The best novels I read during the pandemic

Brian Finney Author Of Dangerous Conjectures
By Brian Finney

The Books I Picked & Why

The End of October

By Lawrence Wright

The End of October

Why this book?

This book is about a pandemic. It was published in April 2020, just when Covid-19 was causing worldwide lockdowns. But Wright finished the book well before the outbreak was discovered. What prescience! And it is so meticulously researched (he’s an investigative journalist for The New Yorker). The major character is an epidemiologist at the CDC who witnesses the spread of a virulent virus in Mecca and spends the rest of the novel looking for an antidote. His account of the devastating effects of the pandemic involves bioweapons, cyber warfare, and an apocalyptic finale. It made me grateful that Covid-19 did not turn out to be as destructive as Wright’s imaginary virus.


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Where the Crawdads Sing

By Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing

Why this book?

During the pandemic, we all found ourselves uncharacteristically isolated from others. Where the Crawdads Sing recounts the life of a young girl abandoned by her family and left to grow up on her own in a stretch of marshland on the North Carolina coast. The marsh acts as her alternative parent. She finds that “it was enough to be part of this natural sequence as sure as the tides.” This unique landscape is evoked in all its beauty and strangeness. But there is a gripping plot - as she matures the marsh girl, as she is known by locals, becomes a murder suspect. Her trial forms the climax of the book. This is easily the most entrancing novel I read during the pandemic and beautifully written.


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Quichotte

By Salman Rushdie

Quichotte

Why this book?

By 2020 the boundary between fantasy and reality had become virtually erased. Confined to home, we all found ourselves the targets of conspiracy theories. Even the president scoffed at the dangers of the coronavirus. Rushdie’s spoof of Cervantes’ Don Quixote features an updated avatar of Quixote whose reality has been formed by tv soap operas. He is “deranged by reality television,” and in love with a talk show celebrity. Driving across America to reach her he encounters “the pollution of the real by the unreal.” In fact, he himself turns out to be the fictional creation of another major character, an author who is soon exposed to be no less fictional. But this is Rushdie in whose ludic novels the material unreal is the imaginative real.


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The Mars Room

By Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room

Why this book?

Rachel Kushner and I both live in Los Angeles. We have both written novels set in California. Hers is an impressive act of imagination as most of it takes place in a women’s prison. Although she has visited the Central California Women’s Facility a number of times and befriended an ex-inmate when researching the book, she has never been a prisoner herself. Yet the lives of the prisoners are utterly convincing, especially that of the major character, Romy, a prostitute sentenced to two life sentences for killing her stalker. I particularly admire the way that Kushner, in creating Romy as a believable individual, simultaneously exposes the failings of California’s inhuman prison system.


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Klara and the Sun

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun

Why this book?

The pandemic made us ask ourselves how much it would change the future. This novel is set in a near future that feels much like the present. Still, the narrator is a solar-powered humanoid, manufactured to be a companion to a 14-year-old girl who is confined to her home for schooling on her “oblong.” (Like Lawrence Wright, Ishiguro is remarkably prescient in anticipating a major consequence of the pandemic.) The Artificial Friend is unusually empathetic, more human than some of the humans who prove treacherous. Ishiguro uses this figure to ask the fundamental question – what is it to be human?


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