If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know that I have an abiding love for gentle books. Stories which ultimately make me sigh and feel that, despite everything, all is right with the world. When I say “all is right with the world” I don’t mean in the sense that the hero triumphs, wins the lottery, finds true love, conquers the enemy, whatever. Not in that kind of larger than life sense. I mean that the plot of the novel, the characters, the setting and, in particular, the style make me feel that, no matter what, life can be absorbing, interesting, engaging, beautiful.
Often the books that make me feel this way are those that deal with life close-up. Books that deal with the small but fascinating minutiae of everyday life. And with characters who may be unassuming but, on closer inspection, are also intelligent, perceptive, funny, courageous, and endearing. I’m thinking of books written by Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner, who I’ve written about here And of course the Nancy Mitford books. Or anything about the Mitfords, really. Not sure why I’m so fascinated by that family.
Lately I’ve been in need of a little gentle reading.
I’m at home with my mum in New Brunswick this week. And my brother, the apple of everyone’s eye… at least in the eyes of his mother and three younger sisters… is not doing so well. My big brother has had too many health challenges for me to roll out a list here. And with each knock-down punch he always struggles to his feet, metaphorically speaking, since he’s been in a wheel chair for many years. But of course each time the struggle is harder and longer. And we’re just not sure he has enough fight left in him this time. So I’m feeling a bit beleaguered this week. Mum and I have been at the hospital quite a bit. And I’ve been phoning, and texting my two older sisters and my step-bother, who all live far away, twice a day with updates. And at times when the “situation is iffy” (as Mum says) trying to decide if I should say “Come, now” or not.
So I’ve been taking my one sister’s advice and falling back on the cure for all ills, emotional or spiritual: tea and a good book. I must tell you first that I finally tried reading books on my i-pad when Hubby and I were in South America. I love the convenience, especially when travelling, and I’m even getting used to not being able to hold a real book in my hands. And when scrolling through “recommended books” at the airport last week, I was excited to see that I can get titles from Persephone Books for my Kindle ap. I discovered Persephone Books a few years ago when I picked up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day at the bookstore. I adored that book. And immediately began to look for others like it. But I’ve been unable to get my hands on any more Persophone books in stores here in Canada or at the library. Until now.
If you’re not familiar with Persophone Books, they republish “neglected works of fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers.” Books which are, according to their website, “intelligent, thought-provoking, and beautifully written.” And which have fallen out of favour for whatever reason, and out of print. And this week I’ve been immersed in two books by Dorothy Whipple. Someone at a Distance and The Priory.
I’m not sure why these books make me feel immeasurably better, but they do. Both deal with family drama, told in a most undramatic way. The plots of both novels which involve happy marriages and unhappy marital breakdown, jealousies, selfish manipulations and unselfish sacrifices could so easily have become cliché or soap-opera-ish, but they don’t. Whipple’s characters are beautifully drawn. And her prose is clean and elegant, filled with rich detail, crisp images, and small moments.
The small moments, a solitary tea, the comfort of a cat curling up on a bed, conveying a character’s state of mind so much more evocatively than the big ones. Or, as one reviewer put it, Whipple, by describing the “mundane details,” conveys a character’s “sense of aching loss” so much more effectively than “if she had focussed on screaming matches or sobbing fits.” But you should really read that review for yourself. You can find it here on a lovely blog called Furrowed Middlebrow. Love that title. And coincidentally the author of Furrowed Middlebrow, writes about both Someone at a Distance and The Priory in his post. And like me he says he found them both “compulsive reading.”
Compulsive reading of a lovely, gentle book about characters who ultimately triumph in their struggles even if not in a triumphant way (especially if not in a triumphant way) is always life affirming, don’t you think? Especially if that book is consumed with a nice cup of tea and maybe a ginger cookie. Or two.
So that’s it for me tonight, my friends. I hope you get a chance to check out that book blog I mention above, and have a look at the Persephone Books website. If you’re a Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner fan like I am, I think you’ll find something to your liking there.
And… and… I almost forgot… Persophone Books has a London shop. And… a friend and I are planning a trip to England for this upcoming fall. Can’t you just see us browsing the shelves at Persephone Books in Bloomsbury?
Sigh. A book shop like that just had to be Bloomsbury, now didn’t it?
You can find Dorothy Whipple’s books Someone at a Distance here and The Priory here on Amazon. I now have an affiliate relationship with Amazon, so if you buy the book by clicking the link I will earn a small commission. NO worries if you don’t want to do that. None at all. 🙂
51 thoughts on “In Need of a Little Gentle Reading”
I hope that everything will be alright-I'm so sorry that your brother is doing not well
This post really resonates with me in more ways than one-from the February my father is in-and-out of the hospital almost weekly-all I could read (and I read e-books for a couple of years now,not in croatian-because there is nothing like the "real " book -,but all of my english books,they are much easier to get and less expensive ),often on my mobile phone, in waiting rooms…… I have an excellent book from our young writer Kristijan Novak,but I couldn't concentrate (parallel narrative -problems with Rom-Gipsy-minority here ,similtany following the refugges from Mosul,flasbacks,flash forwards,a lot to think…..it simply goes too slow in this moment)
And I really need some comfort read,just in a way you've described them. Thank you
I've finished When Devil drives…and started The Gentleman in Moscow (maybe not a example of comfort read,but written so beautifully….)
You'll enjoy your trip to London-Bloomsbury is my favourite part of London and I've always stayed there (ok,I love the Savoy hotel,too,but…:-)),unfortunately didn't visit Persephone Books (and it is near Charles Dickins Museum)
I'm sorry that a lot of their other bookstores are closed down
Hope you enjoyed When the Devil Drives, Dottoressa. I'm now reading another Brookmyre book, Black Widow, and finding his tight plot and dark humour as comforting as the Whipple books. I also have been reading on my phone sitting in parking lots, or airport lounges. I think it's funny that I probably look like I'm obsessed with my phone messages when I'm deeply immersed in a book.
I immediately thought of Barbara Pym for you, but of course you're already there. Are you a Dorothy Sayers fan? I find that Gaudy Night cures many ills. The Forsyte Saga is a comfort read for me as well. I'm sorry you're on such a tough path with your brother – wishing him a little more bounce-back and some ease.
Great idea,Carolpres,agree with you-I adore Dorothy Sayers!
Me too. Love Dorothy L. Sayers. And the Forsyte Saga…book and the miniseries produced a few years ago,
So sorry to hear about your brother, he sounds so strong and resilient and he's in the best hands in hospital and with a loving family supporting him.
These days I only read or watch what's not going to make me cry. And I do like the books and films that are smattered with the lottery winning happy endings you mention! I like stories that cocoon me from the world like a parent stroking my head and telling me everything is alright. I'm a lightweight!
Please keep us posted on your London visit plans, I'm sure I won't be the only UK reader interested in your trip! Bloomsbury is lovely; my step daughter spends much time there whilst working for her PhD in creative writing. A great place to mooch around.
Meantime, my thoughts are with you.
Thanks, Mary. We all have our own "cocoon" preferences… You're not a lightweight at all!
I visited Bloomsbury once in 2000 and loved it…can't wait for Elizabeth and I to track down all of our literary landmarks.
I'm sorry your brother is so ill , it must be very hard for your mum too but they must be pleased you are able to spend time with them just now .
Like you , I do love a gentle book & I seem to need them more these days , with one thing & another . I enjoyed Miss Pettigrew on your recommendation & will look at more Persephone books . My favourite modern writer of gentle books is Nina Stebbe . I've just finished her Paradise Lodge & loved it . I wouldn't have thought a book about an old people's care home could be so uplifting & funny . It's on kindle now at a very good price .
We readers are lucky that we can get comfort from a good book – I always find a brisk walk helps too ( Better than turning to drink )
Wendy in Scotland at the moment
Thanks, Wendy. It is hard on Mum. He's her "boy" even at age 69. I too find myself eschewing many books because they are too "heavy" for my mood these days. I must see if I can track down Nina Stebbe books. Oh… wanted to tell you that I recently acquired all of the E.M. Delafield books for my Kindle ap… for $1.99. I read The Provincial Lady on your recommendation and loved it but was only able to get that one book at our library. Looking forward to reading them at my leisure.
In case you are wondering about that announcement about the E.M. Delafield books… I was sure it was you who had first recommended them to me. But just now reread my earlier Pym post and see that it was Susan Thorburn who suggested The Diary of a Provincial Lady.
Oh thanks for that – thought I was forgetting things – again ! I have got Provincial Lady on my kindle book pile after Susan Thorburn recommended it to you . Nice to get all these recommendations here from everyone .
All Dorothy L Sayers (and Gaudy Night is my absolute favourite) and even the unfinished works which have been finished recently…Diary of a Provincial Lady for humour and reticence…Our Teaspoons Came from Woolworths because it is charming…Ballet Shoes for a beautifully written story for children and those who were once children…all will soothe the soul, quieten the mind and keep it restfully focused. Courage! Let us hope for better news from the bedside.
Loved Gaudy Night. Have also read Diary of a Provincial Lady on the recommendation of a blog reader (see comment above.) But I look forward to looking for the other recommendations. Thanks!
I love the same kind of book at times. Huge Anita Brookner fan and I'll be ordering these two. Very sorry to hear about your brother.
Thanks. Whipple isn't as dark as Brookner. But she's still a really good writer.
Getting a kick out of seeing repeated recommendations for Gaudy Night – my perennial fav Sayers also. Given your love for Pym (which I wholeheartedly share), have you read any of Elizabeth Taylor's novels? They are just the kind of thing you are describing. She is sadly under-known (is that even a thing? somewhere between unknown and well-known?) https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2012/may/11/elizabeth-taylor-novelist-english
So sorry to hear you are dealing with such a serious situation so close to your heart. All best wishes to you for continuing strength and peace of mind. –Catbird Farm
Funny you should mention Elizabeth Taylor's work. The review on the blog Furrowed Middlebrow that I mentioned refers to her as well. I must check out her work for sure. Thanks for the suggestion. I was just saying to my Mum today, that until I started writing this blog, I had no clue there were so many felbow Pym lovers.
So sorry to hear this about your brother. Mine passes away almost 7 years ago at 46, so understand some of your struggles. Chronic health issues are just draining. I am going to check out this site and yes, the convenience of my Kindle is amazing. I can read any book in minutes. I have the paperwhite so book like;) I hope you find your book, a very light read is the Southern Sisters Mysteries. The author died so limited amount, but I like them for a fun, light beach read, and because I don't have sisters, I like reading about these 2 sisters relationship.
Thanks, Christa. I'm really enjoying the convenience of having books on my i-pad. So easy for travel.
Sorry to hear about your brother. He was very young. That must have been difficult for your family.
Oh Sue, I know you went into this visit thinking about your mom's future, and so sorry you've got the more immediate and urgent concern about your brother. How tough on the family, especially given the situation you've mentioned earlier that your sister's dealing with. We are moving too rapidly into this territory, aren't we, when mortality lurks 'round too many corners. I'm glad you have found some gentle books to retreat into, and that you have good tea and a few ginger cookies nearby for comfort as well. And armchair dreaming about real travel to enticing far-off places not too long from now. Take care of yourself in between all the care I'm sure you're giving others. xo
Thanks, Frances. Mum and I are still making some progress with her situation, which is good. But we had other stuff to do that we haven't had time or energy for, so I've cancelled my flight and will be staying an extra week. And my older sister, arrives on Monday which is a great relief for both Mum and me. As I said to my other sister, I'm great at doing the driving, taking Mum shopping and generally providing comic relief. But I'm a total blunderer when it comes to the hospital stuff.
It is so hard to make decisions as a caretaker. When do you suggest family members come is always tricky. My favorites in this situation are the types of books you are reading and historical novels. Sometimes it is a relief to escape to another century. I'm currently reading the biography of Katherine of Aragon by Allison Weir since I know relatively little about her, especially in comparison to others in that period. Do have two ginger cookies — the best with tea!
Thanks, Lynn. I love historical fiction and non-fiction as well. Particularly about Henry's many wives. Have you read The Constant Princess by Phillipa Gregory? It's the story of Katherine of Aragon. Gregory has a PhD in history so it's well grounded in history and engagingly written.
HI Sue –
I am sending love. I will hold you all in my thoughts.
Thanks, Nancy. XO
So sorry to hear about your brother. Gentle reading is a means of coping for me as well. I can credit Barbara Pym's books for getting me through the hardest time of my life. My thoughts are with you and your family.
Glad your love of reading is proving a comfort at this very difficult time. So sorry to hear about your brother very sad and hard on all of you. It must help a little that you have the flexibility to travel and stay as needed. Hope things go as well as they can. Your gentle book choices are perfect. Iris
Thanks, Iris. You're right. Retirement means I have the flexibility to travel when needed and stay longer than anticipated. I've extended my stay by a week. Hard to leave Mum on her own when things are so difficult. But reinforcements arrive early next week in the form of my older sister.
http://www.thewomensroomblog.com/2017/05/05/the-love-child-shoe-from-grenson-and-persephone-books/ you might find this interesting! Iris
I sure did! Thanks Iris.
I don't know how far afield this suggestion might be, but the books that helped me get through a really tough time were the Jan Karon novels about an Episcopal priest in the south who finds love late in life. If some religion doesn't put you off, they are delightful and soothing.
I haven't read the Jan Karon books. Not sure why because I've bought them all for my mum over the years! Guess I should remedy that.
I'm so very sorry for the difficult time you are going through with your brother. Thinking of you and your family!
My Barbara Pym-loving soul thanks you for the book recommendations in this post. I will definitely be seeking them out!
Back again briefly to recommend a gem of a book that recently cast its spell over me, and it would definitely fall into the "gentle reading" category: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim.
Thanks, Denise. As I said to Catbird Farm above… Who knew there were so many Pym lovers in the world. I haven't read Enchanted April, but I've seen the film numerous times.
I watched the film after reading the book, and I did enjoy it … but it wasn't as magical as the book!
You are all going through a tough time. I'm so sorry. I am so thrilled to know you adored, Miss Pettigrew Lives for the day. I adored it. You seem to also be the only other person I know reading Barbara Pym. I do so love conforting books. There is enough pain in the world I don't need to breing it into my mind. I also will be in London this fall with my husband. Tea?
Thanks, Sandy. It seems there is a huge Pym community out there… If this blog is anything to go by, that is. Tea would be lovely if we're there at the same time.
Sorry to hear of your challenges. Even without the emotional side of things hospital visiting is very tiring. All the books suggested are lovely reads. I am a great fan of Dorothy L Sayers. So many of the books printed by Persephone were written in another era when writing somehow seemed more gentle. Definitely "gentle reading" is something to calm when you are struggling and will help you to take care of yourself at this difficult time.
Thanks, Christy. I am excited to explore more Persephone books. So happy that they exist.
I'm so sorry to hear about your brother's struggle and glad that you're able to be there to support him and your mom at such a difficult time. How fortunate we are to be able to escape into good books at times like that and I find nothing more soothing than doing that with a good cup of tea. I haven't tried an e-reader yet, but I really should. It would be so much easier than carrying books when we travel.
Where would we readers be without good books? This is something my mum and I say all the time.
So sorry to read about these difficulties. One suggestion is The Inn at Lake Devine, an early book by Elinor Lipman. I read much of Brookner and then couldn't take the dark anymore but understand how her muted muted tone works as gentle. Yes, adored Gaudy Night (Sayers) and don't mind picturing Edward Petheridge when I think of it. A book I retread when flu-ish is Letting Go by Philip Roth, an atypical work, being a deeply engrossing family saga. Then there's The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, although the tone isn't that calm. But the acme of highly intelligent but beautiful quiet and loving gentleness is The Sunday Philosophy Club series by Alexander McCall Smith. No one does it better, but do read them in order.
Brookner is dark isn't she. Still, I love her writing. I have an Elizabeth Jane Howard book that I haven't read yet. It keeps getting shifted to the bottom of the pile…I'll go remedy that now:)
Sorry for those typos. The font is so small that I miss them.
Sending loving, healing thoughts your way, and virtual hugs…..there's nothing in this world quite like a brother.
Ditto the suggestion above about the Sunday Philosophy Club series. I eagerly await each new volume.
Just finished reading this week's NY Times travel section, which has a whole spread on the gardens of Bloomsbury! I am bookmarking this one for possible future travel. Love the idea of blending the literary and the beauty of the garden. Apparently, many of the Bloomsbury set were avid, accomplished gardeners. The one I would love to see is Farley Farm House, the home studio of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose. I find her story fascinating.
Thanks, Adele. I haven't tried the Sunday Philosophy Club series. I'll see if I can order a couple of the early ones from the library. That whole Bloomsbury thing fascinates me almost as much as the Mitford thing. Almost.
Oh my goodness, thank you. I cannot stop reading The Priory. It is so perfect for my reading sesibility. I love it. Please let me know about more of this type of book. I will of course start reading all of Dorothy Whipple. Love Miss Pettigrew Lives for the Day. I feel that this book is in the same genre which I love. So thank you for such a great read.
Really glad you're enjoying the book, Sandra. It's weird but when I tried to explain the book to Hubby, it sounded like nothing but a soap opera. And it's so much more than that.
I'm surprised the haven't made it into a series. Perfect. It is kinda soap operas but in the best way.
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