So a few weeks ago I was chatting with the ladies of one of my book clubs. We were deciding what we would read for the next few months. And we came to a unanimous decision. We needed some light reads. We are somewhat lacking in resilience these days. It takes less and less to knock us sideways, off our perch of equanimity. And we don’t need to make things worse with the books we choose to read. So we decided to add to our reading list a few books which might be considered “light reads.”
Not just light reads. But light reads. Not “light reads” when the term is used in a pejorative sense, as a put down for a book that is not weighty enough, nor difficult enough to be considered worth reading, at least by some readers. But in the sense that a book can be wonderful and worthwhile and still be easy to read, written in a style that is deceptively simple.
I say deceptively because one can often dismiss a book as a “light read” when, in fact, it is perceptive, captivating, and subtly life-altering. And when you’ve finished, you’ll still be thinking about it. So perhaps I should say that we chose books which we considered light reads, but also “lightening” reads. As in they make a reader feel a bit lighter when they have finished reading. Lighter, satisfied, and maybe even a bit hopeful. Or at least ready to face life again. With maybe a little more resiliency.
Of course, if you’ve been reading my blog for while you’ll know that I look to books for solace when times get tough. Or when stress is overwhelming. Or just when life gets me down. I remember the spring I was at home with my Mum and my brother’s health was precarious. For days we didn’t know if he would pull through his latest health crisis. One evening I texted my sister Connie, who is also a reader, and she said, “Make yourself a cup of tea and go read your book.” So I did.
That was the spring I discovered the books of Dorothy Whipple. I devoured them one after the other. I wrote about that spring visit and the Dorothy Whipple books I was reading here. My two favourites were Someone at a Distance and The Priory. Such gentle books. But also perceptive, and wonderfully written.
My favourite book that I would classify as gentle and calming is Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. In fact it’s one of my favourite books of all time.
As I’ve said before here on my blog, I adore Brookner’s spare prose. Her straightforward style. The lack of gushy fluffiness even when she is describing characters who might be said to be fluffy and gushing, like Mrs. Pusey in Hotel du Lac. I am a big fan of restraint, in writing style if not necessarily in life. Ha.
And although Hotel du Lac is quiet, and as one of my friends said at book club many years ago, “a light read,” it’s anything but lightweight. Not that it’s heavy going as far as reading goes, just that it deals with weighty issues. Such as what we are to do with our lives if we do not follow the path that society decrees, or even the path we hoped to follow. Brookner was, as one reviewer said about her, “a singular woman” and she writes about singular women. And often single women. Spinsters. Women who, like Edith the main character in Hotel du Lac, calmly and with full knowledge of the consequences flout the rules for women in their society.
It’s interesting, I think, that the main character in another favourite “light read” written by one of my other favourite writers is also a spinster. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym is similar to Hotel du Lac in its dealing with the idea of spinsters and spinsterhood. Mildred, Pym’s main character, is much more adherent to the expectations of society. But one still admires her courage in the face of a life that does not appear to offer her what she deserves. Or does it?
I know these books are not for everyone. They are quiet. Not particularly plot oriented. Concerned with the small pleasures of life that are sustaining, at least for some. And with the quiet and calmly borne pain of loss and sometimes emptiness. But there is always some sort of triumph. As I said in an earlier post, triumph that is not particularly triumphant. Not shouty. But quietly hopeful.
The first light read we chose for my book club a few weeks ago was the earliest book in the Alexander McCall Smith series The Number One Ladies Detective Agency. I tried to read this many years ago. But I’m ashamed to say I dismissed it as too light. Ha. How’s that for irony? Moi… who hates it when people dismiss my beloved favourites as light reads.
My friend who suggested the book has a wonderfully eclectic taste in books, so I trusted her judgement and gave it another try. I will say that in the first few chapters I fell in and out of love with it a couple of times. Before settling for being in love. With the book and with the characters, and kind of with Alexander McCall Smith for writing such a book.
My book club had a wonderful discussion about the book. About Botswana, and Africa. About women making their way in a man’s world, especially single women who have no children, and about positive body image. We agreed that taking a second look at the book was worthwhile.
We also discussed the idea of a white man writing through the eyes of a black, female character. This, in particular, made me a bit uncomfortable. Not so much the idea of a man creating a female character. But whether a white man of European heritage, despite being raised and living and working in Africa, could faithfully depict black African society.
I wondered how the books might be viewed by black Africans. There’s a lively discussion about this issue over on Good Reads which you can find here, if you’re interested. Including a reader who studied the books and wrote her MA thesis on them. Lots of great points are strongly expressed in the discussion and little ground given by anyone. It’s worth a read.
Still, I enjoyed McCall Smith’s book, once I’d decided to view it as a not particularly reliable primer on culture in Botswana. I loved the characters. And I felt quite a bit lighter when I was finished.
There are lots of books considered “light reads” which I’d not want to read. I don’t like fluffy books. Or silly books. I don’t like books that are overwritten. With too many gushing adjectives. Or books which are overly sentimental. I adore charming books. But they have to be well written.
I may be a yelper, a talker, a flapper of hands when I get excited. Sometimes I laugh too loud. I talk to people I don’t know when I’m shopping. Something I get from my mum whose willingness to chat amiably with perfect strangers used to embarrass me no end when I was a teenager. I am incapable of making my expression mask my feelings. I’d be a disastrous poker player. I know I can be annoyingly perky sometimes. But oddly enough, I like my books to be restrained.
And I prefer my light reads to be quietly wonderful. Even my murder mysteries.
Lately I’ve been listening to old audio books in my Audible.com library. Books like No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell. What an intelligent writer she was. In her last Inspector Wexford book, he is retired and reading Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Certainly nobody’s idea of a light read. But I love that Wexford’s characteristic musings about life include reflections on his rather weighty reading matter. And of course despite being retired Wexford gets involved in a mystery and steps in to help his former colleague and friend Chief Inspector Burden.
Rendell’s prose is so wonderfully competent it’s a delight to read and to listen to, especially when the narrator is as talented as Nigel Anthony. And you know just because murder mysteries are normally classed as light reads, doesn’t mean they can’t be intelligent, well written, and full of wisdom. The best ones always are.
I’m off to my Mum’s tomorrow for a couple of weeks. So I won’t be able to post until this time next week.
In the meantime, I’ve decided that I need to reread Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. Instead of just talking about it. It’s a light read. But, definitely not a light read. If you get my meaning.
Now my friends, what well-written and worthwhile light reads can you suggest to those of us who are lacking in a bit of resilience these days?
P.S. I have had some work done on my blog this week. Updating and other stuff that I did not know how to do myself. It has not gone entirely smoothly. And quite frankly has been frustrating and at times stressful. And now a friend has emailed me that this post will not take her comment. I’m sorry if this happens to you. I’ll try to have it fixed as soon as possible. But that won’t be in the next day or so. Seriously, my friends, sometimes this technology stuff can be overwhelming. Please just have patience.
P.P.S. The book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link I will earn a small commission which helps to pay for the blog.