COVID on Our Bookshelves

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

When I was working on A Grandmother’s ABC Book, I worried that sections about COVID would be old news by the time the book came out. Revising, waiting for feedback, and inevitable delays increased my worry. Unfortunately, as we now know, COVID is not quite passé. It’s hanging around in our world, with hundreds dying every day, and in our vivid memories of isolation and lockdown. And sometimes in our grief.

Of course, COVID is cropping up in books, and I’ve just read two good ones: The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich, and Lucy by the Sea, by Elizabeth Strout.

Because I hate to know anything about a novel before I read it, I’m not going to risk ruining these for you. I’ll speak generally. The Sentence is for people who love reading and bookstores. Set in a store very much like Erdrich’s Birch Bark Books in Minneapolis, The Sentence features a cast of original and sometimes hilarious bookstore denizens, including a fictional bookstore owner named Louise, who pops in and out of the story. The humor somehow holds its own amid the sadness of the pandemic and the horrors of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent violence, which take place very near the bookstore. The book ends with a long list of books “recommended” by the novel’s main character, a list worth the price of the book.

Lucy by the Sea features Lucy Barton, the novelist-protagonist of Strout’s earlier books, My Name Is Lucy Barton, Anything Is Possible, and Oh William. It’s helpful but not essential to have read the previous books in order to appreciate Lucy by the Sea. Strout fans will enjoy cameos from other books: Olive Kitteridge and Bob Burgess. (I may have found these appearances a little cute. Not sure what to think.)

The Lucy books are like peeling an onion. You perceive intimations of trauma in My Name Is Lucy Barton, but they’re nebulous. Each subsequent book reveals more about Lucy’s painful childhood. You’re brought up to date about her later life as well, including her marriages. Like the earlier books, Lucy by the Sea concerns, in part, parenthood. How do we raise children? How do we relate to them as adults? Aging and COVID force Lucy to confront mortality.

Both Erdrich and Strout evoke the ignorance, fear, and weirdness of the lockdown, as well as some of the blessings, if you were lucky. Sometimes isolation was a relief. Sometimes it got you out into nature. Sometimes it gave you time to read. And both authors vividly show how the epidemic has been much, much harder on some people than on others.

Here’s a list of some novels and other books set during the pandemic. Have you read them? Or is the topic still too close for comfort?

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3 Responses to COVID on Our Bookshelves

  1. Michael Whitely says:

    My pandemic reading was Dark Winter by Raina MacIntyre, a True Grime thriller about biosecurity. Towards the end it says that US Intelligence, through satellite observation, mobile phone activity and traffic patterns worked out that a major event had taken place at the Wuhan laboratory. They were shut down by the medical establishment because it would have revealed that they were funding the laboratory.

    One chapter is: Trust me, I’m a doctor. It starts: They assume good character is conferred by a medical degree. You can guess where that’s heading. I would assume that COVID won’t be the last nasty to come from a research laboratory.

  2. Fran Lissemore says:

    Mysteries in general and usually British mysteries are my favorite brain candy, so naturally when I started on audiobook “The Locked Room” by Elly Griffiths I was just expecting a nice buzz from it (can’t get much more mysterious than the classic locked room murder, right??). Turns out this is a (very) contemporary mystery– the story starts in February 2020. Cast of characters dealing with murder-related twists and turns AND a lockdown around London. There’s even a brief digression among two characters about Boris’ pronouncements. Why among recent British PMs does everyone refer to him by his first name?

  3. Sarah Becker says:

    Not about this pandemic, but about a fictional bubonic plague set in 1901: Orhan Pamuk’s Nights of plague, published in English in 2022.
    Apparently known plagues have cropped up in various places for a long time, and in the 19th century doctors began to identify them and come up with measures to lessen their effects. But they had to fight the superstitions of certain groups who didn’t believe in the disease, or who thought that the doctors themselves had brought the disease with them.
    Not dissimilar to a certain president of the United States in the 21st century!!!

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