My poetry shelves and study floor courtesy of NZ bookshops (I am hard at work on a new children’s anthology thus the floor!). Two original illustrations on the wall by Michael Hight (from Aunt Concertina and her Niece Evalina).
Inviting booksellers to pick comfort books the week they go back to selling books online (of all genres) was not my best idea as they are so busy getting books out to avid readers. It warms my heart to hear readers are supporting their local shops and ordering up large. So I am immensely grateful to everyone who contributed to this list of books that have offered comfort, book joy, or just much-needed diversion!
I have always felt part of an extended family as an author: yes, I write at home with a dodgy internet connection, no mobile connection and no cafes close by. But publishers, critics, librarians and booksellers are important. I wanted to underline how important bookshops are to us as authors when I co-dedicated Wild Honey to Carole Beu from the Women’s Bookshop. I have had numerous events in bookshops around the country especially when I toured A Treasury of NZ Poetry for Children and Wild Honey and that have been ultra special.
And of course I love browsing in a bookshop. Whenever I hit a town or city I go bookshop rambling and buy books. I can remember when I travelled to Italy to do research for my MA on Francesca Durante. I travelled with one bag ( carry on!) and half it was devoted to books. I stayed with friends near the Italian Alps and we hiked up to a refugio by a glacier (I shrink in embarrassment now) and all I could muster to wear was a cotton dress, cardi and sandals. The friends looked in my bag and were shocked at my scant clothing (it was the heat of summer!). Hikers coming down the mountain thought they were hallucinating when they saw me. But I got to spend a whole day talking with Francesa at Gattaiola near Pisa (she said ask me anything, so warm and generous!). I took home half a bag of books.
New York bookshops wow! Ireland bookshops wow! I was secreting books in everyone else’s bags on those family holidays. But there are just so many fabulous bookshops in Aotearoa.
This year I was booked into a number of NZ festivals and I am sad not to be going but especially sad not to be scouring bookshops in the Wairarapa and Marlbourough.
Today I raise my short black to you, our wonderful and much-loved booksellers! And I invite every avid reader to get on line and order a book today.
A list of comfort books from booksellers
Beattie & Forbes Books
A little book of kindness by Ruby Jones
A lovely little book that we sold lots of at Christmas time and beyond, I have had it open in the window while we in Level 4, and now Level 3 and turned the page everyday, I have enjoyed the positivism, the the realism and I hope that the passerby’s did too.
Booksellers New Zealand
When I think of a book that has given me comfort, the first title to pop into my head is Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes. It seems wrong, that a book about trauma can be comforting, but really the book is about recovering from trauma. And the protagonist, Davey, is such a smart and thoughtful character, that following her journey feels steady and solid, even when her life is anything but. Plus, there are so many great descriptive scenes that feel all-enveloping and meditative, such as climbing down into New Mexico’s canyons in the warm sun, submerging in a deep bath in a historical tub, and slowly burning a candle down in a solo act of memorial. I’ve read this book many times, and am sure to read it again.
I already know how I am going to die. It’s not going to be from Covid-19. It will be because the looming tower of books in the To Read pile beside my bed finally collapses during a round of that fun Wellington game: “wind or earthquake?”. The pile is out of control. During the lockdown, I have been taking immense comfort from being able to make inroads into that perilous stack. I have happily devoured The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, Girl Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo, A Mistake by Carl Shuker, Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler, Whatever it Takes by Paul Cleave, and a few others. Unfortunately I have already made plans to rebuild my pile by making online purchases from several of my favourite indie bookstores. I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of couriers. I am less eagerly anticipating my demise from the ensuing book avalanche. But at least my obituary will be able to read “she died doing what she loved”.
Children’s Bookshop, Kilbirnie
Annie and Moon; Miriam Smith and illustrated by Lesley Moyes
(Mallinson Rendel, 1988)
I find just the concept of comfort books comforting. I could write a long list of comfort books and I would find the act of doing so very comforting. When I seek comfort I read books I have read many times, like Cold Comfort Farm. I like series so it feels like you’re dipping back into a second home, like Earthsea. I especially like comfort books which feature lots of comfort food, like The Darling Buds of May and the other H.E. Bates books (these are next level comfort because you can watch the old TV show too). My all time comfort book is Annie and Moon by Miriam Smith. It tells the story of a young girl who moves houses a lot over a short period of time but has the constant companionship of her cat Moon.
I didn’t move house as a kid but I recognised the Wellington streets depicted and related a lot to Annie’s loneliness. I longed for a cat and enjoyed the simple conflict and resolution storyline. As an adult I have found Annie and Moon comforting and reassuring for other reasons. In my pretty vast collection of kids picture books Annie and Moon is one of the only ones which depicts the struggles of solo parenting, the desperation in trying to find a good place to live and to keep your kids feeling safe and happy. This book was a beautiful reflection of my daughters life at one point and I was thankful to have it to read to her. If you have a copy in a box somewhere or on the shelf with your other childhood books, pull it out now, I think it fits well in these times where we are all feeling a bit uncertain, scared, needing our mums, our cats and a good book.
Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop, Auckland
In times of stress or sickness I tend to gravitate back to the books I loved as a child – my ancient copy of Little Women or the strange and exotic mystery of The House of Paladin or the inimitable Swallows and Amazons. It is not just the familiarity of the story which comforts, it is the familiarity of the book itself and the memory of the joy of first discovering those characters and the places they inhabit.
In the last few weeks I have indulged in some dipping in to those sorts of books but I have probably taken more comfort from some of the life affirming children’s books written much more recently. I am currently reading an advance copy of The Unadoptables by Hana Tooke which is particularly appealing. The energy, warmth and spirit of the five main characters and their incredible adventures provide a perfect antidote to a life in lockdown. I think it’s due to be released in July. Watch out for it.
Ferret Bookshop, Featherston
Comfort being the operative word, I nominate Marcel Ayme, a gentle fabulist, from yesteryear. Among his works is a short story collection, which includes ‘Still Life’ (?title from memory, no copy to hand alas!) which literally, brilliantly, demonstrates how and why Art sustains Life.
Hedley Books, Masterton
It’s no surprise we’ve been craving comfort more than ever of late and it can always be found in the magical words and drawings of Charles Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. It takes a special sort of story to deliver wisdom, joy, tears and comfort, to anyone, of any age. This is most certainly one of those books.
Jason’s Books, Auckland
An Imaginary Life by Australian writer David Malouf is a small treasure I have often returned to. It is a fictional account of the Roman poet’s exile by the Black Sea. Alone in a cold and hostile place, separated from the people he loves and from the whole of Roman culture that has made and sustained him, the bereft poet is determined to hold on to his sense of himself. But this new world turns out to have things to teach him and he stumbles towards a very different understanding. Malouf’s tone is spare and precise, but the constraint of this little book somehow offers consolation. It is like a poem to the human need to connect and to change, to take a new world and to live in it.
Matakana Village Books
I am not sure I read books for comfort – escape maybe which could be another type of comfort.
At the moment I am reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light which offers complete escapism as the writing is so evocative of the era that once reading I am surrounded by Cromwell’s life and people. I have to limit my self to only reading it at the end of the day otherwise I wouldn’t get out of the chair. I love books that envelope you so much that you don’t notice the everyday life going on around you.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. An absolutely charming novel about the absolutely charming Count Rostov. Rereading this during the very slow-moving lockdown (March this year had 120 days, right?) takes you into a world where a lockdown is for a lifetime. The Count is put under house imprisonment by the Bolsheviks in the wonderful Metropole Hotel opposite The Kremlin in Moscow, which is where he has been living. However, he is moved from his suite of rooms to one in the attic and from there he must see out his days. This wonderfully written book is both humorous and poignant. The author holds you in the palm of his hands from beginning to end. You will cry and you will laugh and probably shake your head in amazement. Count Rostov’s bubble does get bigger and the people who inhabit it with him are as extraordinary as he is. This is a book that we sold and sold as customers told friends who told friends that they must read it. Try not to rush through it. It will fill your days with total enchantment.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is a novel of beautifully written stories,13 in all, about people whom the irascible Olive has known over her life teaching n a small town on the Maine coast of America. You can smell the sea air and feel the season’s changes such is the author’s skill in setting the scenes. I want to go there. Basically, this is a novel about the choices people make and the consequences of these decisions. It tells stories of people we can probably all relate to one way or another.
Through Olive’s eyes we get to know the young and the old people whose lives she has touched. Her kind. gentle and long-suffering husband Henry features throughout. He is her rock though Olive would be the last person to acknowledge this. This is a book to take your time over and savour, and the formidable Olive will stay with you for a long, long time. A well-deserved Pulitzer Prize winner.
The World of Jeeves, by P G Wodehouse. English comic writing like no other. Jeeves and Bertie Wooster are a team to contend with. The stories they inhabit are filled with characters who are insanely insane. During this rather manic time these stories keep your own insanity at bay. They are laugh-out-loud period pieces of a time when the eccentrics lead the world. The writing is so beautifully timed and descriptive and I guess those of us who remember watching Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie who made Jeeves and Wooster come alive on screen with nuanced acting that for once made the stories come alive rereading these stories will be even more enjoyable. To quote Olivia Williams: ” P.G. Wodehouse should be prescribed to treat depression. Cheaper, more effective than valium and far, far more addictive.”
Poppies, New Plymouth
Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton. This is a best friend in a book she says, making her laugh just as hard as if a friend were there behind her shoulder giggling aloud at the outrageous anecdotes. Dolly deliciously feeds you with stories and lessons she’s learnt growing up, all the while making you crack up (and sometimes sniffle) with her. This book will hug you, pick you up, and twirl you round and round.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. It reminds her of the strength of the human spirit. Even though he faced a terrible fate he still managed to create beauty in the midst of despair and leave a lasting legacy for his children.
Schrödinger’s Books, Petone
The book that has given me most comfort recently is Running with Sherman by Chris McDougall. I love this book because it tells so many stories, from the benefits of nature, the outdoors and exercise, to how animal contact helps so much with mental and physical health. His descriptions of Sherman brought tears to my eyes as well and made me hoot with laughter! As a lapsed runner, this book made me yearn for the trails again, and I revisited them over lockdown. Thanks Chris for such an inspiring read!
Smith’s Books, Christchurch
Alan Direen and I are the new owners of Smith’s Bookshop at the Tannery in Christchurch. During the lock-down we were still pricing and listing books. Among the many boxes of books still to be sorted I came across Poems From the Port Hills by Blanche Baughan. It was written in 1910 but not published until 1923.
I live in Sumner and like many have enjoyed walks along the beach front over the past four or so weeks. She lived on Clifton Hill and overlooked the estuary and beach. In “Sumner Estuary” she wrote:
My dog beside me in his dog-like way
Tastes the divineness of this place and day,
Breathes-in freshness of the large hill-air,
Basks in the blessed light spread everywhere;
Seems,even, down to gaze,
Far, far down, on the shining waterways,
Wandering mid shoals of sand and salty weed,
Of you wide Estuary ….
It’s not a great poem but it evokes moods that have been unchanging for decades.
The Book Haven, Wellington
T. H. White’s The Once and Future King and his Book of Merlin are two of my favourites. They chronicle the early years before Arthur became King and Merlin was providing his education. Fantasy and Magical and full of good moral lessons.
Almost anything by Bill Bryson. His Shakespeare biography is the best single volume biography of the bard I’ve come across. Informative and witty, a joy to read.
I’m currently working through a series of American Presidential biographies by Ron Chernow. I finished Grant earlier, a superb work, and am currently in the middle of Washington who is leading the constitutional convention. Surprisingly gripping stuff. And, of course, I’m still hanging out for Robert A. Caro’s final volume in his epic biography of Lyndon Johnson.
The Women’s Bookshop, Auckland
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett has always stayed in my mind and heart. It also happens to be very appropriate for our current situation. Its about a group of people in lockdown, in this case a hostage situation in an unnamed South American country. The relationships that develop are so tender and so significant that as a reader you hope, along with the captives and captors, that this situation will never end, because it can only end badly.
Its not just the romantic relationships. Its the South American boy with the beautiful voice that the captive opera singer hopes to take to the major opera houses of Europe. Its the man who needs to declare his (unrequited) love to the Diva, so prepares with exquisite care and is received with dignity and respect.
Its the double shooting of an older Japanese man and a young South American woman, ‘a most unexpected coupling’, that leads perfectly into the extraordinary and unexpected final chapter. Why is this my ‘comfort’ book? Because remembering it all these years later still moves me. We are a destructive species but we are capable of enormous love and kindness. I would love Ann Patchett and Jacinda Ardern to meet each other.
Time Out Bookstore, Auckland
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing (Canongate)
This is such a special book, the perfect tonic to soothe and reassure in times of crisis. And during lockdown, never more pertinent. It’s a book that I advise everyone to read, and to give to everyone they love.
With The Lonely City, Olivia Laing elegantly and dextrously dances around and merges reportage, memoir, biography, art and cultural criticism in an enquiry into urban loneliness. She looks at connectivity and intimacy, how cities can in fact be lonely, isolating places, and how loneliness doesn’t actually require physical solitude.
And what do so many of us turn to when feeling lost? Art. So Laing looks at the lives and work of artists (including Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Alfred Hitchcock) who weren’t necessarily inhabitants of loneliness, but whose work is sharply resonant and hyper alert to the gulfs between people.
This is the perfect galvanising isolation read, and one (along with all of Laing’s non-fiction works, actually) that I return to time and again for literary solace. Beautifully pitched, The Lonely City is alluring and brainy. An enquiring and sensitive writer, Laing is such a joy to read and the first book I want to get my hands on post-lockdown is her new book, the timely Funny Weather: Art in An Emergency which I would encourage everyone else to seek out, also.
Unity Books, Auckland
Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck. I fell in love with Nora as if Cupid himself had shot me in the heart with his arrow. It reads like she’s talking on a stage but you’re the only one in the audience. You will nod furiously with everything from her hatred for purses, full of stray tampons and tobacco strands, to the inconvenience of maintaining one’s mane. My heart broke when I read she had died in 2012 and I binged every morsel of Nora on Netflix.
Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai by Nina Mingya Powles – in an era when we can’t travel and are at the mercy of our own home cooking, reading a little delicate book that whisks you off somewhere else and conjures up all manner of fragrances and flavours is an absolute dream. Nina’s roots in poetry come through in this gentle, evocative prose that is the literal definition of wanderlust.
Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity by Prita Basil explores the notion that sharing a recipe with someone is one of the most generous forms of human exchange. While gently traversing the personal and the political, it outlines the significance of community, generosity and sharing through food. Very wholesome.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben will gently reconnect your isolated self to nature and all its beautiful mysteries. In his writing Peter Wohlleben shares his love and compassion for trees, forests and woodlands. He convincingly argues that trees are social beings, that they have feelings just like us humans. But what truly nurtures a happy tree is connection and unity – moss, fungi, insects, a diversity of tree species. Wohlleben’s book is essential for us humans more than ever.
Heartstopper by Alice Oseman made me smile ear to ear the entire time while reading this. I love a graphic novel and I love a good “boy meets boy” love story, so I was here for this! The illustrations are adorable, the story is relatable and the dialogue is fantastic. I flew through it in one sitting and I’m about to go do the same with Volume 2.
University Book Shop Otago
Charlotte McKay, Children’s Room
Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Yes, THAT Cheryl Strayed, of ‘Wild’ fame. This is a collection of letters and response from her podcast ‘Dear Sugar’ which was originally an agony-aunty-type column. I love the podcast but I came to it through this book, which just has such an amazing array of life stories and situations that are all so interesting, relatable, and fascinating if nothing else. And then the responses to the letters are so beautifully formed. At times soothing, at times difficult to hear, but always have me nodding my head. Wise and heart-warming words for any time!
Rachel Bailey, buyer
I Am A Bunny
Ole Risom with illustrations by Richard Scarry
Are the Golden Books the comfort food of children’s books? I don’t know, and we certainly didn’t see the same queues out the front of the shop after the lockdown lifted for copies of The Saggy Baggy Elephant but there is something so pleasing about a Golden Book. I bought a whole box of old golden books from a school fair a few years back and with a now six year old, they are coming into their own.
My favourite has always been I Am a Bunny…it is gentle, uplifting, and just so beautifully illustrated. I feel like every page is a haiku.
Rebekah Clements, bookseller
Snapper by Brian Kimberling is such a good book that I met by random, choosing it off the library shelf because of its beautiful cover. It’s gentle, funny, clever and makes you feel like you’ve been for a walk in the woods. I’d be glad to know these characters for reals.
Any of these books by Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and Water, Roumeli, and Mani. I love this fascinating travel writing, written several decades ago about very old places and peoples, it completely lifts me out of whatever is going on around me, reminds me that so much has already happened in the world and will happen, that this moment will pass. I’ve read them a few times, I enjoy their familiarity, their glorious richness and lush ornateness.
Volume Books, Nelson
Books are the best place to be somewhere else. They can take you into so many wondrous worlds, so my comfort reads are not so much about comfort, but about total immersion! They can be dark, dangerous and even hard work, as long as they are addictive and I can’t wait to be back in that world created between those covers. My perfect lock-down read was the Tales of the Otori series – I was hooked from the first book, Across the Nightingale Floor, and read four in a row with hardly a breath, or the sharp edge of an assassin’s blade, between them. The books are gripping and intriguing – full of suspense, love, loyalty, double-crossing, mystery and revenge all set in feudal Japan.
While being generally uncomfortable about comfort, in times of particular stress or despair I do find that re-reading any of the novels of Thomas Bernhard makes me feel better (though I am also uncomfortable about the concept of ‘feeling better’). Bernhard’s sentences are unrelentingly beautiful and his negativity so intense that it becomes ludicrous. Everything exaggerated moves towards its opposite, so I often find my negativity turned, too.
Thanks for the fab selection of books and all the time it must have taken to collect them here. I’m definitely gonna pick up a couple 😀
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