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Comfort Reading

June 20, 2013

Old fashioned murder mysteries work miracles. Better still if they’re part of a series–a series whose first seventy or so volumes have already been written, so you don’t have to cope with any cliffhanger angst. Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, Deborah Crombie, Patricia Cornwell…and Martha Grimes, whose Richard Jury mysteries have soothed my frayed nerves twice in my life–once when I was lying low after a miscarriage, and again these past weeks. (It doesn’t matter that I’ve read them before, apparently. I don’t remember whodunit or why, and don’t really care. It’s just lovely to be among the characters–Melrose Plant, Vivian Rivington, Jury himself, Wiggins–again.)

Rereading, always a joy, is a practical necessity when feeling undone. AJ Jacobs’s first book, The Know-It-All, saved me during several insomniac nights during my divorce. I also tend to gravitate toward Mark Helprin–his combination of earnestness and loveliness and old-fashioned writerly brilliance is, when one needs to be buoyed, the very thing. (You don’t feel like an ass tearing up at the end of a Helprin story.) I have a friend who swears that Dickens and Trollope got him through the end of his marriage.

Rereading one’s childhood and adolescent favorites is a balm to the soul. I Capture the Castle. A Little Princess. The Once and Future King. Anything by Mary Renault. Anna Karenina.

And then there are the books I’ve effectively worn out by too much rereading–Somerset Maugham’s collected stories, ditto those of Roald Dahl, most of Daphne du Maurier (one of my grandmother’s favorites), all of Edith Wharton. Possession, by A. S. Byatt. The Name of the Rose. All of Salinger. Howards End. Maybe, if I leave them long enough, my failing memory will erode their plots and characters enough to make them feel like old familiar friends again.

What do you read when you are feeling lower than low?

65 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    June 20, 2013 1:21 pm

    Jane Austen has seen me through more than one death. I’d add Dorothy Sayers to the murder mystery list. And yes, so so so yes on Mark Helprin. I recently described his ‘In Sunshine and in Shadow’ as having the supersaturated colors and mood of photography’s so-called Golden Hour. Glorious stuff!

    My personal hard times reading list includes pretty much anything by Robin McKinley. (I would skip Deerskin, which is too prickly for a tender psyche – though it’s an excellent book.)

    I hope your books are helping you heal!

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 20, 2013 2:21 pm

      I’ve never read Dorothy Sayers, am rubbing hands together with anticipatory glee….

      • Susan permalink
        June 20, 2013 11:43 pm

        I’m a bit jealous that you get to read them for the first time!

        I second both the Billy Collins and Laurie Colwin recommendations below.

        Have you read any Robertson Davies novels? They’re books I come back to year after year.

        • irretrievablybroken permalink*
          June 21, 2013 9:21 pm

          YES. I love him. Time to reread. Thank you for reminding me!

          • Susan permalink
            June 26, 2013 12:21 pm

            I think I would love to browse your bookshelves. It seems our literary tastes are very very similar.

            Willa Cather? Colette?

  2. June 20, 2013 2:19 pm

    All of E.M Forster. F. Scott Fitzgerald, especially the short stories. John Irving. Sometimes Salinger. For mysteries, Dennis Lehane. I am an inveterate re-reader.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 20, 2013 2:24 pm

      Yes to Forster, though I’ve ruined Howards End by reading it too many times. Dennis Lehane was so DARK and COLD…. and yes, Fitzgerald…

  3. June 20, 2013 2:20 pm

    Sherlock Holmes. I usually do remember the solution to the mystery by at least the first few pages in, but it doesn’t make any difference.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 20, 2013 2:24 pm

      I never mind if I remember the solution, either. I just read on, as if the mystery weren’t the point. It’s very soothing.

  4. June 20, 2013 2:43 pm

    I love how you say “All of Salinger” because there are so few books, but they feel like so so many. The things I reread the most often are Nine Stories, and The Phantom Tollbooth.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 20, 2013 2:57 pm

      You’re going to hate me for saying this (and my sister will too–she even named her dog Milo) but I’ve never understood the appeal of The Phantom Tollbooth. I’ve always felt rather sheepish about it.

      • June 20, 2013 3:48 pm

        No reason to feel sheepish! That’s the beauty of the world of books is there is enough for everyone and we don’t have to agree. The Lord of the Rings makes me want to literally weep with boredom and I don’t feel guilty about it. Other people can enjoy it all and I’ll read something else.

        I think The Phantom Tollbooth was the first book I ever encountered with such an extensive amount of word play, and my dad read it to us and I still hear it in his voice. I found the idea of looking at a dictionary and a pencil as having magical properties if you just knew how to wield them inspiring. (Plus, you know, and orchestra that plays all the colors in the world. How can I not like that?)

        • irretrievablybroken permalink*
          June 20, 2013 4:37 pm

          See, and I love the Lord of the Rings! Go figure….

  5. Brenna permalink
    June 20, 2013 3:02 pm

    Louise Penny is a favorite. Wonderful mysteries and the characters grow with every book.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 20, 2013 3:04 pm

      I just looked her up, thank you, thank you! I forgot to mention the Donna Leon books. Mysteries about Venice. Win-win.

  6. Ellie permalink
    June 20, 2013 4:40 pm

    I re-read with pleasure A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, so many various loosers can only lift you up. My favourite re-read was a Patricia Highsmith The Tremor of Forgery that a stupidly gave away.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 20, 2013 5:34 pm

      Highsmith sounds properly dark, I have a Collected Stories gathering dust…

  7. June 20, 2013 5:19 pm

    The Wrinkle in Time books by Madeleine L’Engle, or her Meet the Austins books, or the Emily of New Moon series (but not Anne, never Anne), and Byatt, and Billy Collins’ poetry. Paired with kettle corn and/or iced tea. Hope reading works its magic for you.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 20, 2013 5:34 pm

      Oh, I’m so so happy to meet a fellow Meet the Austins fan! I have read and reread all of them dozens of times. And all their many satellites, too.

  8. Sarah permalink
    June 20, 2013 5:29 pm

    Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon. Miss Pettigrew lives for a day by Winifred Watson when all feels lost. Possession as you know, and Persuasion by Austen applied liberally throughout any difficult time is profitable.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 20, 2013 5:35 pm

      Looking for Miss Pettigrew right now in the library catalogue…

      • I should settle on one pseudonym, eh? permalink
        June 20, 2013 8:28 pm

        When you do Sayers, start with the ones she wrote earlier — not with Gaudy Night or Busman’s Honeymoon. You will have fun watching her develop the characters along the way, and the portrait of interwar England as it develops, plus I think you won’t fully “get” those last two without the earlier ones. (If you get obsessed, there’s a short story that tacks on a quick view of the characters some 6-8 years after “Honeymoon”…)

        I’ve also done Austen, and once the whole run of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I think some Gaskell… it’s funny how some moods just do not admit of reading something unknown.

        • irretrievablybroken permalink*
          June 20, 2013 9:55 pm

          I’ll try to start at the beginning, a series is always much better that way. All hail inter-library loans….

  9. June 20, 2013 6:14 pm

    I seem to work in reverse to you. I don’t forget what’s happened, instead I start getting vague memories of a plot or a character until it niggles to the point that I have to dig out the book and read it all over again. And childhood favourites definitely feature highly on that list, there’s something incredibly comforting about the quick read of a familiar, well-worn story. Flour Babies and Goggle Eyes are both revisited regularly, I could probably recite whole passages.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 20, 2013 9:56 pm

      One of the joys of having my kids has been reading my old favorites out loud to them. I STILL read out loud to them, even the 17 year old likes it…

  10. ann permalink
    June 20, 2013 7:42 pm

    P.D.James is so fine. Totally distracting. And Shirley Jackson who can make you laugh out loud reading Life Among the Savages & Raising Demons. Cookbooks can be soothing. I love any of Laurie Colwin; she’s got it. While reading one should have a stash of baby Reese’s pb cups, the kind in the foil wrappers, nearby.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 20, 2013 9:57 pm

      Oh! I forgot that I’ve also almost ruined Laurie Colwin by over-reading everything she has written. ALMOST. I still reread them anyway, though.

  11. June 20, 2013 9:16 pm

    Aah. I read non-fiction most of the time. Even when I read novels, it usually needs to be historical or in some way educational.

    I do like a good mystery though, and so mystery stories are therefore probably my saving grace.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 20, 2013 9:59 pm

      Oh, but the Teddy Roosevelt biographies (3 fat volumes) by Edmund Morris are as satisfying as any series, and as beautifully written, and as comforting….

  12. June 20, 2013 10:39 pm

    Have you read the Matthew Corbett series by Robert McCammon. I really enjoyed it and we have a lot of similarities in our likes/dislikes.

    First book is Speaks the Nightbird.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 20, 2013 11:00 pm

      I haven’t! But I will. Thank you.

  13. Melinda permalink
    June 20, 2013 11:11 pm

    So many you mentioned and others mentioned are favorites of mine too. A couple of obscure favorites I love dearly and re-read are Betty McDonald’s “Nancy & Plum” as well as her other auto-biographical books “The Egg & I”, “The Plague & I”, “Anybody Can Do Anything”, and “Onions in the Stew.” And Lillian Beckwith’s books about the Scottish Hebrides always make me want some tea, scones and a roaring fire. Sending you peace and comfort.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 21, 2013 8:02 am

      I don’t know any of those! thank you…

  14. jen permalink
    June 20, 2013 11:54 pm

    many of my favorites already noted, esp Laurie Colwin (including her food essays) and Sayers (yes, read them in order). And I made my way through two pregnancies and one dissertation with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 21, 2013 8:03 am

      I started the Patrick O’Brian series years ago, and stalled when I didn’t have the third (I didn’t want to read out of sequence!) worth revisiting, certainly.

  15. Waffle permalink
    June 21, 2013 2:44 am

    I always have a pile of PG Wodehouse (mainly Jeeves) on my bedside table for night terrors and angst. Cow creamers. Alpine hats. Newts. Roderick Spode. “He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own” says the Evelyn Waugh quote on the back and it’s certainly true for me. I’m not a big re-reader but these and all of Nancy Mitford work every time. I’ve just started reading the Cazalet Chronicles (Elizabeth Jane Howard) and am finding absorbing but restful. Also there are four of them and they’ve quite big, so it’s a project.

    More recently, I’ve found that thoroughly gloomy and absorbing Scandinavian crime does the trick. Someone recommended Asa Larsson, who I adore. Earlier this year I devoured all of SJ Bolton’s thoroughly creepy and gripping crime novels. The Lacey Flint ones are the best. Oh! And if you are in the mood for a challenge, language wise Fred Vargas writes the most wonderful detective novels in French, especially the ones about the poetic and peculiar Commissaire Adamsberg. They are truly truly great, clever and funny, often with a supernatural or improbable twist that gets resolved in the end and quite, quite mad. I don’t know how the translations are.

    • June 21, 2013 6:05 am

      If you’re going to do dark Scandinavian mysteries you’ve got to go with Jo Nesbo. Although I started with the first one (which originally wasn’t available in the US) and found that the author had improved ALOT in the next book. So this might actually be one where it makes sense to start with number two (The Redbreast). You can circle back to “one” later, if you like it.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 21, 2013 8:03 am

      Gloomy would be the very thing for summer, I feel…

  16. lizschuldt permalink
    June 21, 2013 3:15 am

    Really, when I am feeling down, nothing soothes me more than a good Susan Spira book- one of my favorite uplifting authors. Her book, “The Happy Tips Book,” -this book is like having a friend sit on your shoulder, to guide, and nurture you. Written in a friend to friend style with warmth and compassion. Susan has two other books out that I love as well, “Happy Shorts” and “One-Liners For Life.”

  17. Sarah permalink
    June 21, 2013 5:13 am

    Envious of all of you re-reading books. I used t, a long time ago, and loved it. As you say, it gives such confort, like meeting with an old childhood friend. But now that I hardly seem to find the time to read I feel I oughtto read new stuff.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 21, 2013 12:54 pm

      I reread The Great Gatsby a few years ago–the NY Times serialized it over the summer. It seemed to be a totally different book than the one I’d had to read for eleventh grade english. Sometimes reading the same book with a different (older) brain is like reading a whole new book…and this isn’t only true for the “classics”, either. I don’t think you should deny yourself the pleasures of rereading just because you feel you “ought” to read something new, in other words…

      • June 24, 2013 11:33 am

        Totally agreed about re-reading classics. Last year I re-read The Scarlet Letter for the first time since high school and it blew me away.

  18. ElsieMac permalink
    June 22, 2013 9:07 am

    Sarah Caudwell’s mysteries and Julie Hecht.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 22, 2013 10:16 am

      Did Julie Hecht write a collection of stories called “Do the Windows Open?”

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 22, 2013 10:16 am

      Oh, and I have devoured ALL of Sarah Caudwell, with great joy.

  19. cruella permalink
    June 23, 2013 3:51 am

    Comics. Preferably Tintin. Old and cheerful and very gender stereotype girls’ lit from the 40’s.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 23, 2013 10:21 am

      I have an anthology of the latter: “Stories for Girls”–they’re wonderful. and very soothing indeed.

  20. June 23, 2013 8:31 am

    Many of my favorites are already mentioned, but I must add Barbara Pym to the list, especially Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence, and No Fond Return of Love. Also, Anthony Trollope and Gerald Durrell’s series about his family’s stay on Corfu: My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, Fauna and Family.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 23, 2013 10:22 am

      Everyone keeps TELLING me I’d love Trollope, but I’m somehow resistant. Which one to start with, do you think?
      Never read Pym, will do so immediately. Ditto the Durrell which have all been recommended to me dozens of times, but I forgot.

      • June 23, 2013 1:13 pm

        I think Barchester Towers is a good introduction to Trollope. It was the first of his novels that I read, and it totally doesn’t matter that it’s the second book in a series.

      • cruella permalink
        June 24, 2013 5:38 am

        Durrel – yes, yes, yes! Impossible not to be cheered.

  21. Barbara C. permalink
    June 24, 2013 9:38 am

    Mystery series have seen me through some low spots too. I would add Robert B. Parker to the authors you listed. Anything written by Jane Austen seems to help as well. As for re-reading your childhood fictional escapes–Arthur Ransome. I still have his entire Swallows and Amazon series.

  22. Was Living Down Under permalink
    June 24, 2013 11:31 am

    My brother and I recently had a conversation with my cousin and her husband. They said they never re-read books. My brother and I admitted to re-reading books almost as soon as we finished them. My brother said he becomes intimate with the characters – they become a part of his life and he can’t not see them again. It’s funny – I have known him his whole life and I never knew that he felt the same way about books as I did. At the end of a good book, I am always sad that the characters aren’t with me anymore. Re-reading a book you get nuances that you might have missed before and with time your perspective changes and so the way you relate to it changes as well. Sometimes it’s necessary to pick up an old favourite rather than something new.

    These days I always feel guilty reading – I have no self-discipline and tend to immerse myself in books so much so that everything (including my children) get neglected. That said, I do enjoy reading my favourites aloud to them – A.A.Milne (Winnie the Pooh is for grown ups too!), Frances Hodgson Burnett, Charlotte’s Web, ALL of Roald Dahl, Little Women, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I’d forgotten about Swallows and Amazons – I loved that series. I’ll have to bookmark this post just so I don’t forget some of these gems.

    I hope you’re feeling a little better.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 24, 2013 12:08 pm

      I read the way addicts binge, except that life is a continual binge. My younger son is the same. He reminds me of me as a kid–he can read for twelve hours straight given enough pages, and he rereads everything, the way I used to (and still do). My parents at one point told me I had to read one new book in order to “earn” a reread–something about seeing me with Laura Ingalls Wilder for the millionth time must have irked them. Whatever. I feel the same way your brother does about the books I love….

      • Was Living Down Under permalink
        June 24, 2013 3:55 pm

        Haha that’s funny (about your parents). I reread Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at thousand times (late at night, under the blankets with a flashlight). Laura Ingalls and Little Women as well! And then I also had access to all of Enid Blyton’s books – the boarding school stories with their midnight feasts and the adventures of the Famous Five. Sounds like you and your son are very much like my brother who can read anything and everything (so it seems) – he is rarely seen without a book in his hand. I do love reading (and rereading) but if the voice doesn’t grip me in the first couple of pages I tend to give it up.

        A few years ago my partner and I took an extended holiday over a few months. I brought with me a pile of books (both fiction and non-fiction). I found that reading really changed the way I thought (my thought processes). There were more pictures and more words in my thoughts. I began to observe the world as though it were a book I was reading. It was really interesting to notice the change. It’s been almost ten years since that summer. And I now have little kids. I am no longer able to sit by a pool or on my sofa buried in a good book and usually I’m too knackered at night. But that wouldn’t stop you (or my brother) from reading…

  23. June 25, 2013 3:26 pm

    The mystery series I go back to is Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe – that old brownstone is always comforting. And he was a prolific writer, so there is plenty to keep me occupied for as long as I need it.

  24. Libby permalink
    June 27, 2013 5:54 pm

    Ah yes, the re-reading series fiction when you’re low. I am also in that club. I enjoy re-reading Elizabeth George, Dennis Lehane, the Harry Potter series (will always adore those books), anything by Shirley Jackson (We Will Always Live in the Castle is sheer genius), Deborah Crombie, Kate Atkinson. I also just re-read Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy and then had to re-read Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 27, 2013 9:39 pm

      Am thrilled to find a fellow Elizabeth George/Deborah Crombie fan! What about Martha Grimes…do you know her? You will (I daresay) love her.

      Ditto Harry Potter. I have read and reread them…both to myself and to the children.

      • Libby permalink
        June 28, 2013 2:06 pm

        My mother loves Martha Grimes – I have read a couple of her books – non Jury ones – about a girl who fancies herself a detective. Have you read those? Hotel Paradise is one and I forget the names of the others. They’re fantastic. I should read Richard Jury, I know.

        • irretrievablybroken permalink*
          June 28, 2013 5:40 pm

          I did, ages ago, and as soon as I finish my Jury orgy I’ll go back and reread those, too.

  25. Dara permalink
    June 29, 2013 8:42 am

    Martha Grimes helped carry me through some dark, dark times. My Mother and I used to love reading about Richard Jury’s detective exploits while she sat in a recliner receiving chemo for her stage four colon cancer. The Old Contemptibles was the last book we were to read together. I continued to read the Richard Jury sagas after my mom died, because it was such a comfort to me, made me feel like she was still with me.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 29, 2013 9:06 am

      We should probably all write Martha Grimes a letter or something. Don’t you think?

      • Dara permalink
        June 29, 2013 9:14 am

        Absolutely. Brillant idea. Here’s her email:
        I think sending a real letter through the mail would be kick-ass….how do you do that again?

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