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Bookmark: When you’re stuck at home, books can transport you

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A couple of weeks ago, I spent a weekend in a small town in Sligo.

Obviously I didn’t physically travel there — COVID-19 is keeping me tied to my house most of the time, except for occasional trips to the grocery store. There will be no trips to Ireland, or anywhere, for a long time.

But when reading for pleasure these days, I travel: I am drawn to books with a strong sense of place, books that are set in cities or countries I love or would love to someday visit.

The book set in Sligo is called “Long Time No See,” by the late Irish novelist and poet Dermot Healy. Published in 2011, it’s told in first person by a teenage boy who has suffered a great trauma. He is waiting for the results of his Leaving Cert and spending his time doing odd jobs and working as a caregiver to his elderly uncle.

There is not much plot and not much action; the book is told primarily through dialogue. The reader figures out what is happening, and who the characters are, as the book unfolds.

I think I would have loved this book no matter when I read it, but it was particularly resonant now — it placed me thoroughly in this village, with its people, its grudges and affections, its history. The narrator is in pain, and without ever discussing it, the whole town is looking out for him.

Healy’s novel is steeped in something I think we all want fervently now — a sense of benevolence and community.

This year — with the pandemic, and the protests, and the clamor for change — is changing the way some of us read, or at least changing what we want to read.

Me, I’m looking for reassurance that the world is still a good and safe place.

Some people are using this crucial moment to delve into the difficult problems of race in America — problems that have existed forever, but have come to the forefront since the death of George Floyd while in police custody.

As Jenna Ross reported on these pages in June, requests at the local libraries and bookstores for books by people of color have gone way up. The titles topping the New York Times bestseller list are important books by writers of color, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Obama, Ibram X. Kendi and Bakari Sellers.

Locally, “A Good Time for the Truth,” a collection of essays by Minnesota writers of color, has been chosen as the second book for the One Book/ One Minnesota statewide reading club.

Meanwhile, some readers are seizing the long days to tackle huge books that have been on their to-be-read piles forever.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that people are picking up books such as Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and Robert Caro’s four-volume series on Lyndon Johnson.

“Americans have been so desperate for diversion they are reaching for fat literary works that taunted them from their bookshelves for years — the same ones many have falsely claimed at dinner parties to have read,” the Journal reported. (This definitely sounds like a Wall Street Journal kind of dinner party to me.)

So what about you? Has COVID, or maybe the combination of COVID, protests and lockdown affected your choice of reading matter? Are you reaching for books you never thought you’d read — or books you figured you’d never get around to?

Write us at books@startribune.com and tell us know what you’re reading, and why, to help you get through this complicated time. Please include your name and city, and I’ll include your thoughts in a future column.

And in the meantime, if you’re interested, Sligo is wonderful this time of year. Just ask Dermot Healy.

 Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. email: lhertzel@startribune.com

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