It’s January. It’s cold, dark and dreary. The holidays are over. In a word, Brexit. You could join a choir or start a gratitude diary or try dry January or veganism. Or you could just shut the curtains, pour yourself a gin and tonic, and curl up with a good book.
Not just any good book: there is a certain kind of quality comfort reading that is the perfect solace in the long, dark January of the soul. The kind of book that is sweet but not sickly, sharp but not bitter, hilarious but without the hum of rage or resentment as its engine. We’re talking Bertie Wooster, not Patrick Melrose.
Over time, I’ve built up a collection of books that I turn to whenever I’m struggling, and that I give to friends instead of flowers or chocolates if they’re dealing with anything from sickness to heartbreak or bereavement. The soothing power of literature is well documented: there’s a reason shellshocked soldiers were prescribed Jane Austen. She also works if you’re stressed, insecure and awake approximately 73 times a night feeding a newborn.
Books take you away from your own thoughts in a quieter way than television, giving you space to simultaneously rest your mind and stretch your imagination. Add the specific kind of dry humour or madcap whimsy that so many English-language writers excel at and you have the perfect fix for the January – or Brexit – blues. Here’s my uplifting selection.
Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis
Fact: it is impossible to read Lucky Jim while eating a bowl of cornflakes without spraying them across your kitchen wall. Amis’s spoof of the academic life is uproariously funny. The eponymous Jim Dixon is an unimpressive junior lecturer clinging to a job with a pompous professor he loathes. The set piece that ensues when he is invited to his professor’s fussy home, passes out drunk with a cigarette in his hand then tries to cover up the damage to the guest bedroom is farce of the first order.
Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
Yes, Fanny Price is the sappiest heroine to wear a spotted muslin gown, but there is something irresistibly reassuring in this classic triumph of the underdog tale. Plucked from her own family to live with her aristocratic relatives, the meek and worthy Miss Price sticks to her values and finally comes into her own. Revel in Austen’s timeless and gently barbed prose, and sigh with contentment as the noisome Aunt Norris gets her comeuppance.
Diary of a Provincial Lady, EM Delafield
Before there was Bridget Jones, there was Delafield’s provincial lady, cataloguing her struggles with supercilious neighbours, a distracted husband and unforthcoming hyacinth bulbs. The home counties domesticity may be a creation of the 1930s, but some things are eternal, from the mixture of joy and tedium that is parenting, to the jolt of horror when you catch your reflection unawares in the mirror of a changing room.
Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin
Mary Ann Singleton is an ingenue with a steely core who gets the awakening of her life when she quits staid Cleveland for the San Francisco of the late Seventies . From rollerskating gay nuns to a landlady who tapes a joint to your door in times of need, it’s a world you will not want to leave. Originally written in serial form as a newspaper column, this won’t let you catch your breath between the cliff-hangers – or stop laughing – until you’ve worked your way through the whole series.
The Humans, Matt Haig
Ever feel like you don’t quite belong? Well, at least you’re not an alien sent to earth to assassinate a mathematics professor before his breakthrough gives “the humans” technological powers they are clearly too stupid and violent to wield. This is an unusual and totally endearing novel. The set-up provides sniggering slapstick – like when the naked extraterrestrial narrator concludes that the appropriate way to greet a human is to spit on them – as well as nuanced insights on what it means to be an earthling.
The Mating Season, PG Wodehouse
Down because your love life just died in a ditch? It could be worse. You could be Bertie Wooster, inadvertently engaged to Madeleine Bassett, who thinks that the stars are God’s daisy chain. It’s hard to single out one PG Wodehouse book as the entire Jeeves and Wooster collection is Bach Rescue Remedy in literary form, but this tale of romantic imbroglio is a priceless hoot. Aunts loom large, but so, fortuitously, does the all-conquering butler Jeeves. Every sentence is a perfectly wrought delight.
Not Working, Lisa Owens
For anyone in the grips of a quarter-life crisis, this debut novel is comic gold. The frustrated millennial narrator quits her job because there must be more to life than marketing novelty vodka. The trouble is, she’s not sure what. To make matters worse, while she fails to find an answer, get fit or read Proust, her boyfriend is a life-saving brain surgeon. The diary format may be quick to guzzle but the smart insights on the hunt for purpose ring so true they linger.
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
It’s hard not to fall in love with Count Rostov, an impeccably mannered and mischievous aesthete placed under permanent house arrest at Moscow’s Metropol hotel. The hotel is a gilded cage, the novel the story of Rostov’s journey to despair and back against the backdrop of Russia’s political tumult. An endearing and frequently hilarious novel that covers big topics with a velvet touch.
Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
Never mind meditation apps: if you’re feeling frayed around the edges, just channel your inner Flora Poste. In this 1932 spoof of rural melodrama, a preternaturally poised young woman takes on a sprawling, dysfunctional family and leads them gently in the direction of sanity and hygiene. With humour this sardonic you can forgive the shamelessly romantic ending that is the unflappable Flora’s just dessert.
Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years, Sue Townsend
Sue Townsend was simply one of the funniest writers who ever wore socks, and her Adrian Mole series is a satirical gem that follows her hapless protagonist from adolescence to middle age, revealing some sharp home truths about British society in the process. At thirty-nine and a half, Adrian is convinced he’s too young to have prostrate problems. He’s wrong. If anyone can shake a comic fist at cancer, it’s Townsend.
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