I first met Helen Russell while on vacation in Hawaii reading her book The Year of Living Danishly. An interesting and charming report about Russell’s life in Denmark; This gives its readers an honest but idyllic idea of what life could be like if we too would take the plunge into the land of Danish pastries and put down roots. As an expat colleague, I loved reading Russell’s take on a new life for myself overseas. I then read Leap Year – a book about making big decisions and resilience that I also admired. It was with great joy that I recently discovered that she had written a third book, How To Be Sad: All I Learned About Happiness By Being Sad And Better. Shortly after adding it to my ever-growing TBR stack, I contacted Helen to see if you would like to join my Desert Island Books series, a request that she kindly agreed to.
And so, from a book whose central character is deeply unlikely to the book that taught her to be both a reader and a writer, here are the eight books Helen would take to the sandy shores of a desert island …
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What I loved from Siri Hustvedt
When I’m on a desert island, I want a book that I enjoy reading again (because we’re all busy, right? Who knows when I might be found). I first read this when I was 23 and it’s probably the book I’ve read the most and given the most to others. It’s exquisitely crafted and insanely moving – it covers grief, eating disorders, and various mental health adventures (basically my wheelhouse). Also, while I know it’s terribly straightforward to consider an author’s personal life, the fact that Siri Hustvedt is married to Paul Auster – whose books I love too – is rather mind-boggling. Can you imagine the chats they have while waiting for the kettle to boil / coffee seep away?
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I like a book where women are allowed to be improbable – even fallible – as if they were, oh I don’t know, normal people. And Notes On A Scandal is a master class in storytelling. I know some ‘Barbara’ and ‘Sheba’ types, and this book gave me a lot of sympathy for both that I might not have been generous enough to afford before reading it. There is also an abridged audiobook read by the late, great Anna Massey that I let everyone I know listen to.
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Anne of Green Gables (complete set please!) By Lucy Maud Montgomery
Anne with an ‘e’ taught me to be a reader and a writer and someone to dream and most importantly that it was okay to be different. I know that many writers are indebted to Anne Shirley and that their exploits with Diana Barry on Prince Edward Island will never leave me – it is a total pleasure to read them again to my children now.
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How Proust can change your life by Alain de Botton
One weekend when I was browsing used books with my friend Sally under the bridge in front of the BFI on the banks of the Thames in London, I came across a dog-eared copy. I had just finished my studies and knew a little (not enough) about Proust, but had never come across Alain de Botton – and it was such a pleasure. I liked the combination of literary criticism, philosophy, psychology and memoir and it helped me realize that the genre can be fluid. My first book, The Year of Living Danishly, was a combination of travelogue, cultural deep dive, and memoir, and I’m sure it wouldn’t have been as well received if AdB hadn’t already paved the way for genre busting. I’ve since devoured everything he has ever written and has been totally honored by his support for my work.
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His dark materials from Philip Pullman
Whenever I lived in London in those heady pre-pandemic days and saw someone on the tube or on a bus reading the Northern Lights – the first book in Pullman’s trilogy – I always had to fight the urge to hug and hit them Conversation / feeling overwhelmed with some kind of excited envy. Because they haven’t read it yet – because they have all the miracle that is to come. Pullman is clearly a genius, and His Dark Materials is that rare thing: a page turner that really makes you think and stays with you for years. I saw the production at the National Theater with Anna Maxwell Martin as Lyra and it was as brilliant as you can imagine.
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Stephen Fry myth
I love a bit of Greek mythology (who doesn’t ?!) and Fry’s retelling of the old stories is so exuberant and so dense that I could read it over and over and make a little more of it every time. I also like that it has all of the bits and pieces that are deemed too rude for us to be taught in school (and can now regularly shock my own children with insights).
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This is a compelling book for a desert island that I may be on for some time, but it’s one that I enjoy reading over and over and probably do once a year. Sagan was only 18 when she wrote this (eighteen!) And it’s so masterful and complete that for all of us it’s #writergoals. The plot is decidedly dark and sad, but oh so French and absolutely convincing. Also: It is on the French Riviera. And we all could use being brought to the French Riviera every now and then.
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The versions of us from Laura Barnett
Historically, I’m terrible at making decisions (I’ve written an entire book on how to learn to get better, leap year). And so Laura Barton’s beautifully written, amazingly moving book was something so encouraging about the different paths we can take in life, the differences they can make, and, perhaps most reassuringly, how we are probably fine in the end becomes. Whichever way we chose. We will all experience our fair share of heartache and loss, but there will still be moments of joy, joy, and even profound meaning.
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