Tag Archives: pandemic

The Pull of the Stars: Pandemic, Abortion and… 1918

Historical fiction. Such a great genre. Have I said it before? I have? Well, I’ll say it again: such a great genre. Something about the space to explore the impossible problems of the present in the safety of the past. Not sure what we should do with the right to abortion? Worried about the lasting impacts of a global pandemic? Fretting about the crumbling of institutions like Church and marriage? To the past! Where we can hod these problems and turn them around without the delightful haze of knowing these are both immediate to our own lives and yet so distant as to be cute: how sweet, they just figured out they should wash their hands before surgery.

So right, what’s the book, Erin. It’s Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, released in summer of 2020, but written pre Covid. Though someone should by Donoghue a lottery ticket (or start calling her prescient instead of Atwood) for the cluster of issues explored in this book. Set in Dublin in 1918, it is the height of the influenza pandemic. Our protagonist, midwife and nurse Julia Power, is on her own on the influenza maternity ward, where we meet a series of women who have had too many children for want to bodily autonomy or reliable birth control. Julia trades off her duties with another nurse, a nun from a neighbourhood ‘house for women and babies’ where unwed mothers are sent and their children then taken into servitude, and so the narrative probes the consequences of Church and moral absolutism on women’s bodies and family. One of these grown children, Bridie, comes to help on Julia’s ward, and (I’ll admit somewhat unexpectedly – my fault as a reader or that of Donoghue?) introduces questions of sexuality and redemption as she and Julia come to find one another. Which is to say, it is a book thick with Issues for Discussion.

And while I expected to be struck by the similarities to our present moment with respect to the pandemic – the eerie familiarity of advice to keep distance, the shuttering of schools, the terror of a loved one with a cough – and I was, it was the exploration of women’s ability to choose the course of their lives that I found most relevant. The series of women that pass through the maternity ward come as a type: married woman subjected to domestic violence; married woman with 10 babies already; unmarried ‘fallen’ woman bound to a life of shame and exclusion; married woman has stillborn baby but must go home and Carry On. Each of them share in small descriptions of their lives the ways the babies they carry are – whatever else – expected – that even if they are unplanned (as in our ‘fallen’ woman) that there should be a baby born Out of Wedlock, is itself a certainty. That there would be a choice about having the 10th baby or an ability to decide instead of staying with an abusive partner you might… not. These women are contrasted with Julia, of course, but also the woman doctor on the ward – Kathleen – who is literally on the run from the police for her involvement in political ‘crimes’ while she cares for patients with compassion, competence and curiosity.

This contrast serves to sharpen the sense of oppressive constraint and claustrophobia following all of these women. That even those who appear to have the most freedom – Julia who can for some pages ride a bicycle! – are limited by institution and by expectation.

And while it is a wildly topical book that would serve your book club discussion well, it wasn’t fabulous. Parts dragged and some of the passages read as too aware of their own Significance. And there are better (much better ) books about reproductive choice to read right now. But if you find yourself with this one you I suspect you’ll find a certain relief. Things feel bad; things are bad. And perhaps they’ve always been that way.

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Filed under Book Club, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner

The Passage: 800 Pages of a Vampire Pandemic

I wanted a hefty summer read and so I chose… a book about a vampire pandemic? I blame some NYTimes column of summer reading suggestions for pointing me to Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Blame suggests it was a bad choice. I don’t know. It might have been. Probably the part about reading about a pandemic where there are only a handful of human survivors left was a bad choice. But the part about a virus that creates vampires was excellent.

I was about to write that it would make a great adaptation for TV and then I checked and it has ALREADY BEEN ADAPTED. Clearly TV producers are reading my mind/blog. A great adaptation because it’s super plot driven, with lots of hanging scenes where you’re left wondering if someone is still alive, or why they are having a strange dream, or whether X hero is going to make out with Y hero. Plus lots of descriptions of fancy military equipment and gritty technology that makes for excellent set design.

Reasons you could probably skip the EIGHT HUNDRED PAGES and just watch the show:

  1. There are many, many other better things to read
  2. The characters aren’t all that interesting or well developed and so the novelistic interiority wouldn’t be missed
  3. There are many, many other better things to read

Reasons you might want to read EIGHT HUNDRED PAGES (and also watch the show):

  1. You have a newborn/puppy/insomnia/high maintenance plant and are forced to be awake at outrageous hours where the best thing preventing you from falling asleep in your chair and thus RISKING THE LIFE OF YOUR CHILD/puppy/sanity/plant is an epic book about a vampire pandemic.
  2. You are similarly trapped somewhere and the only thing available to read is this giant book.
  3. Did I say trapped? I mean, #blessed.

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What to Read in a Pandemic: Book Recommendations for Long Days

I hope this finds you well.

I usually start emails with that line, or something like it. A perfunctory sentence to soften the blow of whatever thing I’m about to ask for, remind someone about, describe. Something to make an impersonal message approximate the personal. It never really works.

I mean it here: I hope this finds you well. I hope this finds you in a circumstance where the biggest challenge you have to think about today is what novel to read (don’t worry, I’ll eventually get to some recommendations).

Me? Like most of us: not so well, but then, so very fortunate that a catalogue of the things and ways that are Falling Apart is unjustified and selfish. If you asked me though, for that list of my privileged complaints, I’d certainly include the closure of the physical branches of the library. Because what am I, if not so fortunate as to bemoan a limitation on what I can read. Or what R. can read. But then I am also so lucky as to have secret access to the library through unnamed sources, and friends who read, and continued income for panic purchasing books (which I did!). So again: complaints that are of convenience rather than true hardship.

Here’s hoping you have access to books, too. Maybe ebooks are your thing. Or you can do as I’ve been doing and you can ask friends for book swaps (and quarantine those books in your garage for 72 hours as S. insists I do). Or you feel like now is the occasion for shoring up your local bookshop (folks: now is the occasion for shoring up your local bookshop) by buying books. Whatever the case, you may find yourself with time to read like you haven’t had time to read recently (or, you may find yourself like so many others, like me!, balancing a full-time job with full-time childcare and so reading just a few pages every night and that is also okay). And so I’ve combed through the annals of Literary Vice and compiled this list of novels to get you through the months ahead. Some are funny, all are beautiful, none have anything to do with pandemics or panic or pans. I hope you find one or some of them suitably distracting:

Black Swan Green: David Mitchell at his most accessible, this young adult protagonist reminds us of the base requirement to be kind to one another.

Love and Summer: William Trevor writes ridiculously beautiful sentences and tells a small, poignant story that shifts the focus from the Big and Global to the small and particular.

The Sisters Brothers: The first of two Patrick de Witt recommendations, because de Witt is hilarious AND a genius and so laugh amid truly tremendous writing. Here with historical fiction that is so far from the present you can almost forget.

French Exit: Number two for de Witt, this one is equally funny, shorter, and more contemporary. Slightly more macabre though, so you know, brace yourself for mention of Death.

Let the Great World Spin: Interlocking stories that demand you focus while you read: an excellent exercise in mindfulness. Also beautiful writing.

Adrian Mole: The classic Sue Townsend series is delightful both for its humour and for the sheer volume of available words: probably a dozen books in the series? All funny, all smart.

The Goldfinch: I’d read anything by Donna Tartt right now as the books are sweeping and absorbing and entirely distracting. This one has one of the more compelling protagonists of recent memory and a truly gripping plot.

Us Conductors: I went a bit bananas with how much I loved this one when it first came out, and I still do – a bit more darkness in this one, but still fabulous writing and easy to get lost in.

Americanah: Uhhh this one might not fully distance you from the reminder of inequality and outrage, but nevertheless suggesting it here because it’s also funny, smart, absorbing and so worth reading.

The Bone Clocks: I melted down with joy reading this epic David Mitchell book (event? masterpiece?). It’s long, it’s involved, it’s the best writing on this list, and I dare you not to lose a week of this mess in reading it.

A Little Life: Okay, so if I just said Bone Clocks was the best, I take it back, this one. This one! Except this one is Dark Dark Dark and so maybe not exactly how you want to spend your quarantine. But So So good. And long!

Infinite Jest: A bit of a joke here, but honestly, if you’re ever going to read Infinite Jest (a book that took me the better part of a summer to read) it’ll be now. Cross it off the bucket list.

Song of Achilles and Circe: Both of these distracting mythological retellings are tremendous: great writing, absorbing plots and endearing characters.

Fleishman is in Trouble: Another funny one, modern moment, middle-class take down.

 

And if you can’t resist reading books about the end of things because you find that soothing, you can check out:

Station Eleven: A now-classic novel about the aftermath of a pandemic and how art and civilization are remade.

The Fifth Season: N. K. Jemison’s fantasy series that is So Good and gripping and about the world after the end of things.

The Great Believers: Not dystopian unless you count reality as dystopia: the HIV epidemic and the criminal ways suffering and death were/are ignored unless the privileged are at risk.

Let me know what you’re reading; or just let me know how you’re doing. Sending my love to each of you. xo

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