Last week, I began reading The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor, the story of Gustav Klimt’s friends and patrons among Vienna’s Jewish bourgeoisie in the early 20th century. I reached the section on the arrival of the Nazis over the weekend, and by Monday night, the story had turned so horrific that I found myself lying in bed and staring at my bedroom ceiling long after I’d turned out my light.
It’s a fascinating book that personalizes the holocaust in a way I hadn’t experienced since The Diary of Anne Frank. I recommend reading it.
But not right now.
This morning while I was having breakfast, I started thinking about non-fiction books I would suggest to friends during this time when the world seems dark and uncertain — books that made me smile and, just picking them up again, brought back wonderful memories of reading.
I’d love to get other suggestions. But for now, here are some favorite books from my own shelves that are worth reading anytime and are especially good to pick up right now:
- Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear. A classic biography. It’s the story of a talented woman who was ahead of her time and found happiness on her own terms, doing what she loved. It turns out Potter was not only clever and determined, she was also extraordinarily generous.
- My Life in France by Julia Child. One of my favorite books of all time. It’s a cookbook, a love story, and a travel narrative. But what’s most remarkable is the way Julia Child, even with her terrible French, made friends everywhere she went. Her warmth and curiosity inspired strangers to invite her to dinner and hand over their family recipes.
- The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart. The second of my “stories from France” recommendations. This is Carhart’s memoir of a friendship he developed with a man who ran a piano repair shop. Through that relationship, Carhart met all kinds of people around Paris and discovered gems hidden in the city that few of us get a chance to see.
- A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. A classic fish-out-of-water story set in a small town in France. You will laugh and cry as you read this book — and dream of moving to a small town. Or maybe simply getting to know your neighbors better.
- A Walk in the Woods or In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. The story of Bryson’s hike on the Appalachian Trail and his tale of traveling through Australia. Both are hilarious, educational, and moving. Everywhere he goes, Bryson encounters wackiness and kind strangers who are eager to help.
- My Losing Season by Pat Conroy. Conroy’s memoir of his senior year as captain of the Citadel Bulldogs basketball team. The book is about winning and losing, and it’s wonderful to follow Conroy, who came from an abusive home, as he discovers the joy of friendship.
- Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. The story of the University of Washington’s ragtag-bunch-of-underdogs crew team that beat the east coast powerhouses to advance to the 1936 Olympics, where they defeated Hitler’s German rowing team. In this story, the good guys finish first.
- Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. The memoir of a biology professor at the University of Hawaii who grew up in a small town in Minnesota. The book is remarkable for its beautiful writing and Jahren’s father who passed on to her his love of science. Jahren fought tough obstacles as a woman in the sciences, but this is really a story about friendship and the power of great parenting.
- The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh by Kathryn Aalto. A tour through the real woods that inspired Milne’s beloved books. Aalto’s flowery writing style may make you crazy, but she does a good job of capturing the magic that was Milne’s childhood and the kindness that created Pooh.