For the first time in my life, I understand what Lord Byron meant when he wrote that “truth is always strange, stranger than fiction.” As COVID-19 sweeps the country, in a matter of weeks, our status quos have been flipped upside down. I’m one of the lucky ones — I go to a good school and my professors are understanding and flexible given the circumstances. My parents have good jobs and are able to keep working from home. I’m keeping in touch with friends, classmates, and teammates through the magic of FaceTime and social media, and I actually like my parents, siblings, and especially my dog. Still, quarantine is a trying, lonesome time. In between homework, Netflix, and family time, I knew I needed to find some hobby to fill the new surge of free time.
So I did what any rational bookworm would do: I scoured my house, and singled out every book that looked interesting to me (pictured above). I’ve made it through six very different books, and I want to share them with you now. Many of these are accessible through Scribd, Overdrive, or even a library website if they spark your own interest.
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
I began reading this book in January, but the hectic social and academic calendar of campus life kept me from progressing more than a few chapters at a time. I finally finished it this week, and I must say, it was worth it. I am a lifelong sucker for fantasy, romance, and theatrics, and this novel that combines all of that and more. Set in the nineteenth century, it follows two young magic users, Celia and Marco, as they begin a bizarre wizard’s duel in which they must surreptitiously pull the strings of a traveling circus. To say anything more feels almost like a betrayal of the astonishing world that Erin Morgenstern has created, mixing and matching Arthurian legend, steamy period romance, the nuances of parent-child relationships, and big ideas about how to find one’s place in a world you only partly understand. Every character is so alive, human, and real on the page (with some very specific and thought-provoking exceptions, you’ll know them when you see them), while the fantastical unreality of the Cirque de Reves features some of the most creative, I-can’t-believe-nobody-ever-thought-of-this moments of my literary life.
- The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Here’s a book that my tenth-grade English teacher told me to buy, but was never actually read in class. It’s a shame too, given that (a) it’s only 54 pages long, and (b) it’s actually a lot of fun. Yes, that’s right, a book from tenth-grade English that is fun to read. The play follows Jack, who, in his bid to be a good parent to his teenage foster daughter, a good partner to the woman he hopes to marry, and to do right by himself, has been living a double life: “Uncle Jack” gives Cecily the best life she can, while “his layabout brother Ernest” enjoys the less-socially-approved pleasures of life. When his puckish friend Algernon learns about this, the temptation to have some fun with this is too great to resist. Romance, mistaken identity, and biting commentary about class and identity ensue. This one’s public domain, so it should be easy enough to find. If you haven’t already, give it a read, my fellow Bunburyists!
- The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
This novel came to me from my father’s bookshelf, where it sat beside his college textbooks, memoirs from his favorite talk show hosts, and, for some reason, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Elvis. Judging from the condition of this copy, my dad has probably had this since he was younger than I am now. But unlike some of the books on that shelf, I totally understand why he kept it around as long as he has. A brilliant scientist makes a remarkable discovery, but the thrill of time travel is complicated by what he actually sees when he arrives in the year 802701. There’s a lot of dated, uncomfortable comments about race and gender, and I completely understand if that ruins the book for some readers. But I managed to stomach it, and got a very solid adventure story where the worst problems of Wells’ own era are amplified into the things of sci-fi greatness. Many of us already know the most famous part of this strange new world — rampant inequality has caused humans to evolve into two separate species. More interesting, however, is what comes next. At first, it seems like there is a clear binary between the haves and have-nots, but the truth is a lot more complicated, tragic, and powerful. Arbitrary social distinctions fade away because we are all a part of each other. To ignore our interconnectedness is to set ourselves up for catastrophe.
- Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
After three books either written or set in the 19th century, I needed a change of place. How does first century Judea sound? In this not-quite-biography, Aslan explores who the historical Jesus of Nazareth was: not the Christian Savior or Son of God, but the thirty-something Jewish carpenter turned traveling preacher who spoke out against corrupt leadership and the Roman government, and who was killed for trying to become the new Jewish king. Everything I took for granted when reading The Young Reader’s Bible Stories is placed into a well-researched, vividly-recreated historical context. Miracles, magic, politics, coinage, family relationships, letter-writing, and so much more are put into a new, and, dare I say it, more fascinating light. There are thousands of scholars who have devoted their lives to learning who the historical Jesus was, and we may never reach a clear conclusion. But Aslan has made a powerful case for his idea of Jesus, and there’s something for everyone, whether they believe or not, to get out of this.
- All The Women in My Family Sing, edited by Deborah Santana
Another nonfiction book, Sing is an anthology in which upwards of sixty women of color have written essays about life as only they know it. They’re brief, but each is as unique as they are moving as these women discuss what justice, identity, home, family, careers, beauty, and more mean to them. Some are funny, some are poignant, many are somewhere in between as these women (including actress America Ferrera, Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, and even undergrad, graduate, and PhD students like us) use their creativity, dignity, and resilience to assert their places in a world that has been known to leave WOC behind.
- Ayesha At Last by Uzma Jalaluddin
After two depressing nonfiction reads, I needed something bright and sunny to lift me back up. Enter Ayesha At Last, a romantic comedy that retells Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in modern-day Toronto. Our “Lizzie Bennet” is Ayesha Shamsi, a substitute teacher and part-time poet with a razor-sharp tongue and crazy family life, who knows exactly what to make of Khalid Mirza, the tradition-minded, judgmental, socially awkward, but incredibly handsome and even sweet guy she keeps running into. With some new twists on Austen’s classic plot and an irresistible excess of romantic, familial, and community love, this book had me grinning all the way through. Plus, the Mister Collins analogue is a professional wrestler/life coach! That’s amazing, and you can’t tell me otherwise.
These are the books that helped me expand the world beyond my childhood home, and I’ve got many more to go. I firmly intend to keep on reading, and with any luck, keep sharing them with all of you. Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep yourself entertained; we’ve all got plenty of time.
These are the books that helped me expand the world beyond my childhood home, and I’ve got many more to go. I firmly intend to keep on reading, and with any luck, keep sharing them with all of you. Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep yourself entertained; we’ve all got plenty of time