Books to warm your heart

I started out the year with a grand reading plan — a fiction and a nonfiction book each month (or so). I thought it would be a good discipline so that I could read some of the books and authors I’d long had on my mental list, while also expanding my material past (mostly) fiction. I also joined a book club one of my friends was starting up. January’s book list was Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and Augustine’s Confessions. I finished Hardy in February (because book club was reading Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread), and Augustine is … still on the bookshelf waiting for me to finish. In the meantime, book club started on To Kill a Mockingbird, which was right around the time COVID-19 started to pop up in the U.S. Though I love Scout Finch to pieces and intend to get back to the story eventually, I’m just about at the part where things start getting … hard. So I’ve started reading through my “books that feel like home.” 

These are old favorites (or new/newer favorites) that I come back to again and again because they only get better with re-reading. They’re cozy, funny, heart-warming, uplifting, maybe even inspiring. And, interestingly, all but one of the books on my primary list were written by women.

Incomparable classics

Well really, can you have a list like this without at least some Jane Austen? I don’t think so.

I first read Pride & Prejudice at 15, and I have to admit I didn’t get it. My childhood best friend and all our mutual friends were enraptured by the 5-hour BBC miniseries, and I, quite frankly … didn’t get it. To me it was just a bunch of flirting and nonsense, and I didn’t understand Mr. Darcy’s appeal at all. Then, six years ago before a trip to England, I bought the Kiera Knightley version of P&P for $5 because I thought it would be fun to watch while packing. (I always pack early). Matthew McFadyen’s Mr. Darcy, the shy, introverted, socially overwhelmed version, suddenly made sense to me. I dashed out to the nearest bookstore, bought myself a copy of P&P, and devoured it before heading off to England. I finally got it. When I got back, I re-read or read all of Austen’s completed novels.

The reason Austen’s books are beloved by every generation, by women and men alike, is that her observations of human nature are shrewd, intelligent, and full both of irony and affection. No, most of us ladies don’t find ourselves today persued by awkward parsons who solicit our hands in marriage (though only because our eldest sisters are shortly to be engaged themselves). But we all know someone who is as much of a helpless ass as Mr. Collins, don’t we? And pride and prejudice are rampant in the human condition, no matte what the time or place.

I have to admit I didn’t fully appreciate Emma either until watching the Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller miniseries, but time also helped me understand this novel. (I begin to suspect I was not a particularly observant or insightful 15-year-old.) When I was a teenager, Emma as a character was older than I was — so how come she was acting so stuck up and silly and mucking about with people’s lives like that? When I was older, however, I could appreciate the humor of the invalid Mr. Woodhouse and could better understand the nuances of why Emma did what she did. There are some painfully awkward parts in this, of course, but it couldn’t be a proper happy-ending Austen novel without them, could it?

I didn’t read Persuasion until I was an adult, but I absolutely love Anne Elliot. Her kind heart, selfless attitude, intelligent mind and enduring love (for Captain Wentworth, but also for her school friend and her own Very Trying family) are something any person should want to emulate. Plus, it takes place in Bath, and I adore Bath. (I fell in love with the limestone buildings. Don’t judge me.)

Further reading
Northanger Abbey — The shortest, funniest, apparently least-read of Austen’s novels. I love it.
Sense & Sensibility — If you know your Enneagram, Marianne is a 4. I don’t understand her. But then, I am Elinor, so there.
The Grand Sophy — By Georgette Heyer, and screamingly funny. Her Regency era novels are mostly quick, hilarious reads, with a lot of historically accurate slang and fashion details (and lots of men with strong thighs …), so they’re not “highbrow,” exactly, but they’re a ton of fun.
Venetia — By Georgette Heyer as well, featuring one of her more rakish “heroes” and a delightful and undisputed heroine.

Soul-soothers

I thought of calling this section “Thrilling romances,” but that … just didn’t seem right.

I just finished reading this for the first time after having a hankering to re-watch the film version. I was told that the book was “even better than the film” (and the film has Michael Kitchen in it, so it’s great), so it had a lot to live up to. And it succeeded. I read Brenda Bowen’s introduction first and it was very helpful for understanding both Von Arnim and the circumstances that inspired her to write a prodigious quantity of novels. (If you’ve seen the film adaptation of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and remember that Elizabeth McKenna mentions the book Elizabeth and Her German Garden to a German officer — that is a real book, and Elizabeth Von Arnim wrote it.) It’s a bit hard to explain why this book is so lovely, as, I expect, it depends on whether you see yourself as Scrap, Lotty, Rose, or Mrs. Fisher. But it takes place on the Italian Riviera, in April, and is full of sunshine, blooming things and things beginning to bloom, astute observations, wry commentary, and brilliance. Just read it.

Thanks to this book I’ve taken a seven-hour ferry ride to a small island closer to France than to England. If you have not yet read this, where on earth have you been? I’m beginning to lose track of how many times I’ve read it in the past six or seven years. In fact, I listened to the audiobook late last year and then re-read it again this winter (when I was, ahem, supposed to be reading St. Augustine and Mr. Hardy). It’s a modern-day novel set in 1946, and the writing is just perfect. It’s told through the form of letters (and the occasional telegram), with each character having a unique, vibrant style and humor of their own. Oh, I just love it so much. The film, I was sad to observe, is not quite able to retain that vibrancy or humor, nor some of the more poignant aspects of the plot. If you must watch the film, oh, read the book too!

This book was a birthday present from one of my best friends, and as I read it I felt like I’d come home. There is really no other way to describe it. It was originally published in Spanish (and is likely set in Spain, or, perhaps, France) and then translated into English, so there are a few awkward or odd elements or turns of phrase here or there that are probably attributable to the translation process, rather than the original text. It is completely delightful, nonetheless. It is about love, intelligence, faith and wonder. It is full of cake and hot chocolate and monks. In it children learn Latin and learn how to joust like medieval knights and a brilliant man finds brilliant books that he’s absently left in the pantry next to the beans (or perhaps that was the children). It is idyllic — almost ostentatiously idyllic. And very, very lovely.

Witty mysteries

Joy Clarkson recently did a podcast on “The Consolation of Mystery Novels.” I will let you go listen to that episode to find out why they’re consoling — but I’ve been devouring mysteries since I was six years old and I have to agree, they are just the thing.

I’ve been reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise aloud on my site’s Facebook page for the past week or two as part of a “Lunchtime Storytime,” because, after all, adults sometimes need a storytime too. This is not only one of my favorite of Sayers’ books, not only one of my favorite mysteries, but one of my absolute most favorite novels in general. The brilliance of Sayers’ writing here is just incomparable. The book was written in the early 1930s, but her description of the field of advertising (and, more briefly, journalism) is so spot-on that I feel Sayers would understand and sympathize with the deep satisfaction I derive from writing a perfect four-column lead headline (if you don’t understand what that means, that’s fine, and I’m happy for you). The mystery itself is suitably complex, and there is plenty of intrigue and danger, a spot of romance (of a sort), many sticky situations, innumerable wry observations of human nature, and, to top it all off, an epic game of cricket.

My other favorite Sayers novel, and the third in her series featuring Harriet Vane. Honestly, you should really read Strong Poison and Have His Carcase first, because you won’t sufficiently appreciate this book without them. (That is my opinion and I’m sticking to it.) I see that my rather lurid pulp paperback copy says it shows “Lord Peter Wimsey at his deductive best,” which maybe it does, but it is, first and foremost, about Harriet — and then about Peter because it’s about Harriet. Read it and see — there is more than one mystery to be solved here.

Further reading
Strong Poison — The first Harriet Vane and Lord Peter adventure.
Have His Carcase — The second Harriet and Lord Peter.
Whose Body? — The first Lord Peter novel.
Clouds of Witness — Lord Peter’s family finds itself in a sticky situation. Our beloved sleuth to the rescue!
The Man in the Brown Suit — By Agatha Christie, and not, perhaps, one’s typical mystery novel. Still, it’s one of my favorites.
The Secret Adversary — By Agatha Christie, and the first of her Tommy & Tuppence novels. All the novels (and the short stories) in this series are a lot of fun, and you also see the protagonists age through the years, something you don’t see as much of with Miss Marple and Poirot, who seem to be perpetually ancient.

Rib-ticklers

Sometimes you just need to laugh. And laugh. And laugh.

This is another book I first met through its film adaptation. My college theatre professor made a passing reference one day to “Cold Comfort Farm,” and the phrase stuck in my memory. Many years later I looked up the film, and, sometime after that, read the novel. Oh my. This edition, with a foreword by Lynne Truss, of Eats, Shoots & Leaves fame, is particularly excellent, as Truss gives a good background on Gibbons and the novel itself. I knew it was a parody of bleak rural literature of the sort Hardy wrote, but I didn’t know until I read Truss’ intro that it was an even more direct parody of D.H. Lawrence … which explains a lot of things (and decided me against reading anything Lawrence wrote). Because of this, it contains a number of references of various kinds to “sex” and “lust,” but in such a way that the only feelings they elicit are ones of outright laughter. Apparently the literati of Gibbons’ day didn’t take kindly to it. I wonder why?

Oh, I say, here’s our chap, what? No list of books to make one laugh could be complete without something by P.G. Wodehouse. I haven’t read this novel for a few years, so I’m a bit rusty on the details at the moment, but there’s a film adaptation starring Fred Astaire, George Burns and Gracie Allen that has very little to do with the original plot (which involves a boy, a girl, below-stairs betting and all kinds of other hijinks). That film, by the way, introduced the song “A Foggy Day in London Town.”

Further reading
Cluny Brown — By Margery Sharpe, who also wrote “The Rescuers,” etc. Cluny (short for Clover) is a girl who “doesn’t know her place,” to quote her uncle, who is a plumber. He tries to help her find it — and adventures ensue.
The Adventures of Sally — By P.G. Wodehouse
Doctor Sally — Also by PGW
Love Among the Chickens — Also by PGW
The Girl in Blue — Also by PGW
Pretty much anything by PGW
Crampton Hodnet — By Barbara Pym. An odd book, but funny, in an odd, British sort of way.
Scoop — By Evelyn Waugh. A woefully inept foreign correspondent still comes home a hero! The sort kind of tale to warm the cockles of any cynical journalist’s heart.
The Loved One — By Evelyn Waugh. It is not AT ALL what you expect. I shall say no more.