What To Read When You’re Sick

'The Convalescent' by Gwen John (1924)
‘The Convalescent’ by Gwen John (1924)

My apologies for the scarcity of blog posts recently. I do have an excuse – I’ve been sick. This has been No Fun. On the positive side, after months of dragging myself around, feeling pathetic and useless, it was some sort of relief to hear my doctor say, “You are not being lazy – you are seriously ill and need to be in hospital right now, having lots of blood transfusions.”1 Anyway, all of this has left me pondering what to read when you’re sick.

Of course, when you’re really, really sick, you can’t read anything at all. In fact, this could be a diagnostic test for certain people (the sort of people who read blogs about books, for instance). Doctors could ask, “Have you had difficulties reading more than a few pages of a book, even when you usually like that author?” alongside questions such as “Do you get breathless walking more than a few steps?” and “Do you feel faint when you stand up?”

However, assuming you’re at a stage where you can read, what should you read? Here are my suggestions:

1. Choose books that conserve your energy

You don’t want to be reading anything that makes your heart pound in fear, causes you to gasp with laughter, or gives you nightmares. You’re trying to give your body a rest. For this reason, main characters who are endearing may be a better choice than characters who are so annoying that they tempt you to hurl the book across the room. Novels with convoluted plots, non-fiction containing complex information and genres you don’t usually read may also be too much for your tired brain right now. You’re looking for something predictable and comforting, yet interesting enough to distract you, and this really depends on your personal tastes. I found Anne of Green Gables, which I’d never read before, worked well for me. Anne is good without being sickly-sweet, and her adventures were fun, without containing any nasty shocks. The book was amusing without being laugh-out-loud and Anne’s feisty approach to life was inspiring – perhaps I, too, would soon have the energy to be able to break a slate over the head of anyone who annoyed me.2

The problem is that you don’t really know what a book will be like till you’ve read it, so old favourites are often a good choice. I grabbed Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe off my bookshelf just before I rushed off to hospital and this turned out to be an excellent decision. I could put the book down if I needed a little sleep, then resume reading without forgetting who the characters were or what they were supposed to be doing. (This reminds me of another Anne Tyler character, Macon in The Accidental Tourist, who never boards a plane without his copy of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, which he describes as “plotless . . . but invariably interesting”. I was pleased to discover recently it is an actual novel, so maybe I should hunt down a copy.)

2. Avoid books about illness, medicine, hospitals, death, etc

You don’t want to be reading about all that when you’re sick. So don’t, for example, choose Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper for your sickbed reading because a) it’s about a teenager dying of leukaemia and contains detailed descriptions of medical procedures, and b) it’s full of corny dialogue, clunky metaphors and implausible plot developments, with a conclusion that will make you want to throw the book across the room.

3. Magazines are good, newspapers less so

There’s a reason hospital shops stock a large selection of magazines. A magazine article is often just the right length to suit your concentration span and there are lots of colourful pictures to gape at. I don’t know who most of the celebrities in magazines are, so I prefer ‘lifestyle’ magazines and the more removed from my current life, the better. There’s something very soothing about sitting in a hospital bed, reading about the difficulties someone had while renovating their charming centuries-old farmhouse in Provence. Newspapers are less suitable, because the pages get loose and smear ink on your sheets and they’re full of BAD NEWS.3

4. Paperbacks or large-print hardcovers?

Large-print books are handy if your vision is blurred due to illness or your medication, or if you just can’t get out of bed to put in your contact lenses. Hardcovers are also good at sitting up and staying open by themselves on your bed tray. They are heavy, though, so sometimes paperbacks are easier to manage. An e-reader with adjustable font size would probably work well, but a) I don’t have one, and b) you can’t use personal electronic devices in some medical settings.

5. What about audiobooks?

In theory, audiobooks should be a great way to read when you’re sick. Choose an appropriate book, plug in your earphones and relax against your pillows as a professional actor brings the words to life! However, I find that audiobooks require more concentration than print books do. If I get lost, I can’t just flip back a few pages to figure out the timeline or remind myself of the name of a minor character. There’s also the issue of not being able to use electronic devices in some medical settings. What sick people really need is an actual live person to sit by their bed and read aloud to them on demand. The reader can stop when the patient falls asleep and then answer questions about previous events in the book once the patient wakes up again, and can also fluff up pillows, fetch iced lemon drinks, adjust window coverings according to time of day, etc. Unfortunately, this is not an option for most sick people.

Um . . . that’s all I’ve got. Reading recommendations welcome.

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  1. I try not to use this blog to proselytise about anything other than books, but I’m feeling very grateful to the blood donors of Australia at the moment, so . . . If you’re medically capable and are okay with needles, maybe consider donating blood this year? I used to be a regular blood donor, back when I was young and healthy (obviously, they wouldn’t want my blood now, especially as most of it isn’t mine). Giving blood doesn’t take much time, doesn’t hurt much, and could save someone’s life. Thanks! Okay, back to books now.
  2. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I wonder what a modern-day Anne would do to an annoying classmate? Wallop him with an iPad?
  3. Especially at the moment, if you are an Australian.

First Lines

The Atlantic recently asked some writers about their favourite first lines in literature. As Joe Fassler reports, “The opening lines they picked range widely in tone and execution – but in each, you can almost feel the reader’s mind beginning to listen, hear the inward swing of some inviting door.” I especially like the opening of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White:

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

You know right from the start that it’s all going to end in tears, don’t you?

Here are some more of my own favourites. I think it’s good to be told up front exactly what sort of book you’ve picked up:

We think it our duty to warn the public that, in spite of the title of this work and of what the editor says about it in his preface, we cannot guarantee its authenticity as a collection of letters: we have in fact, very good reason to believe it is only a novel.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, or Letters Collected in One Section of Society and Published for the Edification of Others by Choderlos de Laclos

It’s also nice when an author explains all that we need to know about the protagonist:

The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Although this can sometimes be done just as effectively in half the words:

I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it.

Lady Oracle, probably Margaret Atwood’s funniest book

Or even fewer words:

I am a man you can trust, is how my customers view me.

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler

And sometimes, an author’s first line not only tells us a lot about the protagonist, but also conveys an essential truth about literature:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', illustrated by John Tenniel
“The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo . . .”

My Favourite Books of 2012

Here are the books I read this year that I loved the most.

But first, some statistics!

I read 72 books this year, plus approximately 7,853 articles in scientific journals (this last number may be a slight exaggeration). I’m sure you really, really want to see some pie charts about the books I read, so here you go:

Books I read in 2012 by genre

I read lots more children’s books this year than I usually do.

Books I read in 2012 by writers' nationality

Hmm, that is not very diverse, is it? I only read three books that had been translated into English, too.

Books I read in 2012 by writers' gender

That’s probably typical of my reading habits. It’s not that I deliberately try to read more women writers than men, it simply works out that way most years.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s books

'The Word Spy' by Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby RiddleI absolutely loved Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay, which I have previously written about here. I also liked Amelia Dee and the Peacock Lamp by Odo Hirsch, a sweet, charming story about a girl who is inspired to write stories by a mysterious brass lamp she finds in her house. This has many of the usual elements of an Odo Hirsch book (eccentric but benevolent parents, a carefully multicultural cast of characters, a vaguely European setting), but I found Amelia especially endearing and the lessons she learned (that it takes courage to share your thoughts with others; that other people often have complex motivations for their actions; that unchecked anger harms yourself, not just others) were exactly what I needed to think about at the time.
Other books I enjoyed included The Word Spy, an entertaining non-fiction book about the history of the English language, written by Ursula Dubosarsky and illustrated by Tohby Riddle, and Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko, about a boy whose father is a guard at Alcatraz Prison in 1935.

My favourite Young Adult novel

This year I read quite a few YA books that had received plenty of acclaim, but I ended up feeling underwhelmed by a lot of them. I could certainly understand why the books had been praised, but they just weren’t my cup of tea. Sometimes they had beautiful sentence-level writing, but the voice seemed implausible for the teenager who was supposed to be narrating the story. Sometimes they had a great narrator and fascinating premise, but the structure of the novel didn’t work for me. One book I’d seen described as ‘feminist’ was . . . really, really not feminist at all. Maybe my expectations had been raised too high by the hype. Anyway, my favourite YA book of 2012 turned out to be a book first published in 1910, long before the concept of ‘Young Adult literature’ existed. The book was The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson, which I’ve previously written about here.

My favourite novels for adults

'At Last' by Edward St AubynI found At Last by Edward St Aubyn quite as harrowing as I’d expected, but also hopeful and consoling and unexpectedly funny. It’s the fifth in a series of novels about Patrick Melrose, who was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family and was then subjected to appalling childhood abuse and neglect by his parents. In this book, Patrick has finally overcome his drug and alcohol addictions and is trying to cope with his marriage breakdown, when his mother dies. The novel is elegantly structured around her funeral, allowing a lot of thoughtful commentary on the nature of death, forgiveness and free will, but also some hilarious descriptions of the idle rich. Patrick’s awful relatives and family friends are mostly ‘old money’ who’ve never worked a day in their lives, but complain constantly about how difficult their existence is. I know this all sounds very grim and this book certainly isn’t for everyone, but I thought it was fascinating and beautifully written.

I also enjoyed Insignificant Others by Stephen McCauley and The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler, which I’ve previously written about here. I’m currently halfway through Restoration by Rose Tremain and loving it, so I suspect this book will make it onto my 2012 favourites list, too.

My favourite non-fiction for adults

I read some terrific biographies this year, including A. A. Milne: His Life by Ann Thwaite and Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox. I wrote about both books here. I also enjoyed Alex and Me, by Irene M. Pepperberg, about a very smart parrot.

I will not bore you with my To Read list for 2013, especially as it contains approximately 2,147 scientific articles1 that I didn’t get around to reading this year (this number may be a slight exaggeration).

Hope you all have a happy and peaceful holiday season, and that 2013 brings you lots of great reading.

More favourite books:

1. Favourite Books of 2010
2. Favourite Books of 2011

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  1. Yes, it’s research for my next book. The book that was supposed to need far less research than my last book. Ha ha ha.

Bookshelf Neighbours

I loved this article1 by Geraldine Brooks about her method for shelving her books, which even she admitted was “eccentric”:

“I start out conventionally enough, alpha by author. But while I take account of the first letter of the writer’s surname, I have other ambitions for my shelves that transcend the conveniences of mere alphabetical accuracy. It’s impossible for me to place one book alongside another without thinking about the authors, and how they would feel about their spine-side companion.

I arrange my shelves as I would seat guests at a dinner party. Anne Tyler and Anthony Trollope both seem devoted to a diligent scrutiny of manners. So I imagine them, shelved side by side, comparing notes on the mores of their respective eras . . .”

This sent me off to examine my own bookshelves. As organised as I am in many other aspects of my life, I have never attempted to shelve my books alphabetically, or by any other method recognised by librarians. I do tend to arrange books about similar topics in the same general area. For example, here is part of my ‘Indian fiction’ section, containing Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Rumer Godden (well, her biography) and Meera Syal, with Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie lurking just out of sight:

Bookshelf One

(Mind you, Vikram Seth and the remainder of my Ruth Prawer Jhabvala collection sit on various shelves below this. I have no idea why.) I also have a ‘YA fiction’ section, a ‘dictionaries and other reference books’ section and two shelves of 1930s and World War Two books. I also try to shelve books by the same author together:

Bookshelf Two

Oh, I seem to own a lot of Anne Tyler’s books. I’m not sure how she’d fare if seated next to Nancy Mitford at a dinner party (Nancy was not very fond of Americans), but perhaps Elizabeth Jane Howard, on the other side, could draw Nancy into a discussion about Paris fashions. I’d be more interested in eavesdropping on a dinner conversation between these three women:

Bookshelf Three

Especially if they were talking about writing historical fiction. I also have Germaine Greer sitting next to Gloria Steinem, and Stella Gibbons beside Mary Renault.

But the rationale for the shelving of other books may be less obvious. For example, what do Frances Hodgson Burnett, Curtis Sittenfeld, Gerald Durrell, Andrea Levy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Sedaris and Alison Lurie have in common?

Bookshelf Four

They’ve written books that are the same height, of course!

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  1. Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link.

Reading Roundup

I’ve read some really good novels lately, which is fortunate for me, because the non-fiction I’ve been reading (as research for my next book) has been very heavy (in both the literal and figurative senses). Here are some of the novels I’ve enjoyed:

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

'The Beginner's Goodbye' by Anne TylerI’d feared this might be merely a reprise of The Accidental Tourist, and it’s true the protagonists of these novels have many similarities – they are both introverted, socially-awkward men who write guidebooks, and they have both just lost a beloved family member in shocking circumstances. However, this book feels quite different in a lot of ways. It’s shorter, for one thing, and lighter in tone. In The Beginner’s Goodbye, Aaron’s wife has died in a freak accident, and there is nobody he can blame – not even God, because Aaron is an atheist. He copes with the loss of Dorothy by moving out of the house where she died and throwing himself into his work at the family publishing firm. He tells everyone he’s doing fine and he even believes it, until he suddenly begins to ‘see’ Dorothy. At first, she is a silent presence in his life, but eventually they begin to talk, and to argue, with more honesty than they ever did when she was alive. Aaron’s growing self-awareness feels true, his well-meaning friends and relatives are interesting and funny, and I loved the customary glimpse of a character from a previous Anne Tyler novel (in this case, it’s Luke from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, now grown up and yes, running a restaurant – perhaps he inherited it from his uncle Ezra). My only criticism would be that the final chapter wrapped things up a little too neatly (Luke even provides the moral of the story, as if we couldn’t work it out for ourselves), but by that stage, I was so fond of the characters that I was happy to see that they were happy. This is highly recommended for Anne Tyler fans, even if it’s not her best novel. There’s a good review of the book here and you can read my previous post about Anne Tyler here.

The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson

I had read this before, but that was so long ago I couldn’t remember anything about it, except that I’d liked it. This is a wonderfully honest story of a precocious, headstrong country girl sent to a snobby boarding school in 1890s Melbourne. Poor Laura gets into one scrape after another as she attempts to ingratiate herself with her classmates, but her gaudy, home-made frocks, outspoken manners, and lack of interest in boys means she’s doomed to failure. Fortunately, she manages to make it out of school with her self-esteem intact, and the final chapter implies she goes out into the world and achieves great things (unlike her classmates), because “even for the squarest peg, the right hole may ultimately be found”. The edition I read also included a hilarious review quote from a 1910 journal, which sternly declaimed:

“The book is calculated to impress very unfavourably those who do not know that the Australian girl is a much cleaner, wholesomer and straighter person than any of the characters portrayed. It is a book we should strongly recommend adults to keep out of the hands of girls.”

So, you’ve been warned.

Insignificant Others by Stephen McCauley

'Insignificant Others' by Stephen McCauleyThis felt a lot like a grown-up version of Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, as both narrators were droll, articulate and perceptive when observing the failings of others, but were quite unable to acknowledge or fix their own problems. And the narrator of Insignificant Others, Richard, has plenty of problems. He has a distant relationship with his live-in boyfriend, who is probably cheating on him; he has an affectionate but futile attachment to a married man; he has become obsessed with exercising at the gym, to the detriment of his health; and he’s frustrated by his job at a software company. I’m not sure I’d usually care about any of these problems, but Richard’s narration makes the whole thing into a very entertaining satire of modern American life. For example, here’s Richard contemplating his homophobic, religious-fanatic secretary:

“The degree to which one is obliged, for the sake of tolerance, to be tolerant of the intolerant has never been clear to me.”

And, when arguing with his cheating partner:

“I hate when truthfulness is offered up as a sign of love and friendship, especially when it’s truthfulness about betrayal.”

And, after being berated, yet again, by his sister for not having children:

“The world of parents was divided between those like Benjamin who, worries about Tyler notwithstanding, had unqualified love for their kids and saw childlessness as a disability, and those like my sister Beth, who had ambivalent feelings about their offspring and therefore labelled childlessness as unmitigated selfishness.”

Recommended, unless you’re a fan of George W. Bush (Richard’s hilarious rants about Bush’s inadequacies feature throughout the novel). If you’d like to know more, there’s a review and excerpt here.