Two years ago, I published a list of comfort reading to beat the drab January blues. Little did I know that winter 2019 was a golden nirvana, a halcyon period when you could meet a friend for a drink, blast out your problems in the gym, soothe your soul in an art gallery, or do something really crazy like hug your granny without feeling like Harold Shipman.
For reasons that are all too obvious, now feels like the right time to revisit this list. As I wrote before, comfort reading doesn’t mean junk reading. This is not the cheap white bread of the literary world. There are some books that have it all, as beautifully written and thought-provoking as they are life-affirming.
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 shell-shocked 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 Netflix binges, 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 lockdown solace. Here’s my updated, uplifting selection.
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Lucky Jim, 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.
Anxious People, Fredrik Backman
Trap seven strangers at an apartment viewing with a scatty estate agent and an inept armed bank robber, and what do you get? The world’s most charmingly addictive hostage drama, translated from the original Swedish of the best-selling author Fredrik Backman. Part reflection on the failings of late-stage capitalism, part meditation on what binds people together or makes them fall apart, it is entirely heart-warming and hilarious.
Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams
It's hard not to fall for the self-defeating heroine of this novel, which the publisher describes as “Bridget Jones’s Diary meets Americanah”. A dubious love life, a gynaecological exam, an insecure career, the gentrification of south London, and toxic racial stereotypes are all rich seams for Carty-Williams’s comic exploration. This is a frank, funny and important portrayal of how young Black women experience the word in the time of Black Lives Matter.
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.
Ordinary People, Diana Evans
There’s consolation in the idea that all people suffer a bout of midlife malaise, even fantastically glamorous and attractive people like the power couple at the heart of Diana Evans’s novel. As the fizz and spontaneity of young love turns into the relentless treadmill of parenthood, Evans spins comedy and pathos from the way “ordinary people” struggle to adjust. Laced with sensitive insights on how men and women tend to experience these challenges differently, it will also make you feel better about living in your pyjamas on the sofa.
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.
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 extra-terrestrial 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.
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.
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.
Dear Mrs Bird, AJ Pearce
Anyone home-schooling will need to summon up the Blitz spirit, and this romp through war-time London is awash with the stuff. Miss Emmeline Lake wants to be a war correspondent, but ends up filling in for a stuffy agony aunt whose list of unmentionable subjects “is not exclusive and will be added to when required”. Naturally, Emmeline starts to break taboos and confront the female war experience in a way that feels touching and timely. A sterling read to stiffen those wobbling upper lips.
The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion
A successful relationship usually means adjusting to how someone else sees the world. This is more of a challenge when that someone is Don Tillman, who cooks exactly the same thing every week according to The Standardised Meal System, calculates everyone's BMI on first glance, and decides to find a wife by distributing a questionnaire.
Enter chaos in the form of Rosie, who meets none of the criteria but nonetheless, well, ticks his box. Beneath the fun and the fluff there is a quietly profound exploration of the assumptions around autism and what it means to have an atypical – or a typical – brain.
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 prostate problems. He’s wrong. If anyone can shake a comic fist at cancer, it’s Townsend.
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.
The Mating Season, PG Wodehouse
Feeling 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.
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