With film and television productions shutting down, concerts and other major events being canceled, and venues from amusement parks to select movie theaters closing their doors temporarily amid coronavirus concerns, there is one tried and true place to which to turn for entertainment and escapism: books.
From Stephen King’s “The Stand” in 1978 to the more recent “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel, there have been quite a few stories written over the years that depict dystopia in a way that may feel educational now. But if that is too on-the-nose for the current climate, there are lots of recently-released options that let readers immerse themselves in slightly more optimistic, even if often still somewhat surreal, worlds.
Combining those ideas, here Variety has compiled a list of books to binge-read when you need to take a break from your family, roommates or constantly refreshing news about the state of the epidemic.
by Edan Lepucki
Lepucki’s 2014 debut novel, a young L.A. couple seeks refuge from a climate and financial apocalypse that could just as easily be a pandemic. Their travels to Northern California, life in the woods and the dramatic discovery they make in a former ghost town are a bit rambling, but provide plenty of fodder for imagining what it would take to really get away from it all.
“Convenience Store Woman”
by Sayaka Murata
Murata’s eerie tenth novel is a portrait of a convenience store woman who is perplexed by “normal” human behavior, and thus tries to copy it to the best of her ability. Protagonist Keiko Furukurua has worked in the same convenience store for 18 years and is uninterested in ever leaving. She doesn’t care about dating, or anything else to do with her personal life, and occasionally fantasizes about violence. She feels at peace in the convenience store, when she can follow her script and anticipate shoppers’ every need. This book speaks to current feelings of high anxiety and isolation, but best read if you don’t live completely alone.
“Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”
by Olga Tokarczuk
Tozarczuk’s Nobel Prize-winning novel is a fairy-tale whodunnit best read blind. Protagonist Janina is aging and isolated; she lives alone in an desolate Polish village and pours her free time and energy into studying astrology and translating poetry. She is written off as a kooky old lady, especially once dead bodies start popping up and she claims that wildlife is finally fighting back and this is their form of revenge.
“My Year of Rest and Relaxation”
by Ottessa Moshfegh
Moshfegh takes “work from home” to the next level in her debut novel. After losing her parents and feeling an overwhelming sense of depression and malaise, the unnamed main character (thin, blonde, and unbelievably WASPy) decides to check out from reality and sedate herself into hibernation for a year. Her former roommate Reva drops by often and unannounced to visit with our protagonist, and unload all her problems. The narrator also enlists a working artist to aid her in the experiment, transforming her year-long slumber into something of performance art.
by Ling Ma
Ma’s bleak debut novel feels like an eerie take on the headlines of today—the story chronicles the effects of a global epidemic that originated in electronics capital Shenzhen, China and is transmitted via microscopic fungal spores. Instead of contracting the flu, those afflicted turn into zombies. The book follows Candace Chen as she navigates life in New York while the city rapidly deteriorates. Her job sends everyone home safe for a skeleton staff and mass transit shuts down. Chen copes by documenting the collapse of the city on an anonymous blog before joining forces with fellow survivors who have a mission to start a new society. The book, which is a delicious shade of millennial pink, is a story of trauma, identity, family, and survival amid a crisis.
by Justin Cronin
Cronin released a trilogy of novels set in the near-future where vampire-like creatures called virals overrun the world, with this first book hitting shelves in 2010 and getting turned into a one-season drama for Fox just last year. The virals were created by doctors who were testing an immunity-boosting drug on human subjects, trying to find a way to lengthen life. Unfortunately the side effects were gruesome, although technically they did succeed at prolonging lives, and the subjects eventually break out of the testing facility, attacking and infecting most of the world. The story also fast-forwards almost 100 years after that initial incident to explore how the survivors have managed, and how one little girl who was part of the plans for further drug-testing has a psychic connection with the virals.
by Porochista Khakpour
Porochista Khakpour has been sick for as long as she can remember and her memoir takes you through her late-stage Lyme disease by way of locations: New York, LA, Santa Fe, and a college town in Germany. She navigates her chronic illness, and her journey as an Iranian American woman and writer, by examining the medical care system, her own mental health, and the relationships she has with friends, family, and partners.
by Stephen King
King’s 1978 novel, which has been adapted twice — for a 1994 limited series and a new upcoming one — follows the breakdown of society over the course of a year after a strain of the flu that has been modified to be used for biological warfare is accidentally released, killing 99% of the population. But it is not the flu that makes up the apocalyptic tone: That comes from how the survivors are on opposite sides of how to rebuild society. Rather than banding together, a new kind of warfare emerges, with Mother Abigail, a more-than 100-year-old woman, becoming a de factor leader for a group trying to reestablish democracy, while Randall Flagg, a man with supernatural abilities, prefers to lead with force and arm his followers.
by Emily St. John Mandel
A fictional flu spreads rapidly at the start of this novel, which is being adapted into a series for HBO Max, with some characters getting tipped off that it’s coming and it’s bad, and others, like protagonist Kirsten and her play co-star Arthur, more helpless. Arthur has a heart attack on stage during the play, but Kirsten does manage to survive, and two decades later, she is living with a group of traveling actors and musicians. The book weaves together complicated connections between performers of the past and present, as well as connections to a graphic novel within the novel that has significance to Kirsten.
“Deacon King Kong”
by James McBride
McBride’s last novel, “The Good Lord Bird,” won the National Book Award in 2013 and has been turned into a limited series for Showtime (although production is currently halted to take precautions against coronavirus). His latest work is also a period piece that unflinchingly explores race and compassion. In this case, a church deacon shoots a drug dealer in Brooklyn, New York in 1969, which causes an investigation that exposes secrets of, but also surprising similarities between, a wide range of community members from the people of color residents who witnessed the shooting to the Italian mobsters and neighbors, to the local cops and members o the church.
“The Last Bathing Beauty”
by Amy Sue Nathan
Told over two time periods, this novel follows Betty Stern, the titular “last bathing beauty” of a lakeside resort. In 1951 she was a young woman with big dreams of moving to New York and writing about fashion, but decades later she is still living in that town after having followed the more traditional track of women at that time: getting married and being a housewife and mother. When her granddaughter comes to visit her and reveals she is pregnant and not sure about having a future with the baby’s father, it forces Betty (now known as Boop) to reflect on and finally confront some long-kept secrets about the summer she was crowned the bathing beauty — and why it was the last time any young woman was.
by Meng Jin
On the night of June 4, 1989 aka the Tiananmen Square protests, a young woman goes into labor and gives birth in Beijing. Although she arrived at the hospital with her husband, he disappears and is presumed dead due to the violence in the streets. The woman struggles to raise her daughter alone but eventually moves to America with her. When that woman dies, the daughter visits China — including the very place she lived in her earliest days, somewhat miraculously preserved — and unravels secrets of her mother’s science ambitions and complicated sense of family, as well as about what happened to her father.
“Oona Out of Order”
by Margarita Montimore
On the titular Oona’s 19th birthday — which just happens to be New Year’s Eve — she faints and awakens in 2015, in the body of her 51-year-old self but with only the memories of minutes before, when she was deciding whether or not to go on tour with her boyfriend and their band. Each birthday brings a new time jump for Oona, which causes her to live completely out of chronological order (hence the book’s title), leaving herself notes for when she arrives that help her make sense of what just occurred but also leave her quite isolated emotionally. Naturally, this causes her to consider trying to mess with her own fate from time to time, but it also teaches her important emotional lessons well beyond her years. Although the reason Oona has this affliction is never explained, following her on the ride is fun enough to suspend one’s disbelief.
“Valley of the Dolls”
Quell your anxiety with this glamor time capsule from the 1960s that follows three best friends in New York City as they climb the social ladder and break into the entertainment industry. Their 20-year journey is filled to the brim with drama, lust, fame, fortune, and the eventual perils that come with such success. Consider this the “Desperate Housewives” meets “Gossip Girl” meets “Mad Men” of literature that is required reading for all Old Hollywood aficionados. And of course, you won’t miss the heavy-handed themes of escapism (and sedation).
“We Ride Upon Sticks: A Novel”
by Quan Barry
Almost 300 years after the witch trials, a high school female field hockey team in Massachusetts is so determined to make it to the state finals they decide to tap into dark powers to juice their chances. It’s a period piece steeped in 1980s iconography that is both a throwback and in some ways a cautionary tale, but the central characters, including Captain Abby Putnam, who has familial ties to Salem accuser Ann Putnam, come with a sensibility beyond the time. You may come for the sizzle of genre elements here, but you’ll stay for the rich bond forged by friendships on the field, the memories of misguided youth and the power of belief.
“When We Believed in Mermaids”
by Barbara O’Neal
When tragedy strikes in New Zealand, a young woman thinks she spots her long-assumed deceased sister among the survivors. She drops everything to investigate, and in doing so is flooded with memories of their complicated upbringing. The story weaves two timelines together effortlessly and reveals some heartbreaking secrets about each woman in the process. To say too much more would be to spoil deeply emotional turns, but for all the pain of the past that gets uncovered, there is healing and closure in the present.