I'm not going to detail all the disturbing events, videos, speeches, tweets and news stories of the past month because you know what's going on. There's a lot of ugly stuff out there right now. And while it has never been more important to be an involved citizen and to actively work on the issues that matter to you — whether that's attending a rally or volunteering in your community — it's also true that nobody needs to do it 24/7. To be mentally healthy and effective at whatever you do — not to mention keep up with your paid work and other obligations — you need to take some time away from the stress of reality.

For me, a healthy escape has always been found in books. So turn off the TV, put down your phone and pick up one of these books instead. Reading novels has proven benefits for the brain and can help you become a more compassionate person as you read about others' lives. Both fiction and nonfiction can take you to another time and place and help put things in perspective; this is not the only time in human history when many difficult things were happening at once.

A few of these books are just pure escapism, too. Most of them are fairly new and easy to find — and I chose them because they're absolutely transporting.


"Brooklyn" by Colm Toibin is a fast read. Combine that with the fact that it was made into a movie that's now available streaming (free on HBOGo) means you could do what I did on a recent Sunday: Read the book then watch the movie in the same day. Or at least the same weekend. It's a special kind of treat to do that with a book that's so beautifully written and a movie that has been roundly (though quietly) acclaimed. Take a one-day getaway to post-World War II Ireland and Brooklyn via this simple story of a young Irish girl and her loves across two continents. It's not all romance — more a portrait of an immigrant community, the working world for women in the late 1940s and a meditation on the places we love.

A street in Naples, Italy Go to Naples, Italy, in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series. (Photo: Yulia Grigoryeva/Shutterstock)

"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante is the first in the Neapolitan series translated from the Italian, and as I'm pretty sure absolutely everyone who has read the trilogy will agree, there's no more transporting story than these written in recent history. I'm not being hyperbolic. These books, which follow Elena Greco and her friend Lila Cerullo as they grow up in Naples, Italy, beginning in the 1950s, take you into the smells, sounds, feelings and flavors of the city streets and seaside of the world the characters live in. The books are widely touted as novels about friendship, and they are that, but they are also about an Italy in transition — that includes politics — and about small businesses, the changing roles of women in modern societies and how our early choices in life can set us up for success or failure.

"Girl Waits with Gun" by Amy Stewart is another fictional story set in the real past, but this one goes a step further than the two stories above in terms of reality. It's based on the true story of Constance Kopp, who defended her two sisters from local crime bosses, starting in 1914. Along the way we meet underworld and law enforcement characters of the time (also based on real people) and get to read excerpts from The New York Times as the action for the book is set in then-rural Hackensack, New Jersey, and New York City. Kopp went on to become America's first female sheriff, and this book is about how she got her start. A second book about the Kopp sisters is out in hardback now.

"Rich and Pretty" by Rumaan Alam is the only novel here set in the modern day, but it's such a fun, breezy read that even though it doesn't take you to another time, it's a pretty-enough vision of modern Manhattan to feel like an escape even without a time change. It tells the simple story of two friends, Sarah and Lauren, who take different paths as young adults, and assumes that the reader cares as much about their feelings as they do as their relationship changes form over time. (I know I did.) The only book here that's still in hardback, it's just too good of an escape-to-another-life story not to include in this list.

Lake Geneva in Switzerland Lake Geneva by day — and often by night — is the perfect setting for a getting-away-from-it-all book. (Photo: Chaoss/Shutterstock)

"Hotel du Lac" by Anita Brookner is the only not-newish book on this list, but I include it because it is one of the ultimate relaxing (but never boring) getaway books that's ever been written. It won the Booker Prize in 1984, and tells the story of Edith Hope, a romance novelist who goes to a fictional Swiss lakeside resort to escape her own heartbreak. There, on Lake Geneva, she meets a host of ridiculous and amusing characters, all of whom seem to be dealing with their own romantic issues. Throw in a dashing new paramour, and this book is both funny (in a thoroughly British sense) and melancholy.


"Hold Still" by Sally Mann is an unusual memoir because it's told in images as well as (gorgeous) prose — which makes sense if you know that Mann is one of America's foremost living photographers. So her story — of herself as an artist, of her family and the American South she loves — must be told through her images, too. I could easily have read twice as much of Mann's story and looked at plenty more family pictures, out of which she so deftly plucks details as only a photographer can. I especially appreciated the reflections and connection between the creative life and mortality. And as a die-hard Yankee, her affecting vision of Virginia helped me better understand why the South is so beloved by the people who live there.

 Nighttime on the cobbles at Mermaid Street in East Sussex Travel back in time to real-life Tudor, England, in Ruth Goodman's 'How to Be a Tudor' to find out why these English buildings look as they do. (Photo: Helen Hotson/Shutterstock)

"How to Be a Tudor" by Ruth Goodman sounds like it could be dry and academic, but I guarantee you it's not. Coming hot on the heels of Goodman's bestseller, "How to Be a Victorian," we travel through a day-in-the-life of a person from Tudor England (the era that began in 1485). The specific detail about everything (including bathroom and washing situations, food prep and storage, clothing, and building, well, everything from scratch), is drawn not just from research, but from Goodman's own experience recreating conditions from that time and living them. The amount of work that went into living in Britain in the late 1400s is exhausting and helped me appreciate both my English ancestors and how well most of us live today. You can follow the book with a watch of the excellent BBC series that preceded it, "Tudor Monastery Farm," which features Goodman and is available on YouTube.

"We Are As Gods" by Kate Daloz takes us back to the early 1970s when so many young Americans had decided to go "back to the land." In Daloz's book we follow the Myrtle Hill commune, where a group of young people try to make an anti-establishment go of it on 116 acres in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Down the road from the commune, the author's parents are building a geodesic dome for their own small family. A Summer of Love turns into something different when winter comes, and the experiment has its challenges and tragedies for all. A novelistic story that's interwoven with a well-researched look of what drove a million-plus young people to try to do their own thing (and the many positive repercussions of that) in the wake of 1950s conservatism and the Vietnam War makes this book both a great story and an informative one. (And yes, a young Bernie Sanders does indeed make an appearance!)

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Stressed out by current events? Get offline and pick up a book
The news has been intense lately. Here are 7 books to escape with that will teach you something too.