No Dystopian Novels: Reading During a Pandemic


Soon it will look like this.

It’s official.  Your travel plans are canceled.  You will have an extended spring break at home.   And March Madness basketball will be played in empty arenas.

But we’re cool.  Very cool. 

On a lovely spring day, life proceeds much as usual. Today it’s sunny, if a little cool, and we’re putting a ban on reading articles about the virus.  And since you’re probably looking for escape reading, let me recommend a few novels that are must-reads–some even classics.

Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy traces three generations “of a Muslim family in Cairo during Britain’s occupation of Egypt in the early decades of the twentieth century.” Gorgeous writing.  I couldn’t put it down.

If you’ve never read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Cazelet Chronicles, it’s time for a binge-read. Praised by Hilary Mantel,  this brilliant family saga spans the years from 1937 to 1956. I was so absorbed in the first novel, The Light Years, that I rode past my bus stop.

Balzac’s The Human Comedy consists of ninetysome novels, novellas, and stories. My favorite is Cousin Bette, a masterpiece in which a middle-aged spinster schemes to ruin the family who has neglected her.   But, really, I’ve loved them all–even those in awkward, possibly censored 19th-century translations.

Want to go to another universe? There are problems everywhere.  But I  recommend Ann Leckie’s award-winning science fiction trilogy, Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy.  It’s complicated–the soldier, Breq, used to be the brain in a spaceship , and has been installed in a human body.  She is on the rampage to right some wrongs.  Really fascinating, part noir, part Western, part SF.

Georgette Heyer’s The Transformation of Philip Jetta.  This is my favorite Georgette Heyer. Take Philip Jettan, a handsome but rustic aristocrat, who is loved but disapproved of by a suave girlfriend and even suaver father. He goes to France, determined to learn better manners even than the French.  To say he moves in a fast set is an understatement, and he certainly surprises the English.  You can read this free at Project Gutenberg.  

8 thoughts on “No Dystopian Novels: Reading During a Pandemic”

  1. No need to read about a dystopia while we live in one.
    I definitely agree with you about Balzac. I’ve read quite a few including ‘Cousin Bette’ and he hasn’t missed yet.
    I have also read a lot of Naguib Mahfouz including the entire Cairo Trilogy, and he is a great writer. The nice thing about Mahfouz is that he also wrote a number of short novels that are excellent too.

  2. Last month before it started getting attention, I made sure I had The Decameron just in case. Its too similar, location, situation, quarantine in place. Wonder if anyone will attempt a similar exercise in today’s world?

  3. You’ve reminded me I must catch up with the Cazalets. I read the first one last year but became distracted by other books. They are a great cast of characters to spend time with though, so I will pick up soon from where I left off.

  4. These all seem like terrific ideas (although I’ve just never quite gotten the Georgette Heyer bug – I think I’ve tried them in all the wrong kind of moods). I’ve been reading some Rumer Godden (beginning with her memoir, written with her sister, Two under the Indian Sun) and am thoroughly enjoying the density and solidity of William H. Gass’ Middle C (the only other book of his I’ve read is the famous collection of stories). But I think I’ll toss in a Stephen King soon – just so I have a new and different way of scaring myself silly. Other than the news programs. Hah.

    1. I am a great fan of Rumer Godden and actually read a rather weird novel by Jon Godden that wasn’t bad at all. Stephen King is usually too scary for me–but, as you say, the news is worse.

      Let’s hope for: Peace, Love, & Understanding (as Elvis Costello would say)

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