In response to Russ Marshalek’s excellent post on devastatingly sad books last week, we’ve decided to try and lift your spirits a little during this rainy week by suggesting books that are great escapes from the incessant grind of daily existence.
Last year, Wayne Gooderham wrote a thoughtful piece in the Guardian about emerging from the fog of depression by reading Saul Bellow’s 1964 epistolary tale of Moses E. Herzog — a brilliant but broken intellectual who is constantly writing letters, many which are never sent. Gooderham writes that Bellow renders “a potentially bleak topic in such a poignant and gently humorous way” in Herzog, which is the mark of a very good book. Since we’ve always been suckers for a love story, many of the selections on our list involve affairs of the heart, although we are also inspired by political nonfiction and comedy when they are done well. As always, we realize that any list made will be contentious, so please feel free to suggest alternatives in the comments section below.
Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins
This post modern fairy tale recounts the love story between Leigh-Cheri, an impassioned environmentalist who is also, ahem, a princess, and an outlaw by the name of Bernard Mickey Wrangle, AKA “the Woodpecker.” This is Tom Robbins’ third novel, and it explores the difficult terrain of modern relationships while also questioning if redheads are indeed supernatural. (The answer is yes.) But the ten-million-dollar question is: “Who knows how to make love stay?” If you read this novel, you’ll be certain to find out, which, we have to admit, is pretty life-affirming.
Vida by Patricia Engel
Sophia Lear writes in the Sunday Book Review, “Although Sabina must navigate around cowards, infidelity and indifference, Engel indelibly renders her ability to defeat disappointment with hope.” This debut collection of stories about Colombian immigrants in New Jersey is definitely worth picking up, if only to witness the pitch perfect delivery of a girl on the cusp of adulthood.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Rob Fleming owns a record shop in London and his girlfriend, Laura, just left him. Eventually they find their way back together as Rob reexamines what went wrong. This is a great book for those fixated on making lists, especially the musically-inclined kind. In the latter part of the novel, Rob names the “Top Five Bands or Musicians Who Will Have To Be Shot Come the Musical Revolution” (i.e., Simple Minds, Michael Bolton, U2, Bryan Adams, and, last but not least, Genesis), which made us want to shout out the lyrics to “MTV Get Off the Air” and gleefully begin smashing the state. Or we could just flip the record and stare down another customer at the store. Either way, this book made us feel a hell of a lot better about our unhealthy obsession with music and our ability to reconnect with lost loves.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon’s panoramic third novel begins in 1938, when Sam Clay meets his exiled cousin, Josef (Joe) Kavalier, and they team up to become an unstoppable duo against the forces of evil in the halcyon days of the comic book era. However, these were also the dark days of World War II, which means that Sammy and Joe know that their Jewish relatives back in Prague are dealing with the rise of Nazi Germany. Despite the serious subject matter, the author’s love for language and for his characters make this an inspiring story for all of us who know the power of escaping into comics.
A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman
A Natural History of the Senses is Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction investigation of the five faculties: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. She roams our interior and exterior worlds in search of sensuous adventures, creating a map of smell in one chapter while examining purple prose from 19th century authors in another. In one passage, she writes, “We need to return to feeling the textures of life.” By this time, we know we can only accomplish this by cultivating our senses.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
The Rooster, his domineering dad, the lisp, and his time in France… all are contained in David Sedaris’s bestselling essay collection. If you come from a screwed up family or from a southern state, reading about the Sedarises dysfunctions will probably make you feel a little bit better about your background. Go State!
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
If you are female and have ever been single, chances are you have enjoyed Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel about an unattached woman in her thirties in modern day London who divides the world into “Singletons” and “Smug Marrieds.” It may begin with an Exceptionally Bad Start, but the novel progresses in such a way that you can’t help but feel better about the human condition.
Radio Free Dixie by Timothy B. Tyson
Former Flavorpiller Alex writes, “It’s not necessarily a ‘feel good’ book but reading this at 19, I never remember feeling more uplifted.” This is the story of Robert F. Williams, the NAACP leader in the 1950s who confronted KKK members with weapons in Jim Crow-era North Carolina, who eventually became one of the founders of the Black Power movement. In the 60s, he was living in exile in Cuba and running a radio show there, which could be heard all the way to LA.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
We included this heavy-handed allegorical novel in our Self-Help Books You Can Read Without Embarrassment post back in early March, but it’s also an incredibly self-affirming story, so we felt obligated to add it to the list. A poor Andalusian shepherd named Santiago travels to distant lands to discover treasure after dreaming of it one night, and encounters love, loss, and an alchemist’s tricks along the way. As the old king says to the shepherd, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
This 1980 nonfiction offering by Howard Zinn, a historian and political scientist, is the story of the US through the eyes of the poor, the downtrodden, and the enslaved. However, it’s a liberating read, because Zinn does not depict the “common people” as helpless; they are the war-resisters, labor leaders, suffragists, escaped slaves, Native American warriors, and rebels who make this country great. Though pummeled by critics for its revisionist history, the book made (and is making) a lot of high school and college students seriously evaluate the official versions of events, which is always a good thing.