Books for Difficult Times – a list
When life gets a bit difficult – a sudden crisis, ill health in the family – a global pandemic – there are books (or series of books) that I have found a useful distraction. Not that they have completely removed my thoughts from what is going on but have provided a bit of a break. It’s a bit tough in our family at the moment, so I thought I would share some ideas in the hope that they may focus my mind and perhaps help somebody else. Nothing too obscure, nothing that is too difficult to find, but series and individual books that have helped in the past.
First, Jane Austen’s six novels. They have the benefit of distance, can be funny if read in the right way, and are free of life and death situations. The main one is “Pride and Prejudice” of course. The other advantage is that there are many tv adaptations and audio versions so even if you cannot face reading the books, there are other possibilities.
Georgette Heyer books – the Regency\Georgian books, are not really in series order, but some characters do pop up in various novels again. These, like Austen, are free of tragedy generally, but often feature humour and a chase across the countryside. They also usually feature a happy ending for most of the characters…
PG Wodehouse has got me through some tricky times. Yes, like Georgette Heyer, they can be an acquired taste, but they are incredibly funny once you understand the humour. There are the Jeeves books, and they of course were brought to life by Fry and Laurie quite brilliantly. Less well known but possibly even funnier are the Blanding novels – featuring tired and emotional secretaries throwing flowerpots, pigs and irritable gardeners galore.
My pandemic survival books were a multitude – I reviewed a book every single day for three months, but three authors were particularly significant. Barbara Pym’s novels such as “Excellent Women” and “Jane and Prudence” got an airing – but I avoided her later works as they are known to be more serious. Not that everyone ends up living happily ever after -but it’s all very gentle stuff. Mary Stewart novels also featured – rather dated thrillers featuring a woman trying to work out what is really going on in fairly exotic locations. Not to everyone’s taste, but absorbing stuff!
A more contemporary series – the twelfth and final book has recently been published – also helped. “The Shipyard Girls” series is set in the Second World War and feature a gang of woman working as welders in one of the shipyards of Sunderland – the main yard is fictional but the author, Nancy Revell, is based in the area and is deeply immersed in the sights, the sounds and the bitter weather. There are a few tragedies, betrayal, happiness, bitterness and danger. As the series progresses the main characters’ backstories emerge, family and friend links become more complex, houses magically expand to fit all comers and all human life is here. There are definite baddies who do evil things, and women who rally round to deal with them, at least on a temporary basis. Some incidents are memorable and tragic, other events positive and revealing enormous loyalty. Revell has been very careful to spin out her tales so the War proceeds in almost real time – she certainly does not jump months or years but steadily reveals life on a realistic basis. Not comfort reading in the sense that everyone is happy and satisfied in every novel, but absorbing, distracting and generally good humoured in the face of wartime challenges.
Finally, my latest find – the Miss Read “Thrush Green” books. Yes, I have had a long-term relationship with Angela Thirkell novels, with all their wonderful characters and entertaining situations, but they are not everyone’s taste and some of the writing has not aged well, even if the wartime novels are wonderful in my opinion. Miss Read wrote later, well into the 1970s, and beyond, and so for her background events can safely be ignored. Life in this village is far less dramatic than war and the surrounding times. Indeed, I think it is very difficult to give an exact time for them – some things like the cars available suggest relatively recently, but other elements are pretty timeless. I discovered an edition of the books which are illustrated and emerged for a division of Penguin. My most recent is “Encounters at Thrush Green” which is an omnibus edition of “The School at Thrush Green” and “Friends at Thrush Green”. The two novels feature the characters of a small village, such as the Vicar, the local eccentrics and those who help them, and in the first book, Dorothy and Agnes, the headteacher and teacher at the school respectively, who propose to retire and move away. There are the trials of learning to drive again, what to buy the two ladies, difficult and demanding relatives and general idealistic village life with a full time Vicar, a GP always on hand for constant house calls, and a small village school of settled families unto the umpteenth generation. In the second book one of the long-term residents of the village shows disturbing tendencies to collect items, and a new arrival has a problem that could have tragic consequences. While these are small concerns in the great scheme of things, and such a perfect village never existed, this is peak comfort reading. Miss Read wrote an immense number of books, none of which have ever been seen as great literature, but they are essentially predictable, safe, and what else could you need in a difficult time?