light-hearted yet not vapid book recommendations
May 22, 2021 7:08 AM   Subscribe

Looking for relatively light-hearted yet very well-written fiction or narrative non-fiction to read before bed?

I work an intense job, and enjoy reading at night before bed, but I need to read things that are not too upsetting, in order to get my mind off of work. Still, I want them to be well-written and not vapid.

Anything that goes into detail about any kind of trauma is out, although mentions of sad things are okay. For this purpose I am interested in books about relationships, different cultures, memoirs or biographies, philosophy like Buddhism, etc.

To give an idea of what I like, my favorite author is probably Alice Munro- I've pretty much read all of her stuff, and some of it has a bit too much intensity for these purposes, but I love the way she writes about people and relationships. An example of the PERFECT type of thing I am looking for for these purposes are the books Object of My Affection and The Easy Way Out by Stephen McCauley- books about relationships, really funny, very well-written, and extremely skilled characterizations; the right amount of sadness but not traumatic. I've read his other stuff, pretty good but not as good as those two.

I also like the New Yorker and The Sun magazines.

So, again- not vapid, well-written, not too upsetting, narrative in nature, about people/relationships/culture (a good novel is probably mostly what I am looking for though). Feel free to recommend things that may not be a perfect fit.
posted by bearette to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I think you might like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, or Cannery Row by John Steinbeck!!
posted by Dressed to Kill at 7:19 AM on May 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

Laurie Colwin wrote the quintessential comfort fiction, very low in conflict. Very white upper middle class. But she is absolutely amazing at maintaining a tone. You can probably read a couple of pages and tell if it's for you or not.
posted by BibiRose at 7:29 AM on May 22, 2021 [6 favorites]

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman may fit the bill.
posted by happy_cat at 7:31 AM on May 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin
I also really liked The Last Romeo by Justin Myers but it might teeter into vapid territory.
posted by Balthamos at 7:32 AM on May 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

Different vein, new post. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is just a delight.

I wonder if you would be interested in mysteries that are not heavy on the crime or too police-y, such as Sujata Massey's Rei Shimura series.
posted by BibiRose at 7:33 AM on May 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

Oh, also, Tove Jansson's books for adults, though they can tend towards the melancholic. The Summer Book is heaven.
posted by Balthamos at 7:39 AM on May 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

The Girl Who Reads On The Metro
Leonard and Hungry Paul
I consider both of these to be engaging, “gentle reads”. I loved both of them!
posted by bookmammal at 7:42 AM on May 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. If you haven't read it as an adult, you don't realize all of the thought-provoking ideas presented in the story. If you can find Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice, even better. (All of the original Tenniel illustrations plus some sidelights, like foreign language translations of The Jabberwocky.)
posted by SPrintF at 8:10 AM on May 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers, is a firm Ask favourite. Beautifully written, so engaging.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:17 AM on May 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

Seconding Convenience Store Woman. One of my favorite reads this year. Such a nice, weird little narrative about letting go of other people's expectations.

Another that might work here is one of my favorite and most recommended books, Crime Yellow. It's a Downtown Abbey era satire, short, set over the broad story of a lazy summer at a manor house. It's packed with little vignettes about the (often vapid, self important) people staying there, but the book itself isn't vapid. I love it.
posted by phunniemee at 8:22 AM on May 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

I brought this on vacation and it made me smile a lot.
posted by jameaterblues at 8:25 AM on May 22, 2021 [9 favorites]

Nevil Shute’s books are perfect for this.
posted by dhruva at 8:34 AM on May 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

I think Barbara Pym's novels (Excellent Women, etc.) might hit the spot for you.
posted by Polycarp at 8:50 AM on May 22, 2021 [4 favorites]

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. It's part of her Wayfairers series but you can read it stand-alone. It's technically sci-fi, but fundamentally it's an exploration of what it means to preserve a culture that's built around people relying on one another.
posted by neushoorn at 8:59 AM on May 22, 2021 [6 favorites]

For fiction, have you read any Terry Pratchett? He's lighthearted but wise and some of his books delve into philosophical topics (Small Gods is a good example).
posted by Candleman at 9:01 AM on May 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

I enjoyed Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan as an airplane read, which I'm guessing is a similar fit for you. He also has another called Sourdough, which is fun but not quite as tightly crafted.

Nick Hornby's books may also fit the bill. About a Boy, Juliet Naked and of course High Fidelity.

Going way back in time, I enjoy reading the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams to decompress sometimes.
posted by typetive at 9:09 AM on May 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

Simon Winder’s Germania trilogy are “personal histories” of the German parts of Europe. They’re lighthearted and interweave pop history with his own often self-deprecating stories of his experiences traveling there.

Oranges by John McPhee is light enough and the epitome of good writing. There’s a few McPhee books that would work but Oranges is probably the breeziest.

If you have any interest in Catholicism, GK Chesterton is incomparably witty.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:17 AM on May 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Ella Minnow Pea is a weird little book that I think may suit. It's an epistolary novel (short, too) set on a small island whose claim to fame is that it's the home of the dude who came up with the sentence "The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog", and they have a statue of him in the village square with the sentence carved into the base. At the beginning of the novel, one of the letters has fallen off the statue, and a couple of the superstitious residents of the island take it as A Sign, especially when more letters start falling off. They convince the local government that this is A Sign that the dude wants people to stop using those letters. And as more letters fall, those letters become forbidden as well.

There are some elements of totalitarianism in the plot, but a) it's at a remove because people are writing about it in letters to each other, and b) it's just inherently ridiculous because it's about stuff like "oh no we can no longer write using the letter 'c' now what shall we do?" We read it in my post-apocalyptic book club, and everyone thought it clever and adorable - and a friend of mine who was visiting the club for the first time (a gentle soul who became a children's librarian) called it "the cuddliest and most cheerful dystopian book I've ever read".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:38 AM on May 22, 2021 [5 favorites]

I also came in to recommend Less, which seems like exactly what the doctor ordered here. It's very sad in parts but in a wistful way, not a traumatic way. It's often very funny. And the writing is just fantastic.
posted by babelfish at 9:38 AM on May 22, 2021

Two that come to mind as being funny and sort of "light" feeling while also exploring human relationships and not just being fluff:

Less (which I see has already been recommended!)

And A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marna Lewycka
posted by geegollygosh at 9:59 AM on May 22, 2021

I will second polycarp’s recommendation of Barbara Pym / Excellent Women and her other books—
posted by profreader at 10:00 AM on May 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

For non-fiction/memoir, maybe you'd enjoy Adam Rippon's Beautiful on the Outside? He's a former Olympic figure skater. It's a light read, and while it may be full of pop culture references I didn't find it vapid, but instead very sweet and full of heart.
posted by hopeless romantique at 10:14 AM on May 22, 2021

This is how you lose the time war by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.
posted by nickggully at 12:18 PM on May 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you have a taste for English eccentricity, Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K Jerome.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:09 PM on May 22, 2021 [5 favorites]

I think "A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles would fit your requirements. I found it an absolute delight.

Several people have suggested "Less" - I concur.
posted by valetta at 6:58 PM on May 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Fleishman Is In Trouble is really funny, very well-written, and has extremely skilled characterizations. It's about divorce, but I wouldn't describe it as traumatic.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:02 PM on May 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Barbara Pym is lovely & soothing to the brain.
Alice Munro short stories are wonderful and I’ve found when I’m in a “reading to decompress” zone short stories are perfect.
Jasper Fforde is quirky & funny, his Thursday Next books are sublime.
Maria Semple has a couple of great books, Where’d You Go Bernadette is especially great.
Connie Willis has wonderful time travel books (including one that is a companion to Three Men in a Boat, recommended above).
If you’re open to YA fantasy, treat yourself to Diana Wynne Jones! They are constant faves in my household for everyone aged 8-42.
posted by dotparker at 7:36 PM on May 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

I recently read At Mrs. Lippincott's and A View of the Harbour, both by Elizabeth Taylor, and they were just great. Cold Comfort Farm is also good for this, but more comic.
posted by Hypatia at 5:25 AM on May 23, 2021

I can highly recommend both the 44 Scotland Street and the Isabel Dalhousie / The Sunday Philosophy Club Series by Alexander McCall Smith. Everything he writes is very gentle, quite funny in an I'm-poking-fun-at-your-entirely-human-foibles kind of way and very well crafted.

Ooh yes! Also the Professor Dr von Igelfeld / Portuguese Irregular Verbs Series.

Here's a sample of the 44 Scotland Street stuff.
posted by kaymac at 10:05 AM on May 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes is delightfully fluffy but not stupid.
posted by theotherdurassister at 2:51 PM on May 23, 2021

The travel section of a bookstore, and travel writing anthologies, are great for this in general.

For something more specific... it’s been a long time since I read it, but I recall really enjoying David Chadwick’s Thank You and OK!: An American Zen Failure in Japan. It might be up the alley of what you’re looking for, and it’s off the beaten path in terms of recs.
posted by verbminx at 9:24 PM on May 23, 2021

I LOVED Less and came to rec it!

I am currently reading the funny, sharp picaresque English, August about a lazy, privileged Delhi stoner life adjusting to life as a minor bureaucrat in a small Indian city. With some familiarity with India it is rip-roaring, but even without I think it fits the bill.
posted by athirstforsalt at 2:58 PM on May 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

Late to this but I bought a Stephen McCauley novel on the basis of your question, and it’s giving me serious Armistead Maupin/Tales from the City vibes.

Gentle, comic, eccentric characters, and many novels in the series. Think it might be what you’re after.
posted by Dwardles at 1:12 AM on June 11, 2021

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