When the world appears to be going haywire — And when isn’t it these days? — I turn to the kinds of books I think of as “literary comfort food.”
Back in 2018, I wrote in general about the pleasure these kinds of books deliver, filling the reader with a feeling of warmth and contentment, the literary equivalent of meatloaf, or mac and cheese.
Literary comfort food may be straightforward, but it also can contain great depths. Thinking about these books I’m about to recommend, I see some commonalities, genuine and flawed characters who nevertheless try to be decent people, seeking connections to other decent people, with the unfortunate (but inevitable) thorniness of their humanity getting in the way .
These books are also often sly and funny, rooted in the absurdity that visits all of our lives. More and more, I seem to need both a good laugh and a reminder that people can be decent to each other. These books do the trick.
Laurie Colwin is perhaps the all-time greatest writer of comfort food novels, and it’s hard to go wrong with her work, but I’m singling out “Happy All the Time,” a story about Guido and Vincent, two best friends who fall in love with women who are decidedly worth loving, but obstacles keep seeming to get in the way. It is great fun to root for all of these good people to find happiness even though it might not be all the time.
Colwin died at the young age of 48, but she has a wonderful inheritor working in a similar register in Katherine Heiny who, in “Early Morning Riser” manages to turn the seemingly mundane domestic goings-on of Jane, a small-town Michigan schoolteacher , into page-turning, highly involving, comic drama. Jane is in a relationship with Duncan who has been in previous relationships with just about every woman in town. Events complicate that relationship, but also reveal to Jane the infinite varieties of love and connection.
“Straight Man” by Richard Russo was recently greenlit as a TV series for AMC starring Bob Odenkirk, which is great news for those of us who know this as one of the great campus novels of all time. Odenkirk will star as William Henry Devereaux Jr., the chair of the English department at a lesser-known, rural Pennsylvania college. Devereaux’s colleagues are feuding, he thinks his wife might be cheating, and he is having physical problems rooted in male middle age. A meditation on those things that make life worth living.
“Plainsong” by Kent Haruf is grittier than the rest of the books on this list, but the emotional power he wrings out of a portrait of a group of small-town people whose lives intersect in sometimes painful, sometimes poignant ways in the high plains of Colorado will have you reading the rest of Haruf’s books in short order.
Last is the hot-off-the-presses “Search” by Michelle Huneven, my newest addition to the comfort foods pantheon. Huneven is one of my favorite working novelists, and in “Search” she delivers a story told from the perspective of Dana Potowski, a restaurant critic and writer who is part of a search committee selecting a new minister for her Unitarian Universalist church in Southern California .
This experience brings Dana into contact and potential conflict with her friends, her church community, her faith and her understanding of herself. I find the very fact that these deeply human challenges are worthy of a novelist’s exploration and rendering reassuring.
Being decent to others is certainly a good thing for those we intersect with, but what these books also show is that being decent to others can be a gift to ourselves.
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read
1. “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy
2. “Miss Benson’s Beetle” by Rachel Joyce
3. “Telephone” by Percival Everett
4. “Homicide and Halo-Halo” by Mia P. Manansala
5. “Silver View” by John le Carré
—Arleen P., Morton Grove
Arlene is looking for a “mood lifter,” which I can understand looking at that list of her recent reads. Any of the books in this column will fit the bill, but this is a good chance to squeeze in some more comfort food. I’m going with another of the great campus novels, David Lodge’s “Changing Places.”
1. “Once There Were Wolves” by Charlotte McConaghy
2. “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara
3. “The Leavers” by Lisa Ko
4. “The Trees” by Percival Everett
5. “The Match” by Harlan Coben
—Nancy R., Elmhurst
Nancy looks like she could use a little light amid the darkness herself, though because she did not make a specific request as such, I’m going to try to not stray too far from what she’s drawn to these days. Can’t do better than the timeless and wonderful, “Mrs. Bridge” by Evan S. Connell.
1. “The Trees” by Percival Everett
2. “Normal People” by Sally Rooney
3. “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt
4. “The Sentence” by Louise Erdrich
5. “Fiona and Jane” by Jean Chen Ho
—Louise P., Chicago
Can’t help but note the presence of “The Trees” on the requests this week. My long campaign to turn all my readers into Percival Everett fans appears to be working. I’m betting that if she isn’t already, Louise will become a Meg Wolitzer fan if she reads “The Female Persuasion.”
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Send a list of the last five books you’ve read and your hometown to email@example.com.