Our Lockdown library: ten books to get you through
In honour of the UK’s third (and please say final?!) lockdown, we bring you our ‘Home Self-Isolation Library: Books to Turn to in Difficult Times’. We’ve put together a list of our best lockdown reads. We’ve got book recommendations for every mood, from cozy reads to curl up with, to books that will energise and stimulate your brain. We’ve also got Philippa Perry’s eminently practical guide to living in close-quarters with your family while William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days will have you feeling the surf spray off exotic beaches all around the world.
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
First up on our list of best lockdown reads is the story of one of the great twentieth-century adventurers to distract and inspire. Fearless, driven, independent, singular, Beryl Markham was raised by her farmer father in what was British East Africa, now Kenya. She ran wild, hunted with Murani warriors, and learnt to speak Masai, Swahili and Nandi. When her father lost everything, she set herself up as a race horse trainer at only 18. She learnt to fly at 29 and worked as a freelance pilot delivering post and passengers across east Africa. At 34 she became the first person to fly west across the Atlantic. Laura says: ‘Throughout she was also a mother and a wife (three times over) but you’d never know from her memoir. And I love that. Her personal life is off limits. This transported and inspired me in a way that reminded me of those influential books read in my teen years.’
ESCAPISM: The perfect read for the arm-seat traveller. Her lush descriptions of Africa had me enthralled. REASSURANCE: A reminder that risk and danger are not unique to our times and this too shall pass. DISCOMFORT LEVEL: Our heroine emerges unscathed from even the most precarious of situations. Colonialism is ever present but unexamined. WRITING: Lyrical, long sentences distinguish her style as that of another era, but for me that was key to its charm.
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan
‘Surfing only looks like a sport. To initiates, it is something else: a beautiful addiction, a demanding course of study, a morally dangerous pastime, a way of life.’
Second of our best lockdown reads is Barbarian Days. William Finnegan is a successful journalist and staff writer for The New Yorker. But first and foremost, he’s a surfer who has spent most of his life chasing the perfect wave around the world. Barbarian Days is his memoir of this pursuit, combining a gripping adventure story with a thoughtful meditation on following your passion. Kate says: ‘Surfing and me don’t go together. I hate getting water in my face, so an activity that entails falling headfirst into crashing waves was never going to be for me. But reading about surfing – well turns out I love reading about surfing and I have little doubt that you will too.’
ESCAPISM: Follow Finnegan from Hawaii to the Samoan Islands, from Australia to Indonesia, from New York to Madeira. REASSURANCE: A reminder that there’s something to be said for a life on the edge. DISCOMFORT: Finnegan faces death on many a bad wave, but it’s a brush with malaria that nearly takes him out. WRITING: Finnegan’s pared-back, journalistic style keeps the story moving. But he also finds poetry in the waves.
The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman
“Born in a Bristol brothel at the end of the 19th century, Ruth Webber, her toe upon the scratch, is ready to face all comers. Lady Charlotte Sinclair, scarred with small pox and bullied by her boorish brother, is on the verge of smashing the bonds of convention that have held her so long. George Bowden, without inheritance or title, is prepared to do whatever it takes to make his way in the world. Let the fight begin…”
Immediate, full of character, and brimming with 18th-century slang, this is a brilliant debut novel with the surprising subject of women boxers. It turns out in 18th-century England, as boxing formalised into a sport, women stepped into the ring too. Predictably, they were treated as sideshow freaks – but for the two women at the heart of this novel the sport brings self-respect and independence and for Laura, this had to be on our list of best lockdown reads.
ESCAPISM: A cracking good story, get ready to be transported to 18th-century Bristol in all its grimy, gutsy glory. REASSURANCE: Few novels have made us realise how very far we’ve travelled from the poverty, violence and misogyny of the past. (Though clearly not far enough.) DISCOMFORT: Life in the 18th century wasn’t pretty – especially for women. Trigger warnings of all types. WRITING: Immediate, full of character, and brimming with 18th-century slang, it’s a brilliant debut novel.
I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn
‘Love is so transparent that if you are unprepared for it. You will see right through it and not notice it.’
Amelia Earhart famously disappeared off the coast of New Guinea in 1937 on the last leg of her attempt to circumnavigate the globe. At the time, one theory speculated she had crash-landed on an uninhabited island. It is this possibility that Jane Mendelsohn explores. The fragmentary style of the narrative can feel slightly challenging at first, but you will be quickly drawn in. Mendelsohn deftly develops the contrasting characters of Earhart and her navigator Noonan, and their feelings when they realise they are trapped together. Are they in hell, or paradise? Kates says: ‘The perfect lockdown read, I Was Amelia Earhart is short, absorbing, incredibly atmospheric, and intriguing – you think it’s about one thing but it turns out to be something quite different and therein lies its brilliance.’ It’s perfect for our list of best lockdown reads.
ESCAPISM: Who wouldn’t want to be on a desert island right now REASSURANCE: It’s not our circumstances, it’s how we look at them that matters DISCOMFORT LEVEL: A love story mixed with a dash of Lord of the Flies WRITING: Mendelsohn moves past the facts into the realm of fiction with grace
The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons in Russian Literature by Viv Groskop
Viv Groskop explores the Russian classics and the life lessons they contain, from ‘How To Be Optimistic In The Face of Despair’ (Requiem by Anna Akhmatova) to ‘How To Have A Sense of Humour About Life’ (The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov). For those who enjoy books about books, this is a great one and easily made our list of best lockdown reads. From the clever summaries of the works themselves, to the fascinating biographies of their often tormented authors, this book is full of stories, woven together with Groskop’s own coming-of-age experiences. It is wise and often very funny. At one point, Groskop laments the fact that she had to leave out many great works in order to avoid her own book being as long as War and Peace. ‘Of all the books I most wish were here,’ she writes, ‘one is certainly Gogol’s The Overcoat. For me, this is a short story the plot of which sums up Russian literature in a nutshell. It’s about an insignificant copying clerk who saves up for an overcoat. He saves up for a long time. A very long time. On the day the overcoat finally comes into his possession, it is stolen from him. Shortly afterwards, he falls ill and dies. That is Russian literature’s idea of a life lesson.’ But, of course, Russian literature offers far more than this would suggest, as does this richly detailed and entertaining exploration of books that, if we let them, have the power to enrich our lives and make us wiser, better people. And if we don’t have time to read them, we can enjoy Groskop’s take on them instead.
ESCAPISM: From the Russia of Tolstoy’s day to hanging out on a beach in contemporary Odessa, you will feel like you are there. REASSURANCE: These are stories of writers who lived through dark times indeed, but the art they created is life-affirming DISCOMFORT: Ok, our current times are not the easiest, but at least you’re not likely to be hauled off to a gulag anytime soon. WRITING: Groskop brilliantly showcases some of literature’s finest writers.
The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read by Philippa Perry
Psychotherapist Philippa Perry tells us what really matters and what behaviour it is important to avoid – the vital dos and don’ts of parenting. Kate says: ‘During lockdown I have found myself picking this up again and again and being consoled and encouraged by it. In fact, I recommend keeping it handy – it’s one of the few things encouraged to lie around our kitchen. It made for brilliant discussion with my book club, there will be things here that strike a chord and others that will prick your conscience. Perry’s point is that mistakes are inevitable: what matters is what you then do about them. What I particularly love, and why I recommend this book right now, especially, is that it feels like a blueprint to a richer, more rewarding relationship with anyone – from our children to our partners or other family members with whom we might be currently on lockdown.’ An essential inclusion on our list of best lockdown reads!
Escapism: One for the here and now, with tips on how to be kind to ourselves as well as others Reassurance: Warm, wise, hopeful and encouraging Discomfort: Although there are things in here that may make you feel uncomfortable, Perry is always there to reassure Writing: The audio-book, read by Perry herself, is great although you’ll want the print version for the exercises.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Number 8 on our list of best lockdown reads. Don’t be fooled by the pink cover, Queenie is as heart-rending as it is heart-warming, as challenging as it is hilarious. A powerful portrait of a young woman of colour struggling to find herself in a world that too often makes her feel worthless. Bernadine Evaristo called it ‘a deliciously funny, characterful, topical and thrilling novel for our times.’ If you want something that will keep you happily turning the pages, but also make you think, this is the book.
ESCAPISM: One of those novels that wraps you up in the world of its characters, making it difficult to say goodbye when you reach the final pages. REASSURANCE: A reminder that even the darkest times pass, with the help of self-care and therapy, family and friends DISCOMFORT: Misogyny, racism, and sexual violence make for painful, eye-opening reading. WRITING: Fast-paced, chatty, like hanging out with the coolest Londoner you know.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh
Beautiful, young, successful and wealthy, the unnamed narrator’s life seems perfect but there is a void at the centre of her world. With the help of an unscrupulous psychiatrist, she begins a regimented sleeping programme; induced and sustained by a cocktail of narcotics and aided by an avant-garde artist chronicling her descent into self-created hibernation. If she can sleep for a year, perhaps she will emerge a different person.
Jia Tolentino, in her New Yorker review called Moshfegh ‘easily the most interesting contemporary American writer on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible’. Kate says: ‘Sometimes I think the most soothing and comforting thing we can do is to read something exceptional and challenging, entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure and this book has it all. Poignant, funny, insightful, a devastating critique of our obsession with all the wrong things, this was one of my favourite reads of 2019.’ Of course it had to be on our list of best lockdown reads.
ESCAPISM: 8/10 Early 2000s New York brilliantly observed, in particular the contemporary art scene REASSURANCE: If lockdown gets too much, you can always try sleeping it out. DISCOMFORT: A likeable read, but also an uneasy one, as Moshfegh specialises in uncomfortable truths. WRITING: With writing this good, you won’t want to read anything else.
For more, don’t miss our episode #38 on Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, and discover why sleeping is actually the most productive thing we can do with our time.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood’s only salvation is his friendship with fellow “delinquent” Turner. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades.
Kate says: ‘Whitehead expertly flips from the past to the present and it feels like such an assured piece of writing, a gut-punch of a book once read, never forgotten.’ For sadly the Nickel school does not come from Whitehead’s imagination. It was based on a real institution, one of a network of such schools throughout the US, where black children suffered terrible abuse and some of them did not survive. Barack Obama called The Nickel Boys a necessary and important read, flagging it up along with the works of Toni Morrison as books that allow us to see through the eyes of others, and better imagine what is going on in their lives. Studies have shown that reading fiction helps us develop our empathy and compassion. It makes us better people. And there’s no better lockdown project than that.
ESCAPISM: A place to escape from rather than escape to REASSURANCE: This is a difficult story, but Whitehead does manage to find some threads of hope DISCOMFORT: An uncomfortable subject, but an effortlessly riveting read. Do not be put off, this is an exceptionally brilliant book and the pleasure is all in the writing WRITING: An example of a writer who has spent many years honing his craft telling a story as beautifully and powerfully as he knows how.
🎧 For more, hear our discussion of The Nickel Boys on podcast episode 54. At the time Kate predicted it would win awards, and pleasingly Whitehead recently won the Pulitzer Prize, making him one of only four writers to have won it twice.
The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton
The last book on our list of best lockdown reads. For years Jaxie Clackton has dreaded going home. His beloved mum is dead, and he wishes his dad was too, until one terrible moment leaves his life stripped to nothing. No one ever told Jaxie Clackton to be careful what he wished for. And so Jaxie runs. There’s just one person in the world who understands him, but to reach her he’ll have to cross the vast saltlands of Western Australia. It is a place that harbours criminals and threatens to kill those who haven’t reckoned with its hot, waterless vastness. This is a journey only a dreamer – or a fugitive – would attempt.
Kate says: ‘The fierceness with which I loved this book surprised me. It’s a compulsive page-turner with an unforgettable main character and a setting that, for all it’s harshness, has an elemental beauty that has haunted me ever since. Winton explores who we are when all else is stripped away: always a good thing to consider in a crisis.
ESCAPISM: This book will transport you to the burning heart of the Australian outback REASSURANCE: Useful top tips on what a person needs to make a life alone in the wilderness. A story of survival, solitude and unexpected friendship. DISCOMFORT: 5/10 This is a visceral read, Winton doesn’t pull any punches, but always with a beautiful balance and in service of the story WRITING: With eleven other novels behind him, Winton is on peak form.
For more, we discuss The Shepherd’s Hut on Bookshelf episode 46, along with other book recommendations.
Looking for more?
Check out all of our podcast episodes, in particular our Bookshelf shows, as we discuss all the books we’ve been reading recently, and our book club shows for our follow-on book recommendations, and finally follow us on Instagram for daily posts including book recommendations and reviews.