The time is right to find a long book and a cozy spot: it’s dark and cold outside, it’s unsafe to congregate inside and, if we all stay home and read, we’ll slow the viral spread while transporting and soothing (or at least distracting) our overworked brains. Here are a few doozies to help you while away the COVID winter.
Perhaps the absence of live music in real life added to the thrills of reading David Mitchell’s “Utopia Avenue,” but even if the ecstatic guitar solos, beautiful harmonies and thundering drums lovingly rendered on its pages could currently be recreated in front of an audience and with sound rather than prose, the book would still be a gift. Although many novels have charted the course of a fictional band, few feature a guitarist with a malevolent spirit lodged in his head. As a bonus, if you haven’t read the rest of Mitchell’s novels, doing so will illuminate aspects of this one, and also be tremendous fun.
“The Witch Elm” is Tana French’s first novel outside her Dublin Murder Squad series. There are still crimes, but our narrator is the victim of one, and perhaps the perpetrator of another. He can’t be sure because his memory is terrible since being bashed in the head. To spur his recovery and care for a dying relative, he goes to stay with his uncle at what was once his grandparents’ home and is still the home of childhood memories (though fewer since the head injury). His recovery is interrupted when a skeleton is found inside the semi-titular tree. Like the police who suspect him, he searches for the truth about why a classmate’s body was placed there over a decade ago.
If a book about the secrets one tree holds is great, then a book about the secrets all trees hold should prove overwhelming. “The Overstory” by Richard Powers makes the case (among others) that trees’ secrets could save us. At first, the book moves quickly through the generations of one family, echoing the flipbook they’ve made to chronicle a beloved chestnut tree’s journey from sapling to giant. Then, the book follows nine scattered but sometimes converging characters whose feelings for trees range from gentle reverence to total devotion. The novel is overwhelming not only because it gives us fascinating characters and a moving story told with masterful prose, but because I can’t imagine a reader leaving its pages without increased appreciation for the plant that supplied them.
“Lost Empress” by Sergio de la Pava has too many threads to list them all. Like his debut, the likewise epic and genius “A Naked Singularity,” it takes on the justice system. (The author is a public defender when he’s not writing large, astonishing novels.) Among the bounty of threads unique woven into the story are the travails of starting a professional football league, a plot to steal a Dali painting from a prison and the oeuvre of Joni Mitchell.
Readers who know Stephen Chbosky from his coming-of-age debut, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” might be surprised to find his next novel is over 700 pages of riveting horror. In “Imaginary Friend,” a child and his mother flee her abusive ex-boyfriend and settle in a new town, whereupon the reader is witness to the child’s disappearance, his return, his dramatically increased intelligence, his new “imaginary” friend and a few hundred pages of action-horror crescendo that includes a scene of townspeople lining up to have their mouths sewn shut.
While time has felt strange during the pandemic era, there may be some comfort in not having been literally evicted from the flow of it. And, there is certainly some comfort in reading the hilarious and heady story of someone who has. In “The Lost Time Accidents” by John Wray, our narrator finds himself outside of time. He occupies himself by writing letters to a lost lover, revealing his family’s dark history (particularly concerning the Holocaust), the cult that sprang up around his father’s science fiction and his grandfather’s efforts to create time travel.
Replacing social media’s torrent of bad news with the tranquility and wisdom offered by novels is good for you! If, however, you’d like to read a novel that unleashes a deluge of thought that might be comparable to “doomscrolling,” try “Ducks, Newburyport” by Lucy Ellmann. It’s over a thousand pages of stream-of-consciousness from a woman who has four kids, tremendous concern about the state of the world and a ton of desserts to make. There are brief interludes told in conventional sentences about a mountain lion searching for her cubs. If this sort of thing doesn’t repel you, you will find a lot to love.