Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout and Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

The Boston Globe Magazine’s January 23 cover story was “30 Great Comfort Foods”; the cover was festooned with a tantalizing picture of chicken and waffles from Brassica Kitchen + Cafe in Jamaica Plain, a fairly gentrified and artsy neighborhood in Boston that nonetheless still tries to cling to a working class/relatable vibe. Here’s the lead blurb to this compilation, which includes delicacies from honey-glazed biscuits, to ramen, to nine-hour French onion soup: “When temperatures drop and New Year’s resolutions fall by the wayside, we all need something to warm our souls. These homey indulgences — found at restaurants around Greater Boston — are a fast track to our happy places.”

It sounds like “comfort” = “happy place.” But what’s your happy place? If you are a Boston Globe reader, it sounds like your happy place is probably a relatively upscale and/or hipster eatery. Palatable, but still somewhat sophisticated? Food that wouldn’t exactly be billed “good for you,” but it’s ok because it’s gluttonous in a wink-wink ironic way? (To be fair, the Globe did feature some restaurants that were located in less hip environs and that served truly traditional recipes…)

Sign me up.

Yet in 2022, do even our “comfort items” need to be rendered as statement pieces? (My second blog post way back in 2014 was about Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields and how it seemed — from my perch across the pond — that Americans really like to make everything a “thing.”)

So: What’s a comfort read? And maybe more importantly, what does it say about you?

Recently, someone I follow on Instagram shared that she was reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep as she was in isolation (with a newborn, to boot!) in Australia. It was her “comfort read.” Prep is not a difficult book to read — in fact it’s quite fun — but it explores some “deep” topics.

Someone else on Instagram recently posted a picture of News of the World by Paulette Jiles — “My emotional support book,” she wrote in the caption. A respondent commented how much she loved this book as well, and the poster confirmed, “It is a comfort read for me!” Like Prep, News of the World has earned broad appeal, but it is far from simplistic.

This is a fun — and somewhat snarky — watch!

Both of these books are far from the junk food that we might like for the quick hit. (Speaking of books that are so palatable that you might not even know what you’re consuming, have you seen The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window on Netflix? It’s a subtly funny parody but still quite gripping. If you’ve ever taken a stroll down Target’s book aisle, then you know exactly the kind of psychological thriller — marketed to women, of course — that this miniseries is referencing.) No, these two Instagram users were referring to books that made them think but also allowed them to immerse themselves fully in a different world that somehow made them feel good, like being wrapped in a fluffy “blanket cardigan” that gets sent to them by mistake. (True story: My family recently received a package from Amazon that we didn’t order and that thankfully we weren’t charged for. It’s a scam called “brushing,” and although I tried to return the parcel, it was re-sent to us. So now my daughter has taken the Cookie Monster-blue yoga pants of the three-piece set and I’ve taken the long cardigan robe. For the record, the accompanying crop top went into the textile recycling bin at the middle school. Not gonna lie…this fuzzy blue thing is now my favorite piece of “comfort wear” for when I’m at home.)

I read two relatively recent releases that now fall into my “comfort read” arsenal: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout and Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi.

Yes, Elizabeth Strout has a new book out and of course it is marvelous. Oh William! is her eighth novel and revisits Lucy, a character in Strout’s novels Anything is Possible and My Name is Lucy Barton. In Oh William!, Lucy is in her sixties and keeping her head above water after the death of her second husband, David. She is a wonderful mother (although she doubts it sometimes) to her two daughters with her ex-husband William. She occasionally contemplates her sad childhood in rural Illinois. And she helps William, her first husband, unravel some thorny issues from his own upbringing. At its core, it’s a novel about what “type” of person one might be.

Transcendent Kingdom is Yaa Gyasi’s second novel. You’ve probably read — or at least know about — her debut, Homegoing. (Full disclosure: My book club in Ireland read this, but I think it was pretty much concurrent with us preparing to move back to the US, so I didn’t finish it. Therefore I can’t comment on it — but everyone seems to love it.) Transcendent Kingdom is about a young woman trying to reconcile the religious faith she was raised in with her life as a scientist. Religion, science, and all that. Adding to protagonist Gifty’s angst and sorrow is the specter of her older brother, who dies of a heroin overdose when he is in high school. The book shifts between Gifty’s childhood in Alabama, her time as a neuroscience PhD candidate at Stanford, and a tiny bit in Ghana, where both of her parents are from (and to where her father eventually returns permanently). As someone who has moved a fair amount, including internationally, I kept coming back to something I think about frequently: Are we “the same” no matter where we are? How do our settings influence our personalities, our values, our relationships? Are we different people in different locations?

This image came up when I typed in “comfort reads,” but let’s be honest: This does not look comfy.

I suppose neither of these books is particularly “uplifting” in the traditional sense; there’s both tragedy and rumination here. One of the protagonists is in her sixties beginning to look back at life, and one is in her twenties trying to figure out a way forward. When people think of “comfort reads,” they might be thinking of something fluffy that’s easy and has a very straightforward happy ending.

But these do something more, something that actually provides genuine comfort. As an aside, I’m not sure these books are necessarily meant to be marketed to women, but I do think that a large bulk of their readers probably will be…women. (My thoughts on that here.) Like many books that fall into this category, readers might get sucked into the “drama” (both day-to-day as well as more heightened emotion) — except Strout’s and Gyasi’s books take a little more effort to digest because there are no neat and tidy endings. They are engaging (in fact, one friend texted me, “So peaceful to be in someone else’s story, someone else’s head”), but there’s a little more oomph. Sort of like those artisanal honey-glazed biscuits that embody the stereotypical highbrow-lowbrow, I want to read something that feels nice and immersive — but I don’t want empty calories. Nothing fake, please!

Toward the beginning of Transcendent Kingdom, Gifty is with her lab mate, trying to explain away her unexpected crying: “A look of horror passed over his face as he mustered up a few pitiful words of comfort, and I could imagine what he was thinking: I went into the hard sciences so that I wouldn’t have to be around emotional women…‘Get ahold of yourself,’ I said to the woman in the mirror, but doing so felt cliché, like I was reenacting a scene from a movie, and so I started to feel like I didn’t have a self to get ahold of, or rather that I had a million selves, too many to gather.”

Many selves: Maybe complexity is comfort.

Maybe we assume that “fake” might be more comfortable because of that oft-referenced reason for reading, “escapism”? But as Gifty demonstrates, even when we project a hard exterior and strive for “pragmatic” and “tough,” there is emotion. And emotion is comfortable. Well, emotion can be really uncomfortable too, but an absence of true emotion in all its manifestations is insincere and actually kind of creepy. Gifty isn’t unique in her realization that she “had a million selves, too many to gather.”

This duality is explored in Oh William! as well. Strout writes, “I tell you this to explain how we kind of know who we are, without knowing it.” Well, hmmmm. I think what she’s getting at through protagonist Lucy is that we can often sense things about ourselves, without an ability to neatly categorize ourselves. To not acknowledge how multifaceted individuals are is robotic, simplistic, and the furthest thing from “comfortable.”

So I’d argue that a “comfort read” should be complex: I want something hearty (hello, biscuits!), but maybe something a bit different or unique too. I’d argue that the things that bring us the most comfort demonstrate that emotions can be complicated — we can want two things at once, and sometimes we can even have two things at once. In other words, something that acknowledges our “million selves” and tells us that is ok — and even normal.

Sort of like the cheap garment that arrived mysteriously from China that I have nonetheless grown to love all the while remaining wary of new packages showing up on our doorstep. I shall wear it while eating a honey-glazed biscuit!

I found this image on Amazon of what was sent to us. Just picture me parading around…

— Related:

Tragic Yet Cozy: On Where the Crawdads Sing and Brené Brown. A different sort of take on a “comfort read.”

Uplifting Comfort Reads on Days When You Just Can’t, a list by staff members of the New York Public Library. (This is a really interesting, diverse list!)

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