So I Read This Manga: Fake Second Vol 4

This is Inspector Kaito’s Story, and supposedly takes place between 2 and 3. It seems oddly out of place and was decidedly underwhelming. Sad to think this is the last volume of the series. I need more Dee and Ryo.

So I Read This Book: Hark! A Vagrant

I absolutely adore this series of literature and history themed comic strips!

Dude Watching with the Brontes is my favorite.

I don’t think you’ll ever look at Val Jean and Javert the same way again.

It’s the perfect book for a gloomy or sad day – guaranteed to make you laugh, guffaw, chortle and chuckle.

There’s Nothing Wrong With “Nice” Books

This has been one of the banes of my reading life – people judging my reading material, and me as “nice.” If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of “nice” as a pejorative, you understand that I was not being complimented. It first became noticeable (and annoying) in middle school, when I was “caught” reading Little Women. It was after school and I was hanging out in the gym (most likely it was raining outside; that’s the only reason we were ever allowed indoors). Most of the other kids were doing something gym or sports related, and there I was, minding my own business. “How sweet!” kids mocked. “You’re such a nice girl, when are you going to be a librarian?” (One of the reasons it took over a decade to  become a librarian).  Then, it was Anne of Green Gables, where my 7th grade teacher informed me it was “a nice book, not a classic.” Um yeah sure.  That explains all of the editions marked classic, the movies, the stage productions, the TV series, the cartoons, the animes, no doubt, because it was such a “nice” book.

It happened in high school, when I wanted to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” for a high school reading assignment, and was once again told this book was also not a classic, it was just a “nice story” by a “nice little old lady.” In retrospect I wonder if this teacher had even read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or anything else by Betty Smith. Tree is a dark book, addressing extreme poverty, bigotry, alcoholism, sexual predators and sexism. It has also continuously remained in print and republished in many editions marked “classic.”

If you know anything about the authors, you know Louisa May Alcott, Lucy Maud Montgomery and Betty Smith were anything but “nice.”  Alcott was a disappointed and bitter woman, Jo March without any happy endings. She suffered from mercury poisoning and was addicted to morphine by the end of her life. Montgomery lived a life filled with rejection, repression, and deprivation. It’s no coincidence that so many of her heroines are orphans or have unrelentingly controlling or strict relatives in charge of their upbringings. Montgomery married late in life due to familial obligations, and the man she married was bipolar and possibly schizophrenic, and she was constantly bailing one of her sons out of trouble. In the 2000’s it was revealed that her death was not of natural causes but of intentional overdose. Smith (real name Elizabeth Wehner), whose work was also extremely autobiographical, had a love/hate relationship with her mother, had an alcoholic father upon whom Francie’s father in Tree is based on, paid to put a husband through law school only to have him cheat on her. her second husband mooched off of her and belittled her in front of strangers, and forced her to do “women’s work’ like cook meals and clean as a side show to the vagrant “guests he brought home. She was sued for defamation of character by a relative, and while she met with a great deal of critical success there were crises with publishers, her homes, her children, and always the men in her life. Despite the success of her writing, died pretty much forgotten.

(When I get obsessed with a book or series or author, I REALLY get obsessed!)

I was thinking about all of this as I read my first book of February, The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder by Erin Blakemore. I love books about books and I love to read about other writers’ favorites. (I particularly loved How To Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis). It got me thinking about those so called “nice books” of my youth. It also prodded me to think of the “nice” books I enjoy today, and confront my feelings about reading said “nice” books, how I’m afraid, because of past experience, that I will be looked down upon for my less-than-literary selections.

Heroine bookshelf

My roommate and companion just got me Elizabeth Von Arnim’s Collected Works. I discovered Von Arnim about three years ago, and those books could definitely fall into the dreaded “nice” category. I read Elizabeth and her German Garden, All the Dogs of My Life, and The Solitary Summer and was absolutely enchanted. No swearing,  no monsters, no wars, no politics, just gentle wit, slice of life stories set in von Arnim’s homes of Poland and Switzerland. She was actually born in Australia, and her name was actually Mary Annette Beauchamp. She also wrote as Alice Cholmondeley.  Even though her marriage was troubled, von Arnim was clearly in love with her world and the people in it, her daughters and her gardens. i was transported to that world, laughed in it, teared up in it.

And those books did what “nice” books are supposed to do: calmed me, reassured me that there’s still good in the world, and there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. My husband had been killed six months previously and I needed those books. I needed “nice.” I needed nice when I was a kid, a misfit, a lonely only child with abandonment issues. Reading “nice” books while being aware of the “real” world is not only acceptable, but also necessary for your mental health.  Some days you just have to tune out the incessant chatter of your brain and the negativity thrown at us from mass media all day every day (and I feel I need to say “all mass media on all political spectrums” which is something else I need to disconnect with, the divisiveness and political correctness you can no longer escape from except in something “nice”).

I’ve grown to hate the word “nice.” There’s nothing wrong with being nice, and everyone should be nice, but it is kind of a weak word. Kind is stronger, compassionate is stronger, caring is stronger – and those are all adjectives to be found in those “nice” reads. Nice doesn’t mean simple either. It’s complex characters, every day conflict with family and friends, and a tightly constructed plot that win us over.

And let’s face it… these “nice” books are all written by women. Women writers have always been labeled nice if men approve of their writings or disgraceful, lewd and immoral if they don’t. I’m just putting this out there for you to think about, and encourage you to do a little looking into, if you haven’t already. Jane Austen, the Brontes and other lady writers of the 18th and 19th centuries were all victims of this double standard. “She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain,” Louisa May Alcott said in Little Women. This has forever been the stigma of women writers and readers.

Despite this  and because of these dark times I’m going to be diving into more von Arnim soon, as well as some romance books (another genre that has gotten a bad rap from the start, but that’s a conversation for another day). When life hands out lemons, my lemonade is those “nice” books.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite “nice books” in case you need an escape from the daily stress and grind of the world around you:

  • The works of  L.M. Montgomery ( start with Anne of Green Gables of course, but I loved the Emily of New Moon books better. My very favorite of hers is The BlueCastle.)
  • The works of Betty Smith. I loved them all: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Joy In TheMorning, Maggie-Now, and Tomorrow Will Be Better. Have your tissues ready.
  • The works of Elizabeth von Arnim. Pick any and just dive in. Enchanted April is perhaps her best known work.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Also read A Long Fatal Love Chase if you want to look at one of her “lurid” books.
  • Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Here’s a middle aged witch that’s totally badass, in an early 20th century kind of way. Her rebel soul goes out of its way to defy the controlling people in her life.
  • Tryst by Elswyth Thane. A beautiful romance/ghost story guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes.
  • The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R. A. Dick. One of my favorite books of all time. I can’t tell you how happy my heart gets every time i read this classic romance/ghost story. Forget the movie and the TV series -which I both loved, for the record, but they don’t compete with this beautiful book.
  • Any book by Jan Karon. I adore her Father Tim/Mitford series, which begins with At Home in Mitford. These are true, gentle slice of life stories whose central character  is an Episcopalian minister. Spiritual and uplifting but never preachy, these books are like a shot of chicken soup straight into your heart.
  • Now That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins. This is a recent read and I just adored it.
  • Pull Of The Moon by Elizabeth Berg. This is the book that introduced me to modern women’s fiction, and I absolutely love this story of a newly turned 50 year old woman who gets in her care one day and just takes off on a road trip of self discovery. All of her books are just fabulous, but that one remains my favorite.
  • Good Grief by Lolly Winston. I read this before I lost my own husband, and while I loved it before it now makes me feel less alone, and totally understood. her other books are on my TBR list.
  • The works of Debbie Macomber. I read Twenty Wishes after Scott died, and it was definitely like reading a warm cup of tea.  All of her books are women’s stories, meant to uplift.
  • Tiny Beautiful Things and Wild by Cheryl Strayed.  Okay so we’re pushing the nice envelope here because the “Dear Sugar” columnist doesn’t pull her punches and there’s a lot of in your face swearing. But these books are empowering and uplifting. I reread Tiny Beautiful Things when my heart needs a lift.

The list could go on and on, and would also include “nice books” written by men like Mitch Albom – The Five People You Meet  in Heaven used to be on my favorites bookshelf over my head when I had my old bedroom set with build in bookcases, and anything by Nicholas Sparks.  I have a link here from GoodReads called “Popular Gentle Reads” (which sounds a bit better than nice, doesn’t it?) so you can find your own chicken soup, our own reading lemonade.

Popular Gentle Reads

Enjoy ! And keep on reading whatever it is that makes YOU happy! Please leave comments and suggestions about your favorite “gentle” or “nice” reads below!

Continue reading “There’s Nothing Wrong With “Nice” Books”