Books

Lockdown Reading: 10 Books The Wire's Staff Recommends

From fantasy to historical and literary fiction, our team's picks include books by J.D. Salinger, Alice Munro, Ocean Vuong, Olivia Laing, Amitav Ghosh, Jerome K. Jerome, Frank Herbert and Robert R. McCammon.

Cooped up at home, there is definitely one upside to social distancing: we have more time to read. It’s also good to take a healthy mental break from ingesting current events to quell the anxiety most of us are feeling as news stories pour in at breakneck speed.

We asked our team to share their recommendations for what to read during the national lockdown. From fantasy to historical and literary fiction, our team’s picks include books by J.D. Salinger, Alice Munro, Ocean Vuong, Olivia Laing, Amitav Ghosh, Jerome K. Jerome, Frank Herbert and Robert R. McCammon.

1. Jahnavi Sen, Executive News Producer

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

My phone’s gallery is currently just a series of photos of paragraphs from this book, which I’ve been sharing with friends also stuck in their houses. It’s been the one thing that has successfully taken my mind off the news in the last week, and honestly I was more than a little sad when I finished it and that escape was over.

Vuong’s writing is stunning; his use of language is both surprising and natural. Written as a letter from a young man to his single mother, he tells the story of a Vietnamese-American family that spans generations. Covering themes from addiction, queer identity and violence, to the struggles of a working class immigrant family from a different world, it’s difficult for me to summarise what On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is ‘about’.

What I can do, though, is show you what I’ve been showing my friends – here’s one of the many paragraphs I saved from the book, which I know I will keep coming back to in weeks like this.

“In Vietnamese, the word for missing someone and remembering them is the same: nhớ. Sometimes, when you ask me over the phone, Con nhớ mẹ không? I flinch, thinking you meant, Do you remember me?

I miss you more than I remember you.”

2. Sidharth Bhatia, Founding editor

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

There is no particular reason why this book just popped in my head, but I suddenly thought about re-reading Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The theme of the book has no connection with any infectious disease or pandemic, and there is no reason to think of it now.

But the book describes the protagonist, 16-year-old Holden Caulfield’s romp through the throbbing streets of New York, and now those same streets are eerily quiet and deserted – something that has never, ever happened. My thoughts perhaps got triggered by a photograph I saw of a quiet, empty Times Square. Holden goes dancing, meets friends, heads to Central Park to feed the ducks – all normal activities which are now forbidden.

All along, he keeps railing against the ‘phonies’, and even when he is being unfair, it is difficult not to see his point because there is a lot of pretence in the world. In the middle of that unstoppable city, he feels strangely isolated and depressed and it is worth asking how New Yorkers – and for that matter those who live elsewhere, and have busy lives in cities that never seem to sleep – must feel now.

It is not an allegorical book, and certainly not one that in any way forecast our times. But it is a book about loneliness in the middle of the multitudes and thus strangely appropriate for our current lives.

3. Monobina Gupta, Consulting Editor

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing

Battling loneliness after a broken relationship, Olivia Laing explores New York City through fractured lives and the works of artists. In the art of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz – artists “troubled by loneliness” – Laing discovers her own state of mind. Her part memoir, part cultural critique, haunts and reveals art, life, love, friendship and the political establishment. For Laing, loneliness is not a stigma, but a path to creativity. It could even be uplifting.

The AIDS epidemic was exploding when Laing was in  New York. Many have recently drawn parallels between HIV and the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in terms of the sluggish government response, the stigma of the illness and the courage displayed by frontline healthcare workers.

Quarantine – as is the fate of much of the world today – leads to isolation and loneliness. But loneliness in the present context is “also a point of connection with billions of strangers,” as Laing recently wrote. Billions of people across the world are now connected to each other in their shared loneliness. Like Laing, finding consolation in art during her loneliness, we have a chance now to create our own worlds of images, words, and music. Our own loneliness.

4. Vasudevan Mukunth, Editor, The Wire Science

Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune has to be one of the greatest science fiction and fantasy novels ever written. The year 2020 has been truly bizarre, and just a fourth of the way in, over 1.5 billion people are in some kind of quarantine, lockdown or isolation; many of those who aren’t pass in and out of fear about the abilities of an unseen foe, and anxiety about what the next day will bring.

Escape of some sort is on many people’s minds, either out of what they suspect now and then is a fevered dream or just to step outside the house and stretch their legs. But inside your head itself, nothing will take you as far away from our twisted reality as good fantasy fiction, and in my view one of the goodest works of fantasy fiction is Dune, Frank Herbert’s 1965 masterpiece.

It is the story of a young aristocrat’s rise to power on a fictitious desert planet, with allies fanatically adapted to a world without water, against cruel foes whose every action is war, in the shadow of empire, a superhuman sisterhood and the strange drug that makes the planet so precious.

I first read the book over a decade ago, but its mystical spirit uniting ideas in environmentalism, history, religion and power have stayed with me – and are bound to with anyone who has read the book. Herbert has also been celebrated for his exploration of the depths of ingenuity and madness in Dune and the other books that followed in the series, but the first book simply towers them all, as well as the rest of the science fiction landscape.

If you’re not yet convinced to pick it up, here are two more reasons. First, Dune is a work of soft sci-fi: technology and technological ability don’t interfere with what the characters can or can’t do, so aside from the book’s fantastic’s setting, it’s easy to see the book as a great work of fiction, period (and who knows, it could become your gateway to sci-fi and fantasy). Second, a film adaptation is set to release in December this year, directed by Denis Villeneuve, who also made Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. Villeneuve hasn’t made a misstep thus far but Dune’s story is very easy to get wrong, so read it if only so you know what to expect.

5. Aleesha Matharu, Assistant Editor, Editor of LiveWire

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon

When an avid fantasy and horror reader hears of a virus romping across the globe, it’s the ever mutating and deadly Captain Tripps from Stephen King’s The Stand that most obviously comes to mind. A hefty, genre defying epic from the master of horror himself, The Stand is beloved pandemic novel that is on nearly every quarantine list.

Which is why I want to recommend Robert R. McCammon’s Swan Song. I find it unfortunate that I stumbled upon the author only somewhere in my mid-twenties. His book Boy’s Life, which is a masterpiece of magic and mystery, blew me away with its coming-of-age tale in a small town. One of my favourite quotes of all time comes from Boy’s Life:

“We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.”

I know I’ve sneakily recommended three books under the guise of one. So let’s get to Swan Song, which may be clunky in parts in telling its tale over 850 pages, but it never gets boring. It has certain unmissable parallels to The Stand, but instead of a virus it deals with a nuclear fallout and the birth of a new world – one full of monsters in the dark where survivors get roped into the age-old battle of good vs evil. This one of the books I most looking forward to re-reading – it may be dark and scary, but it is also full of hope, love and beauty. If you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, Swan Song is an absolute must read.

6. Raghu Karnad, Contributing editor

The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh

I can’t escape the sense of there being some ecological design to this moment (I would say justice, except the wrong humans will suffer the worst of it.) After a year of climate strikes and failed appeals to modernise our economic system, a non-human event has come and iced it – first freezing commercial aviation, then nearly all human industry. Two recent books by Amitav Ghosh, one non-fiction and the other a novel, heralded the uncanny quality of global events in 2020.

The Great Derangement is an urgent but non-polemical essay challenging how we write, think and believe in the Anthropocene. It helps us “grasp the error of treating the environment as an inert resource, of denying that purpose or prerogative can exist in any part of nature other than ourselves,” I wrote, back in 2016.

That book sets out a specific challenge to fiction-writers, and Gun Island is Ghosh’s effort to meet the challenge himself. It’s a literary book but also a mystery-adventure, a story of human fates driven by much larger forces. It links ancient idioms with new visions of the natural world as a responsive, powerful being – and mocks the human pretension of drawing borders on an interconnected and injured planet.

7. Nandini Sundar, Contributor

Transit by Anna Seghers (Translated from German by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A strange liminality has gripped us all – caught up in a soundless war without bombs or sirens, of the seeming normalcy of an oncoming spring, where the danger cannot be seen or heard or even felt till it is too late. We are enlisted in a counterinsurgency where we are all now potential hostiles – to ourselves, to our families or neighbours. Perhaps then, this is not the time to read about the anxieties of another time, another place – except to find our own sense of estrangement reflected back at us, and to feel resettled by the fact that humans survived that and will survive this.

Anna Segher’s Transit is, among other things, about people waiting to get passes at Marseilles and leave a war-torn occupied France, the acquaintances and friendships one makes in waiting rooms or in a waiting city, the passions that lead people to take steps from which they then draw back at the very brink.

It is about fate like that of the woman who will get a pass because she is entrusted with looking after the two dogs of an American citizen, the invoking of old friendships for survival, the sharing of limited food, the slow draining of cups at cafes in order to sit longer because there is nowhere to go, the inscrutability of bureaucracy, the preciousness of official documents. Different nationalities are thrown together in this city of last exit from a fascist Europe – fleeing different pasts and looking towards different futures. Some will have no future, and some who boarded what they thought was a ship to safety are sunk on high sea.

8. Soumashree Sarkar, News Producer

The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro

The View From Castle Rock is a book of short stories with a tenuous but heartening thread connecting all of them, across two centuries. The book is by Alice Munro, a champion of literary quietness and a writer who has treasured the act and purpose of being a woman with great effortlessness.

In this book especially, Munro uses domesticity and its inevitability as a superb device. She hooks you to the simple unobtrusiveness of taking the trash out, to the cobwebs that need dusting while the oven hums with dinner, and to how treasured the act of combing one’s hair becomes when you live for and in the house. For obvious reasons, the novelty of domesticity – forever the domain of women – is a great thing to wake up to at these times.

9. Tanya Jha, News producer, LiveWire

The Anatomy of Hate by Revathi Laul

Revathi Laul’s book The Anatomy of Hate is a story of three men who joined the 2002 Gujarat riots. One of them looted shops of Muslims, one takes pride in raping Muslim women and the third (an adivasi) gets brainwashed by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. I would like to recommend this book for two reasons. First, the stories are similar to what happened in Northeast Delhi last month. While reading the book, I actually felt that it was a live-telecast of the carnage that took place. The chapter when the men are having fun while looting one shop was strikingly similar to some of the reports we read just last month.

Second, I like how the book doesn’t treat the men as villains. They are normal human beings who read books, climb trees, watch TV serials and fall in love. For me, I never thought I’d ever want to read about a man who raped a pregnant woman. But when I read how he was constantly bullied as a child by his father and later by his friends for his disability (his name is Suresh Langdo), I realised the importance of engaging with those who we think are not like us, or those who we believe come from some external universe. The truth is that they are just pawns playing into the hands of an external power. We need to identify that. That is what the book taught me.

10. Raghavi Sharma, News Producer

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

The book chronicles the misadventures of three unassuming hypochondriacs who decide that a row up the Thames is the perfect antidote to all their maladies. The late Victorian era novel – originally intended to be a travelogue – is a rare classic whose wit and humour has stood the test of time.

The book routinely digresses to narrate anecdotes about their ill-conceived attempts at packing and the writer’s cantankerous Uncle Podger. The account of three clumsy friends, and their fox terrier Montmorency whose “ambition in life, is to get in the way and be sworn at”, is almost always an uplifting one – but even more so during gloomy times of self-isolation.