It doesn’t take a pandemic for most people to understand the soothing power of a good book.

For much longer than people have been binge-watching zombie movies to forget their daily troubles, books have been a go-to source of comfort and solace in troubling times. Escape, romance, adventure, melodrama and perspective on the human condition can all be attained by reading a good book.

Maybe nobody knows this better than the people who write books, who strive to take readers on a journey. So we decided to ask some Maine authors what book or books they read for comfort, or maybe re-read when they know they need a literary security blanket. Here’s what they had to say.

Richard Russo Photo by Barbara Russo

RICHARD RUSSO, PORTLAND

Russo has knack for writing about working-class people struggling through their daily lives in gritty, worn-down places. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for “Empire Falls,” about class divides in a gritty Maine factory town, and his books “Mohawk,” “The Risk Pool” and “Nobody’s Fool” have similar settings and atmosphere.

He also seems to favor the drama of class struggles when looking for a book to take his mind off things. When he wants a book to make him “feel better” he turns to anything he can find written by Charles Dickens.

“Dickens never fails to make me feel better, and I don’t think it matters which novel you choose,” said Russo. “He’s the original class warrior, placing his protagonists in terrible harm’s way, but never abandoning them.”

Russo thinks Dickens’ classic novels of the 19th century get progressively darker, so he suggests picking an earlier one, like “Oliver Twist,” if you’re not into heavy darkness right now. That book, which came out as a serial novel in 1837, is about an orphan who is sold into an apprenticeship and then becomes a member of a gang of pickpockets. Not exactly something that happens everyday in contemporary America, so a pretty good vehicle for escape.

Charlotte Agell. Photo by Peter Simmons

CHARLOTTE AGELL, BRUNSWICK

Agell’s picture books for kids can be fun and bright.  She wrote “Dancing Feet” about the power of dance, with a cover illustration inspired by dances from the country of Sweden, where she was born. She wrote “I Swam with a Seal” after she accidentally discovered the wonder of swimming with a seal in Harpswell. She found inspiration in her past for her books and says she finds comfort in the past right now as she searches for soothing reading for herself.

She’s recently been re-reading a Swedish book that reminds her of her childhood, “Sommarboken” (1972) by Tove Jansson, or “The Summer Book” as its English translation is titled. She says reading something in Swedish “always sails me back to the islands and leaky boats of my Swedish childhood.” The book, appropriately, is about isolation, focusing on two people (almost) alone on a small Baltic island.

But Agell also finds comfort in discovering something entirely new that grabs her interest. She’s about to start reading the recently released novel “Under the Rainbow” by Celia Laskey. It’s about Big Burr, Kansas, billed as “the most homophobic town in the U.S.” and a group of outsiders who go there to change it.

Jaed Coffin Photo by Matt Cosby

JAED COFFIN, BRUNSWICK

Coffin has written two memoirs, “A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants,” about a summer he spent as a Buddhist monk in his mother’s village in Thailand, and “Roughhouse Friday” about winning a barroom boxing title as a young man in Juneau, Alaska.

And just as he searches his own past for his writing, he likes to re-read books that made a special impact on him when he was  younger. So the one book he’d pick to read in the most unsettled of times is the 1945 classic John Steinbeck novel “Cannery Row,” about the various characters in a Depression-era California town filled with sardine canneries. Coffin first read the book 17 years ago, when he was in Alaska, and saw “little glimpses of my own nature” in each of the characters, including the “somber loneliness of Doc, the quiet fatalism of Lee Chong” and the “good-intentioned idiocy of Mac and The Boys.” Now a father and an assistant professor of writing at the University of New Hampshire, he still finds the book holds soothing power for him.

“I used to read the first page to my baby daughter when I was trying to put her to sleep: “a poem…a quality of light…a nostalgia, a dream…” and now I return to the book whenever I feel like I’m taking my writing too seriously, whenever I’m in need of a fairer, more tender way to regard the world,” said Coffin.

Lily King Photo by Winky Lewis

LILY KING, PORTLAND

King’s most recent novel, “Writers & Lovers,” which came out this year, gathered wide praise and made the New York Times Best Sellers list. It’s about a former golf prodigy turned waiter and writer who is “lonely, broke, directionless, grieving, possibly unwell and extremely funny,” according to the Times. People like to read books about other people with flaws, and King is one of them.

King says her go-to book when times are hard is the 1813 novel “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen.

“The characters with all their flaws are so familiar and dear, the humor never ages, the tension between Lizzy and Darcy always crackles, and the resolutions come one after the other in the most satisfying procession,” said King. Another literary comfort of King’s is “I Capture the Castle” (1949) by Dodie Smith, which she says is also “full of humor and sisters falling for brothers but with more modern twists.”

Samara Cole Doyon Photo by Matthew Doyon

SAMARA COLE DOYON, PORTLAND

Doyon is a mother, poet, kindergarten teacher and author whose debut children’s book “Magnificent Homespun Brown” came out in January. It’s about young brown girls who “admire the many different browns in their environments.” A review in Publisher’s Weekly called it “a celebration of community and belonging.”

Doyon says it’s rare when she can find the time to sit down and find comfort from another writer’s work. But she did just that last summer when she read passages from “Becoming” (2018) the memoir by Michelle Obama and “With the Fire on High” (2019) by Elizabeth Acevedo. The latter is a novel about a young mother who finds solace in the kitchen.

She says both books, while very different, “have provided gentle healing for me in a period of my life which has often left me starving for the kind of intimate connection I only find in reading.”

Bruce Robert Coffin Photo by Amanda Huebner Photography

BRUCE ROBERT COFFIN, WINDHAM

Coffin lets people escape into the web of mystery, with his best-selling Detective Byron series, about a former detective in Maine who went to work in counter-terrorism for the FBI. The fourth book in the series, “Within Plain Sight,” came out in February.

But his own go-to books for comfort and solace are very different kinds of escape. Both are non-fiction.

The first is “On Writing” (2000) by fellow Maine writer Stephen King. Coffin says the book has a little something for everyone, especially for someone who wants to write novels. His other comfort book is “A Walk in the Woods” (1998) by Bill Bryson, who comes back to America after 20 years in England and hikes the Appalachian Trail.  That’s a book about escaping daily life quite literally.

Anne Elliott Photo by Anne Elliott

ANNE ELLIOTT, SOUTH PORTLAND

Elliott’s book of stories “The Artstars” came out in 2019 and focuses on people who create art, sculptors, poets and fabric artists among them.  She says the way she processes anxiety, or disappointment or grief, is with an appreciation “of the grounding effect of practice.” When her mother was dying, she knitted an enormous sweater that she has never since worn, she said.

So a book she has turned to in difficult times is “Writing Down the Bones” (1986) by Natalie Goldberg, which she says “celebrates writing practice as an exploration of the mind.” Goldberg, Elliott says, approaches writing as part of her “Zen practice.”

Elliott said she first read Goldberg’s book when she became a serious writer, and rereads it whenever she feels a need to rediscover “the heart of what I love about writing.” She recommends listening to the annotated audiobook, to hear an older Goldberg responding to her 30-something self, who wrote the book.

“You can listen to it while you knit an enormous sweater, as I am now,” Elliott said.


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