Comfort reading for discomfiting times

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The world is becoming a strange place, isn’t it? I walked to work this morning along almost traffic-free streets; I could actually hear a glorious cacophony of birdsong, as if I were on a country lane rather than one of London’s main arteries. Bloomsbury’s squares were empty; on any other freshly-washed-sky day in March, with the sun shining and the air sweet with the smell of blossom, these little oases of green would be thronged with workers and students enjoying the longed-for warmth and light after so many weeks of rain and cloud. The huge courtyard in front of the British Museum was desolate as I wandered past at lunchtime; usually packed with snaking lines of tourists and school children, a mere handful of hardy visitors trickled up the steps to enjoy what I am sure must have been the rather surreally empty galleries. Everywhere is so devoid of people that London is starting to look as lonely as an Edward Hopper painting. I’ve often wished for a bit of peace, fewer crowds, less bustle  – but now I’ve got it, it’s not blissful, but merely disconcerting.

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As of tomorrow, school is closing, and the children are all going home – for how long, we don’t know. I’ve told them to keep a diary; their own Journal of a Plague Year.  It will be something to look back on, a story to tell a future generation, perhaps. A time to reflect on what we value most, what we miss, what we can actually do without. A time to realise that actually, our day-to-day lives are full of privileges and choices and freedoms we take phenomenally for granted, and really are not, as much as we might like to think of them as being so, guaranteed. I’m no scientist; I don’t pretend to understand the statistics and the risks and the rights and wrongs of government strategies. All I know is that at times like this, rather than panicking, and obsessing over things I can’t understand and can’t control, I prefer to look outwards for what I can learn, how I can adapt, and what I can do to help others. And one of the things that always helps me when the world seems to be falling down around my ears is reading; nothing heavy, nothing too complicated or intellectual, but instead good, well-written yet undemanding prose that sweeps me away into another world and makes me forget about this one. So one way I would like to help all of my lovely readers out there who might be worried – for many of us have friends and relatives who are ill or vulnerable or lonely who we have good reason to worry about, me included – is to give you a list of books you can hopefully find comfort in over the next few weeks, and perhaps share them with your friends and family, too. Maybe you could start a facetime/whatsapp/skype book club as a way to connect with friends or family who are self-isolating, or feeling lonely if they live alone and are now working from home. Books have always been such a wonderful way to bring people together, and even if we can’t be physically together, they can still spark conversations and provide shared experiences, making us all feel a little more connected, and a little less discomfited, I hope. Anyway, here they are – my top five comfort reads. I hope some of these will bring you joy and peace at this time of world-wide trouble.

  1. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard – this marvellous collection of five novels tells the story of the various members of the multi-generational Cazalet family from the pre-war 1930s to the post-war 1940s. Every character is brilliantly drawn and wonderfully multi-faceted, every plot line is utterly compelling, and every setting is evocatively realised. You’ll find yourself so drawn into the pages that the hours will pass by like seconds as the world Howard conjures casts its spell.
  2. The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M.Delafield – one of the funniest and most heartwarming books there is, Delafield’s witty and warm account of the various trials and tribulations involved in navigating the many hurdles of 1930s middle-class life are as comforting as a cup of tea and a plate of hot buttered toast. You’ll laugh out loud and grin delightedly with recognition at the awkward conversations, wardrobe malfunctions and domestic disasters that dog the Provincial Lady’s well-meaning attempts at keeping up appearances!
  3. Emma by Jane Austen – definitely the most cerebral of my choices, I know the story and the characters like the back of my hand and yet every time I read it, something new strikes me and I marvel afresh at the brilliance of Austen. Sinking into the world of Highbury is like going off to visit a group of old friends, and I never fail to giggle mercilessly at the ridiculousness of Mr and Mrs Elton and to whoop with joy when all comes right at the end. This is pure pleasure from start to finish – perfect balm for the troubled soul.
  4. Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher – my mum has a huge collection of Rosamunde Pilcher books and when I was a teenager and had run out of my own books to read one stormy night, my mum gave me Coming Home to try. I was instantly hooked and I very quickly read my way through them all, though Coming Home has always remained by favourite. Set in a beautiful stately home in Cornwall and telling the stories of childhood best friends Loveday and Judith, it’s an addictively good story with plenty of surprises, romance and tragedy to keep you absorbed for hours. Plus there’s a wonderful TV adaptation to enjoy starring a very young Emily Mortimer – well worth watching afterwards!
  5. Thrush Green by Miss Read – I discovered this book a few years ago when staying in a holiday cottage, and was surprised at how well-written, insightful and just downright lovely it was. The comfort in the whole series of Thrush Green books is that everything always turns out just as you think it will, and everyone gets just what they deserve, but beneath the simplicity and predictable nature of things, there’s a subtlety and a perceptiveness in the handling of characters and their emotions that gives them far more weight than other novels in this genre. I have grown to love the characters over the several books in the series I’ve read, and whenever I need something to make me feel that all is right with the world, I reach for a Miss Read.

I’ve illustrated this post with photographs I took today, on my walk to and from work, of the beautiful blossom that is coming out on the streets near my flat. It lifted my spirits to think of how, amidst the madness, nature continues in its usual rhythms. Spring is still coming, the world is still turning, and all will come right in the end.

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28 comments

  1. Hi Book Snob

    I love your emails and suggestions. I have only replied once previously (I recommended A Month in the Country – JM Carr) but your recent email about your holiday in Devon reminded me of a trilogy that I am sure will appeal: the West Country Trilogy – by Tim Pears – set in the years before the 1st W War. The first book is ‘The Horseman’, the second ‘The Wanderers’, and the third, ‘The Redeemed’.

    It’s a delightful trilogy and I’m sure you will love it.

    Write on Book Snob!

    royston

    1. A hearty second for “A Month in the Country,” so beautiful and sublime.

      I also highly recommend the biography of Carr, “The Last Englishman,” by Byron Rogers. It is one of my favorite books from the last few years. One can truly say that Carr was a uniquely interesting man who lived outside the box. A fascinating read!

  2. Hi Book Snob

    I love your emails and suggestions. I have only replied once
    previously (I recommended A Month in the Country – JM Carr) but your
    recent email about your holiday in Devon reminded me of a trilogy that
    I am sure will appeal: the West Country Trilogy – by Tim Pears – set
    in the years before the 1st W War. The first book is ‘The Horseman’,
    the second ‘The Wanderers’, and the third, ‘The Redeemed’.

    It’s a delightful trilogy and I’m sure you will love it.

    Write on Book Snob!

    royston

  3. Tasmania may very well close their borders. My photo club mtgs, museum sketch classes, U3A play reading class..all cancelled. Thank goodness for books. I love the idea of your students keeping a journal. The 5 books you recommend are good. I’ve read Diary of Provincial lady and Emma. I just checked with library and put a hold on Coming Home and the first of the Cazalet chronicles. You’re right, life is most disconcerting at the moment.

  4. I’m currently reading An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones, for my book group – about half way through and it’s very good. As of today, I’m self isolating, as I’m one of the 4% high risk cohort, with rheumatoid arthritis and taking three immuno suppressant medications. My library will stand me in good stead – I’d started re-reading the Fay Kellerman Rina Lazarus/Peter Decker series prior to starting the book group book, but your list reminded me I’ve not read through my Austens in far too long, so I’ll put them on my list. And the disorganisation on my bookcases has been really bothering me, so I’ll be pulling them all off, dusting, and reshelving properly – a project is always good, right?! LOL!!
    I made my last outing this morning, to the chemist to fill as many scripts as I could, and it’s not nice out there. The panic shopping started early here, due to the confusion of very unclear messages from our useless government, and the atmosphere is really quite feral. My partner is home today awaiting a money transfer so he can go on a hunting mission for a few more staples to bolster the pantry.
    May we live in interesting times, huh?!
    Stay well, Rachel!

  5. Thanks for this post. Today was an existential shock seeing the line of employees waiting for drive-through tests at the academic health center where I work. Contemplating how many health care workers might already be sick was truly a shock.
    I actually have the full set of Cazalet Chronicles on my shelf unread. I picked up the first book for my Mom after you had recommended on the podcast. She LOVED it and powered through the series. It’s been waiting for me since. With the library and my local independent closed, this could be a really good option from my shelves.
    My suggestion for the list is Anne of Green Gables. It’s been a delight and comfort for 40 years for me. I still cry every time I read it!
    And one tv show – The Good Place.
    Best thoughts to you, yours, and the Book Snob community.

  6. I adore Rosamund Pilcher’s books. I have Winter Solstice and The Shell Seekers on CD. Listen to those every once in awhile when I’m sewing. Guess I’ll need to reread Coming Home. I have the book. It’s been a few years. Try Cooking for Picasso, My Italian Bulldozer, Picnic in Provence. The last is a sweet memoir you hope will never end.

    I write a bit, too. No as much since 2016 but looking toward 2021 for more inspiring times. You can find my ramblings at aliveincolorado.wordpress.com

    Thanks for your thoughts. Regards, Lyn

  7. The towns are becoming eerily quiet indeed – it is a strange time for all. A friend send photos of London tube stations today – almost empty at 8am – unheard of! So, it’s a great time to read indeed – and I won’t be snobbish, though it could be a good time to read the classics I never got round to. So far, ‘easy’ reads have been to hand including a book called The Perfect Wife – which I don’t purport to be, especially as this one is an AI robot!

  8. Hi. I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I’ve followed your blog for years. Your five comfort books are spot on. The Cazelet Chronicles are my absolute favorites, and I’m currently re-listening to The Light Years on Audible.

  9. Hi Book Snob. Great set of suggestions. I have them all on my shelves except the Miss Read so am ready for comfort rereading.

    I’d also suggest some D. E. Stevensons and if, like me, you’re finding it hard to concentrate, the Slightly Foxed quarterly magazine. It’s a lovely, quirky literary magazine with short articles on a very wide range of books – quite like a book blog, actually. They also publish memoirs in very pretty small hardbacks and paperbacks and host a very interesting podcast every month.

    Barb

  10. Wonderful suggestions, Rachel, and beautiful photos. I’m working from home now and the bright spot to ease the anxiety of the last few days has been the ability to go for walks in my beautiful, leafy neighbourhood and see the cherry trees coming into blossom. The weather here has been spectacular, which truly has helped so many people stay a little more positive and resilient than they might have in the rain.

  11. such wonderful selections. I have them all in my home library and I thank you for the suggestion ! My mother was reading the Thrush Green books just before she died. She loved them. Thank you again, for this thoughtful list

  12. Provincial Lady and Miss Read! Probably THE most comforting books ever. I am reading through The Forsyte Saga, and am find it very, very good. Have you ever read these Galsworthy books? I watched the original televised version in the late 1960s but had forgotten a lot. The books are well-written, and a very good chronicle of the times they were written in. I loved your pictures.

  13. I had purchased Diary of a Provincial Lady to read in January when I usually have the post- Christmas blues. I loved it and packed it up with other recent reads for my mom. She hasn’t made her way to that one yet but I gave her the same advice the other day – read Provincial Lady if you need cheering up! Stay well!

  14. I enjoy your pictures of spring in London, it gives me good memories of having lived there a number of years ago. I live in Australia, where our native plants are evergreens, so the change of seasons is not so dramatic. The thought of emptyish streets in central London is a strange one.

  15. Hi Book Snob,
    I enjoy reading your blog, but especially appreciated this post about your favorite comfort reading, as it is kind of in tune with my own. I don’t think we can ever go too far wrong with anything Austen related, and Emma is probably the most overtly amusing. That’s funny you should mention Rosamund Pilcher, as I was thinking about reading one of her books myself just now, as I always find her very suthing. I might try Coming Home, as I’ve heard many good things about it. I hope you keep safe and continue to find pleasure in reading.

  16. This is a great post and so relatable. I am with my parents in Portland, Oregon, for a month or so since I can work remotely. I brought about 50 of my own books with me since libraries are closed in my own city and in Portland. For comfort reading, I have lots of D.E. Stevenson and Angela Thirkell. I am reading The Secret Garden right now and love reading it as spring bursts forth around us. Your whole list is marvelous. I adore the Thrush Green books. I haven’t read much Rosamunde Pilcher, but I’ve now got Coming Home on hold as an ebook.

  17. This is a lovely list and both my husband and I appreciated it. I had already planned to start reading The Provincial Lady and Miss Read books (which I have some of). Now I will add the first Cazalet book and something by Rosamunde Pilcher but those I will have to acquire somehow.

  18. I also like D.E. Stevenson’s books. Also, where is the street photo? Very pretty area that looks vintage.

  19. I have “Provincial Lady”,three by Rosamund’s Pilcher,including the classic “Shellseekers” and..not really embarrassed to say..Pride and Prejudice,Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey.Great minds etc.
    NZ goes into full lockdown at midnight tonight.
    Stay safe and well,Rachel!
    Pat.B.

  20. Oh, sorry, read the newer post first… I see that schools are closed also. Are you asked to do online teaching? Here, teaching continues online, and parents complain a lot that they have to assist and support their children so much. I think we’ll all emerge from this with a new gratitude for all teachers do on a daily basis.
    Re. reading: “Room with a View” for me right now, and poems by Brooke, Sassoon and Owen to remind me of my mortality. They actually make me grateful for each new day, strangely.

  21. I had already moved The Light Years (Cazalet #1) to the top of the pile.

    Miss Read’s Fairacre books are my comfort read of choice. Also wonderful are Barbara Pym and Ronald Blythe’s Wormingford trilogy.

  22. Hi Book Snob
    Read your blog for a few years now but never written a message. Books for lockdown would be any austen, barbara pym Jane and Prudence ,crampton hodnet, the meg cabot princess diaries series and any enid blyton series. Enjoy your blog and hope you and all readers stay safe.
    Immi

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