Welcome to the latest installment of Vox’s Ask a Book Critic, in which I, Vox book critic Constance Grady, provide book recommendations to suit your very specific mood: either how you’re feeling right now, or how you’d like to be feeling instead.
Personally, I am currently in the mood to read something quiet and restful by someone completely in control of their prose, so I just finished up with Robin McKinley’s Chalice. I grew up on McKinley, who came up in the ’70s as one of the first fantasy writers to let girls have adventures, and her exquisitely balanced sentences influenced my ear for prose more than probably any other writer.
Chalice came out in 2009, so it’s a late book for McKinley, and like many of her most recent works it’s quiet and reserved to the point of chilliness. It takes place in a fantasy realm that was ruled by a bad king for seven years, and now a new leadership team, inexperienced and denied the education that was their due, is trying to find a way to heal the shattered country. Also there’s a lot about honey. It’s exactly what I want to read.
It’s probably not exactly what you want to read, though, which is why this column exists. So let me help you find something that will take you where you want to go.
The recommendation requests below, submitted to me via email and on Twitter, have been edited for length and clarity.
I’m looking for a book about dysfunctional families. Quarantine has forced me to live with my own.
This question I have seen a fair amount of! I have two go-tos.
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson is a warm and funny satire about two adults forced to move back in with their performance artist parents. It will make you think, “Hey, at least my parents never forced me to narc on them to the mall security guard while they stole jelly beans from a candy store as a commentary on capitalism on my sixth birthday.” (Unless that did happen to you, in which case I am very sorry.)
I’m also a big advocate, in general, for well-written children’s literature in times of stress, and children’s literature is very good in particular on the subject of being trapped in your terrible gross house with your terrible gross family who will not stop annoying you, ugh.
Lately I’ve been thinking about Nancy Bond’s A String in the Harp, about an American family doing a semester abroad in a little town in Wales. The house is tiny and weird and the family can’t figure out how to heat it or cook good food in it, and they’re all mad at each other and grieving a recent death, so they’re prickly and constantly getting on each other’s nerves. But over time they adapt, adjust, and work together to build a deeply cozy home for themselves. (There is also magic, but oddly that is maybe the weakest part of this book? I always skip it in rereads and focus on the sections where the teenage daughter learns to bake bread and the family goes out for fish and chips.)
Looking for nonfiction. I want to feel smarter, but not have to concentrate too hard. Something that will teach me about a world I’m not familiar with.
Try Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, about the LA Public Library fire of 1986. It’s so tense and gripping that it reads like a novel, and it explores the past and future of America’s libraries in really smart and thoughtful ways.
Just ended an 11-year relationship right before sheltering in place. Feeling sick of romance and love, and seeking a bit of non-romantic faith that things will be okay.
Now might be a good time for Nancy Mitford! She wrote very clear-eyed and unromantic but hopeful fiction during some very dark times. Pigeon Pie might be the book of hers to begin with. It was written during the ramp-up to World War II, and it’s about a British aristocrat who gets bored volunteering at the Red Cross and decides to become a beautiful female spy.
I want to escape my living room by reading a book that transports me to a new place and takes me on an adventure through jungles or deserts or frozen tundra.
If you want something intense and a little challenging, the move would be Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James. It’s literary fantasy set in a world inspired by African folklore, and the landscape is incredibly rich and immersive and will absolutely take you away. This book is deliberately designed to resist easy reading, though, and the reception has been polarizing. (I found it a little bit of a slog, although I know others adored it. And even skeptics like me can’t deny the setting is amazing!) So I’ll also throw out as an option East of the Sun by Julia Gregson. It’s about three young British women traveling to India in 1928, and it’s extremely charming and fun.
I’m constantly finding myself procrastinating. Could you recommend a self-help book about time management?
So for general organizing stuff, I like Julie Morgenstern, who wrote Time Management from the Inside Out: She’s good at creating strategies to help you adapt the way you think about an issue rather than imposing rules on you from above.
But I also think that during a global catastrophe like the one we are in right now, it is very normal and reasonable to find yourself having trouble doing work! As Neil Webb put it in a widely shared tweet, we are not working from home right now. We are in our homes during a crisis and trying to do work.
If you find it difficult to be productive right now, don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s enough just to get through the day. Jenny Odell explores some ideas related to this issue very beautifully in her book How To Do Nothing.
If you’d like me to recommend something to you, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Ask a Book Critic.” The more specific your mood, the better!