Good Novels for Hard Times

Empire FallsI found this list in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Good Novels for Hard Times.” Most of the books listed deal with some sort of struggle, be it economic, environmental, political, or personal, and that got me thinking: what makes these types of books the best books for hard times? Is it the “misery loves company” factor? Is it hoping the main character will triumph over adversity? Is it feeling one must face reality, no matter how bleak? To be fair, not all of them are completely bleak: Empire Falls is on that list, and Richard Russo’s writing always makes me feel better, and there’s Moo, which is good for a laugh or two, but many of them are.

American PastoralRecently I find myself more interested in mysteries, I’ve noticed. As a person who tends to read a lot of “realistic” literary fiction, I’m finding that I want something to make my brain work through problems that aren’t real–or at least real in the sense that I deal with them in every day life. I’m also more interested in books that include some element of fantasy, or history. One of the books in the article’s list is American Pastoral, and while it’s an amazingly well-written book, it is also one of the most bleak I’ve ever read. Right now the news is bleak enough; I’m not sure that’s what I need from fiction. Not that I’m looking for anything frothy, either. I just don’t want to read books right now that, say, make me want to throw myself on something sharp.

Birds of AmericaOf course, I also have my go-to, “had a bad day” books: Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore; Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, by Alice Munro; Straight Man, by Richard Russo, among others. These are the books I can pick up any time and feel instantly comforted, not because they’re whimsical and light-hearted per se, but because–and this could sound hokey–I feel better knowing books like this exist, or because they connect with my humor or life or view of the world somehow. 

How about you: do you have books you turn to during hard times, or when you’ve had a bad day? 

*images from powells.com

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11 comments

  1. I do have certain reading preferences when I’m down. I tend to go for fantasy rather than reality. Mostly YA fantasy. Something like Harry Potter or Eragon or The Spiderwick Chronicles heheh. I want something completely irrelevant to my life, that won’t remind me of my present state, something to really take me away. Escapism, for sure.

  2. What a great post! I’m so glad you love that Alice Munro collection, because I actually have it in my TBR pile!

    When it comes to books during hard times, I also head for the comfort reads. Mine generally consist of: Jane Austen novels, the Harry Potter series, and the Jasper Fforde Thursday next books. I like to escape the ‘distractions’ of every day life with those books and just inhabit a completely different universe where all of my troubles are far away.

  3. You wrote, “I just don’t want to read books right now that, say, make me want to throw myself on something sharp.”
    **Had to LOL at that, Priscilla. Just watched “Amazing Race” and the contestants were in Transylvania, impaling clues on wooden stakes and dragging coffins down the mountain. Because I write fiction, I find comfort in writing books such as “The Writer’s Journey.” The market’s disastrous but books such as these help restore my love for writing. –Janet http://www.janetlane.net

  4. I saw that list as well and I wondered the same. I’m not sure if hard times necessarily ask for bleak books. When I’m feeling down, I like to turn to old favourites – to books I know so well they feel like old friends. Either that or to series. There’s something very comforting about a good series.

  5. This is a decent list of books. I second Empire Falls, which has been a good read. I haven’t read American Pastoral, but have enjoyed The Human Stain and Everyman.

    As to the tough time, a friend of mine has been reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which he abruptly stops one day, saying the writing on unemployment just made him even more upset, since he has just lost his job.

  6. Claire, I can see that. Sometimes we just need something that doesn’t resemble anything like real problems.

    Steph, I love that Munro collection. Mind you, it isn’t exactly upbeat, but the title story in that collection and two other stories, “Post and Beam” and “The Bear Came over The Mountain,” are some of my favorite stories of all time. I remember being pretty down when I read Into The Woods by Tana French, but I got swept up in the mystery and forgot everything. Not a happy book, but engrossing.

    Redplume/Janet, ha! That’s pretty funny. I understand the books about writing, and I agree. I haven’t read The Writer’s Journey, so I’ll have to check that one out. It helps to think about writing tasks and all the possibilities, because at the very least, you can control your creation and have some fun, I think.

    Nymeth, I can see that about a series especially. I can see it being like catching up with a friend, thinking, “Well, guess I’ll see what so-and-so is up to!” A nice distraction.

    Gavin, you are too, too kind! Thank you so very much! 😀

    Matt, I read The Human Stain in two days. I absolutely could not put it down. American Pastoral–I had to force myself to read it, it was so depressing. Wonderfully written, but oh man. I may re-read when I’m in better spirits. Hm, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle–a book everyone should read, but there are several reasons to stop reading it–not just unemployment! I could make a definite list of authors to stay away from in bleak times, and he’d be on it for sure.

  7. Priscilla, with the economy in turmoil and friends getting furloughed or losing jobs, the last thing I want to read is a story about a depressed New England town (though I really liked reading Empire Falls when the economy was booming). A favorite these days is Disquiet, Please!, a collection of humor from The New Yorker. that helps balance the mood.
    p.s. Welcome to Book Blogs

  8. I tend to turn to childhood favourites like Anne of Green Gables or various similar books when I’ve had a hard day. The familiarity and the associations with a more carefree time of life seem soothing to me.

  9. Hi Melanie! Funny you would say that, because I’ve recently thought of re-reading all the Little House books for the exact same reason.

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