A lot of big readers talk about how, when they were kids, they read whatever they could get their hands on. They didn’t discriminate; they’d take any form of the written word they could. The same cannot be said for me then, nor can it be said now. As a child, I gravitated towards two genres primarily: historical fiction and fantasy centered around girls and women who, whether or not they could be characterized as “strong,” nevertheless were survivors.
It was helpful, as a child trying to move on from major trauma, to see how other girls lived through things far worse. These books gave me the faintest hint of confidence that I would survive what I had been through, and that if I had to, I could do it again. For an eight year old who couldn’t even tell her own therapist what she’d experienced, let alone how she felt, it was cathartic to read about characters who could talk about they’d endured, at least in the form of the novel itself (perhaps this is why I love the first person so much more than the third. Huh!)
The trauma we are collectively experiencing will likely not be the last, for any of us. Books will not be the “answer.” But as other people’s stories can portray the deepest and most painful depths of the human experience, they can also demonstrate how those depths are one stretch among many in our lives.
Two novels I’ve read recently beautifully exemplify how people and communities move on from harrowing experiences.
“For fifteen years I’d been waiting for a catastrophe greater than my birth. The quake gave it to me.”
In Carol Edgarian’s Vera, the 15-year-old illegitimate daughter of San Francisco’s most powerful madam survives one of the greatest tragedies the West Coast has ever known: the 1906 earthquake. Vera is a coming-of-age story, in which the tragedies that afflict one’s early years go on to sketch the outlines of who we will become; it’s up to us to fill in the space left between, with whatever colors we see fit. But it’s also a portrait of a city that survived being nearly demolished, first by earthquake, then by fire, then by people with no business wielding power in a city they didn’t appreciate or understand or love. San Francisco pre-quake was wild and beautiful and strange. Its new form would be in some ways worse, and in many ways better. Most importantly, it survived.
She had, for a moment, been Daniel with his pumped-up power and sense of destiny. But these entitlements seemed forced, as if not quite believed. And rumbling beneath them, she’d felt insecurity and shame and a nagging loneliness. Some great sadness too, as if his heart had been broken. Yet she struggled to believe this could be true for Daniel, to believe that a boy like that — the whole world ripe for his picking — could have suffered too.
JoAnne Tompkins’ What Comes After depicts a tragedy on a smaller, but no less painful, scale. Isaac Balch’s teenage son is murdered by his long-time friend and neighbor who then goes on to kill himself. What’s left? Two broken families, a baffled community, and a pregnant teenage girl who unwittingly holds the key that could heal the families left behind.
Tompkins’ ability to compassionately depict the thought processes of people in the throes of the worst thing they’ll ever do is astonishing. I’m filled with petty, lasting grudges because someone looked at me funny years ago, yet Tompkins is capable of soliciting genuine empathy for people who have done terrible, terrible things without excusing their behavior. It’s a skill few writers possess (or are uninterested in cultivating), and I found it inspiring — could I ever hold in my heart so much understanding for the people who’ve hurt me? Could I forgive someone for abusing his family, for killing his friend, for employing cruel words against someone already in deep pain? I don’t know for sure. Tompkins paints a portrait of possibility, though. It’s a book that I imagine I’ll return to over the course of my life, whenever I need hope that I, too, can find forgiveness somewhere in the darkest corners of my heart. (Side note: this is a great book for animal lovers.)
I talked to authors, readers, and critics about the books that gave them hope, however they interpreted the word.
The responses are wide-ranging, from hope that springs in the aftermath of apocalypse, to hope that arises from awe at the fact that someone could create such brilliant art.
While there’s room for cynicism, anger, resentment, I also think it’s important that we allow ourselves to find space for light. I hope you’ll find the below answers as inspiring as I did — and your TBR list that much longer.
Morgan Jerkins, author of the memoir This Will Be My Undoing and the forthcoming novel Caul Baby, on Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous:
“I find this book hopeful because aside from the prose being lush and wondrous, Ocean speaks of his relationship with his mother against the backdrop of migration and war trauma with so much sensitivity that it inspires me.”
Buy On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous here. Read aggregated critical reviews here.
Preorder Caul Baby here.
Elena Nicolaou, culture editor at O The Oprah Magazine, on N.K. Jemisin’s three-time Hugo Award winning fantasy series The Broken Earth trilogy:
“Even though it was about unending apocalypse, it was also about humanity persisting. It took a really long view to the Planet Earth, and it reminded me that Covid-19 would not be our last disaster. We will persist to new apocalypses…The idea that we’ll keep going beyond me and my generation, because sometimes I despair that humanity will be gone by 2100.”
Buy The Broken Earth trilogy on Bookshop. Read aggregated critical reviews of The Fifth Season, The Stone Sky, and The Obelisk Gate.
Hannah Orenstein, author of Playing with Matches and Head Over Heels, on Molly Jong-Fast’s Normal Girl and Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan’s The Royal We:
“I was 21 when I first seriously considered making an attempt at writing a novel. Around that same time, I read Molly Jong-Fast’s Normal Girl, which she had written when she was around the age I was then, and The Royal We, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, which was exactly the kind of book I was hoping to write. Together, those two books gave me so much hope that I really could (and maybe should) go after my goal. Those two books completely changed my life… That attempt at a first novel became my debut, Playing With Matches.”
Buy Normal Girl on Bookshop.
Buy The Royal We on Bookshop.
Buy Head Over Heels on Bookshop.
Buy Playing With Matches on Bookshop.
Runa Sandvik, security expert and reader, on the memoir Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger by Lisa Donovan, which she found beautifully written:
“There’s something about the combination of struggles and grit and resilience and passion and joy that she describes in her path from single mom, abusive relationship to where she is today.”
Buy Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger on Bookshop. Read aggregated critical reviews here.
Rachel Charlene Lewis, senior editor at Bitch magazine, on Morgan Parker’s poetry collection Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night:
“If there’s one book that brings me comfort, it’s Morgan Parker’s debut poetry collection, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night. Maybe it’s ironic that a book about other people’s comfort gives me comfort, but I’ve found myself clinging to that book during the worst moments in my life. Its images and sounds really honor, in this careful but honest way, what it feels like to feel so deeply lonely and hurt. It makes me feel like I can face my own hurt and survive it.”
Preorder the reprint of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night on Bookshop.
Rufi Thorpe, author of The Knockout Queen, on Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s collection of short stories Friday Black, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for Best First Book:
“It’s not really a portrait of hope; what makes me feel hopeful is just that such a writer exists who can write such stories. In a weird way, ‘Bad Lawyer’ makes me feel hopeful because just like with phone footage of cops, I feel like truth telling about the legal system is the only way we are going to see reform.”
Buy Friday Black on Bookshop. Read aggregated critical reviews here.
Buy The Knockout Queen on Bookshop.
Michael Zapata, author of The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, on Eduardo Galeano’s The Memory of Fire trilogy:
“Again and again, in the face of our collapsing empire, I’ve turned to The Memory of Fire trilogy by Eduardo Galeano, which, in his words, rescues ‘the kidnapped memory of all America.’ Even further, the trilogy not only rescues memory, but also the realities of all those history attempted to obliterate. It offers a fierce artistic vision of how solidarity, curiosity, and hope can form the foundation for a better, possible world. By reading it, I became a different type of reader, a different type of writer.”
Buy Genesis: Memory of Fire, Volume 1 on Bookshop. Buy Faces and Masks: Memory of Fire, Volume 2 here. Buy Century of the Wind: Memory of Fire, Volume 3 here.
Buy The Lost Book of Adana Moreau on Bookshop.
Emily Gray Tedrowe, author of The Talented Miss Farwell, on Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life:
“The hook of this novel is the main character’s repeated death and rebirth, but the truth is that the scenes of Ursula’s harrowing experiences in the London Blitz — over and over — are to me the central action. In those moments, she finds companions to shelter with, strangers to mourn with, and neighbors to take care of. Atkinson brought home the reality of war through this novel, and gave me a sense of hope that even amid terror there can be strength and meaning.”
Buy Life After Life on Bookshop. Read aggregated critical reviews here.
Buy The Talented Miss Farwell on Bookshop.
Andromeda Romano-Lax, author of Annie and the Wolves, on Roberto Lovato’s memoir Unforgetting, and the anonymous memoir Becoming Duchess Goldblatt:
“I’m finding hope in two very different kinds of books. One, Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas by Roberto Lovato (2020), a mix of reportage and memoir by the son of Salvadoran immigrants, about gangs, migration, memory and more. It gives me hope because we’ve had too many books about Central America and Mexico, written by people who don’t really know the place or the issues — whether it’s Joan Didion writing a 1970s book about El Salvador after visiting for only two weeks, or a novelist writing a bestseller about Mexico without having lived there. I’m glad we are finally hearing from more voices and getting access to stories steeped in experience and knowledge.
I equally found hope recently in Becoming Duchess Goldblatt by Anonymous, an uncategorizable memoir about a reclusive writer who invented a Twitter persona and developed a following for her posts that are so suffused by everyday kindness and gentle humor that they have becoming a daily tonic for many. It’s a feel-good book for our age.”
Buy Unforgetting on Bookshop. Read aggregated critical reviews here.
Buy Becoming Duchess Goldblatt on Bookshop. Read aggregated critical reviews here.
Buy Annie and the Wolves on Bookshop.
Micah Nemerever, author of These Violent Delights, on Cristina Peri Rossi’s poetry collection State of Exile:
“Cristina Peri Rossi’s State of Exile is furious and unsparing, which is exactly why its flashes of grace hit so hard and echo for so long.”
Buy State of Exile on Bookshop.
Buy These Violent Delights on Bookshop.
Maris Kreizman, book critic and host of the book podcast The Maris Review, on Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks:
“How’s this for a novel premise? It’s the 1980s and the members of a high school field hockey team practice witchcraft to improve their game. We Ride Upon Sticks takes all of the delights of your favorite 80s or 90s movie, but replaces clunky tropes and stereotypes with diverse, fully-realized characters who are funny as hell and who come to life on the page. It gives me hope that we can reclaim and retell familiar stories from a more modern perspective, and still have lots of fun in the process.”
Buy We Ride Upon Sticks on Bookshop. Read aggregated critical reviews here.
Listen to The Maris Review here.
Alix E. Harrow, author of The Once and Future Witches, on Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Farthest Shore:
“In a whole life spent reading hopeful and uplifting books, after thousands of happily ever afters, this is the line I think of when I need hope: ‘There is no safety. There is no end. The word must be heard in silence. There must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.’ It’s from LeGuin’s The Farthest Shore, and I love it because it gets at what hope itself is — something that only meaningfully exists in the face of adversity. An act of defiance, against a dark that never ends.”
Buy The Farthest Shore on Bookshop.
Buy The Once and Future Witches on Bookshop.