The oddly quiet period in very late December and early January, between Christmas and the day when schools start up again, has always felt like a kind of lockdown to me. At least since I started teaching and stopped going to New Year’s parties. Like a self-imposed seasonal lockdown, before we even knew what real lockdown felt like.

In the past, even if Hubby and I drove home to spend Christmas with my family, we’d come back a day or two after Christmas. That’s because I usually had a massive pile of final student projects to mark waiting on my desk, and my plan was to have them finished before classes started again. So the last week of my “holidays” would be spent with my head down marking for a few hours each day. That way the last three weeks of classes in January before exams started could be slightly more sane. And I did not have to face marking exams with a depressingly large pile of term work still to finish. It was self-preservation, really. A quiet week of work before the noisy real work started when the kids returned to class.

Since I retired from teaching, the week after Christmas and before the resumption of school still feels like a kind of self-imposed lockdown. A seasonal lockdown. A quiet time. Except without the marking. Instead consisting of days by the fire, reading what I want to read and not what I have to read, and skiing if we’re lucky enough to have had snow. This year there has been no snow for skiing. But lots of time in front of the fire with a book.

And one book that I’ve had waiting for me, waiting for this quiet contemplative week when I could give it my full attention, is the latest Elizabeth Strout novel, Lucy By the Sea. I am so glad I waited to read this. It is a wonderful book.

Lockdown weather this year.

Elizabeth Strout is one of my favourite writers. I adore her characters with their quirks and their opinions. I love her rambling plots, which move back and forth in time, lurching forward and then doubling back upon themselves. As if Strout herself is sitting in a rocking chair, hands cupped around a mug of tea, trying to explain the story she wants to tell, and has just said, “No wait. Let me go back.” I love, love that. But I think, most of all, I love Strout’s simple but never simplistic prose. Laura Miller writing in The New Yorker refers to “the Shaker plainness of Strout’s prose.” I love that analogy. You can read Miller’s review of Lucy By the Sea here, if you’re interested.

Lucy By the Sea is all about Lucy Barton and her ex-husband William and their flight from New York at the beginning of the pandemic. When the rest of his family are barely aware of the dangers of Covid, William, the scientist, senses that things are bad -very bad. He convinces Lucy to go with him to a house he has rented in Maine. And there they ride out the worst of the next year and a bit. From their house by the sea they vicariously watch New York implode, witness the unrest that followed the death of George Floyd, and the violence of the January 6 assault on Capitol Hill.

But the historical and political events happen off stage. This is a book about domesticity… during lockdown. The plot of the book happens mostly at home. And, as in all the books in this series, much of it happens in Lucy’s head. She tries to make sense of life: her life, and William’s life, and the lives of their children and friends.

As their isolation story unfolds, William takes over the cooking. Lucy, having grown up in extreme poverty, doesn’t really understand food, doesn’t care much about good food. William tries new and different recipes each night. They walk. Sometimes they walk with friends. Always masked. Lucy describes other residents in the small Maine town, some of them resent the incomers from New York, some of them refuse to wear masks, or wear them improperly.

Lucy and William meet up with friends at a local takeout, eating at picnic tables, always outside. They travel to Connecticut where their daughters are living during lockdown. They sit on sun-loungers outside, masked, as William tries to convince their son-in-law’s father and mother, who have just flown in from Florida to NOT expose the children to possible infection. Eventually the reluctant in-laws, scoffing about their “Florida germs”, decamp to a hotel. Where it transpires that they both have covid.

And throughout, Lucy muses about life. The nature of empathy. Class in America. Racism. Friendship. Love. She feels empathy for those who are marginalized. She understands class, having been raised in the American underclass, having herself escaped the poverty of her childhood by winning a scholarship to university and then getting an education. But the isolation of lockdown makes her feel as if events in her life and in the world are not real. That maybe she is losing her grip. She can’t work. Or even read, for a time. What is happening to her? To her world?

As I read this novel I went back and read my own pandemic writings on the blog, my so-called “isolation diaries.” Strout perfectly captures what so many of us experienced. Not the trauma of those who worked on the front-lines during covid. But the helplessness of those of us who were told to simply stay home. The boredom and the loneliness, alternating with the energetic embarking on small projects, garden structures, new recipes, and all the time walking, walking, walking. The sometimes overwhelming fear for loved ones. The occasional wobbly weekend. And the sense of a world frozen in some ways, and careening out of control in others.

I’m so glad I waited until my own self-imposed seasonal lockdown to read Elizabeth Strout’s new book. If you like quietly wonderful, not shouty nor preachy books, you’ll love Lucy By the Sea. It’s a perfect book to read in January when the new year hasn’t had time to pick up a head of steam yet. When we’re all recovering from the restless, relentlessly festive season. When it’s time to light the fire, pour a nice hot cup of tea, and partake in a little quiet contemplation.

Have a look at this little video I saw on Tick Tock. @shifferdiane really gets January.

A couple of readers have asked if I have a complete list of books which I’ve reviewed or recommended on the blog. I’m sorry to say I have not. But I spent some time this week re-reading my blog posts from the past year and pulling out the books I suggested. Then I saw in my history on my library account that I had a whole bunch of books which Hubby and I both read but which never made it to the blog, for whatever reason.

I’ve listed below the titles to as many of the books I’ve read and loved this year as I can remember. And I’ve included links to the books if you want to purchase them. If I can figure out how to add another page to my blog and make it link up to the “categories” and all that technical stuff, I plan to start a comprehensive list going forward. Stay tuned.

Well, that’s it for me my literary friends. I must go and try to finish the assigned book for my book club meeting tomorrow. I know, I know… I never get my homework done on time anymore. I’d be interested if anyone out there has read any of the “pandemic books” that have come out in the past year or so. I know there are several. One reviewer was quite scathing about some of them. Not Strout’s book, though. He loved that one.

Here is the list of the books I read and talked about on the blog in the past year or so.

Here is a further list of books I read and loved and which did not (for whatever reason) make it into a blog post.

  • Elly Griffiths The Locked Room and The Night Hawks. Or any of the Ruth Galloway series.
  • Thomas King Deep House. Canadian/American mystery series with wonderful indigenous characters. I’ve waxed lyrical about King before on the blog before in this post.
  • Marian Keyes The Break and Grown Ups. Even when tragedy strikes, Irish families are a hoot. And Keyes is a wonderful writer.
  • Anthony Horowitz The Word Is Murder, A Line to Kill, The Sentence Is Death, and The Twist of a Knife. Hubby read these and I listened to them. Cool plot device, well written, often darkly funny. I love how the author is a character in the books.
  • C.J. Sansom Dissolution, Dark Fire, and Sovereign. Hubby and I are both working our way through the Matthew Shardlake /Tudor mystery series, historical fiction set during the time of King Henry VIII.
  • Victoria Abbott the Jordan Bingham mystery series. Once again, Hubby read and I listened. These so-called “book collector mysteries” are a light, fun read with lots of reference to vintage fashion and golden age mystery writers. What’s not to love?

P.S. All the book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link, I will earn a small commission which helps to pay for the blog.


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From the archives


Pandemic Diary Week 52

My pandemic diary for week 52. Can you believe it's been almost a full year since we started this social isolation thing?

Fessing Up About Slow Fashion

I'm taking wardrobe inventory this week. Looking at what I bought in 2019, and assessing how I'm doing in my efforts to be a more ethical shopper.

Recalled to Life: Reflections on September

I always feel recalled to life in September. As if real life has been stalled all summer. And cooler weather kicks life back into gear again.

61 thoughts on “On Books & Seasonal Lockdown”

  1. Love, love, love Elizabeth Strout. I also like the description of her writing,
    “the Shaker plainness of Strout’s prose”. It is so perfect.

    Enjoy this snowless few days reading by the fire. These days are a treasure.

  2. Wonderful post, your descriptions and thoughts encourage me to more fully embrace the gift of reading and I loved the TikTok January video!

  3. I’m so looking forward to reading Lucy By The Sea . I love her books & want to know the next chapter after Oh William . Elizabeth Strout is one of those writers with a great deal of wisdom .
    Looking through your list , I like Anthony Horowitz too . I enjoyed the audio book of The Magpie Murders & am half way through reading The Word Is Murder . It is intriguing when he writes semi autobiographically . I also listened to an audio book of short stories called Marple , where various modern crime writers try their hand at Miss Marple . That was good . Two other authors I’ve enjoyed are J Courtney Sullivan ( US modern fiction ) & Elizabeth Gilbert for The Signature Of All things , a sweeping historical saga similar to Isabel Allende . Thanks for compiling your list . I shall investigate the others . Meanwhile I’m on the library list for the latest Richard Osman , four readers away & twenty waiting after me . Fortunately I’m not short of anything to read .

    1. Thank you Wendy,for recommendating Marple stories.I was contemplating to buy the book,and didn’t at the and- now am looking forward to it

    2. I love the narrator of the Anthony Horowitz books. I’ve switched to only listening to them.A good friend has just finished the series and she told me that there is a TV series in the works. Hope, hope, hope they don’t mess up the casting. I’m going to look for that Marple audio book. Thanks for the suggestion. 🙂

  4. Hi Sue,
    You perfectly describe the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day that affords me a blessed respite from working at the university. My priority has always been to read and relax. I especially appreciate your literary recommendations and have recently fallen in love with the books written by Dorothy Whipple and Anita Brookner!

  5. I’m looking forward to Lucy by the Sea, as I’ve read the other three Lucy Barton books. I love Strout’s writing! I think of it as effortless complexity. She captures the breadth of being human with sure, swift strokes.
    I recently finished the Wolf Hall trilogy, and what a ride that was! The glorious thing about good historical fiction is that you can know from page one what fate awaits a character and still sob like a gobsmacked baby when it happens. I can’t thank you enough for leading me to Mantel!

    1. Effortless complexity is a good way to describe Strout’s plotting and writing style. Lucy By the Sea would make a nice counterpoint to the Mantel trilogy. Thanks for letting me know you liked my recommendation. 🙂

  6. We have the same taste in books. Read nearly all on your list in the last few years and all of Barbara Pym many years ago. Will order Elizabeth Strout. Thanks for the recommendations!

  7. Sue,this was such a wonderful review,it was a joy to read (Lucy … is on my list for a while,I’ve read Oh,William not so long ago,and love all of her books)
    Looking forward to read Victoria Abott,her books  seem just like a comfort read mystery books I love(and I have only a couple of Sally Spencer’s Woodend series to go. I’ve read Monica series first-there is a new and last one of her series out ,”The Final Beat of the Drum” and I’ve read it just after NY). Looking forward to new Peter Lovesay’s Showstopper as well (in a couple of days)
    I’ve started with Antony Horowitz books a couple of weeks ago,luckily there are a lot of them waiting….
    Janice Hallett was a new author for me and her The Appeal is witty,modern and with a different approach (told in emails-where a lot can be revealed and ,even more,concealed) to whodunnit
    I’ve read new Vera, The Rising Tide, it was like meating an old friend again,a book spa,it is wonderful when one can thoroughly enjoy a book 
    I liked Robert Galbraight’s The Ink Black Heart much more than her previous book,all of (as listed on Kindle) it’s 1272 pages
    John Banville’s Snow,beautifully written mystery,where investigation reveals dark secrets  although it begins Cluedo-like,with a parish priest found dead in the library of the aristocratic family. The year is 1957 and the country is Ireland
    Still in the snow,atmosheric,chilly (even with a couple of avalanches)-Sarah Pearse’s debut novel The Sanatorium is an excellent written mystery and I’m looking forward to her second one
    I love Henning Mankell,so his The Return of the Dancing Master was no exception
    Coleen Cambridge’s Trace of Poison was a follow up of her first mystery
    I’ve read Richard Osman The Bullet ,too,love this series

    1. You & I seem to have our own little book club D . I really liked The Appeal & Snow plus looking forward to Showstopper & Ink Black Heart . I agree the previous one wasn’t great . I think you’ll enjoy Marple . Short stories aren’t for everyone but sometimes they suit my mood .
      Oh Sue , meant to say , we have Happy Valley series 3 . Should be winging it’s way to you soon ? So good .

      1. I saw this somewhere! Cannot wait to see Series 3! I’ve been hoping for this for so long (trying not to use another exclamation mark here, but ooooh, this is so good)

      2. Aw, yes, I agree Wendy :)! Thank you. We have similar taste in books (and I love Happy Valley, too)
        I forgot to say that C. J. Sansom is one of my favourite mystery writers

        1. We read C.J. Sansom’s first Shardlake book a while ago and he fell off our radar. Now we’ve read two more, and loved them, but have to have a rest in between books. Life was so grim back then.

    2. Lovesey’s Showstopper was good. Classic Peter Diamond. I must look for that new Sally Spencer. We both like his series. I will also look for a couple of the other names you mention that I’m not familiar with. Thanks. Book networking is the best. 🙂

  8. I read Lucy by the Sea at the end of the 2022 and I totally agree with your assessment. It made my “top ten” of 2022. Years ago I read the first Lucy Barton book and just thought it just ok. Perhaps Lucy has grown on me as she (and I) age or I need to read the first book again.
    My book club read Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult, another pandemic book. For me, it was barely ok, and only one person in the group really liked it.
    I really enjoy your book posts.

  9. Thank you for sharing your book list. I recently finished Oh William and enjoyed it so much. I am planning on reading Lucy By the Sea soon. Love blogs that include books. Happy January.
    p.s. I liked the TikTok lady.

  10. I haven’t read any pandemic books, but you have totally captured my interest and with Lucy by the Sea! Since I haven’t read any of that series though, I’ll have to go back and start at the beginning. Oh, yum! A whole series of books to fill some winter hours or perhaps I should put them on my Kindle to take on an upcoming trip.

  11. Susan in Kelowna

    I really enjoyed your post: your reflections, your book list and the video. I always appreciate your book recommendations and those of your lively community of commenters. I would like to add a few of my favourites from 2022: Fellowship Point by Alice Elliot Dark – a rich, satisfying read of the friendship between 2 women, their interconnected families in Philadelphia and Maine, their loves, sorrows and a mystery! Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: spare prose painting an illuminating picture of life in a small, Irish town in the 1980’s and the courage of one man. Peter May’s Black House series in the Hebrides and his Enzo series in France: I listened to the audio books for the delicious Scottish accents and interesting mysteries.

    1. Oh, I too loved Small Things Like These. I have Fellowship Point on my saved list at my library. With your recommendation, I will pick it up when I get home next week. Thank you!

    2. Based on your recommendation, I picked up Fellowship Point at the library. I just finished it and thoroughly enjoyed the reading. Thank you for leading me to this book. I will be recommending it to friends also.

  12. Another huge fan of Elizabeth Strout here. I read Lucy by the Sea in late 2022 and absolutely loved it. I love all of her books, but I think this one is particularly wonderful. Maybe it’s the way she captured the pandemic zeitgeist.

    That Tik Tok video warms my heart. I love Christmas but also always love getting things back “in place.” And she reminded me it’s time for tulips. ❤️

  13. Oh dear OPL & Libby have just notified me that three books I had on hold are currently available. I have made a hard promise to my self that no reading will be done until, like the Tik Tok lady my Christmas stuff is packed away, the house is thoroughly cleaned and I have done my daily Essentrics exercises with Miranda Esmond- White. I have to light the fire after these weeks of just hanging about…eating. LOL
    I am going to check out the Tik Tok lady, anyone who puts out a pot of cat grass on the table for their cat is ok in my books!
    I’ll wait until the kerfuffle is over to put Lucy by the Sea on hold. It always takes me awhile to get into Strout’s books…her winding, circumstantial way of story telling can throw me off..but once I get into the rhythm I adore her. Oh William was a treat!!!

    1. It was a treat wasn’t it? I just snuggle right into my chair in the very first paragraph of any Strout book. Her style is so appealing to me. Happy cleaning… if that’s not an oxymoron… it certainly is for me unless I am plugged into an audiobook.

  14. I know what you mean about those days we can finally have all to ourselves, free not to stir from the fireside armchair should we choose. Judging by what my former colleagues tell me, there’s not much of that window anymore between finishing the last term’s marking and beginning anew in January. Glad I’m retired! Although until our grandkids were back in school after their Christmas break, we were helping out with child care — makes me appreciate the free reading days even more 😉
    I’m currently writing up a book post myself, and thinking about which books really stood out over the last year. And looking forward to which ones I’ll be reading in 2023 — and Lucy by the Sea will definitely be on that list. I’m intrigued by the notion of her and William locked down together in the pandemic — I’ve read other novels (mostly mysteries) that have integrated the lockdowns into their latest releases, but none have made that structure central to the novel’s concerns in the same way.
    Thanks for putting this list together — it’s an easier way to find books I meant to make note of when you first posted about them, but then forgot!

    1. Oh, me too, Frances! Just met with a bunch of former colleagues. The three of us who are not retired were NOT allowed to use the “R” word all afternoon. One girl went on leave-without-pay in September and plans to resign in June. She is so disillusioned. Things are pretty bad in schools right now, at least here in Ottawa.

  15. I’m currently reading Lucy by the Sea (got it for Christmas from my daughter who shares my love for Strout) and am loving it, as I do all of Strout’s books. Maybe my favorite is Olive Kitteredge, followed by Olive Again. The Lucy series is wonderful. I like how she weaves in a little bit about characters from previous books, like Bob Burgess from The Burgess Boys. Elizabeth Strout is certainly a master and I like how well you describe her writing.

    1. Often reading a Strout novel is like catching up with old friends. I, too, like how characters from other books keep showing up.

    2. I just ordered The Burgess Boys from the library. Can’t understand how I didn’t reach back to read her previous books after I read Olive Kitteridge.

  16. Sue, love your review of Lucy By the Sea. You are so brave, I can’t/haven’t read any pandemic books, still too scared by the memories that it even happened. In January of 2020 my husband and I were very sick, Doctor said it wasn’t the flu, but they would treat it as if it were. Of course this was before we realized what was going on and had a name for it, thank God we recovered. 3 years later, my husband and I are sick again, colds from babysitting grandchildren. After being locked away from them for so long, we’ll power thru this illness. I discovered Laurie R. King…late to the table, like always. She writes of a young Mrs. Sherlock Holmes. The first book was published 30 years ago, but tracking down used books is such fun. So this years lockdown is going fairly well, if we could just get rid of this cough. Stay well all.

  17. Working through books I was given this Christmas – one on death in London through the centuries was a bit of a thinker at this time of year – and enjoying the seasonal peace like that charming flower arranger. We cleared away the tree at the weekend, put away all the bits and pieces again and then I enjoyed going round with a damp cloth and the vacuum. That low winter sun tends to show up a lot of dust I find. Now slowly engrossed in a large jigsaw while the January weather goes on outside, mostly wet and cold but with some very pretty skies. This is the first year ever that I haven’t said to myself: just got to get through January and then February and then it will be spring once more. I am grateful for every day and have no doubt that this is in part due to the topsy-turvy days of the past years. And the first signs of spring are already making themselves felt and visible. Beauty in the quiet and cold days indeed.

    1. Isn’t it funny how the low winter sun can be more problematic …especially for driving, I find. We are NOT looking at green shoots… but anxiously awaiting snow. Hopefully. Winter without snow is extremely grim… especially since no snow doesn’t mean that spring comes any earlier. 🙁

  18. I love your posts about reading. Thanks to you I’ve got a nice long reading list to look forward to. It makes me very happy to see a new book waiting while I’m still reading one. What a luxury! I also enjoy reading cookbooks. Thanks for lots of good suggestions.

  19. I am just finishing The Burgess Boys and will eagerly await to enjoy Lucy by the Sea. Olive Kitteridge was one of my all time favorite novels. I didn’t want the book to end. There was so much more that I wanted to know about her life. The characters in Strout’s novels come to life. And she grabs random characters, pulls them into the mix and you are wondering how they fit into the story. But they do.
    Thank you for your review.

  20. Lucy by the Sea sounds like a wonderful book. I need to get started with Strout’s earlier books and work my way to this one.
    The Tik Tok video was so sweet and summed up the post-Christmas period. I’ve put away almost everything, the last being the window candles, and those will go soon.
    I just finished listening to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek and there was a lot about class, race, and poverty in that story. It was a lovely story and very sad, but a good reminder to think about how we view and treat others.
    Happy new year. Enjoy your time reading by the fire. Hopefully you will get just enough snow to get some skiing it, but not so much that you have to shovel for hours.

  21. Wonderful book list. Thank you for compiling it as I always have the best intention to make a list from all the suggestions from both you and your readers. But you know what they say about the best laid plans…
    Enjoy your quiet reading time

  22. How fun to read your post and all the comments! Olive Kitteridge is one of my all-time favorite characters, and I believe I’ve read every Elizabeth Strout book. Such a favorite! And now my “to read” list has grown and I will be keeping our local library very busy. Thank you!

    1. I have now put several books on hold at he library from the comments. And currently reading Strout’s The Burgess Boys. Not sure how I missed this one.

  23. Sue, thank you for putting this all together! I rely on recommendations from you and Frances at Materfamilias for what books I should read;). I have to admit, I was totally waiting for the TikTok lady to burst into a dance. I have a strange reaction to being told to take joy in simple tasks, largely because I like to do a simple thing once, but the seventeenth time makes me want to scream and fly away to Morocco or something;).

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