Monthly Archives: April 2020

Books of Comfort and Joy

One of the most profound things that reading can bring us is comfort. I’ve heard lots of parents complain that their kid just wants to read the same book over and over. “I want them to try something new,” they’ll tell me. What the parents don’t realize is that we all seek reassurance from familiar settings and plots — literary and otherwise. And just like a very small child is soothed by hearing a favorite bedtime story for the eighty-bazillionth time, we take solace from novels that we know will end happily and from stories that allay our doubts — stories that tell us we are right to love the world.

Here are some books that I hope will do just that.

All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot  You may have read this before. It’s worth doing again. This memoir of a veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales is warm and beautiful. Herriot truly loved the animals he cared for and the people he worked among. His recollections are sprinkled with humor and full of caring. This is the first volume, and chronicles his time getting used to practicing in in the remote rural communities he would come to call home. The other volumes are wonderful too, so please do try All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful, and The Lord God Made them All.* A few of the stories are sad, but most are hopeful and joyful. They are some of my favorites. You can also get All Creatures Great and Small in large print. Many of the stories have been adapted for children. They are lovely as well and are collected in James Herriot’s Treasury for Children.

Sweet Thursday, by john Steinbeck  My dad gave me a copy of this years ago. It’s a sort-of sequel to Cannery Row, full of quirky characters and salted with laughter. Doc, the main character, never fails to make me smile with his determination to be unabashedly himself. Steinbeck’s wry observations and deep humanity make me love the flawed but beautiful denizens of his sketchy coastal world. A note to mixologists: This novel also describes what may have been the first beer milkshake.

Persuasion, or really anything by Jane Austen  –I’m not sure if this story is for real, but I have heard that during WWI they used to recommend Jane Austen to soldiers suffering from shell shock. The idea was that nothing alarming or violent ever happens in Austen’s novels, but they’re still engaging and enjoyable. I wonder how many soldiers developed a lifelong devotion to the works of Jane Austen. I also wonder how many of them wished that the books were longer. And heavier. And able to produce a really satisfying thunk when thrown against the head of the doctor, chaplain, or senior officer who recommended them. I adore Austen, but I’m thinking that if I were fresh out of the trenches I might just want to murder everyone in Mansfield Park.

Still, I heartily encourage everyone to pick up a Jane Austen novel right now. If you read one in high school and hated it, maybe give it another try. Her plots are intricate, her dialogue witty enough to be quoted on coffee mugs to this day, and come on — a million BBC adaptations can’t be wrong. My personal favorite is this Pride and Prejudice miniseries. Time to binge watch!

Vita Sackville-West’s Garden Book  This is the perfect thing to read on those unexpectedly bleak, chilly days in April or early May when –this year especially– we despair of spring. There is always hope in Sackville-West’s garden. She was constantly planning some new scheme of color or form and urging others to do the same. One of my favorite things about this collection of her garden writing is this quip about an idea for a silver-gray, green, and white planting: “It may be a terrible failure. I wanted only to suggest that such experiments are worth trying.” The experiment turned out to be the White Garden at Sissinghurst.

white garden

Vita Sackville-West’s Garden Book is out of print, but you can find a copy at Better World Books quite cheaply. You can also find used (and reasonable) copies of V. Sackville-West: The Illustrated Garden Book through The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America and The Strand Bookstore in New York. Links go right to each book’s entry on the sites. I’m an independent bookseller — you know I wouldn’t send you to Amazon.

Last but not least, I give you some of my favorite poems. Like a lot of folks, I’ve been on Facebook frequently lately, keeping track of what friends and family are up to and how they are. Like you, I’ve seen a few Mary Oliver poems being shared. I take so much joy from her work. I dip into New and Selected Poems, Volume One often — whenever I need to wake up a little bit more to the wonder of the world.


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The Great Escape


Yup, that’s Steve McQueen reading a book. My photo editing skills are a little rusty.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post,* but I figured we could all use some reading suggestions to act as a little break during this stressful time. Here are some of mine. These books are some serious diversionary tactics.

I remember reading A Wrinkle in Time in fifth grade. I sank into that book and let it close over my head. A wise choice, fifth grade being what it is.** Jaqueline Woodson talked lovingly about this kind of immersive reading a recent Ted Radio Hour interview — the way a book’s world can become our world for a little while. It’s worth a listen; click the link!

In that spirit, I’m recommending some books to lose yourself in; novels that, if they appeal to you, can open their covers like a door. I wish you a great escape.

Hild, by Nicola Griffith  This novel takes you to 7th century Britain. Griffith’s research is deep and seamlessly applied. A young girl’s future hangs on the political machinations of her family and her own wits as kingdoms squabble and war and a new religion comes into the land. Every bit of this book shines like a gem — a dragonfly seen at the edge of a pond.

A Stranger in Olondria and Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar  Don’t let the covers fool you — Samatar’s award-winning work is more like magical realism than fantasy, with characters and places that open up like flowers as you move more deeply into the story. Both novels are complex and wonderful. Though their plots are somewhat intertwined, you can read either one first. If I could recommend just one book to you, it would be one of these. What they say about history –the people who make it and those who simply inhabit it– will stay with you a long, long time.

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson  This is one of my favorite novels. Set during the Napoleonic wars, the story moves from France to Russia to, finally, Venice. It’s got star-crossed lovers, madness, the sweep of history — all told in lambent prose and with insight that will take your breath away. What more could you want?

Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons  This one is funny. You will flat laugh. Flora Poste goes to live with her Very Dramatic cousins on a decaying farm in Sussex. Though she seems to have stepped into the pages of a particularly depressing D.H. Lawrence novel, F. Poste is not letting that kind of nonsense go unchecked. Watch out, gloomy, brooding, passive-agressive relatives: you haven’t got a chance. They also made a really fun movie out of the book in 1995 with Kate Beckinsale. Absolutely worth watching!

Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. Le Guin  I have read this beautifully strange collection of linked novellas, stories, poetry, and fictionalized anthropological detail many times now. It never fails to enchant me and gets better every time. What if you could write an anthropology of the future? Le Guin has, and it is various and revealing and somehow comforting and wise. It’s a weird format, but don’t be put off. The first time I picked it up I didn’t quite know what to do with it. My advice is to start with “Stone Telling,” and then skip around as you like. That novel, told in parts spaced throughout the work, will suck you in and spit you back out with new thoughts to think. There is also a new, expanded edition from Library of America, which I covet.

I hope you’ll enjoy some of these, and that they’ll take you –however briefly– to another time, another place, or another world. Stay home, stay safe, read books.

*Like a decade? The banner photo is of a window at the Learned Owl Book Shop, where I used to work.  They’re awesome! Buy books from them! Or buy books from your local, independent bookseller by clicking one of the book links above — they’ll take you to that book’s information at IndieBound, a great site that lets you search by town or zip code to find your local book shops.

**It is entirely possible that fifth grade is much nicer now. In 1979 it was basically long stretches of boredom punctuated by Presidential Fitness Tests and license-to-kill dodgeball.

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