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Quarantined Laila Lalami tries “Middlemarch,” falls asleep with “The Bell Jar” instead

Laila Lalami finds "The Bell Jar" soothing these days.
(Laila Lalami)

The Times asked authors to track what they do in isolation. Today, “The Other Americans” author Laila Lalami writes about coping with fear, in part by listening to the Beatles, watching “28 Days Later” and falling asleep with “The Bell Jar.”

Friday, March 20

I woke early from restless dreams. The pandemic has worsened my insomnia, adding anxiety about health to the list of things my mind occupies itself with at three in the morning. Before getting out of bed, I checked my phone. There was a text from my sister, a scientist in the Bay Area, pointing me to an article about the rapid spread of the disease. The hope now was that the statewide order to stay at home would help flatten the curve before it was too late. Thinking about the grocery store workers, the delivery workers, and the doctors and nurses who have to work through it all gave me a knot in my stomach.

In a quarantine diary, “Your House Will Pay” author Steph Cha reads Ivy Pochoda , watches “Iron Man 2" and “Fleabag,” and works a “Starry Night” puzzle.

My husband put on the Beatles compilation “The Red Album” while he made coffee, and that helped brighten my mood. “We Can Work It Out” and “Eleanor Rigby” are comfort listens for me, conjuring childhood memories of listening to my brother’s turntable.

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After breakfast, I emailed with my publicist to discuss canceled book events. The paperback of my latest novel, “The Other Americans,” was released on March 17, just as bookstores across the country were closing and laying off their staffs. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future, so we resolved to wait and see before rebooking anything.

Later that morning, I watched what I could stomach of the White House daily briefing. The president’s science denialism, his slow response and his sheer incompetence will cost many lives, I fear. To clear my head, I took a 15-minute walk, taking care to maintain social distancing — the new normal.

When I got back, we ate lunch, then made strong Cuban coffee. Feeling slightly rejuvenated, I tried to do some writing. Ordinarily, I use a software called SelfControl to block social media, but once the pandemic started I had to add news sites to my block list to make sure I can focus. The first half hour was hard, but eventually habit kicked in and by the time I looked up again, three hours had passed and I had two pages. Not bad.

At dinner, we debated what movie to watch. Our daughter loves horror and suspense films and, when we realized that she’d never seen “28 Days Later,” we decided to stream it together. Horror is traditionally a place where we work out our greatest fears. I’m pretty sure Danny Boyle was trying to warn us that the virus that turns people into zombies isn’t nearly as dangerous as greedy, immoral humans. And Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris were great in this.

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Cillian Murphy in "28 Days Later."
(Peter Mountain / Fox Searchlight Pictures)

After the movie, we went to bed early. I had intended to read “Middlemarch” — a classic that had been sitting on my shelves for years — but instead I pulled out a beautiful copy of “The Bell Jar” that I bought at a thrift store a few weeks ago, and read until I felt my eyes close.

Saturday

The day started with a WhatsApp message from my mom. Earlier that week, Morocco had declared a state of emergency and army tanks were deployed to enforce shelter-in-place orders. Now the government was restricting nonessential movements: only one person per household could go out to get groceries. Morocco’s response to the pandemic has been vigorous, likely because the number of hospital beds per person is low and the healthcare system won’t be able to handle a curve like Italy’s. I worry constantly about my parents, who’ve reached an age that puts them at higher risk of contracting the virus. When I became an immigrant twenty years ago, I never thought about situations like this, where I’m separated from my loved ones by thousands of miles.

After breakfast, I sat down at my desk intending to get some work done, but instead ended up reading the news for two hours. Around mid-morning, our daughter suggested we do a cardio workout together. I really hate cardio, but a week of self-isolation can convince anyone to try new things. So for 30 minutes, we kicked and punched and lunged with Jillian Michaels. Bonus: I forgot about the pandemic for 30 minutes.

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In the afternoon, my husband and daughter made banana bread while I checked in on my sister, sister-in-law and a couple of other friends. Everyone was self-isolating, but stressed out about the same things: health, family, the future. My sister asked if I had any book recommendations for self-quarantine. She didn’t want anything pandemic-related, so I suggested Kiese Laymon’s “Heavy,” a powerful coming-of-age memoir about his relationship with his mother, his community and himself in Jackson, Miss.; and Steph Cha’s “Your House Will Pay,” a gripping novel about two families — one Korean American, one African American — grappling with the effects of a crime. Then I made a cup of tea and turned on my internet-blocking software.

'Heavy,' by Kiese Laymon.
(Scribner)

After dinner, we caught the latest episode of “Devs on Hulu, which was written and directed by [“28 Days Later” screenwriter] Alex Garland. It’s a completely absorbing series about a computer engineer whose boyfriend dies under suspicious circumstances, right after he figures out what the code he’s been hired to work on actually does.

Once in bed, I read a few more pages of “The Bell Jar” before going to sleep.

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Sunday

I woke a little later than usual and immediately reached for my phone to catch up on the news. That morning, Sen. Rand Paul had tested positive for COVID-19, and no one knew how many people he came into contact before going into quarantine. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, was self-isolating after a doctor who gave her a vaccine tested positive for the virus. This got me wondering about clustered spreads affecting specific fields, which was such a dystopian thought that I pushed it out of my mind.

After breakfast, I listened to my teenage daughter play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the violin. She was supposed to travel to Germany and the Netherlands this spring with her school’s symphony orchestra, but the spread of COVID-19 canceled her plans.

Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon "Little Fires Everywhere."
(Hulu)

In the afternoon, we watched the first episode of “Little Fires Everywhere.” It’s based on the best-selling novel by Celeste Ng, and the writers’ team for the TV adaptation includes Attica Locke, whose novel “Heaven, My Home” I really liked. So I had two reasons to tune in! The series is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in the mid-1990s and follows two mothers of different races, classes and backgrounds as their kids’ lives become increasingly intertwined. It was a welcome break from the bleak news.

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Later in the evening, our friends Mark and Jennifer suggested we get drinks over FaceTime, so we clinked glasses virtually and caught up for about an hour.

Before bed, I had a cup of rooibos tea, which is caffeine-free and rich in antioxidants; it’s one of my trusted home remedies for insomnia. Then I read a little more of “The Bell Jar” and went to sleep. I dreamt that I was a decorative-art historian in Bahia, Brazil, and that I was showing museum visitors an antique Moroccan teapot. It was the most restful dream I had all week. Then I woke up and remembered.


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