Sunday, November 18, 2007

Comfort Reading

I've been reading a book called The Thirteenth Tale, which I've enjoyed. It's a bit Barbara Vine, but more pot-boilerish and less original than say A Dark-Adapted Eye, which still remains one of the best psychological mysteries ever. TTT is fine, but not as complex. Reviewers have compared it to Rebecca but I think that's a glib option because what the two books have in common is a country house which is burned in the course of the action (not a spoiler for either book, I hope). Setterfield is good writer, there's clarity and pace and an effective distinction between different narrative voices. Rebecca, however, it ain't. I re-read Rebecca. TTT - well, probably not.

That's the difference, isn't it. Re-reading. The books we sink into like comfortable armchairs. The books that we take down from the shelf when the world outside is too much for us and we need to retreat to another place, perhaps another time, a world of certainty because we know the story already.

I've had numerous comfort books that have seen me through the customary range of woes that plague as we march day by relentless day onward. The first was Harriet The Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. It was odd and unusual and happened in a world where a 10 year old was able to slip out into a city and watch people. I think it is still one of the best books about growing up that has ever been written. My parents thought it was unhealthy that I read and reread and reread this book, but I couldn't stop myself. Harriet's world was one I understood.

Another childhood favourite was Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfield, about the Fossil sisters, orphans and theatrical performers. I still love this book and if I am really really sick, retreat to bed with it. The secondary characters are interesting, the way the story unfolds is incredibly vivid, and it was the first book I read where children really worked and earned their own money and became their own people.

Then there was Gone with the Wind. My mother took me to see the movie when I was 10, and I was stony-hearted and dry-eyed through the whole thing. But when I was thirteen, I picked up the book, and that was that. I had at one stage three or four copies because my parents kept confiscating it in the hope that I would read something else, but frankly, my dear, nothing else would do. And like all the men in the book, I was in love with Scarlett, I wanted to be like Scarlett when I grew up, bad and selfish and hot-tempered and petulant. Fortunately, the infection didn't last. Now I think Scarlett is the sort of person I'd see coming and think, "Run, just run. Don't look back, run!"

By the time I was sixteen, the 19th century got me. For various reasons, I opted not to do A level English literature, but I had several friends who did. And one afternoon, as we were sitting putzing about in someone's room, drinking coffee, eating toast, I picked up a stray copy of Bleak House and that was that. For the next 72 hours, I couldn't put it down. And then I re-read it. And just for good measure, once more. Still one of my all-time favourites and to my delight, two marvellous TV adaptations, one in 1985 and one two years ago, have done the book justice and encouraged others to pick it up and lose themselves in the fog of Chancery.

Then there was the summer of Mill on the Floss and This Side of Paradise. A weird way to spend the summer, flitting between rendez-vous with Maggie Tulliver thinking high thoughts about Thomas Aquinas and then heading off to meet up with Amory Blaine and watch his Jazz Age high-jinks.

Interspersed somewhere in there was Shanna, by Kathleen Woodiwiss, the woman who arguably created the historical romance as we now know it, and Frederica by Georgette Heyer, who is definitely the mother of the regency romance. I knew Shanna was high-grade, crazy ass nonsense right from reading the opening page, but it was unputdownable. If you want a taste, follow this link:

What is it about books that turns them into comfort reads? Partly it is in the world-building. You can be a lame writer and still world-build effectively (q.v. K. Woodiwiss above). Partly it is characters who just erupt from the page. Partly it is a story which a reader stumbles upon at the right time - I was the same age as Harriet and Maggie Tulliver and Amory Blaine (at the start of TSoP, anyway) and they were people I could understand and believe in and listen to. I don't suppose it matters really, once you know what your comfort reads are. But one of the things I have noticed is that the more you read, the fewer comfort reads you find. There are books I enjoy, books I will re-read (pretty much anything by Michael Chabon, frex), but not many comfort reads. Except, except.

Thank you Jennifer Donnelly, for A Gathering Light (A Northern Light to N. American readers). Voted one of the top ten ever winners of the Carnegie medal, it is a book that is beyond age boundaries, a book that moves me every time I read it, a book that I have started to use when teaching, and despite having read it five, six, seven times, never weary of re-reading. It is perfect and entire of itself - it doesn't need sequels or series, but one of its greatest pleasures is wondering what its heroine, Mattie Gokey, made of herself. And best of all, it is a book that celebrates books and words and stories with so light and absorbing a touch that it makes me dash off to read more. If you haven't come across it, go out and get it now, drop everything else and read it. It's wonderful.

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