Books for the Global Pandemic

Not books about the global pandemic, mind you. God forbid. Rather, books to get you through the unexpectedly substantial amounts of free time that some of us are experiencing lately.

Here’s what I’ve been reading recently.


Life in the Garden, by Penelope Lively. Lively is a noted British writer and an avid gardener. Life in the Garden is a collection of essays that draw on her immersion in both literature and gardening. The point of this book is the prose – there is no luscious garden photography. The writing is gentle, sometimes with a bit of wry humor, at other times sharply perceptive.

She writes about how gardens themselves are characters of a kind in literature as diverse as The Secret Garden and Paradise Lost. She discusses influential garden writers, their contributions and limitations.

My favorite essays deal with gardening as fashion statement and as marker of social status (sad to say, my love of masses of brightly colored flowers are considered terribly unsophisticated by many). She writes about her own gardening life and her mother’s – and gardeners of all kinds, from the proprietors of grand estates to those growing cabbages and peas in sidetrack allotments.



Planting: A New Perspective, by Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf. This is a book I read a few years ago, but I read it again just now because I couldn’t remember hardly anything from reading it the first time. It is geared primarily to professionals working with gardens on a scale far beyond what is available to the average homeowner.

However, there are gorgeous pictures of gardens designed by Oudolf in Europe and North America. I’m not embarrassed to admit I can spend a lot of time swooning over such photos. There is a useful discussion of plant combinations. In addition, this book helps the reader to consider plants systematically in their many dimensions – maintenance requirements, longevity and aggressiveness, structure and color, stars and supporting cast.

Those of us who are not professional garden designers can get at least a taste of how all those qualities can be woven together to create sustainable beauty in the garden.

Anna Pavord

Bulb, by Anna Pavord. This is a fun book – if you love bulbs, that is. It’s 500 pages of delicious photographs and the author’s practical and opinionated prose. Allium christophii, for example, “looks like a geodesic dome … extremely showy … still attractive at the end of summer.” The leaves, however, “are a disaster”, and actually A. schubertii is “much more interesting”.

The author dispenses succinct advice on cultivation and companion plants. I’ve gotten as far as Cautleya, and have already learned a good deal. For example, I now know what a Cardiocrinum looks like, and that Anemone coronaria ‘Mr. Fokker’ is sadly not hardy in my garden.

This is really a reference book, not something you plow through for hours at a time. However, it’s an excellent book to pick up every day in order to read about a particular genus or two.

Acqua Alta, by Donna Leon. This is the latest detective series that Judy and I have discovered. The hero investigates cases of all kinds in Venice, Italy. The author seems convincingly familiar with the setting and the sorts of people who live there. This particular book tells of a case from the world of stolen antiquities. Very diverting, as long as you don’t think about what’s going on in that country at the moment.

What have you been reading lately?


56 Comments on “Books for the Global Pandemic”

  1. Thanks for those recommendations, I like Penelope Lively’s books and from your review I would like this one….about gardening.. I don’t know how I missed it!
    Paul would like any thriller set in Venice, so I’ll keep that one in mind too.
    Happy Reading

  2. I am working my way through the Wolf Hall trilogy by Hilary Mantel, our local author. The first book in the series was made into a TV series, set in the time of Henry V111 which I enjoyed, so fortunately I had sent off for the books before I had to self isolate. I have also just finished The Glass Blowers by Daphne du Maurier which is a fictional account of her ancestors set in the time of the French Revolution.
    Every moment is spent in the garden weeding as long as the weather is nice, I only get to read when my back can’t take any more!

  3. “The Piano Shop on the Left Bank” is my current meditation. For me, an especially slow read because I have to stop frequently to think about what he writes. I always have “Calvin and Hobbes” or Pogo bedside for an end-of-day read because they restore order to my universe, at least temporarily.

  4. Thanks for your list of good garden books! Our library is closed for the duration so I’ll have to wait for most of them but I’ll order some from my favorite local bookstores.-( I want them to survive the Pandemic closure)
    I love the Donna Leon series, and instantly check them out as soon as they appear on the New Books shelf! Another series I like is Andrea Camilleri’s,(The Shape of Water, The Wings of the Sphinx, and many more) set in Sicily.
    Recently I read and enjoyed Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. It’s based on the true story of Eyam, a village in England that self-quarantined when the Black Death struck. Richly detailed and inspiring. (At the time I read it, Covid-19 was still a world away.)

    It’s too cold and wet here to uncover the garden. I’m waiting until milder weather so I don’t kill any beneficial insects by overzealous tidying.

  5. Hooray, new books for my shelf! They all sound like good additions.
    As to your masses of color, they are simply wonderful. Of course, at one time masses of color were The Thing, and considered the very height of sophistication.

  6. Looks like a captivating selection. I’m reading “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Thought it would be a sentimental story of a girlhood at the turn of the 1900s. Boy oh boy was I ever wrong. Nothing sentimental about this story. Instead, sharp, shrewd book about poverty and alcoholism.

  7. Jason, Thanks for telling me about Penelope Lively; this is just the kind of garden book I love most. My library has it, but, of course, the library is closed. However, it is also available as an e-book, and it sounds like it would be well worth the $9. I am reading so many things: murder mysteries, in which everything falls neatly into place at the end, are always soothing in times of chaos, and I’ve got the next installment of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series lined up for the weekend. I’m also reading Joy Loverde’s Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old? since the current need for social distancing has made me acutely aware of the challenges of aging alone.

  8. Elizabeth Peters, Daniel Silva, Anne Perry – just a few of the many, many authors I have enjoyed. Thanks for suggesting Donna Leon. I’ll give her a try (depending on what the digital library has available). Reading is a mainstay as I haven’t had a tv for 10+ years. Recently re-read the Little House on the Prairie series for the refreshing innocence of it.The Essential Earthman by Henry Mitchell is an oldie but a timeless delight to any gardener. Happy reading and gardening!

  9. Hello Jason, I barely have any time at the moment without having to add reading material! It’ peak time for garden jobs so I’m always outside as it’s been sunny and dry over the last week, allowing me lots of time to catch-up, in between working from home.

  10. The garden books look beautiful and very interesting.
    You surely know that Donna Leon lived in Venice for many, many years (I think nowadays she lives in Switzerland). I enjoy her books because of the good food and warm family&friends feeling even though her views about Italy sometimes irritate me. 🙂
    I’m reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda – for the reading challenge. 🙂

    • I also enjoy the descriptions of meals and family relationships in Leon’s books. I did notice that she has a very dark view of Italian society – in her portrait it is marked chiefly by corruption and inefficiency. I wondered how accurate that was.

  11. Thanks for sharing, Jason. I have a German version of the Piet Oudolf book and it seems slightly different to the original but is wonderful for browsing for ideas. I have to admit not reading it from cover to cover though… yet! And I can recommend a book I read years ago by Anna Pavord called The Naming of Names. I am currently browsing a German book about Karl Foerster and his garden in Potsdam. 😃 I think Piet Oudolf and Karl Foerster are my two favourite plantsmen/garden designers ever. 😃

  12. Penelope Lively’s book is terrific. She writes beautifully but more, she writes thoughtfully about gardens and gardening. Other good garden-related books I’ve enjoyed recently include the novel The Overstory, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization by Robert Rogue Harrison and Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape, by Lauret Savoy. Not latter two are not typical gardening books but are really thought-provoking and informative takes on our world, broadly defined.

  13. I suoppse The Plague by Camus or Boswell’s Journal of the Plague Year won’t be anyone’s list. I l have the Penelope Lively book and Anna Pavord is a delight, I have heard her speak a couple of times. I think a little light relief is what we need right now. ‘Radical Prunings’ by Bonnie Thomas Abbott is very funny. And for lyrical gardening writing, ‘A Gentle Plea for Chaos’ by Miriam Osler is a delight.

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