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Inspiring books for hard times

Many of us are probably struggling with a case of cabin fever, stir-crazies, anxiety, or restlessness on a day-to-day basis these days. Parks and outdoor spaces are mostly closed, or subject to strict social distancing rules, and for those without balconies or patios, it's truly a challenge to be satisfied sitting inside all day.

Of course, having the option to sit inside, hopefully working from home while doing so, is an incredible privilege at this time, especially when so many essential workers have continued to show up at jobs that aren't providing adequate safety measures, hazard pay, or paid medical leave. Knowing this, I am thankful everyday for the option to shelter-in-place with my family and dogs. Sure, I miss happy hours with my friends in New Orleans' French Quarter, but for now, I'm trying to take advantage of this enforced shut-in to read my pants off.

I've always enjoyed a good memoir, whether it's an Old Hollywood star dishing gossip or a glimpse into a young girl's pioneer life in the Dakota Territories. Without any particular order, the following memoirs have allowed me to totally transport out of my own noisy head, and live another person's life for a few hours. Some of these reads are quite sobering, and possibly triggering for those who had a hard time growing up. Whatever you're going through, I hope a good book (or two or ten) can help all of us take our minds off our uncertain future, if only for a few precious moments. (I've included some choice excerpts to further entice you to check out one or all these books!)

collection of book memoirs stacked on wooden table© L. Reynolds

“The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Here's one for all ages. I spent most of my hot Texas summers reading Wilder's exhaustive journey of wagon-riding in the west and riding out very long, very terrible winters in De Smet, South Dakota. Clutching a clothesline in a blizzard so you don't get lost while staggering to the barn sounds pretty frightening, but Wilder does such an excellent job of turning adversity into adventure. “The Long Winter” is an epic tale of sheltering at home with very little food and no Internet or books — something I try to remind myself when I'm “bored” at home.

“Laura tried to listen but she felt stupid and numb. Pa's voice slid away into the ceaseless noises of the storm. She felt that the blizzard must stop before she could do anything, before she could even listen or think, but it would never stop. It had been blowing forever. She was tired. She was tired of the cold and the dark, tired of brown bread and potatoes, tired of twisting hay and grinding wheat, filling the stove and washing dishes and making beds and going to sleep and waking up.”

“Heavy: An American Memoir” by Kiese Laymon

This is a tough, but necessary read, for both teens and adults. It is indeed heavy, emotionally, but also an achingly poignant point-of-view from a young black man growing up in Jackson, Mississippi. Laymon's heaviness is both literal, his ever-present body weight struggles and dangerous dieting attempts, and metaphorical — his conflicted relationship with his mother, a brilliant academic, can be difficult to read. Having had the privilege of hearing him speak at a reading in Mississippi a year ago, I can attest he is truly the voice of a generation.

“Back then I wanted all my seasons to be Mississippi seasons, no matter how strange, hot, or terrifying. Now I felt something else. I didn’t want to float in, under, and around all the orange-red stars in our galaxy if our galaxy was Mississippi. I wanted to look at Mississippi from other stars and I didn’t ever want to come home again.”

“The Glass Castle: A Memoir” by Jeannette Walls

Walls is another author from an untraditional background, growing up in a vagabond family that wanders around the country before settling down in a depressing West Virginia mining town. Her father was an alcoholic who would disappear for days, but not before first snatching the family's grocery money. Eventually, Walls and her siblings were able to get out and escape the dysfunction, many of them leaving home before they had even turned 18. Through it all, Walls is somehow able to describe her childhood and her parents with brutal honesty, compassion and empathy.

“Those shining stars, he liked to point out, were one of the special treats for people like us who lived out in the wilderness. Rich city folks, he'd say, lived in fancy apartments, but their air was so polluted they couldn't even see the stars. We'd have to be out of our minds to want to trade places with any of them.”

“Boy” and “Going Solo” by Roald Dahl

My big brother and I were obsessed with Roald Dahl's fiction growing up. It was just the right amount of cheeky English humor, poking fun at adults, and sometimes rather macabre outcomes. When I had finished all the Matildas and The Witches and Giant Peaches, I turned to his two memoirs. Believe it or not, I think they're better than his fiction. Being an avid Anglophile, “Boy” is full of shocking stories about Dahl attending a gruesome and cruel boarding school, balanced with his candy exploits at the neighborhood sweet shop, and exploring his Norwegian heritage whilst playing in the freezing fjords. “Going Solo,” about his young adult years, is one adventure after another: from a three-year contract with Shell Company in East Africa to enlisting in the RAF at the outbreak of WWII, every anecdote is both bizarre and disarming.

“They had spent eight months and a great deal of money training me to fly and suddenly that was the end of it all. Nobody in Ismailia was going to teach me anything about air-to-air combat, and they were certainly not going to take time off to instruct me when I joined a busy operational squadron. There is no question that we were flung in at the deep end, totally unprepared for actual fighting in the air, and this, in my opinion, accounted for the very great losses of young pilots that we suffered out there. I myself survived only by the skin of my teeth.”

Anything by James Herriot

Looking back, my love of farm animals and the English countryside probably began with the great country veterinary memoirs of James Herriot. In my eight-year-old mind, there was nothing more thrilling than to be awakened by a shrill phone call in the middle of the night from a frantic farmer whose prized Red Coll Pow needed a hand (literally) for a difficult calving.

“Nature provides the perfect stimulant massage for a time like this and the little creature arched his back as the coarse papillae on the tongue dragged along his skin. Within a minute he was shaking his head and trying to sit up. I grinned. This was the bit I liked. The little miracle. I felt it was something that would never grow stale no matter how often I saw it.”

“Born Naked” by Farley Mowat

I just discovered this book while rifling through my dad's library, so I've only just started. As an avid outdoorsman and former Boy Scout leader, my father's favorite books are pretty much all Western and nature-centered books. There's also a strong Texas inclination, with enough Larry McMurtry to fill multiple shelves. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a Canadian classic hidden amongst the Edward Abbey. Upon further research, it seems that Mowat endured a fair bit of criticism for some of his tall tales — which is probably no surprise to any of our Canadian readers. Nevertheless, I'm a sucker for kids who love nature and animals more than most people, and I need to read more books that are considered in the Canadian literary canon.

“One grey January afternoon in 1933, Angus brought home momentous news. He had been offered the job of chief librarian in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a place so distant from the Ontario experience that most people, if they had heard of it at all, thought it was some sort of geographic joke. Despite the fact that there would be no increase in salary, and the Depression was deepeninly daily, Angus was tremendously excited. Helen did not share his enthusiasm.”

Tell us in the comments, what books are getting you through these strange times?

Delving deep into books, whether fiction or non-fiction, is one of the best ways to spend your time while indoors and isolated.