TAKE A QUARANTINE VACATION WITH A BOOK
By Lee Matthew Goldberg
With Covid shutting down most people’s vacation plans for the fall and beyond, the cheapest and safest vacation you can do these days is with a book. I’ve definitely upped my reading game during these times, since there’s a lack of doing much else. Curl up with some of these titles that have helped pass the time during our quarantine days.
Being a huge fan of Murakami, I’ve read all of his novels. Some have been my favorites like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Sputnik Sweetheart, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World. A few are less successful like Near Dark. The problem for prolific authors is you tend to repeat the same tropes. With Murakami, a woman often goes missing, jazz music plays, and there are cats. But his best work has a David Lynchian dream-like quality, and his novels seduce readers without be able to guess what comes next. I’ve read that Murakami writes in the morning and then runs every day where he goes over his ideas so the story and the running becomes enmeshed. The books then leave his control and veer in a direction he doesn’t anticipate. Killing Commendatore feels this way. There isn’t too much of a story. An unnamed narrator deals with the break-up of a marriage, and while isolating himself, he hears a bell in the woods that may be from a supernatural entity. A neighbor girl goes missing and the narrator tasks himself to find her. And is he drawn to a painting hidden in the attic. All of these plots will eventually converge. I would rank this mid-level Murakami. It always held my attention, but there is a rambling quality to the narrative. At seven hundred pages, one wonders if it could be edited down. But these are minor gripes. Languishing with the book is a pleasure because you always feel you are in the hands of a master, guiding you down these dark paths in the woods where a mysterious bell rings.
Since we’re living in a dystopian nightmare right now, why not check out an even worse one in John Lancaster’s The Wall? Due to the “Change,” life has become uninhabitable for most of the world, beaches are gone, and travel between countries prohibited. Things have gotten colder. In the UK, a wall has been built to protect the country and the novel follows soldiers who are tasked to guard the wall where life is pretty boring and grim. Young folks are all for the wall where the “olds” are against it, remembering the old ways too much and wanting life to return to that. For those who have no memories of what life was like before the “change,” they only know of survival. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of children now whose first memory might be the pandemic. For my generation, the Challenger blowing up was many people’s first memory, an event so shocking because we all watched it live in school. For today’s young generation, this will have many more lasting effects. And while The Wall doesn’t widely differ from other dystopian novels, it offers a philosophical bent on our possible futures and is definitely worth a read.
SUCH A FUN AGE
The title of Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, refers to Emira, a 25-year-old black woman who’s a babysitter to a white child named Briar. Floating through her twenties, Emira isn’t experiencing a “fun age.” One night she is called to take care of Briar and a white woman in a grocery store sees them out late and calls the security guard because she’s concerned. The incident is captured on video and goes viral, which horrifies Emira’s employers by making them question their own privileged tendencies. They make a show of sympathy as white saviors where Emira just wants to forget the incident and focus on getting a real job. The author is sharp and witty and the character’s motivations all believable. It asks difficult questions about how we handle racism and our roles in perpetuating it further. I know Lena Waithe has snapped up the rights and I’m very curious to see how it’s adapted.
Circe was a witch in The Odyssey who ensnared men and turned them into pigs. Here she gets a new retelling from the author Madeleine Miller in this lush novel that reads like a fever dream. Miller’s Circe is sympathetic and deservedly turns the men who wrong her into pigs. The author pulls back the curtains and expands her life: a lonely childhood with the gods, when she met mortals for the first time, and when she’s banished for turning a romantic rival into a beast. Homer only gives Circe a few lines, but they are rich enough with possibilities to spin an entire tale. The novel is vivid and begs to be made into a Netflix mini-series. It transports you to another, fantastical time and a good way to tap into a vacation of imagination these days.
Weather is a slim novel by Jenny Offill with shades of dystopia. It’s quick, funny, but with a biting undertone. The fear of anxiety and motherhood swirls with climate change and the rise in politics of the right-wing. It’s all too relatable and scary. The novel focuses on how we deal with this tumult using humor, panic, denial and steadfastness. Much like we are trying to cope with our own current situation. Its narrator Lizzie gave up on her studies to deal with her addicted brother and became a college librarian. She lives with her too-smart and precious husband and son in Brooklyn. The novel is nothing more than a series of observations, but readers will wholly be invested in Lizzie’s plight. It’s the kind of book you read with a pen to highlight certain passages, but it’s so good that you’ll be highlighting most of it. I’m into books you can read in one setting and this one is clearly meant to be inhaled.
NIGHT BOAT TO TANGIER
Two old Irish men are the main characters in Kevin Barry’s poetic Night Boat to Tangier. Maurice and Charlie while away their time in an Algericas ferry station “that reeks of tired bodies and dread”. They are searching for Maurice’s adult daughter Dilly, who runs with a crowd that would hang out at this station and is supposed to arrive. This becomes interspersed with flashbacks of their younger years as drug traffickers, but the business is long gone. They are aged and broke now. Shades of Waiting of Godot can be recognized. The novel works because of Barry’s talent. Every sentence is a jewel, carefully crafted over. And Maurice and Charlie, despite being criminals, each have a beating heart. You want for them to leave this station and find whatever it is that would make them happy again, even though that seems like a pipedream.
In Alexis Shaitkin’s Saint X, a teenage girl goes missing during a family vacation to a Caribbean Island. The visuals of the island are brilliantly written so you could smell the beaches and taste the rum cocktails. We meet up with the girl’s younger sister Claire later in life who has never got to really breathe outside of her sister’s disappearance. It wrecked her parents at first, who then made a conscious decision to barely speak of it again. She takes a cab one night and the driver is a Caribbean man named Clive Richardson who was one of the last people to see the missing girl, partying with her that night. Claire becomes drawn to him, weaseling her way into his life like a stalker. She wants answers about what happened to her sister, but she also wants to feel close to her again, having been robbed of an older sister many years ago. The novel also tackles racism and a class dichotomy in the Caribbean, as it begins to peel back layers of Clive’s life and how the missing girl still tortures him as well. A sad novel but also one brimming with possibility. We can become connected to someone we never would’ve met in life, who could change us irrevocably.
THE LIGHTEST OBJECT IN THE UNIVERSE
Kimi Eiesle’s The Lightest Object in the Universe asks, What would happen if all the lights went out? Obviously, society collapses. Cities become riotous and unsafe. People migrate to farms and build small communities as a means of protection and survival. A prophet on the radio urges followers to come to his sanctuary. And two lovers on separate ends of the US find their way back to one another. There’s an alienation that exists on each page. People leaving behind their homes and everything they once knew. But there’s a hopefulness too. We root for society to survive because it has to. It existed once without lights and it will again, maybe as a better society rebirthed. It makes one think how different we will be after the pandemic ends. We will be better because of it? Or shrug off our mistakes? It’s enough to know there is a possibility for change: to our environment, our reliance on technology, and even the way we treat one another.
THE NEW ME
Hallie Butler’s The New Me focuses on Millie, depressed at her temp job and even more depressed that it might become permanent. For anyone who has ever hated their job, it’s easy to relate. The voice is sharp, biting, and hilarious in its sadness. She watches too much true-crime and drinks like a fish. The book reminded me a lot of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Relaxation, another slim, brilliant take on a hot mess. Even though Millie’s parents still support her into her twenties, we feel for her because she hasn’t achieved anything close to what she was expected to be.
Ted Chiang’s Exhalation is a series of non-connected stories that read like isolated episodes of the show Black Mirror. There’s a cold and detached quality that zeroes in more on the philosophical outcomes in our future rather than empathizing with the characters. The best stories like “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” imagine what happens to an AI being after they aren’t wanted anymore. “The Merchant at the Alchemist’s Gate” deals with choices that time travelers must make and those ramifications. A few of the stories lack punch. They are more about ideas, since Chiang is not a visual writer. He’s best known for the story from his last collection that was made into the great film Arrival, but his musings in these stories are what will stay with you long after you turn the page. We are headed toward a future where we will become more and more isolated from who we were as humans, drifting closer toward a merging of technology and ourselves. Are we ready?
Gotta give a shout-out to my own novel The Ancestor. A man wakes up in present-day Alaskan wilderness with no idea who he is, nothing on him save an empty journal with the date 1898 and a mirror. He sees another man hunting nearby, astounded that they look exactly alike except for his own beard. After following this other man home, he witnesses a wife and child that brings forth a rush of memories of his own wife and child, except he’s certain they do not exist in modern times — but from his life in the late 1800s.
After recalling his name is Wyatt, he worms his way into his doppelganger Travis Barlow’s life. Memories become unearthed the more time he spends, making him believe that he’d been frozen after coming to Alaska during the Gold Rush and that Travis is his great-great grandson. Wyatt is certain gold still exists in the area and finding it with Travis will ingratiate himself to the family, especially with Travis’s wife Callie, once Wyatt falls in love. This turns into a dangerous obsession affecting the Barlows and everyone in their small town, since Wyatt can’t be tamed until he also discovers the meaning of why he was able to be preserved on ice for over a century.
A meditation on love lost and unfulfilled dreams, The Ancestor is a thrilling page-turner in present day Alaska and a historical adventure about the perilous Gold Rush expeditions where prospectors left behind their lives for the promise of hope and a better future.
The question remains whether it was all worth the sacrifice…
Please support independent bookstores right now. All of these titles are available and I hope that some of them will help pass the time.
BIO: Lee Matthew Goldberg is the author of the novels THE DESIRE CARD, THE MENTOR, and SLOW DOWN. He has been published in multiple languages and nominated for the 2018 Prix du Polar. His Alaskan Gold Rush novel THE ANCESTOR is forthcoming in 2020. He is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Fringe, dedicated to publishing fiction that’s outside-of-the-box. His pilots and screenplays have been finalists in Script Pipeline, Book Pipeline, Stage 32, We Screenplay, the New York Screenplay, Screencraft, and the Hollywood Screenplay contests. After graduating with an MFA from the New School, his writing has also appeared in the anthology DIRTY BOULEVARD, The Millions, Cagibi, The Montreal Review, The Adirondack Review, The New Plains Review, Underwood Press, Monologging and others. He is the co-curator of The Guerrilla Lit Reading Series and lives in New York City. Follow him at leematthewgoldberg.com