As I remarked in my last Good Reads review-- (hi! let's be friends there!)-- recently I stumbled onto a panacea for all 2020 ills: books about way, way worse times in history. Like Wesley in The Princess Bride, I have discovered that I can take my brain away from 2020. And that the best way to do this isn't just by reading; it's by reading books set in times and places way, way, way, way, wayyyy worse than our current reality. At first, I tried the opposite: reading a lot of happy fluff. But happy fluff made me feel worse about my cottonwool misery.
Or maybe it's more that happy fluff made me homesick for "normal": for a world of weddings and school runs and carnivals and coffee dates.And then came Wolf Hall set during a time of plague in late medieval London in a world dominated by a tyrant more out-of-control than our orange Cheetoh-brain but with fewer to no checks or balances to his power... um, yes please! I felt myself looking forward to all that muddy misery. Who'd have thunk a book about the plague would cheer me up more than a light romance romp, but 2020 here we are. Yes, 2020 is awful, but we have the coronavirus and Donald Trump. They had a bewildering plague that killed people in less than half a day and a king with a libido so out-of-control he literally changed their country's religion AND THEN BURNED ALIVE ANYONE WHO SLIGHTLY DISAGREED WTH HIM. I don't know about you, but I'll take 2020 any day.
Here's a list of ten misery reads that I think might actually uplift you. Or at least remind you, to paraphrase Michelle Obama, that things could be so much worse.
1. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
One of the other reasons to finally crack this dense but page-turning (or it becomes page-turning once you get immersed around page 200) novel that brings medieval England to crackling life (pun intended-- there's one very grotesque and tough-to-read description of a woman condemned to the stake) is that Mantel recently completed the third book in the trilogy, two of which have won the Booker Prize. I'm still scarred from having to wait years and years to read each Harry Potter installment, so I love a complete set trilogy. As for whether the last installment will also complete Mantel's Booker streak, well, The Mirror and The Light has at least been long-listed!
The other reason I finally cracked this book that's been on my TBR list for nearly a decade is one I also mentioned above in the intro: Wolf Hall is a weirdly uplifting tale for 2020. Again, to paraphrase Michelle Obama, things could be much, much more terribler. (Glibness aside: please vote! Are you registered? You can still register here until October 19. )
2. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
I actually read this book while I was backpacking around the world in my gap year before college, and I remember nothing about it other than how hot the day I was reading it was and that I imagined I had cholera and that I loved it-- not the idea of having cholera but the book. One of my friends read it recently for his book club and they all loved it, so it made me think of that experience for this list. It's a brilliant book, and I think having cholera before modern medicine created a vaccine would also be worse than coronavirus-- a startling 5-50% mortality rate. (Sadly, the cholera vaccine continues to have limited availability.) I didn't want to spoil this reread for myself-- that's how little remember it-- but I accidentally began to read the book's description which mentions a forbidden love story and love letters exchanged, and it sounds just as delicious now as it did to my 18-year-old self. And also miserable. Check and check.
3. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I have mixed feelings about this book. I'm grateful that it got me to finally watch Harriet, which was a brilliant movie but might also have led to my disappointment with how Harriet herself is depicted in this book and the way magical realism is employed to less effect than the more mystical way it's used in the film. That said, I love Ta-Nehisi Coates' essays and non-fiction. I think he's one of the best writers working now in America, so my expectations were very high. I don't think he's found his novelistic voice yet, but I did love many things about this book, and I'll continue to read anything he's written. That's how much I love his other work. So I'd recommend this historical novel with the caveat that it's a little slow in parts and that the use of magical realism is not quite effective. I think it's still a worthwhile read as it gives historical scope to the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement now in 2020, and there are some gorgeous passages that have stuck with me.
4. The Princess of Montpensier by Madame de Lafayette
Speaking of movies, The Princess of Montpensier is streaming on Amazon, and it's a gorgeous but very violent watch, set in the time of the Catholic and Huguenot wars in France. Women were little more than property with few rights of their own. Religious wars, plague, zero social safety net, women as property with their virginity used as bargaining chips... what could be worse than that? Not even 2020, that's for sure.
I also read de Lafayette's more widely known novel, The Princess of Cleves in a college lit class, and I remember, to my surprise, that very old as the novel was, it was also a stunningly witty and fast-paced and modern read. If you haven't read de Lafayette, considered the mother of the modern novel, you might want to check Cleves out first. It's considered France's first historical novel and an early prototype of the psychological novel, although not strictly miserable except in terms of a bad love affair. It was also a runaway bestseller in its time. I'm excited to delve into this other work and time period now in 2020. Things were certainly worse in 1572.
5. The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
This one is on my TBR list! And since I haven't read it yet, I'm going to borrow from the Amazon description:
The years-long New York Times bestseller and major motion picture from Spielberg’s Dreamworks is “irresistible…seductive…with a high concept plot that keeps you riveted from the first page” (O, The Oprah Magazine).
After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby.
Tom, who keeps meticulous records and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel insists the baby is a “gift from God,” and against Tom’s judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them.
Sounds like an intriguing mess, no?
6. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
I read The Nightingale a while ago, and I remember that it had a couple issues. The writing felt a little perfunctory, a little like a straight-to-screenplay novel, but that also made it weirdly light reading for such heavy subject matter. The sisters whose survival story we follow are lovable and their struggles are poignantly described. It bothered me that the main character, whose name I share, was given an Americanized nickname. French people are very anti-nickname. None of my French family call me anything but Isabelle, but that's a quibble. If you want a light read about a miserable time-- i.e. France during WW2-- this one will appeal!
7. The Watchmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton
I tried to listen to this book on audible last fall, but the language was so rich and fun that I had to read it. The first few reviews on Amazon are also negative for that reason I think-- people felt lost. There are a lot of characters and time periods in this one. Definitely read it vs listening to it, and I think that will help you keep track. It more or less follows the path of a house with many occupants over the years-- and what years they were. England really went through it in the 20th century. Their misery might give yours some perspective or at least take you away from 2020 into a faraway, forgotten corner of another century and place.
8. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
I think the greatest prank I ever pulled off was giving this pregnancy horror tale to my husband first. I prefer to go in knowing nothing about a book-- a simple recommendation from a trustworthy source is usually all I want. Well, in this case, I love the author's previous book Room, which I also rec below, and I knew this tale was set in Dublin during the Spanish Flu, which was all I needed to know. My husband is Irish and fascinated by stories of societal responses to widespread illnesses, so I thought the tale might doubly appeal to him.
Well, little did I realize, Emma Donoghue's wheelhouse is female pain in confined spaces. Pretty much the entire book is set in a crowded, tiny fever maternity ward, back when doctors had little more in their arsenal than to prescribe cocaine and whiskey (to pregnant women!!) AND heroin for pain. It's a page-turner and a misery tale for sure, but readers with weak stomachs or currently pregnant readers will wish to avoid this one. I, on the other hand, will forever relish Ryan's groans of disbelief and his exclamations of outrage that I'd given him such a book to read. I swear I didn't know, my love! Still, despite the gory depictions of childbirth in a world of pre-modern medicine, he couldn't put it down. I also learned that scientists couldn't "see" the flu until the invention of the electron microscope in the 1930s. I will take 2020 and the coronavirus over a baffling, mysterious disease any day.
9. Severance by Ling Ma
This one is also on my 2020 TBR list, but as I mentioned above I prefer to go into a good tale clueless. So I'll leave you with these two brief blurbs and a stunning list of awards.
"A stunning, audacious book with a fresh take on both office politics and what the apocalypse might bring." ―Michael Schaub, NPR.org
“A satirical spin on the end times-- kind of like The Office meets The Leftovers.” --Estelle Tang, Elle
NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY: NPR * The New Yorker ("Books We Loved") * Elle * Marie Claire * Amazon Editors * The Paris Review (Staff Favorites) * Refinery29 * Bustle * Buzzfeed * BookPage * Bookish * Mental Floss * Chicago Review of Books * HuffPost * Electric Literature * A.V. Club * Jezebel * Vulture * Literary Hub * Flavorwire
Winner of the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award * Winner of the Kirkus Prize for Fiction * Winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award * Finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel * A New York Times Notable Book of 2018 * An Indie Next Selection
10. Room by Emma Donoghue
Again, as I mentioned above, Donoghue is the queen of claustrophobia. 2020 might be the most claustrophobic year on record with some good results like slightly less carbon pollution and the fact that we are lucky to be safe at home with Netflix, Amazon Prime, and endless good reads, but if anyone is struggling to stay cheerful, I think that's normal, too. However, none of us is actually imprisoned in a room with a small child like the heroine of this story. Room is even more un-putdownable than her latest novel and very a propos for 2020.
Have you read any of these stories? What would you add to this list? Have you read or watched something recently that you found oddly cheering? Let me know in the comments below!
Izzy (to my American friends)