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Poetry and prose for the pandemic: Area writers talk about what they’re reading  

  • Novelist Debra Immergut. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • ESPN.com senior writer and nonfiction writer Howard Bryant. Photo by Kyle Djavan Johnson

  • Novelist and essayist Jacqueline Sheehan. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Poet and children’s author Richard Michelson. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Poet and children’s book author Jane Yolen. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 5/14/2020 8:02:19 AM

Last month, I found myself rereading “The Worst Hard Time,” Timothy Egan’s excellent narrative account of the Dust Bowl, which won a National Book Award for nonfiction in 2006. I wanted to read something about history, and I remembered how much I had enjoyed Egan’s character-driven story, which was built around a dozen families that lived through the nation’s worst environmental disaster.

But at some point, I wondered about my motivation. Had I picked this book up again as some weird sort of “comfort,” thinking that the terrible conditions of the Dust Bowl — homes and farms destroyed, land ruined, people dying from respiratory diseases and malnutrition — were considerably worse than what we’re experiencing in the current pandemic?

It made me curious to know what others were reading, and whether their choices might reflect the strange time we’re in. Or maybe not: Perhaps people are just reading what catches their interest, as always.

So, I asked several area writers to share with me some of the books they’ve turned to in the past several weeks. Responses have been edited for space.

Debra Jo Immergut, author of the 2018 mystery “The Captives” and the forthcoming “You Again”

“‘The Optimistic Decade’ by fellow Valley author Heather Abel. This novel is such a joy to read: an exploration of idealism, so funny and wise. I also like ‘Swim: Stories of the Sixties’ by Sandra Scofield, a National Book Award finalist. Like many, I’m suffering from a fractured attention span right now, so story collections are a good option.

“I’m also catching up on classics I’ve missed, such as ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys, an early example of fan fiction, since it is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre.’ Then there’s ‘Vanity Fair’ by William Makepeace Thackeray, which I’m reading in stages. I’m fascinated by the author’s barbed and bigoted social commentary — it’s got some of the delights of a Jane Austen novel but with a much nastier edge.”

Richard Michelson, award-winning poet and children’s writer

“I haven’t changed my reading habits due to the pandemic — I still read mostly poetry in the mornings, books related to projects I am working on at mid-day and novels in the evening. And because so many of my friends are writers, it is hard to find the time to read beyond that circle.”

Case in point: on Michelson’s table are “What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Time of Trump,” edited by Martín Espada, as well as “Vivas to Those who Have Failed” by Espada and “I Wish my Father” by Lesléa Newman.

Among a number of novels he has read are “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong and “The Weight of Ink” by Rachel Kadish. Also: rulings written by Louis Brandeis, for a children’s biography he’s writing about the famous early 20th-century Supreme Court justice.

Howard Bryant, ESPN.com senior writer and author of the essay collection “Full Dissidence”

“Watching Oliver Stone’s excellent ‘Untold History of the United States’ on Netflix recently sent me back to my bookcase for David Halberstam’s ‘The Fifties’ and ‘War in a Time of Peace.’ It also inspired me to reread Frank Rich’s ‘The Greatest Story Ever Sold,’ on the farce of the George W. Bush presidency.”

Bryant also jokes that a recent “dystopian trip” to River Valley Co-op in Northampton made him consider rereading Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian novel “The Road” but that he resisted the urge: “I was being dramatic. We’re not there yet.”

Jacqueline Sheehan, novelist/author of the New York Times bestsellers “Lost & Found” and “Now & Then”

“The first book that penetrated my [pandemic] shell shock was ‘Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America’ by Kevin Cook. I was riveted by his research into a crime we all thought we understood, that was taught in colleges, and that made us think so poorly of our faulty humanness. It was illuminating. And it will change you.”

Sheehan has also enjoyed the novels “Dear Edward” by Ann Napolitano and “Red at the Bone” by Jacqueline Woodson, among others, and the chapter book “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” by Kate DiCamilla, which she bought for her grandson, Finn, who’s 10.

“When he finished the book, he put his hand over his heart, sighed deeply, and said ‘Now that was a good story,’ ” says Sheehan. “What greater praise could an author ask for?”

Ilan Stavans, multi-genre author, translator and Amherst College professor

“Isolation has its benefits,” says Stavans. “Part of me has always wanted to be a hermit; I have now been granted the chance.”

Among a range of material Stavans has turned to is “Seven Nights,” a series of lectures by Jorge Luis Borges; essay collections by Edmund Wilson; some stories “on unrequited love” by Gabriel García Márquez; Shakespeare’s last plays, such as ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth’; and work by Hannah Arendt.

That list might “look stuffy,” Stavans notes, but he’s OK with that. “I’m at an age, 59, when I am attracted to ‘proven’ books, not only those that have survived the test of time but books that, when I finished reading them long ago, I remember having a sense of companionship.”

Jane Yolen, poet, children’s writer and author of over 385 books

“I am rereading my old favorite ‘Moby Dick,’ not only for pleasure but because my current novel-in-progress for kids is about the Starbuck son when Ishmael comes to tell them how his father died.”

As a “guilty pleasure,” Yolen has been rereading the “Carlotta Carlyle” mystery series by Linda Barnes. She also has been keeping up with friends’ books and rereading various folk tales and Greek myths, including the Helen of Troy saga and the ending of “The Odyssey,” so that she can write poetry based on them.

David Gillham, author of the New York Times bestselling novel “City of Women” and “Annelies,” a speculative novel about Anne Frank surviving the Holocaust

Gillham says he has struggled since the quarantine began to get through some books, putting a number aside unfinished. But he adds that he’s “in for the long haul” with “The Mirror and the Light,” Hilary Mantel’s final book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

“Why?” says Gillham. “Maybe because it’s not only beautifully written but also that the pace of the story is less demanding than many novels. She knows how to wade into history at a deliberate speed.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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