Guess who has read eight books while in quarantine solely to avoid watching yet another “Seinfeld” episode with their parents? None other than yours truly. If social distancing also has you missing your friends in Charlottesville, dreaming of Shenandoah Park or even just longing to be somewhere else, here are five books that are awesome little escapes to work into your days at home.
“Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury
“Dandelion Wine” is an idyllic depiction of Green Town, Ill., based on the author Ray Bradbury’s childhood experiences in not-Green-Town, Ill. The story focuses on episodes of small-town American life, first from the perspective of 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding and his brother before branching out to other characters in the town. The book invites its readers to see a “Happiness Machine,” a serial killer and, of course, the brewing of the first season’s batch of homemade Dandelion Wine. Douglas sees a god and realizes he can die. Rituals are created and adapted and checked off of a to-do list. And throughout it all, you are invited to a summer that is both unique and one of a million just like it.
The novel blends nostalgia and humor together to give you a glimpse into an ageless American summer without giving you the chance to miss the last one you experienced yourself. It will get you excited for the coming break, even if you can’t actually go anywhere — yikes! More than that though, this book is a good reminder of the joy in simple, small, lazy pleasures — which is a pretty valuable lesson as we all struggle with doing less than we’re used to. It’s lyrical and descriptive, but more than anything else, it’s familiar. It won’t make you think too hard, and it will provide some comfort until you discard it back on a bookshelf, waiting until you’re ready to feel twelve years old again.
“The Raven Boys” by Maggie Stiefvater
“The Raven Boys” is the first in Maggie Stiefvater’s four-book series about five teenagers trying to find a long-buried king. One of the teens, Blue, does not like boys, but when she sees the spirit of a boy named Gansey in a graveyard she’s forced to make an exception. Gansey, for his part, is just trying to find a long-lost, long-dead Welsh king — because he’s a total dork. Gansey, three of his friends and Blue traverse a Virginian countryside — eerily similar to Charlottesville — to discover a magical forest, dreams that come alive and more than one ghost.
The book is labelled as young adult fiction, but it has too much murder, well-written dialogue and self-aware teasing of its teenage main characters to not be considered a book for all ages. Stiefvater commands a mastery of language that sneaks up on you, so that you’re not even aware how quickly you fell in love with these characters until she starts to kill them off and you start wanting to hit her with her own hardcover. This book will either make you miss your friends like a stomach ache or long for a friendship that you haven’t found yet. Poetic, witty and quietly devoted, “The Raven Boys” also manages to juggle the real insecurities a lot of us are probably feeling — even if the characters can be overdramatic at times. We can’t all relate to chasing after a dead Welsh King, but we do all know what it feels like to be left behind — @U.Va., let me come back please.
“The Call of the Wild” by Jack London
You probably had to read this book for a middle school English class. You should probably read it again. Short and poignant, the story follows a dog named Buck who is taken from his home and forced into service as a sled dog during the Klondike Gold Rush. I usually hate just about any book that’s told from the perspective of an animal, but author Jack London manages to maintain a simplistic style without lacking artistry in his writing. The reader follows Buck as he trudges through miles of Alaskan wilderness, meets monsters and — for most of the time — encounters people.
This is a quick read — my copy is only 114 pages — but if you’re going a little stir-crazy crammed in your mom’s house, maybe 114 pages of wide-open wilderness is what you need. Perhaps the strongest literary strength of “The Call of the Wild” is its ability to describe both the brutality and beauty of a life untamed. Of course, there’s also the uncomplicated love between Buck and his previous caretaker John Thornton. Buck’s life may not be one he ever expected, but it’s still a life. Like “Dandelion Wine”, this book does not require much of you and will not linger for long after you’re done with it. It’s a welcome reprieve from a world that’s gotten increasingly complex.
“The Coral Sea” by Patti Smith
Patti Smith wrote “The Coral Sea” to pay homage to her lifelong friend Robert Magglethorpe, who died at the age of 42. Magglethorpe’s passing inspired Smith to both record an album and write a short, lyrical composition of poems. “The Coral Sea” loosely follows the story of a man on a journey, thinking about his life, his illness and where he’s going next. The book is short in terms of page count, but it will take some time to read. Smith skillfully lures you into a dream — one that you keep going back to sift through. It can be hard to make sense of, but is beautiful all the same.
This is a book that is best felt when you come back to it, little by little, in the spare, quiet moments of your day — something we’ll all have plenty of in the next few weeks. If you’re going to read it, you should really get a physical copy, since interspersed among chapters are pictures Magglethorpe took over his lifetime, adding an earnest and intimate aspect to the book. It’s not going to help you understand Smith’s specific relationship or Magglethorpe’s specific persona of a man, but it gives you imprints of a life lived and a love shared. It’s a short and sweet reminder to keep in touch with the people that matter, told through the story of one remarkable love in particular.
“Ballad of the Whiskey Robber” by Julian Rubinstein
OK, disclaimer — I haven’t actually read this yet, but it’s the true story of a hockey player who became a bank robber and the truly incompetent team that tries to catch him — so I’m definitely going to. If you’re having any doubts that this book is a wild read, look no further than the title: “Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts.”
Obviously, I can’t say a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of the writing, but if the author is anything like the subject matter, it at least promises to be a ridiculous, enjoyable romp through an insane situation.