Today some of us are already in in semi-isolation. Soon almost of us will be. So here’s a list of books to immerse yourself because there’s no point stressing over what you can’t control. These are the books I turn to when I’m ill, or tired, or stressed. They are not the latest and greatest; they are not hip and cool. They are comfort reads. I hope they comfort you, too.
The ones at the top of the list are the ones I especially recommend. They’re full of action, set largely outside in natural landscape, and bursting with joy and bravery even when the odds are stacked against the characters. The people in these books always eventually do the right thing, and, importantly, triumph at the end. Some of these I’ve written about before, so have included a paragraph, or notes, from previous thoughts.
Others are funny, or cathartic, or simply reassuring: Yes, there are people like us living in the nooks and crannies of the world; we will survive because we have always survived.
All these books are old favourites, tried and true; read and reread—the key word, though, is old. So I’d love to get suggestions for more recent books. If you have particular favourites that you turn to when in need of comfort and/or escape, please share in the comments. We are going to need all the help we can get in the next three months.
• The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart.
A potent and atmospheric entry in the Matter of Britain—Uther, Merlin, Arthur and the fight of Light and civilization vs. Dark and barbarism. It is heady stuff: menhirs looming from the mist, the scent of woad and wet wool, and moonlight gleaming on chased hilts and chainmail as noble warriors gather to stoop down on invaders like wolves from the fold. So far, so Dark Ages. But unusually for the genre, women are not rape toys—in fact they are largely absent, leaving 10-year-old me to imagine myself in the hero’s saddle. And the hero is not a warrior but Merlin. What I really loved about this book, though, is how Stewart immerses us in nature. We feel it, smell it, and hear it; it seeps into our bones and infuses us with a sense of immanence and wild magic…
• Master and Commander (Aubrey/Maturin novels), by Patrick O’Brian.
The books about which I currently think, “Now if I could do this I could call myself a writer!” If you intend to read these, please start at the beginning with Master and Commander. I love these books, all 20 volumes. Each is a chapter in a single, flowing narrative. The first 13 are, in my opinion, without parallelThis is Jane Austen on a ship of war, with the humanity, joy and pathos of Shakespeare — and brilliantly written. I have read them perhaps 20 times. I will read them many more.The shining center of these books is the friendship between Jack and Stephen. They are opposites: extroverted, one-of-the-lads Jack and introverted, shrewish Stephen. Jack is a fool on land but brilliant at sea; Stephen is an idiot child at sea, while on land he is a subtle and dangerous spy, natural scientist and polyglot. But they both love music — and, at one point, the same woman, which comes very close to breaking their friendship.
• The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley.
The Blue Sword might be one of McKinley’s first novels but it shows all the trademarks of her later work: that absolute gift for making this imagined time and place feel as real as dirt, for showing people both ordinary and special, and for putting the reader right there in that particular time and place. I admit to flinching a little now at the implied class/caste issues, and the way McKinley doesn’t quite escape the gender event horizon (though it’s an admirable attempt), but for an early novel it’s very fine. It’s a serious story about finding one’s place in the world and learning to belong, issues very much of interest to many of us, of any age. Her later novels such as The Outlaws of Sherwood and Spindle’s End are also very fine.
• Hawk of May, by Gillian Bradshaw.
This is delicious Arthurian fantasy which feels totally queer but, well, isn’t. It’s just that the protagonist, Gwalchmai, who is very much Othered, finally finds a place to belong. There are two other books in the series, both worth reading though neither, in my opinion, so glorious as this first one.
• Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
This is one of the best novels I know. It’s not perfect. I admit that in the first hundred pages or so the prose wobbles—and occasionally lurches—here and there, enough to make the blue pencil in my head twitch and to make me turn away to allow a decent pause for the prose to collect itself. But it improves, and later passages can be very fine. And, oh dear me, yes, he could have lost quite a few chunks of song. And, no, he doesn’t do women fully—he doesn’t do them horribly, he just doesn’t do them enough—but all writers have their weak spots. His storytelling, however, is without peer. Tolkien’s arcs—for Frodo, and Sam, and Aragorn—are graceful and strong, elegant as Chinese cabinetry: pared down to the essential, perfectly balanced. The result is a story so compelling that, at age eleven, I read the entire book in one two-day marathon. It was also the first novel about which I remember thinking, “Now if I could do this...”
• Fire From Heaven, by Mary Renault (pen name of Mary Challons).
In my opinion this is her best book. Alexander and Hephaestion’s relationship felt familiar and thrilling. I read this book and thought, “If I could write a book as good as this one day, I’ll know I haven’t wasted my life.” There are two others in the series about Alexander but I didn’t ike them very much.
• The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper.
This is the second in a five-book series for children (which is also called The Dark is Rising). The others are okay, but this is the masterpiece. Cooper does a magnificent job of putting us right there. This is another of those novels steeped in the wild magic of landscape.
• Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson’s first novel, and, in my opinion, her best—unselfconscious, committed, touching, funny, and full of Northern English dykeness, which I’d never seen written about at book-length before. It’s a fictionalised autobiography; if you want to read the raw version, take a look at Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal, her memoir, which is most definitely not a comfort read. You can read my opinion here.
• The Watchtower, Elizabeth A. Lynn.
Fantasy, but no magic, unless you call love and aikido magic; I think this book influenced the way I write about bodies in the real world; it certainly paved the way for me to learn aikido a few years later. This is the first in a three-book series but this one is the best.
• The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner
Again, fantasy but no magic. And girls with swords who kiss each other. What could be better? Part of Kushner’s Riverside series, but this one stands on its own quite nicely.
• Moll Cutpurse, by Ellen Galford.
This is pure fun—lesbian picaresque before Tipping the Velvet. The story of Moll Cutpurse—rogue, dyke, slapstick humourist in the sixteenth century: there’s love, gypsies, theatre, plague, and lots of high jinks—and nicely written throughout.
• Patience and Sarah (The Two of Us) by Isabel Miller (pen name of Alma Routsong).
This is a lovely romance between two women set in 19th C. America, full of hardship and love and stubbornness. I wept shamelessly (in a cathartic way) thoughout the last chapter.
• (Extra)Ordinary People, by Joanna Russ.
A collection of short science fiction, including what to me is probably the most fun hey-gender-is-a-game story ever, “The Mystery of the Young Gentleman,” which is my favourite piece by Russ: fast-moving, thrilling, and sly. It’s set on a clipper ship sailing from England to the U.S. in the late 19th century, narrated by a—well, I’ll have to say “woman,” because if you follow the textual clues that’s what makes most sense, biologically speaking at least. Though s/he could, just possibly, be an alien. And of course the point of the story is to deconstruct the notion of gender’s pernicious binary, throw out the Either/Or and replace it with Neither/Nor and a sprinkle of Yes/And. The narrator does not identify as gendered at all but, Wittig-like, insists that among their people there are no men and no women: if all refuse gender, there’s no need to perform it. So, It’s about a woman with a young charge—who is definitely a girl, or more precisely a young woman, but in any case most certainly not a lady, oh no—who are traveling as father and daughter. Though, oh dear me, their relationship is not filial. At all. So, It’s about a woman and girl on a transatlantic crossing who use gender performance to stay safe. Not safe from bad men. Safe from the dull-eyed herd, each plodding behind the placid beastie ahead. Our protagonists, you see, are telepaths. And Russ has a tremendously fine time fucking with everyone’s gendered heads as she ratchets up the stakes. So, It’s sharp, witty, genderqueer science fiction. But we are talking about Russ, so that’s not all it is. It’s pulp adventure fiction, with sex and gunplay and gambling, money and reversals and danger. Also a parody of Victorian porn. And, literally, a comedy of manners. Exhilarating stuff.
• Sappho—trans. Mary Barnard.
In my early twenties I was reading a lot of novels but writing only lyrics: songs for the band I fronted. When the band faded away, as all bands do, I found I didn’t want to stop writing. So I wrote poetry; I wrote nonfiction. Something began to gather in the back of my brain but I couldn’t access it. Then I found Mary Barnard’s translation of Sappho. Sappho’s bold, vertiginous leaps shocked me awake and open the dam in my head. I wrote 30,000 words of a novel in five days. This, I realised. This is what I will do with my life. But, like Stewart’s, it was Sappho’s language of the the natural world, specifically using that language to talk about the body, that lit something in me. Her lyrics are fresh and astonishing. As Barnard herself says in her footnote, some of her words feel invented in that moment for that line alone. She was writing more than 2,500 years ago, yet her works speaks directly to us even today. So many of what we consider literary clichés were her original imagery: silver moon, rosy-fingered and rosy-armed dawns and moonrise, turning pale, being tongue-tied. She shaped our understanding of what it is to be human.
• Asterix the Gaul, by Goscinny and Uderzo—trans. by Anthea Bell.
Bell does a brilliant job of translation (though sometimes I read the French—hey, it’s a comic, it’s not hard). Full of puns and history and the triumph of the small against the mighty. There are many, many volumes in this story and I recommend them all.
• Six of One, by Rita Mae Brown
This, I think, is Brown’s best novel—funny (like Florence King, but without the nastiness) and mature, with a plot, and acknowledgement that not all dykes are the same. Rubyfruit Jungle, her first novel, is the ur-coming out story for women, and when I read it I loved it, and laughed until I cried. But my guess is those coming to Rubyfruit Jungle for the first time now might find it a little too familiar, because everyone copied her.
• Walk to the End of the World, and Motherlines, by Suzy Mckee Charnas.
Walk to the End of the World commits to an implacable sci-fi logic of post-apocalyptic gender war. It’s not exactly a comfort read for me, but it’s a necessary precursor to Motherlines. So: The world is largely arid and inhospitable, with small isolated populations clinging on here and there. In one region men hate women, and fuck them not for pleasure but to make babies. Women are domesticated animals: bred as both beasts of burden, and food. We follow the story of one pregnant slave, Alldera, and her eventual escape. We have no idea what she’s escaping to, if anything, and if she’s walking into certain death in the desert, it seems like a reasonable choice because Walk to the End of the World makes The Handmaid’s Tale feel like a tidy little bedtime story. Like “Cold Equations,” a story that shocked a generation of science fiction readers with the relentlessness of physics, it does not flinch from its premise. It will give you nightmares, and those nightmares have teeth. But Alldera does escape, to the world of Motherlines, a world of all women who breed their own domestic animal: not fellow humans, but horses. This is a much less terrifying book but it, too, looks right into the face of brutal choices and doesn’t blink. It was the first book I read with no men in it at all, and refutes essentialism effortlessly. For a new writer it is a marvellous introduction to, and almost perfect exemplar of, show-don’t-tell: a master class disguised as feminist legend that never was.
• The Exile Waiting and Dreamsnake, by Vonda N. McIntyre.
Her first novel, The Exile Waiting, is what saved science fiction for me, plus it had disabled characters, working class and underclass characters, and lots of women. This and her second novel, Dreamsnake, showed me real SF could have girls in and not be about romance. Beautifully written and full of McIntyre’s trademark compassion for the downtrodden. I could and should say a lot more about these wonderful novels but frankly whenever I try to write about Vonda and her work, I weep. She’s been dead almost a year, and I still miss her too much to talk about her.
• Kindred, by Octavia Butler
A time travel book for all those women (and queer folk, and people of colour) who look at their elders and think: I wouldn’t have knuckled under like you did! Why didn’t you fight back?? Butler shows that people in every time often do the best they can in the circumstances—probably better than you or I could—and it’s a miracle they survive, never mind conquer. History is never the inevitable, magisterial story we’ve been told; history is contingent upon circumstance, and the circumstance here is structural oppression. I was fascinated by Butler’s nicely calibrated Othering. Dana suffers; her life as a slave is brutal—but not too brutal. Clearly Butler understood the nature of narrative empathy: put the reader inside your character and the character inside your reader, make them feel what they feel and learn what they learn, but don’t make it too hard, because if you do, the reader will put the book down and walk away, or at least barrier themselves up emotionally. Butler knew you can’t change the world unless you change the reader, and you can’t change the reader unless she stays open to your fiction’s great power of empathy.
• Hothead Paisan, by Diane DiMassa.
Okay, I admit I haven’t reread this one for a long time so I don’t know how it holds up. But I remember it as angry, funny, true, frightening, wicked, delicious comic book about a dyke—and her cat, Chicken—who has a caffeine-fuelled rage against the world.
• The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel.
This is an omnibus of the comic strip covering decades of dyke life. If you read it, you’ll end up with a very clear notion of the history of a certain kind of lesbian community in the US and—with slight differences—UK. If you are a dyke contemporary of Bechdel’s, you’ve probably, like me, read it all, strip by strip every week in the queer weeklies, but if you haven’t, you’ll laugh yourselves sick with recognition.
• Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters.
Victorian lesbian pickpockets and con artists trying to outsmart and out-naïve each other, with lots of burning desire and reversals baked in. Enormous fun. Tipping the Velvet, Waters’ first novel, is also worth a read, though for me it works less well because it follows the classic coming-out structure created by Rita Mae Brown and since followed by Lisa Alther and others. So the story arc feels a bit worn. But Fingersmith? Fabulous!