Week, err, six, is it? How are we all doing? I am less ‘keep calm and carry on’ and more ‘grit teeth and get through it’. Books definitely help me do the latter. Disillusioned by this world? Scared? Uncertain? Escape into a book. Such is my dependence upon them, I have had to severely curtail my impulse to write a post to rival War & Peace in length, if not content. Here’s some tried-and-tested comfort reads and some brilliant new forthcoming books in my lockdown reading list.
When it comes to comfort reads, I want something that feels reassuringly familiar – even if I’ve not read it before – which I can slip into like a pair of favourite slippers or a warm bath after a long day attempting to balance home school with work and domestic administration, not to mention the UN peacekeeping mission that is maintaining equilibrium between siblings.
I also need something GOOD. I don’t mean worthy. I deplore labelling books on the basis of their so-called merits: for which read literary Booker-prize-winner = good; ‘beach read’ or, worse still, ‘chick lit’ = bad. It’s incredibly reductive and, well, smacks of literary snobbishness – and it’s usually meted out to books written by women. Hurumph. By ‘good’ I mean a quality read, one in which you can lose yourself, written well but not self-consciously.
P.S. Please, if you can, order books from your local bookshop. Or many libraries are offering free digital downloads.
Let’s kick off with EM Delafield’s note-perfect The Diary of a Provincial Lady which is, frankly, joy in a book. The beleaguered Provincial Lady lives with her husband, Robert (monosyllabic, falls asleep over The Times, prone to turning down the heating) and two children in a country village. Think storms in teacups and brilliantly-sketched characters. It is an utter delight. (See also the sequels, set during Wartime and in America.)
On a similar note, make a bookish beeline for Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and Mrs Buncle’s Book, both from the wonderful Persephone Books. In Winifred Watson’s frothy confection of delight, dowdy, downtrodden governess Miss P is sent to the wrong address and is caught up in the glamorous world of Miss LaFosse (the name alone says it all). Mrs Buncle’s Book taps into that same comforting balm that All Is Not Lost and Happiness Will Win Out. Unmarried, genteel Barbara Buncle writes a novel, set in her thinly-disguised village. Cue comic uproar as the locals vow to find the perfidious author.
More village capers in E.F. Benson’s Mapp & Lucia books. In Emmeline ‘Lucia’ Lucas, Miss Elizabeth Mapp and their supporting cast of characters, Benson gave us some of the greatest comic creations in literature. Tea parties, bridge, charity fundraising – nothing is sacred in their pursuit of social supremacy. You will gobble them up in delight.
Dodie (101 Dalmations) Smith’s I Capture the Castle has one of the best opening lines ever: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”. Aspiring novelist Cassandra Mortmain lives in the decayed grandeur of a Suffolk castle with her deeply eccentric family. Love, Life and Adventure – and money to pay the rent – is what Cassandra and her romance-struck sister Rose crave – and their handsome new American landlords might just provide all three…
We could really do with Flora Poste to blow into Number 10 and take over crisis management. No-nonsense, unflappable, indefatigable, charming – only she could tackle the unpromising Cold Comfort Farm in Stella Gibbons’ comic masterpiece.
There are shades of Gibbons’ eccentricity in Nina Stibbe’s wonderful novels featuring her irresistible heroine, Lizzie Vogel. Her prose is sharp, warm and hilarious by turns. I ordered Reasons to be Cheerful because I am entirely convinced it is one of those reasons. Her gloriously comic memoir, Love, Nina is another must-read.
You’ve probably read Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love – if not, add them to your list immediately – so try this fascinating collection of the sisters’ correspondence: The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters.
For another extraordinary life far, far removed from our own , I beg you to read Lady In Waiting – Anne Glenconner’s extraordinary memoir of a life devoted to serving Princess Margaret. On a similar non-fiction but equally escapist vein, I recently read and extracted, Love in the Blitz (you can read the extract I did for YOU here) the love letters of Eileen Alexander. A chance ebay find by its editor, it is an absolute treasure trove of lost letters which utterly capture another extraordinary moment in time with wit, charm and honesty. (And if you like this or the idea thereof, try Dear Mrs Bird.)
Like Jane Austen with her piece of ivory, with whom she is often compared, Barbara Pym’s – her novels are small scale delights, sharply observed with a poignant acceptance that ‘this is just the way things are’. Excellent Women is, as the Von Trapps would say, a very good place to start.
Obviously in times of darkness, you might wish to remove yourself from reality altogether – I have friends who swear by Georgette Heyer’s splendid, escapist romps for this very purpose. Or you could get thee to Jilly Cooper, doyenne of the genre. I came late to Jilly. I was 19 and had been prevailed upon to go on holiday with a new boyfriend and his parents – about which I was curiously reluctant. Rightly so, it transpired when, during the first week, I found said new boyfriend writing a (truly terrible) poem to his ex. I think I read every book in the place in the ensuing time: Riders, Rivals and The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous got me through. (My friend Kat is part of a Jilly Cooper bookclub and Jilly invited them to tea. HOW AMAZING IS THIS?)
I’d read Nora Ephron’s shopping list. If you haven’t read Heartburn, then please do so forthwith. Seven-months-pregnant Rachel discovers her husband is in love with someone else. A fictionalised account of the ending of Ephron’s own second marriage, the result is comedic, engaging and highly satisfying. (The Most of Nora Ephron is one of my desk essentials.)
Anne Tyler specialises in the extraordinary in ordinary lives. (I think love her more than Elizabeth Strout – is this controversial?) Discuss.) In her brilliant hands, the mundane becomes utterly engaging. There’s a real thread of melancholy that runs through her novels: those small moments in family relationships on which worlds turn. Breathing Lessons won the Pulitzer – I’ve always loved The Amateur Marriage and A Spool of Blue Thread. (I’m a fan of Ann Patchett’s for similar reasons. The Dutch House is my current bedtime reading.)
I recently heard the wondrous Marian Keyes on Radio 4, trenchantly defending literature written by women (why – just because it’s of interest to women – is it a “women’s book”? Why is it acceptable to belittle what interests women?): depressing, incorrect and downright lazy. Her books are brilliantly warm, nuanced and relatable. I’ve added her latest, Grown-Ups to my reading list.
Just out now…. The Switch is the follow-up to Beth O’Leary’s debut, The Flatshare. Leena swaps lives with her grandmother, Eileen, with hilarious and cockle-warming results. I loved Eileen – what a woman she is.
Ireland seems to be churning out some fabulous young writers right now. (Anyone else still swooning over the BBC adaptation of Normal People? So atmospheric. Doesn’t it capture the exquisite joy and torment of first love brilliantly?) Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times heralds the arrival of another vital new voice. Although, cripes, twentysomethings seem to live more than I did at that age!
(Lockdown is also an excellent excuse to return to your childhood favourites: my daughter and I have been reading/re-reading Ballet Shoes, Pollyanna, Anne of Green Gables, Five Dolls in a House, and now A Little Princess.)
As an antidote to the daily impossible task of work and home schooling (maths is still as horrid as ever it was and phonics is unutterably tedious) I am currently wading – pleasurably – through a big pile of proofs. There’s some GLORIOUS stuff heading our way this summer. And pre-orders matter to authors and publishers more than ever.
Beloved children’s author Catriona Robinson has always dedicated her books to her beloved, reclusive, orphaned grand-daughter Emily is forced. When her grandmother dies unexpectedly, Emily is forced out of her comfort zone and into following a trail of breadcrumbs around Europe. Katherine Slee’s accomplished debut For Emily (May) is an absolute treat.
Fancy being transplanted to the lush Italian countryside? Then pick up Paolo Giordano’s Heaven and Earth (May) and escape into an epic, elegiac story of love, revenge and growing up.
The Weekend (June) by Charlotte Wood is touted as Big Little Lies meets The Robber Bride with shades of Elizabeth Strout: who could resist? After Sylvie’s death, her three oldest friends meet for one last weekend at her beach house. Explosive revelations loom.
I devoured Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures (July) with real pleasure. Life has rather passed Jean Swinny by – or so she thinks. A reporter at her local paper, she follows up a letter from Gretchen Tilbury, who claims to have had a virgin birth. She becomes drawn into the story – and the Tilburys’ life. It’s beautifully-drawn, with an exquisite sense of time and place. Chambers could well be a worthy successor to Barbara Pym.
You’ll have to hang on ‘til August for Louise Fein’s People Like Us, but it’s worth the wait. Germany, 1939. Hetty is the archetypal Germanic girl, the daughter of an SS officer, she fully subscribes to the ideology of the state. But she is also conflicted: when she was seven-years-old, Walter saved her from drowning. Walter is a Jew. Powerful stuff.
August also sees the publication of Betty, the heroine of Tiffany McDaniel’s novel, set in the Appalachian hills in the 1950s. Be warned: this is not an easy read. Betty’s life is marked by violence and cruelty – she witnesses things no child should, but it’s ultimately about hope and how Betty seeks redemption through words.
Whew. I must stop. But please tell me what’s on your lockdown reading list – or share the books you find comforting. New additions to my bedside reading pile are always welcome!
Literary Lockdown Survival Kit
My reading-for-pleasure time (I read for work in the day) is the evenings after the children are abed. We have a slipper bath in our new bathroom and it’s a great bringer of joy. I add Batch 001 salts, which smell divine and I swear they help me sleep (and when I tore an intercostal muscle, they eased the soreness). I would in the past have saved these ‘for best’, but decided to use and relish them. A headband is a must for keeping hair dry – and does double duty by day as a roots-concealer. (The roots situation is Not Good.) I have my eye on a band in Alex’s shop, which will conceal as much as physically possible.
I am a Big Fan of wafting around – and cosying up to read – in a pretty (and forgiving) dress and a cardigan – this one by Lily & Bean is the prettiest I’ve seen yet. Now pass my a nice cushion, put some flowers in my eyeline (I don’t know why but they help. They just do) and a glass of wine in an attractive glass and I’m ready to drift away into a book.
1. Cardigan, £69, Lily and Bean; 2. Salt and Oil bath soak, £20-£35, Batch 001; 3. Alice bouquet, from £38, Bloom & Wild; 4. Headband, £19, Oliver Bonas; 5. Midi dress, £85, & Other Stories; 6. Waterfall coupe, £14, Anthropologie; 7. Cushion cover, £8.99, H&M Home; 8. Navy gingham dress, £195, Justine Tabak