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Big reads for uncertain times

In these unsettling times, my reader friends tell me they’re reaching for fun or light or soothing reads. A comfort, for me, is a big read. Below, a few that have taken me far far away from CNN, my Facebook feed, the daily papers.

I loved C.E. Morgan’s All the Living and looked forward to a thick book from such a talented writer. Wowza! The Sport of Kings clocks in at 545 pages and covers — beautifully, lyrically — slavery, white supremacy, incest, racism, poverty, disease, ambition, horse breeding and racing. It’s a page turner; I never lost interest. A great American novel or an overwrought Gothic tale? I can’t decide.

I needed to get out of the American South, so I picked up Henry Green’s Caught, first published (and censored) in 1943, recently reissued by New York Review of Books. It’s set during the Blitz, and centers on the men in a fire brigade. Why all the fuss? Class conflicts, excessive drinking, boredom, affairs, an incestuous rape, mental illness, kidnapping. Periodically I turned back to James Wood’s introduction: why am I reading this? Because Green captured the everyday speech of the time and, instead of celebrating war, shows us the awful toll it takes on a man and his marriage.

Back to contemporary U.S. I brought Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth with me when I traveled to D.C. for the Women’s March. Every night I tried to read a few pages; nope! Tired, restless, sharing a room with three friends. On the plane ride home I finally got into the book, a sad funny read about two families joined by divorce. It’s narrated by Franny Keating, whose beautiful mother runs off with a lawyer. The six children joined by this marriage are the story of this novel. Nothing happens, everything happens. A satisfying read.

T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts is a doorstopper (507 pages) that kept me engaged, though I wasn’t sure why. It concerns the scientists who seal themselves off from the outside world and the people who monitor their survival; no one is likable. Again, why keep reading? Well, Boyle never lets me down. I knew there was some point to this story and once found, I was hooked. Motherhood is selfless, right? Not inside the dome.

I’m half way through Joyce Carol Oates’ A Book of American Martyrs: A Novel (752 pages!) It’s about an assassin for Jesus, the abortion doctor he slays and the families they leave behind. Achingly sad, an important read. I’ll let you know.

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