The wonders of hygge and a good book, too

I just got back from Thanksgiving in Copenhagen where, while you were eating turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, I was eating meatballs. 

I went with my two sons to visit my daughter, who is doing a semester abroad there, and right now I wish I were doing a semester abroad there, too. It is an amazing place. I want to go back. We hardly ever got in a car or taxi; we biked everywhere. And in the morning, on the lake right by our hotel, there were swans. Swans. And though it was cold and overcast most days, it didn’t matter, because of this thing called “hygge,” which (pronounced “HOO-gah”)basically means (my daughter told me) cozy. Imagine a fire in the hearth, a cup of tea or hot chocolate or glogg (hot spiced wine), and a blanket (maybe made of fur) to throw over your legs and shoulders should you feel a draft, along with a warm snoozing dog if you happen to have one. That’s hygge. Cozy. Comfortable. Hygge. 

And who cares what’s going on outside. Let it snow, let it rain, let it hail, or blizzard. Bring it on. If it’s hygge inside, it doesn’t matter what’s out.

In the midst of reading Kingdom of the Blind, I realized as I sank deeper and deeper into the world author Louise Penny has created, that this book is—that all Louise Penny’s books are—hygge. Penny is Canadian, and her novels (mysteries) largely take place in a small village called Three Pines, situated somewhere between the city of Montreal and the Vermont border. Her books are page-turners, and this one has another great plot: a mysterious will with surprising executors, a broken-down farmhouse, a penniless baroness, blinding blizzards, a dead body…along with a parallel story line involving police-force political shenanigans and a disappearing shipment of deadly opioids about to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting city of Montreal. 

Lots going on, for sure—certainly enough to recommend this book—but one of the things that makes Penny so compelling, generally, I realized this time through, just the other day, is the hygge. Coq au vin and whipped potatoes with apple cobbler and caramel ice cream for dessert, served up to close friends while a fire burns in the hearth and a blizzard rages just outside the rattling, frost-rimmed windowpanes. Ham sandwiches on croissants while sitting in a comfy old armchair in a used bookshop. See what I mean? Hygge. Here’s a short excerpt:

“‘I was wondering why you two braved the cold to come here,’ said Reine-Marie, following her nose, and the aroma, to the table and the empty plates smeared with maple syrup. Armand shrugged in an exaggerated Gallic manner. ‘Some things are worth risking life and limb.’ Olivier came out of the kitchen with a plate of warm blueberry crepes, sausages, and maple syrup, and a café au lait. ‘We have some left for you,’ said Gabri.”

Meanwhile the power is out, due to a raging, freezing, blinding blizzard, and there are no lights to see by, but a generator has been hooked up in the local bistro to the espresso machine, the oven and fridge. Who needs lights? Priorities. Hygge

Two years ago, not long after the 2016 election, I went with my daughter, her friend and the friend’s mother to Montreal to hear Hillary Clinton talk about her new book, What Happened. The opening act was Louise Penny! Apparently she and Hillary are good friends. Sounds like they have some nice, hygge times together. If you haven’t yet read any Louise Penny, I highly recommend you get to it. Start with the first: Still Life. I think you will see what I mean about the hygge. 

Why is it that murder mysteries are so often hygge? Why is murder cozy? Who knows, but there is something decidedly hygge about Louise Penny, and Agatha Christie, and P.D. James, and certain other mystery writers as well. But Louise Penny, she’s the hygge-est. 

Interestingly, Penny explains in an epilogue that the main character of her series, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, is based on her husband, Michael, who recently passed away. Penny says that she thought that she would be unable to write another Gamache mystery, as her husband’s death had caused her so much pain and sadness. But somehow, one day, this book, Kingdom of the Blind, began itself—and voila…Gamache lives on. I love this. It makes me appreciate this mystery novel, and Louise Penny, even more. “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Grab your cocoa, your pooch, a blanket, and enjoy. 

 And while we are on the subject of mysteries, I have done it: I have read Y is for Yesterday, finally completing the 25-volume series by Sue Grafton—something I have been loathe to do, because these books are so darned good, and there will never be a Z, never be another Kinsey Millhone mystery. It is over. And I am bereft. But Sue Grafton is in (hopefully hygge) heaven, communing with Agatha and P.D. and Michael Penny, who inspired an unforgettable chief inspector, as loving, loyal and sentimental as he is shrewd, dogged and clever. 

This Y book is one of Grafton’s best. It seems her style, her gift has deepened over time and many thousands of sentences, dialogues, scenes, plot twists and descriptions. Grafton is known as a writer who consistently broke the bonds of her genre. And I am not the only one who thinks she’s great. She was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and has won all kinds of awards. She died last year around this time. I will light a candle for her. Her books have changed my life. 

Another highly worthwhile book, not a mystery, is Florida, by Lauren Groff. This is a collection of stories, and it blew me away. Groff is the author of Fates and Furies (one of Obama’s favorite books, I heard, back in the day). I really liked Fates and Furies, and this one is quite different; more poetic, more stunning. The first story, “Ghosts and Empties,” begins: “I have somehow become a woman who yells, and because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell.” 

And it goes on from there. I may read this book again it is so good. Hurricanes, concussions, alligators, floods, feral cats, bird-of-paradise flowers, dust, slime, mold, Nutella, a dead Quaker, lizards “frilling their long necks, doing push-ups on the sidewalk”…sinkholes, climate change…“an Eden of dangerous things”…“a damp, dense tangle”…“snakes gazing at your mousy ankle and wondering what it would feel like to sink their fangs in deep”…boys chunking rocks into boiling waves…This book is vivid, violent (sometimes), and elegiac, windblown, storm-tossed and poetic. Somewhat reminiscent of the great Joy Williams (who I see also wrote, besides novels, a guidebook on the Florida Keys), this really is an excellent book. One of a kind.

Well…so much for hygge. It is late and my fire has gone out and my dogs have given up on me and sought out other corners in which to sleep the night through. It’s time I do the same. Stay cozy. Get to Copenhagen if you ever have the chance. And be well. And don’t get too crazy about Christmas. Breathe. Till next time…