Sunday, June 5, 2011

Some favorite feel-good reads

One of the biggest complaints, when book selection time comes around, is that a book is too dark to enjoy. Depressing books, it seems, are only making readers feel bad.
While we all have a different opinion about bleak reading (I’m thinking of Cormac McCarthy’s haunting take on post-Apocalyptic America in “The Road”), members also can’t agree about what makes them happy. Some wouldn’t touch chick lit with a Nook, while others find good people and good endings just too sugary.
Isn’t that what a book club is all about, though? Being exposed to reading that one wouldn’t ordinarily pick up, and discovering a few wonderful writers we would have otherwise missed? Some clubs make a point of consciously going down that road, seeking out cult writers, first-time authors, or relative unknowns. Others define themselves as mystery book clubs, sci-fi readers or history clubs. It’s all good, really. Every genre has its high points.
In early June, AbeBooks listed 25 Feel-Good Reads on its web site (where you can also find 50 books for 11-year-olds and a selection of bloggers). The editors did their homework. The list includes such classics as Tom Robbins’ “Still Life with Woodpecker,” Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafĂ©,” Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” and Nevil Shute’s “A Town Like Alice.” Yes, this author of “On the Beach” could also write of joy.
The list also includes more contemporary finds, like Garth Stein’s wonderful man-dog friendship, “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto.”
Books don’t have to be insipid to make readers happy. They can be beautifully written, or neatly contrived, to produce a good feeling. A book that makes one happy may well come from an author who’s feeling good (at least some of the time). That it finds joy in life does not mean it is false or less than a worthy read.
Some of my favorites:
• Jan Karon’s series on a minister’s life in the fictional southern town of Mitford, beginning with “At Home in Mitford,” portrays good people with light hearts and kind souls;
• Concord, Mass., author Gregory Maguire’s series of reshaped fairy tales (the most famous being “Wicked”) includes a new look at Cinderella (“Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister”) and Snow White (“Mirror, Mirror”); they are wonderfully whimsical and imaginative, always fascinating;
• New Hampshire author Nancy Clark wrote “The Hills at Home,” an enjoyable visit into a family of flaky relatives in close quarters with each other;
• Westborough’s Daniel Bruce Brown (a friend, I must tell you) recently published a farcical take on what the nation’s first Jewish president might encounter. “Roll Over, Hitler” even won the 2010 fiction award from the Independent Publishers Association in May;
• Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” is one of the funniest travel stories I’ve read, drawn on his solo trip along the Appalachian Trail;
• Don’t forget to read “I Feel Bad About my Neck,” Nora Ephron’s wry look at aging; it’s honest and very funny;
• Howard Mosher, a Vermont author, writes warmly and humorously about life in small towns—and among baseball fans—in his books. My favorite, “Waiting for Teddy Williams”;
• A book doesn’t have to be funny to be a feel-good book, either. Kent Haruf is a master storyteller, revealing the fears and failures of people with honesty and kindness. I loved “Plainsong” and its old bachelor farmers—brothers Harold and Raymond McPheron—who take in a teenager who is pregnant and alone;
• Langston Hughes’ “Not Without Laughter” is simply beautiful, a rare look inside the childhood and adolescence of a young black man growing up in the Midwest. It’s semi-autobiographical;
• Oh, how I love Richard Russo. His “Empire Falls” and “Nobody’s Fool” are lasting portrayals of small towns and rich characters. I will always love these two works;
• “To Kill a Mockingbird.” If you somehow missed it in school, read it. If you’ve grown up since you first read it, read it again;
• Annie Proulx is a favorite writer. Her “The Shipping News” was atypical, but a satisfying read.

This list is by no means a complete listing of my own favorites; it contains some that I recall best. Share your favorites here as well.