AJC BOOKSHELF: Comforting books to read

Familiar books by tried-and-true authors help soothe anxiety during troubled times. Contributed by Suzanne Van Atten
Familiar books by tried-and-true authors help soothe anxiety during troubled times. Contributed by Suzanne Van Atten

Like comfort food, comfort books provide solace during the pandemic.

No matter how hard I try to stiff-upper-lip my way through this crazy pandemic, some days I can’t help but feel 15 shades of blue. I had a string of those days last week and nothing from my repertoire of mood-lifting tricks seemed to help.

Out of desperation, I scanned my bookshelves hoping a title would leap out at me and provide the distraction I needed to feel better. My gaze stopped on the spine of Patti Smith's "M Train" (Penguin Random House, $27.95). Having read it when it came out in 2016, I recalled feeling a sense of comfort from her meditative musings about her solitary travels, her marriage and her renovation of a tiny beach house in Queens. Re-reading it might be just the ticket, I thought. Then I remembered I hadn't read her latest, "Year of the Monkey" (Penguin Random House, $24.95), which came out last September. I found a copy on my shelf and spent the morning lost in the spare, poetic prose about her solo trips crisscrossing the country, encountering interesting strangers and old friends. It took me another day and half to shake the funk I was in, but reading Smith's words did soothe me a bit.

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That got me thinking about reading for comfort. We often turn to comfort food in times of trouble because it’s delicious, consistent and familiar. What if we applied those same qualities to books? Who are the seasoned authors whose style of storytelling is familiar like a favorite pair of soft, faded jeans, but varied enough to keep us engaged with each new title?

Anne Tyler falls into that category for me. "Redhead by the Side of the Road" (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95), published last month, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's 24th novel. Micah Mortimer is a Geek Squad-type home computer expert who runs his life with the precision of the military. His predictable world is upended when his once-a-week female companion faces eviction and a college student shows up at his apartment, professing to be his son.

“Redhead by the Side of the Road” by Anne Tyler. Contributed by Penguin Random House
“Redhead by the Side of the Road” by Anne Tyler. Contributed by Penguin Random House

I haven’t read all of Tyler’s books, but I’ve read a lot of them. They often follow a similar pattern: Someone who leads a boring, routine, well-ordered life is transformed when he or she is forced to contend with someone who is messy, unpredictable and impetuous. It’s a fantastic and familiar premise. What saves it from being formulaic are Tyler’s finely drawn characters, her keen eye for the vagaries of human nature and a deep compassion for lovable losers.

Gail Godwin comes to mind, too. The Alabama-born, bestselling author of more than a dozen novels has a new one out called "Old Lovegood Girls" (Bloomsbury, $27). It's about a lifelong friendship forged by roommates at a small private girls' college in the South. Spanning decades starting in 1958, it charts the evolution of affection and jealousies that define the relationship between Feron Hood and Merry Jellicoe, who pursue similar career paths as writers.

“Old Lovegood Girls” by Gail Godwin. Contributed by Bloomsbury
“Old Lovegood Girls” by Gail Godwin. Contributed by Bloomsbury

Godwin’s storylines may be dissimilar, but her novels often contain common themes surrounding intergenerational relationships and life-altering friendships between women. Also familiar is her setting of choice — the South, tinged with nostalgia. And her style is always elegant and literary.

It occurs to me there’s another reason books by Tyler and Godwin feel comforting to me. They were among my mother’s favorite authors. One of the most voracious and democratic readers I’ve ever known, my mother was a big fan of the public library. She would come home every few weeks with a new stack of books on topics that ranged from politics to historical fiction to celebrity memoir. She shared her love of books by teaching me and my siblings to read long before we started school. And when I got older, she and I loved sharing favorite books with each other. My mother has been gone seven years now, but I’ll still read a book and think about how much she would love it. Just like comfort food is often the food our mothers made for us, for me I guess, comfort books are those written by authors I associate with my sweet Mama.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor for the AJC. svanatten@ajc.com.


The AJC Decatur Book Festival has launched a web series called Joshilyn Jackson Reads. The New York Times bestselling author, whose book "Never Have I Ever" just came out in paperback, will interview authors and moderate panels focused on new books she recommends. The series occurs once a week now through June, with a couple of special events in August. Featured authors include Suzanne Vizethann, Mary Kay Andrews and Mary Alice Monroe. Register early at decaturbookfestival.com to win a free book.