Comfort Books

I admit it. There are times I do not want to read anything challenging, path-breaking, complex, or even new for that matter. I reach for familiar titles by an author I know and trust not to ambush me. It’s a bit like the oft-maligned comfort food: some evenings you just want meatloaf or cheese grits made the way you always make them.

At different times, different books filled that niche. They’ve ranged from what the British call “Aga sagas,” domestic stories nick-named for the formerly ubiquitous Aga stove, to hard science fiction, to fantasy, to history.

One of those sets of books are Father Timothy stories, the Mitford books by Jan Karon, especially the odd-numbered titles. They are about an Episcopal priest in a small town in the North Carolina mountains were nothing earth-shaking happens, other than heartbreak, forgiveness, love lost and found, local politics, the trials and tribulations of retirement, surprises of the heart, and mostly decent people trying to do the right thing. There are no saints and few real villains, but Karon’s characters and setting are comforting when I need a quiet, healthy read. People age and grow, live and die, and although Karon never beats the reader over the head with it, faith in all its flavors is a strong and living part of the stories. For some reason books 1, 3, and 5 gripped me more than 2 and 4. I have not read all of Book 6, and number 7 just came out. I may have to add it to the TBR pile.

A few fantasy books come to hand when I need something familiar. Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword is one, followed closely by The Hero and the Crown and Beauty, her first version of beauty and the beast. Her later version is good, but not as warm-n-fuzzy as the first one. I think it’s the scene where Beast is reading Browning’s “Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister” that does it. Anyway. M. Lackey’s Arrows of the Queen and Black Swan also get reread on occasion when I need easy, escapist, pretty-happily-ever-after reading. Tamora Pierce’s original Song of the Lioness books as well. I’m not certain if it is fantasy or a documentary but Talbot Mundy’s King of the Khyber Rifles is another comfort book. And Kipling’s poetry, which ranges from history to fantasy to office-politics to only-Kipling-knows.

For a long time Dragonflight and Dragon Singer sat front and center on my bookshelves, spines cracked and pages threatening to fall out. It’s been a while, but I can still recite the opening paragraphs from memory, especially from Dragonflight: “Lessa woke cold.”  Then I wore out the first Hammer’s Slammers anthology by David Drake, which is pretty strange comfort reading, but I was in a strange place for a while, and being a crew member on a hover tank seemed a lot nicer than being a college undergrad. As I said, I was in a strange mental place for a few years. I go back to them every so often, and still occasionally day-dream about taking a hover tank out for a test run. (“I have a little list, I have a little list . . .”)

Stanley Vestal’s The Missouri is comfort history, a well written history of the Missouri River from St. Louis to Three Forks, following Lewis and Clark but others as well. I grew up in part of that area, and flew over most of it back when I flew for a living. Vestal wrote very well, and all his western history books are fun, but The Missouri strikes a chord that still rings in my spirit.

You can see the pattern, I suspect. These are all stories about people who wouldn’t quit, who keep going, exploring, doing their duty, not taking “you can’t” for an answer, and who can tell good from evil and choose the good, as best they can. None are heavy on sex, although many include elements of romance (and Romance) and true love. None use elaborate language, and a few could be classified as YA books. In short, they are all comfortable books for days when I just need to curl up in a chair with hot tea and a soothing read.

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