Read While Isolated

The cover depicts an open pocket watch against a black cloth background with small, glowing astrological symbols.

by Piyali C.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I found it difficult to focus on books. It seemed like Emily St. John Mandel’s dystopian novel, Station Eleven was playing out right in front of me. However, when physical distancing became a part of our daily routine, I took to reading so I could escape to other worlds created by authors. The books below are some of the ones that I truly enjoyed as I read them during isolation, borrowed from Howard County Library System.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook): A fascinating story of nurse Julia Powers, who works in the maternity ward of a hospital in war- and flu-ravaged Dublin in 1918. She takes care of expectant mothers fallen ill with the raging Spanish flu. With the help of a rebel woman doctor and a young orphaned woman, Nurse Powers tends to the needs of the quarantined pregnant women in her care to the best of her ability under the circumstances.

The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate: (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook) Told in the alternating voices of Hannie, a recently freed slave in 1875, and Benedetta Silva, a young new teacher in a tiny town in Louisiana in 1987, this story takes us through the Reconstruction era in America with Hannie, as she travels to Texas with two unwilling companions, Miss Lavinia and Juneau June, in the hope of finding her family members who were sold as slaves in different cities and towns. Benny Silva, while trying to engage her unwilling students in their own history, comes across the story of Hannie’s journey in the library of a run-down plantation house. The discovery of this quest brings forth a fascinating story of freed slaves trying desperately to reconnect with family members lost to slavery in 1870’s America.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai (available in print, eaudiobook): Drawn from the author’s own experiences of growing up in postwar Vietnam and from interviewing countless people who lived through the horrors of the Vietnam war, Ngyuen Phan Que Mai writes this amazing story of a family torn apart, not only by the war, but also by the subsequent division between north and south Vietnam. While the story talks about the unbelievable horror that wars inflict on human life, it also sings an ode to indomitable human resilience and a desperate mother’s inexplicable courage and determination to keep her children safe.

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook): Valerie is a 48-year-old Black woman, a single mom to Xavier, and an ecology professor who nurtures a deep love for plants and trees. Brad Whitman is an entrepreneur who has risen up in wealth and power from humble beginnings. Brad builds a gorgeous house next to Valerie’s and moves in with his wife Julia, step daughter Juniper and daughter Lily. As a relationship starts to build between Valerie and Julia, an incident regarding Valerie’s favorite tree causes a rift between the two families, resulting in a law suit. But Xavier, Valerie’s 18-year-old son, and Juniper, Julia’s 17-year-old daughter, are also building a beautiful relationship. How much acceptance will an interracial relationship receive, not only from society but also from Brad Whitman? Told from the perspective of the neighbors of both Valerie and Brad, this story explores complicated race relations between Black and White, loss of innocence, coming of age, struggles of women, and much more. 

What did you read during isolation? Tell us in the comments.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

The sepia-toned book cover depicts a young Black woman seated in a wooden chair, wearing a plain sleeveless white cotton dress.

Review by Piyali C.

This has to be one of the most difficult books that I have read in a very long time. Difficult, powerful and absolutely brilliant. I had to take frequent breaks because of the inexplicable cruelty that is described in the book. However, I realized I was thinking about the story and the characters even during those breaks.

Lilith is born as a slave in the Montpelier plantation in Kingston, Jamaica in the eighteenth century. She is born with skin as dark as midnight, yet her eyes are a startling green. She is also born with an indomitable spirit which refuses to be tamed even within bondage. There is a group of women on the plantation, the Night Women, who are plotting a revolution. The head house slave, Homer, who is also the leader of the slave uprising, recognizes something dark within Lilith’s spirit. She raises Lilith with the hope that she will use that darkness towards the cause of the slave rebellion. Their dream is to recreate the villages of Africa that they were forced to abandon after the uprising. Lilith’s life, however, takes a slightly different turn than the rest of the slaves in Montpelier, and her decision to join the revolution is highly influenced by that turn of events. Where does Lilith’s loyalty lie? Will she harness the dark power within her to help free her people?

Marlon James poses a challenge to his readers to live the lives of both his Black and White characters in 18th century Jamaica; he dares them to stomach the inexplicable cruelty that was meted out to the slaves by the White overseers, plantation owners and ‘johnny jumpers,’ and then he invites them to put this all into the current context and analyze how much has really changed in the world that we inhabit. The topic was harsh and this was not a pleasant read, but I am determined not to run away from hard topics that deal with race. This book, through a thoroughly captivating story, sheds a spotlight on the White mentality of objectifying and dehumanizing Black people so they could inflict the cruelest of torture on them, physically and mentally. This is a brutally honest look at the genesis of racism.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James is available from HCLS in print, audiobook on CD, and as an eaudiobook in Libby/Overdrive.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

November Road by Lou Berney

A young girl, perhaps 8 years old, is riding in a car with her head stuck out the window. We see only her back and the back of her head. She has on a light cardigan and has a brown braid.  Above this picture is a blurred piece of a manuscript, where all you can read is "Kennedy Assassinated."

Review by Cindy G.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy was one of the first monumental things that happened when I was a child.  There are so many angles to this time period in American history. November Road, by Lou Berney, is a fictional book that may help us understand one small but interesting piece of what happened in Dallas, Texas in November 1963.

We follow fictional mobster Frank Guidry, who works for the real-life mobster Carlos Marcello. As a known criminal, Marcello was eventually brought to trial as the possible mob boss who helped orchestrate the assassination. In the book, Frank knows too much about what happened in Dallas during that fateful week. The author describes how the mob may kill its own people in back alleys to protect itself from leaks. Frank has heard he needs to protect himself, decides to head to Las Vegas, and along the way runs into a runaway housewife named Charlotte. She has left her abusive husband on the spur of the moment, her car has broken down, and she is nearly panic-stricken. Frank has always been an independent and lonesome mobster, but feels that pretending to fall in love with Charlotte and have her and her two children with him would benefit him tremendously–while being potentially dangerous for them all.

Are mobsters following Frank, Charlotte and the kids as they make their trek across the country in his car? Charlotte falls in love quickly with this generous, worldly, handsome man. Does Frank have a hidden, softer side? Or is he simply using this struggling family as a cover as he approaches his actual “family,” criminals who may or may not have his back. I rate this book 5/5, a wonderful historical fiction, nicely swirled with an interesting mystery, that made me think of the 1960s in a new way.

Cindy G. has worked for Howard County Library System for 12 years. She loves cooking, reading, maps, and spending time with her family.