Still Life Part IV: Reading in isolation and solitude

As part of a new series we are running over the next few weeks, we asked our writers and translators to share the books they’re turning to right now. We wanted to know what they are reading – classics, new books, old favourites – and what else they are doing to mark time and keep going. Read on for the fourth and final set of entries, many of which came in before the full lockdown began.

I’ve been thinking about reading more than actually reading, but I have been dipping back into The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz. A psychoanalyst condenses years of his work with patients into stories that are spare but full of wisdom. ‘At one time or another, most of us have felt trapped by things we find ourselves thinking or doing,’ he writes. Therapy in 240 pages! I also want to go back to Elizabeth Jane Howard’s panoramic five volume story of a large, privileged family living through the second world war, the Cazalet Chronicles. Unfortunately I seem to have loaned out VI-II, so I will be repurchasing them, along with The Long View, EJH’s second novel, which I’ve not read but which I know is told backwards. It might seem counter-intuitive but there is often something surprising and particularly moving in beginning at the end (I’m thinking of Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, a novel set in Blitz-time London, and another great read). Nothing punctuates the day like the jaunty sound of the Archers theme (even if I’m at home I prefer tuning in at 7pm when I would usually just about get in from work). I’m mocked for it, but I love catching up on events in Ambridge while slicing or dicing, a drink perched on the chopping board. It’s nice to do something to signal that the day is done. — Sophie Missing, editor at Daunt Books

I’ve been reading Catherine Cho’s stunning memoir Inferno, but slowly, in short bursts. It’s hard to concentrate on much at all and I’m trying to let myself do things slowly. I’m finding audiobooks a good way of engaging with books right now. I listen to them when I can’t sleep. I just downloaded a classic I’ve never read before, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. And, to support local indie bookshops (and give myself something to look forward to) I’ve been pre-ordering some poetry books that I’m very excited about, like How to Wash a Heart by Bhanu Kapil and DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi. — Nina Mingya Powles, author of Tiny Moons and contributor to At the Pond

I turned forty-nine last week, which made me feel urgent about a whole lot of things all at once. I wasn’t – a week ago – worried about Covid-19 because back then it was still only an abstraction. I was, instead, urgently turning my apartment and office upside down looking for my copy of Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith. Upon finding it, I reasoned, I would learn how to finish my novel – the urgency of which was inextricably related to my forthy-ninth birthday.

After days of rummaging this disorderly apartment (and its appalling counterpart, my office), where only the fiction is alphabetised by author, I gave up, decided to try to simply enjoy reading a Patricia Highsmith novel. I spent all Saturday with The Talented Mr Ripley. I read it straight through. The hours I spent ignoring my family and my chores and stockpiling! . . . An indulgence I seldom allow myself  –  but it was my birthday and it seemed that anything but gruesome, vain Mr Ripley made me feel urgent and anxious and as if I were going to die before I did anything important. Schools were cancelled and so my Saturday indulgence slithered into a Sunday plus Monday indulgence with Ripley Down Under (it’s twice as long as the first book in the series).

To note, I learned nothing specific about plotting a suspense novel, though I observed that Highsmith’s busy dialogue was often interjected with background activity – leaves flying past or people stumbling on a curb. That seemed like a handy tip and I filed it away. I watch Anthony Minghella’s 1999 movie The Talented Mr Ripley – which holds up. The quarantine loomed and I couldn’t get off the couch. I started in on The Price of Salt, Highsmith’s lesbian novel originally written under a pen name. I haven’t seen the movie adaptation, Carol (even though my stepdaughter claims it as an all-time favorite), because it came out during that period when it seemed like Cate Blanchett was in too many movies at the same time and one of them was Blue Jasmine.

It’s taking me longer to read The Price of Salt – even though in the interim we’ve gone into shut down and in principle I should have even more extra leisure time. It’s not a suspense novel; it’s an emotional fortitude novel (not unlike Sally Rooney). The lesbian sex scenes are all written like fuzzy drug stupors, one of those dreams where you’re too tired to do anything. One has to extrapolate. The main character, Theresa, is either having sex or taking lots of naps at other peoples’ houses. A week after my birthday; that ambitious, frivolous urgency of what-will-I-accomplish-before-I-die has morphed into something more practical: How do I teach writing through video conferences? Can I get enough exercise on the carpet? How do I convince my children to study? It’s become extraordinarily difficult to focus on anything – even an indulgence. Not for the first time in the last decade, I wish I were a Buffy The Vampire Slayer virgin, but at the same time I know that I need more than mere distraction. I’ve had a fever for the last three days and my internist – over video conference  – determines I need a test and the facility administering the test doesn’t agree.

To my great relief, I’ve located Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction on the shelf right over my desk. It’s a cranky little manual. On page sixteen she claims to have spoken enough about plots and gimmicks (a summary wrap up to say the least) then goes on to complain at great lengths about gimmicks (like interrupting dialogue with stage effects) for several more chapters. Despite the Lysol shortage and the world gone mad, I can’t find anything to solve the problem of my having let another year slip away. Then I stumble on this – as if Ms Highsmith were summoning to me from her bramble throne in the hereafter: ‘I create things out of boredom with reality,’ she writes, plucking a thistle from behind her ear and surveying the valley of discontent just east of Elysian Fields, ‘and with the sameness of routine and objects around me.’ Quarantine is the solution. Stories are born in boredom and then they fill it up, so it’s not boring anymore. — Minna Proctor, translator of Happiness, as Such by Natalia Ginzburg

When we first went into lockdown eleven days ago, I hoped one of the ways I would pass the time would be working my way through the pile by my bed, starting with Wolf Hall. That has not happened. Out of our new claustrophobic reality though, has come new reading habits, or rather re-reading habits. Children’s books, primarily, with my son, in the morning rather than at night. Roald Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World, Charlie, and Matilda, Ted Hughes’ Iron Man, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Gianni Rodari, Tintin, Michael Morpurgo. We are both taking great comfort in the familiarity and escapism, also useful in helping us talk about his fears. It’s inspired lots of drawing, by all of us – why have I never tried to draw like Quentin Blake before, I am awful, but I love it! I didn’t intend to re-read Annie Ernaux’s The Years (translated by Alison L. Strayer), just dip in to find a quote, but it swept me up, the structure just right for my frame of mind, the shifting focus from domestic details to collective global experiences extraordinarily timely and meaningful. Hoping the same happens when I return to Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. For work I have just re-read Yemisi Aribisala’s Longthroat Memoirs, the best memoir with food (and sex) I have ever read, and – it took me a while to get over the size – Niki Segnit’s Lateral Cooking is my current cookbook crush. Mary Oliver’s collected poems are in the bathroom and I read something everyday. Wolf Hall still top of the pile. — Rachel Roddy, author of Two Kitchens and contributor to In the Kitchen, forthcoming from Daunt Books

As yet – touch wood – I’m not having any problem concentrating when I’m reading. If anything, getting lost in a good book is one of the few distractions that still seems to be working – regardless of how good it is, watching a TV series or a film, I find myself absent-mindedly scrolling through Twitter, or refreshing the Guardian’s Coronavirus live feed . . . Alongside all the usual reading that’s part of my day job, I’ve been catching up with a few newly published novels that I’ve had my eye on: Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, a smart, funny and snappy contemporary fairy tale about the gig economy which is published by Coffee House Press and Emily Books in America, but I’m really hoping a UK publisher will bring out over here; the Man Booker International-shortlisted Discomfort of the Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (translated by Michele Hutchinson), which is electrically good, but is also the bleakest most depressing thing I’ve read in a long time, so definitely won’t be for everyone right now; and Evie Wyld’s third novel, The Bass Rock, which is beautifully written but also another pretty dark read, steeped in misogyny and violence against women, so be warned! But I’m also losing myself in some heftier tomes that have been on my ‘to read’ pile for an embarrassingly long time. First up was Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy, which I’ve quite literally been waiting my entire life to read – I’ve got my mother’s paperback edition, which contains the three volumes, and was published the year I was born. If I remember it correctly, it was what she read in the immediate weeks following my birth, often with me in her arms. And now I’m embarking on Elizabeth Jane Howard’s five volume Cazalet Chronicles. It might just be a coincidence that both are set during the second world war, but I’m certainly feeling some comfort in reading about other people trying to live their lives during times of intense global crisis. — Lucy Scholes, author of the introduction to Saturday Lunch with the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer, forthcoming from Daunt Books

While lying on my sofa, staring at my bookshelf, I have found my eyes regularly returning to my copy of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. ‘My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation,’ she writes. I tend to be drawn to cynicism and irony in times of trouble, so it seems a good book for the moment; this strange isolation vacation, which, so far, I have spent refreshing my email, making and then discarding cups of tea and pondering the merits of taking up smoking again. For periods when I’m in need of something a bit more wholesome, I watch Gilmore Girls in the bath. Rory Gilmore is an avid reader, so watching her on screen tends to push me back into the mood for a book. So far, the pile I’ve assembled to get me through the coming weeks includes two with vaguely amusing titles given our current state: Always Home by Fanny Singer (which is quite apt) and How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas (which is not). I’m reading periodically throughout the day, and for at least 20 minutes before bed, where my cat has taken to sleeping next me. Rupert can sense when times are fraught, and is kind enough to move from his regular spot on a chair in my study to my duvet in order to provide the kind of reassurance that even the most brilliant book can’t. — Lou Stoppard, author of Pools and contributor to At the Pond

I’m currently reading Summerwater by Sarah Moss, she’s such a sharp and entrancing writer. I recently loved Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers and I’ll be turning to/rereading McCullers more in the coming months because to me she can do no wrong. Immersive, wonderful novels for turbulent times: How Much of these Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang. The Harpy by Megan Hunter. The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan. Belladonna by Anbara Salam. Bestiary by K Ming Chang. Turning next to Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bet and David Boyd), Rest and Be Thankful by Emma Glass. I binged all of Next in Fashion recently, it contains my favourite reality TV winner ever and I managed to watch it sans spoilers. I currently have no cooker so I am relying on my oven to roast mostly vegetables and I find tremendous comfort in the Calm app, especially Tamara Levitt’s voice, and the recent Tara Brach meditation series – an audio hug. — Sharlene Teo, author of Ponti and contributor to At the Pond