The Five Best Books I Read During Lockdown

5. The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

Precise, poignant, and brutally honest, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking offers a remarkable insight into the mysterious world of grief. With each phrase, detail and excruciating feeling from the tragic twelve months included, the professionally labelled ‘cool customer’ highlights how swiftly one’s world can turn upon its head; and, for all our expectations, how clueless we inevitably are to what lays on the other side of losing those we love most.  

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” Didion explains. As both were writers, imagining life and death and the feelings attached, is how the Didions spent their adult lives. Having done so, Joan perhaps thought – even more than we all do – that she knew what was coming when tragedy struck. Yet when it did arrive, at her own dinner table, she found herself transported to a world which she could never have anticipated, let alone conceived.

At times, emotion understandably threatens to overwhelm the bereft mother and wife. Largely, however, passion is left to one side – present but never overwhelming. The result is chilling. Didion explains how one’s sanity is shaken and largely left behind, even if the facade of a functioning person remains. This becomes particularly evident in some of the most heart-breaking details: her inability to throw away her husband’s shoes or sweatshirts, for he will obviously need them on his return; and the eerie recollections of hospital visits, accompanied by exact dates and times and words which Didion’s brain clings agonisingly on to.

While, as the title suggests, The Year of Magical Thinking focuses on the year after the death of her husband John, in examining their relationship, the book provides a fascinating account of marriage as well. As is always the case, Didion is direct in her recollection: “Why do you always have to be right,” she remembers him imploring. “Why do you always have to have the last word. For once in your life just let it go.” She does not portray their union as unfettered bliss. By doing so, she depicts a relationship all the more desirable. By doing so, she emphasizes her loss. Because, through their disagreements, through their ups and their downs, grew an utter dependency which made John’s death all the more unfathomable. “I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted,” she recounts. As both shared the same profession, worked largely from home, and were, in every sense of the word, partners, life without John by her side was inconceivable to Joan.

The Year of Magical Thinking is filled with in depth analysis of grief, marriage and motherhood, yet also contains some fantastic one liners: “Because I was born fearful…” Didion writes; and “As a child I thought a great deal about meaninglessness” and, “I wanted to get the tears out of the way so I could act sensibly.” 

Nothing can prepare you for grief, not even reading this book, but to turn the nonsensical world which follows immense loss into something as beautiful as The Year of Magical Thinking is an astonishing feat, one worthy of celebration and well worth reading.

4. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut

Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt.”

The first book I read in this extended summer. I bought it at 6:30am at Heathrow Terminal 5, fresh off the red-eye, as I waited for my connection to Edinburgh. I had been meaning to read Vonnegut’s classic for some time, and as I scoured the shelves of a small, airport Waterstones, wearing a mask in March for the first – and what I naively believed would be the last – time, I decided to finally buy Slaughterhouse-Five.

After enjoying the opening, autobiographical chapter in the terminal, jet-lag set in and made the beginning of Billy Pilgrim’s disjointed tale too confusing for me. I put the book down until I arrived home and spent some hours in bed. Once I picked it up once, with the assistance of a good day’s sleep, I struggled to put Slaughterhouse-Five down.

Although one of the most famous anti-war stories ever written, I found it not so much be a tale of war itself, but the lasting effects of it. The helplessness of the unlikely hero; the constant reliving of the 1940s; the apparent success that Billy Pilgrim achieves, but the happiness which will forever be illusive and which he simply does not care to even try and attain because, as is the case with everything else in his life, he has no control over it. He is neither happy nor sad, but simply unable to ever feel anything ever again. A passenger in his own life.

Billy’s story is infused by sharp social commentary, as well as the dark humour which makes Vonnegut so enjoyable. His analysis of America, Christianity, time and free will, all overlaid and intertwined around a defining event: the firebombing of Dresden – one of the pinnacles of moral depravity – speaks louder than an out and out critique of such an event ever could. 

For all of the wisdom in Slaughterhouse-Five, I think arguably its most impressive quality is how well structured the story was told. The sheer genius of the man to conceive something so heartbreakingly magnificent. Even my early, fantigue-infused confusion, made the end result more impressive. It is an awe-inspiring book, one from which we will forever be able to learn, and rightfully regarded as a 20th Century classic. 

3. The Old Man and The Sea – Ernest Hemingway 

I cannot be sure whether my immediate infatuation with the stripped down storytelling of Mr. Hemingway was enhanced by his reputation, or if it was, genuine, impartial, love at first sight. 

No matter the case, as the book and the voyage wore on, any doubt surrounding my initial conclusion: this man is a genius, evaporated. Never before had I finished a book and been willing to pick it up and read it again instantaneously. 

There is no such thing as a perfect book. I do believe however, this may well be the closest thing I have read to achieving that impossible feat.  

Succinct, meaningful, and effortlessly cool. I don’t know what else I can say. Ern-dog, my man, you lived up the hype. 

2. And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks – Bill Burroughs & Jack Kerouac

Breath-taking, from beginning to end. 

While I suppose neither Bill Burroughs nor Jack Kerouac had yet reached what critics would call their ‘literary best,’ I loved it. The dispirited undertone and writing framework that would go onto define the two cultural icons, along with a story, a setting, and an ensemble so captivating, made And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks my most enjoyable ever read.

Alternating, semi-autobiographical chapters written by ‘Will Dennison’ (Burroughs) and ‘Mike Ryko’ (Kerouac), tell the tale of a hedonistic, debauched entourage who would go on to be known as the ‘Beat Generation.’ Written long before that label was coined – before Burroughs went Junky and Kerouac On The Road; before money or purpose or notoriety; before the group knew the influence, acclaim and romanticism which would follow their bohemian, intoxicated lifestyle – And The Hippos offers an unparalleled insight into the early days of one the twentieth century’s most remarkable literary movements. For at the time of Burroughs’ and Kerouac’s first written, posthumously published work, the Beat Generation did not yet know they were Beat. They could be characterised only as stray souls, drifting through wartime New York, in search of food and drink and short-term pleasure.

Like its characters, the plot of And The Hippos moves somewhat sluggishly. Progress is often inhibited by the stupor the group find themselves in, as well as an unsubstantiated, nebulous vision toward a brighter future. Constantly looking ahead only serves to neglect the reality of their current predicament. Such is the general apathy and irreverence of the characters, many remain disagreeable from start to finish, and the novel does not inspire a particular emotional connection. As a result, it is somewhat numbing.

Nevertheless, this numbness never approaches the realm of boredom. While And The Hippos may never be recognised as a true literary masterpiece like their later works, Burroughs and Kerouac’s debut is an amusing, intelligent, and gripping novel (with a true murder story to boot). It depicts a world ever so close to our own, yet one which is forever sentenced to history. All of these qualities, it possesses in and of itself; given the influence the characters would go on to achieve in the years which followed, reading And The Hippos becomes all the more enjoyable. 

Honourable Mentions:

  • Giovani’s Room – James Baldwin
  • Junky – William S. Burroughs
  • The Sun Also Rises – Hemingway
  • Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
  • All The Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
  • The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

1. The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin

I first picked it up in early April. I read it in about two hours, between a Zoom French meeting and a Zoom Political Science meeting. What struck me then – not before the Black Lives Matter movement or the calls for Police reform, but before the death of a certain man called George Floyd – was how applicable it was to today’s world. This has struck me once more during each of the occasions I have picked it up again since the tragic events in Minneapolis. 

The Fire Next Time was published in 1962. The copy I found amongst my Grandfather’s books, with yellowed pages and a broken spine, cannot be much younger itself. It gives me immense pleasure to know my Grandfather read this book, whenever he did. I cannot help but wonder what the effect would have been if more men of his generation had done the same.

For The Fire Next Time predates the deaths of Martin and Malcom, written during a time in which Jim Crow laws were still in place throughout the American South and racism not only existed institutionally, but as an openly accepted way of life in much of the two countries I consider myself lucky enough to call home. The Fire Next Time was not just ahead of its time then, fifty-eight years ago, but remains forward-thinking to this day.

Baldwin begins with a letter to his nephew and namesake. Only a little over five pages, it is a letter of advice; advice, from a place of love, wisdom and, tragically, fear. Fear of the consequences of the white man, the white man’s world they live in in, and, perhaps, suffering the same fate as the elder James’ father, who, “was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him,” Baldwin writes on the first page.

It would be easy, understandable, in fact I would even say sensible, for a book about black liberation in the 1960s to be filled with rage. The Fire Next Time is indeed angry, but not always at what one would expect, and always with a restraint and objectivity. He insists, for example, that for all the strife, suffering and hardship inflicted by white people on minorities, continuing in such vain is futile. “The really terrible thing,” he tells his nephew in his typical, elegant yet conversational tone, “is you must accept them [white people]. I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and you must accept them with love. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” In showing such love for people who may well be undeserving of it, and advising acceptance from his own kin as the only way forward, Baldwin demonstrates a humanity which was rarely afforded to him in return.

After the letter to his nephew, comes an essay titled Down at the Cross. In it, Baldwin recounts part of his own childhood (a time I learned more about in his debut novel: Go Tell It On The Mountain, which I would also highly recommend), and his experiences with Christianity. A former teen pastor, Baldwin left the Church behind, largely due to the negative effect he perceived it had on the Black community, as well as contradicting the humanity he saw and admired, yet the Church chastised.

Following these experiences as a teen in Harlem, Baldwin describes a visit later in life to Chicago, where he went for dinner with Elijah Muhammad, former leader of the Nation of Islam. Both prominent men in the fight for racial justice in America in the 1960s, the way each believes this justice can be achieved could not be more different. While I, a white man, favour Baldwin’s approach, I do not consider myself educated enough on the Nation of Islam to properly critique it. I will say, as I already have, that the last fifty-eight years have shown how far ahead of his time James Baldwin was. Neither Baldwin nor Muhammad want integration, as the former writes, “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?”, but Baldwin stresses acceptance, understanding, and a shared humanity which I can only hope these last few months, for all the pain, have brought us closer to achieving.

Last week I wrote about the hope I have thanks to our unmatched access to knowledge. I imagine there are few better uses of an afternoon in acquiring this knowledge than James Baldwin’s, The Fire Next Time.

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