The last time I looked at the news, there was an earthquake in central Italy and women being stripped on the beach in France. And my son asking “who is that little boy?” (the 5 year-old devastated Syrian bombing victim). Even some of the books I’ve read lately have taken an unflinching (brave, and beautifully written) look at war and oppression – I’m looking at you Girl at War and Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Agh! We need to escape sometimes: VEEP and Lillehammer are my television souffles, but I do like a good book. Simon and Thomas of The Readers podcast have read my mind and discussed escapist reads recently. I was inspired to make a list …
Two rules are at play: 1) it can be as light as light as can be, but must be well-written. I want to feel inspired by an author smarter than me, not cringe at cliches or clunky phrasing: No 50 Shades of Gray. 2) nothing too challenging. No War and Peace or Narrow Road to the Deep North (both excellent though).
It’s a tricky balance – I have huge respect for authors who manage it. On the other hand, I agree with Thomas – any book that draws you in and entertains you can be a good escape.
- P.G. Wodehouse: fail-safe, timeless, always lifts my spirits. In the words of Evelyn Waugh, his “idyllic world can never stale”. Harmless but genius writing. This article in the New Yorker explains some of the appeal. We visited Sydenham Hill Wood recently and the guide map said “The Pond .. supports dragonflies and newts” – just the word newt made me laugh, conjuring up Gussie Fink-Nottle. You must read his speech at Market Snodsbury Grammar School, in Right Ho, Jeeves.
- Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy): escape to outer space, brilliantly conceived. Funny, masterful, another genius.
- A good detective story: Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers for classic English crime. Recently I’ve discovered Judith Flanders, who does a great a great crime caper (Murder of Magpies). Boris Akunin has been compared with Sherlock Holmes but has a comic Russian element. And Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series (starting with Death at La Fenice) blends crime, Venice and food – what’s not to love? A good setting can be key. By good I mean not war-torn; ideally a grand hotel by the sea, a bucolic village or a cultural European capital.
- Another recent discovery: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner. I felt like I was holidaying in a resort by the lake (funny, that), breathing crisp mountain air and Edith was in my ear whispering her observations about the guests. There is some depth and sadness, but it’s treated with a light touch. The quality of the writing is absorbing enough to block out the read world.
- Speaking of mittel-Europe, Stefan Zweig – he wrote during troubling times but he illuminates small incidents, details and characters with a humane sensibility and a reassuring tone – as if someone is simply confiding a story. My favourite is The Royal Game, a novella that takes place on a cruise: short in length, an escapist setting, tick, tick!
- The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjoberg. Sjoberg collects hoverflies on a remote island in Sweden. Somehow this is one of the most comforting, wise books I have read. I highly recommend it.
- Which brings us to Scandinavia: Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is everything.
- Another means of escape is a sweeping story to immerse yourself in. Some of my favourites are: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (so excited for her next book The Good People due in October); The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. All have a strong sense of place too, so you really can enter into another world. Bliss!
- Actual travel, anyone? I love the travel writing of Dickens, and the slim volume On Travel is full of insights and funny scenes, with his sense of theatre and comedy. Edith Wharton’s Cruise of the Vanadis is a beautiful book and leisurely escape – relax with a coffee and enjoy the Meditterranean islands and Wharton’s eye for detail. Bill Bryson’s early travel writing is clever and entertaining. And for 1970s New York, the The Andy Warhol Diaries are a revelation: fun and name-droppy to dip in and out of, or a full literature experience with Warhol as the protagonist.
- Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: John Wood’s memoir about starting Room to Read is an antidote to the ‘world problems are overwhelming’ blues. Wood – a self-confessed library nerd and avid reader – is funny, engaging and optimistic. The message: world change starts with educated children. The good news? He is on it.
What are your favourite escapist books?