Old Familiar Faces

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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June 12, 2013

I think everyone has books–or other media–which feels as comfortable as a well-worn pair of pajamas. I thought I’d share a few of mine today.

Gone-Away Lake, Elizabeth Enright

Gone-Away Lake, Elizabeth Enright

Elizabeth Enright’s Gone-Away Lake is a book I’ve loved since I was 8 or 9 years old. While there were always books around when I was growing up, there weren’t tons of books around–we were heavy library users–but this is one that was in our library and I can’t even count how many times I’ve read it.  The story is fairly simple: Portia and her younger brother Foster take a train to visit their cousin Julian for the summer.  Portia and Julian are about the same age, so they go off exploring together, as Julian and his parents have just moved to a new town.  They discover an abandoned resort community on the edge of a swamp–and the only two inhabitants left are a positively ancient pair of siblings, Pindar Payton and Minnehaha Cheever.  Portia and Julian spend the rest of the summer at Gone-Away–and eventually Foster and their parents make their way there, too. This is a quiet little book full of quiet moments and I love it so. There’s an elegance to Enright’s prose that is timeless and I was pleased that it’s still appealing–a young reader of my acquaintance recently read it and enjoyed it very much indeed.

Aunt Dimity's Death, Nancy Atherton

Aunt Dimity’s Death, Nancy Atherton

Then there’s Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity’s Death–I read a lot of mysteries in the years after I graduated college and the first two books in this series are perpetual keepers for me–after the first few, they get a bit precious with regards to the woo but the first one, in particular, is just so charming.  Lori Shepherd is at the bottom of a downward spiral: recently divorced and underemployed, her beloved mother has just died and she’s adrift. And then she gets a letter saying that Aunt Dimity died–except she didn’t know that Aunt Dimity had ever actually existed. Aunt Dimity had been the character in a series of stories that her mother had told Lori as she grew up and when she learns that Dimity had been real, the shock is nearly too much for her.  Luckily for her, the law offices of Willis and Willis are fully equipped to deal with her shock and Lori finds herself swept off to England where she’s set the task of fulfilling the terms of Aunt Dimity’s will: to compile the stories into a manuscript for publication.  She’s taken to a fairy tale cottage and is given access to her mother and Dimity’s 50 years of letters–and she discovers that Aunt Dimity may not be completely gone from this world after all.  And there’s unfinished business and wrongs to be put right–both in Lori’s life and in Dimity’s afterlife.  I’m honestly not objective enough about this book to say whether or not it’s any good, but it was one of those books I ran across right when I needed it, so I’m more than happy to overlook its flaws (which are: it’s twee as hell and I’m pretty sure the England and Scotland as described in this book doesn’t actually exist and I am totally okay with that but other people may not be).  Oh, and there’s a stuffed rabbit named Reginald, too.

A Room with a View

A Room with a View

Finally, there’s A Room with a View.  I love the book, but I love the movie even more.  I first saw this on Bravo in the late 1980’s–uncensored. So the bathing scene? A revelation to my 14 year old self.  Of course there’s more to recommend it than a bunch of men gamboling about a pond in the altogether!

I watch this movie at least once a year, if not more–there’s something about seeing Lucy struggle to figure out what she wants in life and the way she pushes against the strictures of her class and gender that I find very appealing. She’s been sheltered by her family and they are thrilled that she has agreed to marry Cecil Vyse–played to snobbish perfection by Daniel Day-Lewis (I am convinced that he actually stuck a stick up his butt for the part). But there’s also George Emerson–played to wooden perfection by Julian Sands (the woodenness is part of the charm)–who wants her to be fully herself (even if he does kiss her without asking her if it’s okay first).  And the supporting cast is just amazing, as are the locations, costumes, and music. It’s really a remarkable film and it’s held up so well.  The book is darker–Mr. Beebe is subtly misogynistic and the book is much less sympathetic to Charlotte as well.  And I always wonder what happened to the Honeychurches and the Emersons in the turbulent years to come–would they have been forced to sell the house? Would Freddy have returned from war physically and emotionally intact? How did Lucy’s life change after marrying George?  I suspect that things wouldn’t have gone well for any of them and the happy ending of the book and film is more of a happy-for-now than happy-ever-after.

I’d love to hear about your comfort reads in the comments–what books, music, or movies do you turn to when you want something familiar?  Me, I’ll be over here re-reading a Jenny Crusie book (Fast Women).

The title of this post? Comes from one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite performers, John Wesley Harding.  It’s called “$55” and here’s the first stanza:

I’m looking for those old familiar faces
In the places I left behind
All the Townsons, Barnes and Staces
And some good old friends of mine
Because everyone is someone
That I seem to recognize
Must be the old familiar faces
In their eyes

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11 Comments

  1. Nicky

    My most longstanding comfort read is “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean Craighead George. It’s about a young boy who runs away from his family in the city to live in a tree in the mountains. The narrative is innocent and his ingenuity and resourcefulness in response to his new challenges makes it an entertaining read, even in adulthood. Also, he has a pet falcon. How cool is that?

    Other than that, there are definitely ‘seasons’ in which I need to reread a certain book. Poppy Z. Brite’s “Lost Souls” is a book that I’m compelled to read over again when I’m feeling a certain way. I’m sure I’ve read it 5+ times now but it’s always a satisfying read.

  2. Natalie

    @Nicky: I bounced off “Lost Souls” hard when I was in college. But I can still quote a part of it: “Stipe’s eyes were like loss, Peter Buck’s, dark fire”–or something like that. I haven’t been able to even venture near Brite since. Alas.

    I’ll have to check out “My Side of the Mountain”–that sounds like it might be right up my alley!

  3. Wendell McKay

    THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (my favorite novel ever, so that stands to reason) and A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES are big ones for me. I don’t revisit them often (George Macdonald Fraser’s McAuslan stories probably get a lot more repeat reads), but when I do, it’s like I never left. Alan Furst’s first two novels, NIGHT SOLDIERS and DARK STAR, are much the same thing.

  4. Miss Bates

    What a lovely, nostalgia-inspiring post! Miss Bates does have her comfort reads yes, but movies even more so … it’s good just to loll on the couch and wallow in them. A Room With a View is one of them! I have that exact DVD copy, well worn and much-beloved. There are so many comfort movies, you’ll be asleep by the end of this post, so I’ll mention only a few. Charade with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant (greatest romantic lines ever: Audrey to Cary: “You know what’s wrong with you?” Cary: “What?” Audrey: “Absolutely nothing.”), Garbo’s Ninotchka and Camille, Before Sunrise & Before Sunset (and soon!!!! Before Midnight), The Philadelphia Story, oh gosh, can it get better than The African Queen, a lovely little film with Clive Owen, Greenfingers … and then, of course, there’s the annual watching of Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Pride and Prejudice (with Colin Firth of course) and North and South (Richard Armitage, nuff said, right?). Once a year, usually on summer holidays, Miss Bates rereads the greatest romance novel of them all, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

  5. dichroic

    Two of mine are the LMs – Montgomery and Alcott. Otherwise, Austen, Sayers, Rowling, Pratchett…

  6. Anya

    Love this post! I really need to reflect back on my favorite books as a child. I think most of them would be Pern books ;-). Mind if I make a post answering and link to this one? Let’s start a trend 😀

  7. Natalie

    @Anya: That would be awesome! I think we all have books we return to over and over again. I’d love to find out what yours are!

  8. Selki

    @Nicky: @Nicky: I second the MSotM rec. One of my sisters snagged the house copy, though, so I haven’t re-read it for years.

  9. Merrian

    The many, many Abbey girls books by Elsie Jeanette Oxenham because they put female friendship front and centre. EJO wrote a sort of forever 1920s/30s even when the last book was turned in in 1959. She wrote unlikeable heroines (Biddy and Joy) and was conservative (class mattered) and naive (Jenny Wren and Jack were a couple all through school); her plots were conventional to the school girl genre and often creaky but that all pales behind her premise that female lives and female relationships mattered and are the sustaining thing across the whole of one’s life.

    Rosemary Sutcliff’s YA historical books such as ‘Mark of the Horse Lord’, ‘The Dawn Wind’, ‘The Eagle of the 9th’….

    The Count of Monte Cristo’s rage and search for justice was a wonderful thing to me when I first read it as a child.

    Nowadays Lois McMaster Bujold’s books most especially the Vorkosigan series are a comfort read.

  10. Sarah

    Georgette Heyer and some Dorothy Sayers usually work as comfort books for me. I re-read Wen Spencer’s Ukiah Oregon series (again) recently. I also hang onto some children’s books as comfort books. I just reviewed Sand Dune Pony over at http://www.librarything.com/work/511691/ (a re-issue).

  11. Sophie

    We just finished Gone-Away Lake. It’s one of my pajama books, too! While reading it aloud, trying to keep the pages of my broken old copy in order, I enjoyed remembering myself, at Ben’s age, reading and re-reading it.

    Other comfortable books for me include All Creatures Great and Small (James Herriott), Grimms’ Fairy Tales (especially the edition with the red cloth cover), Jane Eyre, The BFG (Roald Dahl), Wuthering Heights, The Dark is Rising series (Susan Cooper), my Sherlock Holmes collection, and Treasure Island. The list goes on (I used to re-read many, many books) but I’ll stop here and thank you for the lovely walk down memory lane. And for sharing some of your old favorites.

    I’m having fun exploring your blog, btw! Nicely done!

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