On Light Reads and Light Reads

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.

Ruby Ring by Thomas Linker
Ruby Ring by Thomas Linker

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.

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27 thoughts on “On Light Reads and Light Reads”

  1. So glad you’ve the comments working again, Sue! Must be a relief for you, and I know your community enjoys reading the conversations you start. Here’s the comment I tried to leave earlier:

    I think you might agree that Sarah Winman’s Still Life, which I wrote about in my January reading post, is exactly the kind of “light reading” we’re looking for now. Admittedly, it’s not as beautifully spare as Brookner’s classic — but Venice, history, love, sentient parrots (and trees!) and art. . . I’d say more but I already went on about it on the blog. So good. Light but not really. . .
    I’ve resisted the Alexander McCall Smith Botswana books since the outset, although I would read one for a book club — my reservations would be similar to yours, with the addition that there are so many good Black African voices to discover and only so much reading time. . .
    Enjoy your time with your Mum. xo

    1. Thanks Frances. I am SO relieved. Many things have gone wrong with the blog this week… and finally they are all fixed. Phew.
      I hear you about the AMS books. I did enjoy the one we read. But I do know I have to budget my reading time, these days, for books I want to read. Funny to say that now I’m retired. 😊

  2. I enjoyed AMS’s African series finding them gentle & respectful books . Whenever I’ve seen him being interviewed his love of Botswana seems obvious . I actually enjoy his 44 Scotland Street series more , probably because it is set in my favourite Scotland & one of the characters is a rather bad tempered dog 😁 I read the discussion you mentioned & found it interesting . I think the world of literature would be very different if authors restricted themselves to their own experiences & not their imagination . Dickens ? Shakespeare ? Plus there’d be no sci fi & very few murder mysteries 😁
    I hope your visit ‘ home ‘ is going well & you are recovering from the technical breakdown .

    1. I read 44 Scotland Street years ago. But I think I’ve only rad the one book.I must go back and have a look at the others. My visit home is going well. My sister and I have walked together, watched Brit Box shows after Mum goes to bed, and are currently drinking tea and examining my IG account. It’s been great. I’m even getting better at doing Mum’s personal care. Okay… a little bit better.

  3. I’m so glad that everything ended well with comments

    I’ve never met a book that didn’t teach me something,at least , sometimes,  not to finish a book I don’t like!

    Yes,I have to read Hotel du Lac (for the first time)!

     I’ve read and enjoyed first two of The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency-it was long(-ish) time ago and I didn’t think about all the possible problematic points of view 

    What I’ve read lately? A lot of not so light books,it simply happend……but,luckily,there are some mysteries as well

    Colleen Cambridge’s Murder At Mallowan Hall , nominated for the Agatha (best historical novel) Award. Imagine if in the library at Mallowan Hall (Mrs. Mallowan is btw. ,as you know,Agatha Christie in the novel and in the real life)  during the house party was found a very dead body,killed with the pen stuck in his neck. The body was found by Phillyda Bright,misterious housekeeper (and Agatha’s friend). To keep the household efficiently run and bring peace again,Phillyda had to solve two (yes,there is another murder,as well) murders. I liked it.

    S. G. MacLean’s The Seeker has got CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger in 2015

    It is a mystery set in London 1654 . Oliver Cromwell is ruling the Englad and Damian Seeker is the man who will solve the murder of one of Cromwell’s men. The main character is actually a bad boy,but there are some surprises near and at the end. I’ll read more of the Seeker series definitely

    My favourite historical crime novel writer,C.J. Sansom ( I love especially his Matthew Shardlake series) was awarded (recently,in 2022.)the highest honour in British crime writing,the CWA Diamond Dagger. 

    Carolyn Moir’s The Psychology of fashion is an ,more scientific,overview of many studies and, mostly known, facts. Not like I’ve expected

    And,finally,I’ve read Thomas King’s The Red Power Murders and loved it very much ( It was your recommendation and I couldn’t find it as e- book,so…..I’ve described here this book’s journey from Amazon Germany to my son in Vienna and than to me)-his next one I have in German translation.

    Enjoy your stay with your Mum!

    Dottoressa

    1. I like the Shardlake series as well. So many times I forget about writers, like CJ Sansom. I must see if there are any of his that Stu and I have not read. Hope you like the Thomas King book. Stu and I both love that series.

  4. AMS has another delightful series – the Isabel Dalhousie books. Isabel is an independent (in many ways) philosopher living a lovely, quiet life in Edinburgh. As for the 44 Scotland Street series, it is filled with interesting characters with the most detailed and diverse backgrounds. My favorite is sweet little Bertie who must contend with a rather pushy mummy and a motley crew of schoolmates.
    No murder or mayhem in any of these books, just lovely people going about their lives.

  5. Thanks to all for some new book suggestions, as I too am in need of light reading. I must second Barbara’s mention of the Isabel Dalhousie series, which was irresistible to me given the name (even includes my university!) but happily also very entertaining. The musings about moral dilemmas are a bonus.
    I hope you find your mother well and enjoy your time in NB. As here is NS, spring is fighting for a foothold!

  6. I’m looking forward to receiving several of the books that were recommended ! Definitely need some lighter, gentler, fare!
    Enjoy the time away.

  7. Last month my book club read The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. Although it got mixed reviews, I, and several others really enjoyed it. I am currently reading the second book The Man Who Died Twice and I like it as well. I love the characters, all the personalities; they are so fun.
    And I have added Hotel du Lac to my list. Thanks for the recommendation.

  8. Elizabeth Ashby

    From the other side of the Atlantic, could I recommend Amor Towles’ work? Both The Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow provide the perfect reads for these dark times. The thoughtfulness, warmth and kindness of his characters remind us of the qualities we aspire to and admire. Set in very different cities in the 20th century, he admirably captures the pre-war gaiety of New York in the first, and the sweep of Russian history in the second. Highly recommended.
    Elizabeth A

  9. Oh my, sometimes I feel we are kindred spirits. I read Hotel duLac 25 or 30 years ago and I enjoyed it but did not fully understand it. I never forgot it and I wonder what happened and why. I will have to reread it and see if I understand it better now. I have read several Barbara Pym novels and I swear when I wear a cardigan or put on a nice dress I sometimes think of her nice English ladies. I read most of the Alexander McCall Smith Botswana books and found them charming. I also read almost all of the Inspector Wexford series (I think I missed the last one) and it was a very satisfying series. You and your readers are such thoughtful readers and I love seeing your recommendations.

  10. I just discovered your blog this week on Pinterest. I’ll be a frequent visitor. Love your fashion looks and tips. Thanks for the time you put into keeping your blog fun and interesting.

  11. I have listened twice to Women in Sunlight by Frances Mayes, during Covid lockdowns, and now in need of another escape, I have started listening again. This book definitely fits your definition of a light read, and as I listen, I just want to move in with the three women of a certain age who have rented a Tuscan villa for a year — the food! the wine! the art! the gardens! It ticks all the boxes for a wonderful escape, with snatches of thoughtful writing — I have no idea if reading the actual book would be a different experience, but my Book Club has added it to this year’s list, and the members are particularly opinionated, so we shall see how this goes!

    1. Ooh, that does sound as if it will be right up my street. I’ll see if I can get it in audio book form for my walks, and occasional bouts of house cleaning. 😀

    2. I read Women in Sunlight during a trip to Italy and I wanted to move in with them too! Maybe we’ll all meet there for a book club!

  12. I enjoy a light read. I read first book in The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series and enjoyed it. I didn’t read the others, but might go back to book one.
    Ruth Rendell’s books are great. Sometimes very complicated and haunting.
    I just finished listening to what you could call a light book, called The Fortnight in September. It took me a while to get into it and for quite a while I wondered where the author was going with the story. It details, in depth, a family’s two week vacation at the coast. We live through every moment of their preparations for the trip, their fears that something will go wrong in catching the train, their long walks thinking over life events that trouble them, etc. They don’t have a lot of money and this annual trip is their only vacation each year. It’s rather touching.
    Enjoy your visit with your mother.

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