On the shelf

Books to get us through trying times.


I’ve heard a lot of people say that their reading habits have changed since the beginning of the pandemic some two years ago — no, make that since Donald Trump first ran for president in 2016. Our shelves may be lined with books, but there’s a 24-hour news cycle on every device. And now with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, shifting focus away from the news of the day is once again proving to be a challenge. 

That said, a compelling book is a great antidote to the news-of-the-day blues. At the end of February, when virus numbers were on the decline, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had just started, and Kim and Kanye were not yet legally divorced — I read Amor Towles’ latest novel, “The Lincoln Highway,” and was transported back in time with a cast of quirky characters. I am grateful for Towles’ ability to tell a captivating story, but reading “The Lincoln Highway” was more than simply a good distraction; it made me think.

When I was ready for my next read, I decided to ask a few friends, colleagues, and friends of friends to recommend a book that can compete with a short attention span and the bombardment of bad news. 

Below are their recommendations (in alphabetical order of last names):

Nancy Slonim Aronie, writer whose upcoming book is “Memoir as Medicine: The Healing Power of Writing Your Messy, Imperfect, Unruly (but Gorgeously Yours) Life Story”: “Dirt Music” by Tim Winton

Geraldine Brooks recommended this book to me. The writing is exquisite. It’s very Australian, and I’m there in every tree he mentions (which I had to Google). It’s an incredible love story. 

Christine Ferrone, English department chair, MVRHS:Circe” by Madeline Miller
Miller transforms the oft-identified lesser goddess of Circe into a complex, nuanced, and conflicted character whose status as an immortal appears at times to be more burden than benefit. Through Miller’s poetic prose, I, like Odysseus, felt magically transported to the isle of Aeaea. I gleaned from Circe not a longing to be a mighty sorceress, but an appreciation for the power of a woman trying to live authentically for herself and those she loves. Aren’t we all?

Nicole Galland, novelist whose most recent book is “Master of the Revels”: “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel

Although set 20 years after the pandemic-fueled collapse of civilization, this novel is an affirmation of human resilience, and most especially the need, ability, and reward of keeping art and culture alive no matter what. Shakespeare is adored and performed in a lawless land; a nomadic symphony orchestra plays Mozart by torchlight to people who lack electricity, gasoline, or grocery stores. It’s the most life-affirming dystopian novel out there.

John Hough, Jr., novelist whose most recent book is “The Sweetest Days”:

“Justice Rising: Bobby Kennedy’s America in Black and White” by Patricia Sullivan

On what would have been Bobby Kennedy’s 80th birthday, Philip Johnston, then chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, wrote, “Now that I am much older, I realize what I should have known in 1968 — that Robert Kennedy was irreplaceable.” This book tells you why, lucidly and with grace and intelligence.

Cindy Kane, artist with new work at the Granary Gallery from July 31 to August 13: “The Sentence” by Louise Erdrich

A great reading experience doesn’t necessarily distract me from the news cycle during anxious times. But it makes me feel less alone in how I am experiencing my own particular form of global malaise. For example, Louise Erdrich’s new novel, “The Sentence,” is utterly engrossing as a contemporary-themed novel encompassing so many of the issues that I obsessively worry about. But reading about them through the lens of her hilarious, brilliant, and anxiety-prone Native American narrator, I felt better about feeling so bad!

Peter Kramer, author of books including “Listening to Prozac” and “Ordinarily Well”: “To Walk Alone in the Crowd” by Antonio Muñoz Molina

The book is a collage, built around the inner experiences of a man as he reads billboards and street signs. His walks in Madrid and Granada echo walks made by Thomas DeQuincey in London two centuries earlier. We get snippets of the urban walks of Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, Fernando Pessoa, James Joyce, and others. What emerges is a portrait that contrasts the banal and the sublime and finally integrates and contextualizes disparate elements of contemporary life. But readers could start with any recent book of Muñoz Molina’s. They are all masterful.

Jennifer Smith Turner, poet and author of “Child Bride”: “The Italian Prisoner” by Elisa M. Speranza 

A dazzling World War II love story set in New Orleans that will pull you in from the very first paragraph. The characters have compelling depth, and the setting is so well described that you will be able to feel, hear, and smell the locations throughout the novel. But it is Rose’s journey that tugs at your heart. “The Italian Prison” is a marvelous debut novel. I drew parallels to today’s craziness, but it left me feeling hopeful nonetheless.

Juli Vanderhoop, owner of Orange Peel Bakery and a member of the Aquinnah select board: “The Overstory” by Richard Powers

Currently I am reading a book that is not very pleasant, and I keep asking myself, “Why?” But one of my favorite books is “The Overstory” by Richard Powers. Also, I read “The Book of Hope,” by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams. Jane has always been one of my heroes, and listening to her words in these trying times helps me stay positive and present. I think the same can be said about “The Overstory,” which is a fact-based fictional work. 

We encourage you to add your book recommendation to the comments section of this story.

Kate Feiffer is the event producer for Islanders Write. For more information, visit islanderswrite.com.