Life, Books, and Everything

mans sitting on top bookcase photoThere was no blogging to be had last week, because there was nothing I could write about. Sometimes things happen in real life which make pretty much everything else pointless. 

It seems to me that writing, or indeed the making of any art, might be helpful for understanding the human condition, but only after you’ve already understood it. It’s no good at all while you’re trying to do the understanding. When we’re struggling to understand things , we have to look to other people who might already have created what we need.

So I started thinking about books which have helped me to get through things, if not to understand them. There are books which have let me escape briefly from sickness, or sad stuff, like bereavement, or the suffering of people I care about. There are books which have failed, too, but that could have been nobody’s fault but my own, for selecting the wrong book at the wrong time.

There are books which have made me think seriously about who I am, or who I’d like to be; books which have been enjoyed and yet immediately forgotten after the last page was turned, and books which have taken me over so completely that I forgot who I was until the last page was turned.

So for want of something better to say today – and until the idea of making my own stuff up makes sense once more – here are a few of those mind-altering books which I wished last week I could have read again, but for the first time.

A Fraction Of The Whole1. A Fraction of The Whole  (Steve Toltz)

You could have stuck pins in me while I was reading this book and I wouldn’t have felt a thing. Even though several times during this book I believe I paused to think “why has nobody else ever thought of that?!), I was still immersed. I love books which seem like they avoid every cliché ever written, even though they might be framed in a very familiar way.

I can’t get enough of offbeat but believable characters who do things which, if you stop to think about it, probably happened in your town, and you thought nothing of accepting it because it was literally stranger than fiction (not unlike The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared).

I loved the idea of a town which became a tourist attraction for being the worst town in Australia, not to mention houses in mazes, mad parents, and rags to riches to rags to manic success. I can’t describe it. It’s like trying to explain trance music. I’ll just have to read it again instead.

Rebeccas Tale2. Rebecca’s Tale (Sally Beauman)

My Mum gave me this when it first came out. I think it was the first book I ever read in that god-awful “trade-paperback” format – those huge paperbacks they bring out as non-hardback new releases, which are impossible to either read in bed or carry in a handbag – but despite this I couldn’t put it down.

I hadn’t read Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca until I read this (I know. For shame), but those two books together made an old world new, and transported me into the minds of some very fascinating women – authors and characters alike. It’s like what Jean Rhys said of writing the gorgeous Wide Sargasso Sea, about the ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Jane Eyre:  “She seemed like such a poor ghost, I thought I’d like to write her a life”.  The idea of new stories for some of literature’s most captivating peripheral characters is ingenius.

I also loved this because my Mum gave it to me. She was always on the lookout for great women’s fiction for me.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close3. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer)

I started this book whilst standing in a 3-hour security queue for a US flight at Heathrow Airport, less than 1 week after the mental security liquid restrictions came in following that alleged transatlantic aircraft terror plot in 2006. I remember a guy behind me smiling wryly and asking me did I think I’d have the book finished by the time I got onto the plane. I did rather think I might.

But it says a lot that I didn’t actually mind. Standing there in the queue, security staff screaming orders at us, children crying, hand baggage getting heavier by the hour – I didn’t care. The book was perfect. I love books with doodles in them but the sheer feeling crammed into the font selection alone in this book made me sigh. 

I’m still refusing to watch the film. I won’t have a perfect story ruined by a ridiculous adaptation. Such as The Bonfire of the Vanities. An ascerbic, spectacularly witty, super book reduced to cheap gags and accents.  Oh, Tom Hanks. Read your scripts better, for God’s sake.

The Time Travelers Wife4. The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)

What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said? Everybody loved it. Everybody cried buckets. There is something so bizarrely comforting about tragic people who know what’s coming and do it anyway because it’s still better than not doing it.

As a love story it’s unbeatable. Again, the film was dreadful, and not just because Eric Bana didn’t age a day. But the book is a thing of beauty. Just humanity, trussed up in paper and glue.


I will probably spend the rest of the week seeking out other books which can make things better, however briefly. If you have any recommendations for me… you would be a very kind commenter indeed.

  14 comments for “Life, Books, and Everything

  1. April 15, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    I find I can’t beat ‘The Little Prince’ for comfort. There’s always some little gem in there, whether it’s a phrase or an illustration, that just salves whatever’s hurting me and helps to take the pain away.


    • April 15, 2014 at 2:13 pm

      Would you believe I don’t think I’ve ever read that from start to finish? I’m going to get it before the weekend. A great suggestion.


      • April 15, 2014 at 3:01 pm

        You really must. It’s a book I re-read once a year, every summer, because it always has something new to teach me. I love every word of it. Enjoy it!


  2. April 15, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    I think I have comfort authors rather than specific books – Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series are almost always good for lifting your spirits, not just for the gags but because of the satire on the human state which makes it all the more silly because it’s vampires or trolls or banshees behaving like bloody stupid humans. Fantasy with a wry commentary on what makes us tick and ticks us off is a rare thing but I’m always grateful for a bit of frenzied blood-letting just for the letting off steam kick…
    If I feel like a good flop about then you can’t beat Jane Austen for gentle prodding of the funny bone and a soothing hand on the brow that good intentions do eventually get their small rewards.
    For airports and air travel in general I always revert to froth – well, racy froth. Jilly Cooper’s my girl of choice – her ‘Rupert’ books always deliver in the filthy rich being filthy stakes lol Plus there’s lots of gee-gees too :-p


    • April 15, 2014 at 2:12 pm

      Comfort authors is a great idea, Jan. And I’ve read a number of Discworlds, but not near half of them, and you’re right: this week definitely calls for some Pratchett. I will be buying one on my way home today and thanking you for reminding me.


  3. April 15, 2014 at 10:48 pm

    I’ve only read one of the four you’ve listed and that was the Time Traveller’s Wife – I thought it was okay and agree, I didn’t want to watch the film, couldn’t see how they could do it well. I loved Rebecca so will def look Rebecca’s Tale up.
    I agree, a good book is such a fantastic investment as it will be your friend for life


    • April 15, 2014 at 11:47 pm

      It’s always a bit awkward, waxing lyrical to such an extent about a book, because it’s a very personal thing, which can be a polarising thing. Book love isn’t universal. Some readers I know haven’t liked these at all. I’d love to know what you think of Rebecca’s Tale – fans of the original might find that it clashes with the world of the book as they imagined it. Or they might find that it answers some unanswerable questions. Let me know…


  4. April 16, 2014 at 8:22 am

    Lovely post, Tara, really hits the mark. JRR Tolkein, JK Rowling, CS Lewis would be high on my list of comfort authors (have I got a predilection for with authors with initials or what)?? One of the loveliest books I ever read was ‘Silk’ by Alessandro Baricco; it’s a short book but very moving. ‘Rebecca’s Tale’ sounds very interesting – must check that one out.


    • April 17, 2014 at 12:25 pm

      I think you and Jan hit the mark when she talked about comfort authors rather than comfort books. They’re who you rely on when you need something new to distract you…


  5. johanna buchanan
    April 16, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    Hi Tara, as I have commented on my Facebook page when I was sharing your lovely blog, I can’t read anything when life stops making sense to me.
    I just go into a strange, rabbit caught in a headlights trance and can barely brush my teeth. Reading any of the above would be just too mentally challenging for me. So hats off to you for having the chutzpah for putting this blog together, and reading anything at all.
    I haven’t read any of your recommendations, although I did love De Mauriers’s Rebecca.
    My own prescription has nothing to do with books, but involves a dark cinema and a movie with ridiculously beautiful, healthy looking individuals living lives with simple little problems in them that all get fixed in two and a half hours. Even though I know it’s only a makey-up story on a screen, it always cheers me up and takes me out of my head for a while.
    What can I say – I’m clearly a seven year old trapped in an adult body – but it’s worked for me every time in the past! Take care


    • April 17, 2014 at 12:26 pm

      I have my go-to movies as well, for distraction when I’m panicky or just plain sad. The only thing is, there’s only 1 of them I’ll admit to. The others would absolutely destroy any credibility I ever even thought I had, if they got out. So they won’t be getting out…


  6. April 18, 2014 at 5:51 pm

    Jane Eyre was my comfort book for ages, along with Pied Piper by Neville Shute. In fact, I might go and read them again…Thanks for the post.


    • April 20, 2014 at 11:45 pm

      Thank you for the comment. Jane Eyre was another favourite of mine. Those atmospheric books full of brooding weather and historic houses can really take you away from just about everything…


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