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12 Stories and Poetry Collections You Should Read During Lockdown

20 June 20 words: Kate Hewett

Our Literature Editor runs down some of the books that have kept her busy during these times...

During these challenging times, a book can help transport your mind somewhere else, even if it is just for a short while. Although in-person shopping has been unavailable, plenty of bookshops have been offering a delivery service to make sure Nottingham’s readers keep their reading lists topped up. 

Having been unable to find Glennon Doyle’s new book Untamed in any of the major online retailers, I got in touch with the good people at Five Leaves Bookshop, who were able to get hold of a copy from their supplier and post it out. It’s a great way to support Nottingham’s independent community as well as getting a book that, without their help, I wouldn’t have been able to get hold of. It’s next up on my reading list, and I expect it to be an honest, reflective and organised memoir of Doyle’s experiences of discontentment, womanhood, love and marriage. 

My first non-fiction recommendation is Tova Leigh’s delightful F*cked at 40. Although not the longest read on my list, Leigh’s narrator is a semi-fictionalised version of her own voice, and is extremely charming and funny. It’s a lovely, daring and candid book unafraid to discuss sex, motherhood and reclaiming the female body. 

I also enjoyed reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. The writer led a turbulent life for several years following her mother’s sudden illness and death, and Wild tells the story of a woman who fights her way back from the brink of addiction and misery through embarking on an ambitious journey. Taking place as she hikes the famous Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed’s story is one of power, enlightenment and strength. 

My final non-fiction recommendation isn’t necessarily a specific book, but rather an entire genre. With lockdown providing many of us the opportunity to try our hand at cooking and baking, cookbooks have come in far more useful than ever before. The list is pretty endless, but books from the likes of Nigella Lawson or Tom Kerridge are filled with personal anecdotes and touches from the author. The interconnection of the individual and the collective societies’ connection to food is evident in both the past and the present, and the contemporary cookbook is dual purpose: one to provide recipes, and the other to connect people together through cooking and eating. 

My next pick sits somewhere between fiction and non-fiction: The Apology by V (the writer formerly known as Eve Ensler). It takes the form of a letter of apology, as the title suggests, written to V from the abusive father she grew up with. Although based on real events, Ensler never actually received an apology from her father before his death and therefore wrote her own. This work is a careful and calculated act of both truth-telling and fictionalising an inner world for the father that, after his death, will remain forever unknown. 

Next up is Evelyn Lau’s short story collection Choose Me. Lau, who served as Vancouver’s poet laureate between 2011-14, has collected a set of emotionally-driven and endlessly fascinating shorts covering a range of complex themes, including dysfunction and the liminal space between truth and lies. I’ve read this collection several times and have, without fail, found a different appreciation for Lau’s evident talent and craft, as well as the stories themselves, each time. 

Jessie Burton’s ​The Confession ​is a mystery and a half. This novel was intricately set out from the start, as the reader moves through the web Burton has laid out for them there is no option than to be sucked into the narrative. Set over two time periods – modern-day England and London/California in 1980 – the story tracks Rose Simmons on her quest to find her estranged mother, while simultaneously following her mother before Rose’s birth. The two stories are read side-by-side before coming together in an eventful ending. 

My final fiction recommendation is Michael J. Sullivan’s multi-part fantasy series Legends of the First Empire, which is a prequel to the author’s other series, all set in the universe of Elan. The first book in the series, The Age of Myth, is a fun and vibrant adventure of a poor young man known as the Godkiller and his unlikely sidekick. Sullivan’s fantasy universe is rich in history with its own compelling personality, featuring magic, sword fights and, on occasion, a talking tree. Both this and the other books in the Elan universe are perfect to read while sipping a drink outside or sitting by a window, disappearing to another world. 

If you’re more in the mood for some poetry, my next recommendation is The Ground Aslant, edited by Harriet Tarlo. This anthology is an exciting collection of radical landscape poems skillfully engaging with the relationship between people, nature and the changing natural landscape. In addition to the poems, Tarlo writes an interesting introduction which acts as a great way into both the anthology and the radical landscape poetry.

Frank O’Hara’s poetry has stood the test of time after his death in the mid-sixties, and he’s gained more recognition for this work posthumously. A firm favourite that can be found in The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara ​is Having a Coke With You. As a well-known face in the New York art scene of the fifties and early sixties, this upbeat poem combines O’Hara’s knowledge garnered from being an art critic with his skill as a poet. It’s clear to see why his work is still widely read internationally. 

My third poetry recommendation is ​Denise Riley, Selected Poems. Known for her ability to weave together philosophy, history, feminism, and lyrics, I’ve always found that Riley’s poems sit with you long after the book has been returned to the shelf. A reading of her work requires you to think and let yourself move where the poems move. 

My final recommendation is Spells edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás. Another anthology that’s focussed on contemporary occult poetry, this collection is filled with punchy poems that dare to tackle themes of justice, selfhood and history with a healthy dose of witchery at its heart. It's fantastic either as a first step or a continuation of your journey into occult poetry.