I often write about what a lovely escape books make from real life. They’re full of people saying suave things, courageously rescuing their families from shipwrecks, brawling bare-knuckled with furious lions, or simply embarking on extended consensual no-pants parties with inventive lovers.
And that’s just great.
But books can do other things too. When you’re feeling emotionally bedraggled, lying on your bedroom floor staring glassily at the grey drizzle pelting the window, a book will shuffle up next to you and lie beside you staring at the window too, and then start to tell you a story. Time will pass without you even knowing it, and you realise you feel better.
This winter, I was prepared. I ate a lot. I went ice-skating. I read books*. I made sure to sleep at acceptable sleeping times. I skipped all the festive drinking (and smoking). I held my nerve all through January. I stayed warm. And I outwitted winter. I killed it with fire.
I wish nothing less for you. Here, for your perusal, are some of the books that have led me, over the years, through the dark winter and out the other side, blinking disbelievingly in the first sunlight of spring. It seems so hard to believe that the sun is coming back, but I guess she must love us a lot, because she always does.
Reading is sexy. *Adjusts spectacles*. But it can be kind of perverse – why, oh why, is it so exquisitely enjoyable to read about horrible things? Beyond Black is about a medium, Alison Hart, and her side-kick/business manager, and the strange life they lead conducting shows and readings in old dancehalls and bingo-clubs around the suburbs of London. This book takes a scalpel to all our ideas about grief and death, all our fears, our ghost-stories and goosebumps. It delves in and investigates what we’re really remembering (or trying to forget) when we see apparitions and talk to the people we’ve lost. It’s perfect for winter because the atmosphere of the book is an eternal winter: dreary greasy greyness, boredom, mild discomfort, shivers and illness; but then it finds in this thin world a whole big feast of hidden weirdness. Mantel gets right in amongst our demons and turns them all over, considering them expansively. She explores the ways we imagine things instead of remembering things; turn grief into a presence instead of an absence. It’s also very funny. People don’t become better people once they’re dead: they can be bitchy, trivial, repetitive. As Alison morosely complains: “It’s no good trying to enlist them for any good cause you have in mind, world peace or whatever. They’ll only bugger you about’. If you like your fiction dark, this is the book for you.
Iain Banks’ novels provide razor-sharp escapism, in fictional worlds of the very best kind – the kind you imagine you’d really succeed in. Every character is sketched with a quick deft hand, business and pleasure are conducted with panache, and men and women engage in ferocious battles of wit. I read Complicity first (a novel so much more complex and polished than even the greatest action/murder/mystery movie), and then The Business, a personal favourite because it features a heroine who is good at sums and revenge. It’s a book filled with ice and air, as the main character, the ambitious, ruthless business woman Kate, negotiates with corrupt mega-corporations and royalty, nipping here and there from the desert to an isolated Himalayan kingdom, and in and out of trouble, in a series of private jets. She’s smooth. This book can make a cold February night fly by.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
It seems a little bit strange and amazing that this book has been absorbed into the high-school curriculum; as if it was decided some time ago that schoolkids should read about prim, smart middle class girls dabbling in fascism and love-affairs with one-armed art teachers. When I was reading this as a teenager, it seemed vaguely disgraceful and exciting. Actually, I’m very glad we were made to read it when we were teenagers: if was a hint (if a hint was even needed) that English was definitely the most exciting subject. However, I’d like to rescue it from our communal schoolday memories and redeem it as an entirely excellent way to spend dark nights indoors. Winter makes me feel a bit of a shambles – sniffley, uncomfortable in too many layers of jumpers, yearning for sunlight and fresh air and all things zesty. This book is zesty – all sharp and nippy, clean and precise, and full of the most delicately organised language, and the images (pineapple having the ‘authentic taste of happiness’; exciting trips to the Science room; Miss Brodie’s demonstration of amber’s magnetic properties when applied to paper) stay with you long afterwards. It’s little, too – obviously meant for reading in the bath.
Sushi for Beginners
Or really, anything by Marian Keyes. I am yet to find anything under the dismal frilly pink ‘chick-lit’ category that comes close to Keyes. Her characters appear effortlessly believable and relatable, her dialogue is ridiculously funny, and her plot-lines hover exquisitely between predictable and suddenly, surprisingly heartbreaking. Her books are big and funny and tender, and there are a lot to choose from. Personally I’d start with Last Chance Saloon, and then go on to Rachel’s Holiday, Sushi for Beginners, Anybody Out There, and This Charming Man. I read these when I really just want to check out of life for a few hours. Slightly better than napping – and I do not make a statement like that lightly.
The astounding Oscar-nominated film Room is currently in the cinemas – unfortunately I was not emotionally robust enough to get through it without massive amounts of public crying (there may have been complaints made about the sobbing woman in Screen 5). However, it is absolutely amazing. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue, but if you require something less harrowing and more, eeehh… hilarious, than abduction and imprisonment tends to be – I recommend Touchy Subjects, her collection of short stories. Slightly outlandish stories that read like urban myths, she does a genius turn with dialogue and mishap. A relationship that breaks up over the discovery, one night, of a discrepancy in how much each partner would realistically pay in vet’s fees to keep their beloved cat alive; a couple who get trapped in an eternal, nightmarish quest for the right shade of lavender paint; a man who becomes irrationally obsessed with a hair that has sprouted on his girlfriend’s chin, and cannot reconcile his secret fixation with his modern, feminist principles. He doesn’t want it to bother him – but it totally bothers him. The general theme is: people are weirdos. It’s a hoot.
And a poem
Short stories are great if you have Winter Sads that tend to affect your concentration span – even better, poems. They are the literary equivalent of tiny delicious French pastries. So tiny! So lovely. Frankly, I say, eat as many tiny delicious poems as your conscience will allow. I worry that poems have a bad reputation as being overly serious and impossible to make sense of (imagine me staying awake at night worrying about that), but sometimes, they really are just for fun – for the sheer pleasure of linking some good, funny words together.
Like this one. This one is wonderful:
The Case of the Distracted Postman – by Connie Bensley
The postman is in love
and all of us are bearing the brunt.
My newsletter from the Secular Society
went to the Vicar. The Vicar’s bank statement
arrived at Number 33, who steamed it open
then put something extra in the collection
on Sunday. Coarse seaside postcards
have caused offense to Lavinia, who was
in mourning, and I personally was expecting
a love letter rather than
the Bus Timetable, copies of which
I keep receiving, day after day.
We are getting together to offer him
counseling. Every day he is seen
Staring into the pond, his disordered letter-sack
trembling on the brink.
*alright some books. Alright alright, one book. I read one book. As I admitted to my aunty not that long ago (hello Katie if you’re reading), I actually hardly ever finish a whole book. I read the first five pages and if it hasn’t included bloodthirsty revenge or a technically baffling sex scene, I just get bored and move on to something else. This makes me a terrible person, I know. The above is compiled from years of reading. Years of reading very, very slowly.