Many of us who’ve been self-isolating at home due to the COVID-19 crisis have been jumping effusively into new routines and creative endeavours.
Some of us have taken up cooking and baking (so. much. sourdough.), or tending to our homes and gardens. Some people are slowing down and enjoying nature, while others are participating in numerous Instagram and TikTok challenges.
We are all trying to cope the ways we know how.
In these times of extreme stress and anxiety, immersing oneself in a book — be it a collection of short stories that takes one to faraway lands filled with mystery and adventure or a comic book that rouses one’s whimsy — is a welcome escape.
Some of Canada’s most prolific and award-winning authors are seeking solace in the works of their favourite authors, while also discovering new voices and perspectives.
We had eight of them recommend some of the compelling material that they have been spending time with in isolation.
Note: Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Emma Donoghue, author of the best-selling novel Room and the forthcoming The Pull of the Stars, which is set, coincidentally, during a pandemic.
“I’m a longtime Philippa Gregory fan and during lockdown I’ve so enjoyed immersing myself in her novel about a midwife and herbalism in Civil War England, Tidelands.
Gregory is a historian too, and her research shows itself quietly, without flaunting, in the tiny details so familiar to them but bizarre to us: ‘The runes drawn in ash to stop the house burning down.’ It also shapes her thoughtful characterization, especially at moments when her protagonists are held back by taboos that hardly weigh on us today.
But what really holds the book together is a throbbingly intense story of impossible love.”
Amanda Leduc, author of the non-fiction work Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, And Making Space
“One year, on his birthday, the American poet and essayist, Ross Gay, came up with the idea of writing down one thing each day that delighted him. The project lasted a year and became The Book of Delights, a wonderful collection of miniature essays — some a few pages, some as short as a prose poem — on various bits of beauty and reflection in Gay’s day-to-day.
In this time of upheaval, I’ve found it incredibly calming and grounding to focus on this business of delight. To be reminded of the small bits of joy that still surround us even in these most uncertain of times is truly a very great gift indeed.”
Ian Williams, author of the novel Reproduction and winner of the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize
“I’m re-reading Elena Ferrante’s sparkling Neapolitan Novels these days. Ferrante is famously reclusive, a writer made to accompany us in isolation.
The series comprises four novels, set over fifty years beginning in the 1950s in a town outside Naples. It follows the vicissitudes of friendship — more like frenemyship — between two women whose paths diverge early, despite their equal intelligence: one gets the opportunity to study while the other is constrained by the narrow expectations of her society.
For me, a long book is appropriate during this indefinite period of isolation. Try just one book of the Ferrante series. It’ll be like standing on a beach, gazing at the glitter of sunlight on waves.”
Thea Lim, author of the novel An Ocean of Minutes, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize
“I’ve got two books for people who want to escape the pandemic: Making Comics by Lynda Barry which is this beautiful, wild book. It is so affirming about the process of making art, and just being human, that you’ll be drawing through your tears.
Then there’s Bunny by Mona Awad. This is a funny, acerbic novel that is loopy enough to provide reprieve from our current situation, but never so absurd as to lose a sense of stakes or heart. Somehow both outlandish and poignant.”
Manjushree Thapa is an essayist and fiction writer, known for her literary reportage, Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy
“I’ve been reading poetry during the pandemic, taking a few minutes out [of] each day to read two or three of one poet’s work, and to sit with it a while, and let the work sink in. I’ve also been listening to audiobooks.
I’d recommend Jenny Offill’s novel Weather, which captures things as they were just before the pandemic hit, complete with all of the dysfunction of contemporary life. It’s a perfect reminder of why we shouldn’t try to return to what we considered ‘normal’ when this pandemic ends.”
Waubgeshig Rice is an author and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation. His most recent novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, is a bestseller. He’s working on a sequel.
“Because we’re collectively experiencing a historic moment of change, I’ve been thinking a lot about books I’ve read that explore an end of the world, and the human response to that.
It’s essential to examine these moments and consider how we can rebuild our communities to make the world better in the future. The outcomes may not always be immediately positive, but putting ourselves in that space is an important first step.
Some books that I believe are very fitting for this time include The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline and Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich.”
Farzana Doctor is a writer, activist, and psychotherapist. She was named one of CBC Books’ “100 Writers in Canada You Need To Know Now.”
“Physical distancing has made book launches a challenge. It’s also been a tough time to read; many people I know complain about difficulties with focus and concentration. For both of these reasons, I’m recommending Vivek Shraya’s The Subtweet. It is a fast and fun read which explores a transformative friendship between two Toronto musicians, Neela and Rukmini. With nuance and some cheekiness, Shraya examines jealousy, tensions on social media, and racism in the music industry.
Forced to cancel her [book] tour, Shraya took to Instagram and Facebook to launch the novel in partnership with indie bookstores and arts organizations. Her efforts have been an inspiring example for writers like me who’ll likely need to launch our future books virtually.
Janie Brown, an oncology nurse, recounts 20 conversations she has had with people who were dying in her new book Radical Acts of Love: How We Find Hope at the End of Life.
“In challenging times, I often choose to read books that mirror my emotions. I like a book to tell me it’s OK to feel the way I feel.
This past week I have been missing my before pandemic life, feeling nostalgic and melancholy. I just finished reading The Innocents by Michael Crummey, which was the perfect choice. I have been riveted by Crummey’s heart-wrenching story of survival and resilience and deeply comforted by his stunningly beautiful prose.
This week I choose to be immersed in a story that has pain in it but I also want to be entertained by an imaginary world, one in which elephants can speak. I am re-reading Barbara Gowdy’s brilliant The White Bone and itching to get back to it.
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