The nutmeg of consolation

I have been thinking a lot lately about a friend on the other side of the country who has suffered a terrible loss.  We’ve talked on the phone, and emailed, but I keep having impulses to send a book, or books.  I know that when I am hurt or grieving, certain familiar books are very soothing to me, and I imagine that all readers have such books that are specific to the individual.  But I also keep thinking that surely I know a book–not too well known, something a reasonably well-read person would not necessarily have come across–that would bring a little breath of relief to someone who is sad.  

There are, of course, many works of religious consolation, but that’s not exactly what I’m thinking of; nor do I want a book that directly speaks to a particular kind of loss, such as C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (loss of wife, Christian), Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (artistic bildungsroman including closeted gay father’s death, a probable suicide), Donald Hall’s Without (poems on death of wife, poet Jane Kenyon), or Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast (memoir of loss of partner to AIDS)–wonderful books all, but not for me to send.  And yet I am also not thinking of pure escapism, the kinds of genre-fiction books–romances, science fiction, etc.–that many of us turn to when we want to check out for a little while.  Maybe there’s no perfect book.  Maybe part of the problem is that although we have known one another for a long time, I know little enough about my friend’s day-to-day life that it is hard to guess what book out of left field might bring a bit of respite.  And yet I feel sure that there are many–even if I am not the person who can guess what they might be for this person at this moment.

I have two thoughts at the moment: one is Jane Hirshfield’s most recent, beautiful book of poems, After, because while it is clearly a book marked by loss, and preoccupied with it, it doesn’t present a narrative of loss and as a gift therefore does not scream: Hey!  Here’s a book about exactly what you’re going through!  (which is what I want to avoid, only in part because it’s so obviously false).  Another, and perhaps these two would work in tandem, is a book I just bought for myself and the Snork Maiden: Moomin, the Collected Tove Jansson Comic Strip, Book One.  It’s like a book from another universe, like something a weird auntie might send you. 

But I also wanted some suggestions, and to explore this line of thought a little more, so tremulously I present my first meme: 

Books of Consolation

Name five books you read (either present or past tense read )when in need of consolation.  They can be fiction, nonfiction, poetry or other.  Tell why.  Also please note if any of them is a book you would recommend sending to a sad friend.  Tap five people to respond. 

 Here are my answers:

1. Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym (or indeed any of Pym’s books, but if I had to pick, it’s this one).  Reading Pym is a type of escapism, since her novels of English village life are nearly as remote from me as any science-fiction novel, but since her novels always include characters who are living as contentedly as possible in circumstances less ideal than one feels they deserve, they are not bad as therapy when I’m feeling dissatisfied, or worse, with life.

2. Dune by Frank Herbert.  This is pure escapism–both into the universe of Herbert’s imagination and into my own high-school years, when this was a book I and some of my friends both loved and lovingly made fun of.  National Lampoon did a wonderful parody of the novel as well. 

3.  The poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins–for the visceral pleasures of reading Hopkins, for the emotional intensity and crazy expansiveness of his best poems.  They also bear quiet, obsessive whispering to oneself. 

4. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, for much the same reasons I read Barbara Pym, except that I never cry when reading Pym and I almost always cry when reading Little Women.

5. The Complete Peanuts, various volumes (they’re not all out yet).  Actually, comic strip collections in general are very soothing to me, but as the early volumes of the Peanuts series come out from Fantagraphics, the bleak and wry tone of so many of the early strips is surprising and weirdly consoling. (Updated to add:  I think this is the one I would send to a sad friend.  So many of us grew up reading the little paperback collections of Peanuts that you could buy for less than a dollar once upon a time.  And I think almost anyone would like it now.)

It’s with some trepidation (what if I gave a party and nobody came?) that I tap What Now?, timna, Anastasia, New Kid on the Hallway, and Flavia.  I’d really like to ask Bardiac and Professing Mama , but I gather they are each extremely busy with someone of a different generation (mom for the former, baby for the latter).  And Pym Fan, you have no blog but I wish you (and anyone else who wishes) would respond in the comments…I look forward to your replies!


11 responses to this post.

  1. for the record, I love being tagged! I have to think about it but look for my version soon.


  2. This is a brilliant meme, and I already have some ideas for my five. Let me think about it — oh, and move on Friday! — and then I’ll respond. Plus, I now want to read Crampton Hodnet; I’ve only ever read one Pym novel, a gazillion years ago, and clearly I should set aside some quality time for her this summer.


  3. Posted by Pym Fan on May 22, 2008 at 1:43 am

    That’s the spirit, What Now?! (“Crampton Hodnet” is my favorite Pym too.) I’ll have to think about those five books…


  4. Oh, I’ll absolutely do this! Just give me a coupla days to finish up my semesterly obligations —


  5. Posted by meansomething on May 22, 2008 at 2:59 am

    WN, I can’t believe I forgot about your moving. Somehow I blithely thought you’d already moved. I would have hesitated to tag you if I’d remembered, but am selfishly glad I didn’t!

    PF, Flavia, Anastasia, I’m so glad there will be replies. Looking forward to ’em!


  6. Posted by FLS on May 22, 2008 at 6:55 am

    Wow, now I have a lot of new things to put on my (purely theoretical) Netbooks Queue.

    My mind went immediately to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, because “Tralfamadore is the home to beings who exist in all times simultaneously.” Timequake, for the same reason. Both evoke both grief and hope in the idea that the past, present and future all exist concretely.


  7. I, too, think this is a lovely idea and will get to it. summer school is starting and I’m at a retreat this week, but next weekend looks promising for gardening and blogging. maybe I’ll think about this at the retreat!


  8. I wasn’t tagged, but I saw this at New Kid’s and I couldn’t resist.


  9. Posted by meansomething on May 30, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    Hypatia– Thanks for letting me know! I enjoyed your post and left a comment (which has mysteriously not yet appeared).


  10. Posted by hypatia cade on May 30, 2008 at 9:11 pm

    Comments aren’t moderated so I don’t know what’s going on…. Uhm… email me the comment (I’m interested anyway).


  11. […] mutual friend Pym Fan said it would be OK if I posted her excellent reponse to the books of consolation meme here.  Thank you, Pymfriend!  Other thoughtful responses can be found at Ferule and Fescue; […]


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