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It’s a word many of us are now intimately familiar with. I first heard it a few months ago from Canadian journalist and author Karen Ho – who is now known on Twitter as the Doomscrolling Reminder Lady.
She started posting daily reminders telling people to get off Twitter and suggesting they try doing something else, anything else, during these anxious times.
There is certainly ample evidence that aimlessly scrolling social media and being on screens is mentally and physically draining. My solution (perhaps influenced by my role as books editor at The Globe): Pick up a book. And there is plenty of rich, escapist writing, both new and old, fiction and non-fiction, from women and about women, to choose from.
Books have always been my escape, a way to find another world or people and live with them for a while. When I grew up in the Middle East, a young girl with red hair named Anne told me that it was okay to be a dreamer and to want to be something other than what was expected of me. I still turn to her sometimes or others like Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay or Mary Oliver – poetry is a wonderful break if you only have a few minutes in a busy or anxious day.
If you do have some time to get lost in a can’t-put-it-down book, and you’re a true crime aficionado, Unspeakable Acts, an anthology Ho contributed to and fellow Canadian Sarah Weinman edited, is perfect. “The fascination with murder and illegality is a perennial one, because the shock of the deed creates a schism between order and chaos. We wish for justice but even when we get it, the result rings somewhat hollow,” reads the introduction. There are 13 pieces and Ho’s, which first appeared as a magazine piece in Toronto Life, focuses on Jennifer Pan, who hired killers to murder her parents. This book is engrossing and a highly entertaining (if chilling) way to spend a weekend.
Earlier in March, Hilary Mantel finally published the last book in her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and The Light. Even though you know that Cromwell’s fall is coming (it’s not a spoiler, he’s been dead for a few hundred years), the way she builds the suspense and the story is masterful. What Mantel has done with Cromwell, a man often vilified for being greedy and lustful for power, is truly amazing. In her hands, he’s a statesman who is committed to English Reformation but also a charismatic family man who is somehow likeable. After I finished the book in March, I didn’t want to let go of Mantel and her sublime writing and so I turned to A Place of Greater Safety, which focuses on the French Revolution. Reader, April was a much easier month because of it.
One book that I’ve returned to a couple of times during this pandemic is Jo Baker’s Longbourn, a fictional take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the servants at the Bennet household. It’s the details behind familiar characters that make this book so captivating: Elizabeth Bennet’s love of long walks in the rain, which result in mud-splattered clothes, takes on a whole new meaning when you realize that a servant has to scrub those stains out. Baker’s mastery of 19th century housekeeping details makes this book a delight for fans of historical fiction (with five girls in the house, the amount of rags needed to deal with periods is truly astounding) and her obvious love for the Bennet family is just another glorious way to enjoy Austen.
And speaking of great historical fiction, HarperCollins rushed the publishing of Emma Donoghue’s new book, The Pull of The Stars, which takes place in a Dublin hospital in 1918 during the Great Flu and reads like a thriller. It features Dr. Kathleen Lynn, a real historical figure, and looks at the women – nurses and volunteers – who dealt with crisis after crisis in the maternity ward. Donoghue excels when she’s going into the excruciating details of the labour process. During an interview last week at the Toronto International Festival of Authors, she told Globe arts reporter Marsha Lederman that she hoped every man could read her book to get a sense of what women go through.
And that’s exactly what a good book does. It’s an inside look at what someone else is going through. Here’s a map of independent bookstores to lead you to that escape in the coming weeks and months. Or perhaps you’d prefer listening to your book?
And I’ll leave you with this list of 46 books our critics compiled to help you survive the first wave of the pandemic, which, unfortunately, remains handy. COVID-19 really sucks, in the words of our Prime Minister, but finding time to read, if you ask this books editor, is always something to cherish.
What else we’re thinking about:
I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts and one that I’m a fan of is Hidden Brain by NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. The podcast – which is great to listen to with nine-year-olds who have many questions about the world, like my nephew – uses science and story telling to help explain human behaviour. Another good one, if you’re interested in crime and investigative journalism, is APM Reports' In the Dark, which won a Polk award (the first time one was given to a podcast) for work looking into the case of Curtis Flowers, a Black man from Winona, Miss., who was tried six times for the same crime. Two journalists working on In the Dark were awarded Peabody awards.
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