It may be hard to believe, but it’s been a full year since the first COVID-19 lockdown in Washington state. Maybe it’s not hard to believe, since this pandemic flattens time into an even more incomprehensible thing than it was before.
Another effect: Writing and publishing continue to change and adapt. Since March 2020, a lot of books have been published, many authors have gone on virtual book tours and an increasing number of published books were at least partially written during the ongoing crisis. Here are five books that are either explicitly about, or engage with, the COVID-19 pandemic and its concurrent constellations of crises — in sometimes unexpected ways.
“Intimations” by Zadie Smith (Penguin). This slim book of essays from literary powerhouse Smith is a snapshot of our volatile times. Written between the onset of the pandemic in the U.S. in March and the summer of civil unrest sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in June, “Intimations” contains distilled and incisive words about living through multiple crises as an artist. And while it is a snapshot of time, the essays, like the crises they respond to, are part of a much bigger and longer story.
“The Pull of the Stars” by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown and Company). In this book’s introduction, Donoghue discusses the irony of having written a book about a pandemic without knowing it would be released into a world experiencing another one. “The Pull of the Stars” takes place during the 1918 influenza pandemic, in an Irish hospital where pregnant women who have the flu are quarantining together. Told from the point of view of a nurse on the ward, it takes place mostly over the course of one night. It’s a gripping, emotional read — made more so because in many ways it doesn’t feel far from our current reality.
“And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again: Writers From Around the World on the COVID-19 Pandemic,” edited by Ilan Stavans (Restless Books). In early September, the anthology “Alone Together,” edited by Seattle author Jennifer Haupt, was one of the first anthologies of writing about COVID-19 to hit shelves. “And We Came Outside” was another, with a more international scope. Writers, poets, translators and artists from 30 countries contributed to this book of dispatches from Paris, Chile, Mauritius, New York City and beyond. And, like “Alone Together,” sales of this book benefit Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC), which has helped independent booksellers stay afloat during the pandemic.
“Shit, Actually: The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema” by Lindy West (Hachette). Hometown hero West released another book of essays in the fall, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Its premise is very straightforward: Each essay is a (sidesplittingly funny) review of a movie, from “The Lion King” and “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” to “Face/Off” and, as the title implies, “Love, Actually.” The book does touch on the pandemic, but it is most notable as a temporary psychic antidote to the overwhelming churn of everyday life. Need to laugh really hard and forget about things for a second? This book will do the trick. (Especially in audiobook form.)
“Black Boy Out of Time” by Hari Ziyad (Little A, available March 1). Lastly, we arrive at now, and a book that releases in March. Ziyad, who uses they/them pronouns, is a seasoned writer and editor (they are the editor in chief of the website RaceBaitr, among many other things). In their debut memoir, Ziyad skillfully distills what it means to practice an abolitionist ethos, something more people seem interested in doing since the massive Black Lives Matter protests last summer and subsequent mainstreaming of abolitionist ideas. Ziyad, who grew up in a large, mixed-faith family, gets very personal with themself, their family and the carceral state. A large part of this reckoning has to do with medical racism and the demonization and adultification of Black children under carceral logics. This is a book to move us forward, within and beyond the pandemic. There is going to be an after. If we want it to be better than the before, ideas and stories like Ziyad’s are crucial.