books

What to Read When Life is Hard

Card Catalog
Card catalog via Kristen Twardowski

“The last couple of months have been rough ones for me. When you hit a bumpy spot on the road of life, it makes sense that some things will change. But I hadn’t quite expected it would change my reading habits.

Under normal circumstances, I read a lot of what falls into the category of literary fiction; the shelf in my personal library dedicated to Russian literature is full enough to worry a psychoanalyst. And the other books I read are often more than a little poignant. I love books by Peter S. Beagle, Diana Wynne Jones, and Anne Sexton, but they don’t often tell stories that I would describe as happy. Since I’ve hit my difficult patch, I haven’t been able to touch books like that.

I didn’t even notice the change until I made the fatal error of trying to reread Octavia Butler’s Kindred. It’s a wonderful, thought-provoking novel, and now seemed like a good time to revisit it.

I didn’t even make it through the prologue.

A few pages in my brain just stopped and refused to keep reading. I put the book down and couldn’t convince myself to pick it up again. I’ve had a similar response to other serious books. With the recent adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I should really reread that book too. But I can’t do it.

Instead I’ve found myself turning towards genres that I don’t normally read. In particular, I’ve started reading a lot of nonfiction and the lightest, fluffiest romances I can find.”

—     —     —

For those of you who don’t know – and I’ve seen quite a few new faces here over the past week – I write for the book editorial website Book Riot and occasionally post excerpts from those articles on this site. If you want to discover a little more about what I’ve been reading during my bumpy spot, you can check out the rest of the article, “Reading When Life Throws a Curveball”.

If you have any suggestions for light reads, I would also love for you to share them. Though we all react to adversity differently, I’ve found that other people’s comfort reads also comfort me. Creating a list of those books then becomes a resource for when times get tough.

It’s like having a fire extinguisher except instead of “in case of fire, break glass”, the sign next to the list says, “in case of disaster, read books.” And how can I say no to a command like that?

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64 thoughts on “What to Read When Life is Hard

    1. Thanks, Jennie. It’s strange; sometimes fiction for children tell the kind of stories that we need to read. And the opening to Flora and Ulysses looks wonderful. “Flora was doing two things at once. She was ignoring her mother, and she was also reading a comic book…” I identify with her already.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You will LOVE the book. It won the Newbery, deservedly so. Let me know when you finish and what you think. It took me 30 years to discover good fiction for older children and YA. It is now my best reading. Really. Yes, they tell the stories we need to read.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Growing up did you read Sarah, Plain and Tall? I’m sure you did. The author just published last year, The Poet’s Dog. Should have won the Newbery this year. My husband devours books. He is so smart and reads everything he can get his hands on. I made him read this book. He told the author it was the best piece of literature he has ever read. He meant it. Simple. Beyond wonderful. I promise I will not throw more wonderful books your way. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I did read Sarah Plain and Tall, but I hadn’t heard that the author had recently published another book! It sounds like a good one. (And please don’t ever feel bad about throwing wonderful books my way. I always appreciate it.)

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Jennifer Crusie and Lani Diane Rich (and her alter ego, Lucy March) write smart, funny women’s fiction. They are for when you want lighter, but not dumb. Hope things improve. And I understand not being to read certain genres at some points.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve definitely been doing more comfort reading lately.

    Some of my favorite comfort reads are: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson, The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield, and The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice.

    Some of my comfort authors are: Georgette Heyer, Kate Morton, Mary Stewart, Angela Thirkell, and Susanna Kearsley.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is a fabulous list! Thank you for sharing it.

      I’ve been meaning to read Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – I’ve heard so many great things about it – but somehow I’ve never gotten around to it. Now may be the time for it.

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  3. It’s like detox for the mind and soul. You need the cleansing, watery, cathartic books to flush out the remnants of the deep, meaningful weight on the soul hefty books. 😊

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I tend to read a lot of sci fi and fantasy fiction, but when times are tough I fall back on Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice; Harry Potter; Zorro by Isabelle Allende; any of Rick Riordan’s series but currently in The Trials of Apollo; Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina; Ella Enchanted; and stacks and stacks of graphic novels.

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  5. At times of bellyache/trouble/over-taxed brain etc I find PG Wodehouse very, very soothing – and laughter tends to help restore sense of proportion, too. If I’m feeling too blue to be amused, Tove Jansson will soothe; not only the Moomin stories but especially her short stories; “The Invisible Child” will heal when self-worth count is dipping into single digits.
    There’s usually something interesting waiting round the next corner, hang on and the dumpy ride is soon over.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the well wishes.

      Short stories are a wonderful idea. In some circumstances, committing to a full length novel can be a little too ambitious. Shorter fiction though is a great way to get around that.

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  6. Sorry to hear that Kristen. I hope you find your equilibrium. It’s quite amazing how what we watch and read affects us. I am writing quite a dark third sequel in the Hollystone Mysteries right now and immersed in vampires (just watched four seasons of Being Human UK). I found I had to stop. Anxiety. Tension. And I’m feeling it ironically in my neck (vampires!) and throat (the communication chakra). I too, am searching for the light side.

    Last night, before going to bed, I watched a Canadian comedy show on my laptop. Still Standing with Jonny Harris — http://www.cbc.ca/stillstanding/ He’s brilliant and made me laugh out loud. I realized that I am lacking joy and laughter and fun with friends. Cloistering with my laptop, writing darkness and evil can take its toll.

    Also, tree-bathing helps me. Nature is my love and refuge.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I wish I had some books to add to your list, but the truth is, when I go through patches like that, I tend to walk away from reading for a few weeks, catch up on other things I put aside to read (go for walks, garden, etc) and watch entirely too much tv. Usually, a rough patch = a depressive episode, so I don’t want to read anything heavy, but I’m feeling way too much, so lighter books feel especially empty and hollow. Hopefully, you’ll find something that works well for you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you.

      I can understand avoiding reading for a while. Being outside and experiencing life out there is so important and can be a great balm whereas sometimes books let us get too stuck in our own heads.

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  8. And that’s when I discovered science fiction and fantasy – just after my divorce the thought of reading any form of romance had me wanting to vomit… When Life isn’t playing fair I run for cover to the Discworld novels courtesy of Terry Pratchett, particularly the earlier, more madcap ones…

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    1. I can understand how science fiction would offer some solace under those circumstances.

      Several people have brought up the Discworld books. I can’t believe I overlooked them! They are such warm novels. Pratchett had such an affectionate way of looking at humanity.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. When feeling low or in a bad place I go for cozy mysteries. Particularly Kate Carlisle’s Bibliophile Mystery series. They always manage to make me smile. And there are 11 of them so plenty of material to go through 🙂

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    1. It’s always nice when there is a sizable backlist in a series. I haven’t read any of Kate Carlisle’s books before, but the descriptions for the Bibliophile Mysteries are wonderful. But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m interested in books about…books!

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  10. I love a good fantasy novel when I’m feeling off. Recently I discovered Anne Bishop’s Other series, the first of which is Written in Red. It is amazing how fantasy writers get away with making a political statement or talking about diverse issues by using made up races. Or at least I hope there aren’t vampires, werewolves or fae living next door. I’d love to hear what you think if you decide to try the urban fantasy genre. Take care!

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    1. Anne Bishop is an excellent read. Try a bit of Spider Robinson. He has Callahan’s Place. A bar rich with characters and stories from galaxies, home worlds and worm holes. “If you are feebleminded enough to want to believe in good and bad joss, the Constitution so entitles you – but have the decency not to try and spread the virus.” Lady Sally

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  11. Sorry to hear u r going thru a rough patch! We r as well and it’s not reading that’s my problem but writing. Hard to force out anything but gloom when u r feeling it. Cozy mysteries don’t usually require u to engage the brain and is easy reading.

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      1. I often find that there’s a funny way in which rereading is often more fun, and more relaxing, than reading for the first time. The first time has that earnest “what’s going to happen” tension, while a second read through has no urgency, like a gentle stroll.

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  12. I often retreat to a book when the going is rough.
    As for suggestions: anything by P.G. Woodehouse, always great if you need a laugh, badly.
    Tom Robbins “Still LIfe with Woodpecker” saved my life – I’m not kidding.
    As did “The Demon-haunted World”, by the late, great Carl Sagan.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Reading Cannery Row always puts me in a good mood. It may not be the best novel ever written, nor the best novel that Steinbeck wrote, but it’s a love letter to the central California coast where Steinbeck was born and raised, and where I currently live.

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      1. Steinbeck was a very earthy writer. At times he was course, but he also gave a voice to people who otherwise may have been forgotten. And of course I’m biased because he was a fellow Californian. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds like a good book then. It is always hard to find that perfect balance of engaging yet not stressful. (And a few people have mentioned books set in London to me. Maybe it’s a sign that I need to read more of those!)

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  14. I do agree old favourites are a comfort and defence in tough times. One of my standbys is E.F Benson’s ‘Mapp and Lucia’ series, set in England in the 1920s, very funny, light and brilliant on human nature. It helps me to escape to a long gone world. Hope you feel much better very soon – Anne

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  15. Alexander McCall Smith? No 1 Lady’s Detective Agency? I pick up something light when things get too much. Books in the line of Bridget Jones Diary – something to help me smile despite unwelcome events without resorting to pure distraction. Rosewater and Soda Bread by Marsha Mehran?

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    1. Oh, No. 1 Lady’s Detective Agency might be a good place to dive in. You know, I haven’t read Rosewater and Soda Bread, but the cover looks beautiful, and the description of the three sisters is lovely. I may have to pick it up!

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  16. May I introduce you to Rumi? Specifically: “…that shadow has been serving you! What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is your candle. Your boundaries are your quest.” The Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks.

    When we are assaulted by the scrub brush of living, short and sweet; fluffy or understated works best. We are fragile, held together by tenuous thin threads. It is time to be a cicada and burrow up from our old patterns.

    We who are readers and writers are now open to the short quips slung into our fatigue.

    Even haiku. Try: Honku by Aaron Naparstek: “Though it’s impressive, your vehicle’s sound system triggered my migraine.”

    There is a light at the end of this tunnel. It may be at the end of a tricycle ridden by an exultant red-haired gap-toothed boy. To him, life is a joyous conundrum. He pushes through, as must you, into an unknown tomorrow. It will be better, and so will you!

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    1. Funny you should mention Rumi; I just revisited some of his writing and history as a result of the name cropping up in the news again!

      As long as you are reading the right kind, poetry can be quite the balm in the darkness. Thanks for the suggestions!

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  17. My go-to comfort reading for the past thirty-plus years has been the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters. Since there are about twenty-five books in the series, I can comfort myself a long time.

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  18. I’ve been avoiding fiction for a little while, as I was doing a personal mastery course with Colette Baron Reid and so decided to switch my reading to works that complemented what I was studying, so I read one of her books and also Kyle Gray’s Raise Your Vibration, Osho’s book on Intuition, Gregg Braden’s The Divine Matrix.

    I admit its been hard after changing my reading diet to come back to fiction and I am more discerning than ever as it is soul food and so I think you’re right in that if your body and mind is repelled from it, it’s good to listen to it and choose something else.

    Antoine Laurain is one of my favourite authors of ‘uplifting fiction’, he’s only recently begun to be translated into English from French, but he writes novella length fiction that is just a pure pleasure to read. Check out The President’s Hat or The Red Notebook.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, that course sounds fascinating! It can be so rewarding to spend time focusing on understanding yourself.

      And I love the sound of “The Red Notebook”, so I may have to take a peek at it. “Uplifting and entertaining” is right up my alley.

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  19. Hi Kristen! I love reading, however lately I couldn’t find a book that I could call fascinating in a long time…So I keep on re-reading old ones… Back in the days my school librarian sensed my “style” and recommended me the books that I simply fell in love with… However my school days are long over and I couldn’t find another human being who would share same interest that I do…. I like meaningful (even historic) literature that makes you think and form your own opinion & thought…. not some silly, straight forward and so easily predictable books that I’ve been reading lately… Perhaps I could ask you for some advice? What would you recommend ? ps gone with the wind, crime & punishment are my favourite.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh recommending books for other people is so tough! I’ve read all three of Elizabeth Kostova’s recent books and enjoyed them. Her most recent is “The Shadow Land”, and to steal from the official summary:

      A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi—and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes.”

      You also might like “The Wicked City”

      And “A Piece of the World”

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