When I read the news these days I feel like the world is coming apart at the seams.
Will and I were in Chicago last week when we heard the news of one devastating shooting, and then another. And another. The horrific headlines just kept coming.
We were in Chicago for a conference, and—in a completely unrelated decision, or so I thought—we decided to bail on a session and hit the Art Institute. We used to go all the time, but I hadn’t been in so long I hadn’t even seen the new modern wing—and it’s been open since way back in 2009.
There happened to be a special exhibit going, featuring American artists in the 1930s, the standouts being O’Keefe, Wood, and Hopper. Will and I made a beeline for the special exhibit rooms, talking on the way about the headlines: Do you feel like we’ve all lost our ever-loving minds?
And then we stepped into the first room.
What was happening in the United States in the 1930s? The economy tanked; the soil was barren. People were broke, starving. The Great War was still a recent memory. Feelings of unease were rising along with the burgeoning political unrest in Europe.
The exhibit was titled “After the Fall,” the nation’s fall from grace. We saw depictions of war, and racial lynchings, and sadly deserted city streets that had been bustling with life a decade before. Some artists responded to the news of the day with absurdist art; some starkly portrayed reality as they saw it. Others chose an escapist route, depicting fertile fields painted purely from imagination because it had barely rained in years.
Halfway through the poignant collection, it dawned on me that those rooms were an oddly reassuring place to be when you feel like the world is falling apart. In those works artists wrestled with the most horrible news of the day—of the decade—and seeing their work nearly a century later made me feel like while today’s news is so new, and so horrible, civilization has been dealing with the worst for a long, long time.
Some paintings were calls to action. Some were precise depictions of reality as it stood; others were abstract, aimed for the heart. Some were escapist. Some were hopeful, highlighting the glimmers of good in the worst situations.
This list is in the same spirit, and with the added bonus that it’s easier to visit a library than an art museum. Some of these works are precise depictions of realities as it stands; some are aimed for the heart. Some are calls to action. Some are hopeful, inspiring, redemptive—highlighting the glimmers of good in desperate, devastating situations.
Each title brings something different to the table, but they’re all good choices for your stack when you feel like it’s all coming apart. I can’t wait to hear what you’re reading right now, and what you’d choose to add to this list.
What kind of books do you turn to when you feel like the world is falling apart? What would YOU add to the list?
What to read when you feel like the world is falling apart
If you're new to this novel, brace yourself: Francie Nolan is about to win you over. Her Irish Catholic family is struggling to stay afloat in the Brooklyn slums, in the midst of great change at the turn of the century, while her charismatic but doomed father is literally drinking himself to death. But Francie is young, sensitive, imaginative, and determined to make a life for herself, and Smith gently shows us how Francie is like those Brooklyn trees that somehow manage to grow in the city, even in cement, even with no light or water. A moving story of unlikely beauty and resilience. More info →
These stories of epic quest and good vs. evil are part myth, part fairy tale. These books are wonderful, touching, and timeless. In the words of C.S. Lewis: “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book that will break your heart.” More info →
Stevenson's story-driven account describes his work with the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal organization he founded that is devoted to defending the most desperate in our legal system: those who were convicted as children, the wrongly condemned, the poor, and the mentally ill. This story also follows the story of Walter, a man sentenced to Alabama's death row for a crime he didn't commit. Moving and beautifully written. This is an important, eye-opening book. More info →
Berry writes gorgeous, thoughtful, piercing novels, and this is one of his finest. Hannah's second husband Nathan Coulter (her first died in the war) was reticent to talk about his experience in the Battle of Okinawa. "Ignorant boys, killing each other," is all he would say. In this atmospheric novel, an older Hannah looks back on her life and reflects on what she has lost, and those whom she has loved. Contemplative, wistful, and moving. More info →
In a provocative closing that gives you a hint at the moral complexity of this prize-winning novel, Jordan has one of her characters say, "Sometimes it’s necessary to do wrong. Sometimes it’s the only way to make things right.” It's 1946 Mississippi, and Jordan's city-bred heroine is struggling to make a life for herself on a primitive farm on the Delta that she dubs "Mudbound." Nothing is easy for these characters, who wrestle with issues of family bonds, race, class, and poverty. A bleak, thought-provoking tragedy. More info →
L’Engle begins her groundbreaking science fiction/fantasy work with the famous opening line “It was a dark and stormy night,” and plunges you headlong into the world of the Murray family, who must travel through time to save the universe. I wanted to be Meg, of course. Wrinkle is the first—and most famous—of the Time Quintet, but if you love this there are four more titles to suck you in. More info →
Hannah's newest and best novel is historical fiction, set in occupied France during World War II. She tells the story of two sisters, born many years apart, each of whom is desperate to serve her country and her people, but must find her own unique way to do so. This inspiring, sweeping novel testifies to the resilience of the human spirit and the sturdiness of the female spirit in particular in dire times. More info →
Corrie Ten Boom lived an ordinary, uneventful life as a watchmaker—for the first 50 years. But when the Nazis invaded and occupied her home country of Holland, Corrie and her family became leaders of the Dutch Underground, and built a room in their home to hide Jewish people from the Nazis. Eventually all but Corrie were put to death in the concentration camps for their participation in the resistance. A moving story, inspiring and insightful. More info →
This wonderful work of historical fiction revolves around middle school drama, the New York Yankees, and the Vietnam War. You may enjoy sharing this one with the kid in your life (if they’re 10 or so or older). Fans of E. L. Konigsburg will love this funny and piercingly poignant book. Adults will admire the way Schmidt drives to the emotional heart of every scene without beating his reader over the head. More info →
Unbroken tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete turned World War II bombardier. Hillenbrand has called Zamp’s life “almost incomprehensibly dramatic,” and she masterfully unfurls his story, which begins with his plane failing and crashing into the Pacific during a routine search mission. He's captured as a POW and survives against nearly impossible odds. A wonderful, riveting story of resilience and redemption. More info →
In 1967 Nigeria, the Igbo people of the East seceded to form their own nation of Biafra, inciting a bloody three-year civil war followed. This novel from the author of the wonderful Americanah tells the story of that conflict, known as the Biafran War—an event largely forgotten outside Nigeria—through the eyes of five diverse characters: a university professor, his privileged girlfriend, their servant boy, her twin sister, and her British journalist boyfriend. This is a story that will stay with you long after you turn the last page. More info →
In her haunting, wistful novel, Mandel imagines the end of the world as we know it, and it's nothing like you're expecting: a global pandemic known as the Georgian Flu sweeps the world. A traveling Shakespeare troupe earnestly endeavors to maintain in a ruined world. A comic book is a point of hope for many. I was afraid this post-apocalyptic novel would be depressing (or terrifying) but it's neither. It IS a pageturner: I read it in two days. More info →
This classic needs no introduction. In 1942, in occupied Holland, Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis in a tiny attic for two years. After an informer gave them away to the Gestapo, they were discovered and sent to the concentration camps. This is Anne's diary that she kept during that time. It was discovered in the attic, after her death.
Irving is known for writing big Dickensian novels; this is no exception. Irving pulls in some truly wacky plot elements: circus bears, taxidermy, weightlifting, and a run-down hotel. But at its heart this is the story of a messy, unusual family as they grow up and learn about love and death, success and failure, and (this being a John Irving novel) sex. Irving has a knack for distilling wisdom out of the strangest situations, and this exuberant novel gives him ample opportunity to exercise his talent.
This sweeping novel covers three generations, beginning with World War I, and is on my reading list for its favorable comparisons to Tolstoy, A Farewell to Arms, and The English Patient. Faulks weaves together romance and war story, focusing on a young man who's met the love of his life, and carries the love of this doomed relationship into the trenches of No Man's Land. Lovers of this book (and there are many) appreciate its beautiful and wrenching portrayal of the power of love and the horrors of war.
The Pulitzer-winning husband-and-wife authors tackle a big global problem in this important 2009 book. First they take a close look at the state of women in the developing world today, saying, "More girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century." Their close examination of terrible phenomenons such as sex trafficking, forced prostitution, and genital mutilation will make you want to weep. But Kristof and WuDunn go on to convince readers why smart and well-implemented efforts to empower girls and women (as opposed to men) has an incredible impact, not just on the females themselves, but on their entire communities. The book's powerful conclusion gives you concrete action steps for practical things you can do to make a difference.
Lamott's central metaphor makes this a reassuring book when the world seems to be coming apart at the seams: when we suffer a devastating loss, whether its global and public or deeply personal and private, she examines the ways we can reconstruct a new version of wholeness out of the tattered shreds we've been left with. More info →
Because Cleave tackles heavy-hitting subjects, this is the first of his novels I've had the guts to try. I knew I had to read this when my husband (who beat me to it) couldn't stop sharing Cleave's well-turned sentences aloud. There have been so many WWII novels of late; this tale of four young, warm, wise-cracking friends in wartime England is a standout in the genre. Through their characters, Cleave throws issues of wartime morality, race, and class into sharp relief. This is for you if you love a great story and admire a beautifully-rendered, wry turn of phrase: Cleave's writing brilliantly contrasts humor and the absurdity of war to punch you right in the gut, time and again. More info →
Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert of Prince Edward Island, Canada decide to adopt an orphaned boy to help them on their farm. Their messenger mistakenly delivers a girl to Green Gables instead—an 11-year-old feisty redhead named Anne Shirley. The series follows Anne from her childhood at Green Gables until she is a mother herself. Don't miss the final books of the series when Anne's own sons set sail to fight for Canada in WWI. More info →
Orphaned Harry Potter has no idea how famous he is until he turns 11 and receives his invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which is exactly like any other British boarding school, but for the subject matter. When the series opens Harry and friends are young and innocent, and the reader delights in leaving the muggle world to learn about this strange reality occupied by witches and wizards. But as the series progresses the plots escalate, drawing us into an overarching battle of good versus evil. In the words of Sirius Black in book 5, "there are things worth dying for," which is Rowling's warning to her readers of just how much is at stake in the series' final installments. More info →
This is Steinbeck's epic tale of the Great Depression and the great Dust Bowl Migration of the 1930s, told through the eyes of one downtrodden Oklahoma farm family. This Pulitzer winner is sweeping and evocative, packed with unforgettable images, bursting with meaning. Powerful and tragic, with an absolutely haunting ending that holds forth the tiniest glimmer of hope.
This 1936 epic novel and Pulitzer winner is enjoying a resurgence, and for good reason. More than a Civil War novel, this is a tale of the breadth and depth of human emotions, set against the backdrop of the Old South from the dawn of the war through Reconstruction, and is told through the eyes of Scarlett O'Hara, a beautiful, vivacious Southern Belle pressed into the unforeseen challenges of war who personifies the resilience of the human spirit. Scarlett is but one of a cast of many unforgettable characters that has been bringing readers back to this book for 75 years. Important: the pervasive racism in this book has lead some contemporary readers to deem it too painful a reading experience to be worth it. More info →
"What does it mean to remember? It is to live in more than one world, to prevent the past from fading and to call upon the future to illuminate it." In this moving memoir, Wiesel recalls his experience as a young boy with his father in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps in 1944-45, during the Holocaust at the height of World War II. It's amazing how much Wiesel packs into 100 pages. "Never shall I forget ... " More info →
In this 1960 classic, small-town attorney Atticus Finch attempts a hopeless defense of a black man unjustly accused of rape, and to teach his children, Scout and Jem, about the evils of racism. It's been a staple on high school reading lists for years (and I talked about my significant high school experience with Mockingbird here), but it enjoyed a fresh burst of publicity when its companion Go Set a Watchman was recently published. (I'd love to be in the course that reads both, together.) More info →