Thursday, July 2, 2020

Gloria Muñoz: On Crying in Two Languages

    I have been thinking a lot about my grandmother during these days of COVID, wondering how she would compare this pandemic to the one she experienced — and survived — in 1918. 
     We called her Nana. I never saw her cry, although she comforted me countless times when I broke down. If I was crying over a lost toy, she would say, “Never mind. There are plenty more where that came from.” If I was crying over a boy who me no mind, she would say, “Never mind. Remember, there are a lot of fish in the sea.” 
     Nana could be hard at times. When her sister’s sobbing over the death of her husband went on for too long for her taste, she told her sibling, “Buck up. Life is for the living.” She also reminded her that she didn’t like the man all that much.
     She wasn’t opposed to crying completely though. When my canary Tweetie Pie died (I was 10), we buried the bird together in the backyard. “He was a good bird,” she said in her soft, sing-song Swedish accent.  “I will miss that ting.” She didn’t cry but she didn’t stop my tears. “You will lose dear friends as I did my Papa,” she told me, referring to my grandfather. “But you have to take the hardships as they come.”
     Gloria Muñoz, a poet who teaches creative writing at Eckerd College, also was counseled by a wise abuela. Inspired by her grandmother’s stories about La Llorna, a weeping figure in Latin American folk tales, she wrote a prize-winning essay about the power of crying (she called it our secret superpower). Here’s my interview with her, which I wrote for Arts Coast Journal, the online journal of Creative Pinellas.
-                                 
   - Margo Hammond, Day 102 of Coronavirus Lockdown

Q. “Canta y No Llores”: Where does that title of your essay come from?
A. It’s part of the lyrics of a really popular song, a Mexican ranchera called “Cielito Lindo” by Mexican author Quirino Mendoza y Cortés, popularized in 1882. Canta y No Llores. Sing and Don’t Cry.
Q. But in your piece you cross out the No. Why? 
A. Because I want the essay to give women permission to cry.

I am talking with Gloria Muñoz by phone about her essay “Canta y No Llores” which won the Lumina Journal’s Multilingual Contest. Lumina is the literary journal of Sarah Lawrence University where Muñoz received her B.A. over a decade ago. The contest, honoring writing that features more than one language, was judged by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, a short story writer and novelist (Fruit of the Drunken Tree) who was born and raised in Colombia.

Muñoz, whose family also came from Colombia, teaches creative writing, the lyric essay, and a literary editing and publishing class at Eckerd College.  When the pandemic hit, she, like professors across the globe, transitioned to giving classes online. I reach her as she is finishing up the last week of school, grading final papers and comforting students, all while caring at home for her new baby, Luna, born less than a year ago.

“Canta y No Llores” (you can read the whole essay here) “skids between poetic, humorous Spanish and English that is straightforward and yet extraordinarily lucid, marking a collision course to what it means to be a strong woman who cries — privately,” Contreras wrote in awarding the Lumina Multilingual prize to Muñoz. “The world of grandmothers, mothers, and daughters is described intensely here, folding us into the question of how women carry pain and what there is to reinvent in the realm of our own private weeping.”

A poet, translator and filmmaker as well as a full-time professor, Muñoz was the subject of Creative Pinellas’ podcast series Arts In hosted by Barbara St. Clair. She’s also a contributor to the Arts Coast Journal.
We talk about her grandmother who died last year and La Llorona, the weeping folk figure who appears in many Latin American cultures. The two intertwine throughout her prize-winning essay.

“La Llorona dates back to before the 16th century,” says Muñoz. “There are different versions of her story. There are many names for her. The story is always morphing. The folktale changes depending on whom you ask. Everyone has a different take on her.  I like that. In the Colombian version she is seen as a bad mother who tries to inflict harm on her kids.”

So a scary story?

“Yes and no,” says Muñoz. “It’s kind of scary but also kind of matter of fact.”
Muñoz was nine years old when her abuela, who “never shied away from sharing haunting anecdotes with her grandchildren,” first told her about the Weeping Woman — “Déjame decirte que siempre andaba por allí, en las calles, sola, de noche, siempre llorando.”

In her grandmother's stories La Llorona was “sometimes an old friend, a nun, a witch, a family member, a woman from her barrio whom she felt sorry for, a veces joven, a veces una vieja. But mostly she was just a sad, sad woman left to cry and wander and cry in circles.”

In her essay, Muñoz compares La Llorona to a “crying sickness passed on like a virus” from woman to woman. “La Llorona was as ubiquitous as air,” she writes. “She could be inhaled and take over your body. She could be sneezed out and inhaled by another passerby… I knew a lot of sad women as a child and I sometimes worried that La Llorona was coming for me next.”

The image of sadness as a virus certainly is a metaphor that reverberates in the time of coronavirus. Except that Muñoz wrote the essay long before the appearance of COVID-19.

“I wrote that essay months and months ago,” says Muñoz. “I was shocked myself when I later read the final copies. But that always happens with writing. The writing itself is looking forward and back in time.”

Like most women of her generation, Muñoz’s grandmother criticized other women for passing on this “sadness” virus, admonishing them for crying. “My abuela was a very strong woman, very direct. She had a tough life,” says Muñoz. Alone in New York with no English, no work experience and no secure housing, Muñoz’s grandmother found a job in a Manhattan clothing factory to single-handedly support her children. She didn’t suffer fools — women needed to be resilient and strong women didn’t cry.

“Women are always subject to a double standard,” says Muñoz with a sigh. “Everything we do is projected on our gender. We are told to be good and pretty and nice. As a new mom I am now very cognizant of the words I use with my daughter. The expectation is that you don’t complain but also are pleasant. You don’t want to make other people upset. But there’s a power to sadness that is unspoken.”

Crying is our secret superpower.

The unspoken power of sadness is not unlike the power of anger and rage, says Muñoz. Something women are beginning to understand — like the anger unleashed among women after the last Presidential election.

“Any time women have power, it’s a threat to men,” Muñoz tells me.  “I learned this early on when I watched the women around me cry in their cars, in the dark, over a stovetop,” she writes in “Canta y No Llores.” Her father told her and her sister to be strong, to be “berracas” in life.

Berraca is the only Spanish word that Muñoz translates in “Canta y No Llores.”

Why didn’t she translate the other Spanish lines in the essay?

“I like going in and out of languages without too much explanation,” she says. “I trust the reader to sit with the writing, to look things up, to understand the meaning in context.”  After all, it’s what Spanish-speaking people (or any non-English speakers) have to do all the time in America, she points out. “People can do it the other way around. I trust the writing. I trust the reader.”

Muñoz herself moves easily between Spanish and English. “I balance the two.”
Spanish is the language she grew up in and it is the bridge she uses to communicate with her family — including family members still in Colombia.

“It is inherently the language that made me different for better or for worse. You love your language, your culture, but you are made fun of and feel like a fish out of water, so you move away from it, but eventually you move back to it,” she remembers. “I am thankful to my parents that they spoke Spanish. Period.”    

That is her abuela in the photograph at left  — a woman in a polka dot shirt, white pants and gold bangles dangling on her wrist, laughing next to a dapper man holding a violin. Her grandmother was in Mexico visiting her best friend who had moved back there and they went to listen to a mariachi band, her favorite music. “My grandmother didn’t speak English,” she says. “She built her world around a Spanish community. Imagine that.”

Is there a difference when a writer chooses one language over another?

“Yes, there is a difference,” says Muñoz. “My subconscious functions in Spanish. I make more metaphoric leaps in that language. Spanish feels very alive to me.” Perhaps it’s the sonic quality of the language, but imagery comes more quickly to her in Spanish. Also, she mostly dreams in Spanish. “I spoke Spanish first and I think you naturally dream in the language you were first taught.”

English, on the other hand, is the language she functions in, in a more practical way. “It’s the mortar of everything,” she says. “I love English. I find it to be a really unique language because ultimately at its roots, as with much in western culture, it is born from a multitude of other places. I find that interesting.”

Muñoz often writes something in one language and then translates it into the other to see what Spanish can do for English. “I do that a lot when I am stuck.”
Has she been more stuck than usual during coronavirus lockdown.
“There are lots of writers who have been in odd head spaces during this time,” says Munoz, presumably including herself.  “We are in the game of observation and during this sad time, you can’t help but deeply feel. It’s tough.”

Less production and more introspection, I guess. The great World War II and Vietnam novels, after all, were all written long after those conflicts ended.

Students have been especially knocked flat by this difficult time, Muñoz tells me. “I really feel bad for the seniors,” she says. “Eckerd is a dream school. I wish I had known about it when I was going to school. It’s a real community. It’s so beautiful as a setting. There’s a beach on campus. There’s a high sense of community and a closeness among everybody — faculty, students, staff members — and when we had to separate, students felt somewhat panicked.

“We are trying to create those bonds again — online. Students are sharing their own personal stories and sharing their work. Classes have created chat threads that they have with each other so they can share photos, funny things they find on the internet. Students adapt no matter what but they miss school terribly.”

To recreate that sense of community at Eckerd, Muñoz’s publishing class, which every year puts together the Eckerd Review, was determined to put out the 2020 version.

Instead of gathering together to hash out its contents and then launching copies of the magazine at a release party, however, they have compiled and published it online. A virtual launch party reading was held last week. A small print run is planned as well.
Has she cried during the coronavirus lockdown?

“Oh, my god, yes. Holy smokes, during this time I have had a lot of feelings. I wear my heart on my sleeve,” she admits. This society, she points out, does not deal with sadness and grief as well as some other countries. “We struggle with it. When we experience a loss, we’re given two weeks off and then you are expected to be back in the game.”

Now, even if we are not directly affected by the coronavirus, we feel empty and sad. “I have a job, my family’s healthy, but the whole world is grieving in various ways,” says Muñoz. ”It’s terrifying how badly our government has handled this. It’s very frightening. I think we are going to be in a mass state of mourning for a very long time.”

In “Canta y No Llores” Muñoz describes personal losses, but it feels like she is addressing all our losses in this time of masks, social distancing and isolation. When she lets La Llorona inside her, we let her inside as well. 

We need her superpower more than ever.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The friendship of "two strong women" during a pandemic

     In my last post on this blog -- which also was published in Arts Coast Journal under the heading "Feeling Isolated? With Books You Can Be Surrounded by People Again (Although Some of Them May Be Zombies) -- I mentioned in passing the story of my grandmother's experience during the Pandemic of 1918. I was recommending books -- scary titles that I thought might make us realize that others had gone through worse -- when I remembered the story my mother had told me about that flu epidemic (which was called "Spanish" although it didn't start in Spain at all). The story involved a ceramic plate she had in her china cabinet.  I remember her telling me that when she was five years old, her mother -- my Swedish grandmother -- had gone into the house of her Danish neighbors when they fell ill with the deadly flu, bringing them soup and caring for them. The Danish family had credited her with saving their lives and gave her the plate as a gesture of thanks.

     I got a lot of comments about that touching story and requests to see the ceramic plate (which is now in my own china cabinet). Well, as it turns out, I had remembered only half of the story (a reminder that memory can't be entirely trusted). When I sent my niece Sonja the piece, something jarred her own memory about that story and she found my mother's version of it in her copy of  Post Scripts: A Writing Life After 80. I was the one who had put together Post Scripts, a compilation of all the columns my mother had written for the St. Petersburg Times, so I was flabbergasted that I hadn't remembered that my mother had written down the story about the 1918 flu.

    Under the headline "Good Neighbors, Good Memories," my mother had told the story as a "good neighbor tale," not as a horrific story of a deadly pandemic, which may account for why it didn't register with me. But when I re-read the column, I realized how much she had included about that time that must have been terrifying for a five year old. Hospitals that were no longer able to care for patients. Medical personnel in short supply. churches and schools closed. Children ordered off the streets. She also filled in the other half of the story that had dropped totally from my memory (perhaps because it was too terrifying for me to contemplate?): After my grandmother's kindness toward her Danish neighbors, my grandmother herself had fallen ill with the deadly flu and the Danish family had returned the favor and nursed her back to health.

     My mother wrote this column nearly two decades ago about an event that occurred 102 years ago. Now, of course, those details she provided have an eerily familiar ring. Why wasn't I more shocked by my mother's story? Why did I only remember the part about the neighbors being sick? Because it happened so long ago? Because I didn't want to imagine that my grandmother could have been one of the 50 million people worldwide who died of the "Spanish" flu? Because I couldn't imagine such pandemic could ever happen again?

     Funny how a few weeks of quarantine can change your perspective. Now, I relate to my mother's tale of "two strong women" helping each other out during a pandemic in a totally different way. Now I look at that ceramic plate in my china cabinet with a far more grateful heart. Now I understand that what the Danish saying on that plate -- Herren voere med os alle  (The Lord be with us all) -- really means is this: "We're all in this together."

Here's my mother's story:

GOOD NEIGHBORS, GOOD MEMORIES
by LaVerne Hammond 
We hear a lot these days about neighbors feuding— over fences, pets and lawn ornaments—but what about the good things neighbors do? Too often those good deeds are forgotten; then something comes along to jog our memory. 
Maybe, as in my case, that something is a porcelain plate. 
The plate with fluting around the edge and laced with a red satin ribbon once stood in my mother’s china cabinet. I had always thought it came from my grandmother because of the Swedish inscription on it: Gud voere med os alle (God Be With Us All). I later learned that the inscription was Danish, not Swedish. 
My mother told me the story of her neighbor Greta Jenson, who had brought the plate from Denmark and had given it to her as a farewell gift. 
The year was 1918. It was the beginning of the influenza epidemic and by that autumn it had spread worldwide. The peaceful rhythm of our town was about to be greatly altered.

The hospitals were filled, beds and medical personnel were in short supply because of the war, and most influenza victims were being cared for in their homes. 
Women of the community were asked to help at the hospitals or in neighborhood homes. My mother helped by cooking soup and baking bread for the stricken households. 
Eric Jensen and I played in our back yard because all children were ordered off the streets. My brother, George, who was 17 months older than I, was in first grade, but when churches and schools were ordered closed, he sometimes joined us in the back yard. 
Mr. Jensen was among the first in our neighborhood to become ill. My mother helped Mrs. Jensen and her husband during the illness; he survived. 
Then, even though my mother was strong, she came down with the disease. 
My father stayed home from work to care for her, but Mrs. Jensen took over. She burned something in a copper urn to help my mother breathe more easily. When she left, she took her paraphernalia home but always left some smoldering in a small container near my mother’s bed. 
Mrs. Jensen also made soup for us. It was spicy, and she told us to eat it because it would kill the germs. My brother was convinced that the spiciness of her soup would kill anything. 
Mrs. Jensen mopped our floors daily and wiped the counters and all the doorknobs with a disinfectant. Our house smelled like a hospital corridor. 
My mother recovered. Our family always thought it was Mrs. Jensen’s magic potion that did the trick. My father was so grateful for her help during my mother’s illness that he arranged for Mr. Jensen to get a job at the auto plant. 
When we moved out of the neighborhood, Mrs. Jensen gave my mother the porcelain dish. 
Later Mr. Jensen developed tuberculosis and had to leave his job. He spent several months at the Willowbrook Sanitarium in Kenosha, Wis., where he died. Mrs. Jensen and Eric returned to Denmark to live with her parents. 
The porcelain plate now sits on an easel in my curio cabinet. The frayed red ribbon has been replaced by a pink one. It is a gentle reminder of the friendship between two strong women. With their generous and giving hearts, they both earned the title of “good neighbor.’’


Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Ready for Some Shock Therapy? Others in History Have Had It Far Worse

     A version of the piece below, on what books to read while we are all under "house arrest," is posted at Arts Coast Journal. Trigger warning: When I sent in this article to my editor Sheila Cowley, she texted: "Great article, and you're totally freaking me out with those book descriptions!"
      So if scary books don't soothe you, just look at the first book mentioned and move on!
      Stay calm, be kind and wash your damn hands.
                     
                                                                                           -- Margo Hammond 

     FEELING ISOLATED? WITH BOOKS, YOU CAN BE SURROUNDED BY PEOPLE AGAIN — ALTHOUGH SOME OF THEM MAY BE ZOMBIES

   "But what does it mean, the plague? It's life, that's all"
-- The Plague by Albert Camus
   

 Feeling isolated? Grab a book and be surrounded by people again.
    Readers usually think of themselves as naturals at social distancing. We are always looking for ways to avoid company and carve out personal space to lose ourselves in a book, to finish that next chapter.  Ironically though, books may be the ultimate social contact. “I don't feel so alone in my home,” National Endowment of the Arts Literary Arts Director Amy Stolls points out in an NEAarts podcast with producer Josephine Reed.  "I'm looking at my bookshelf. I'm amidst a lot of characters right here.”      
   But what should we read in this time of forced quarantine? Do we read books that comfort and lift up our spirits? Or do we read scary books on the theory that reading about the worst-case scenarios will help us see our situations as not so bad after all?
       Personally, I always have liked to mix up my reading — some fiction and non-fiction, some high brow and low brow — and during this time of confinement, it has been no different. 


     On the comforting side, every night I've been reading a passage from Attitudes of Gratitude: How to Give and Receive Joy Every Day of Your Life by M.J. Ryan (she of Random Acts of Kindness fame). It was a gift from my college roommate Mary Lou Fasko who was visiting Florida from Ohio just before we all went into lockdown. We always exchange books when we meet; I gave her Jenny Offill's Weather, a perfect novel for bibliophiles: It's narrated by a librarian.
     During the day, on the other hand, I find myself choosing gloomier titles. Books of non-fiction in particular that address past epidemics and how the world handled them. Books like The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump: John Snow and the Mystery of Cholera by Sandra Hempl and Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It by Gina Kolata, the senior medical writer for the New York Times.
     Hempl tells the empowering story of how one impoverished doctor -- working alone and without recognition -- solved the riddle of what was causing the deadly cholera epidemics killing millions. He simply mapped out the cases in his London neighborhood and figured out that they all led back to a common well (the Broad Street pump of the title) used for their drinking water. The cholera was in the water, not the air, as had been commonly believed.
     His discovery laid the groundwork for today’s scientific approach to pandemics. 
     Kolata’s story, about a pandemic that claimed 50 million lives worldwide, took place not that long ago. I wasn’t alive but my mother was — she was five. My grandmother’s actions during the epidemic are a source of family pride. When all the members of a Danish family next door came down with the flu, no one would enter their house except my grandmother who brought them soup, changed their bedsheets and scrubbed down their surroundings. They credited her with saving their lives. To thank her, the Danish mother gave my grandmother a pink scalloped dish engraved with the words God Bess You in Danish which now sits in a glass display cabinet in my home. 
      Books about other people’s problems and how they coped with them can put this time of social distancing in perspective, says Jason Razaian. An Iranian-American journalist, Rezaian learned how to make the best of a time in isolation the hard way: From 2014-2015, he was held for 544 days in Iran’s Evin Prison, including 49 in solitary confinement.  
     “After I was released from solitary confinement, I was allowed some small privileges. The one that I quickly realized was the most indispensable was access to books,” he explains in a Washington Post op ed entitled “I survived solitary confinement. You can survive self-isolating.”
      “Reading was a wonderful mental escape from my grim surroundings,” writes Rezaian. “It also connected me to the outside world. I found myself gravitating toward books about hardship. They demonstrated for me that my experience, no matter how difficult, was one that I could survive.”
         The book he read over and over was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn’s own memoir of imprisonment in Soviet prison camps. He said Solzhenitsyns memoir of his imprisonment in Soviet prison camps turned out to be “surprisingly soothing.” 
     “Suddenly I didn’t feel so sorry for myself,” says Razaian.
     Many of the lists I’ve seen recommending books to read during this time of coronavirus quarantine seem to align with this reasoning: The scarier books often outweigh the more comforting titles.
     Our of 30 titles picked by Time Magazine for its list of 30 BOoks and Series to Read While Social Distancing, nine are about pandemics and post-apocalyptic worlds and seven are about solitude. Under the books about solitude there is the story of a man who is condemned to live out his life in the confines of a hotel (The Gentleman in Moscow by Amos Towles) and another of a man who is left behind to die on Mars (The Martian by Andy Weir, which was made into a movie starring Matt Damon). And those are just the fictional ones.
     The true life tories on the list are far more harrowing. In Wave Sonali Deraniyagala writes about recovering from losing her entire family in a tsunami. In Wild (also made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon) Cheryl Strayed takes a 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail to confront her drug addiction, her broken marriage and her grief over her mother's death. In Solitary Albert Woodfox describes how he endured solitary confinement for four decades for a crime he says he didn't commit.
     The books that Time Magazine recommends under the heading Pandemics and Post-apocalyptic Worlds, novels that "take you inside imagined crises and the resilient characters who face them," aren't any cheerier: Justin Cronin's The Passage Trilogy (a post apocalyptic tale about a secret government project gone wrong); M.K. Jemisin's The Broken Earth (a dystopian fantasy); Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera (which is not so much about cholera as it is about the disease of lovesickness); Peng Sheperd's The Book of M (about a plague that steals people's shadows) and Colson Whitehead's Zone One (a zombie novel, says Time, that blends "literary fiction, humor and horror."

     Hitting even more close to home is Max Brooks' World War Z, a novel writen in 2006 (and made into an action movie starring Brad Pitt in 2013) about a virus that started in China and spread across the world transforming millions into zombies. Okay, so we probably won't be dealing with zombies this time around, but how about this for a prescient plot twist: The Chinese try to cover up the news of the virus and the U.S., in an election ear, is slow to respond to the danger. The book, not surprisingly, was banned in China, but in this telling it's not the virus or even the zombies that are the threats to civilization but the denial and panic they cause.
     Those who naturally enjoy reading (and watching movies) about chaos and mayhem (I'm looking at you Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games fans) will appreciate the list offered by The Portalist, a sci fi and fantasy site: 16 Alarming Books About Apocalyptic Plagues, promising that these “terrifyingly realistic books will make you want to live in a bubble—permanently.” They include novels by such classic sci fi and horror writers as Octavia Butler (Clay’s Ark), Mary Shelley (The Last Man), Jack London (The Scarlet Plague) and Michael Crichton (Andromeda Strain). Also on the list is The Stand, a novel by the king of horror Stephen King about a mutated strain of the flu that kills 99 percent of the population.
     The Stand, in fact, was so widely evoked when lockdowns began that King felt obliged to proclaim on Twitter that "No, coronavirus is NOT like THE STAND. It’s not anywhere near as serious. It's eminently survivable.” Last week, King suggested that people might want to read Chapter 8 though to learn how coronaviruses work, but reiterated that COVID-19 is not as lethal as the superflu described in the book.
     But sci fi and horror fans, it turns out, are not the only ones turning to dystopian titles in this time of “house arrest,” as a friend of mine dubs this social distancing. When PBS asked members of Now Read This, its NewsHour Book Club with the New York Times, what they would recommend to read during the quarantine, that more literary-minded crowd also were drawn to darker tales. 
     “Not all of the people who responded are finding solace in books that ask dark “what if” questions — some wrote they take comfort in the novels of Jane Austen, for example, writes Courtney Vinopal at pbs.org,
“But many recommended works of literature that resonate in the current moment.” 
   She lists eight PBS says were most frequently mentioned, one more terrifying than the next:

1. Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron (about the Black Death which killed 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia and peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351 with more than 20 million deaths there)
2. Albert Camus’ The Plague (about the bubonic plague)
3. Stephen King’s The Stand (here it is again)
4. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (set two decades after a Swine flu takes out 99 percent of the population)
5. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (set post-apocalypse, it was made into a movie in 2010 starring Viggo Mortensen)
6. J.M. Powell’s Bring Out Your Dead (an historic account of the 1793 outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia)
7. George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (a 1949 novel about an unknown disease the destroys civilization)
8. Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World (another historic look at that catastrophic pandemic).

     Another book frequently mentioned these days — a non-fiction title — is Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, about the Ebola outbreak that broke out on the African continent. Early Bird Books, an ebook promotion service, says the true-life-saga proves that truth is often more scarier than fiction. Published in 1994, it was the inspiration for the 1995 film “Outbreak” and a recent National Geographic miniseries.
      “The heroes of Preston’s tale are the doctors on the front lines and the scientists at the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, at Fort Detrick, in Maryland,” says The New Yorker archives editor Erin Overby. As Preston explains in The Hot Zone, the responsibility of U.S.A.M.R.I.I.D is to identify “methods for stopping a monster virus before it ignites an explosive chain of lethal transmission in the human race,” which is exactly what the institute did, sometimes at considerable cost to those working there.
      “Preston’s description of the extensive decontamination of one scientist, Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Jaax, after her glove was potentially breached during an examination of an Ebola-infected monkey, is one of the most spine-tingling passages I’ve ever read,” says Overby. 
      “As I write this to you in isolation,” she adds, “I remain haunted by Preston’s concluding words, written twenty-eight years ago, about the state of America’s public-health infrastructure: ‘We lack the forces to deal with a monster, at the very time when a monster could appear.’” 
     Another title that kept cropping up on the lists is Severance by Ling Ma. Here's Boston's Porter Square Books Dina Mardell's description for the Boston Globe's "20 books local experts recommend while you're social distancing.": "Darkly and dryly humorous, the novel is a zombie horror story, an office satire, a coming of age narrative, an immigrant saga, and a meditation on the peril and pleasures of nostalgia."

     Not every one is recommending books involving end times and zombies, of course. Mardell's pick, in fact, is somewhat of an outlier among the Globe picks which are heavy on entertaining and comfort books rather than scary ones. The list includes murder mysteries (Anthony Horowitz's Magpie Murders), self-help (Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times) and literary fiction (Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend). I was received a copy of the latter from my brilliant friend Lisa Wyant, an especially good choice at this time because it goes on for three more volumes. We have, after all, lots of time on our hands these days.

     Readers used to say, "Too many books, not enough time." Now as the headline in the Tampa Bay Times reads, it is "So much time, not enough books." In that article TBT books editor Colette Bancroft offers some great suggestions on how to obtain books in this time of isolation. Local bookstores are closed by many of them are taking online orders (my favorite in St. Petersburg is Tombolo Books). If you buy an audiobook at Libro.fm, you can designate your own favorite independent bookstore to receive part of the profit from your order. Local libraries are also closed down physically, but with a library car you can download books online from them. 
     And there's always our own home libraries -- and all those books we have set aside to read "someday when I have more time." Well, today is someday. One of the books on my shelf that I will be reading is Flowers & Locusts: My Childhood in Ethiopia by Martha Reid Paradis. Martha and I became close friends after her older sister Nancy, my best friend, died of cancer in 2008. Martha, a therapist who specializes in trauma, helped me through my grief at that time. I hope I helped her, too. My husband edited Flowers & Locusts so I know that it contains some traumatic scenes from the Paradis' time in an Ethiopia wracked by civil war, but as a book blurb says, Martha's memoir is "ultimately a work of gratitude to the author's family as the girl learns life lessons from her larger-than-life father, gracious southern mother and rebellious older sister."
    Another book about gratitude.
     "Make a commitment to list ten things every day you are grateful for," says M.J. Ryan in Attitudes of Gratitude, urging us to also include on our lists bad things that didn't happen to us. 
     On my gratitude list (right after "I'm not sick, just social distancing") is how grateful I am that I never got around to decluttering my book shelves. I now have the perfect excuse to put on hold all those promises I made to myself (and my housemate) to cut down on my book hoarding.
     For once, procrastination has paid off.