I thought it would be worthwhile documenting what I read during this bizarre time of Covid-19 pandemic. This post is on the books I read in lockdown. Perhaps you are looking for reading inspiration, so these reviews might be helpful!
I wanted to include a couple of disclaimers before I get into the books. The first point is that although the UK is no longer in “lockdown”, I still classify my actions as self-isolating. In a sense, my lockdown isn’t over. You can see what else I’ve been up to in Self Isolation Activities and for meal ideas, see Weeknight Meals in Lockdown.
Everyone should make up their own minds about what they deem safe, and I appreciate that many people have to go back to work in person, or are choosing to go out shopping and visit relatives. I don’t feel safe going out and interacting with others, so I continue to work from home and go out for daily walks. I’m fortunate that I’m in a position where I can continue to self-isolate, and I’m spending that time trying to maintain a balanced, healthy lifestyle including hobbies and exercise.
This brings me to my second point, which is that I don’t want this post to be interpreted as bragging “look at all the free time I have” or “look how productive I’ve been”. Again, everyone’s situation is different. I’ve actually struggled to focus and have therefore read less than perhaps I could have done with the time I’ve had. I’ve also struggled with the types of books I normally gravitate towards – i.e. not able to handle dystopian fiction at the moment!
This post is simply my thoughts on some books I read in lockdown and whether I recommend them to you, should you have the time or desire to read!
Underland by Robert Macfarlane
A travel book/personal memoir intertwined with a nature documentary, Underland examines the question of whether we are being good ancestors. At first I struggled with Macfarlane’s overtly poetic writing style and felt that it was a bit pretentious, but I grew to appreciate his use of beautiful writing to discuss the beauty of nature. As the title suggests, this piece explores different aspects of underground, from caves, to tree communication, to mines. It was absolutely fascinating to read. Underland‘s unique, personal approach to understanding the history of underground spaces from natural and anthropological lenses earns this book a place on my favourite books of all time list.
The Break by Katherena Vermette
Vermette’s debut novel is set in Winnipeg, Canada and focuses on a young Indigenous mother who witnesses an attack on land near her home. The story is about the connected lives of the Indigenous women involved in the crime, and offers a troubling, yet informative narrative of the challenges Indigenous communities experience. Given the social justice issues at the forefront of our minds, particularly involving policing, I think this book is a difficult, but important read for understanding Canada’s past and present.
All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison
Ironically enough, I decided to read this book because I wanted a bit of escapism, and figured a book about idyllic farm life in the 1930s, filled with charming traditions, would be a welcome change for my anxiety in lockdown. Not so much. All Among the Barley was a captivating story about rural England during the depression, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but the coming-of-age narrative featuring a young woman named Edie very quickly cultivated haunting themes of hardship, abuse, and stigmas surrounding mental health. I very much recommend this book, particularly if you want to learn about women’s experience in 1930s rural England, but the ending left me feeling… less than relaxed.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
I read this book as part of the newly-formed Zoom book club at my work. Again, I felt that this was perhaps not the right choice of book for me during a global pandemic, race protests, and with climate change forever on my mind. My little heart couldn’t handle more empathy, though I appreciate that the Syrian refugee crisis is an issue worth reading about and taking the time to think about. The Beekeeper of Aleppo is about the journey of a family of refugees from Syria to the UK. It was heartbreaking and the theme of resilience was powerful.
My favourite element of this book was the style of connecting the past and present narratives. One narrative ends mid-sentence, there is a page with a subject word in a motif, and then that word is used as a spring board into a new narrative. If you want to understand more about the crisis in Syria, and the lives of refugees generally, I recommend Lefteri’s work.
Taste: The Story of Britain through its Cooking by Kate Colquhoun
One of my lovely colleagues picked this book up for me from a charity shop because she thought it would compliment my interest in the history of medicine. She was correct! This book is essentially the written version of one of my favourite shows Supersizers, with Sue Perkins and Giles Coren, and it engagingly surveys the history of cuisine in Britain from prehistoric times to the present.
Of course I enjoyed the section on 18th century food, because that is where my research interests lie. I was also fascinated to learn more about the changing perceptions of vegetables. In the Tudor period, tomatoes were first cultivated as ornamental plants. In the medieval period, Normans followed the humoral system and believed that salads and herbs were “cold” and needed to be balanced with “warm” oil and vinegar, thus the use of salad dressing was established in British diet. Finally, I have a deep fascination with etymology and I learned that in the Saxon period, the Old English word for Lord (head of house) was hlaford, which meant bread guardian or bread-winner. If you enjoy reading mainstream historical works about social history and food history, I very much recommend this book.
A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and its Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A Washington
Finally, I wanted to include this book because, although I’m only halfway through, it is an important topic to note during the lockdown period, given the black lives matter protests. In my post on Environmentalism, Intersectionality, and Racism I explained my commitment to learning more about social justice issues and how they intersect with topics on sustainability and the environment. The health impact of pollution and chemical contaminants on people’s mental capabilities is one such topic.
Washington focuses on IQ (which she recognises as a biased and flawed metric) to argue that African Americans and other marginalised Americans of colours are preferentially affected by chemicals which impact cogintive function and intelligence because they are more likely to live in sacrifice zones – communities that are adjacent to or include industrial facilities and other polluting factors.
Most of us are aware of the ongoing lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, which is disproportionately impacting Flint’s black communities. Yet, the case I have found even more disturbing is the 1990s “Repair and Maintenance Study” run by the Kennedy Krieger Institute, affiliated with Johns Hopkins. Houses contaminated with lead paint in Baltimore were used in a lead abatement study to determine whether partial lead-abatement techniques could be used as a cost cutting effort, rather than remove the lead entirely. The researchers knowingly placed African American children in houses with unsafe levels of lead to monitor changes in their health, and the parents who agreed to take part in the study were not warned of the risks. The trial resulted in increased levels of lead in the children’s blood. The subsequent lawsuit and appellate case found that using children as biologic monitors is ethically indefensible.
I’m sure I’ll touch more on this book in future posts, but for now I will say that I overall enjoyed these books I read in lockdown, some of which are outside my comfort zone, and taking the time to learn about important issues. If you’ve had the time or desire to read over the past few months, please feel free to recommend what you enjoyed reading!
For more book reviews see: Books I Read in 2019