I enjoyed George Hyde’s recent OLLI Connects contribution that contained various OLLI members’ recommendations for reading while we’re in self-isolation. However, the books that I crave right now – and some of you may also – are what I call “comfort reads,” similar to comfort food.
I need a book that takes me to another world without murders, torture, or other examples of man’s (extreme) inhumanity to man. Or women, children, and animals. We get plenty of that on the nightly news – or, indeed, on cable news all day. So, here are a few offerings of the “comfort reads” variety off the top of my head.
(First of all, I hope that each of you reading this is in your PJs or however you dress at home. I myself tend to favor old T-shirts and flannel PJ bottoms. (Yes, even in Florida.) You will need to get comfortable and sit in a favorite chair – or your bed. No judgement here.)
I recommend beginning with several children’s books. Some authors write for children only, and a few aim their books at both children and adults. One of these latter remarkable writers is E. (Edith) Nesbit, a British writer, who has been described as the “first modern writer for children.” She didn’t idealize them: in her books, they are often cranky, messy, and disagreeable, but this is what makes them “real.” She incorporates magic into their real worlds (along with a big dose of humor), a combination that creates these memorable books. (Nesbit also influenced many writers who followed her, most notably Edward Eager, who is my next recommendation.) I suggest starting with the following Nesbit books: Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet. (Nesbit’s books are available through the Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative (HCPLC) and on Amazon.com.)
Sinc most of you have probably read Alice in Wonderland and Mary Poppins at some point—and, if you haven’t, get to it!–here is a writer you may not have heard of, the American author Edward Eager. He openly admired Nesbit’s books and has frequently proclaimed his indebtedness to her. The children in his books love Nesbit, too. The first book in his so-called “Magic Series” is Half Magic, and N.M. Bodecker’s illustrations add to its charm. In this book, several children, already bored with their uneventful summer (certainly a different time from this one), find a coin on a sidewalk. Accidentally, they discover that, if they wish on it, these wishes come true—but only partially, hence the title. These are laugh-out-loud funny, and adults will enjoy them as much as, if not more than, children. There are four other books in the series: the first three are my favorites. They are also available from the HCPLC and from Amazon.com.
There are many other children’s authors I enjoy, but we’ll skip them at this time. If you like adventure, travel, mystery, and romance – and who doesn’t? – you will enjoy my next author, Mary Stewart. I wrote about one of her books before: This Rough Magic, and she is perhaps most famous for her Merlin Trilogy. However, I also suggest some of her other books: The Moon-Spinners (Hayley Mills was in the movie version), Airs Above the Ground, Nine Coaches Waiting, My Brother Michael, and The Ivy Tree, among others. These are available for as little as $1.99 and $2.99 on Amazon.com.
Another wonderful descriptive British author is Daphne du Maurier. All of you know Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, along with Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek, and others, but The House on the Strand is not as familiar. The main character is asked by his scientific friend to stay in his home and try a potion that may take him back to 1300’s Cornwall. This “travel” is successful; however, it becomes addictive. Physical and psychological tolls wear upon the main character, especially after he falls in love with the long-dead Cornish noblewoman he meets. I bought this suspenseful book for my older son, who is hard to please, and he loved it. The House on the Strand is available on Amazon and at the Hillsborough County Public Library..
Gerald Durrell is another delightful author. He was deeply interested in natural history all of his life and began by collecting many assorted insects and animals when his family travelled from Britain to Corfu in 1935. His book, My Family and Other Animals, is based upon their time there. I can’t tell you how often I laughed aloud at the antics of this widely diverse group of people. (Many of you may have watched the series on PBS, but the book is even better.) This book and other books of his can be found at the HCPLC.
I love Douglas Adams, his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and all of his other books, of which five are in the Hitchhiker’s series. If you enjoy dry, understated British humor combined with quirky science fiction, you will also love these books. Plus, they offer sublime escapism. In the first book, Arthur Dent is rescued from Earth by his friend Ford Prefect (who knew that Ford was actually an alien?) seconds before Earth is destroyed to make a galactic superhighway. Ford tells Arthur to bring a towel – the single most practical and valuable item he needs – and they are off. You get the idea. You can find these books at the library or on Amazon.com.
Rosamund Pilcher is one of my very favorite authors in the category of comfort books. I discovered The Shell Seekers long ago, after watching the movie version, and promptly bought the book. Pilcher, although often categorized under “romance books,” is nothing of the sort in my opinion, aside from perhaps her shorter ones. Her longer books, which also include Winter Solstice and Coming Home, provide beautiful descriptions of Cornwall, Scotland, and other places in Britain, along with complex characters. To my mind, The Shell Seekers is the best one, and I have re-read it several times. At 600+ pages, it is a saga, going back and forth in time, and yet it is extremely readable. It will definitely help you to cope with self-isolation. This book, and many of her others, are available at the library and on Amazon.com. (For further descriptions of each book, read the blurbs on these sites.)
We all know Bridget Jones’s Diary and its sequel, Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, and I admit that I laugh just as much when I reread them as I did the first time. Helen Fielding is the author, and she has created a wholly original character. In a similar vein, Sophie Kinsella, another British writer, has written the Shopaholic series (definitely not as relevant now that our global economy is not doing well) and other humorous books. One is The Undomestic Goddess, which I have sent to ill friends, hoping that laughter will make them recover faster. Among others are Can You Keep a Secret? and Remember Me?. These are all light, easy reading – but also delightful and guaranteed not to make you feel gloomy. The Hillsborough County Library has these and more by Kinsella,
P.G. Wodehouse is the master of them all, in terms of humor and characters. My paternal grandfather and my father were huge fans, and my siblings and I have inherited this love. We all know about Bertie Wooster and his incomparable valet and man of all jobs, Jeeves, who has gotten Bertie out of more sticky situations than anyone could count. However, Wodehouse, who was a prolific writer, has other books that are equally delightful.
The books I enjoy most by Wodehouse involve Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, and his beloved champion pig, the Empress of Blandings. Clarence, Lord Emsworth, who is vague, absent-minded and only wants to live a quiet life with his pig, is foiled again and again by his sisters, Constance and Julia, who are both extremely strong-minded and strive to make him do things their way. Various nephews, nieces, and visitors provide disruption and humor. Blandings Castle is the book I own, a collection of short stories, the gem of which is called “Pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey.”
A Wodehouse short story that has been in many anthologies and that I consider a classic is “Uncle Fred in the Springtime.” I can promise you that you will laugh out loud. (If not, please let me know.) The library has many books by Wodehouse, and you can’t go wrong no matter which you choose. These books let you enter a “world that never was,” a sort of idealized Edwardian one, and you can escape blissfully into it for hours.
There is always poetry. You each know the famous ones, I am certain. Among all of my poetry books, I own a book called The Golden Journey: Poems for Young People, compiled by Louise Bogan and William Jay Smith. The purchase was one of those happy accidents, where I happened to see it on a bargain table in a long-forgotten bookstore and bought it impulsively. There are poems in it for young people, yes, but also for adults or for the child in us. When I dip into it, I find this poem by W.B. Yeats, When You Are Old, that contains these lovely lines:
“But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.”
Another poem that I fell in love with is The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens:
“One must have a mind of winter
To regard the forest and the boughs
Of the pine trees crusted with snow.”
Or this humorous one that Toad made up in the book, Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame:
“The world has held great Heroes,
As history books have showed,
But never a name to go down to fame
Compared with that of Toad!”
And then to the lines in this poem, which I have read and puzzled over often, Gerard Manley Hopkins‘ Spring and Fall: To a young child.
“Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you,
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?”
I will leave you with this haiku by Robert Phillips:
“The cat spreads herself
across my bed, like pea
nut butter, on bread.”
There are so many other poems and books to recommend, but not enough room. I hope that this has given you at least a starting point!
[The branches of the Hillsborough County Public Library are closed as we publish this, but they have an enormous eBook collection, and many of the titles Cindy mentions are available in eBook format. Borrow them online without ever leaving home; enjoy them; and they will “return themselves” on their due date. –Editor]
Lucinda “Cindy” Knox, raised in Illinois, is a retired social worker who also worked as an English teacher and a legal assistant. A member of OLLI-USF since 2007, Cindy has taken numerous courses in literature, writing, theater, poetry, science, humanities, history and politics. She is a regular Great Books course participant.