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This Week In Books: A ‘Melancholia’ or ‘Take Shelter’ Situation

Aaron Foster / Getty

Dear Reader,

A thing about me is that I’ve been depressed for awhile. Staying inside a lot. And now, Melancholia-like, real life has begun to mirror my mental state: my outer and inner worlds are on a collision course, and it’s not as clear as I’d like it to be which is drawing in the other.

Last week I told my boyfriend I sometimes have this vertiginous feeling that I caused the pandemic by becoming too socially isolated. I was joking, but not really joking. Yesterday when we were looking out the window at the absolutely nobody going by, I said, “What if we imagined this? What if there is no pandemic, and we’ve just convinced ourselves we have to stay inside?” He responded that he does sometimes worry that we are in a Take Shelter situation. That I, like Michael Shannon in the 2011 thriller directed by Jeff Nichols, convinced myself a storm was coming and prepped our shelter for no reason (I was worrying about corona weeks ahead of the curve), but because I turned out to be right (a total fluke), I will become power-mad and lock my boyfriend inside forever!

Honestly, reader, it’s not out of the question. I told him so, and he said that’s fair because it really does seem like a bad idea to go outside, like, ever again. I hear that brave people are out there doing things like gathering PPE donations for frontline healthcare workers or taking groceries to the isolated elderly or just working their regular jobs at the grocery store, which it turns out are wildly dangerous. I keep trying to psych myself up to do something useful like that, but then another formless day peels off its skin, and I find I have achieved nothing. The best I can say for myself is that I am not one of those people at the park making things worse.

Most of this week’s book roundup is about the virus. The whole world is about the virus. I am so sorry.

1. “America Infected: The Social (Distance) Catastrophe” by J. Hoberman, The Paris Review

Film critic J. Hoberman points to political differences between Camus’ The Plague and Elia Kazan’s unacknowledged film adaptation Panic in the Streets as a demonstration of how pandemic response can inspire solidarity or descend into authoritarianism.

2. “‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’: A Story of the 1918 Flu Pandemic” by Katherine Anne Porter, The New York Review of Books

NYRB has printed an excerpt from Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a short novel (originally published in 1939) set during the influenza pandemic of 1918 and based on Porter’s own experience with the disease. It is an unsettling read for anyone contemplating dying in the Javits Center next month.

3. “The Anger of the Sick” by Davey Davis, The New Inquiry

Davey Davis reviews Blackfishing the IUD, a weaponized memoir which its author Caren Beilin hopes will destroy the IUD the way the documentary Blackfish destroyed Sea World; Beilin seeks vengeance against the IUD because her use of the device left her with an autoimmune disorder. Davis writes that what separates Beilin’s memoir from others in the ‘sick woman’ genre is her explicit call to action; to defeat the IUD, we must first overturn a medical system that doubts women’s pain. This review was published last month, but it seems prescient now, written at the cusp of the moment before the political anger of the unwell becomes everyone’s anger.

4. “What China’s Literary Community is Reading During the Coronavirus Pandemic” by Na Zhong, Lit Hub

One of the strangest consequences of the pandemic is that at any given time, you can have the uncanny realization that you know exactly what most of the people you know (and billions of others you don’t) are doing right now: sitting around at home, trying to figure out how to think about (or not think about) the coronavirus. Na Zhong has put together a list of books that a few members of China’s literary community are anxiety-reading right now. It’s weird to think that their motivations to anxiety-read about a) other plagues or b) World War II dovetail so perfectly with my household’s anxiety-reading compulsions this past week; I’ve been covering the plague angle while my boyfriend has World War II cornered for now.


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5. “The Dystopian Novel for the Social Distancing Era” by Joshua Keating, Slate

Joshua Keating writes that Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is the book that’s been on his mind these days, because so far his experience of the pandemic has not been sickness but rather (reminiscent of Ogawa’s surreal novel) the erasure of items from everyday life. “The losses start small and insignificant. At the local coffee shop, the first thing that disappeared was the table holding the lids and the self-serve milk. Then half the tables vanished. Then all the tables. Then the whole shop closed. Then you hear that the employees were laid off … Perhaps you, like me, thought last Saturday that it would be OK to have a couple of friends over to the house as long as you were reasonably cautious … By Sunday, that was off limits. Today, the idea is unthinkable.”

6. “An Attentive Memoir of Life in Parma” by Patricia Hampl, The Paris Review

Patricia Hampl writes that a book she loved 25 years ago, Wallis Wilde-Menozzi’s memoir Mother Tongue about expatriate life in Italy, has taken on new meaning during the pandemic. “I’ve been in conversation with this book for many years. And now, yet again, with the undertow of the pandemic clutching Italy in its fierce grip, the book speaks.”

7. “Gimme Shelter” by Helena de Bres, The Point

Helena de Bres writes about the books that she turned to for comfort during a period of personal isolation she faced as a child, and how books (generally pessimistic, sad) aren’t really comforting her at all during this period of universal isolation. Instead it’s the unbridled optimism of those crazy people who keep going outside that she’s been motivated by, because she realizes how precious those ridiculous optimists are. We must preserve them.

8. “English PEN Calls for Release of Ahdaf Soueif After Coronavirus Protest Arrest” by Mark Chandler, The Bookseller

A brief note and harbinger: “English PEN has called for the release of Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif, who was arrested during a protest about the treatment of prisoners during the coronavirus outbreak.”

9. “Capitalism’s Favorite Drug” by Michael Pollan, The Atlantic

This one is about coffee — the illustrious Michael Pollan reviewing Augustine Sedgewick’s Coffeeland — and honestly it isn’t supposed to be about coronavirus at all, but I read this line and I can’t stop thinking about the rich people who would rather send us back out to die than pay our bills for a little while: “The essential question facing any would-be capitalist, as Sedgewick reminds us, has always and ever been ‘What makes people work?’” On Salvadoran coffee plantations, the answer to that question was: a hunger crisis engineered by the upper class.

10. “Anna Kavan and the Rise of Autospec” by Gregory Ariail, The Los Angeles Review of Books

This one isn’t about corona either. It’s Gregory Ariail’s review of the Anna Kavan short story collection published by NYRB this month, and how Kavan’s style (she lived in the first half of the twentieth century) defined a genre Ariail calls “auto speculative fiction” (as opposed to “autofiction”), which he describes as “a truly combustive marriage of opposites: the searing confessions of the inner life on the one hand, and speculative narratives that systematically violate natural laws and reject normative discourses on the other.” I won’t tell you which lines of this review remind me of corona; you can pick those out for yourself.

Take care of yourself,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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