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Book Lists

Canadian Pandemic Books and the During-times

The pandemic isn't over, and the first waves of books written in real-time are already upon us. As we head into Year Four, here are the best-so-far accounts, according to me (and full disclosure: I also wrote a during-times book about the first 365 days - Until Further: A Year in Pandemic Time, University of Alberta Press, October 2022). Vivek Shraya's The Next Time There's a Pandemic is the short, to-the-point self-help guide you didn't know you needed. Shraya lays out the basics of mass emergency psychological first-ad with no cloying sentimental overlay of bright-siding. To be kept on hand and taken as needed. Ethan Lou was one of the first out of the gate with Field Notes, and his account of wandering from Beijing to Singapore to Germany in early 2020, as the case counts climbed and the borders closed, works as both a metaphor for the displacement and disorientation of this emerging state of chaos and as a reminder of the borderless nature of infection. Heather Patterson's Shadows and Light provides a stunning visual immersion in a pandemic which was often strangely invisible, with the images of the sick and dying occluded by layers of technologies and statistics. Patterson collected black-and-white photos and text of life and death in Calgary hospitals as the first and second years wore on. I used Lauren McKeown's Women of the Pandemic in an upper-year undergraduate class in 2022 with great success. McKeown's participants tell their stories of struggle, failure, and survival, always embedded in the webs of privilege, protection, danger, and care which continue to define individual experiences. This is public health at its best - the intersections between individual lives and the forces which enable some people to be healthy and constrain others. Saleema Nawaz' Songs for the End of the World is fiction, and it was written just before the pandemic - but is absolutely spot-on about the way it went down in real life. How did she know? This novel has a place on the same Canadian dystopian shelf as Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. Ed O'Loughlin's The Last Good Funeral of the Year is a reckoning with losses, catalyzed by the losses of the pandemic but spiraling out to consider other relationships, selves and dreams lost in the course of a life always in flux. O'Loughlin tells his story, through his connections with a group of friends and kin across the world, from Canada to Ireland to Rwanda. It blurs the line between essay and fiction, and as the title suggests, is often mordantly funny. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's The Future is Disabled should probably be paired with Vivek Shraya's book. Piepzna-Samarasinha points out that a lot of us are going to be living with a lot of disability thanks to covid, joining the many who already live disabled lives - and that this is not a tragedy, but could also be the beginning of new practices of liberation and care, drawing on the wisdom and joys of the disability-justice and crip-advocacy movements. Piepzna-Samarasinha is a poet as well as an activist as well as a theorist, and their work is both exuberant and pragmatic. And Kit Dobson's Field Notes on Listening isn't strictly speaking a during-times book - the covid pandemic is not front and centre - but the experiences of slowdown, shutdown and lockdown run through his accounts of learning how to be in a place, how to attend to sounds and stories which might otherwise be dissolved into the noise of daily non-pandemic life.

by Amy Kaler