Escape and Respite Books

Book CoverA swerve off the road of romance to talk about books in general – hold on to your hats. Twice recently I’ve had the occasion to send people books who have been in mourning, or in a terribly stressful place where a respite would be needed.

I’ve taken a great liking to sending books when flowers or food might be the standard gift, especially those books that are escapes for the people reading them, a chance to check out temporarily from whatever hurt they’re facing to enjoy a fictional break. Most of the time reading anything is like that for me – I become completely oblivious when I’m reading, to the point where if a book really grabs me, I often nearly miss my stop.

But the Escape and Respite Books are those that not only grab the reader, but transport them easily and gently into the story, or cause the reader to laugh, even when there’s precious little to laugh about.

The two books I’ve been recommending are very different, but I wanted to pass them along to anyone among the Bitchery who might have need of them.

First: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book about the years after the Nazi occupation of the Jersey islands, but a whole lot more than just that. It’s an epistolary novel in the style of Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road or the A. R. Gurney play Love Letters, in which being a part of the correspondence is immensely rewarding and transporting. The person who recommended it to me has sent it to people all over the country, from post-hurricane displaced families to friends who were mourning their loved ones, and they all loved it. One friend, she says, tried so hard to savor every page because it was such a welcome, peaceful break from all that she was dealing with.

Book CoverSecond, a children’s book that’s hilariously funny, especially for preschoolers, and most especially when told in your best New Yawk accent: I Stink!, by Kate and Jim McMullan. I Stink is about a New York City garbage truck, and it’s hilarious, especially his recipe for alphabet soup.

Now, Freebird, my own resident preschooler, loves this book, and likes to read it nightly. We’ve sent copies to many of my friends who also have young children, and one of them sent a copy to a four year old boy who has been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, and is undergoing treatment at St. Jude’s right now. His mother says she’s read it over and over in the last three days since they received it, and despite poking and prodding and all kinds of tests, it makes her little boy laugh and laugh and laugh. 

What are your books of refuge and respite? What do you recommend for people who need that welcome escape? Bring on your recommendations. Few people are as well-read as the Bitchery. 

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  1. 1
    Quizzabella says:

    “My Family and Other Animals” by Gerald Durrell is my go-to book if I’m feeling down.  I’ve given it to several friends who have been going through bad times and they’ve loved it.  It’s funny, interesting and you can almost feel the sun on your face when you read it.

  2. 2
    Flo says:

    It used to be the Pern series before I got a clue and discovered the internet.  Then the shiny wonderfulness of it faded away. :(

    Now I drift towards epic tales that tend to focus on the sensations.  If I want to read about males I go play in L. E. Modessitt’s world and real about the olives and spicy lamb and flat bread and the strange order chaos balance of his world.

    If I feel like females (huhhuhhuh) I read Kristian Brittain’s Green Rider series.  Watching her characters struggle through huge mistakes and life choices that were shoved upon them is sort of soothing.

    But in the end if I’m missing my mommy and the world seems like it’s going to hell in a handbasket I read “The Chosen Baby” and remind myself that SOMEONE wanted me enough to wait three years for me to appear.  Which is pretty darn cool.

    I STINK was awesome to read to the kiddos in pre-school.  They loooooooved it.

  3. 3
    Lita says:

    My respite books have been, for maybe 20 years, the Riddle of the Stars trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip, one of the premier fantasy writers living.  I first read them in junior high school, as each was published – and they were the only books I allowed myself to pack in my college-bound luggage.  I’ve owned the omnibus trade-sized for years – but my original editions, with the great Darrell K. Sweet covers (now badly worn) still have a place of pride on my bookshelves.

    The writing is so lyrical and the story so compellingly original – a fantasy that didn’t need to be a Tolkien retread (no elves or dwarves or orcs or trolls), and the story is, at it’s heart, a mystery that doesn’t resolve itself until the very end.

    When I’m sad, tired and worn out, this is the book I pull off the shelf – and if I’m alone – I’ll read a paragraph or two out loud, such so I can savour it.

  4. 4
    Cat Marsters says:

    I go for comfort-blanket familiarity when I’m down, and read Jennifer Crusie or Terry Pratchett.  But I’m leery of recommending both authors to friends, since I’d done this in the past and had the, “Yeah, couldn’t get into it,” response, which is heartbreaking when it’s something you really love.

    The one success I had was with Bridget Jones, but I wouldn’t pass that on to anyone with stomach problems because you’ll laugh so hard it’ll hurt worse.

  5. 5
    Rhian says:

    I recently discovered Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, by Winifred Watson, and it’s become an instant favourite. It’s set in 1930s London and is gentle, witty, and delightful. It has a lovely touch of romance, too. Don’t bother watching the recent film – or at least, read the book first.

    Otherwise, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett has always been my go-to book after bad dreams, bad days, or bad tempers.

  6. 6
    Kyle says:

    The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery of Anne of Green Gables fame is one of my favorites. Oh, I love that book. It always makes me feel better! A Wrinkle in Time is a good one too, and Peace Like a River. Oh, and Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones, which is an incredibly sweet YA SF/Fantasy book about a dog (sort of) and an extremely sad (for good reasons) girl.

  7. 7
    ev says:

    It used to be the Pern series before I got a clue and discovered the internet.  Then the shiny wonderfulness of it faded away. :(

    ?? Being a friend of Todd’s, that comment intrigued me. The Pern books (actually almost any of Anne’s books) are still my go tos.

  8. 8
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    A second for Terry Pratchett here—any of the City Watch books featuring Sam Vimes are comfort food (one of CMOT Dibbler’s sausages onna bun?) for my brain.

    Another favorite, which has become my traditional yearly Christmas/Winter Solstice read, is Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising.  Forget the movie The Seeker, which sounded as though it was altered almost beyond recognition (no, I couldn’t bring myself to see it)—Cooper’s prose is lovely and lyrical and she incorporates Arthurian myth and themes of good vs. evil into a modern (1970’s) setting.

  9. 9
    Joanne says:

    What a wonderful idea!
    Even though I’m the first to grab a comfort book from my keeper shelf when my life sucks,  I never thought about giving books rather then food or flowers to friends who are suffering.  It’s something that the person can appreciate at their own pace in their own time.

    But finding the right book for someone, especially an older person who has suffered a loss and who might need the book in Large Print, seems to be an especially daunting task. Helene Hanff’s Charing Cross Road is a favorite of mine and perhaps the perfect gift.

    I look forward to more comfort read suggestions for all age groups from your readers.

  10. 10
    shaina says:

    it depends on the kind of “down” i am, but my top three things to read when i’m in a funk are:
    1) any nora roberts
    2) The Giver, by Lois Lowry
    3) Siddhartha, by Herman(n?) Hesse.

    Nora gives me sex and a happy ending and interesting people and so much more. The Giver is just…the most amazing book ever. and Siddhartha, while many people hate it or cant handle the prose, just takes me away to some other place and makes my worries seem inconsequential.

    oh, and about once a year when i feel like i have nothing else i want to read, i go back to Diana Gabaldon and/or Sara Donati and spend a few days/weeks reading through their series.

  11. 11
    tudorpot says:

    Not a book, but a film- Truly, Madly, Deeply with Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman- wonderful- helped me tremendously after my mother died.

  12. 12
    Sarah Frantz says:

    Jane Austen for me, esp. P+P or Persuasion.  Georgette Heyer.  I still go to the romance.

  13. 13
    Wendy Werdin says:

    Throwing in my vote with the Discworld fans.  I’ll hit up Carpe Jugulum or Hat Full of Sky.  I love the witches.

    I also go after Neil Gaiman’s Sandman…any and all. 

    Books that went instantly from unknown to my reread in times of need list are Lynn Flewelling’s Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness. *sigh*  There’s such a subtle and lovely m/m romance that runs through these without taking away from a delicious intrigue plot.  (Now with my sister because she needed the more than I, but I miss them!)

  14. 14
    jo bourne says:

    Couple of books here …

    The Narnia books by CS Lewis

    The Outermost House by Beston

    Robinson Crusoe by Defoe

    Beautiful Swimmers—Watermen Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay by Warner

    Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey by Brother Adam

    String Figures and How to Make them by Furness

    Letters on an Elk Hunt, by a Woman Homesteader by Stewart

    Winnie the Pooh by Milne

    Sand Country Almanac by Leopold

    The Maple Sugar Book by Nearing

    Somebody in the hospital, and hurting, I send Calvin and Hobbes.

  15. 15
    mirain says:

    Flowers and candy are standard because they are easier to choose! I would always rather have a good book, but it is hard to pick for others unless you know their tastes well. The couple times people gave me books to cheer me up in times of stress, I hated the books (Tuesdays with Morrie and some lowest-common-denominator-prose Christian inspirational book about femininity). Then I felt even worse because 1) I was afraid if I said I didn’t like the book the giver’s feelings would be hurt, 2) if I lied they might give me more books of the same sort, and 3) I was irritated by having wasted my time reading them.

    But of course it was a kind thought.

  16. 16
    Jill Shalvis says:

    The Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver.  I can’t really explain why except each time I read that book I renew my love for nature and can’t even look at a spider the same way (which is usually with great fear, lol).  Love that book for a real deep feel good feeling.

    But I’m still a romance girl at heart.  Anything by Nora is an instant comfort read for me.

  17. 17
    Diane says:

    I have gifted several people (probably at least 15 over the past 5 years) with either “What’s the Matter with Henry?” (about a 3-legged cat), “Normal is Just A Setting on a Dryer”,  Jamie Lee Curtis’ “Today I Feel Silly” or Sandra Boynton’s “Barnyard Dance” when they have been in bad funks. 

    Luckily, all have taken the gifts in the spirit it was intended…as my card will either state “take the time to feel silly today” or “Sing and dance your way through the book…I dare you” or “don’t let a 3-legged cat be better than you” or “is your goal to be a dryer…I think not.”

    Probably the idea that someone cared enough to do something to try to change their mood was more important than the book, but I know that 2 of my friends have “Silly” and “Henry” as part of their stack of books on their family room coffee tables.

  18. 18
    Tracy says:

    I second Sarah Frantz with reading Austen’s P&P;and Persuasion!

    If my escape reads are any indication, I must be a huge Connie Willis fangirl. I’ve read Bellwether so many times I’ve had to replace the book twice, and I’m not hard on books – usually. I’ve also worn out a copy of Impossible Things, one of her collections of short stories – “Even the Queen” is fabulous, “Ado” makes me laugh out loud regardless of my mood, and “Spice Pogrom” reminds me of all those Cary Grant movies I love.

    Robin McKinley’s Sunshine is also a favorite escape of mine.

  19. 19
    Becky says:

    I went through a really rough patch last year health-wise, and there were several books that helped me escape.

    Everything Lois McMaster Bujold, but I especially read Ethan of Athos over and over.

    Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

    Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen (her second book The Sugar Queen is excellent as well)

    Lover Eternal and Lover Awakened by J.R. Ward

    All the Mercy Thompson books and the novella “Alpha and Omega” by Patricia Briggs

    I don’t know if they’d help anyone else, but these books brought me through some difficult times. 

    Someone above mentioned The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery- that’s been a comfort read for me since I was about 12.  I’ve read it so many times I wore out the original copy and had to buy a new one.

  20. 20
    Vicki says:

    After our son died, I couldn’t read at all for a while. It was a big loss (well, both losses were big), because I had always read for comfort. I was also working away from home so the inability to read was worse. One of my co-workers who was always reading on her breaks offered to pass her books on to me just to have them around. They were a totally mixed bag, travel, romance, murder. The first one I was able to read (and that she recommended I try) was The Pact by Jodi Picoult. I probably would not have read it if I’d known it was about suicide (our son’s cause of death) but it was, in a very weird way, healing. I don’t know that I would recommend a specific book for greiving friends but what my friend did, surrounding me with books she had liked, that was good.

  21. 21
    SB Sarah says:

    Vicki: I am so sorry for your loss.

  22. 22
    Cat Marsters says:

    So sorry to hear that, Vicki. 

    But it makes me wonder: is it (generally speaking) a good idea to give people books about the issues they’re facing?  Or to give them books to escape the issue completely for a while?

    When my best friend’s dad died we sat and watched movies for a while, and I told her I’d just got the DVD of Elizabethtown, thinking Orlando Bloom might cheer her up.  Of course, I’d forgotten the film starts with the death of the hero’s father!  She vetoed it on those grounds, and we watched one of the earlier Harry Potters instead, for total escapist comfort.

  23. 23
    Sarah F. says:

    I’m with Sarah Frantz on Austen’s P & P and Persuasion. I also tend to go for mystery novels I’ve already read once, and young adult books like Howl’s Moving Castle or The Ordinary Princess. And, of course, To Say Nothing of the Dog because I also love Connie Willis.

    My grandmother is recovering from some health problems right now and I sent her Julia and Romeo Get Lucky by Jeanne Ray because I remember thinking that Step-Ball-Change was one of the lightest and funnest books I’ve read in a long time. And I sent her the first Jane Austen Mystery by Stephanie Barron because they’re awesome.

  24. 24
    L says:

    Vicki, I am sorry to hear about your loss. My boyfriend died from injuries sustained in a car crash this summer (he did not cause the crash) and I, too, found myself unable to read for awhile. I understand what you mean by the double loss. One of the first books that I did read was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. It was recommended to me and I found it to be enormously helpful, if only to know that grief is a maddening kaleidoscope of pain for anyone who feels it. And as a bonus, I realized that I hadn’t lost my ability to disappear into a book.

    Since then, it’s been a mixed bag – I think “comforting” can mean different things at different times. At first I found fiction itself to be difficult; now, oddly, I find myself seeking romance. I think I want to believe in that love does conquer all, that magical things can happen, and that it will be okay in the end.

  25. 25
    1GothMama says:

    Long time reader, first time poster here. Reading has been an escape/comfort for me since I was young and growing up with an abusive father. I remember reading The Secret Garden over and over,  wanting to escape to the English moors. I can trace my love of the wounded, mysterious hero back to this book.

    My favorite book is Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. It’s full of humor and magic and humanity. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy always makes me laugh out loud. And since we’re including children’s books The Runaway Bunny and the Very Hungry Caterpillar both remind me of my mother. It’s like getting a hug from her when I can’t see her.

    And Vicki, I also express my deepest condolences. I can’t imagine a loss like that and commend you on the strength to get through.

  26. 26
    Marla says:

    I don’t think I’d necessarily give it as a gift to someone who needed comforting, but I’ve frequently turned to Time Enough For Love by Robert Heinlein. The story is always engrossing to me, so it’s helpful as an escape. At the same time it discusses, from multiple approaches, the question of what makes a good life? What is valuable, what really matters? It always inspires me to count my blessings and to focus on the positive aspects of life – not in a sappy way and not without ignoring or discounting hardships. I don’t think this word is generally applied to Heinlein :-) but it gives me a sense of the holisitic possibilities of life.

  27. 27
    alia says:

    i’m so happy to see others agreeing with me. ;)

    i second McKillip (wait, there was a *third* book in that series? Amazon Ahoy!) and Miss Pettigrew. The latter reminded me a lot off _Daddy Long Legs_ by Jean Webster. Gentle and yet determinedly correct.

    when i’m down, i usually read pratchett or bujold, with an occasional robin mckinley.

  28. 28
    Polly says:

    The Blossom Culp books by Richard Peck. I don’t know why more people haven’t read them, but everyone I’ve passed them on to has loved them. They’re juvenile/YA novels about a teenage pyschic from the wrong side of the tracks in early 1900s America. There are four (The Ghost belonged to me, Ghosts I have been, The Dreadful future of Blossom Culp, and Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death). All but the first are narrated by Blossom, and she has one of the best narrative voices I have ever read—engaging and often hilarious. They’re some of my favorite escape and respite books and I’d pass them on to everyone if possible. I only wish there were more!

  29. 29
    Alex says:

    Oo.

    Ooo.

    OOOOO!

    I know the answer to this! My mother and I have actually hung onto a book we save especially for extremely stressed-out people.

    Murder Gets a Life, by Anne George.

    We’ve loaned it to an aunt, a friend of the family, and the librarian at the local elementary school.

    The characters strongly reminded my aunt of her own mother and aunt.

    The friend of the family said she started reading it on her back porch early one morning, and the neighbors thought she’d gone crazy because she was cackling.

    And the librarian said much the same—people were asking if she was allright, because she was laughing her head off.

    It really is a stress-relieving book, and it (and the rest of the Anne George Southern Sisters books) has my total recommendation for being bought or reviewed or whatever.

  30. 30
    Julianna says:

    I love the Dark is Rising sequence!  So good, and so overlooked.  If someone asks me about it, I try to describe it as Harry Potter by Ingmar Bergman, but there you go.

    Me, I used to read Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels for comfort (and still sometimes do), but Vonnegut was the one who really got me through the tough times.  I think there’s something very comforting about hearing that life is supposed to be tough – that you’re not alone, and life is sometimes a big dark joke told to no-one.  Saints are people who try to make it easier for others.

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