How are New Jersey authors coping with the state’s stay-at-home order? Writing, presumably, but also bingeing on Netflix and reading up a storm.
And what are they reading? The organizers of the annual Montclair Literary Festival, which was postponed because of the coronavirus, wanted to know. They let us share the responses of some well-known Jersey authors.
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“I find that the reading that is holding my attention right now is thoughtful, a bit intense, and ultimately hopeful,” says Dark, author of three books of fiction, including Think of England and In the Gloaming, and MFA assistant professor at Rutgers University-Newark.
“I’m especially drawn to memoirs—for the feeling of intimacy in these social-distancing days,” adds Dark. Of the following books, she says, “Some of these I’ve read, some are in the stack.”
- Upstream by Mary Oliver, a book of essays I turn to again and again for pleasure and deep wisdom. She writes about her early decision to look outside herself for guidance and offers what she has observed on Cape Cod and in the work of favorite authors. It’s funny and deeply moving.
- Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader by Vivian Gornick. I read a couple pages of this and piled a stack of her books on my bedside table. Such solace to be inside a no-nonsense mind these days. I am reading through her other memoirs, including Fierce Attachments—a marvel.
- Later by Paul Lisicky, about his stay at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown during the AIDs pandemic.
- Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit. The great and consoling Rebecca Solnit. In this short book she reveals how she came to be an environmentalist, a feminist, a citizen and a writer.
- Scratched by Elizabeth Tallent, a memoir about how perfectionism impeded her writing and her life, and what she did to move beyond it.
- Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, a colleague at Rutgers-Newark, about being Asian-American.
- The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison. Brilliant and inspiring.
- Where I Was From by Joan Didion. I return to this memoir again and again. It’s about California, Didion’s pride verging on vanity about her heritage, and the myths she learned and pushed herself to unlearn. Breathtaking writing.
“It’s tricky,” says Dermansky, author of the novels Very Nice, The Red Car, Bad Marie and Twins. “All I want to do is watch Schitt’s Creek on Netflix, but I finished season three last night and I feel like I might need to ration episodes now, the way I am with Trader Joe’s frozen Indian-food meals and my stash of Cadbury mini eggs. Sometimes, the show makes me laugh so hard that my daughter Nina will call out from her room, worried that something is wrong.”
So, what to read? “I say read whatever makes you happy,” says Dermansky. “Though it may sort of sound this way, I am not giving up on reading. I recommend picking up a book whenever you realize you have spent more than half an hour looking at your phone. That is what I do. Or I paint a cat. Or I pet my cat.”
Here are her recommended books:
- And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks: I love her on Twitter (@ambernoelle). This collection of short stories is currently lost in my stacks but I feel confident I will find it. I have time.
- Writers and Lovers by Lily King. We were going to be on a panel together at this year’s festival. I have only heard wonderful things.
- The Phantom Twin by Lisa Brown. I bought this graphic novel for Nina, but it really spoke to me.
- The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn. I found this four-in-one book in a free library around the corner. I love discovering books this way.
- Little Gods by Meng Jin. A debut novel that I took out of the library and don’t have to worry about returning on time, so that is a relief.
Hallberg, author of the best-selling novel City on Fire, says there’s nothing better to do when “cooped up at home” than curl up with a book.
“This is why books matter to us: the unpredictable, illuminating, life-giving connections they make,” says Hallberg. “They are both the inverse of social distance and, oddly, immune to it. A good book, even when read alone, opens you up to others, lets you be vulnerable from a place of deep trust. And we need that now as much as we ever did.”
Hallberg encourages all readers to support their local bookstores, “whether it’s by phone or Internet, delivery at the curbside or to your door.”
Hallberg offers this list of “10 books, old and new, that might speak to our present condition”:
- Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. An ecstatic portrait of what summer feels like after a pandemic ends.
- Wolf Hall trilogy by Hilary Mantel. An immersive escape to a time when people lived cheek by jowl with pestilence and war (now complete with the publication of The Mirror & the Light).
- Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. A page-turning exposé-slash–schadenfreude machine that happens at the same time to educate readers about lab-developed disease testing.
- Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri. Wry and melancholy, beautifully detailed; a fictional tour of Mumbai after recent upheavals.
- Apeirogon by Colum McCann. A stunning new novel that put my own problems in perspective and reminded me that occupation, too, is socially distancing.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. As if written by a southern Virginia Woolf, a vivid imbrication of calamity and reckless joy.
- The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant. One of the best and most sustaining works of fiction I know, with lots of gorgeous stories about life during wartime, including the stunning “The Four Seasons.”
- Educated by Tara Westover. A powerful look at isolation, resilience and the will to thrive.
- Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. More love than cholera … in fact, one of the great love stories.
- The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. If Hans Castorp can do seven years sealed in a health spa in Switzerland, we can do seven weeks in Montclair.
“Since anxiety interrupts our attention, short pieces have filled me with relief and distraction,” says Albanese, author of a memoir and two novels, including Stolen Beauty. “I’m finding myself revisiting Elizabeth Strout’s collections, particularly Anything is Possible and Olive, Again. Strout’s deceptively simple prose always startles me with its clarity, and Olive Kitteridge’s blunt and clear-eyed assessment of life’s pitfalls—and her own failings—feels right for today.”
Albanese was also drawn to The Myth of Sisyphus, a short essay by the French writer Albert Camus. “The last line—‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’—has always comforted me,” says Albanese. “I guess you’ll have to read it to find out why.”
Above all, Albanese prefers novels “for the transportive and sustained immersion in another life and consciousness.” For that, she suggests two fairly recent novels:
- The Dutch House: Ann Patchett’s new novel is a stunning tale of how family shapes us for better and for worse. The love that narrator Danny feels for his sister Maeve, and the abandonment they live through alone and together, helped me recognize that today’s coronavirus isolation is simply putting into stark relief the fact that each of us is always, ultimately, facing life alone, and yet inexorably linked to one another.
- The Water Dancer: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first novel folds all the pain and wisdom of his memoir Between the World and Me into a first-person fictional narrative that has the power and resonance of myth. I’ve been returning to this story and urging my students to study how Coates infuses this work of historical fiction with the depths of his contemporary awareness and knowledge, yet never falls into anachronism or breaks the fourth wall.