The Pandemic Has You Thinking Deeply

Andromeda Romano Lax offers her book recommendations

Hi friends,

My brother’s wedding was — as expected — amazing. While I was on the dance floor, author Andromeda Romano Lax, wrote up five (!) book recommendations for you all to enjoy.

Andromeda is the author of five novels including Annie and the Wolves, a novel that features a time-traveling Annie Oakley in an exploration of trauma, complicity and revenge chosen by Booklist as a Top 10 historical fiction book of the year. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Andromeda notes, “Invited to submit my latest book recs, I assembled a list that seemed random at first, until a common thread emerged: all of these books are dark, comic, or both. All of them, I would argue, also have heart—even if that heart emerges from a story about a bickering couple or murderous friends. For me, this combination of absurdity, gloom and tentative hopefulness captures the feeling of the challenging season we are facing.”

And, now, what to read if …

The Pandemic Has Made You Philosophical — And Morbid

Should We Stay or Should We Go by Lionel Shriver

At the beginning of COVID, my reading tastes leaned to lighter, escapist fare. But as we head deeper into what seems to be an endless pandemic, I’ve started having both the mental room and a strange desire to let the darkness in. Maybe it has nothing to do with COVID at all, but rather the aging of family and friends around me, as well as my own undeniable mortality.

If you don’t want to think about death, especially suicide, run screaming from Lionel Shriver’s newest book, which uses a fantastical structure to explore everything that can go wrong when an elderly couple attempts to plan their own final exit.

Shriver, most well-known for We Need to Talk About Kevin, has become a controversial figure in recent years, didactic and misanthropic in her fiction and sometimes offensive during live appearances.

I disagree with Shriver’s public posturing on some issues but applaud her willingness to engage with divisive contemporary issues. This book is one of her most successful and inventive in years, employing a speculative, multiple-path structure (think of Shriver’s Post-Birthday World or movies like Sliding Doors) to explore the consequences of self-administered euthanasia or, its opposite, embracing old age. Along the way, the usually-cynical Shriver stumbles into some optimistic passages and refreshing insights about how one might live more fully.

Your First Houseguests In Over A Year Underscored Your Introversion

Rabbit in the Moon by Heather Diamond

At middle age, Heather Diamond married a Hong Kong man and found herself thrust into a bustling foreign family whose ideas of vacation include loading the whole noisy clan into steamy buses. Just reading her memoir about this new life, rife with linguistic confusion, cultural clashes, and lots of noisy dinners made my introvert heart race—and not in a good way. And yet, Diamond learned and adapted, finding humor and joy in this long-term immersion.

This memoir satisfied me on three levels: First, as a curious, well-informed outsider's look at the rituals and traditions of Cheung Chau (rural Hong Kong) island life, enriched by Diamond’s background in folklore studies and keen ethnographic observational skills. Second, as a look inward and backward, using the distance Diamond gained from travel to create perspective on her own roots.  Third, as the tale of a woman who reinvented herself at mid-life, accepting the consequences of breaking some ties and making new ones.

While reading Rabbit in the Moon, I kept thinking about family get-togethers and my own limits as someone who is averse to noise and crowds, as well as the downside of my own North American family's lack of traditions. I finished the book yearning to be more adventurous and open-hearted.

You’re an Introvert and Expecting — Or Need a Unique Baby Shower Gift

Babies Don’t Make Small Talk (So Why Should I?) by Julie Vick

My own introversion—see the book summary above!—explains why I found the title of this humorous parenting guide so charming, even before I dipped into its contents. My own children are fully grown, yet I still found myself chuckling as I read chapters on surviving parent-child classes, birthday parties, baby showers and other “forced socialization” events, in addition to the inescapable realities of sleep deprivation, public tantrums, and annoying advice from strangers.

We seem to be in a new era of “tell it like it is” parenting and general how-to books. Some of them rely on easy profanity or snark. This one is gentler, with advice that is sometimes practical, other times intentionally ridiculous but consoling, a reminder that you are not alone.

A Return to Travel This Summer Reminded You Tourism Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

Indians on Vacation by Thomas King

An American-born, German-Cherokee writer who now lives in Ontario, King often writes about Indigenous characters and issues, and Indians on Vacation, a slim comic novel does make reference to both. But it also delivers in terms of wry commentary on tourism. I’d almost forgotten how boring a day in a crowded city can be, traipsing along with the camera-toting crowds and making dutiful visits to various museums and clock towers. Hidden beneath the satire is the most tender and realistic portrait of a marriage I have read in any recent book.

Many first-person narrators give themselves the funniest or cleverest lines. In this novel, the narrator's wife Mimi comes off as an equally sharp and interesting character. Anyone who has museum-hopped and train-tripped with a less enthusiastic spouse will find delight in reading about this couple's misadventures in Prague, Budapest and elsewhere.

If you’re not familiar with King, imagine combining elements of Sherman Alexie with Mark Twain for this new take on “innocents abroad.”

You’re Still Pining For Vicarious Travels — and Thrills

We Were Never Here by Andrea Bartz

Maybe the prospect of our never-ending pandemic has you shouting, “No fair!” (Or maybe that’s my own voice I’m hearing.) If you still yearn for travel and are willing to accept a literary substitute, check out Bartz’s new bestseller about two women backpackers whose Chilean vacation is disrupted by murder. This is not your typical tale of women in peril—quite the opposite—though to say much more is to give away the plot. Unreliable narration and lots of twists make We Were Never Here ideal reading for that last-chance trip to the beach or pool.


Thanks again to Andromeda for filling in for me! You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter and buy her books here.

I’ll be back in your inboxes on Monday. Have a great week!


What to Read If is a free weekly book recommendation newsletter. Need a rec? Want to gush about a book? Reply to this email, leave a comment or find me on Twitter @elizabethheld.

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What to Read If is a free weekly book recommendation newsletter. Need a rec? Want to gush about a book? Reply to this email, leave a comment or find me on Twitter @elizabethheld.

If you’re reading this on Substack or were forwarded this email, and you’d like to subscribe, click the button below.

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.