YOU’VE HEARD OF comfort food and oh boy, have we all been hungry for that non-stop this crazy year. But how about comfort books—whether to keep yourself company as winter takes hold, or to consider for gifting? That’s today’s topic with my writerly friend, Katrina Kenison, to help curate a collection for various tastes.
You many know Katrina Kenison as author of several books (Amazon affiliate link), including “The Gift of an Ordinary Day,” and “Magical Journey” and “Moments of Seeing.” She’s a former literary editor at Houghton Mifflin, where she was series editor for “The Best American Short Stories” for 16 years and co-edited, with John Updike, “The Best American Short Stories of the Century.” Katrina’s also a yoga teacher and an increasingly keen gardener in her own New Hampshire backyard.
Read along as you listen to the November 23, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: Enter in the comments box at the bottom of the page to win a copy of one of the suggested books (and click over to Katrina’s website for another giveaway opportunity, too.)
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
comfort books, with katrina kenison
Margaret Roach: Welcome back, Katrina.
Katrina Kenison: Good morning, Margaret. It’s so nice to be with you.
Margaret: Yes. Since you’ve curated stories and written books, I figure you’re qualified to tell us… Help!
Katrina: Well, well exactly so. Winter is coming and this year, even before the temperature really drops, I have to say, it’s already feeling frostier. And I guess we just need to be upfront about it and say, it’s feeling darker. More than ever, it seems like this winter is a season of survival for those of us who, we’ve been living with this quarantine for a while, but what we need right now, I think is some strategies for these challenging times.
And if we’re going to get through this winter in one emotional piece, we’re going to have to really stay connected to some small and tangible ways to feel good. I had this idea at the beginning of March that I would be reading “War and Peace”-
Katrina: …and “The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty.” And I have to admit that that really has not been happening. But I find myself reaching for books that simply offer comfort. Do you feel that, too?
Margaret: Yes. And I find a few things. One is I have no concentration, so I need smaller doses. Just like I’m snacking more than sitting down for a full meal, especially since I’m not seeing people, and I’m not entertaining and going out to dinner with friends. I’m more snacking, grazing. And with reading also, I want little bits, I think sometimes, because I’m not ready for “War and Peace.” You’re right.
And then also just like with streaming videos and stuff, sometimes even if I’ve seen it before, familiar faces and familiar voices feel better to me. So sometimes I’m dipping backwards into some books I’ve maybe read before.
Like the other day I told readers on the blog that I was rereading “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating” by Elisabeth Tovah Bailey, just a tender little book about when she was ill. And someone gave her a snail that ended up being sort of in a terrarium beside her bed, and everything about this world it took her into and so forth, and transported her. And I can give a link to more information about that. But you know what I mean? I sometimes want the familiar. In small doses, in small doses. [Laughter.]
Katrina: Small doses. Yeah. I think we’re kind of building up our coping strategies. I know you and I are both very organized, and we’re preppers. And so we’ve got our cans of beans and we’ve got our toilet paper, and now we’re kind of stockpiling the books that are going to get us through this winter.
And one for me that our family discovered at the beginning of the pandemic is a little book called, “Cozy: The Art of Arranging Yourself in the World.” It’s by Isabel Gillies; I think that’s how you pronounce it.
And that little book really set a tone for our entire family at the beginning. And we’ve all agreed that we’re going to revisit it together. We did, believe it or not, a Zoom family dinner with this book as our theme. And we talked about how coziness is something… it’s an art that we can learn. And we can achieve it once we start to recognize what it is that makes us feel safe and what makes us feel cozy.
And God knows, we’re going to need some coziness this winter. We went around the table and we asked people, every person in the family, “What is it that makes you feel cozy?”
And to my surprise, my son Henry, who’s been living at home with us, teaching his college classes remotely said, “You know, Mom, when you get out the pots and pans after the dinner dishes are done and you do after-dinner baking, that makes me feel really cozy.” I’m like, who knew, right, that sometimes I’m just making the banana bread at night so I don’t have to do it in the morning and to my son, that’s the epitome of coziness.
This is a wonderful little book of short pieces that ask the questions and invite us to reflect on what are the things—the memories, the textures, the foods, the clothes, the places in our own houses—that bring us a sense of coziness, i.e., happiness?
And so I love giving that book. I love asking questions to other people about coziness. What makes you feel cozy, Margaret?
Margaret: I’m embarrassed, almost, to tell you. I’m embarrassed to say this. O.K., everybody who’s listening, cover your ears, and everyone who’s reading the transcript, cover your eyes [laughter]. It’s nothing X-rated, it’s just… A friend and I confessed this to each other the other day, a very old friend: stuffed animals.
Margaret: I have over the years… I have some from my childhood Iggy Bear, my original bear, whose nose I ate when I was 3 years old, but he still exists. But over the years, you know how people sometimes give you stuffed animals, or there’s a really cute stuffed animal and someone gives…. Anyway I had up in my den—which I never go in but I’m going in all the time now because I’m using my house differently this last year, these last eight months—I had an easy chair. And all these stuffed animals that I had accumulated are sitting on the chair.
And they’ve just always been there, and they’re really cute, but I never interacted with them. And lately when I come up to do my morning and evening meditations, and sometimes when I watch something, I’ll sit in the chair and watch something, stream something later in the evening, they’re just there. They’re around me in the chair, there’s enough room for all of us in the chair. And look, O.K., I’m regressing. O.K.? I’m a kid and I need my baby; I need my baby. In a way that they’re here with me is cozy. [Laughter.]
Margaret: And my friend Anne said, when I told her that I was embarrassed, I told her that the other day and she said, “Oh, Margaret,” she said, “I have a baby, too. And each of my daughters, I told them even when they were grown up, they needed to have a favorite stuffed animal and always keep it near in case.” And I thought, oh, what a sweet thing for a mother to tell her children it was O.K. to do and to need.
Katrina: Yeah, yeah. My son Jack, who I haven’t seen since last Christmas and we won’t see him this Christmas, when he was home the last time packing up to leave to go back to his house in Asheville; now he has a house. He had one stuffed animal left in his old childhood room, a turtle that we had bought on a long-ago trip to Florida named Darren. Darren had a whole backstory. He had a mother named Connie who got caught in a net, a fishing net.
And he said, “I think it’s time for Darren to come home to Asheville with me.” And he stuffed Darren into his backpack. And of course I haven’t seen Jack or Darren since. And I have to say it was like another leave-taking to watch this last vestige of childhood leave our house and go home to Asheville with Jack. So I totally get it.
Margaret: O.K. So books, more books. I confess, I can’t concentrate for long periods. Do you have anything I can just dip into? It sounds like “Cozy” is one that I don’t have to sit down for 12 hours and read.
Katrina: Yeah, none of these are books that you’re going to get lost in. They’re books to dip into. And one of my favorite ones, you were talking about the snail book, and this is quite different, but it’s also a book about staying put. It’s called “When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler’s Journal of Staying Put,” by Vivian Swift. And this is a book that for years I would give it to friends who got a cancer diagnosis or a Lyme disease diagnosis—who suddenly found their lives constricted, and because of illness and treatments were staying home. And it was always a great success. Everyone loved this book.
Well now, of course, this is a book for all of us. And Vivian Swift was a world traveler. I think she had something like 23 different addresses in 20 years. And she finally settled down in a little tiny town and sunk her roots and discovered the joys of staying put.
And I have to confess, I feel almost guilty that I have actually enjoyed a lot of these last months just because I’m an introvert by nature. There’s something that kind of attracts me about being a hermit, and much as I adore my friends, there is no longer any pressure to go out to dinner or to host a dinner party.
And this is a book that really celebrates the beauty and the joy of those little ordinary moments that we’re usually in too much of a hurry and miss. I can’t really describe it. You almost have to see it, but it’s a journal. Every page is full of watercolors, quotations. There’s the occasional recipe. There’s gardening and natural history woven throughout. And it’s really just a celebration of puttering and doodling and daydreaming and noticing, which of course, any of us who spend time in the garden, aren’t we always daydreaming, noticing, grabbing our pads of paper, sketching, snapping pictures?
And that’s really what this is. It’s wonderful quotes from literature. It’s just a charming, cozy, appealing book to curl up with on a cold winter day.
Margaret: Last year I read a book that had—and I may read it again actually—by the “New York Times” Opinion columnist, Margaret Renkl, the book “Late Migrations.”
Katrina: My favorite book of last year, I think.
Margaret: Yeah. And again I’ll give a link to a longer interview with her and more about the book, but each entry was short. And even though it all adds up to an entire story, one could enjoy, savor just a nugget and a nugget and a nugget.
And what you just said about gardeners enjoying connecting with all the beauty and subtleties around them, and the inferences that we can draw from watching and slowing down. And there was a lot of that in it. “Late Migrations” was one that I think would be good if I hadn’t already read it, I would recommend it to myself right now. [Laughter.]
Katrina: Oh well, I would say, just go back and reread it. I read that book just with my heart in my throat the first time. It was so beautiful that as soon as it was over, when I was done reading it, I just found myself carrying it around. It was always in my purse. And finally I said to myself, “Well, why don’t I just read it again?” And so I started right back a few weeks later and read the whole book again. And it was almost as if I hadn’t read it the first time. I found so much there. It is one of those books to just go back to again and again, just a marvel really.
Margaret: Did you read last year or recently “How to Catch a Mole” by Mark Hamer, a Welshman?
Katrina: I gave you that book, but I didn’t read it before I gave it to you.
Margaret: I couldn’t remember if you read it.
Katrina: I said, “That’s a Margaret book if ever there was one,” but I didn’t read it.
Margaret: Yeah. Oh my goodness. That was a sort of an indie hit of 2019. “How to Catch a Mole”—and yes, you do learn how to catch a mole, and that he was a professional mole catcher, which is something that people in the UK rely on in farms and gardens and so forth where moles can be, I guess, destructive to certain kinds of situations.
But it’s really a book about again, being quiet, connecting to nature, the powers of observation, all the things we never notice…and also about when it’s time to stop catching moles. And I mean that both literally and metaphorically, and why he had his final day of it. He stopped, and doesn’t do it anymore.
He’s a great gardener, by the way. Anyway, brilliant, absolutely brilliant little book, and that’s another one I’m going to reread for sure.
Katrina: And it occurs to me that someone like Margaret Renkl, the author of this book, and all of us who garden, it’s almost like the more we notice, the more connected we begin to feel to these creatures that we share our little plot of land with. The more tender we feel toward them, even the moles, the mice, squirrels.
For such a long time, I just felt like I was doing battle with the mice and the squirrels. [Laughter.] And I can’t say that I love them, but I have become more accepting of the fact that we are all just trying to survive here. And I think it’s books like that, that remind us that we’re all creatures doing the best we can with what we have.
Margaret: What’s next on your list that you want to share with us?
Katrina: Well, you mentioned snacking. I’ve been doing a bit of that, too.
Margaret: No, no, no, no—I’m not eating…
Katrina: I find sometimes I think about food and almost nothing else, morning, noon and night. There are so many days where I will read the front page of “The New York Times,” and then I’ll just go straight to recipes. And of course, everyone in my family would much rather have me reading recipes than the news because that portends good dinners to come. But there’s been a lot of Ina Garten around here. There’s been a lot of cheese, but for the cozy books that I just returned to and pulled off the shelf this morning, knowing we’d be chatting, are Laurie Colwin’s books, “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking.”
What treasures. She was always one of my favorite short-story writers and novelists and we knew each other just a little bit back in New York in the eighties, we were both sort of moving in the same publishing circles for a short time. But when I left editing and became a mother and editing at home and suddenly was responsible for dinner for a family of four every night, Laurie Colwin became my best friend in the kitchen. And I have to say, there is no one cozier or more companionable or more uplifting than Laurie Colwin.
Margaret: And that book, originally the “Home Cooking,” the first one, I think it was 1988 or around there. She’s deceased.
Katrina: Tragically, she died young at 48. That was back in 1992. She left behind a husband and a then 8-year-old daughter. And I would say if anything, her books in those years since her death have really become cult classics—or I shouldn’t even say cult, they are classics.
Margaret: She’s an icon for food writers of all generations. If we went right now to all the food bloggers on Instagram who are 20-something or 30 and asked them if they knew who Laurie Colwin was, they’d say yes, 9 out of 10 would say yes. Yes.
Katrina: Absolutely. And I think because when she started out, she’s in this little tiny apartment before she was married, and she used to say that she used her oven for storage. She would cook these dinners on a hot plate, and then have her guests kind of perch, squeeze into that little apartment. She was kind of an anti-Martha Stewart, as it were. It was not about perfection. It was all about just the joy of the process of being gathered around a table together.
Katrina: Cozy, yeah.
Margaret: And comfort! [Laughter.]
Katrina: And comfort. And her books are as much memoirs as cookbooks. You’ll never need another recipe for creamed spinach or lentil soup or gingerbread or roast chicken for that matter. I made my first jam because Laurie Colwin told me that I could.
But there’s also just beautiful writing. And again, what we’ve been talking about, this appreciation for dailiness, for the ordinary, finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. I picked up the books this morning and just opened almost randomly to a chapter called “All the Trimmings,” about Thanksgiving. And I was like, oh yes, there’s her recipe for rosemary walnuts. And of course, I’ll be making those next week.
Margaret: Yeah. Deborah Madison, a great… sort of the person, one of two or three people who really brought vegetables to the fore and she’s the author of 14 cookbooks and whatever, she has a just-out memoir called “An Onion in My Pocket,” and my copy just arrived yesterday. So I haven’t read it yet, but I’m interested to do that because in her younger life, she lived 20 years as a Buddhist in a retreat setting and so forth—and how that informed her culinary adventure subsequently. And anyway, so just FYI, you might want to, I’m sure you like her cookbooks, too. Just FYI, “An Onion in My Pocket,” just out.
Katrina: What a wonderful title.
Margaret: Isn’t that a good one? Yeah, yeah, yeah. So tell us another book, because I don’t want to run out of time.
Katrina: Yes, yes. I have two more. I think all these months of the pandemic, I formed some new habits and routines that have just made this strange and difficult time a little easier. And one of those—you and I have talked about this—is really attending to my sleep hygiene, because I’ve learned the hard way of what to do and what not to do at bedtime. And sometimes when I’m ready for bed, I have just about enough bandwidth left for maybe five or 10 minutes of reading. And it’s tempting to scroll through Instagram or to try to achieve genius level on the spelling bee.
So much better to pick up a book. The two that I’ve kept on my bedside table are “Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity and Change,” by Maggie Smith, which just came out last month.
And another one called “The Book of Delights,” by Ross Gay.
“Keep Moving” by Maggie Smith is a collection of short reflections. She’s a poet. And when her 19-year marriage ended and with it, the life that she had known, she spiraled into a depression that it was so deep that there were days and weeks when she could hardly get out of bed.
And she said, she couldn’t write poems during this time, but she did feel the desire to write something. And she said to herself, “Well if everything’s going to fall apart, I could at least create something.”
And so one day she simply wrote a goal for herself, a couple of sentences that she posted on social media, and the next day another one. And so she began his practice of writing a short, encouraging note to self, some kind of affirmation or encouragement every day.
And the question that she found herself asking, over and over, one we all know quite well is, “Well, now what?” And the answer always seemed to end for her with the words, very simple: “Keep moving.”
This little book, “Keep Moving”—I think of it as a book of consolation. It’s not any lofty self-help stuff. It’s more like having an encouraging friend who’s whispering in your ear at the end of the day saying, “You can do this. This too shall pass. You’re resilient enough. Just keep moving, come what may.”
I just find her a voice that I’m very happy to hear as I get ready to go to sleep. It’s reassuring. And it’s one of these sneaky little books that confronts the truth of pain and loss head-on. And yet in the process leaves you feeling hopeful and encouraged, and maybe even changed. That’s a book I’ll be giving a few copies of this year.
Margaret: We have a minute for, you mentioned another one, that’s like that, too.
Katrina: “The Book of Delights,” by Ross Gay. Another poet, a gardener, a Black man; another simple premise: He just decided that he on the occasion of his 42nd birthday would grab a pencil, pad of paper and jot a few notes every day about delight. And what he found was that before long, he developed a kind of delight radar. Of course, the more you look for delight, the more delight you found.
He’s not sugarcoating any of the complexities or the terrors of living in America at this moment as a Black man. He doesn’t shy away from hard subjects. But more than anything else, he uses our awareness of loss as a compelling reason to celebrate the beauty, particularly of the natural world, particularly of his garden, which is his passion.
Katrina: I kind of feel there’s just no better book to prescribe for this moment in time. Again, the precious and the extraordinary that’s so often hidden in plain sight, but that’s right in front of us.
Margaret: Well, Katrina, good list. Thank you so much. And happy upcoming everything. And may you have much comfort and coziness…and I’ll talk to you soon.
Katrina: And I have to say, Margaret, our conversation and our friendship, 10 years now, is a constant source of delight and coziness.
Margaret: Thank you.
Katrina: For me.
Margaret: Ditto. Thank you very much. I’ll talk to you soon again.
Katrina: All right, dear, bye.
enter to win a copy of ‘how to catch a mole’
I’LL BUY A COPY of “How to Catch a Mole” by Mark Hamer for one lucky reader (over on Katrina Kenison’s website, she’s giving away a different book (“Cozy” by Isabel Gillies) so once you post a comment here click over to enter there, too). All you have to do to enter the giveaway is answer this question:
Anything cozy or comforting to read on your beside table (or in your favorite chair–whether piled with stuffed animals or not)?
No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in,” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, December 1, 2020. Good luck to all. And don’t forget: click over to Katrina’s, too, for another chance to win.
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the November 23, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).