Stadiums are still empty. Theater stages are dark. Museums are closed. Though many of us will remain completely homebound at least for the new few weeks, for the readers among us, that’s a good excuse for a deep immersion in books — the longer, the better.
Among the obvious go-tos are Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and Paul Scott’s “The Raj Quartet.” But I have a quirkier list, drawn from 40-plus years of book reviewing and leisure reading, leaning toward fiction that lures you into worlds that magically supplant your own. Check with your neighborhood bookstore to see if they’ll deliver and/or order you any of these titles.
“The Gormenghast Novels” by Mervyn Peake. As a teenager in the 1970s who just couldn’t get into “The Lord of the Rings” (and believe me: the peer pressure to love Tolkien was intense), Peake’s fantastical trilogy, about an ossified royal dynasty about to be shaken by change, offered a welcome alternative. The agent of that change is a scheming kitchen boy, Steerpike, determined to climb his way to the top. His ultimate enemy is the newborn 77th Earl of Groan, Titus. Extravagantly baroque and rife with a ghoulish sense of humor, the book is crammed with outrageous figures: Titus’ mother, so devoted to the birds who roost on her and the hundreds of white cats who share her quarters that she scarcely notices her own children; Titus’ melancholy, bibliophilic dad who loses his mind when his library burns down; Titus’ power-hungry, dimwitted aunts manipulated by Steerpike into committing treason. Heady, gothic stuff.
“He Knew He Was Right” by Anthony Trollope. The pages fly by in this splendid work of satire, originally published in 1869, about a marriage gradually unraveled by jealousy. Madly in love at first, Louis Trevelyan and Emily Rowley soon bring out the worst in each other, especially after an old friend of her father, who has “a free and pleasant way with women,” starts paying her more attention than her husband would like. Her behavior is technically faultless while being just amiable enough toward her father’s dashing friend to sow continual doubt in her husband’s mind. Trollope’s Henry James-worthy psychological acuity keeps things on seriocomic knife-edge for over 800 pages, to delectable effect.
“A Place of Greater Safety” by Hilary Mantel. Long before she hit the big time with her Booker Prize-winning Thomas Cromwell novels, the British author proved herself a formidable historical novelist with this fevered and intricate narrative that focuses on three key figures of the French Revolution: pamphleteer and bisexual prankster Camille Desmoulins, orator Georges-Jacques Danton (“savage and quite unnecessarily large”) and timid-ascetic-turned-despotic-demagogue Maximilien Robespierre. Keeping exposition to a minimum, Mantel lets her characters reveal themselves mostly through what they say to — and about — one another. The dry, uncluttered immediacy of their words brings a powerful urgency to this story of a Revolution Gone Wrong.
“The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll” by Álvaro Mutis, translated by Edith Grossman. Melancholy mariner, casual criminal, fickle lover, polyglot nomad — Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout) is all these things and more. The creation of Colombian writer Mutis, Maqroll is a wanderer of uncertain origin whose papers of identity are always in disarray. Over the course of the book, the action shifts from British Columbia to the Levant, from the Andean cordillera to the Gulf of Finland. Result: a lush tangle of ordeal and anecdote, involving a motley array of characters from all conceivable backgrounds.
“The Famished Road” by Ben Okri. Set in a ghetto on the outskirts of an unnamed Nigerian city shortly before the country proclaimed independence from Great Britain in 1960, this 1991 Booker winner tells the story of a young spirit who decides to touch down in the human world for a while because he’s curious to “feel it, suffer it, know it, to love it.” But his visit isn’t easy. Every time he goes to sleep, he falls ill and ventures outside his parents’ house, and he has to be on guard against his former spirit companions who try to draw him back to a place where voices sing “sunflower cantatas” and girls dance “tarantellas in fields of comets.” Okri’s lithe, spiky language serves equally well for spirit-world high jinks, human-world character portrayal and wry social commentary on a Nigeria riven by tribe and class. A true feast for the word-hungry.