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Our writers turned to books for solace throughout quarantine: Here are their top picks for what soothed them most.
‘Just Kids’ — Patti Smith
Sofia Andrade, Crimson Staff Writer
“Why can’t I write something that would wake the dead? That pursuit is what burns most deeply,” Patti Smith writes in her memoir and love letter to New York City, “Just Kids.” Reading these lines in quarantine — as coronavirus numbers kept rising and my family retreated further into isolation — was cathartic. Though I first opened the book back on campus in February, I spent much of my summer immersed in the confessions and constellations of Patti Smith, reading and rereading her accounts of Chelsea Hotel bohemia and her relationship with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. She describes living her youth in search of poets, of bleeding hearts and artists, of hearts full and broken and mended together as though she is herself inventing the world with each black-inked letter. Romanticism bleeds through the pages of “Just Kids” as though that were the only way for such a love story to exist. I spent months living vicariously through Smith’s poetic landscapes, letting every last word linger just as my summer days did. Through her bountiful descriptions of Mapplethorpe and New York in the 60s and 70s, Smith achieved that pursuit which “burns most deeply”: She woke the dead.
'The Castle' — Franz Kafka
Lance R. He, Contributing Writer
The bad part? The repetitive slog of rejection. The worst part? “The Castle” remains unfinished. Dreadfully idyllic summer days creep alongwhile I'm trapped, alone, in my little castle in hellish Texas heat. Like any sane person, I decide to read “The Castle.” You've heard of him, Kafka; this book of his can best be described as, well, oppressively Kafkaesque. Whenever K., a hired foreign surveyor, tries to approach the titular castle and meet his employer, he is denied access and ostracized by the vicious members of the surrounding village. A master of his craft, Kafka inspired within me an emptiness, the same from which K. yearned for adventure and truth. He reminded me that, while I melted under the sweltering heat scrolling through daily haunting news in déjà vu, I still had agency to take action. So I took action. I reveled in other great novels, and yet I always came back to “The Castle.” Its preposterous allure draws me in with absolute denial... Can I come in?
‘Children of Blood and Bone’—Tomi Adeyemi
Madi L. Fabber, Contributing Writer
When we were sent home in March, I found myself in desperate need of escapism, so I turned to my tried and true love: YA Fantasy. I spent the summer pouring through all of the recent releases I had missed, but the book that stands out most spectacularly as a defining book of my reading list is Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel, “Children of Blood and Bone.” Adeyemi’s writing whisked me away to a world of magic, adventure, and unbelievably high stakes. “Children of Blood and Bone” also features an excellently crafted world inspired by West African folklore that is so well constructed it leaps off the page. Combined with a suite of four main characters, this book expertly navigates nuanced depictions of love, hatred, trauma, and family dynamics — making for a truly impactful novel that is impossible to put down. “Children of Blood and Bone” is the first installment in a brilliant trilogy, and I can say with enthusiasm that I cannot wait to devour the final book in the series when it is released next year.
'Six of Crows' — Leigh Bardugo
Millie Mae Healy, Contributing Writer
What do you do when you desperately want to leave somewhere, but cannot for the safety of yourself, your family, and the general populace? Read about a group of misfits who desperately want to get into somewhere, apparently. “Six of Crows” is a masterful fantasy heist about six formidable teenage criminals with complicated pasts. It’s the perfect heist: aware of the tropes of the genre without being self-congratulatory every time it side-steps a cliche, yet remaining equal parts surprising, heart-stopping and — at thematically appropriate moments — hilarious. The motley crew of protagonists are fantastically diverse, well-rounded, and compelling despite (or because of) their talent for illegal activity. Perhaps my favorite thing about this book is the impeccable character growth among the protagonists: The stakes are just right and the emotional development lines up with the action in a gorgeously satisfying way that made me remember what it was like to feel things.
'The Adrienne Kennedy Reader' — Adrienne Kennedy
Alejandro C. Eduarte, Contributing Writer
“‘Did you know there’s love in the world,” he said. “Did you know it?’,” writes Adrienne Kennedy in the opening story of her collected works. The collection, which takes readers from the Tower of London to Ohio to Greece to New York City and far beyond, includes essays, short stories, and letters — but most prominent are its plays. In the wake of the temporary loss of large-scale live shows, Kennedy’s fragmented, incantatory language not only brought me back to those scenes of performance and collective breath-holding possible in theater, but also taught me how little I know of myself as a human, since my life in the world is essentially all performance — and now, in quarantine, that capacity to perform has mostly fallen away. Questions of who I am, who we are, and what we should do in the world abound in that silence arise, in that space away from both the theater and collective life. Kennedy’s plays help fill that gap. Her ever-wistful characters (including Beethoven, Greeks, Jesus, and 1950s Hollywood stars) often long for family, lineage, and healing, and display just how hard it is to be a person in a world that constantly seeks to displace them from where they want to belong. These surreal plays show us how, once we accept that our identities are constantly mutable, we can create lives that are more experimental, tricky, tragic, clever, and full of love than we could have had otherwise.
'Throne of Glass' — Sarah J. Maas
Jim O. C. Diamondidis, Contributing Writer
At first, “Throne of Glass” was simply a form of escapism for me. There’s a gorgeous assassin, a handsome prince, an evil king, and a fight-to-the-death competition. I thought the writing style was a little jejune, but it allowed for rapid consumption; I, in turn, allowed myself to get lost in its pages. But as the series progressed, the writing style and the story began to evolve and open up. “Throne of Glass” hooked me as an innocent fairy tale, but wound up blossoming into an epic fantasy saga on par with “The Lord of the Rings” or “Game of Thrones.” I have come to care deeply about all of the characters in Maas’s world, and I am dreading the day that I finish the last book.
Don Tillman Series ('The Rosie Project,' 'The Rosie Effect,' and 'The Rosie Result') — Graeme Simsion
Emi P. Cummings, Contributing Writer
On what seemed like day 2,457 of quarantine, I discovered a charming and warm-hearted novel titled “The Rosie Project,” the first work in the three-part Don Tillman series. Written by Australian IT consultant Graeme Simsion, the trilogy follows the romantic, familial, social, and professional trajectories of Don, a socially awkward geneticist who is so tone-deaf that he seemingly forgets on several occasions that irony exists. Don’s escapade — which features more twists and turns than a roller coaster — begins with a meticulously designed questionnaire that he produces in hopes of finding a suitable wife. What could possibly go wrong? Unsurprisingly, many, many things. But the havoc unleashed by Don and his emotions is what makes Simsion’s collection of novels so amusing. All three books feature characteristics of a consistently entertaining series: superb pacing, razor-sharp dialogue, an endearing couple to cheer on, slapstick humor, and boisterous physical pursuits. A victorious screwball comedy that delights readers while providing valuable insight into topics ranging from parenting to cocktail making, the “Rosie” trilogy was, and still is, the perfect companion to the couch, my imagination, and rare idle hours.
'Conversations with Friends' — Sally Rooney
Mira S. Alpers, Contributing Writer
When I found myself back in my childhood bedroom last March, I knew I had to re-read “Conversations with Friends.” The novel follows college-aged Frances and her friend/ex-girlfriend Bobbi, as their lives intersect with those of Melissa, a photographer, and Nick, her actor husband. “Conversations with Friends” had been one of my favorite books before coronavirus, but, reading it this second time, the book took on new importance to me. Rooney’s characters may not have been living through a pandemic, but the way they communicated their listlessness, their true desires for love and connection, and the estrangement they felt from the world around them resonated so acutely with my “new normal.” For example, at one point in the novel, Frances fittingly remarks, “Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen.” For me, “Conversations with Friends” also served as a form of escapism. Not only does it take place in a pre-pandemic world, but the central romance is endearing, exciting, and just plain fun. Rooney is also a fantastic writer — with a deep understanding of how people talk, both to each other and to themselves. This novel is a perfect read for anyone who not only wants to immerse themselves in the lives of a group of compelling characters, but who also wants to get to understand their own emotions better.
'Slaughterhouse 5' — Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Mikel J. Davies, Staff Writer
Growing up in rural Idaho and being thrust back into my childhood by the pandemic and state-mandated stay-at-home orders, I thought: what better book to read than my high school English teacher’s go-to recommendation — “Slaughterhouse 5.” And what an apt choice it was. Slipping into the story of Billy Pilgrim was a perfect release from the grim reality of 2020. Why not travel through time and space in Vonnegut’s abstract anti-war, sci-fi adventure through World War II and the far-off planet of Tralfamadore. Vonnegut’s incredible — though sometimes perplexing — writing sheds a bit of light on the ever-changing world of today. Billy Pilgrim went through life as little more than a bump on a log, just waiting for things to pass him by, hoping something decent would happen every now and then. Luckily for him, he got to spend a hot minute naked in a Tralfamadorian Zoo with Montana Wildhack, and I got to experience the thrilling escape from reality throughout the off-kilter story. The breakneck transitions between times and places of the story might not be for everyone, but in a world as chaotic and seemingly far fetched as the one of Billy Pilgrim, “Slaughterhouse 5” is an endearing and enjoyable read that tells its audience to be wary of war and quick to friendship — even if they might disappear in the firebombing of Dresden one day. So it goes.
'The Raven Cycle' — Maggie Stiefvater
Nuri Bhuiyan, Staff Writer
I remember reading the first installment of this four-book series during my senior year of high school. I was set on a quick accent love story, and although most of the dust jacket description was about a group of friends in their search for a magical Welsh king, I hoped the multiple mentions of true love would make it sufficiently romantic. I quickly realized it was much more than that and stopped halfway through. Now, two years later, as I near the end of the fourth and last book, “The Raven King,” I’m glad I abandoned it then — because to rediscover this gorgeous story of love and desire and dreams during this time of extreme isolation has been such a gift. The writing is at once meandering and detailed — but also focused, and overall so intensely psychoanalytical that I cannot count the number of times I thought to myself: “Wow, I’ve never felt more understood.” The past few months getting to know Ronan, Gansey, Adam, Blue, and the rest of characters, along with the beautifully meditative Henrietta, Virginia that holds them all, have been incredible. I’ll remember things these infinitely interesting people have thought or said or qualities of the spaces they occupy for days. The world Maggie Stiefvater has created in this series is just so fantastical and spectacular, yet so permeated by humanity — a reality that feels necessary and even natural during such a disorienting time.
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