Books serve different purposes at different times. Sometimes, they offer entertainment, other times they help us feel less alone. When everything is going well in my life, I tend to choose books that have harrowing plot lines that make me feel read on with a sense of dread, and will leave me reeling at the end. I want to read of drama and chaos, perhaps offering a kind of counterbalance to the contentment which I feel.
But there are times when these books are too much, when I am more unsettled in my life and prefer a book that will comfort me. I don’t want to be excited or shocked, but I do want to escape to another place or time, and into the life of another.
Others might be facing some of life’s great sadnesses when they want to pick up a book that will not ignite strong emotions, but will offer them some peace and escape from their own thoughts and memories.
Here are some books that offer a gentler reading experience.
Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayer
Is there any better, more comforting escapism than the story of leaving a cold climate and moving to a Mediterranean idyll? Sure, there might be some absurd conversations with tradespeople, and some structural problems with the gorgeous villa that the characters will live in, but the problems are benign and it seems clear from the start that they will be overcome.
The sunshine, the glorious landscape and the food make this a book that it is safe to turn to in times of sadness.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith
Again, it might be the sunshine or the exotic landscape, but Alexander McCall Smith offers the perfect escape from worry with his books. Set in Botswana, with the likable Mme Ramotswe at the centre of the stories, the problems that the detective encounters are usually small and easily surmountable (as long as they are accompanied by a cup of tea and cake).
The simplicity of life in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency offers an appealing alternative to the complexity and concerns of life when it hits its troughs.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
For escapism combined with outrageous consumerism, it is difficult to beat Crazy Rich Asians. Set in Singapore, it offers a light and humorous insight into the worlds of three super-rich, pedigreed Chinese families as the heir to one of the greatest fortunes in Asia brings his American-born Chinese girlfriend home to Singapore to attend a wedding.
Rather than a little sniping from those vying to steal the heir’s attention from his girlfriend and light-handed exploration of the clash between old and new Chinese money, Crazy Rich Asians is essentially a frivolous romp through the lives of those with unimaginable wealth. A little bit like flicking through a glossy magazine full of the gorgeous and glamorous as they attend the Golden Globes or Oscars, Crazy Rich Asians is unchallenging and addictive.
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
It is always nice to laugh at the absurdities of life, and those laughs are delivered in spades in My Family and Other Animals. A memoir of the time when Gerald Durrell’s family fled the gloomy British climate in favour of Corfu, it is a book that will make even the most staid or scarred reader laugh out loud. Many of the characters in the book are endearingly familiar, from the acne-stricken Margo to the nature-loving and frequently distracted Gerry.
In particular, I loved the scene in which the family arrived in Corfu, accompanied by a noisy gang of the island’s dogs. You’ll have to read it to see what I mean.
Salmon Fishing in Yemen by Paul Torday
It is surprisingly easy to start believing in the outrageous idea at the centre of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and perhaps that is part of its appeal. In the book, fisheries scientist Alfred Jones is asked to become involved in a project to create a salmon river in Yemen. The project is supported by politicians who aim to get political mileage from its success.
Salmon Fishing in Yemen is hopeful, uplifting, funny, and just the right amount of ridiculous. It is likely to take any reader’s minds off their own problems as they follow the ups and downs that Alfred encounters as he attempts to pull off the impossible.
The Great Railway Bazaar
There is something soothing about the sound and sensation of travelling on a train, and that quality is also inherent in Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar.
The book recounts Theroux’s journey across Europe through India and Asia during the mid-seventies, during which he encounters foreign and exotic places and people. Theroux’s calm interest in the countries he visits and their inhabitants is far removed from the frenetic pace and overwhelming enthusiasm of presenters of many travel shows. This book is another escapist adventure that enables the reader to feel as if they are visiting far off places that are so different to those where their troubles lie.