Last week’s column on cooking inspired more than the usual number of emails. About half included recipe suggestions* but an equal number were along the lines of, “Really, Cath? Cookbooks? Give me something real to put between my teeth, like a novel to help me deal with today.”
Well, you asked: From Daniel Defoe to Sophocles, and Camus to Steven King, a lot of the guys in the Canon have written big books about the plague. Still, I find myself returning to these three titles over and over again:
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, is a time-travel adventure that moves back and forth between 1348 (you know, that plague…) and an Oxford in the very near future. Part social commentary, part love story, it is incredibly satisfying and prescient and–no spoilers, I promise–the ending is perfect. (I also loved the picaresque companion to this novel To Say Nothing of the Dog: same Oxford lab, but the scientist lands in a steam-punk Victorian England—the clothes are good.)
Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish is on my short-list of best books in the library, because everyone I have handed it to has come back asking for another just like it. The story, told in alternating narratives by a young female scribe in the 1660s (that plague…) and a nearly-retired 21st century scholar who discovers her papers, is an evocative reminder that no matter how short our lives, the work we do lives on. Another perfect ending.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai also moves through time, from Chicago in the 1980s to Paris in 2015, following the lives of a group of friends irrevocably shaped by the AIDS epidemic. Our plague, our era, or at least mine.
Structurally, each of these books uses dual narratives to open a window into history, and in so doing clearly establishes a time before, and a time after. Not necessarily “happy ever after,” but still, they offer the promise that someday this will be behind us.
We won’t go back; we can’t–but we will move forward, however much Sag Harbor is changed. At John Jermain, we don’t know when we’ll be allowed to open—but my colleagues and I are already discussing the “how” of it. I study Executive Orders, and the American Library Association’s advice, and the Institute for Libraries and Museum Services studies on how long Covid-19 lasts on surfaces. And I reread novels, because that is where I find the strength to move forward into the unknown. Makkai leaves her characters in an art gallery in 2015, watching a grainy film taken in 1985, “…inches from each other, but not touching. Around them a silence as big as a city. Then the whole film looped again. There they all stood…waiting for everything to begin.”
**Thanks to everyone who sent me recipes last week! I’m not quite at “Mother Hubbard” status; even so, I was only able to actually make one dish, which, coincidently came from Ray Pepi, president of Building Conservation Associates, the preservation consultants for the restoration of JJML (talk about a before and after). He provided general instructions for an ersatz risotto that my husband dubbed Fauxsotto: Use any rice, any length, because who has arborio. Use a mix of turmeric and paprika, because who has saffron. And use a bullion cube, because who has homemade chicken stock. I didn’t even have the bullion cube, but used the parmesan rinds from my freezer to make stock. Add some butter or olive oil (whatever!). Ray says to just leave it all to simmer till done—no need for all that stirring. The finished dish was perfect with an open book on the side.
Catherine Creedon, Director firstname.lastname@example.org