While summer is known for lazy days and beach vacations, those of us grounded in reality are aware that before and after umbrella drinks and noon wake-up calls are often intensified workloads and overdue library books (just kidding, ask for a vacation checkout!). Potentially utter chaos. Having accepted this, you’ll want to select the perfect comfort books for the much-needed escapism and healing that will also result from your vacation.
With this task, you’ll want to be very careful whom you approach for book recommendations, and it’s probably not me, unless you take comfort in dark comedy.
And with that disclaimer, here are a few of my “mood boosting” go-to reads.
How to Be Good by Nick Hornby is one of the few books I have read multiple times, and it always elicits out load laughter and overall contentment. Divorce is looming for the good doctor Katie Carr and her journalist husband David, best known for his newspaper editorials entitled “The Angriest Man in Holloway.” Predictably, David’s acrimonious approach to life is wearing thin on the marriage. However, the whole family is surprised when David’s visits to spiritual healer DJ GoodNews result in more than their intended insult to Katie and her profession. David’s back problems and his attitudes recover so drastically that DJ GoodNews actually moves in with the Carrs and conspires with David to better his community and the world in general. David becomes ‘every liberal’s worst nightmare’ by actually acting on social injustice – giving away his children’s possessions, inviting Katie’s disadvantaged patients to dinner and encouraging neighbors to adopt homeless teenagers. These lofty goals accompanied by shortsighted plans tend to end poorly (albeit hilarious), and lead to the transformation of Katie becoming the cynic, dubious of David and GoodNews’ benevolence. The Carr’s derisive battles are hilarious like a train-wreck and capture the highest level of passive aggression that only decades of marriage can truly perfect. Hornby is able to demonstrate the gravity of the Carr’s marital problems while exposing the irreplaceable intimacy and security that would be abandoned if the relationship dissolved. This book probably shouldn’t be on a comfort reads list… but it’s on mine.
I will also always recommend reading David Sedaris. Sedaris’ writing was most comforting to me during my mid 20s, and Barrel Fever, Me Talk Pretty One Day and Naked helped me recognize that one’s job(s) isn’t definitive of one’s self worth. Of course in the spirit of full disclosure, also at this time these weren’t exactly vacation reads since my four, part-time jobs were not conducive to sabbatical. Having said this, Sedaris’ newest book Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is another terrific choice to pick up if you find solace in dark humor. I was worried that Sedaris’ current European, book touring lifestyle would drive a wedge between my imagined bond, and I would no longer be able to relate to his humor. Nope! While Sedaris’ recent writing has taken on a more introspective and occasionally depressive tone, the overall effect remains found humor through discerning, perceptive observations. Essays about OCD and roadside trash, “kill jars” and of course family are interlaced with first person stories from perspectives assumedly far from Sedaris’ own. The last, and possibly funniest, essay describes medical advancements of colonoscopies with such whimsy that I look forward to turning 50.
One more recommendation, in case you’re seeking a more epic escape, is Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich. The opening scene in this book mirrors Erdrich’s Love Medicine when June Kashpaw, a young Chippewa woman, walks away from her husband of one day into a snowstorm and ultimately to her death. In Burning Love, we take on the husband’s story and learn that Jack Mauser never escaped the memory of his first wife, not even after four others (including Dot Nanapush from Erdrich’s Beet Queen). Jack’s ‘husband of the year’ failures are recounted through his ex-wives’ revelations and bonding as they find themselves trapped in a car during a blizzard following Jack’s funeral. Ironically, all of Jack’s wives may face the same frozen fate as his first, and this seems even more of a possibility when an eccentric, silent hitchhiker joins the group, possibly personifying June’s spirit. Perhaps not a traditional love story, Erdrich delivers with humor, resilience, surprises and beautiful prose.
Clearly these recommendations aren’t for every one, but they will resonate with some. My fascination with ‘dark comedy’ goes further than a nasty instinct to point and laugh at someone who’s got it worse. Inevitably we all face seemingly insurmountable and difficult situations, but without a sense of humor they can feel even more hopeless. I read dark comedies as a way to flex my coping muscles in preparation for my next totaled car, round of food poisoning, visiting relatives or whatever truly gnarly circumstances loom in my future. I may not know how to handle them, but I’ll eventually figure out how to laugh.
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