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We asked authors about the top books they would bring with them for self-isolation

Fourteen days can feel like a very long time if you’re stuck in quarantine or self-isolating. Reading can help. We asked some Canadian authors about the top one or two books they would bring with them if they were holed up because of the coronavirus.

Michael Christie

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Author of Greenwood, which was nominated for two BC and Yukon Book Prizes on Thursday. For Christie, this is not a hypothetical exercise. Just back from a tour of the United States and Australia, Christie doesn’t feel ill, but he spent a lot of time in airplanes and higher risk areas, so out of an abundance of caution, he is already self-isolating in the basement. On Thursday, he was two days – and two books – in.

When I was travelling, I picked up Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, which is a big work of literary non-fiction. He’s a brilliant guy and he’s investigating the idea of subterranean myths and the idea that the bad stuff is what is beneath the earth. It’s a wide-ranging kind of essay collection and it seems like a fitting thing to read while I am myself banished to the basement in the underland of our home. I’m also reading the second Olive Kitteridge book, Olive Again, which is very good so far. I have trouble keeping two fiction works alive in my mind at the same time, but I can read one non-fiction and one fiction.


Margaret Atwood

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Co-winner of last year’s Booker Prize for The Testaments.

I have this huge pile of books that I’m supposed to be reading, so why don’t I just go pick out a few of them? Carolyn Forché In the Lateness of the World; Carolyn’s poetry is usually pretty dire.

There’s a book that people have recommended to me quite a lot called A Burning; it’s a new writer, Megha Majumdar. A Burning seems to be about somebody in prison; “innocence, guilt, betrayal and love,” is what it says on the back. “About three unforgettable characters whose lives becomes entwined in the wake of a shattering tragedy.” But what would really keep me occupied would be the Hilary Mantel book The Mirror and the Light, because her book is 900 pages long.


Ian Williams

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Winner of the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Reproduction.

Quarantine is not the same as a desert island; it means something terrible is going on outside my door and I’d need a healthy dose of escapism to counter that. At least on a desert island, it would be sunny. So assuming it’s a rainy two weeks in Vancouver, I’d sequester myself with Fleabag: The Scriptures by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It’s as close as you can get to watching TV while reading. I don’t read many scripts, but I’m trying to toss a play or script into my reading mix now and again. The Scriptures works especially well if you’ve seen a few episodes of the actual show Fleabag. On paper, the characters are as recognizable as on screen. I have a whole new respect for folks in the adaptation industry.

Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions is a collection of feminist essays, including “80 Books No Woman Should Read.” Not even when in quarantine. Solnit’s thinking is so clear that I feel like I’ve washed my brain in sanitizer. Might as well clean up the inside, if the outside is swarming with COVID-19, right?


Megan Gail Coles

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Her debut novel Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and is a finalist for this year’s Canada Reads.

I am going to read Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo and NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field by Billy-Ray Belcourt. I am totally practicing social distancing and encourage everyone to do so. Both books have been on my reading wish list since the holidays. Evaristo comes highly recommended by nearly every female-identified writer I admire and I was quite fond of Belcourt’s first collection, This Wound Is a World. I am drawn to writers that challenge dominant narratives in ways that push their respective forms toward innovation without sacrificing story.


Esi Edugyan

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Two-time Giller Prize winner for Half-Blood Blues and Washington Black.

Two weeks of isolation sounds short in theory, but probably feels like an eternity, and so I’d probably strive for variety: one fiction, one non-fiction; one classic, one contemporary, etc.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is wonderfully immersive and one of those grand novels that so many attempt to read at some point in their lives and often set aside. What better time?

I’d also take along Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe, which is an utterly riveting history of the IRA told through the lens of one woman’s murder. It’s shocking, gorgeously written and provides no easy answers.


Daniel Kalla

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Vancouver ER doctor whose novels include Pandemic, We All Fall Down (about the Black Death) and the coming The Last High, about the opioid crisis.

I would bring something like my own book Pandemic or We All Fall Down because they have happy endings and I’m not sure we’re headed for one.

Seriously, though, I’ve been reading Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, which is a lovely bit of romantic escapism, a perfect getaway from present-day problems. It’s about a Russian aristocrat, a count who gets caught up in the Russian Revolution and is under house arrest, basically imprisoned in this somewhat declining hotel in the middle of Moscow, not allowed to leave for years and years, watching the world from within. Not a quarantine, but a different form of imprisonment.


Rhea Tregebov

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Her novel Rue des Rosiers was nominated for a BC and Yukon Book Prize on Thursday.

I think what you want in these times is books that talk about tremendous human difficulty and sorrow, but also talk about the resilience of the human soul. One is by a lovely Vancouver writer named Billie Livingston called The Crooked Heart of Mercy. I won’t give away the plot, but it’s people facing genuine heartbreak and coming up with a way to survive. One is a non-Canadian book, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights; this is the first book of hers that I read and it just blew me away. And it’s about being in airports and being in between; it’s just a masterpiece. An engaging read. It’s actually quite a difficult book.


Wendy Wickwire

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Author of At the Bridge: James Teit and the Anthropology of Belonging, which was nominated on Thursday for a BC and Yukon Book Prize.

I’ve been giving talks on my book and people are asking, what else can I read about these issues? Shiri Pasternak has really written an important book – Grounded Authority: The Algonquins of Barriere Lake Against the State – that’s really dense, but really speaks to what the Wet’suwet’en have been going through: federal-provincial pushback on land, sovereignty. And George Manuel and Michael Posluns’s Fourth World, which came out in 1974, is a path-breaking book that has been republished by University of Minnesota Press with a new introduction by up-and-coming Indigenous political theorist Glen Coulthard, who is at UBC. It’s like Thomas King on steroids. It’s so good.


Amber Cowie

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Novels include Raven Lane.

Before the fear of COVID-19 really hit this week, I was lucky to get to a reading by Stella Leventoyannis Harvey, the organizer of the Whistler Writers Festival, that really inspired me to pick up her books. I’m reading her second book, The Brink of Freedom. It’s centred around the refugee crisis, primarily in Greece. I know this is a sad and maybe terrible thing to say, but I do feel sometimes when you’re at your most stressed and most scared, it’s really helpful to focus on problems that are so different from the ones you are facing, and this has been an amazing distraction. And I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions but at the beginning of this year I promised myself I would read Moby-Dick because I never have. It’s one of those classics that’s really daunting because it’s very long and quite dry and I’m thinking, when am I going to have time to read this? And now all of a sudden I’m like, wow, this is my Moby-Dick moment.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

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