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Books can be a balm and a distraction in times of crisis

It might be challenging to concentrate on anything that is not COVID-19-related, but books can be a balm and a distraction, and heaven knows we could all use some of both right now. Globe Books reached out to a number of Canadian authors to ask them about the literature they turn to in difficult times for comfort, perspective – or simple pleasure.

Sean Michaels

Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of Us Conductors, currently in quarantine in Montreal after returning from a holiday in Mexico (but feeling healthy).

Author Sean Michaels, seen here in his Montreal home in 2014, is currently in self-isolation after returning from a holiday in Mexico.The Canadian Press

I had to put down the book I was reading as of a few days ago, Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, as its mood of rising dread was not doing me any favours. But I took great pleasure this week in diving in after two of my own favourite strains of smart, escapist literature: spy fiction, with Johm LeCarré's A Legacy of Spies (from 2017), and grand, galaxy-spanning space opera, in the form of Vernor Vinge’s 1992 masterwork, A Fire Upon the Deep.

Anakana Schofield

Giller-shortlisted author of Martin John whose most recent novel is Bina.

Author Anakana Schofield in Vancouver in May, 2019.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

As a utopic pessimist and an infectious disease nerd (try putting that on your dating profile, but it has been my hobby for about 10 years and I was surprised there was no avian influenza pandemic), I am always reading medical history and obscure case studies, so if anything I am taking a sabbatical during the pandemic, because my favourite virology podcast – This Week in Virology – is uploading episodes more frequently. I am instead reading everything Vivian Gornick tells me to read in her new book Unfinished Business about rereading, which I am reviewing for Book Post. This includes Natalia Ginzburg’s essays, which I have never read and will have to procure. I’m also conveniently reading a book called What We Did in Bed: A Horizontal History by Brian Fagan and Nadia Durrani. This is actually truly my idea of comfort I’m afraid and I was built for pandemics because it’s the average Tuesday afternoon at the supermarket that does my head in or having to make a cake for a school bake sale.

Diane Schoemperlen

Governor General’s Award-winning novelist whose most recent book is This is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison, and Other Complications.

Two books come immediately to mind. My first is Weather by Jenny Offill. I read it when it first came out in February and then, for the first time ever in my life, as soon as I was finished, I started reading it over again. And I think I’m going to reread it again now. I’ve marked so many wonderful passages in my two readings that it’s hard to pick one. But here’s something that seems fitting at the moment:

“On the way home, the train stops for a long time outside the city. I look at the trees along the river. There are still a few leaves on them. Some people at the water’s edge. But hasn’t the world always been going to hell in a hand basket? I asked her. Parts of the world, yes, but not the world entire, she said.”

And there is a list called “People Also Ask.” The first question is: “What will disappear from stores first?” I guess we now know the answer to that one.

My second is Pitch Dark, a brilliant novel by Renata Adler that came out way back in 1983. I’ve reread it many times since then. It never fails to inspire me because the writing is so unique and gorgeous. Here is my favourite passage:

“We have the sins of silence here. Also the sins of loquacity and glibness. We have the sins of moderation, and also of excess. … We have the sins of impatience, and of patience. Of doing nothing, and of taking action. Of spontaneity and calculation. Of indecision, and of sitting in judgment on one’s peers. We try to be alert here for infractions, and when we find none, we know we have fallen among the sins of oversight, or else of smugness. We have the sins of disobedience, and of just following orders. Of gravity and levity, of complacency, anxiety, indifference, obsession, interest. We have the sins of insincerity, and of telling unwelcome truths. We have the sins of ingratitude for our many blessings, and of taking joy in any moment of our lives. We have the sins of skepticism, and belief. Of promptness, and of being late. Of hopelessness, and of expecting anything. … We have the sins of depression, and of being comforted. Of ignorance, and of being well-informed. Of carelessness, and of exactitude. Of leading, following, opposing, taking no part in. Very few of us, it seems fair to say, are morally at ease.”

Nazanine Hozar

Her debut novel, Aria, was nominated for a B.C. and Yukon Book Prize last week.

If ever there was a novel that dared you to throw yourself into the world of absolute imagination as a way to deal with the harsh realities of life, Don Quixote would be it. For every tragic moment our titular hero and his sidekick encounter, a moment of whimsy and hope is there to counterbalance the sadness. This is a novel that urges you to live life without fear and to live it ferociously.

Bill Richardson

Former CBC broadcaster whose most recent book, I Saw Three Ships, was nominated for a B.C. and Yukon Book Prize last week.

Elizabeth Bishop’s famous villanelle, One Art, is what I think of, if not necessarily turn to, when I need comfort. It’s not just that the core of the poem, that loss belongs to living and that it isn’t necessarily a disaster, is a good anchor; it’s her exquisite use of the form, and her discipline, and the wry, wise wit evident in the poem. Her output was small, but so powerful – never a misstep. And this poem, above all, is for me a touchstone. It begins:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

Also, if I need to make myself laugh, I think of Anita Loos in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, writing about Lorelei Lee, marvelling at all the galleries she sees on her European travels (all closed now, I suppose) and saying that Munich is so full of kunst.

Zsuzsi Gartner

Giller Prize-shortlisted author of Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, whose novel The Beguiling will be published in the fall.

I don’t usually reach out to books for comfort. That’s not the kind of reader I am. In fact, I finally started reading Kevin Chong’s 2018 novel The Plague on Sunday, plucked deliberately from the teetering piles by the bed, and it’s really excellent. I’m totally freaked out about COVID-19, but I guess marinating in it has its uses, too, as fear is a valuable protective human emotion and played a huge role in our evolution/Darwinian selection. People who are saying things like fear is worse than the virus are wrong. I think fear is healthy and will help flatten the curve sooner. For comfort and perspective, I turn to my dog.

Alix Ohlin

Giller-shortlisted author for the novels Inside and Dual Citizens.

Giller-nominated author Alix Ohlin, photographed in Toronto in November, 2019.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

I find I read more poetry in times of difficulty. I don’t necessarily want something that’s uplifting or “comforting.” I look for work that feels like it acknowledges the magnitude of what we’re going through. A favourite poet of mine is Ilya Kaminsky. I love all his work, but In a Time of Peace in particular speaks to me right now. Also the poem Somewhere in the World by Linda Pastan has been circulating among the Facebook feeds of writers I know. It begins:

Somewhere in the world

something is happening

which will make its slow way here.

A cold front will come to destroy

the camellias, or perhaps it will be

a heat wave to scorch them.

A virus will move without passport

or papers to find me as I shake

a hand or kiss a cheek.

Kate Hilton

Toronto-based novelist whose next book Better Luck Next Time is due to be published in June.

My go-to is Try To Praise The Mutilated World, by Adam Zagajewski. It is powerful and poignant to focus on the small moments of grace in times of trouble, and I love this poem. Maggie Smith’s Good Bones is another well-loved crisis poem:

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

is at least half terrible, and for every kind

stranger, there is one who would break you,

though I keep this from my children. I am trying

to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

about good bones: This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

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