I’m pretty good at reading in the middle of a noise storm, such as tuning out loud talkers, annoying music and blaring TVs in waiting rooms. These recent days, however, I’ve fumbled badly. It’s a different kind of noise going on, more inside than outside my head. With local and national pandemic updates coming by the minute, I read maybe a few pages and then check my cell phone. News alerts have sent me off to the stores or Twitter or texting to buy, inform and worry. And yet, I know I can and should control my thoughts.
This predicament reminds me of Anne Lamott’s radio station KFKD in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, the chapter on how to filter out the noise of doubt and fear. Her advice is simple (and written with comic self-awareness): take a deep breath, re-focus. Even so, I’m still rereading sentences two and three times and jumping back to paragraphs I’ve just read to reread and make sure I’ve absorbed the content. I feel like I’m trying to read while standing on a water bed.
I’ve got to get KFKD turned off, even if for just one hour at a time, or bird by bird as Lamott would say. Shutting down the phone isn’t the solve. It’s too easy to push the on button. I know I need to separate myself from it, leave it turned off in another room. In his early years, the famous 20th century short story author Raymond Carver wrote in his car when he needed concentrated quiet away from his noisy kids. I get that. There have been times I’ve read in my car in the garage, long before now. I’d turn off the ignition, leave the garage door up and pick up my book, to avoid the responsibilities inside the house that interrupted my reading. Crazy, perhaps, but a peaceful respite nonetheless, and right now weird enough to settle my thoughts. Why not?
What you see below are five novels for my bird-by-bird solution over the next few days. What I hope for the most, in the protected hour-at-a-time reading, is not only a return of concentration, but also the escape we all want in our books, that precious letting go.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is a classic horror novel I’ve wanted to reread for a long time, not only for its unsettling story but also to re-experience the power of Jackson’s expertise. (Most will recognize her by the famous story, The Lottery.) The novel opens with the simple yet obscurely chilling first line, My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood, taking us into a macabre story of three people shunned by local villagers and living in isolation in a big house on a hill.
Death by Seaside by Alison Moore is a novel published last fall that I keep picking up, like that object you want to buy but tell yourself you can’t afford it, and then finally you just give it to yourself. For some reason, I kept telling myself I didn’t have time to get to this, but some books won’t let go. Within Moore’s pages is the story of a struggling young writer who falls under the sway of her devious landlady. “A tense exploration of power and vulnerability, obsession, and manipulation,” according to the press release from publisher Biblioasis.
Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit released this month tells a pilgrim story set in the colony of Plymouth, Massachusetts, concerning a murder and trial. “…Nesbit reframes the story of the pilgrims in the previously unheard voices of two women of very different status and means,” the dust jacket reads, and further says Nesbit “evokes a vivid, ominous Plymouth, populated by famous and unknown characters alike.” I’m not typically a fan of historic fiction, but I am a fan of Beheld’s publisher, Bloomsbury, a house that releases excellent literary fiction. Also, the distinctive narrative voice on the first page makes me want to dive in.
In Actress, a new book by Irish writer Anne Enright, a daughter looks back on her legendary mother’s acting career. Norah observed Katherine’s stunning career as a child, growing up in the wings of theaters in London, New York, and eventually Hollywood. From the novel’s description: “As Norah’s role gradually changes to Katherine’s protector, caregiver, and finally legacy-keeper, she revisits her mother’s life of fiercely kept secrets; and Norah reveals in turn the secrets of her own sexual and emotional coming-of-age story.” Enright won the 2007 Booker prize for The Gathering, a novel I loved, and I’d like to return to her work.
The Catch by Mick Herron is a novella (105 pages) that’s set in Herron’s Slough House world of disgraced MI5 spies. Newly released, it’s grabbed my attention not only for the story line of John Bachelor’s existence as a fallen British spy living in a fellow dead spy’s apartment, but also for wanting to get introduced to Herron’s best-selling and award winning Slough House work. This slim book (I’m already halfway through it) is filled with intriguing complexity and also twists I don’t see coming, definitely a strong enticement to pick up Slow Horses, the award-winning first Slough House book.
Finally, I share this list knowing public libraries and local bookshops are temporarily closed. As for the bookshops, those in my community are fulfilling online and phone orders with free home delivery. I took advantage of the home delivery this week from a local bookshop — ordered the book on Wednesday and it was on my doorstep Thursday. I’ve since ordered another book. While I get many books sent to me without cost by publishers, and can also request them, these days I’m making room in my budget to buy from this local shop as a way to support the book world that I love.