Books Read Amidst A Pandemic

I’ve kept a list of books I’ve read since I was about 8. I don’t think I’ve listed every single book I’ve ever read, but it’s pretty close. It’s interesting for me to go back over the list and look at trends…which years in adulthood I’ve read the least, which I’ve read the most, and what was going on in my life that dictated those changes.

Some books I barely remember and others I can picture where I was sitting and what time of year it was and even what I was eating when I was reading.

This year, when everything first shut down in March I was reading Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer. I had read Into Thin Air several years ago, and that book was so exciting, so compelling that I couldn’t put it down, so I gave Wild a go. Into The Wild was not nearly as exciting for me, but the survivalist in me enjoyed reading about the true story of a free-spirited young man who desperately wanted to live off the land on his own and paid the price for choices made. What will forever make this book stand out in my mind is that I read it amidst the backdrop of an unfolding global pandemic, stuck at home while the protagonist singlehandedly took on the world and left everything behind.

In the middle of reading Wild I had put Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel on hold at the library, just before it closed down completely for several months. I thought I was out of luck to get it any time soon, but my friend who works there saw my hold come in after the shutdown, asked her boss for permission, checked the book out to me, and hand delivered it to my door! What lovely service! This book was recommended to me by friends who know me and know that I love apocalyptic/dystopian/survival and now pandemic stories. Y’all, the similarities between the pandemic in this book and Covid are uncanny and sent shivers down my spine as I sat in my front yard in the sun reading for hours and ignoring my family one Sunday afternoon. I also appreciated how the book wove in timelines of various overlapping characters that spanned from pre- to post-pandemic.

A few books later I read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah because a friend of mine thought I’d like it so she lent me her copy. If I remember correctly, she said she thought of me because it had “strong female characters,” and boy howdy, am I glad she did! This book was, hands down, the best book I’ve read in at least two years. For some reason I have it in my head that I don’t like historical fiction, but I think I need to recalibrate that notion based on this example. This book was mainly set in WWII era France and focused on how two sisters struggled and fought and lived through various atrocities. I find that time period extremely compelling, as does my husband. Usually he’s focused on the military side of things while I love to learn about the political/psychological/socioeconomic aspects of civilian upheaval, struggle, and survival, and this book did exactly that for me. This book was so moving that it had me outright sobbing at more than one point and it read like a movie. Five stars; go read it now.

After Nightingale, I needed something extra light so I picked up The Maze Runner by James Dashner from the Little Free Library. It was definitely written for teen boys, but I enjoyed the original dystopian mystery concept and it went quickly as a nice palate-cleanser. I watched the movie of it afterwards. I wasn’t intrigued enough to continue on with the series, but your tween cousin might be.

A bit later on, I escaped back into the world of Panem and it was glorious! I read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins. As devout fans know, I was skeptical that this book could live up to the original Hunger Games trilogy and in my opinion it did a fine job, although the plot started to lag 3/4 of the way through. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know young Corelanus Snow and I was singing The Hanging Tree for weeks afterward.

Towards the second half of this year I started to re-read the Twilight series, which I hadn’t done since getting married and having kids. I desperately needed an escape from the world and current events. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were many details I’d forgotten about, which made the experience feel new again. Of course, after Twilight I read the brand new Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer, which is the same plot as the first book told from the point of view of the mind-reading vampire, Edward. Highly entertaining and satisfying both for my inner teeny-bopper and for previous me who read the leaked incomplete manuscript of this book years ago and has been lusting after the conclusion ever since.

Sprinkled in there around Halloween, I read Bird Box and its sequel, Malorie, both by Josh Malerman. Bird Box was much creepier than the movie. Although Malorie was interesting in its attempt to answer the question of now what? at the end of the first, it fell flat for me.

Other special mentions:

  • I re-read Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell for the first time since it was read aloud to me by my 4th grade student teacher. This book is an amazing jem: it features an incredibly strong and determined young female protagonist AND – what escaped me before – it’s based on a true story (of a girl left alone on her native island for years)!
  • I read Little Weirds by Jenny Slate because I like her standup and I find her hilarious and quirky and delightfully anxious, but…I hated the book. It was too weird for me.
  • I got my hands on a copy of The Power by Naomi Alderman and shoo-dang, this was a fun read. Women and girls now have the power to produce electrical current through their skin and they use it to stop taking shit from men?! SIGN ME UP! It didn’t quite go the direction I wanted, but I loved the concept. And interesting that this is a book-within-a-book, where the story is told from the future as a flashback of sorts. Read it, and you’ll get what I mean.

I could go on and on and I didn’t mean for this post to be so long but I LOVE BOOKS and the year of the pandemic calls for many.

Next up on my list: A Promised Land by Barack Obama.

What have you read in 2020 that you’ve loved? Hated? Used as toilet paper?


Day 29 – The second to last day

You can look now

Today, I was able to shut the world out for several hours in the best way – I read my book semi-uninterrupted.

I say semi because I have small children. People with small children, or who once had small children and maintain an accurate memory (read: not the kind of biased memory that leads you to grow old and senile and shout ENJOY EVERY MOMENT! at moms in the grocery store) know exactly what I mean. For those who have never had the intense pleasure, I’ll briefly elaborate: interruptions ranged from forced verbal admiration of random lego pieces pressed together to wiping butts to trouble shooting the online math platform to an obligatory distance high-five for getting 100% on the online math assessment. All in a day’s work.

What am I reading? Funny you should ask. Those who know me, or who have read this blog for long enough know that I have a terribly unhealthy habit of choosing varying levels of traumatic entertainment media, now being no exception. And actually, now is a classic combination of some poor choices mixed with some bad timing. See, for October I thought it would be fun to choose a spooky book to read because I enjoy Halloween more than most human contact and I was concerned that Covid would steal away my joy. In an attempt to capture some additional spooky Halloween spirit, I chose Bird Box by Josh Malerman. It was a great choice for several reasons: 1) There was no wait at the library, and 2) I had already seen the movie sooooo how scary could it be, really?

In the middle of reading the book, I was not-so-gently reminded just how vulnerable my nervous system has become since 1) giving birth to and parenting two small children, and 2) the anxiety rollercoaster ride of Covid quarantine, among other things. The book struck close to home because it’s a mom trying to survive with one daughter and one son (I have those things), and she’s doing it while wearing a face covering and trying to stay away from dangerous people and entities unknown. Add those real-world similarities to the forgotten fact that BOOKS ARE LEAGUES SCARIER THAN MOVIES and I was toast. I usually read books at night, in bed, with the red filter of my headlamp. For this book I had to turn on the light.

Fast forward to now. Because I don’t know how to quit you, I decided the sequel to Bird Box would be an excellent idea. And I’m not sure how it happened, (read: I’m lying and I know exactly what happened) but my friends started chatting about the Haunting of Hill House and I thought my husband had watched it and he’d only seen the first episode and was willing to see more. I was intrigued, and in my pre-motherhood days I enjoyed a ghostly horror flick from time to time but DEAR LORD (no spoilers, please, dear readers). I think we’re averaging 1.5 episodes per week because my nerves can’t take any more than that. And watch is a loose term, because the way I’m getting through these is by cuddling with my emotional support husband, with a blanket, and oh look it’s a scary part up comes the blanket over my eyes! And then my husband narrates what’s happening so I’m still included in the action.

Me: OMG! What’s happening now?!

Husband: She sees a hand.

Me: What?! What’s it doing?

Husband: Moving. It looks dead.

Me: Just a hand?! Is there more?

Husband: Now she’s scared, she’s backing away. She’s gonna escape up the ladder.

Me: Are you sure?!

Husband: No wait. More than a hand. It’s got her…it just pulled her tongue out through her anus…..aaaand now she’s dead. You can look now.

—-

Teamwork!

We’ll finish the series eventually, at the cost of my remaining sanity.

And so my motivation to sit and read for an extended period of time today was threefold: 1) I enjoy reading for long periods of time, 2) I wanted to shut out any and all election news and take a frickin break, and 3) For the love of all that is holy I need to finish this book because I can’t be reading a scary book AND be watching a scary series at the same time because my. nerves. can’t. take. it. but failure is not an option and I refuse to just up and quit. So there you have it.

Also, I didn’t intend for this blog post to become one of many lists, but now you see how my mind works so you’re welcome.


Day 5

The Other Shoe

Anxiety is so freakin weird, you guys.

For the past several weeks I’ve actually been on a really good kick. My anxiety has stolen morning sleep from me only….twice (three times?) lately, and once was because I decided it was a great idea to watch Bird Box.

As a rule, I’ll never say I’ve beaten anxiety or that I’ve banished it from my mind and body forever. I know that’s wishful thinking, but it’s just not going to happen. Anxiety, in acute, appropriate doses, is actually healthy and adaptive. It keeps us out of danger.

Anxiety has always kinda been in the background of my life, but for the past two years it’s been (almost) ever-present. Right now, I seem to be in one of those almost times when I get to have a break. To a certain degree, I can enjoy these times. But then a funny thing happens. I don’t even know what to call it. It’s this state of mind where I’m worried that I’m forgetting about something that should be causing me anxiety. (I just reread that sentence, and yes, I know exactly how crazy that sounds.) It’s because anxiety has been my BFF, glued to my side, banging around in my brain, burning a hole in my chest, hitching a ride on my back, for so frickin long now, that when she’s gone, it feels…unnerving. Weird. Not normal.

It’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop.

So even though it’s a “break,” I still find myself having to do a lot of daily (sometimes hourly) work reminding myself that I’m safe, my kids are safe, the sky is not falling.

First, I stop and ask myself if what I am feeling is, in fact, anxiety. If the answer is no, then I employ a certain flavor of self-talk and any number of mantras I’ve collected over the years that feels helpful.

I am safe now.

I will figure it out.

I have nothing to be worried about.

Everything is going to be okay.

There is nothing wrong.

I have everything I need.

I am capable.

I am healthy.

Sometimes, it feels ridiculous that I actually have to say these things to myself, and that I have to say them so often. But, as I spontaneously explained it to my husband the other day, because I’ve dealt with anxiety so intensely for so long, it’s been seared into the neural pathways in my brain. Responding to situations with panic has become automatic, and the process of interrupting and rewiring those pathways is long and hard. The good news, however, is that it’s possible. In no way am I doomed to always feel this way.

And so, I do my best to inject hope into this shitstorm that is all too often my life.

Please continue to wish me luck, and I’ll keep telling my anxiety to go to hell, where it belongs.