When the NBA suspended its games last week after a player tested positive for coronavirus, Bonnie and I froze in our chairs. We watch a lot of basketball. Then the NCAA tournament got called off, and the cancellation cascade followed. Even the Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel What’s Happening page is spiked this week because, in the words of editor Sharon Wood, nothing is happening. What are we going to do as we hide out during the weeks, or possibly months it takes the COVID-19 storm to run its course?

You can watch TV, I guess, or play video games. Plenty of drawbacks there, most of them related to brain matter turning into a marshmallow-like substance. But possibly the most perfect form of social-distancing entertainment is reading. You do it by yourself, usually inside your own house where you can keep the virions at bay. And as disruptive and dangerous as the current pandemic is, even one of the myriad of TV physicians advised that a little literary escapism can improve your mental health. Here are a few suggestions from my recent reading forays to get the ball rollin

For reliably absorbing stories, the writer I always think of first is Stephen King. His horror/sci-fi novels are one thing — the most recent one that will carry you away is “The Outsider”  —  but there are much gentler King books too, including “Elevation” which is, well, uplifting. The recent Hodges trilogy  goes light on the supernatural to portray the life of an aging police detective. King is one of the great masters of fictional reality.

In a more mainstream literary vein is Elizabeth Strout, whose “Olive, Again” stories are as vivid as King’s. You get to live right in the same houses with the funny, sad, poignant, wry, ironic, frustrating, sometimes bitter lives of Crosby, Maine. Similarly for its predecessor, the Pulitzer Price-winning “Olive Kitteredge,” though for my money the stories in the second book are more powerful.

Along similar topical lines, I’m planning to read best-selling Portland novelist Lily King’s new book, “Writers & Lovers,” during the great COVID-19 holing-up. Her third novel, “Father of the Rain,” won the Maine Literary Award for Fiction in 2011. Another Portland novelist whose books are likely to take you away is Agnes Bushell. Her mystery “Death in Arcadia” was a best-seller in Portland book stores, and 2018’s “The House on Perry Street” is a funny, cleansing story (that has also been optioned for a screenplay) about a group of women in Greenwich Village trying to unpack history to save the family residence. Bushell’s thoughtful, profluent books are available through Littoral Books.

On our SF-fantasy scene, Elizabeth Hand’s “Curious Toys,”  the Lincolnville author’s recent murder mystery, isn’t otherworldly but it takes you kaleidoscopically back to Chicago’s Riverview Amusement Park in 1915. “Anthropocene Rag” by the prolific writer of SF, fantasy and comic books Alex Irvine, of South Portland, explores one of the weirdest post-apocalypses on literary record. It goes on sale March 31. More to come here on this playful but disturbing book.


Also to come, in the way of poetry, will be some ruminations on “Three Things I Know Are True” by Betty Culley, of Mercer. This is an absorbing story told in verse (don’t panic — it’s exceptionally readable) about a teenage girl’s grapple with her brother’s horrible gun accident. It’s billed as a young adult book, but take my word for it, everybody’s got a stake here.

These are some entertaining, inside-the-house reading projects by Mainers. And just let me plug a couple of my favorite non-Maine authors. If you like murder mysteries and have somehow missed Michael Connelly’s books, then get on them. There are dozens of Lincoln Lawyer and Detective Harry Bosch books, in the tradition of Raymond Chandler. Not philosophically profound, but head-scratchingly well-written, clever and gripping. If you like history- and technology-oriented science fiction and have not encountered Neal Stephenson, then pick up “Cryptonomicon,” “Seveneves” or “Reamde” which has Connelly- and King-like forward motion. Stephenson is a master observer of computers and people, and funny. Bonnie urged me to mention Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” which she’s re-reading for the third or fourth time, and which is one of the first modern psychological thrillers — a classic that is actually a page-turner.

The nature-lovers can pick up Thoreau anytime and find transcendent nuggets. Bernd Heinrich has a new book coming out, “White Feathers.” I get knocked on the head by Annie Dillard’s explorations of the natural world; her long essay “Holy the Firm” is about pain, suffering, beauty, nature and the semblances of divinity. Her books could be, as it were, godsends to relieve the current pressure of reality.

Just some suggestions. Hang in there.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at universe@dwildepress.net.

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