What book should we read that is not depressing?
August 20, 2009 9:51 AM   Subscribe

What book should we read that is not sappy but is also life-affirming and uplifting?

It's my turn to choose the next book for our book club. I can't handle another book that depresses me, but I don't a piece of fluff. I want something sustaining, life-affirming, and mind-opening. What should we read?
posted by ihavepromisestokeep to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I loved Gilead. Somber in parts, but by no means depressing.
posted by Ladybug Parade at 9:54 AM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, our book group was blown away by The Mutiny on the Bounty — but you have to read the entire trilogy to get the full effect. (It's not difficult.) It's by turns depressing and life-affirming, and it's certainly mind-blowing.

I think many "man against nature" books will fit your description, where both "man" and "nature" are broadly defined. These sorts of stories are very inspiring.

Also, I tend to think that stories of overcoming poverty and hardship can be life-affirming and mind-opening. Angela's Ashes is probably the best known of these, but there are many others. Try A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Little Heathens, My Antonia, etc.
posted by jdroth at 9:56 AM on August 20, 2009

Seconding Gilead! I read it in a book group, and it is fabulous for that.
posted by jgirl at 9:56 AM on August 20, 2009

Not sure if your book club does non-fiction or not, but I quite enjoyed Walking With the Wind by John Lewis. It's a phenomenal story, and I don't even like (auto)biographies!
posted by specialagentwebb at 9:56 AM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Life of Pi
posted by slimepuppy at 9:57 AM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't know your feelings about God - but I thoroughly enjoyed The Shack. If anything, it was a good story and made me think, even if I didn't agree with all of the theology of it.
posted by Sassyfras at 9:59 AM on August 20, 2009

His Dark Materials. I was consistantly ecstatic while reading this.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 10:00 AM on August 20, 2009

Thirding Gilead. So beautiful and spare. About family and history and Kansas and slavery and religion. I'm going to read it again, slowly. Could be read out loud.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:00 AM on August 20, 2009

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

This book is a blast. Not without pathos, but generally it's about making the most of life (even though it backfires occasionally.)

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Uproariously funny, and about, among other things, learning to look outside yourself.

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

A short novel about the little things. All of them.
posted by Darth Fedor at 10:12 AM on August 20, 2009

Sappy or not, Randy Pausch's "Last Lecture" is anything but fluffly.

"Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage": by Alfred Lansing is one of the better books about the last major expedition during the era of polar exploration.

"Harnessing Anger" by Peter Westbrook is one of my favorites. It's not just about not rising to the top (6 Olympics, 10+ national championships) but the struggle to integrate what made him a great fencer with his personal life.
posted by now i'm piste at 10:14 AM on August 20, 2009

Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, small book, gigantic ideas
posted by lois1950 at 10:19 AM on August 20, 2009

Life of Pi is life-affirming, but it's also pretty depressing in parts, so I don't know if that's quite what you're looking for.

I thought One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera were beautiful and mind-blowing, but they're also fairly dense and occasionally somber. The Oprah endorsements have always confused me, since he's not really the most accessible writer.

If you want something lighter in tone, but by no means fluff, I quite enjoyed White Teeth. It was rather manic and occasionally zany, but there was a lot of substance there too--humanity bursting out of the seams, kind of book, but not sappy.

If you haven't read anything by Haruki Murakami yet, please do. He's not especially uplifting, but I consistently find his work to be deeply moving and beautiful.
posted by Diagonalize at 10:22 AM on August 20, 2009

Seconding A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
posted by mynameisluka at 10:57 AM on August 20, 2009

This is Water. Autobiography of a Yogi. A Very Easy Death. Everything is Illiuminated. Seconding Confederacy of Dunces.

Many more.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:05 AM on August 20, 2009

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (no, it's not science fiction).

It's an easy read but very far from fluff and I suspect it can reawaken a certain amount of childlike wonder in even the most somber and cynical reader.
posted by 256 at 11:17 AM on August 20, 2009

Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. It's the most inspiring story I've ever read.
posted by aabbbiee at 11:21 AM on August 20, 2009

Zorba the Greek is pretty inspiring. Also, you may or may not call A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius sappy, but the parts that are silly sorta cancel that sentiment out.
posted by spamguy at 11:34 AM on August 20, 2009

"A Prayer For Owen Meany" by John Irving. It's just amazing.
If I had to pick a second one, I'd go with the previously mentioned "A Confederacy of Dunes" by John Kennedy Toole. I have never laughed so much aloud while reading a book.
posted by willmize at 11:37 AM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

It may not seem to be what you're after but try The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. It's an intriguing and entertaining look at how – much sooner than you think – technology could get us out of most every mess we have. (eg, if we can clone food no one need go hungry.) I found it a profoundly hopeful book.
posted by lpsguy at 12:32 PM on August 20, 2009

One of my favorite life-affirming books is Tracks by Robyn Davidson. It's the story of her solo trek (with camels and a dog) across the Australian Outback. If you read it, don't miss the companion book From Alice To Ocean, which is a photographic compilation (by Rick Smolan) of Davidson's journey, with excerpts from the original book.
posted by amyms at 2:50 PM on August 20, 2009

"Cannery Row" and "Sweet Thursday" by John Steinbeck.
posted by holdenjordahl at 4:36 PM on August 20, 2009

Anything by Carol Shields, particularly The Republic of Love--despite the title, not sappy at all but quietly joyful; Larry's Party is also good--it's the story of a man navigating his way through life; it's no accident that his calling turns out to be designing mazes
Anything by Laurie Colwin, but especially Home Cooking and More Home Cooking (memoirs), and A Big Storm Knocked It Over (fiction); Colwin was a food writer and novelist who took great pleasure in her too-short life
The Birth House by Ami McKay--about the life of a midwife's apprentice in turn of the century Nova Scotia
Alphabet by Kathy Page--dark and gritty (it's about a prisoner struggling with what it means to be human) but ultimately reaffirming meditation about remorse, forgiveness, and redemption

(we read the last two in my book club; they were well received by everyone (rare) and provoked a lot of discussion)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:42 PM on August 20, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:57 PM on August 20, 2009

Almost forgot:

The Book of Negroes* by Laurence Hill (published as Someone Knows My Name in the United States). The novel is set in the late 1700s/early 1800s and is about a girl who is kidnapped from her village in Africa, put on a slave ship to the British colonies, and forced into slavery. The main character/narrator is engaging, strong, and well-rounded; the events are historically accurate; and the narrative is gripping and well-paced. The story is very, very sad and horrifying in parts, but ultimately life-affirming and uplifting.

Note: A free, unabridged, serialized audiobook of the novel is currently available for download from the CBC website (the CBC produced a professional reading because it won first place in their Canada Reads contest). Scroll down; TBON is towards the middle of the list of mp3s. I don't know how much longer it will be available, but all 30 chapters are there right now.

*The novel takes its Canadian title--considered too controversial for US publication, hence the re-titling--from a real document published in 1783 which is considered to be an important historical record of Black Loyalists in Canada.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:14 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving.
posted by lottie at 6:25 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Blue Castle, one of the two adult novels by L.M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables. The main character is Valancy Stirling, a 29-year-old, friendless spinster who learns that she only has a year to live, and decides that she will live it.
posted by jb at 7:31 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Montgomery's other adult novel - A Tangled Web - is also excellent.

The Blue Castle is still my favourite novel, but for other life-affirmingness I also really like E.M. Forster, especially Maurice.
posted by jb at 7:35 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another Steinbeck - East of Eden
posted by sapere aude at 9:19 PM on August 20, 2009

For something on the lighter side but not fluff, you might consider Van Reid's Cordelia Underwood. I don't know about life affirming, but it is well worth the trouble.

By the way, I second Dandelion Wine. It's on the sweet side, but at its best it is marvelously evocative of summer in a small town in times past.
posted by gudrun at 9:29 PM on August 20, 2009

Auntie Mame
posted by brujita at 11:30 PM on August 20, 2009

Silas Marner is wonderfully uplifting.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 2:01 AM on August 21, 2009

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson and Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen. That last one is a great, non-sentimental book about an elephant trainer. Bring hankies.
posted by pxe2000 at 5:46 PM on August 21, 2009

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton. It's an auto-biography and largely excerpted from his blog posts, but it's a really uplifting read that I finished really quickly. There's something about Wil's writing style that makes you become extremely invested in him and to want him to be happy and successful. In reading his writing you can really empathize with him.
posted by ydant at 10:09 AM on August 25, 2009

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