What 2020 Booker Nominee Should You Read, Based on Your Quarantine Habits?
Are you solving puzzles on repeat or working in bed? Let us tell you what to read next
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
There’s no question that the pandemic has negatively affected our attention span (not that our society was doing particularly well with that in the first place). But we are dealing with huge amounts of unconscious stress, according to psychological experts, that limit our ability to process information. Although it seems like the perfect moment to get back into reading, it’s trickier than usual to focus on a novel.
On a brighter note, there’s also no question that this year’s Booker Prize longlist is an exciting one, filled with more debuts than usual and encompassing a wide array of new voices. If you’re thinking of picking up a book for the summer, why not start with a critically acclaimed list? With the extra time on your hands—now that you’ve mastered the sourdough loaf, own multiple Animal Crossing houses, and become intimately acquainted with Zoom—read below to see what Booker longlist novel you should read, based on the quarantine habits and trends you’ve picked up.
Taking your temperature 200 times a day: Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
Looking for another way to mess with your perceptions of the world? If your quarantine habit is to constantly check up on all COVID-19 symptoms and wear down your thermometer by testing potential fevers, you might relate to Rachel, one of the novel’s protagonists who wakes up one night, convinced that there is an ant stuck in her eye. Rachel and Eliza are deeply in love, considering parenthood—but when Eliza, a scientist, does not see any ant, she can’t bring herself to believe Rachel’s terror. Ward’s debut novel explores love, yes, but also probes at the concept of reality itself. Playing with perspective and philosophy in ten interconnected chapters, Love and Other Thought Experiments may prove to be an intriguing, thought-provoking distraction from self-diagnosis.
Sleeping at bizarre times: Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze
Don’t worry: Krauze’s autofiction about a life of London crime makes any sleep schedule—say, a nap at 8pm, bedtime at 11am, or morning coffee at 1am—look extremely normal in comparison. Who They Was centers on a young man living in South Kilburn, who is involved in violent crime while simultaneously completing a university degree in English. Krauze’s first-hand account of drugs, gangs, robberies, and stabbings is sure to jolt even the sleepiest reader awake, with his striking, eloquent prose.
Eating like a kid: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Has quarantine thrown “adult” eating habits out the window? We’re talking about the dream menu of your eight-year-old self here: ice cream for breakfast, popcorn for dinner, fries at 2am. Lean further into the world of kids—and childcare—with Reid’s debut novel about a babysitter. When a grocery store security guard accuses Emira, a young Black woman, of having kidnapped the white girl she is babysitting, the conflict sets off a whole series of complications for Emira and her white, wealthy employers. Reid’s acclaimed, page-turning debut explores the intersections of class privilege, race, and transactional relationships; it’s also a page-turning read that pairs excellently with popcorn.
Buying new work-from-home clothes that are just pajamas: The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel
Thank goodness that we don’t need to wear doublets or corsets when hopping on Zoom calls! If you crave the decadence, familiarity, and little kick of adrenaline that comes with putting on a new silk pajama set, you might be interested in The Mirror & the Light, the final in Mantel’s well-acclaimed trilogy. No one does historical fiction of Tudor England like Mantel, as we’ve seen with her previous books in the series, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. You can savor national drama of the 1500s and witness Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power, while lounging luxuriously in your new pajamas. Soundtrack to the musical Six is optional.
Fostering or adopting a pet: Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
Adoption and fostering rates have skyrocketed during the pandemic, to no one’s surprise—stuck at home all day, many of us seek a furry friend that helps disrupt the monotony of quarantine. If you’re interested in a protagonist who is also learning about the limits of routine, try reading about Micah Mortimer, a man who has spent years constructing an idiosyncratic yet orderly routine. But when a strange teenager claims to be his son and his “lady friend” is evicted because of her cat, Micah’s life is turned topsy-turvy. Beloved author Tyler’s new novel is a humorous, compassionate look at how we connect to others–perhaps an ideal novel to curl up with alongside your new pet. (Side moral of the story: foster/adopt with caution!)
Binge-watching Tiger King: How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
Everyone seemed to be binge-watching Tiger King in April, the show about big cat conservationists and even bigger, nefarious human drama. If you’re looking for a new kind of big cat adventure and thrilling narrative that is larger than life, Zhang’s debut novel may be the one for you. Two Chinese American siblings struggle their way across Zhang’s re-imagined Western frontier during the Gold Rush, looking for a place to properly bury their recently-deceased father. Through the siblings’ quest for a home amongst a landscape ravaged by settlers and abound with symbolic tigers, Zhang fuses myth and fiction to ask searing questions about the American Dream.
Baking sourdough: Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Have you been testing batches non-stop and tinkering with flour/water ratios, in order to get that perfectly risen loaf? Baking sourdough bread is not quite a full-blown science experiment (although I don’t dare say this to my roommate, who approaches her sourdough with reverent precision), but perhaps it’s gotten you in the mindset to read about a biochemistry graduate student. Real Life’s protagonist, Wallace, researches microscopic worms at a Midwestern university. His current situation is a far cry away from his traumatic childhood in Alabama, but one weekend, Wallace is forced to reckon with his past and how it shapes his future. Taylor’s debut is a campus novel about scientific research, yes, but more specifically about being Black and queer in academia, and how we deal with past trauma.
Drinking dalgona coffee: Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
Much like sourdough, it seemed as if everyone was making and drinking dalgona coffee—the hand-whipped instant coffee originating from a South Korean street sweet, dalgona, which is literally burnt sugar—during early quarantine. Although this labor-intensive coffee has given way to cold brew, why not read Doshi’s debut novel as an alternative form of burnt sugar? The book centers on a fraught relationship between Tara, a previously bohemian mother who never cared much for her child, and her grown-up daughter, Antara. As Tara’s memory and mental abilities decline, Antara is now faced with the task of caring for her mother. Doshi’s lashing, acerbic prose is as equally full of hand-whipped tension as dalgona coffee; through the tense narrative, she excavates devastating observations about scorched family ties.
Doing puzzles: Apeirogon by Colum McCann
Have you designated an area in the center of your living room as the “puzzle space,” and do you spend most evenings wondering what sky-blue piece might join to another slightly-less-blue piece? If you enjoy an infinite number of pieces fitting together in a kaleidoscopic whirl to form a bigger picture, you might enjoy Apeirogon, named after a polygon with an infinite number of edges. examines the lives of two men, Rami and Bassam. Although one is Israeli and one is Palestinian, they become friends when they realize that they have both lost their daughters. McCann’s take on Israeli-Palestinian relations ties together many elements, crossing eras and borders to craft a multigenerational, epic whole.
Cutting or dyeing your own hair: The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
Cutting your own hair is definitely venturing out into a new terrain of wilderness. Who knows where you can go next? Bleaching? Buzzcut? For the truly bold: bangs? Your hair is your oyster. If you’re looking for a daring novel filled with action, try Cook’s new novel. The New Wilderness presents a more sobering terrain, but one that is quickly becoming our reality: a world devastated by climate change; within this world, a mother tries to save her daughter. Cook’s novel highlights the urgency of respecting nature and the necessity of coming to terms with what we can’t fix—a message that will resonate with people who are buckling down and doing their own barbering instead of protesting closures. Like a home stylist right after the clippers slip, we’re already too late to reverse the damage, but now is the moment when we could stop it from getting worse.
Working in bed: This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Working in bed could emblematize our era of late capitalism, quarantine edition, where we are constantly working in any environment, striving to find ways to be ever more productive in both our professional and personal lives. If you’re feeling burnt out, This Mournable Body might help you gain perspective. Dangarembga revisits her protagonist from her debut novel, Nervous Conditions. Tambudzai, or Tambu, is now a middle-aged woman, living in a run-down women’s hostel. Tambu has left a job as a copywriter, and is dealing with both the pressure of imminent poverty and the claustrophobia of Harare society. While Tambu is faced with humiliation after humiliation, she tries her best to hold onto her identity and her dignity.
Getting into Twitter fights: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
Bored and craving conflict? Or genuinely enraged about the potential fascism of… well, let’s say contemporary affairs? Looking for ways to rise up against the many industrial complexes that dictate our society (looking at you, prisons and police departments)? Try reading The Shadow King, if you’re looking for a fight worth fighting for. Mengisteexplores female power and highlights a part of WWII history that has been looked over, focusing on Ethiopian female soldiers that rise up against Mussolini’s Italy. Set in Ethiopia in 1935, The Shadow King follows Hirut, who starts out as a maid but winds up organizing female troops for Ethiopia.
Taking out home loans in Animal Crossing: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
If you enjoy witnessing daily life progress in a virtual village, try Stuart’s searing, hyper-realistic, and visceral description of a mining town in 1981. Set in an economically destitute Glasgow, Stuart’s debut novel centers on a family struggling with alcoholism and poverty. Shuggie Bain, a lonely but sweet boy, is the only child that will not abandon his alcoholic mother, Agnes. Shuggie Bain is a heartbreaking look at the tenuousness of familial love, no matter how damaged, and the consequences of addiction. Endless grinding to catch fish to pay off your three-million-bell home debt will look positively idyllic by comparison.