Monday, August 3, 2020

Great Books on Pandemics: Fiction Edition

The Books With Laurie 
Pandemic Reading List
Fiction Edition!

By Laurie Allee
For those of you reading this via email, click here to see my accompanying original video.
This post contains affiliate links.  Click here for more info!

Is it one book or a series?

I think it's safe to say it's not a short story.

We bookworms have an advantage when it comes to sheltering in place, staying safe at home and easily handling lockdowns.  My friend (and fellow avid reader) Katey put it this way:

"To be honest, my life hasn't really changed that much under Covid-19."

I can relate.  Even in the healthiest, most social of times I'm used to curling up in a corner of my house or garden, and disappearing into a great read. 

I've been doing a lot of disappearing in the almost five months since California declared a state of emergency.  While I've always said that books change lives...they might actually save them during our current crisis.  If you don't have to go out, then don't go out.  Instead, find your corner and start reading. No mask required.

So, let's put the novel in novel coronavirus.  

I present you with a fiction-lover's list of Great Takes on Pandemics:

I can't shout my recommendation for A Beginning at the End loudly enough.  I was already a fan of Mike Chen, after reading (and adoring) his first novel Here and Now and Then.

Mike is hard to classify by genre.  He takes well-worn subjects like time travel and post-apocalyptic dystopia, and paints them with a literary brush.  These stories are rich with details.  They are imbued with warmth, wit and emotional accessibility.  

And they've still got all the cool sci-fi/fantasy stuff. 

I read A Beginning at the End shortly after its release, when COVID-19 was barely a blip on the international radar.  At the time I said to my husband, "Wow, wouldn't it be weird if we actually had a global pandemic?"

Here we are.

I would love reading about the characters in A Beginning at the End even if they weren't trying to survive a frenzied state of governmental breakdown, social fragility and almost unimaginable trauma.  These very ordinary, realistic, relatable people maneuver through their slice of dystopian life and reveal a beautiful story of love, family, meaning and purpose.  Instead of a cynical leer into our present darkness, we get a hopeful look toward a brighter future.  

This novel will make you think about why you want to survive... and who you want to survive for.  As Sam J. Miller said, "the best parts of ourselves won't be stopped by a little something like the apocalypse."  

(Don't just read Mike's books, follow him on Twitter for great day-in-the-life author stuff.  He'll even write you back!)

So you want your dystopian hellscape served up with extra terror?  

If you have never read Stephen King's masterpiece The Stand, the COVID-19 pandemic offers an eerily familiar frame of reference.

The Stand is about a deadly plague accidentally released  from a biological weapons testing facility.  After  99% of the world population is wiped out from the super-flu virus, survivors look for a leader to help them find a way forward.  Who emerges from the smoldering ruins? Mother Abagail, a 108-year-old wise woman who preaches peace, solidarity and community...and Randall Flagg, the evil "Dark Man" who delights in chaos and violence.

You probably never thought you'd have real-world insight into an epic tale of society laid waste by plague, embroiled in a real struggle of good vs. evil but 2020 is a pretty weird year.

Even if you read The Stand years ago, this unabridged, uncut edition has new and restored material not present in the original book.

I highly recommend listening to the audio version.  Grover Gardner is a marvelous narrator, and he makes you feel like you're listening to a grizzled survivor telling the story around a campfire on the edge of a dark and dangerous wood...

Okay, so I have a different take on Love in the Time of Cholera than what you may have heard on Oprah's Book Club. For years, this Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel has been praised as "one of the greatest love stories ever told" (New York Times Book Review) and "a love story of astonishing power," (Newsweek) but I think it's a celebration of some of the ickiest, most misogynistic aspects of "romantic" relationships.  A character like Florentino Ariza in the post- #MeToo era is kind of like a maskless shopper in COVID-19: selfish, out of touch and potentially dangerous.

Before I read Love in the Time of Cholera, I had heard the main character Florentino referred to as a "great romantic" who, despite hundreds of affairs, sustains "love" for a woman he never had.   What I found, however, was an obsessive, sociopathic, downright creepy stalker who viewed women as objects of pleasure, derision and disappointment.  Even judged by the standards of his time and culture, Florentino is a ridiculous narcissist.  He is deluded, manipulative, self-serving, insensitive, punishing in his promiscuity -- while clinging to an impossible ideal of love he never had.  You know that guy who just can't get over the girl who once rejected him?  He's that guy for his entire life. 

Any story where an old man nonchalantly grooms and seduces a 14 year old girl and then rejects her because of his decades-long obsession with a woman he couldn't possess is not something that I can call a masterpiece, no matter how well-written it may be.

And it is well-written.  My complete revulsion toward the protagonist is almost eclipsed by my appreciation of the brilliant writing, detailed descriptions and fully realized (albeit despicable) main character.

Going back to this book now makes me think of how, when I first read it, I tried to somehow justify Florentino's behavior.  Isn't that what society has long tried to do?  Now, Florentino just seems like yet another entitled dude that could have been on Jeffrey Epstein's plane.

So why am I recommending the book?  Because it's complicated and unique and often dazzling in its poetic wordplay.  It's also a cautionary tale and an unapologetic example of the insidious way obsession, manipulation and objectification are far too often normalized.  Between every beautifully-constructed line is a subtext of "boys will be boys."  The fact that so many critics, fiction-lovers, writers and romantics have breathlessly uttered the same "greatest love story" line about this book reminds me of popular perception of a certain emperor and his new clothes.

I think it's interesting that the word cholera in Spanish (cólera) is not only the name of the disease, but a description of human rage, passion and ire -- three things that we are seeing in abundance during our own time of COVID-19. Love in the Time of Cholera a timely book.

Sometimes a book more than lives up to its hype.  The Plague, by Albert Camus is one of those books.

I'll be honest ... Monsieur Camus and I do not have a good relationship.  I hadn't picked up one of his novels since college, when I tried miserably to get through The Stranger in French.   (My own lack of fluency in the native language of Albert Camus offers explanation for my less than favorable recollection of his book.)

I read The Plague a few months ago (in English!) during the first few weeks of COVID-19 lockdown.  I expected a gripping, terrifying look into a pandemic.  I expected a lot of angst and a certain level of the absurd.  I didn't expect a thoughtful study of society, hopelessness, religion and humanity's ever-present struggle to remain compassionate in the face of profound despair.  I certainly didn't expect Albert Camus -- an atheist existentialist-- to leave me feeling hopeful.

I was kind of dumbstruck by the relevance of The Plague right down to the way it shows how a pandemic can bring out the worst in people.  Stephen Metcalf recently wrote this about it:  "At first, the epidemic, like all catastrophes, secretly confirms what everyone knew already; that is, it extends the narcissism of the times into the new era, often via the forbidden hope -- that it will smite one's enemies while sparing oneself."

It's all here: the despondency, the odd complacency of the wealthy, the trapped desolation, the chaos of seemingly random annihilation, the aching loneliness of solitary quarantine and the ever-present shadow of death during a mismanaged crisis.

What made this book unforgettable for me was the way Camus presents the choice we all have during times of great turmoil:  do we succumb to fear and blame?  Or do we choose to fight back against the suffering and uncertainty...and truly live?

Disaster tourists, Hollywood, romance and a withering, lost world...

I can't begin to adequately describe Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, but I'll try.

A devastating flu pandemic arrives the same night a famous Hollywood actor drops dead on stage playing King Lear, and within weeks civilization comes to a crashing end.  Decades later, Kirsten Raymonde travels the disparate, tattered remains of earth with a motley troupe known as The Traveling Symphony.  Their goal?  To keep the memories of humanity and art alive.

A finalist for the National Book Award and the Pen/Faulkner Award, Station Eleven  is a darkly lyrical, poetic, compelling wonder of a novel.  I LOVED it.

Hauntingly moving between pre and post-pandemic narratives, Station Eleven is many things at once: a gripping page turner, a wandering poem and a profound meditation on the grace of simply being alive. 

Be warned: the absence of linearity might make you dizzy.  For me, however, it spoke the language of my own meandering, nostalgic, frightened feelings during COVID-19.  What happened?  Who am I?  Will we ever go back to the civilization I once knew and thought I understood?  Station Eleven jumps back and forth in a similar way.

This unconventional structure allowed me to observe the characters in a non-linear way -- judging them not for the whole of their chronological story, but for who they are in each moment.  There's something both mindful and unsettling about the way the book is structured, which exactly fits the mood of 2020.

Stay tuned!
My Pandemic Reading List: Non Fiction Edition comes next!

Drop me a line if you want to be included in my upcoming Book Club.   
Don't forget to watch my COVID-19 video at the top of this page!
Stay home as much as possible, stay safe, and keep reading.  
Psssst: What's this?