Books for an Older Lady?
June 21, 2006 7:12 PM   Subscribe

Books for a bed bound, intelligent, cynical 79 year old with colon cancer?

My mother is in the hospital with colon cancer, awaiting an operation, and after the operation she'll still be in there. She will be bed bound for a while. She's worked her way through my Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Marjorie Allingham collection and says she's tired of murder mysteries. She needs books that are:
a: paperback - she can't lift hardbacks
b: well written - she's a smart, educated and literate woman with little patience for bullshit.
c: vaguely realistic - she hates all SF and fantasy. Unfortunately.
d:not very sexy or violent, because those trends passed her by. Imagine that you're buying books for Queen Victoria and you'll have a close idea to my mother's mores and ideals.
e: she likes fiction, biographies, and anthologies of letters.
MAJOR, major bonus points if it's available at the Asheville/Buncombe County Library system, because that means I can get it to her tomorrow.

Help. I have just passed on to the hive mind the assignment I was given this afternoon. I have to fill it by tomorrow afternoon. Thank you all in advance.
posted by mygothlaundry to Media & Arts (45 answers total)
Anything by J.M Coetzee - Booker prize winner (twice) and Nobel once. Try Disgrace and Life of Malcolm K first.

posted by bright77blue at 7:17 PM on June 21, 2006

Oh - and quite a few of them are in your library!
posted by bright77blue at 7:19 PM on June 21, 2006

Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey & Maturin series will keep your Mom busy for a while - 20 volumes! Available in paperback and massively popular, so possibly available from your local library.
posted by Quietgal at 7:19 PM on June 21, 2006

I'm very sorry about your mum's situation and hope she recovers quickly.

She sounds like a spunky lady. I'd recommend Madam Secretary, the memoir of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is equally smart and tough as nails.

My best wishes that you, and she, pull through this together.
posted by Mr. Six at 7:23 PM on June 21, 2006

Woman in the Dunes - Kobo Abe
- It is in that library and is a great book about separation from society. I don't know if that kind of theme would be too depressing considering how she will be bed bound, but it is a great book.

I am just throwing out this one, but I have been wanting to read Benjamin Franklin's biography by Walter Isaacson. They have one copy of it in one of the libraries if it interests her.
posted by Hypharse at 7:30 PM on June 21, 2006

I would recommend the columns of Mike Royko, specifically One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko and For the Love of Mike: More of the Best of Mike Royko. Those two collections are two of my favorite books in the world, and because they're collections of columns, they can be read in dosages as she feels like them.
posted by WCityMike at 7:32 PM on June 21, 2006

Céline's Journey to the End of the Night
posted by hototogisu at 7:35 PM on June 21, 2006

Wow. Everything I've read by Coetzee has had lots of sex and/or violence in it. I don't think that fits the bill at all.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:46 PM on June 21, 2006

Elizabeth Goudge, The Dean's Watch, New York: Coward-McCann, 1960).

My 83 year old mother adores Elizabeth Goudge.
posted by crw at 8:02 PM on June 21, 2006

Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut. It's not fantasy or SF. Intelligent and cynical, and about her era.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:07 PM on June 21, 2006

The Archivist by Martha Cooley (literary fiction)

Twilight at Mac's Place by Ross Thomas (mystery, no sex, very well written and engaging characters)
posted by bim at 8:09 PM on June 21, 2006

I don't know why this recommendation came to mind, but I think it may be a good fit.
253: The Print Remix by Geoff Ryman.
Amazon link for info

It's an interesting weaving of 253 individual mini-biographies of people on the same train.

And it's apparently available at Pack Memorial Library (wherever that is :)
I could be totally off the mark, but it's something I could see my mother reading.
posted by zerokey at 8:17 PM on June 21, 2006

It's a bit of a throwback, but Jane Austen is always good.
posted by Juggermatt at 8:19 PM on June 21, 2006

I like The Life of Pi. It's simple, but very engaging, and has its funny bits, even for the cynical.
posted by brain cloud at 8:22 PM on June 21, 2006

Anything by James Herriot. All Things Wise and Wonderful, All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, The Lord God Made Them All. Should meet just about all of your criteria.

Technically fantasy but not in an obtrusive fashion: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. It does have fairies, but not the annoying Tinkerbell kind; don't know if she could tolerate that. I suppose I'd call it realistic fantasy; imagine if Jane Austen were writing in a world with fairies.

Fish Whistle by Daniel Pinkwater is a set of short essays, most of which were aired on NPR's All Things Considered. Quick reads, very funny.

I know you said she's off murder mysteries but Laurie King's Mary Russell series is lovely. It's about a young woman who ends up apprenticed to Sherlock Holmes. (The Beekeeper's Apprentice, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, A Letter of Mary, The Moor, O Jerusalem, Justice Hall)

Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series (Sharpe's Regiment, Sharpe's Sword, Sharpe's Escape, et alia) might fit the bill as well; set in the Napoleonic Wars. Optional bonus is that they were filmed by Masterpiece Theater starring Sean Bean. Might be too sexy though; Sharpe can't keep his pants on.

It looks like most or all of these are in your library system, and many are immediately available.

Good luck to both of you. I'll be keeping you in my thoughts.
posted by fuzzbean at 8:29 PM on June 21, 2006

posted by unSane at 8:34 PM on June 21, 2006

What about The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver? She might also enjoy something by Isabel Allende.
posted by Amanda B at 8:47 PM on June 21, 2006

#1 - Halldór Laxness's Independent People, truly one of the greatest book's I've ever read.

"It is the story of a man's life from just after he escapes his virtual enslavement to a local rural family on a remote end of Iceland, up through his attempts to build a family, a home, and a future for himself." - wikipedia

#2 - Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Beautifully written. This is a story about a 15 year old, autistic boy.

It's an easy read, I wish that this book was 1000 pages. I really don't want to finish it.

Best wishes.
posted by odf at 8:54 PM on June 21, 2006

Don't overlook the audio books. They can be a welcome companion for passing time, even when feeling too ill to sit up and focus on words on the page. They also work in the dark.

When I have insomnia, I listen to audio books, and the trick is in the repetitive listening. The idea is that your conscious mind gets bored and goes to sleep, and the worry-voice in your head gets distracted by the story and shuts up about whatever it's been keeping you awake with. Bill Bryson is spectacularly good for this purpose.

And I second fuzzbean - Anything by Daniel Pinkwater; even his kids books are fun.
posted by Triode at 8:59 PM on June 21, 2006

If she's tired of murder mysteries, perhaps she would like Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and its sequels. A clever, cynical reader can eat these up like candy.
posted by Sallyfur at 9:15 PM on June 21, 2006

All of the following were listed in the library system catalog:

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

The Clothes They Stood Up In, The Laying on of Hands or anything else by Alan Bennett.

The Endless Steppe; Growing up in Siberia by Esther Hautzig. The book is listed as juvenile, but I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading it as an adult.

Best wishes to your mother.
posted by sueinnyc at 9:21 PM on June 21, 2006

Opposite ends of the spectrum but both really good:

French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles - Engrossing.

Any of the Jeeves books by PG Wodehouse - Humorous and well written.

Will be thinking good thoughts about both you and your mother.
posted by philad at 9:31 PM on June 21, 2006

I really enjoyed The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster which has a very limited amount of sex in it.

Open Me Carefully is a collection of Emily Dickinson's letters to her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert. It hints at lesbianism, but it's not at all steamy and the letters are fascinating, as are Dickinson's letters in general.

I also second the recommendation for Life of Pi, which is amazing.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is one that I'm trying to get my own mother to read as I know that she would find it interesting as someone who has read all of the authors discussed in it. I read it recently and even with no knowledge of Henry James, I really loved it.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:37 PM on June 21, 2006

She may be tired of the older-style murder mystery, but your library has Sarah Caudwell's The Sirens Sang of Murder and The Sibyl In Her Grave which are both great fun, nonviolent but with just enough of a whiff of naughtiness. It also has most of the Iain Pears series about Jonathan Argyll, a British art dealer who gets mixed up in art thefts and murders in Rome - these are fun modern mysteries with very little violence and, although the main character falls in love with a beautiful Italian police investigator, barely even a smooch.

Intelligent fluff is a great category of reading.
posted by zadcat at 9:45 PM on June 21, 2006

Oh, and the Caudwell books are largely written as epistolary novels, so if your mother likes collections of letters they might really appeal to her.

Also look up Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate which the library has. Her Pigeon Pie is also a delightful bit of fluff set in WWII England. The library also has Mitford's letters to and from Evelyn Waugh.
posted by zadcat at 9:53 PM on June 21, 2006

That description screams Vonnegut to me. Cat's Cradle is one of my favorite books.
posted by knave at 10:05 PM on June 21, 2006

Second Alexander McCall Smith. Though the title has the word "detective" in it, these are not mystery books. They are delightful, engaging and illuminating stories about the people of Botswana.

I just listened to all seven (eight?) books via my Audible account, and I have to say that the narrator is the best I've ever encountered. She is from South Africa, and is also an actress and playwrite -- her accents and inflections are wonderful.

Best wishes for you and your Mum.
posted by shifafa at 10:15 PM on June 21, 2006

I know you said she's tired of murder mysteries, but a lot of the modern series are more character driven and really fun reads.

When I visit my mom, who's a member of several mystery book clubs, I enjoy reading the Cat Who series by Lillian Braun and Diane Mott Davidson's series about a caterer-turned-detective.

They're a tad frothy, but might be great when your mom's not up to thinking too hard--kind of a "beach read" type of book.

I also really enjoy books by Antonia or Flora Fraser--they tend toward royal biographies, mostly of women. Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette was recently adapted for film, directed by Sofia Coppola and due out soon.
posted by padraigin at 10:38 PM on June 21, 2006

Vanity Fair is a great read. It's better if you haven't seen the movie, but good even when you have -- the book is just brimming with life, which the movie couldn't fit.
posted by anadem at 10:43 PM on June 21, 2006

Dorothy Dunnet has two series of intricately plotted historical novels (she first published in the early 60s) that are supposed to be wonderful and that may be more to your mother's taste than the Aubrey/Maturin seafaring stuff (but I'd try those, too). For what it's worth, the Washington Post once called Dunnett "the finest living writer of historical fiction," and we regularly get folks in our bookstore who've just discovered her and snap up everything we have. Haven't read them myself, but they seem to fit the bill here.

Has she read Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott series? If she'd like sharp NC-flavored mysteries, she really can't go wrong with Maron. And I've heard nothing but great things about Dawn Powell's work; she wrote during the 1920s-60s and was a brilliant, underappreciated satirist of the morals and society of her day. Might be just the thing.

Others off the top of my head: Elizabeth George, Phillipa Gregory and - if she can stand a time travel element - Diana Gabaldon. And I do wish your mother a safe operation and quick recovery.
posted by mediareport at 10:57 PM on June 21, 2006

She might enjoy Vera, the biography of Vladimir Nabokov's wife, by Stacy Schiff. I certainly did.
posted by trip and a half at 11:00 PM on June 21, 2006

My Family and Other Animals. It's light but has a very dry ironic humor, and Durrell's evocation of his mother is one of the highlights of the book.

The Enchanted April. Again, often wryly funny and wonderfully escapist. There's an older woman character who sheds her Victorian decorum in a very gentle but real way, and the descriptions of southern Italy in spring are so evocative and beautiful.

Best wishes to you and your mother.
posted by melissa may at 11:08 PM on June 21, 2006

A Dance to the Music of Time - Anthony Powell. Fantastic 12 book series going right through from just after WW1 to the 60s.
The Cornish Trilogy - Robertson Davies. Lovely thematic trilogy that wears its considerable wisdom very lightly. There's more Davies but I think the Cornish trilogy is the best.

Best wishes to your mum for her recovery.
posted by crocomancer at 12:13 AM on June 22, 2006

Carol Shields: The Stone Diaries; Unless (stories in which wise elder women figure prominently, very well written, intelligent, not patronizing)

re: murder mysteries, if she is tired of them yet somehow hasn't read PD James: perfect for her.

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (moving portrait of a boy who survives WWII, written with intelligence and grace)

As she is ill, maybe short stories could be the way to go, and you can't do any better than Alice Munro.

Returning to the mystery thing, she might enjoy (on a lighter side of the murdermystery) Jasper Fforde's series of mysteries. Funny, eccentric.

Pat Barker: The Ghost Road. Part of a fantastic trilogy centred on WW I.
posted by Rumple at 1:01 AM on June 22, 2006

Isak Dinesen’s (i.e Karen Blixen’s) stories might be worth a try: for example Seven Gothic Tales, Winter’s Tales and Anecdotes of Destiny, (and Out of Africa too): they’re intelligent, well-written, old-world & while maybe not cynical, then certainly worldly-wise.
posted by misteraitch at 1:17 AM on June 22, 2006

This website might help,

The Literature Map

You put in the name of an author you like and it gives you this weird cloud thingy and the authors that are closest to the center are the ones that are similar. So far in my tests with some of my faves, the names that come up are right on the money.

Also, as a suggestion for a book, how about the Outlander stuff by Diana Gabaldon. A 1940s English woman travels back in time to Scotland of the 1740s and gets involved with politics and the like.
posted by legotech at 2:47 AM on June 22, 2006

Today's theme is memoirs. Here are four of the more touching ones I've read. None of these are fluff.
Winterdance - Gary Paulsen - memoir of a man who decided to do the Iditarod
Blindsided - Richard Cohen - memoir of a man with multiple sclerosis. Recommended to me in AskMeFi, very good
Expecting Adam - Martha Beck - memoir of a woman expecting a child with Down syndrome
Adventures in the Mainstream - Greg Palmer - I have not read this one yet, but I attended a keynote given by Greg Palmer and his son. Greg is a one of those people who uses hard SAT words with the facility that a longshoreman uses profanity.

All except the last are available at that library.
posted by plinth at 4:47 AM on June 22, 2006

The Evening Star by Larry McMurtry, I can't imagine any woman over about 40 not liking it. Technically, Terms of Endearment comes first, but I'd start with Evening Star.

Nobody's Fool or maybe Empire Falls by Richard Russo. Well deserving of the Pulitzer.

And I know this is probably just screamingly obvious, but if she hasn't read the Harry Potter series, give her the first one. I don't know anyone - of any age - who didn't just devour them. And right after surgery, she might want something a little easier to read - though every bit as well written - as some of the others.
posted by EllenC at 5:52 AM on June 22, 2006

Seems like anything by Penelope Fitzgerald would fit the bill nicely.
posted by bricoleur at 6:09 AM on June 22, 2006

I think your mom would enjoy Angela Thirkell! Most libraries would have her books, either as original hardcovers or as recent paperback reprints. She takes Trollope's Barsetshire and writes about it in the 1930s and 1940s.
posted by anitar at 6:22 AM on June 22, 2006

I've seen the movie for Enchanted April and it was quite good as I recall.

Is John Irving too cliche? It sounds like his books might work for her personality.
posted by Doohickie at 6:48 AM on June 22, 2006

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. It might be filed under sci-fi, but it's not, I swear, and I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't like it.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:06 AM on June 22, 2006

Is she a fan of Eleanor Roosevelt? I've read _Empty Without You_, which may be a little touchy for your mom, but it's a great book.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:28 AM on June 22, 2006

An enthusiastic second for James Herriot. His memoirs are one of my favorite things to read when I'm sick. Humorous, interesting & empathetic.
Your mom sounds like she might like Oscar & Lucinda, by Peter Carey. It was made into a mediocre movie, but it's much better as a book.
Your mom also might enjoy Julia Child's new memoir, My Life in France.
posted by Sara Anne at 8:50 AM on June 22, 2006

Oh she sounds a bit like a particularly particular customer of mine who makes me pick 20 books a week for her, but according to a set or rules and restrictons that is 1.5 pages long. :-)

Does she like history? Try Philippa Gregory. A little bit of sex, but only when it's needed for the sake of the story. For instance, Anne Boleyn with Henry VIII. Try any of her last 4 books. (In stock according to the library's website)

Otherwise I think a lot of typical Reading Group books might appeal to her. They're usually intelligent but light enough to not be too demanding.

I really enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd. (In stock according to the library's website)

Fall on Your Knees was really popular a year or so with older readers. (In stock according to the library's website)

Anne Tyler writes intelligent but lightfamily dramas with nothing offensive in them, as far as I can remember. A Patchwork Planet is a good place to start. (This and more of her stuff is in stock according to the library's website)

The Poisonwood Bible is one of the most amazing books I've ever read and was very popular with older women. (Available)

My particular customer goes NUTS for village stories by Rebecca Shaw (None of her books available at the library). Similarly, she adores Marcia Willett (Available), Rosamunde Pilcher and Maeve Binchy(Available). These four are the grand dames of fiction for females over 50. :-)

Divine Secrets of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells perhaps?

I'd recommend The Alexander McCall Smith books too. :-)

All fairly light reading but still intelligent. She's bound to like some of it. And if all else fails, she will probably LOVE J.D. Robb's In Death" series. It's Nora Roberts, writing mysteries. Pretty dumb, but cozy, warm and still exciting. Can't fail. :-)

(I would avoid Curious Incident of the dog in the night time. Fabulous book but too much swearing.)

posted by pootler at 1:41 PM on June 22, 2006

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