With the stay at home order in effect, and most of us stuck inside a little more than we would prefer right now, everybody’s looking for something to do. Some have turned to puzzles, some are binge watching Netflix’s “Tiger King,” and some have decided to take up running out of pure boredom. If you’re trying to stay in bed, but want to give your brain some exercise, here are a few book recommendations from the Culture section staff that might be the answer for you.
“Dune” by Frank Herbert
If you are seeking a reprieve from the harsh realities of the current times, “Dune” might just be the escape you need. While certainly a lengthy read, Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic is well worth the investment. The narrative centers around Paul Atreidies, an intergalactic prince of sorts who is plunged into an adventure on a far-flung desert planet revered for its resources. The story follows Paul as he navigates assassination plots, Machiavellian-like power struggles, environmental issues, religion and mythology, all the while fulfilling a mystical prophecy. Herbert weaves all this together in a digestible fashion, notably building out the terminology and lore behind many of the events and practices in the book, which help to fill out the narrative. It’s also worth noting that the Denis Villeneuve (director of Blade Runner 2049 and Sicario) silver screen interpretation, starring Zendaya and Timothee Chalamet, is due to be released later this year, so what better time to verse yourself in the source material than now.
“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt
A cozy Vermont college provides the perfect background for this thrill ride of a novel from Donna Tartt. Set during the 80s, the book opens when a group of college-aged kids kill one of their close friends. The narrative then jumps back to before the murder, to focus on the main character, Richard Papen. At first, he admires from afar a group of close-knit Greek studies students, eventually working his way into the group and developing a number of complex relationships along the way. As the novel plays out, it’s interesting to see Richard uncover and eventually take part in the group’s odd tendencies. The group’s members are all written brilliantly and with their own motives and idiosyncrasies that help move the plot along. Though the group may examine beautiful and rich intellectual literary works, the life the characters lead is far from ideal, ultimately culminating in the aforementioned murder. The subject matter in this regard has a lot to do with the tone; much like a Greek tragedy, there is beauty in watching the characters slowly collapse under the weight of such a secret. Donna Tartt’s novel is exceedingly well-written and is a page-turner until the bitter end.
“White Noise” by Don DeLillo
I would caution that this pick, while an exceptional read, is perhaps the exact opposite of what one might want to read to put their mind at ease during a pandemic. Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” is an irredeemable dark and moody postmodern novel centered on character Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies at a liberal arts college in the midwest. As Jack navigates both family and university life, a strange toxic cloud descends upon the region causing mass hysteria. The troubles that follow seem to uncannily parallel much of what we have collectively experienced within the past month. DeLillo breathes life into the characters and scenes of chaos like no one else could, combining themes of existentialism, commercialization and consumerism in flawless fashion. “White Noise” is certainly a heavy read, but one that nonetheless raises intriguing questions without easy answers.
“This Is Where I Leave You” by Jonathan Tropper
If you’re looking for something a bit on the lighter side, this one’s for you. Tropper’s “This Is Where I Leave You” tells the story of the Foxman siblings, who have just found out that their father died, as they return to their childhood home for the first time in years to sit shiva. Sitting shiva is a Jewish tradition that involves the immediate family coming together and staying home for seven days after a death while friends and family visit and pay their respects. The story is narrated by one of the sons, Judd Foxman, who is going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. Through a rollercoaster shiva experience, Judd brings the reader through his time at home with his three siblings and mother, all together for the first time in years, as the experience helps him get his life back on track. Light, funny and incredibly wholesome without ever being cheesy, Tropper created a masterpiece that you won’t be able to put down. And, with extra quarantine time on your hands, you can watch the 2014 film adaptation once you’re done, but the book will certainly be the better of the two.
“Mrs. Fletcher” by Tom Perrotta
Now an HBO series, “Mrs. Fletcher” jumps around to the perspectives of a handful of characters as it tells the story of a divorced woman and recent empty-nester, Eve, and her son Brendan, whom she has just dropped off at college. Now alone, Eve begins to try new things and meet new people, and in the process, she rediscovers herself, all while unaware that her son is going off the rails a bit in college. The novel switches perspectives from Eve to Brendan, and sometimes to Brendan’s friends in college or to Eve’s coworkers. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the writing is Perotta’s ability to take on every one of these perspectives in a realistic way. Whether he’s writing as a college student spending his nights partying or one of Eve’s female coworkers who organizes lectures for a senior community center, Perotta’s writing is authentic and accurate. While authors sometimes overdo it when writing about younger generations, missing the mark just enough to make you cringe, Perotta nails the college student perspective, as well as that of a middle-aged female. “Mrs. Fletcher” is a fun and light read that, again, is kind of hard to put down once you start it.