5 comforting books to read in times of adversity

Sometimes we just need to escape reality and lose ourselves in another – simpler – world. Here are five comforting books that celebrate nature, family, friendship, and the good things in life

I was going to write about grammar today, but I feel the need to put out a more joyful post this week. So here are five comforting books that might help you forget the outside world for a while. Yes, they are a little schmaltzy and nostalgia driven but, hey, sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered…

Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee

Still from the film Cider with Rosie for a post on comforting books

Set against a backdrop of the First World War, rural hardship and ill health, “Cider With Rosie” is not the obvious candidate for a feel-good read. But it’s the joy that Lee finds within his resilient village community that makes this book such a pleasure. Based on his childhood in the beautiful but poverty stricken Slad Valley in Gloucestershire, he recalls a world of physical suffering, early death and a sometimes sinister code of silence among the locals. Yet the days are also celebrated with the unbridled enthusiasm of those who know they are lucky to be alive. From carol singing to seaside outings, from ice skating on the village pond to moonlit hikes on summer nights, Lee and his friends wring every drop of pleasure possible from what they find around them: “Summer was also the time of these: of sudden plenty, of slow hours and actions, of diamond haze and dust on the eyes… of jazzing wasps and dragonflies, haystooks and thistle-seeds, snows of white butterflies, skylarks’ eggs, bee-scouts’ bugles; of sweat running down the legs; of boiling potatoes on bramble fires, of flames glass-blue in the sun… All this, and the feeling that it would never end…”  “Cider With Rosie” is an ode to nature, to the seasons, to family, to freedom, to youth, and to an innocence we can never recover.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Photograph from the film Cold Comfort Farm for a blog post on comforting books

Published in 1932, “Cold Comfort Farm” is a delicious parody of late-Victorian rural fiction and is probably one of the funniest books ever written. Tongue firmly in cheek, it is packed full of deliberately overbaked characters, comic set-pieces, hilarious dialogue, “country” vocabulary, and unforgettable lines, including the ravings of Aunt Ada Doom, who has never recovered from seeing “something nasty in the woodshed” as a child, and of Amos Starkadder’s hellfire preacher, who likes to remind his congregation that, “There’ll be no butter in hell!” The heroine, 19-year-old Flora Poste, is a girl after my own heart – well educated and efficient but reluctant to commit to actual work, she dedicates herself to clearing up the messy lives of others, believing that, “unless everything is tidy and pleasant and comfortable all about one, people cannot even begin to enjoy life”. When both her parents die, leaving only a small inheritance, she decides to “send a letter to the relatives… explaining the situation and asking them if they are willing to give me a home in exchange for my beautiful eyes and a hundred pounds a year,” resolving that whoever agrees will be taken in hand and gently brought up to her standards. However, this turns out to be something of a challenge when she goes to stay with the extended Starkadder family, distant cousins who live in and around a freezing, gloomy stone farmhouse in deepest Sussex and whose lack of education, parochial beliefs, weird emotional issues, and utter lack of refinement prove quite the match for Flora’s sophisticated meddling.

But meddle she does – impressively so, and with deeply satisfying results. Despite the Starkadders’ questionable lifestyles, and a smattering of unpleasant characters, there is no darkness here – it is pure comedy from start to finish and, as Flora wrestles order from chaos, light from gloom, and cleanliness from filth, you cannot help but feel that all will be right with the world again.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Photo of Hobbiton for a post on comforting books

OK, so “The Lord of the Rings” is more of an escapist read than a comforting one – what with all the battles and freezing marshes and giant spiders and so forth – but it’s still the ultimate tale of good overcoming evil. The trilogy continues Tolkien’s tale of a fantasy world in grave danger from the dark lord Sauron, a reformer whose initial desire to reconstruct and reorganise the kingdoms of Middle-earth has turned into a thirst for total power; this has lead to war, the corruption and enslavement of men, and rule through oppression and fear. Ahem. In a last ditch attempt to destroy Sauron and restore peace, the wizard Gandalf sends pure-hearted hobbit Frodo Baggins to destroy the One Ring of power that would give Sauron absolute control, charging a loyal crew of elves, dwarves, hobbits and men with his protection. Essentially, a group peoples of varying origin, if that’s the right word, put aside their differences to come together against a sinister power… just saying. And – SPOILER! – it has a super happy ending in which the good guys not only save the day, but also have their stories wrapped up in lengthy and satisfying detail. You can truly lose yourself in “The Lord of the Rings” and, in three pretty lengthy volumes, it will probably keep you going for a good while.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Still from the film I Capture the Castle for a post on comforting books
Perhaps because of Dodie Smith’s “The Hundred and One Dalmatians” fame, or perhaps because of its 17-year-old narrator, “I Capture the Castle” is often categorised as a children’s book. But although it’s perfectly suitable for teenagers I don’t think it was written for a young audience at all. Yes, it’s a coming-of-age tale, but this dreamy narrative is possibly best appreciated by those looking back on those formative years with that mixture of nostalgia and relief that it’s all over.

In the 1930s English countryside, bright, witty Cassandra Mortmain lives with her family, including older sister Rose and eccentric stepmother Topaz, in a crumbling castle leased from wealthy Americans the Cottons. Her reclusive father is an author with writer’s block whose failure to work has plunged them into poverty, and their prospects are bleak until the Cottons – complete with handsome twentysomething sons – come to visit the family estate. The novel is Cassandra’s diary, in which she records how their lives are shaken up by their dashing landlords, who take great interest in this curious family.

Cassandra is spirited and observant and her narrative voice is engaging and delightful to read. The book has a happy but non-definitive ending – you are left to imagine exactly what the future might hold for this charming girl on the cusp of adulthood – and that’s no bad thing.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Still from the film Little Women for a post on comforting books
I must have read “Little Women” when I was around ten and, as a fairly serious child, I was enchanted by the four March sisters and their attempts – not always successful – to be decorous, dutiful and selfless. And, despite their poverty, I also loved the sound of their cosy New England home and their domesticated 19th-century lives, which seemed charming and romantic compared with the brashness of modern culture. Each sister is at a different life stage – Meg and Jo, in their mid-teens, have small-time jobs, while 13-year-old Beth helps at home and Amy, the youngest, goes to school. Each girl also has a very distinct personality and their interactions both with each other and their neighbours provide plenty of drama.

Despite the pressure to conform, Alcott allows each girl to find a place in the world in which they feel comfortable enough to be true to themselves, which was a pretty radical idea in the 1860s. In fact “Little Women” is semi-autobiographical and Alcott, like her character Jo, wished she could have had the same opportunities and freedom as men of the time. Brought up in a progressive household, amongst a community of transcendentalist writers (including Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau), she was free-spirited and creative, with little desire to settle down. She even worried that “Little Women” was “moral pap for the young”  – but it was a huge success at the time and, 150 years on, has lost none of its charm.

So what are your most comforting books? Is there one you always return to, like a old friend? I would love to know, so please do comment below!

What I bought at epic second-hand bookshop Bookbarn International

A hidden gem in the beautiful Somerset countryside, this treasure trove of second-hand books is well worth a visit

Pile of books from Bookbarn International

You know when millennial vloggers do those bizarre shopping haul videos, where they basically spend half an hour showing you all the clothes/make-up/beauty products they’ve just bought? Well this blog post is going to be a bit like that – but with books, ha! And I only spent £14, double ha! (And I’m not being sponsored either, oh…)

I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I hadn’t been to second-hand bookshop Bookbarn International until last week, despite it being 15 minutes’ drive from my house. But I was waiting for one of those elusive free days as I knew that, once I got there, I probably wouldn’t want to leave and I definitely wouldn’t want to rush. I was not wrong! In the end I went with my parents and children and we were there for four hours – FOUR HOURS – all happily browsing and reading and eating cake (more of which later). Seriously, what could be better?

Despite its global sounding name, there is only one Bookbarn International and it is located on the edge of the Mendip Hills area of Somerset, which looks like this:

Countryside near Book Barn InternationalPhotograph by Paul Miles via greentraveller.co.uk

So let’s face it, you don’t need much of an excuse to go there, but if you did then this enormous second-hand, vintage and antique bookstore would certainly do the trick. This is the deal: there are thousands and thousands of books on the shop floor, both fiction and non-fiction. All adult books are £1 each, while children’s books are just 50p. For the most part they are well organised so that you can search by author (fiction) or subject (non-fiction), although the orderliness only goes so far and a certain amount of focused scanning is required. The children’s section is not really organised at all but if you like a good rummage then it’s great fun, and makes finding a gem so much more satisfying.

The stock on the shop floor is not particularly up-to-date – if you are only looking for relatively recent books then this is probably not the place for you. And the selection of classic literature is surprisingly small. But if you’re happy rootling around for a while then you will almost certainly find a fair few things that catch your eye – how could you not amongst all this?

Shelves of books at Bookbarn International

Aisles of books at Bookbarn International

If you’re looking for a harder-to-find book and it’s not on the shelves, there is a computerised search facility that will tell you if the book is stocked in the warehouse (same building) and how much it is. Bookbarn also deals in antiquarian, rare and collectable books, so if you’re after something really special you’ll have a good chance of finding it here. If you can’t make it to the physical store there is an online shop with more than half a million titles, and you can also phone up for help with more specialist requests.

Vintage books from Book Barn International

Those are not antiquarian books by the way, just battered ones, but I love them anyway.

And there’s more! There is a children’s corner which often hosts storytellers and puppet shows, and a cosy cafe with a log-burning stove and lush homemade food, most of which comes fresh from local farms. We had a leisurely lunch followed by some amazing tiffin and Malteser cake, which was practically worth the trip alone.

Children's section at Bookbarn International

But the best thing about Bookbarn is that they fully encourage you to sit down and read. There are comfy chairs and sofas everywhere and no disapproving staff lurking around to make you feel self-conscious. As soon as the children started getting restless all I had to do was whip a promising looking book off a shelf and point them in the direction of a chair and we were sorted for a while at least (although I can also recommend a visit to the playbarn at nearby Farrington’s farm shop and park as an additional bribe if needed). My book-loving parents were amazed by the lack of commercialisation, the prices, the coffee, and the free and plentiful parking (they live in London after all).

The cafe at Bookbarn International Reading chair at Bookbarn International

So, what was our final tally? Here’s what we came home with:

“Dido and Pa”, “Go Saddle the Sea” and “The Spiral Stair” by Joan Aiken
“The Chimneys of Green Knowe” by Lucy M Boston
“Kidnapped” by Robert Louis Stevenson
“Kim” by Rudyard Kipling
“Anastasia Krupnik” by Lois Lowry
“Home” by Marilynne Robinson
“The Iliad” by Homer
“The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins
“Mothers and Sons” by Colm Tóibín
“The Farewell Party” by Milan Kundera
“The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett
“Noah’s Ark” by Barbara Trapido
“Memento Mori” and “The Girls of Slender Means” by Muriel Spark
“The Pelican History of England” numbers 4 & 9 (to complete my collection!)
“A Short History of English Literature” by Benjamin Ifor Evans

And all for less than £15. Yup, I’d call that a pretty successful day out. Go now!

10 bands with literary names

The worlds of music and literature have long drawn inspiration from each other. To celebrate this enduring artistic crossover, here are 10 (or so) bands with literary names

veruca-salt-2

Veruca Salt
The 90s was a great decade for female fronted bands, with the Riot Grrrl movement – outspoken feminist musicians in skater skirts and Mary Janes – in full swing and brilliant songwriters such as Tanya Donelly, Björk and PJ Harvey at the fore. Veruca Salt – a little girl who (nearly) always gets what she wants while dressed in sparkly clothes (from Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” of course) – was kind of the perfect name for a band of that era, and their songs were awesome. PS: they reformed recently, have a new album, and are touring again!

the-fall

The Fall
“The Fall” (“La Chute” in the original French) is a 1956 novel by Albert Camus, in which a wealthy lawyer confesses to and reflects upon the faults and mistakes that ultimately drove him to crisis point. It’s dense, philosophical and tricky to understand, which makes it a pretty apt name for this prolific, uncompromising post-punk band.

tears-for-fears

Tears for Fears and Primal Scream
What do 80s pop geniuses Tears for Fears and Scottish electro-rockers Primal Scream have in common, you might ask. In fact both get their names from works by American psychologist and primal therapy creator Arthur Janov. In his 1980 book “Prisoners of Pain” he describes “tears as a replacement for fears”, while his first book, “The Primal Scream”, recounts his primal therapy sessions with patients in the 1960s. Primal therapy involves re-experiencing traumatic episodes in order to release suppressed pain, and I would say it was Tears for Fears whose songs most reflect their Janovian name. Their first album, “The Hurting”, is sometimes described as a concept album based around primal therapy, while it can hardly be coincidence that single “Shout”, from second album “Songs from the Big Chair” (ie, therapist’s couch), while ostensibly a song about political protest, features the immortal line, “Shout, shout, let it all out”…

belle-and-sebastian

Belle and Sebastian
“Belle et Sébastien” was a children’s book by French actress Cécile Aubrey, about the adventures of an orphaned boy who lives in the French Alps with his adopted family, and the dog he befriends and protects. It was made into a TV show in the 60s, a cartoon in the 80s, and a film in 2013, but its name is perhaps most widely associated with excellent Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian.

lux-lisbon

Lux Lisbon
This newish London-based band are named after the most significant character in Jeffrey Eugenides’ cult novel “The Virgin Suicides” – the beautiful, enigmatic, unknowable Lux. Stifled by their strict, religious parents, Lux and her sisters struggle to assert their individuality and fully express themselves, eventually losing hope and hatching their own, terrible plan of escape. Lux’s tendency to self-destruction coupled with her ability to find ever more inventive ways to retain some kind of control over her life fascinates the neighbourhood boys to the point of obsession, but they never work her out. The band’s Stuart Rook has said he partly chose the name because X is his favourite letter – although I think The xx might have one up on them there…

marillion2

Marillion
Ahh, who doesn’t love a bit of Marillion? “Misplaced Childhood” is a classic concept album, and its narrative songs, nightmarish visions and overriding theme of lost innocence make it no surprise that the band is named after a story collection by fantasy author JRR Tolkien. “The Silmarillion” is a five-part book that sets the scene for both “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”, describing – in epic detail – the ancient history of a mythical universe whose peace and beauty will later be threatened by the Dark Lord Sauron.

catchers

The Catchers
An entirely underrated Northern Irish band who released two brilliant albums, “Mute” and “Stooping to Fit”, in the mid-90s. There’s not much about them on the internet but I’m sure I read that they were named after “The Catcher in the Rye”, JD Salinger’s 1951 coming-of-age classic. And certainly they were very young – possibly teenagers – when they started out, so that would make sense. Singer Dale Grundle now has a new band, The Sleeping Years, who sound great, too.

divine-comedy

The Divine Comedy
Also from Northern Ireland, and now on their 11th album, The Divine Comedy take their name from Dante’s 14th-century epic poem about the afterlife. It includes his famous description of the nine circles of hell, each one featuring increasingly terrible punishments for increasingly terrible sinners until we encounter Satan at the very core of the earth – sounds hilarious, no? In classic terminology a comedy is a work that starts in misery and ends in elation and, happily, “The Divine Comedy” moves through purgatory and into the nine celestial spheres of heaven, where Dante sees God and experiences divine love. Phew!

boo-radleys

The Boo Radleys
Back in my teens I went to an NME Brats gig (remember those?) at The Forum in North London. The Boo Radleys were the headline act, supported by an up-and-coming band called… Pulp! No need to tell you who stole the show. The Boo Radleys’ music might not have been especially memorable but their name certainly was, and no list of literary band names would be complete without this one. Boo Radley was the misunderstood neighbour in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and his unforgettable name was pretty much begging to be used by a band.

Plus! Some honourable mentions:
Moloko, from the milk/drug cocktail Moloko Plus in Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange”
The Doors, from Aldous Huxley’s 1954 essay “The Doors of Perception” (in turn borrowed from William Blake’s poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”
Velvet Underground, the title of Michael Leigh’s 1963 book on aberrant sexual behaviour
Empire of the Sun, JG Ballard’s semi-autobiographical account of his boyhood experience of the Second World War – although the band themselves say their name is “about travelling to all the places where the sun has been kind of a figure of worship since ancient times”
Moby – his nickname is a reference to “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville, to whom he is related

Who would you add to this list?

Five reasons why reading is good for you

Reading can sometimes feel like an indulgence – but it’s good for both your mental and physical health. From better sleep to improved intelligence, here are five great reasons to read

photo of a woman reading by a window to illustrate a post about why reading is good for youPhotograph via Oh Happy Day

I tend to think of reading as a treat – a reward when the boring stuff is out of the way. But recently I’ve been trying hard to make it a priority and I feel so much better for it. Which made me think about the benefits of settling down with a book and why reading should perhaps be pushed even further up the daily task list. So here are five reasons why reading is good for you – really good for you – in case you need any further excuses…

1. Reading exercises your brain, improving memory, focus and concentration
Do you remember those adverts for “brain-training” products (supposedly featuring old people who were clearly about 47)? They may have been a bit of a fad but it is true that you should challenge your brain and use it in as many different ways as possible, to keep your mind sharp and ward off memory loss. And because reading is more neurobiologically demanding than processing images or speech, it’s extremely effective at doing just that. Reading works many different parts of the brain (more than watching TV does, for instance) and, according to Ken Pugh, a director of research at Yale, people who read regularly have more complex brains than those who don’t. Reading also helps to improve our powers of concentration; these days, it’s one of the few activities in which we become totally absorbed, and so enhances our ability to focus on the task at hand.

2. It’s relaxing and helps you sleep
Again, it’s the total absorption we experience when we read that makes it such a relaxing pastime. In fact, researchers at the University of Sussex found that reading for just six minutes can help reduce stress levels by up to 68 per cent – it scored more highly than activities such as walking or listening to music. Getting lost in someone else’s world allows you to forget your own problems for a while and, possibly, get them into perspective at the same time. And, if you’re anything like me, reading will have such a calming effect that you’ll probably be asleep before the end of the chapter…

3. It makes you terribly clever
In soooo many ways. It increases your knowledge for a start – fiction can give you insight into a time or place you knew little about before, whereas non-fiction books, magazines and, ahem, blogs, will generally make you a very interesting and well informed person. Reading also improves your vocabulary, which helps you speak, write and communicate more effectively. In fact we often describe articulate, knowledgeable people as well read – which they invariably are.

4. Reading fiction makes you a nicer person
Why do people sabotage their own happiness or make bad situations worse? And what is a person really going through when they experience trauma or tragedy? Sometimes even those closest to you can struggle to explain their motives or feelings – but literature has the power to delve deep into a character’s psyche and explain why people do what they do. You’re able to imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes and you suspend your judgment and ask yourself what you might have done in their place. And that helps you to understand and have more empathy for other (real) people. Science even backs this up – researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that when a reader was absorbed in a book, they used the same regions of their brains to perceive what was happening as they would in real life – in other words, our brain simulates experiences when we read. And, according to scientists at Emory University in Atlanta, the empathy we feel when reading wires our brains to feel a similar sensitivity towards real people because, on a neurological level, we think we are part of the story.

5. It promotes deep thinking
Reading to children is important partly because hearing stories helps them link cause and effect – and while their young brains have so much plasticity that concept is easily absorbed. But the power of literature to expand our thinking continues for as long as we keep on reading. So much literary fiction takes us way out of our comfort zone, forcing us to grapple with situations that we rarely have to face head on in real life. The big issues – identity, purpose, meaning, justice, equality – as well as intense and moving emotion can all be experienced through books. And our way of seeing the world and our place within it can be turned upside down if we open our minds to what a book is trying to tell us. Searching for a novel’s meaning involves putting together the clues scattered along the way – the imagery, the symbolism, emotion, motivation and your own reactions. Your mind needs, somehow, to pull all these elements together to access the heart of the book and that is quite the mental workout. Not only that, but a work of literature that plays around with form and structure, that really makes us work to understand it, can elevate us to new levels of expression and creativity of our own.

In short, a book can be a portal that helps us access not just other people’s worlds, but the depths of our own inner world – it can show you what your own mind can do, how much it can imagine, understand and process, and can change the way you see the world and the people within it. I think I know what I’ll be doing for the rest of the day…

Pause for thought: how to use semicolons

This overlooked punctuation mark is an incredibly useful writing tool. Today we look at using semicolons to bring greater clarity to your copy

photo of man doing headstand on a beach to illustrated a post about how to use semicolonsPhotograph by Paula Borowska

As someone whose writing can get somewhat… unwieldy, I’m a big fan of the semicolon. When I’m midway through a sentence and realise I have a lot of things to say I will usually try to divide the sentence in two. But it doesn’t always work, because sometimes a line of thought needs to come out in its entirety before that decisive full stop brings it to a final halt. That’s where the semicolon comes in.

What semicolons are for
Semicolons allow you to divide one long sentence into two parts that still remain connected to each other, with the second half reflecting back upon the first. When you’re writing you often want to add detail or expand upon the basic facts to support the point you’re making – but heaping clause upon clause can get confusing, while putting those details into separate sentences can sound choppy and spoil your flow.

(That said, Google and other search engines, which scan your copy for “readability”, don’t much care for long sentences. They assume that readers skim read text – and so short sentences contained within short paragraphs are what they favour. I choose to blithely ignore this because, well, brief and to the point just isn’t my style, as you can probably tell.)

Take this sentence, from a blog post I wrote about James Bond’s eyewear choices:

“As with many Bond-favoured labels, Vuarnet is a brand that flies under the radar; adored by those in the know it is not a common household name – rather it is exclusive and rarefied, with its sale restricted to a small group of hand-picked opticians and eyewear boutiques.”

Now, I could have put a full stop after “radar” and started a new sentence with “Adored”, and that would definitely have scored me “readability” points. But to me, the second part of that sentence builds upon the first, and the two are connected too closely to be separated by a full stop; that Vuarnet is not a common household name reinforces the point that it flies under the radar, and the fact that it is only sold in a few exclusive boutiques gives further evidence for this. (Yes, I just did it again there – I really like semicolons.)

Semicolons: the rules
There a couple to remember. One is that the two parts of the sentence must be sentences in themselves, ie, you could divide them with a full stop if short and choppy is your thing.

The other is that if a sentence is divided by a conjunction, you need to use a semicolon if the conjunction refers forward to the second part of the sentence – however, meanwhile and furthermore often do this. Otherwise, if punctuation is needed, then a comma will usually do. So:

“He used to travel the 30 miles to his office in London by car, train and bus, but now he works from home.”

But:

“He used to travel the 30 miles to his office in London by car, train and bus; however, due to the reorganisation of the company, he is now able to work from home.”

“However” introduces the news about the reorganisation of the company, so a semicolon is needed here to place it firmly in the second half of the sentence. Otherwise, it could refer backwards: “He used to travel the 30 miles by car, train and bus, however,” making the sentence harder to understand. You’ll also note that in the second example the two parts of the sentence are of equal weight, providing another excellent reason to use a semicolon.

Serial semicolons
The other use for the semicolon is the division of lists that already contain a lot of internal commas. If the items being listed are themselves made up of several elements, semicolons can stop the whole thing becoming a gigantic confusing mess:

“The team is made up of the following people: Mary Jones, who is the new creative director and has worked previously at Habitat, The White Company and Ikea; Maggie Smith, who has been appointed art editor and counts Homes & Gardens, Ideal Home and Living Etc among her clients; Harriet Taylor, creative assistant, who has a background in fine art, pottery and textiles; and Ben Walker, admin assistant, who has completed internships at Liberty, Harrods and John Lewis.”

Overall, semicolons essentially act like mega-commas, when a piffling normal-sized comma just won’t do. If you don’t already use them, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them.