery – who is responsible for the death of the village’s benefactor? – and a profound exploration of faith, guilt and social cohesion. What elevates it is the quality of Harvey’s attention to the minuscule kinks and reflexes of human behaviour.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Admittedly this book should come with a trigger warning for those whose greatest fear is getting stuck in a medical institution for years on end, but if you can stick it out in the Alpine sanatorium to which the protagonist, Hans Castorp, takes himself, the rewards are great. It’s hard to believe that Mann originally thought of his epic examination of Europe in the run-up to the first world war as a compact work – but he clearly needed all those pages – more than 700 – to weave his spell-binding, quasi-surreal story of civilisation and its discontents.

Devotions upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne

Devotions upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne

Sixteenth-century devotional literature might not seem the rest cure you need, but to Donne, who wrote this series of meditations, expostulations and prayers in the aftermath of serious illness, it came naturally. Even now, its minute attention to what happens to the body, mind and soul when it is besieged by sickness and temporarily separated from wider society is deeply nourishing and, in an odd way, curative.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Novelist Ben Okri describes this book, published in 1952, as a paradigm shift in literature; experimental in nature, searing in subject matter, it stands as a novel that shifted the goalposts. In it, a nameless black man tells the story of his life from his current home, an underground room – through his upbringing, his abortive college career, factory work and his eventful relationship with a black civil rights group. It is, quite simply, unforgettable.

Kazuo Ishiguro.
Kazuo Ishiguro (see below)

Facebook Twitter Pinterest ‘Gets to the heart of the bonds between us’ … Kazuo Ishiguro. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Yes, in one sense it is “about” human cloning, but it is more importantly about the painful truth of our mortality and how we deal with the fact that, one day, we will be separated from everybody we love. No point in sugar-coating it: Ishiguro’s tale of a group of boarding-school students being used as part of a scientific experiment is immensely troubling and upsetting. But, this being Ishiguro, it also gets to the heart of the bonds between us, what we cannot bear to say, and what will survive of us.

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

This essay collection – substantial but perfect to dip into – showcases the breadth of Smith’s curiosity and the facility with which she can shift between the sombre and the humorous, the small-scale and the vast. Subjects include Smith’s north London upbringing, Ella Fitzgerald, Justin Bieber and US politics as witnessed through the eyes of a British expat.

The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant

The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant

Gallant was Canadian by birth, but a citizen of the world by nature – she lived in Paris for most of her life and retained an abiding interest in rootlessness and movement that inflect all of her work. This collection focuses on her early and previously uncollected pieces, and includes the extraordinary long story “The Burgundy Weekend”; and “Going Ashore”, the peerless tale of a rackety woman on a cruise with her young daughter.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Many have longed for escape from irritating family members, but very few have opted for full-on witchcraft – unlike Lolly, who alights on the village of Great Mop, moves there, and discovers herself making a pact with the devil, not to mention a cat called Vinegar. A delightful piece of earlyish 20th-century writing, with a nice line in appreciating the lengths women have to go to in order to avoid the domestic and familial responsibilities placed on their shoulders.

 Super-Cannes by JG Ballard.

Super-Cannes by JG Ballard

Would that Ballard were here to see so many of his eerie predictions becoming flesh. In his absence, though, we have his work, including this turn-of-the-millennium warning about a gated hi-tech community peopled by sleek executives and an extremely disturbing psychiatrist, cast in the role of Prospero. Violent, subversive and gripping, it will make you relieved to be at home.

The Art of Not Falling Apart by Christina Patterson

Into each life some rain must fall, but journalist Christina Patterson had, by the time she reached middle age, endured a monsoon – serious illness, bereavement and the loss of a job that played a large part in her sense of identity and well-being. Undefeated, she set about collecting the stories of others who had stuggled to create a powerful portrait of the continuation of life and the pursuit of contentment.

Nicola Barker … surreal humour.
Christina Patterson

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Nicola Barker … surreal humour. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker

I read this novel on a ship in the middle of the ocean, so I’ve thoroughly sea-tested its ability to draw you in when there’s not much else to do. Set in rural West Yorkshire, it follows the lives of a group of villagers scandalised by the vandalism visited on the local postbox through its stolen letters (including one, written to the local authorities, that boasts 100 footnotes). Disgruntled dog walkers, manic amateur dramatists and a policeman in pursuit of the culprit all feature; surreal humour and linguistic antics abound.

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

There’s barely a day when I don’t think of Ephron as I contemplate the loss of elasticity and youthful vigour in the mirror. But it’s not all sic transit gloria mundi in this wonderful celebration of life: there’s also the story of the author’s time as an intern in JFK’s White House, in which she is sure she’s the only female employee whom the president didn’t make a pass at (“Perhaps it was my wardrobe, which mostly consisted of multicoloured Dynel dresses that looked like distilled Velveeta cheese”), her search for the perfect handbag and, pertinent for our purposes, her lifelong love of reading.

First published at the Guardian – Thursday 19 March 2020. See; https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/18/hunker-down-cheer-up-and-read-books-to-distract

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  • What books would you recommend to others right now? It doesn’t have to be related to the coronavirus – it could be a diverting comedy or a good, long series. Share your picks in the comments.

2 Comments

  1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (fantasy for those not into fantasy; beautifully written)
    GUT Symmetries, Jeanette Winterson (Love and Einstein’s GUT, not Pete Evans claptrap about your microbiome)
    The Loved Ones, Evelyn Waugh (humorous English satire and social commentary from the early to mid 20th century – our Vile Bodies if you don’t think much of the beautiful/wealthy people and are a fan of schadenfreude)
    Candide, Voltaire (centuries old but razor sharp satire)
    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon (mystery with a teenage main character who is quite different, although not specifically identified as autistic; well written and quirky)
    Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (dystopian future from a contemporary of George Orwell)
    The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery (allegorical tale written in a children’s book sort of way with profound themes and an ending that can be seen as alternatively terribly sad or uplifting).
    The Nightwatch, Sergei Lukyanenko (1st of supernatural trilogy later expanded to more books set in Moscow involving a long held truce between the forces of good and evil; an easy and engaging read)
    Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury (fantasy horror in a Stand By Me meets Twilight Zone kind of way from one of the 20th Centuries most prolific writers – reaching 80 years of writing by the time he died).

    Editors note: Some fantastic suggestions there Phil – many thanks. I’ve read about half – but they are all so good they are worth a second (or in Orwell’s case a third) read again.

  2. John Cleese

    Wow great suggestions ,especially The Loved Ones and Brave New World., I loved.
    I thought about my list, what books left a impact on me for various reasons ,very subjective I know .
    Catch 22 Joseph Heller almost sums up the ridiculous politics of today.
    Mosquito Coast Paul Theroux , just love the curmudgeon Theroux very witty astute ,his travel books are hilarious
    My Brother Jack George Johnston great Australian writer deserves more recognition, fascinating life as well
    Grapes of Wrath a classic by John Steinbeck,his writing style in his many books I just love, simple but poignant, may be very pertinent in these troubled times
    Changing Places David Lodge very witty book on academia in the 80s in the UK , there are two others in the trilogy.light hearted look at university life
    Flesh Wounds Richard Glover very enjoyable look at a well known Australian journalist troubled parents and his upbringing and funny
    The Quiet American Graham Greene , enjoyed many of his novels ,Brighton Rock stands out as well.
    Catcher in the Rye JD Salinger ,banned in Aust in the late 50s ,so it must be good for a saucy read and is,Just love censorship.As the amazing Tony Hancock said after reading a controversial book.”I recommend this is banned, after I have finished reading it”

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