I first came across Helen Russell when I read her book, The Year of Living Danishly, while on holiday in Hawaii. An an interesting and charming account of Russell’s year of living Danishly; which offers its readers an honest yet idyllic idea of what life might be like if we too, were to take the plunge and plant roots in the land of the Danish pastry – as a fellow expat, I loved reading Russell’s take about making a new life for herself overseas. I then went on to read Leap Year – a book about making big decisions and becoming more resilient, which I also adored. It was thus with great delight that I recently discovered she had penned a third book, How to Be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned about Getting Happier, by Being Sad, Better. Shortly after adding it to my ever-growing TBR pile, I got in touch with Helen, to see if you’d be happy to take part in my Desert Island Books series, a request, to which, she kindly agreed.
And so, from a book whose central character is deeply unlikeable, to the book that taught her to be both a reader and a writer, here are the eight books Helen would take with her to the sandy shores of a desert island…
What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
If I’m on a desert island, I want a book I’m happy to reread (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 have re-read and gifted to others the most. It is exquisitely crafted and insanely moving – covering grief, eating disorders and various adventures in mental health (basically my wheelhouse). Also: although I know it’s horribly unsophisticated to take into account an author’s personal life, the fact that Siri Hustvedt is married to Paul Auster – whose books I also love – blows my mind rather. Can you imagine the chats they have as they wait for the kettle to boil/coffee to percolate?
I like a book where women are permitted to be unlikeable – fallible even – just as though they are, oh I don’t know, normal human beings. And Notes On A Scandal is a masterclass in storytelling. I know a few ‘Barbara’ and ‘Sheba’ types and this book gave me a lot of sympathy for both of them that I perhaps hadn’t been generous enough to afford them before reading. There’s also an abridged audiobook read by the late, great Anna Massey that I make everyone I know listen to.
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 who daydreams and most of all that it was okay to be different. I know a lot of writers owe a debt of gratitude to Anne Shirley and her exploits with Diana Barry on Prince Edward Island will never leave me – it’s a total joy rereading them to my kids now.
How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton
Rummaging around rows second-hand books under the bridge outside the BFI on the banks of the Thames in London with my friend Sally one weekend, I came across a dog-eared copy of this. I had just graduated from University and knew a little (not enough) about Proust, but hadn’t come across Alain de Botton before – and it was such a treat. I loved the combination of literary criticism, philosophy, psychology and memoir and it helped me realise that 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 that it wouldn’t have been so well received had not AdB already blazed the genre-busting trail. I have since devoured everything he’s ever written and have been totally honoured by his support of my work.
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
When I lived in London in those heady pre pandemic days and would see someone on the tube or on a bus reading Northern Lights – the first book in Pullman’s trilogy – I would invariably have to fight the urge to go over and hug them/strike up conversation/feel overwhelmed with a sort of excited envy. Because they haven’t read it yet – because they have all the wonder to come. Pullman is quite evidently a genius and His Dark Materials is that rare thing: a page-turner that makes you really think and stays with you for years. I saw the production at the National Theatre with Anna Maxwell Martin as Lyra and it was as brilliant as you can imagine it would be.
Mythos by Stephen Fry
I love a bit of Greek mythology (who doesn’t?!) and Fry’s retelling of the ancient tales is so rollicking and so dense that I could read it over and over and get something more from it each time. Plus, I like that he includes all the bits deemed too rude for us to get taught at school (and can now regularly shock my own children with insights).
This is a cogent book for a desert island where I might be for some time but it’s one I’m always happy to reread and probably do about once a year. Sagan was just 18 when she wrote this (eighteen!) and it’s so masterful and complete that it is #writergoals for all of us. The plot is decidedly dark and sad but oh so French and utterly compelling. Also: it’s set on the French Riviera. And we could all do with being transported to the French Riviera once in a while.
The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett
Historically, I am terrible at making decisions (I wrote a whole book about learning to get better at them, Leap Year). And so there was something so heartening about Laura Barton’s beautifully written, staggeringly moving book about the various paths we can take in life, the differences these can make, and – perhaps most reassuringly – how we will probably be okay in the end. Whichever road we chose. We will all experience our fair share of heartbreak and loss, but there will still be moments of pleasure, of joy and even of profound meaning.
Love this post? Click here to subscribe.
This post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase using this link.