I’m sure everyone has a go-to author — or authors — for when they are not feeling their best. For me, this used to be P. G. Wodehouse, for years. Then I started discovering other authors or rather realising that besides being great books, their works also had an effect on me I could only call healing or, if you prefer a less New Age-y way of putting it, de-stressing. Here they are in no particular order.
I first met McCall Smith years ago on the recommendation of an acquaintance who spoke so highly of him I was impressed. Indeed, the two books I read by him then were both good literature and a nice, cosy read. And then, last year, I discovered The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and I fell in love.
I thought it would be a series of stories about elderly English ladies solving murders in the countryside a la Midsomer Murders. Could I have been more wrong. The series is in fact about a detective agency in Botswana, run by two ladies who, so far, haven’t solved a single murder. They don’t need bloody corpses. They have more than enough to do with all the other crimes people commit, which I would have thought unworthy of writing about had I not known anyone could write about them like this.
Alexander McCall Smith is a philosopher by trade. It shows, but in the best possible way. His characters often contemplate ethical issues and the reader willy -nilly contemplates with them. They are also as full of life as you or me. And everything they do, even if it is just driving down a dusty road to a village, is interesting. I think true writing genius lies exactly in this: making a journey down a dusty road interesting.
But that’s not all. McCall Smith loves his characters. His stories are as warm and cosy as the softest blanket with a side order of a fire in the fireplace and a glass of your preferred alcohol or a piece of your favourite cake. They feel like home and the reason why they feel like home even if they tell about a place a million miles away is that their essential message is that all people are the same.
There are good people and bad people but we’re all the same with our petty worries or big problems, our jealousies and envies, and our loves and embarrassments. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is dual-purpose goods. It’s both a great read and an anti-stress drug.
If I tell you that Camilleri’s books are one reason why I’m studying Italian I will be telling the truth but not the whole truth. But if I tell you that until recently I actively disliked Italian because it’s a Romance language and I generally dislike Romance languages because they’re way too loud for me, then I will be telling the whole truth. Yes, that’s how good Camilleri’s books are.
The reason I’m studying Italian is that, apparently, not all of the books in his series about inspector Montalbano have been translated into Bulgarian and I don’t want to read them in English or Russian. It’s an odd thing — reading a non-English book translated into English sounds unpleasant, not least because of some language mannerisms that seem to work best when read in one’s mother tongue. But I may well be wrong because I’ve never tried reading a non-English book translated into English. Now I think I should challenge my prejudice.
Anyway, inspector Montalbano is a middle-aged cynic who loves food and who lives and works in a fictional provincial region in Sicily. I know it doesn’t sound like much when I say it like that but the way Camilleri writes, he transports you right there, in Vigata, and this, I believe, is as good as writing can get.
No, that’s not true. Combining drama, comedy, tragedy, and love in one great, big delicious meal of a book is as good as writing can get. Also food. I swear, the way some people write about food makes me resent them for not adding a recipe section at the end of the book. Seriously, how hard can it be? You tell me how Montalbano stuffs himself with freshly caught and roasted goatfish with, I don’t know, garlic and lemon juice and olive oil, and you don’t give me the recipe? Well, I don’t like you very much because you’re being cruel.
The reason why these great, big, delicious Italian meals of books are among my de-stress medication is the same as the reason McCall Smith’s are there. They make you feel at home in a different place, one you have never seen and will probably never see. They make you feel like you belong there, with the police and the human traffickers, and the cantankerous neighbours in their 80s, quarrelling over a woman.
This is fun and it’s also sad but that’s okay because it is also fun, despite the sad. We have one world and we can either learn to take it with the good and the bad, and try to make the good more, or kill ourselves. Life philosophy doesn’t get simpler and more beautiful than that.
Who cares about literary fiction and profound philosophical messages when you can have a fill of Sookie Stackhouse’s invariably sex-related problems with supernatural creatures? Not me, that’s certain. I’d take a double dose of Louisiana vampires over the latest deep psychological drama set in WWII Europe any day.
And Midnight, Texas? Also a great comfort food, I mean, book. That is, books. I’ve only read the first one but I liked it enough to plan to read anything else Harris writes about that little fictional town.
So what if any series begins to run out of steam around the fifth installment, just like TV series? So what if there are tonnes of adverbs in the Sookie chronicles, many of them made up from adjectives? I actually admire the way Harris spits on this almost sacred rule and tramples it in the dust in Sam Merlot’s parking lot.
You can write by all the rules, Craft A Message and end up with an utterly boring piece of text. Or you can write the way you damn well want to write and come up with the Sookie Stackhouse Chronicles — a series of steamy and violent (often simultaneously) supernatural encounters, underground politics and general everyday troubles in the South. Perfect for when you want to get your mind off actual world and local events because they are too depressing or annoying, or, often, both.
I’m sure there are dozens of authors writing this sort of urban fantasy. I’ve tried reading a few of them but they lack a very important ingredient that’s abundant in Charlaine Harris’s books. A sense of humour. A book doesn’t have to be a comedy to be funny. It could just as well have a witty main character who fights all the trouble she gets herself into with, among other things, the aforementioned wit. It’s lovely, simply lovely. And I don’t even mind the excessive objectification of the male leads, probably because they change. I gave up on another great series that had just one male lead whose ass and full lips became their own character by book five.
Off to my therapy session with the Botswana detectives now. See ya.